Since I finished rereading the Earthsea books more than a month ago, I suppose it’s time for me to say something about them. To be honest, I’m feeling a little intimidated by what I wrote last time; I should have done a better job of taking notes right after finishing the books. Ah well.
I don’t think I have anything to add about the first four books. A Wizard of Earthsea is still my favorite of the series; I imagine it will be comfort reading for me until the day I die. And Tehanu is still my next favorite, and I like The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore more than I did when I was a kid.
And the question remains: after Tehanu, what next? I’m happy to accept the notion that the sayings “weak as woman’s magic” and “wicked as women’s magic” are signs of sexism instead of accurate representations of how magic works in the world: that’s the way these things normally work in real life, after all. But how do we make an interesting story starting from that? What else about our understanding of the world might need to change? And what do we do with the human/dragon story from Tehanu?
The obvious thing to do (at least about the notion that women are as talented in magic as men) would be to write a story about a girl going to school at Roke, being confronted with prejudice, and valiantly overcoming it. Which is all well and good, but I’m glad Le Guin didn’t go that route; it would be rather too straightforward. Alternatively, I’m sure there could be interesting stories written that take their example from, say, battles in the US over the last century or two over this issue, but that really doesn’t excite me too much, either.
Which means, I guess, that we’re left with picking at that and other loose ends, enlarging the scope of the differences, and seeing what happens. Tales from Earthsea is a transition book in this regard. Three of the stories are really quite charming, without any obvious grand ambitions (though gender issues certainly play a role in them). One (re?)writes the early history of Earthsea and Roke, in ways that I find unsatisfactory (if only because it’s supposed to take place a mere three centuries earlier). And one looks like a straightforward “girl overcoming prejudice” story, and then pulls out another dragon at the end.
Which brings us to The Other Wind. Did I really write my previous notes before reading that book? If so, I’m impressed: the Kargad problem is, indeed front and center. (Quite possibly I wrote some of the notes after reading that book, though, and just ran out of steam before talking about it explicitly.) In particular, harmonizing the Kargad belief in reincarnation with others’ belief (and, in fact, direct experience of) a (rather depressing) afterlife is, well, important but a bit difficult, no?
And Le Guin obviously felt the difficulty. One thing that occurs somewhere in the last two books: magicians are talking about what happens if you start to cast a spell and then have second thoughts. You can’t just stop and pretend that you didn’t say anything: instead, you have to explicitly undo the partial spell that you’ve spoken. Which is what Le Guin is doing here: the afterlife that played such a large role in the first and third books turns out to be a mistake, an artificial construct that has to be undone.
Which she does. And she does it well, unweaving the various plot strands that were out of place, reweaving them into a newly coherent whole. I enjoyed the book much more than most books I read, and more than its predecessor.
But there’s a real cost, too: the strands she unwove were quite deeply embedded into the fabric of the story. So even though I’m willing to accept that those strands were out of place, she’s had to reweave vast amounts of a fabric that I (and others) have known and loved for decades. That is a loss by itself; I don’t have enough experience with the new fabric to have any confidence that it’s an improvement.
I hope that, the next time I reread these, I actually remember what goes on in the fifth and sixth books, so I’ll be able to reread them with a more critical eye. Maybe I’ll like them more next time (it happened before with Tehanu); I suspect, however, that I’ll continue to be uneasy with them.
(Are more Earthsea books coming? Hard to see what she would do next; I’m not sure the world could survive another earthquake like this.)
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