I want to write about the Earthsea books, but before doing that, I thought I’d dig up some old notes on the topic. As far as I can tell, these were written in 2002, just after the fifth and sixth books came out. I’d read the fifth book; doesn’t look like I’d read the sixth book, but who knows. (It ends rather abruptlyâ€”I guess I stopped in the middle of writing it.) I haven’t edited it at all, except to fix some typos. (But probably some remain; rereading this is tiring. I’m pretty sure I won’t have the energy to write this much new stuff…) Sorry about the weird font/size changes below (might be browser-specific, who knows)â€”I can’t figure out where in the CSS they’re coming from, but they’re not intentional.
Some thoughts on the Earthsea cycle:
- My favorite book in the cycle has always been The Wizard of Earthsea. (It’s my favorite of all of Le Guin’s books.) I’ve thought for a bit about why that’s the case; here are some reasons why I like it so much.
- It’s a coming-of-age story. Stories like that have always pushed my buttons, for whatever reason, and they continue to do so even now that I’m actually of age. (This is doubtless one reason while I’ll always have a soft spot for Heinlein; Orbital Resonance is probably the main reason why I still consider buying John Barnes’ books.)
- The world building in the book is very well done. I love the map at the beginning of the work, the way magic works, the key role that language plays in the world. (I suppose that having a world built out of language is a good way to appeal to bookish types.) There’s enough history and legend to make the world rich, without impinging on it excessively.
- It’s a school story. I’m a faculty brat, I’ve spent all my life (30 years so far) around colleges, and odds are that I’ll spend all the rest of my life around colleges as well, so school stories are about the real world for me. God help me, I even like those early Wodehouse school storiesâ€”Mike at Wrykyn certainly isn’t up to the quality of the Psmith stories that follow it (to put it mildly), but I’m still happy to dig it out if I want some comfort reading.
- It’s a story about exceptionalism; like lots of bright young things (and like lots of young SF readers), this resonated with me when I was growing up. Of course, I look at that sort of thing a bit more critically now than I did when I first read the book, but I’d be lying if I claimed that it didn’t resonate with me still.
- There are some nice personal, humanizing touches in the book. Ged’s pet otak revives him by licking his face; or there’s the strong friendship that grows between Ged and Vetch, and later Vetch’s sister Yarrow as well. These don’t take up a large portion of the book’s pages, but they’re there, and several key plot points involve them.
- So why don’t I like the next too books in the cycle as much? (It’s obviously not going to be as useful to compare the more recent books with The Wizard of Earthsea. Let’s go through the list above.
- All three books are coming-of-age stories. The second and third books are, of course, stories about Ged as well as stories about someone coming of age, but there’s a strong coming-of-age component in them. (Though we see less of Tenar’s life than of Ged’s, and still less of Lebannen’s.) So they don’t seem like they should be too lacking in that score, but yet they are for me to some extent. I wonder whether I’d like other books that are coming-of-age stories in which there’s an older character whom I already care about from earlier works.
- The world building in the second books suffers from the problem that later books in an SF/fantasy series always do compared to the first book, in that they don’t have the advantage of novelty. Of course they do continue to develop the world further and introduce new aspects of the world (I like the map in The Tombs of Atuan a lot, too, though the Dungeons and Dragons player or text adventure player wishes that we could explore even more of it), but it’s just not as new and fresh as in the first book. There’s nothing new in them that hits me the way that the magic system (and the key role that words play in it) hits me from the first book.
- They’re not school stories. Sigh. Though I suppose that it’s just as well that not all books in the world are school stories…
- They are, however, about people who are just as exceptional as Ged. Tenar is an interesting case: are we supposed to believe that she really is the n’th reincarnation of somebody very important, or that that’s just a false belief of the people who chose her? (I’ll say about that more later.) Even if that’s a false belief, though, she still is exceptional. Lebannen is an interesting case in a different way: he’s exceptional both by birth and inherently. And this really does start raising my political hacklesâ€”the United States has been kingless for more than two centuries now, so can’t we get over having fiction in which people of royal birth are so exceptional?
- The personal touches just aren’t there as much in the latter two books. In The Wizard of Earthsea, Ged says that he won’t set himself apart from other living things after his otak revives him, but we don’t see a lot of that in the other two books. We get a reminder that Vetch and Yarrow are two of the people who know Ged’s true name in The Farthest Shore, but that reference just feels like it’s tacked on. (Maybe I’m lying; look down a few paragraphs.)
- I keep on thinking that, the next time I read these books, I’ll start to really appreciate The Tombs of Atuan, but it never happens. Not that I don’t enjoy the book, mind you, but I don’t love it or even have a particularly strong reaction to it either. Maybe I’d like it more if we got to see more of the maze explored; but I suspect that would be pretty jarring compared to the tone of the other books.
The Ged/Tenar interaction is pretty interesting; ultimately, I think, everything works out for the best for Tenar, and Ged is trying to do the right thing for her (as well as for himself and for all of Earthsea), but on the other hand time pressures force him to try to manipulate Tenar just like Kossil is.
One quality which really distinguishes this book from the other two in the trilogy is that it basically all takes place in one location. Reading the book with eyes informed by feminism, it’s hard not to see that as reflecting women’s (stereo)typical association with the home. Which isn’t necessarily good or badâ€”one can proceed from that to either “why don’t women get to gallivant around like men do?” or “why should fiction spend so much energy talking about men gallivanting around instead of women staying at home?”
And when I said above that the second and third books in the trilogy didn’t have the same personal touches as the first one, I think I was lying. It’s probably true that Ged doesn’t have such touches; but there are some friendships in this book that are very important to Tenar, namely her friendships with Penthe and Manan. (Though “friendship” isn’t quite the right word for her relationship with Manan.)
- So what about The Farthest Shore? A book with more world-shattering (and, in some sense, mystical) aspects than the other two. But what the book mostly did to me is start me on a game of “spot the allusion/influence”. Before reading the books, I’d read a survey of criticism about Le Guin’s works called Dancing With Dragons, by Donna White, which said that one of the constant themes throughout Le Guin’s oeuvre was Taoism. I’d never noticed that before, but now that I see it mentioned, it’s pretty obvious. This theme in Le Guin’s work is becoming more explicit these days: she’s published her own translation of the Tao Te Ching, and her novel The Telling is easily read as talking about Taoism and it suppression by Communist China.
At any rate, now that I’ve got this in mind, it’s not too hard to see Taoist influences right from the beginning of the world, with all the talk about maintaining the balance of the world (Note to self: check Le Guin’s terminology, and see if I have anything in particular to say about Ogion here), but it really makes itself explicit in The Farthest Shore. In particular, the things that Ged says to Lebannen when they’re in the boat together after Ged rescues Lebannen from slavery remind me a lot about the Taoist conception of the ruler. (Not that I’ve recently read the Tao Te Ching to check up on this.)
- In general, The Farthest Shore has a particularly mystical and millenial vein that, this time at any rate, makes me want to track down parallels/allusions. (Not that there aren’t allusions in earlier books that I’d like to unravel: e.g. Yarrow’s name reminds me of yarrow sticks; can we make anything out of that, with her as some sort of fortune-telling vehicle?) For example: Lebannen is some sort of great saviour figure. Can we relate the sea voyage to famous episodes undergone by other such figures, like Christ on the mountaintop or Buddha sitting under the Bo tree? Both of those figures underwent temptation during those periods; it’s hard for me to see such a close parallel in that respect.
Or what about the Old Speech? It seems to me pretty clearly Indo-European (in particular, Sanskrit derived); c.f. (Note: Insert reference and explanation). Given that this is the case, what are we to do with (dragon’s name!)’s addressing Lebannen as “Agni Lebannen”? One might naively think that Agni is simply a greeting, along the lines of “hail”. But Le Guin, I think, goes to a bit of care to raise the possibility that it is, in fact, a title, since later in the book Lebannen is unsure whether or not it’s a greeting or a title. And, of course, Agni means “fire” in Sanskrit and is the name of the god of fire in Hindu mythology. I’ll have to check (Note: check…), but I think that Agni pops up right at the beginning of the Rig Veda, which is the oldest of Hindu religious texts, and that goes along reasonably well with the millenial aspect of the book. (Not perfectly, mind you: it would go along with the creation of Earthsea a lot better.)
Later books give more grist for this mill, so more about that to come.
- What about these allegedly non-existent personal touches in the third book? Here I really do think that they’re not there in the same way that they were in the first book. Ged is more or less on his own, but that’s to be expected; Lebannen spends most of his time with Ged, so he can’t develop much of a link with others, and he’s too in awe of Ged for them to really get close. I suppose there’s the bit where they’re with the boat people (Note: check name), but that’s hardly the same as Ged’s relationship with his otak and with Vetch from the first book, because in both of those cases Ged was saved by people whom he already had a relationship with.
Still, the main reason why I thought about this question isn’t so much to explain why I like The Wizard of Earthsea more than the second and third books but to explain why, these days, I quite like Tehanu as well. Which brings us to:
- Tehanu. Oy. I’d read this twice before; my memory says that I hadn’t particularly liked it the first time and had liked it the second time but felt that it was too politically motivated to fit in well with the original trilogy. (I have no particular reason to believe that my memory is accurate in this case, however; it’s been a while.) So I went into this book with a bit of trepidation.
- But it’s now my second-favorite book in the Earthsea cycle; so I want to explain what I like about it.
- Recall the state of Earthsea at around the time of The Farthest Shore. Things had been going downhill for a while; Ged’s returning the Ring of Erreth-Akbe hadn’t had the hoped-for curative effect, and in fact things had been going precipitously downhill at around the time of the beginning of that book. And the story of that book tells how Ged and Lebannen get rid of the cause of the immediate problems, and give us reason to believe that Lebannen’s ascendancy to the thrown will go a long way to putting everything at rights.
- The beginning of Tehanu is more or less contemperaneous with the beginning of The Farthest Shore. (I’m not sure how exact that is, but I don’t think it matters: certainly it starts during the time where things are getting much worse.) The thing is, though, in The Farthest Shore the awfulness of the situation never hits home to me. Sure, magic is going away, and that would probably seriously bother me if I were a wizard; I’m not, though, so while as a reader of fantasy novels I of course realize that that’s not good, it doesn’t really strike a chord. Or bad things happen to Ged and Lebannenâ€”Lebannen is enslaved, they almost die from thirst, etc.â€”but they’re the sorts of bad things that one expects to have happen to heroes of fantasy novels, and so again they don’t bother me too much. (Let’s see, Ged and Lebannen are almost out of water, and we’re only half way through the book. Are they about to die? Seems unlikely.)
- In Tehanu, though, we see this much more directly. Tenar is a woman who, despite her storied path, lives a fairly normal life. This provides a much better vehicle for seeing how her world is going to pieces. There are people wandering around Gont causing trouble; her son is off who-knows-where, and might actually be one of the bad guys; those in power can use it for their own petty ends without fear of retribution. What happens to Tehanu at the beginning of the book is truly horrible; but even once we accept that, Handy is still always there in the background as a very real threat to Tehanu and Tenar. Once Tehanu is saved from Handy largely because the King’s ship is in the right place at the right time (and because of Tenar’s storied past); another time, both of them are saved from Handy and his companions largely because Ged is in the right place at the right time. If either Lebannen hadn’t ascended the throne when he did (and taken the actions as kinds that he did) or Tenar hadn’t been who she was or if she’d just been a little less lucky, Tehanu might be taken away from her to who only knows what awful fate, and Tenar might be killed as well.
For me, this depiction of how bad things have gotten before Lebannen ascends the throne and of how Lebannen’s actions begin to set things right is much more powerful than the depiction of parallel events in The Farthest Shore. In the earlier book, we’re told how bad things are; in Tehanu, we’re shown much more directly how bad things are.
- But there problems with Earthsea that aren’t necessarily going to be fixed by Lebannen. Tenar, as a woman, has no property rights: her son can disappear for years, run off and be a pirate, and then come back and expect his mother to serve him and even take over the farm from her if he wants. We start to see how women with an affinity for magic are treated differently from men with an affinity for magic: we meet a witch, and nobody knows what to do with Tehanu.
This is, I think, at the core of the complaints that Tehanu is too political. Personally, novels informed by politics don’t bother me inherently at all: I see no reason why we should avoid certain topics just because they happen to have a political interpretation. The facts that novels didn’t traditionally look at certain aspects of women’s life and that feminism pointed out that this has political implications is no reason to continue this avoidance out of fear of being political. Furthermore, I see no reason to avoid addressing politics explicitly: I spend a not-insignificant portion of my intellectual life thinking about political issues, and there have been times where I’ve spent portions of my life acting for political causes, so why would I want these issues to be out-of-bounds in the novels that I read?
But the issue of women’s magic raises more issues than that: to the extent that it’s a rewriting of what happened in the earlier novels in the series, that has the potential to bother me in a way that writing a novel about these issues set in a new world wouldn’t. I don’t think that Tehanu is too bad in that regard, though. For one thing, the issue of women’s magic, while an important aspect of the novel, isn’t so central and so clearly resolved as to make whatever conflict it might set up with the earlier novels be a strong taint on my enjoyment of this novel. More importantly, though, it’s not at all clear to me that Tehanu‘s treatment of women’s magic conflicts with the earlier novels in an essential way. On the one hand, it is true that, in The Wizard of Earthsea, we saw the saying “weak as women’s magic”, and that women weren’t considered worthy of studying in Roke. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that, in Earthsea, women’s magic actually is weak: it just means that it’s a commonly held opinion in Earthsea that women’s magic is weak. So while I wouldn’t encourage authors of series to blithely decide that common knowledge about the world that has been accepted in earlier volumes in the series turns out to be wrong, there’s a big difference between that and showing that facts that have been presented in earlier volumes in the series are now wrong.
- Another aspect of Tehanu that I really like is the way that it deals with personal relations (and, for that matter relations between people and animals). Tenar’s relations with her friends and neighbors, with Tehanu, with Ogion and Ogion’s friends and neighbors, and with Ged are on every page of the book. Incidentally, when I read The Wizard of Earthsea, I got the impression that Ogion lived much further away from other people than when reading Tehanu; I’ll have to go back and look at the earlier book to see to what extent that assumption is supported by the text.) We see how Tehanu is healed by personal contact with Tenar, with a very few other people, and with animals (and how much further healing is still necessary). And we see how Ged on the one hand needs to draw away from people and on the other hand is healed by Tenar (and by goats, and by Tehanu and Tenar’s friends). Some aspects of this are a (less extreme) reflection of the difficulties that Tehanu is going through in this book; other aspects of this mirror Ged’s healing in The Wizard of Earthsea by friends and animals. (But, just as the depiction of the troubles in Earthsea in Tehanu is much more powerful than the depiction of those troubles in The Farthest Shore, the depiction of Ged’s healing by personal contact in Tehanu is much more powerful than the depiction of that healing in The Wizard of Earthsea.)
- This hits upon one of my pet peeves about sf: the narrow range of acceptable plots, and the irrelevance of those plots to my life. When I was younger, I wanted to go off on exciting adventures, fall madly in love, save the world from disaster, and make discoveries of vast importance. But these days I’m much more interested in local concerns. I have a richly textured life, closely tied into much more immediate matters. I’m 31 years old, I’ve been in my current relationship for 11 years (and married for 4 of those years and effectively married for 4-8 of them, depending on how you count); so I’ve already quietly fallen madly in love, and the way that played out didn’t have much to do with what I read in sf novels. I have a two-year-old daughter who is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever had the pleasure of encountering; there’s a lot of sf out there about being a kid, but precious little sf about having a kid. I’m still young enough that figuring out what sort of life I want to live is of paramount importance to me, especially now that I’m in the middle of a tenure-track job search (though I’m sure that there are people much older than me for whom that’s also of paramount concern), but the way that I envision my personal version of the good life is very different from the way I approached that as an adolescent (and that I see in most of the sf that I read).
So any sf novel that deals with these issues at all is a breath of fresh air. I don’t think that, in general, John Barnes’ Earth Made of Glass is nearly as well-written/compelling/whatever as his earlier A Million Open Doors, but his portrait of a marriage falling apart was very moving to me. (That was before I had almost any contact with such issues at all; last year, however, some close friends of my wife’s and mine split up after 9 years together, and my wife’s parents are getting a divorce after 34 years of marriage. I’ll be a different person the next time I read that book.) (I seem to be referring to John Barnes a lot. And I could refer to him more: I just finished rereading One for the Morning Glory, and in that novel “weak as women’s magic” would have to be true by virtue of being an old saying. Pity that he seems to be going downhill these days.) In Tehanu, these sorts of personal concerns are front and center, and I can’t think of any other sf novels that deals with them as well.
- So that’s why I like Tehanu. It’s not flawless by any means: in particular, the ending is a ridiculous deus ex machina. But it has enough good points to launch it into a solid second place in the series in terms of my enjoyment and to make it, in some ways, one of the more refreshing sf books that I’ve read.
- Now that we’ve finished Tehanu, on to the last two books. To summarize some of my concerns before beginning the books:
- How will they change my view of Earthsea compared to the view encouraged by the first trilogy? After reading Tehanu, it seems likely that we’ll start seeing more of a reinterpretation of women’s roles and their ability to do magic; how much damage will that do to my view of Earthsea? Will anything else get changed around? If so, how naturally will I be able to rework my earlier conceptions?
- What about the millenial issues raised by The Farthest Shore? After The Tombs of Atuan, reuniting the ring of Erreth-Akbe was supposed to make the world better, but it didn’t. After The Farthest Shore, Lebannen’s ascension to the throne was supposed to make the world better; judging from Tehanu, his presence seems to be an improvement, but it’s too early to be sure. Frankly, if this cycle of “world going to pot, seeming improvement, but then the world goes to pot in an even larger-scale fashion, but then another seeming improvement” continues even one step further, I’m going to be pretty annoyed. But it’s hard to imagine that the cycle will shrink in scale overly: Tehanu is supposed to be a pretty remarkable person in ways that aren’t at all clear to us yet, and that will require a fairly large canvas to play out on. (The obvious thing to do would be for her to become the first female student in Roke and end up as the Archmage, but that would probably be too obvious to actually happen. If Le Guin were a normal author continuing a series past its natural stopping point, that’s exactly what would happen, but I have enough respect for her to hope that she won’t fall into that trap.)
- What about the reference-tracing that I got started on in The Farthest Shore? Are we going to see Taoism continue as a prominent theme? (As I mentioned above, that would fit right into her recent work.) Will we eventually figure out what “Agni” means?
- And that ending of Tehanu stuck out like a sore thumb; what’s up with that? Notice (and I’m not sure if how much of this I really did notice this at the time and how much of it I noticed in retrospect while reading the last two volumes) that the view of dragons has changed throughout the first four books. In The Wizard of Earthsea, dragons didn’t come up too much: as nonhuman animals go, they’re certainly the most important, and they can speak the Old Speech, but they’re used in The Wizard of Earthsea as fairly typical bad guys. In The Tombs of Atuan, they don’t show up directly, though we hear that Ged’s been talking to them; but by The Farthest Shore, the dragons are helping Ged, and their transition to powerful forces for good is helped along in Tehanu. (Or are the all powerful forces for good; doubtless the ones helping Ged and Tehanu are exceptional dragons just as Ged and Tehanu are exceptional humans.) What about that story in Tehanu about a woman who was really a dragon; where did that come from, and what was it doing in Tehanu? It and the ending of Tehanu (both the fact that Tehanu and Tenar and Ged were saved by a dragon and the fact that Tehanu, like dragons, can speak the Old Speech untaught) would seem to draw a fairly tight link between Tehanu and dragons. Given that Tehanu can speak both the language of humans on Gont and the Old Speech, one natural interpretation would be that she’s both human and dragon. (And how does her being horribly scarred by fire play into that?)
- So the stage is set for my reading of the last (or perhaps “most recent” would be a better term) two volumes in the Earthsea cycle. So: on to Tales from Earthsea. This is a collection of 5 short stories (not necessary all that short: one or two are novellas) about Earthsea, that took place at various times (though none of them are telings of legends that have already been alluded to: this isn’t Anne McCaffrey that we’re talking about here).
- But, before those 5 tales, there’s a foreword, saying when those tales fit into the history of Earthsea. (And, for that matter, after those 5 tales, there’s a traditional appendix to an sf epic giving facts about the history/culture/language/whatever of the world of that epic.) And this foreword contains what, to me, is currently the single most disturbing bit of rewriting what I’d assumed was the case about Earthsea. Namely: the school on Roke is only about 300 years old. (Where the present is, more or less, the time of The Farthest Shore and Tehanu.)
I’m not sure quite why this bothered me so much, but let me take a stab at it. For one thing, the system of magic, in all of its intricate elegance, is central to the cycle; and Roke is central to that system of magic. Roke Knoll is the heart of Earthsea (was it the first part of land to appear? I’ll have to go back and check); the Immanent Grove is also important, though I’m not sure that got brought out until the two latest books. (If you only take your information from The Wizard of Earthsea, it’s not clear that it’s any more special than, say, the tower where the Master Namer lives.) Of course, Roke Knoll and the Immanent Grove could have been there before the school, indeed they doubtless were there before the school even in retrospect, but they do lend an aura of timelessness to the place.
For another thing: as I’ve already said, I have soft spot for school stories, so perhaps it’s not surprising that anything that changes my conception of how a particular school works would bother me more than is warranted. My model of Roke is as of a very old school; but even in the United States, we have schools that are more than 300 years old, and in Europe some of them are three times that old. So while a 300 year-old school isn’t exactly a spring chicken, it’s also not old enough to qualify, to me, as truly ancient for a school.
- So that’s an issue raised by the foreword. But: what about the stories themselves? The first and last stories are rather long, the first being about the founding of Roke, and the last being a link between Tehanu and The Other Wind. The three stories in the middle are shorter pieces, less profoundly linked to the rest of the cycle, and thoroughly delightful. I don’t have a lot to say about those three stories: the squeaky stories get the consideration, I suppose.
- The first story is called “The Finder”. As mentioned, it’s about the founding of the school on Roke. It takes a while to get there, though, and in the interim does some interesting recasting of how magic works in Earthsea.
I’d always thought of magic in Earthsea as an essentially verbal process, and furthermore as a more or less scientific one. The verbal part isn’t too hard to explain, I suppose; the scientific part is shakier in retrospect, perhaps, but there surely there has to be something systematic in those books of lore and in the curriculum at Roke? (I don’t know why I’d think thatâ€”spell books with no particular scientific system implied have a long history.) At any rate, I certainly have a hard time reconciling that notion with the fact that some people can carry out magic and some people can’t. (Though I do have to wonder: are there non-magicians in Earthsea who have learned to speak the Old Speech? (Other than the dragons, of course.))
But throughout the stories in this book, we see a magic that is carried out much more through feel. And in the bits before the school on Roke was founded, that’s especially important: there really wasn’t such a systematic study of magic before the school came along. At least, there wasn’t one extant right before the school came along: there are some scattered books here and there, but that’s about it. Indeed, people are scared of magic and have tried to suppress it wherever possible. (This takes place in the interim period between strong kings; so the sort of chaos that is going on is somewhat similar in feel to that going on at the beginning of The Farthest Shore and Tehanu. So Roke, while somewhat old, isn’t as old an institution as the kings in Havnor; Roke’s presence itself served as a stabilizing force that, to some extent, replaces that.) So, while there is still magic in Earthsea, it isn’t woven through the texture of life to nearly the same extent that is painted in the trilogy.
- I’d earlier been looking for Taoist influences through the books. And, in that light, I see Gelluk’s search for wondrous things via mercury as a sort of analogue of historical Taoism. At least I think that’s what it’s called: the point being that, from the point of the west, Taoism is typically thought of in terms of the Tao Te Ching, with the Chuang Tzu being a distant second and the Lieh Tzu a similarly distant third. So this is a small core of quite old texts that are quite old and that are also quite philosophical in nature.
But, in China, there was a long, living tradition of people who called themselves Taoists, and thousands of texts that these Taoists wrote. And the issues that many of these texts are concerned with are far removed from those of the Tao Te Ching: one primary theme, for example, is alchemical recipes designed to produce pills that will make you immortal. (And these are coached in esoteric language whose surface meaning should be rejected in favor of other meanings to be decoded.) It’s easy to read Gelluk’s search for mercury in this light; and to give it an interpretation whisn’t look too favorably on historical Taoism. (Which, honestly, is fine with me: I have four or five different translations of the Tao Te Ching in my house, and have gone so far as to try to decode some of the ideograms from a bilingual edition, but books on historical Taoism just leave me cold.) (I should note, though, that le Guin gives a much more favorable impression of historical Taoism in The Telling.)
- Anyways, the latter part of the story concerns the founding of the school of Roke. And we find that women were a large part of the school at its inception: at the end of the story, we see the seeds of what will lead to the exclusion of women from Roke, as well as more interestingly) exclusion of areas of magic that are more associated with women’s work. At first, this way of working in feminist messages kind of bothered me; then again, colleges in the United States have undergone much more profound changes than that over much shorter periods of time, so from that point of view it’s not so unrealistic. (Though we certainly hear more about changes that go in the direction of not accepting members of a certain group to accepting members of a certain group compared to changes that go from more accepting to less accepting; but maybe one could find examples of institutions becoming less accepting soon after their founding.) (But excluding topics of study as being lower in status rings true to me.)
- In general, the stories in the book paint Roke as a much more venal place than I’d had the impression that it was. For example, in The Wizard of Earthsea, we see Ged getting free passage to Roke and being enrolled there just on the basis of Ogion’s word and Ged’s talents; and he gets sent to the Ninety Isles because they need him to protect them from dragons. But in the stories in Tales from Earthsea, we see students having to pay their tuition, and people who want wizards from Roke having to pay Roke for the privilege.
This is certainly a dissonance. Having said that, it’s one that I suppose I can accept in retrospect. For one thing, we’d already started seeing many people on Roke as being, in some ways, close-minded in The Farthest Shore: for example, Ged may be a Taoist sage, or perhaps a Bodhisattva concerned with the whole world’s suffering, but most of the other Masters on Roke seem happy enough to let the rest of the world fall apart as long as it isn’t affecting them directly, even though you’d think that the alleged disappearance of magic would bother them a bit. For another thing, it did seem to be the case in the earlier stories that magicians trained at Roke did frequently end up serving lords; this can simply be read as power being naturally affiliated with power, but it’s not too hard to imagine that money might change hands at some point. Finally, modern elite schools pride themselves on their egalitarian nature, and have scholarships available for the deserving poor; why not Roke? (There doesn’t seem to be work-study programs for the deserving poor at Roke, however.) Though I bet that, if Le Guin had had that in mind when writing The World of Earthsea, we’d have seen that come up at times in Ged’s relations with the other students more explicitly than it did; Ged’s and Jasper’s fighting is analogous to that, but not quite the same thing.
- In general, we really do start seeing in this book places where Le Guin probably didn’t have Earthsea completely planned out when writing the original trilogy (and, in particular, The Wizard of Earthsea). Le Guin is very good at recasting my way of looking at Earthsea by filling in (presumed) gaps in her own earlier planning; nonetheless, the cycle would probably be stronger if that work had been done at the beginning. (Which is a ridiculously stringent criterion to ask, given the amount of time that passed between the writing of the first volume and the most recent ones (note: how much time?); but that’s the price to pay if you’re doing a nontrivially interesting continuation of an earlier series rather than starting one anew.)
So what are some of the gaps? Perhaps one general transition is making aspects of Earthsea apply more generally than they had been. If we wanted, we could see the recasting the roles of women and dragons in this light, as making aspects of Earthsea apply not only to men but to humans or not only to humans but to all sentient beings.
Similarly, the rules of magic are supposed to apply more generally as well. We already saw some of this in the first trilogy: in The Wizard of Earthsea, waters that are far enough away don’t respond to spells because they don’t know their own names, but in The Farthest Shore the magic still works, it’s just that wizards don’t know the right names. But then:
What about the questions raised by The Tombs of Atuan? The Kargish people certainly seem to believe that the world works in a fundamentally different way than the other people of Earthsea. (Or at least than the people in the central lands of Earthsea do: some others on the fringe also feel differently, albeit in different ways than the Kargish people.) They don’t have the same tradition of magic. They have old gods (note: check terminology), or at least they did before the god-king came along. And they believe in reincarnation.
- This is a real problem. We could, of course, just say that the Kargad people are deluded, but that would be pretty boring and probably politically distasteful to Le Guin (and to me, for that matter); can we find a way to harmonize the Kargad point of view with the standard point of view in an interesting way?
One place to start is with the old gods at Atuan. This is a different sort of power, one associated with darkness, and one associated with a particular place. If we want to find other such places, they’re there in other parts of the trilogy: the best candidates turn out to be Roke Knoll, the Immanent Grove, and the Stone of Osskil (or whatever it’s called). These don’t match all of those criteria, but they’re all powerful locations in their own ways. At least I think they are: just how powerful was Roke Knoll in the trilogy? It shows its mettle in the two most recent books: it’s a sort of place of truth, or at any rate where people show their true forms.
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