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Werthead

The Earthsea Series by Ursula K. Le Guin

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Book 1: A Wizard of Earthsea

When Karg raiders attack the island of Gont, the inhabitants of a small village are saved by a young boy who has discovered that he has magical powers. A sorcerer directs him to the island of Roke to there learn the ways of wizardry and controlling his abilities. Ged, as he becomes known, shows great promise but his pride is his downfall: an arrogant display of magical power goes awry, and unleashes a dark evil upon the world which only Ged can defeat.

Originally published in 1968, Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea has become an acknowledged classic and required reading in the fantasy canon. Fantasy was in a far more nascent state in the 1960s than now, with the genre divided between more literary works (such as Gormenghast) and action-driven swords and sorcery adventures, such as the Conan tales by Robert E. Howard. However, the immense success of The Lord of the Rings had driven publishers to seek out or even commission more work in the genre. Le Guin agreed to write a story about a wizard, inspired by the idea of what Merlin was like when he was a child. For a setting Le Guin was struck by Earthsea, a vast archipelago of hundreds of islands she'd created for a couple of short stories in 1964, and began work on a story that expanded the detail of the setting considerably.

She also tremendously popularised the "wizarding school" idea later used to blockbuster effect by J.K. Rowling. Le Guin didn't create the trope, which was first deployed by T.H. White in The Sword in the Stone (1939) and then by Theodore Cogswell in "The Wall Around the World" (1953), Robert Sheckley in "The Accountant" (1954) and Eleanor Estes in The Witch Family (1960), but she certainly ran with it.

A Wizard of Earthsea is still, however, a work that wrong-foots the audience. Most such fantasy tales feature the hero encountering an external threat (a monster, a dragon, an enemy wizard, a dark lord) and working to overcome it with their wits, skills and the help of friends they meet upon the way. This book doesn't do that: instead, Ged's primary opponent is himself, his own hubris, arrogance and the dark shadow of his own soul. His enemy is his internal fears and weaknesses, given form. The result is a profoundly introspective book about a character having to find himself and grow up, but where the metaphor becomes literal.

It's an audacious and, I suspect, slightly bemusing idea for younger children, but it certainly adds a tremendous amount of depth to the character of Ged, helping him avoid being a traditional "chosen one" hero figure. Before he can do any heroics in the future, he has to first come to terms with himself.

Which isn't to say that Le Guin skimps on the other elements required for a classic fantasy. The worldbuilding is excellent and atmospheric, the small secondary cast of characters is well-drawn, and for such a short book there's quite a few memorable set-pieces, running from Ged defeating the Karg raiders with his wits, to his mage-duel with Jasper which goes horribly wrong to his epic confrontation with the Dragon of Pendor. The book also touches on the value of friendship and the true nature of a hero.

A Wizard of Earthsea (*****) is fifty years old this year, but with its focus on internal conflict and its sophisticated worldbuilding, feels fresher and more vibrant than ever. It works well as both a stand-alone novel and as the opening novel of the six-book Earthsea sequence. It is available now in the UK and USA as part of The Books of Earthsea omnibus edition.

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Very nice!

I also agree that while a lot of books written in the last fifty years have aged poorly, A Wizard of Earthsea probably stands up better for a young reader of today than many other works.  Le Guin was very good at writing in such a way that minimizes references to her contemporary lifestyle, politics, technology, etc. while still being relevant and commenting upon the problems of the day.

Edited by Wilbur

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Good review of a good book. 

Out of curiosity, are you going to do a geography post on Earthsea over at your other blog? 

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On 11/23/2018 at 2:06 PM, Werthead said:

 ... the opening novel of the six-book Earthsea sequence.

Nice review, but I sincerely hope that you intend to stop after book 3. :worried:

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On 11/24/2018 at 10:28 PM, Winter Bass said:

Good review of a good book. 

Out of curiosity, are you going to do a geography post on Earthsea over at your other blog? 

At some point, yes.

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Tehanu is perfectly worth reading as an author re-assessing the assumptions underlying her earlier work, and finding things she takes issue with and dealing with them openly. It was on the Locus and Nebula, so ... yeah, definitely worth reading. The final two books are a bit slighter and less memorable than the first four, though.

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14 minutes ago, Ran said:

Tehanu is perfectly worth reading as an author re-assessing the assumptions underlying her earlier work, and finding things she takes issue with and dealing with them openly. It was on the Locus and Nebula, so ... yeah, definitely worth reading. The final two books are a bit slighter and less memorable than the first four, though.

 I thought the author was preaching too much, and the Deus ex Machina at the end was very poor.

Of the later stories, I did think The Finder was excellent.

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On ‎11‎/‎23‎/‎2018 at 3:48 PM, Wilbur said:

Very nice!

I also agree that while a lot of books written in the last fifty years have aged poorly, A Wizard of Earthsea probably stands up better for a young reader of today than many other works.  Le Guin was very good at writing in such a way that minimizes references to her contemporary lifestyle, politics, technology, etc. while still being relevant and commenting upon the problems of the day.

I first read the trilogy at 13 and found it very dull, re-read it at 20 and thought it was outstanding, and have retained that opinion for 30 years.

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Tenar is the high priestess of the Nameless Ones. She serves at the Tombs of Atuan, deep within the Kargish Empire, a place of rote and ritual. Despite the importance of her role she feels lonely and listless...until the day a wizard comes to her island.
 
The Tombs of Atuan (originally published in 1971) is the second novel in Ursula K. Le Guin's classic Earthsea sequence of novels, set in an enormous archipelago. It is not a direct sequel to A Wizard of Earthsea, the preceding novel, and in fact feels like a companion book more than a successor. The book focuses almost exclusively on the new character of Tenar, with the book's connection to A Wizard of Earthsea not becoming clearer until later on.
 
Tenar is an interesting character and it's a surprise to learn that she is Le Guin's first major female protagonist. Tenar is painted in Le Guin's traditional depth, as we get to know this young woman who combines curiosity, ruthlessness, loneliness and leadership skills. The book also inverts its presentation of Ged from the earlier novel. A Wizard of Earthsea was, for all of its travelling and epic journeys and mighty set-pieces, a deeply internal story of a boy finding out who he really is and making peace with himself. The Tombs of Atuan, being told entirely from Tenar's POV, instead allows us to meet and see Ged as strangers see him, wholly externally with only hints at what's going on under the surface. Thus our understanding of the main character of the series is expanded.
 
Le Guin's prose is powerful and evocative, and it's interesting in this novel that she flips the setting and feel of the earlier book on its head. A Wizard of Earthsea took place on land and sea under the sky, with the wind blowing in the characters' faces and freedom all around them, even as they were forced into a confrontation with a dark force they didn't understand. The Tombs of Atuan takes place almost entirely underground, our characters sometimes literally stifled and near-entombed under the earth, in claustrophobic surroundings. Le Guin nails this oppressive, stifled atmosphere and the elation the characters experience when they finally escape (not a spoiler, hopefully, since this is Book 2 of a six-book series).
 
There are some weaknesses to the novel. This is a short book, but even so, it does feel like an extended single episode rather than a novel-length narrative. Indeed, the book started as a short story for a magazine and had to be expanded to a longer word count for commercial reasons. It feels like maybe this should have been the opening section of a longer novel exploring more of Tenar's character (and it feels like her development is cut off just as it was starting to get interesting, and won't be revisited until the fourth book of the series) or remained as a short story. As it stands, the story feels a bit too slight and claustrophobic to sustain a full novel, despite the strengths of the writing and characterisation.
 
The Tombs of Atuan (****) is a slight story and perhaps a tad underwhelming compared to A Wizard of Earthsea, but it remains an ambitious and fascinating novel. Le Guin's writing power and her mastery of character is on full display. It is available now in the UK and USA as part of The Books of Earthsea omnibus edition.

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"Claustrophobic" is an excellent summary of the second book.  Le Guin's changes in setting and point of view were very jarring for a young reader who had been challenged but ultimately enjoyed the first book.  Why would the author write this second book and not show us Ged, Ged, and more Ged?

Also, this book is the first time my 13-year-old self realized that Ged and the people of his home region were dark-skinned, and that Tenar and the rest of the barbarians were white.  Between the underground setting, the female protagonist, and the inversion of my own perceptions of what Ged looked like, I remember being quite flummoxed by this story.  In the end, I decided that I liked it well enough to immediately re-read it with my new knowledge and understanding, and the next time I picked up a Le Guin story, The Left Hand of Darkness, the unusual characters were something that my mind was almost ready to grasp.

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Oh my, I love A Wizard of Earthsea! I adore Ged!

The entire series though is kinda problematic. Even to this day I never got the point of Tenar, lol. Especially the stories where they are older and she doesn't do much.

The Earthsea short stories that I read were excellent.

The best Le Guin book that I have read though is The Dispossessed.

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