The Earthsea Quartet by Ursula Le Guin

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The Earthsea Quartet, a four part work about the adventures of the mage Ged, is the latest novel (or novels) I’ve read. It is by no stretch of the imagination the latest in literature, nor will it be showing on your local bookstore’s Recent Releases bookshelf, but it certainly deserves to be read and re-reviewed as often as possible.

Because this story is divided in four distinct adventures, I shall review each part separately, but I shall talk about Earthsea as a world first.

Earthsea is a world of water populated by numerous islands, some of them big and some of them so small, each island might have one house and the water between them work as roads. It is an old world, with a tradition of storytelling through songs and a culture deeply attached to language. Indeed, the old language is key to the power of the mages of the islands, as well as being the language of dragons, still living in the farther islands in this world. It’s here that a child will become a hero and then have to rediscover his identity.

The Wizard of Earthsea

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This is the very first story and it deals with Ged’s early days. So early, indeed, that he didn’t have his real name yet. In a world where knowing the real name of things was power, people had a use name. Ged’s was Sparrowhawk.

Sparrowhawk is a young and curious child on the isle of Gont when we meet him first. He is also impatient and ambitious and travels to Roke to learn the arts of magery. His ambition and thirst for knowledge, as well as a good dose of pride, will lead him to open the doors to an old evil that will follow him throughout this first adventure.

This is the opening stanza of a high epic with influences from Northern European mythology. It is full of conflict but not necessarily battle. The overwhelming feeling of the first book is fear, not conflict.

Although this story has a beginning and an end, for me it’s really a first part. I feel it’s almost an introduction to the character and the world.

The Tombs of Atuan

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In the second story of The Earthsea Quartet we meet Arha, first as an infant and then, skipping forward a few times, follow her journey until she becomes the One Priestess of the tombs of Atuan, dedicated to the worship of the Nameless Ones and lady of the labyrinth under the tombs. It is through her eyes that we will meet Ged again and follow his adventure as he tries to recover an important relic.

This book was my favourite. Here, for the first time, we see Ged through somebody else’s eyes. We get to know him at the same time as Arha does and we live her change in a very personal way, but their relationship and their story is almost secondary to the background of power and religion in which Arha lives. Le Guin reflects not only about the relationship between faith and power but also about the effects of being raised into a system of religious worship. It’s probably because of the commentary on these themes that Ged is not introduced till well into the story. We have plenty of time to learn about the history of Atuan and some of the rituals and responsibilities Arha has, as well as the complex relationships between the women of the temples.

I think this is my favourite part because we can see Arha’s change and how she finds herself right in front of our eyes, and we live that with her. Ged is also a secure young man, here. There is none of the fear he carried with him in his previous adventure. He is more of a stereotypical hero.

The Farthest Shore

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The third adventure is, with difference, the grander one of the four. We find Ged older, Archmage of Roke, and in the middle of a crisis. A young prince, a descendant from one of Earthsea’s great heros and kings, comes to ask Ged for help. Magic is disappearing and nobody knows why. Ged leads young prince Arren into a quest to discover the source of this evil.

This story gives us the opportunity to appreciate Ged’s status as Dragonlord as well as his knowledge and wisdom. In this third story there is again a clear theme, the fear of death and how far would people go for immortality, but also the need of death to keep the balance. The story also touches on the fact that there are some things worse than deaths.

This is a great story and I enjoyed it but not as much as The Tombs of Atuan, maybe because I couldn’t relate to Arren as a character so much. I don’t feel his development was as deep as Arha’s.

Tehanu

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This is a much simpler story, in some ways. We find Ged once more some time after the story starts. The story starts with Arha again, now called Goha. She is older, a widow now, with children and grandchildren, and farm to look after. We also meet Therru, almost dead and badly burnt, abused by her closest family, who Goha helps and adopts. Ged, meanwhile, embarks in a journey of self-discovery and explores the possibilities of a normal life.

It’s difficult to explain why I like this one. It doesn’t follow well the rest of the stories because it is such a domestic sort of plot. Ged is more absent than present and Goha fends for herself, debating the role of women in her society as well as her own choice of becoming a wife and a parent and submitting to her husband. She, who had been received in the great places in the world, who had had the chance to learn what only men had been taught, chose a simpler life. The theme of feminism, for me, is not approached in the expected way. For me it’s not a question of only women being given the chance to high roles, but also about women given the chance to simply chose for themselves. For me, Goha is saying that a woman should be able to chose and that it’s equally acceptable to reach for power as it is to be a housewife.

But I liked it, probably because Therru is, for me, the main character in this story. It is this little girl that keeps us turning the pages, making us wonder what is going to happen to her, what’s her destiny. At the end, she faces a similar choice than Goha in her youth, when she was still Tenar, but I won’t reveal what choice she makes. Through her, though, Le Guin furthers her comments on the role of women by questioning our ideas of beauty and fear of what’s different.

The stories are not a heart thumping page turner. Still, it’s hard to put down. The attention to detail is most striking, worked and weaved through powerful imagery. The language sings the story more than tells it. The world in which the adventure develops is intriguing and full of mystery. Even after reading all four stories, you can’t shake the impression that you’ve only had a glimpse at a few pages of a larger volume.

There are clear themes explored throughout and if the last one seems out of sync with the rest, one might remember that Tehanu was published over fifteen years after The Farthest Shore (1973), more than enough time for Le Guin’s preoccupations to move to different terrains.

I loved these book more because of the experience of ‘living’ in Earthsea than the stories themselves, although the stories were great too. Suitable for children and adults, it’s a world I would dive into again and again, just so I could enjoy the delicately embroidered images of Ursula Le Guin.

 

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