Posted by: Lizzie Ross | May 28, 2010

Classic Friday: Earthsea

Earthsea Trilogy, Ursula LeGuin (1968-2001), 6 vols.

You don’t often find a trilogy made up of 6 volumes, but something happened after the third book that made LeGuin take this series to a different, more adult level.

Earthsea is an archipelago, with a variety of mini-cultures (including one small community who live on floating platforms in the southwestern sea), ruled by a king but reliant upon wizards for spells of safety (think of all those sea-going vessels), fair weather, and good health.

The first three books follow Ged, as he grows from reckless boy to great wizard, fighting dragons, evil wizards, and his own fears and the consequences of his foolish desire for knowledge. He allies with the priestess of Atuan (Vol. 2) and with the Prince of Earthsea (Vol. 3) to understand the purposes of life and death and oppose the one wizard who claims to have conquered death.

Throughout these three, the focus is on maintaining the balance in this magic world, on understanding that every action, even for good, has consequences that play out in the world, too often for evil. This balance is why it’s so difficult to create or destroy anything — the consequences of creating even a small bowl of soup to appease hunger are too great; starvation is better.

All typical, thrilling fantasy. The school that trains Ged is an all-male bastion (similar to Mt. Athos, where even female domestic animals are forbidden). So Tenar, the priestess of Vol. 2 (told from her point of view), is a welcome female presence in a world that has relegated women to lesser roles — witches with minor magical powers, useful for healing wounds, etc., but never accepted by the wizards as equals.

The male-centric themes fade with Vol. 4, where Tehanu, a grievously abused girl adopted by Tenar, becomes the center of a power struggle among wizards on a tiny island (Ged’s birthplace). Issues of women’s knowledge and power, men’s cruelty and domination, and recognition of innate abilities come into play here. The balance is again threatened, and it’s the dragons (whom we’ve come to respect in this series) who must finally help Tehanu and Tenar. (The cruel misogyny of this volume may make it inappropriate for young readers, but it’s a powerful portrayal of the ways men demean women when their hegemony is threatened.)

Skipping Vol. 5 for now, Vol. 6 continues the feminist slant, with the wizards at the school of magic that trained Ged finally coming to understand that they must open their doors to all candidates, male and female. How this happens is a remarkable tale, involving dragons, shape shifters, and a wizard whose expertise is mending pots.

Vol. 5 is a series of short stories, some prequels, others telling us more about characters we know well.

LeGuin’s Earthsea is a complex world, well worth visiting through her novels. Ged, Tenar, and all those gloriously serene and dangerous dragons make for great companions when you immerse yourself in LeGuin’s creation.

A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, TehanuTales of Earthsea, The Other Wind


  1. […] already posted about nearly all the books to which I return on a regular basis: Le Guin’s Earthsea series, Benson’s Lucia books, Eager’s odd-ball magical world, Montgomery’s famous […]

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