One of my (many) favourite authors is Ursula K Le Guin, and this month, BBC Radio 4 has been doing a little mini-season dedicated to her. It started with an amazing interview, which at only 30 minutes left me begging for more. So I promptly went and re-read Earthsea.

You know, as you do.

So over the course of that weekend I re-read the first three and a half books. Over the course of commuting in the following week, I finished off the cycle.

You know, as you do.

So, The Earthsea cycle is (currently) made up of five novels (the first four usually collected as The Earthsea Quartet (of which the 2012 Puffin edition has a lovely cover)) and a short story collection:

  1. A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)
  2. The Tombs of Atuan (1971)
  3. The Farthest Shore (1973)
  4. Tehanu (1990)
  5. Tales from Earthsea (2001 Short Story Collection)
  • The Finder (2001)
  • Darkrose and Diamond (1999)
  • The Bones of the Earth (2001)
  • On the High Marsh (2001)
  • Dragonfly (1998)
  • The Other Wind (2001)
  • There are two other short stories not collected in Tales from Earthsea. The Rule of Names (1964) and The Word of Unbinding (1964). These are both collected in The Wind's Twelve Quarters (which I have on order, and also seems to have a new edition packed with The Compass Rose for the SF Masterworks series) and The Rule of Names is collected in The Real and the Unreal Volume 2 (which I do have)

    When I first visited the Earthsea archipelago, it was through the Earthsea Quartet form so must have been after 1993 (when I was 10), but I can't remember when exactly. I know I finally got my hands on Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind sometime after 2004 from the copyright information page but I do not seem to have had the old version of the Quartet at that point which means I probably couldn't have done a full re-read. I completed my collection with the new 2012 Quartet cover version and read the first two and half books judging by the bookmark before something else more urgent came along and I had to pull myself out of Earthsea until now.

    All that is just my way of saying, I love it in Earthsea. I do not just read Earthsea, I visit it. I live there for a while. I make it my home.

    But I haven't visited as much as I would like. This re-read has therefore been a exciting and comforting and glorious.

    I should do it more often.

    Having just come out of the re-read, it is difficult to review or summarise these books without spoilers for the whole cycle. Concepts that appear in one book come back as major ideas and themes of later books. How can I talk about The Other Wind without spoiling The Farthest Shore and Tombs of Atuan? How can I talk about the particular themes and ideas I find in those earlier books when they take on whole new significances in later books?

    You can look at the first three books as a standalone trilogy. They were all published very close together and can be seen to have a fairly standard structure - book 1, the hero and the world is introduced, Book 2 - the hero retrieves ancient artefact, Book 3 a King is found.But, if you do that, you end up with this half a book which is almost irrelevant - the only female character relegated to love interest, foreign culture just there to be tamed.

    Don't get me wrong - that is a good story. It follows some beautiful themes and ideas such as the nature of the darkness that Ged unleashes and must confront and the separation of life and death, the breaking of the contract of "happily-ever-after", sacrifice.

    But that's not all these books are. That half book, culture and character that I threw away with the trilogy interpretation are vital to the forth and fifth books. Vital to understanding the humongous mistakes uncovered in The Other Wind.

    If you don't want to be spoiled, I suggest you stop reading this now and go read the books. You've seen my enthusiasm for them. The only thing I can add at this point is that these books are the reason I can't take Harry Potter seriously - the magic, the world, described in Earthsea is above and beyond that given in Potter. The books are gorgeous places - go spend some time there.

    Oh, and over the next week or so, Radio 4 Extra will be broadcasting a Radio adaptation of the first three books - the first four episodes are Mon 27th-Thurs 30th April at 18:00 on BBC Radio 4 Extra. I don't yet know when the others will be broadcast.

    Spoilery discussion ahead

    To be honest, what follows is probably not just spoilery; it assumes you've read the books already and know what I'm talking about. It assumes you're here to see someone squee.

    My clearest memories going into this re-read were that Ged confronts a dragon which has his own name, that there was a girl involved in an underground labyrinth, to stop magic leaking out of the world Ged had to give up his power by helping to restore the dry stone wall separating the living and the dead and, finally, the burnt girl.

    Isn't my memory amazing?

    So, yeah, the first book. Didn't quite happen like that. |There was a dragon, but it was something else that shared Ged's name - a darkness he himself created/released in his own pride and arrogance. I was a lot more aware this reading of what it meant that the dragon Yevaud was willing to trade the dark creature's name - it wasn't just that Ged was having to prioritise one duty over another, he was turning down knowledge not just of the creature's name, but also of why it was. This is so much more satisfying than my memory-version.

    So, this is the book that introduces us to magic, to True Names, to the archipelago and the island hopping, seafaring stories that are to come. It takes us through Hawk's schooling and his learning - showing that the two are inherently different things (oh dear, I may have just unleashed this on an actual child-person). Its a book about the hero's mistake, his pride, his arrogance. Yes, it's also about his acceptance, his conquering of that darkness, but Hawk is not a being of utter purity and goodness.

    While Hawk may not be a pampered, protected, prophesy-driven goody-two-shoes, he's far from a grim-dark anti-hero too. And boy is that refreshing.

    Book 2 has us grow up with a new child character - Tenar/Arhu, the re-born high-priestess of the Nameless Ones (oooh... Nameless Ones in a world where True Names are the very background of creation and magic??) The culture, the belief presented here - namelessness, rebirth of the one true high priestess - presents something very different to the rest of the archipelago. I must confess though that I hadn't spotted the re-birth belief as being so in contrast to the wizards' understanding until well into The Other Wind - I dismissed rebirth story as superstitious, religious rubbish, after all, the wizards can indeed summon the dead if they so desire, we've seen that... Yeah, I fell for the same racist and arrogant attitudes that the archipelago has.

    And then she finds Ged. After lots of discussion, Ged saves her from the savage lands and undoes everything she believes. Finding the last of the Ring of Erreth-Akbar with the rune of peace they escape together back to Havnor and restore peace and prosperity and Ged continues his life and lets Tenar go live a normal life on his home island in a happily-ever-after.

    Yeah, about that happily-ever-after... turns out we forgot someone... yeah, Earthsea needs a King. and there's a prophesy. There's even a goatherd 8-)

    So, our goatherd, Ged, is now Archmage and having to deal with reports of magic failing to work, of wizards forgetting the Old Speech. He travels, in what turns out to be his last "doing" with the young noble boy Lebannen. Lebannen who, on the first meeting, looks into the archmage's eyes and then turns away shyly - unlike he has ever done before. Lebannen who immediately pledges himself to the Archmage., offering his sword. Lebannan who

    ...had played at loving. But now the depths of him were wakened, not by a game or dream, but by honour, danger, wisdom, by a scarred face and a quiet voice and a dark hand holding, careless of its power, the staff of yew that bore near the grip, in silver set in black wood, the Lost Rune of Kings.

    So the first step out of childhood is made all at once, without looking before or behind, and nothing held in reserve.

    Yes, Lebannan is hella queer... and I don't know if I ever noticed before.

    The Farthest Shore also gives us the Raft-Folk. These people were introduced as brief rumour way back in A Wizard of Earthsea and I was wanting to meet up with them properly - the thought had crossed my mind of trying my hand at a fanfic based on the Raft-Folk if we didn't see something of them. This idea of a floating city has intrigued and fascinated me - it's one reason why The Scar is my favourite of the Bas Lag books from China Mieville. I think it's because I loved sailing and kayaking and canoing as a kid. My first go at sailing was February in Centre Parks Sherwood Forest. Yes, it was cold, but I wanted the chance to sail and I wasn't going to let it being February put me off. So, Yay, Raft-Folk! Squee!

    And again, my memory got details of this wrong. Ged didn't have to rebuild the wall, but he did have to give up his power at the Mountains of Pain (which sound like they've come straight out of The Princess Bride) in the land of the dead in order to heal the world.In so doing, he bought Lebannan through the Dry Land and fulfilled the prophecy of the return of the King.

    The Farthest Shore is, prior to this re-read, the book I would have chosen as my favourite. I still like it (Raft-Folk! Queer King Lebannan), but The Other Wind has supplanted it... for now I think.

    Earthsea has a queer king!! *happy dance*

    And so we come to Tehanu, subtitled The Last Book of Earthsea and published about twenty years after the first three. This is different. So very very different. On the one hand it feels like an epilogue - Ged and Tenar finding each other and settling down into their own ordinariness and their own happy-ever-after. Ged unable to run off and do any more deeds.

    But it starts by giving Tenar's side of the events of The Farthest Shore and Ged comes in, out and in again which kind of breaks the epilogue nature of it. That and, of course, the titular character - Tehanu - and her Dragon Lord half-dragon nature are not an end. As such, this book feels like a prologue. And an Epilogue. And neither.

    As such, I am unsure that it works standalone to the same extent the earlier books can.

    It also feels odd because it feels so much more every day. It's not about fighting a monster of your own blackness, restoring an ancient artefact or plugging the hole where magic is leaking out. It's about living life. It's about the every day threats which are far more common than they should be. The antagonists are a group of bandits who want to destroy a little girl (and the sexism and sexual assault threats which come with that) and right towards the end, an evil wizard who is defeated by something close to a deus ex machina but that goes "and now this story can start... except it won't because this is the end of the last book of Earthsea".

    I appreciate it, and it's place in the cycle. I like to see that just because the big stories have finished it doesn't mean the world has stopped. It's why I think Peter Jackson relegating the Scouring of the Shire to a threatened future is the biggest treason he committed with Lord of the Rings and made the films so much weaker then they could have been.

    But! It works so much better for me when you take it as a whole with The Other Wind.

    Sitting between books 4 and 5 is the short story collection - Tales From Earthsea. Just like sits between Seasons 4 and 5 of Babylon 5 story-wise but covers events before the series proper, but unlike that show, Tales From Earthsea asks us to recast the history of Earthsea, of Roke Island and the wizardry school, of the understandings and assumptions of the world with a new mould.

    Although three tales are considered "new to the collection" the timespan suggests that they're all written of a piece. It asks us, the reader, to re-consider Earthsea. It hands us the truth behind the tradition, the Women of the Hand who built Roke and were then subjugated by Men. It asks us to cast aside "weak as women's magic, wicked as women's magic" as we look at the truth of the story of Ogion the earthquake tamer and Ged's second tutor.

    And just when we think Le Guin has shattered all we knew about Earthsea, she uses Dragonfly to open the door a smidgen for us and the characters for what she's about to do with The Other Wind - shatter our understand of humans and dragons and life and death and magic.

    Yeah, as you do.

    So, remember that laughable reincarnation schtick from the savage Kargads in The Tombs of Atuan... about that... oops.

    We harken right back actually to the first book. In A Wizard of Earthsea Ged creates/unleashes a creature of his own blackness while acting in accordance with his pride and his arrogance. Well... he's one in a long line of arrogant gits apparently... OK, mostly they've forgotten this part of history. The part where they walled off a part of "heaven", of the Other Wind, and, in so doing, created a place for their souls to gather in, what turned out to be, misery. And, oh yeah, we may have stolen that bit of the Other Wind from the Dragons... And in so doing, we may have broken an agreement we made when our predecessor's philosophies split and we became the separate races of Dragon and Man...

    Except the Kargish remembered that we were meant to re-incarnate. And they knew magic to be wicked, but not the reason why it was so deemed.

    We're shits.

    Oh, that's a downer to end on... but it's an exhilerating downer.

    x x