Fantasy was one of the genres that inspired my love of reading. In honor of one of the greats, Ursula K. Le Guin, I decided to reread her Earthsea stories and relive my childhood. This week I finished the second and third volumes of the original trilogy. You can read my review of A Wizard of Earthsea here.
It had been so long since I read these books that it really did feel like the first time. This trilogy was so different than others because each one featured a different protagonist. The original hero Ged, also known as Sparrowhawk, appears in both books but more in the form of a mentor to the main characters. Despite a different change of pace for each one, I still found myself enjoying both books immensely.
While the first book serves as a classic quest narrative where the young wizard Ged is hunting down a dark force he unleashed, The Tombs of Atuan is more self-contained taking place within one particular region of Earthsea. Although the young wizard Ged is essentially on another quest, he does not actually appear until about halfway through the book. Instead, the novel is centered on Tenar, a young priestess who is going through her own internal journey.
As a child, Tenar was taken from her family by those that serve the Nameless Ones, believing her to be the next reincarnation of their high priestess. In a ceremony, her name is taken from her and going forward she is known as “Arha” meaning “the eaten one.” Her life becomes a lonely one as she is trained in the duties of a priestess, and often seems like she is more a prisoner than a ruler. Tenar learns of the dark labyrinth beneath the temple, and she makes it her own domain. Her life of service is disrupted by the appearance of Ged who is seeking a lost magical treasure. Although she initially wants him destroyed, Tenar also begins to question her entire worldview as Ged teaches her that the world is a much larger place than she ever imagined.
I really enjoyed The Tombs of Atuan a lot, and in many ways more so than the first book. The absence of Ged from the first half of the book allows us to get to know Tenar and sympathize with her character. The story moves through about a decade of her life from when she is taken from her family until she is a teenager. As Le Guin explores Tenar’s loneliness and isolation, we get a very feminist tale. The high priestess has no choice in whether or not she will serve the Nameless Ones. Although she theoretically is supposed to have all of this power, she really is just a slave to their beliefs. Her entire identity is stripped from her and even her name is taken away. Her plight made me think about women who become prisoners of a cult. For me, the story was much darker than A Wizard of Earthsea.
I also liked the way Ged was portrayed in this book as the voice of a mentor. Although he is still young, he has obviously learned a lot from his past adventures. Through him, Tenar learns that she has been brainwashed and has the ability to choose her own path. I think this is a great book for female readers, and it is not necessary to have read the first volume to dive into this one.
“Living, being in the world, was a much greater and stranger thing than she had ever dreamed.”
When he was first introduced in A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged is a young and reckless magician that has to face the darker half of his nature. In The Farthest Shore, Ged is now much older and serving as Archmage on the island of Roke. When a young prince named Arren arrives with news that magic seems to be fading from the world and the inhabitants of Earthsea are slowly losing their knowledge. Ged decides to set sail with Arren on his boat Lookfar to discover the source of this malaise. While The Farthest Shore is not without problems, it does work beautifully as a fitting end to the original Earthsea trilogy while serving as the perfect reminder of the original book. As this is the final outing for the wizard Ged, Le Guin change pace back to a more physical world-spanning quest. Ged and his young apprentice have an adventure than takes them to the very edges of Earthsea while also carrying them to the line that crosses life and death.
Ged’s new role as a wise old mentor works well with the young and idealistic Arren. There are several moments that call back to Ged’s younger days when he was young and reckless. My main problem though was I found that I didn’t sympathize with Arren nearly as much as I did with Tenar. I think had there been some deeper backstory with the character as there was in the previous book, that problem may have been rectified.
I also think this one could have been fleshed out a little more and worked as a longer novel. Ged and Arren do a lot of traveling in this book as they attempt to uncover the cause of what is destroying magic. Since the novel is less than 200 pages, Le Guin doesn’t allow for time to stay in one place too long. I did enjoy their adventures, and the two men are taken to some extremely dark places but more time with it would have been helpful. It seems like they were on the boat a lot reflecting on the nature of life and death. There are some truly fantastic adventures along the way, including the return of dragons! I found that I loved the adventures way more than all the reflecting taking place back on the boat, but it seemed like way too much time was spent there.
Another qualm I have with this one is the main enemy, a dark wizard named Cob, isn’t introduced until late in the book. Cob has a deep past with Ged, but unfortunately those events happened between Atuan and Shore so we really don’t get to know this character for very long. It would have been fantastic if he could have been someone we had actually met in A Wizard of Earthsea. Instead, it didn’t feel as emotional as it could have been. I love how Le Guin brought the tale of Ged full circle by having him face the type of wizard that he almost became himself had he not chosen the path of light. One of the main themes of this novel is about balance, such as good and evil, and life and death. I think Cob’s desire to cheat death makes him a compelling villain, but again this could have been even stronger with further backstory.
This book is filled with Le Guin’s beliefs and works as a great exploration of life and death. Nobody does existentialism in fiction better than Le Guin as the internal struggles of the characters are just as compelling as the fights. Earthsea remains one the best fantasy realms ever created. I plan on reading the next volume Tehanu in the near future. In the meantime, it was a wonderful experience getting to read these original tales of Earthsea all over again. There books are definitely worth reading as they have been immensely influential to modern fantasy. Although Le Guin is no longer with us in this realm, she has achieved her immortality with this series.