Friday, November 25, 2005

Book Review: Tales From Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin


Years after the publication of Tehanu: The Last Book Of Earthsea and after leading fans and herself believe that the Earthsea Cycle was complete, Ursula K. Le Guin visits the magical world of Earthsea once again in Tales From Earthsea. Her explanation:
At the end of the fourth book of Earthsea, Tehanu, the story had arrived at what I felt to be now. . . .I didn't know what would happen next. . .I gave the book a subtitle: "The Last Book of Earthsea."

O foolish writer. Now moves. Even in storytime, dream time, once-upon-a-time, now isn't then.
Le Guin's Tales From Earthsea are a report of her "explorations and discoveries" for readers
[. . .] who have liked the magical place and who are willing to accept these hypotheses:
things change:
authors and wizards are not always to be trusted:
nobody can explain a dragon.
Earthsea, for those who are unaware of the mythology, history, and geography of Le Guin's world (as can be gleaned from the first three Earthsea books - the Earthsea Trilogy - : A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore, and from the fourth: Tehanu - The Last Book of Earthsea), is an archipelago dotted with numerous big and small islands all suffused with a particular kind of magic. It is not "magical" in the way the Harry Potter books are. Magic here is hmm. . . more serious. Its power puts an emphasis on language and the knowledge of the "true name" of everything. Magic is never used casually by the mages for true names and the use of magic can disturb the balance of the world. Everything in this world has a true name in the ancient language and to know the true name of anything is to wield power over it. True names are hence concealed and rarely revealed to others and humans make do with "use names." Earthsea, like the best of fantastic stories, creates a convincing alternate world. Le Guin is as good as Tolkien in this aspect.

Tales From Earthsea is a collection of five short stories that revisit this fantastic world and as the author mentions in her foreword "explore or extend the first four Earthsea novels." Four of the five stories in this collection are set in a time before that of the Earthsea trilogy and one forms a "dragon-bridge" between Tehanu and the fifth Earthsea novel, The Other Wind. In Tales From Earthsea Le Guin explores much of Earthsea, places and characters that had been mentioned in the earlier novels and explains some of the "mythology" and history of the world of Earthsea. Though this collection largely deals with a time before the first four Earthsea novels and explains much of Earthsea's magic and history, this book is not the one to start with if you have never read an Earthsea book. The author in fact, in her foreword, says as much asking readers to begin their journey into Earthsea from A Wizard of Earthsea stating that the five tales, "will profit by being read after, not before, the novels." However the Earthsea books are not easily available in India and if you get your hands on Tales of Earthsea, read the foreword and the Description of Earthsea appended at the end before starting with the tales.

The first tale, The Finder, is a novella that tells the story of Otter/Medra and the origins of school of magic upon the "Isle of the Wise," the island of Roke (Hogwarts from the Harry Potter books, many believe, is derived from and influenced by Earthsea's School of magic on Roke Island. Another aside: Anyone reading Christopher Paolini's Eragon and Eldest -- the two books published so far of The Inheritance Trilogy, after reading the Earthsea books will realize how strongly Paolini has been influenced and inspired by Le Guin's world). The Finder, is set about three centuries before the time of Ged, the protagonist of the Earthsea trilogy. The Finder tells of a dark and deeply troubled Archipelago and a time when magic and the wielders of magic were feared and mistrusted.

Otter, who has the gift for magic, is found out by the men of power when he weaves a spell into a ship to frustrate a pirate-king. Once discovered, he is enslaved and sent to work in a mine and to act as a seeker/finder for the king of metals - quicksilver (or ayezur, its true name). He is tormented by the pirate-king's chief wizard who binds the untrained Otter in powerful spells and pushes Otter to his utmost limits as a finder. Otter however finds help from an unexpected quarter and escapes. He comes to hear of a place "where the rule of justice is kept as it was under the Kings" (Earthsea's Golden Age was under the rule of the Kings). When he finds that place he learns how he can help change the dark course that Earthsea is taking. It tells how Otter came to an isle that cannot be found, Roke, and how he goes on to form the school of magic on the island. The story explains how a lot of the customs of Roke's school, including the famed "Doorkeeper" who controls the entrances to the school and selects the students who can be allowed to enter the school, came about. The story also gives women and women's magic a very important role in the founding of the school and in the history of Earthsea. It also hints at how and why later women's magic was suppressed, much to the loss of Earthsea.

The story has some of the most beautiful writing that I have ever come across in the fantasy genre. The story also gives you a feeling of reading an ancient text, an objective that Le Guin consciously strives to attain. I would rank The Finder amongst the best fantasy stories ever written. There's hardly anything to fault in this story. Powerful characters, magic, love, duty, quests -- the story has it all and Le Guin narrates it wonderfully.

The second story The Bones of the Earth is set on the island of Gont (an important island in Earthsea's history - Ged was born on Gont) is about old and stubborn wizard Dulse and his apprentice the mage Ogion (Ged's first teacher in sorcery). It's a touching and beautiful story of the loneliness of a wizard's life and of Ogion's loving relationship with his teacher. The story is about how the aging Dulse and Ogion join forces and demonstrates how humility, if great enough, can rein in an earthquake. Dulse chooses to make a sacrifice to save Gont from calamity, a sacrifice that'll never be acknowledged or recognized. The Bones of the Earth was nominated for the Hugo award.

Darkrose and Diamond, the third tale, is a romance, a delightful story of young courtship and the choices that are born out of love. It is the story of a young wizard who turns his back on magic and chooses to weave a magic of another kind -- music. Darkrose and Diamond is about how wizards can sometimes choose to follow an alternative career rather than becoming one of the "people of power." It is a good enough story on its own. But it suffers in comparison to the two that precede it failing to attain the great levels that the earlier two stories reach.

Ged, the Archmage of Earthsea, appears as a secondary character in the fourth story, On the High Marsh -- a story that contrasts the love of power and the power of love and how the first can lead to madness and the other to redemption. It also deals with a problem of our times: mad cow disease. On the High Marsh starts with the arrival of a stranger in a remote village where the cattle have been afflicted by a plague. He stays with a woman, called Gift, saying he is a curer and after some rest he goes about the land around curing ailing cattle and weaving protective spells on the healthy ones. Things get out of hand when another curer doesn't take kindly to the competition and attacks the stranger who loses control and retaliates with powerful magic. The village as a whole puts itself against the stranger but Gift still takes him in and allows him the sanctuary of her home. This stranger is Irioth, who once was a power-hungry and dangerous mage on the island of Roke. Now, after a wizard's battle with the Archmage Ged, he is "mad in patches, mad at moments," haunted by the mistakes of his past. The forgiving Ged who had driven Irioth from Roke, comes looking for him, seeking to take him back to Roke only to find that Irioth has been redeemed by love and has realized that power is isn't everything and has found happiness in the simplest of tasks.

On the High Marsh is a powerful story of redemption and in Irioth it has one of the most compelling characters in this collection of tales. Ged, easily the finest character of the Earthsea saga, appears in the story only at the very end but such is the art of Le Guin that he leaves a powerful impression on the readers. Le Guin deftly and in a few words and actions sketches his power and his kindness.

Dragonfly is set in time immediately after the story narrated in the fourth novel of Earthsea, Tehanu when Earthsea is without an Archmage. It tells the story of a girl, Dragonfly, who is told that she has a gift, but none can tell her what it is or help her find it. So powerful is the gift, that even the true name that she has been given, Irian, fails to encompass all of it. The story is Dragonfly's/Irian's quest to find her true nature. Through the help of a disgruntled wizard she tries entering the school of magic on Roke– which over the course of Earthsea's history has become a dominion of men and doesn't accept women students. The Doorkeeper of Roke's school however recognizes the power in her and lets her in, casting the school and its council of mages in turmoil. Dragonfly, like Tehanu, is a deliberate feminist tale. It shows how even the great school of Roke is fallible and how the greatest of the ruling mages of Earthsea are still prone to errors of judgement. The story is set in a time when Roke (and Earthsea) is without an archmage. The ruling council of mages on Roke are shown to be men, some of who, are trying to maneuver themselves into the position of archmage. The internal strife and the clash of ideas and customs between these mages is as interesting as the forthright character of Dragonfly/Irian. Some of the mages in the story resent the change brought in by Irian's incusion in the school and set themselves against Irian. Irian finally realizes her true nature and the extent of her powers at the end of the story on Roke Knoll - where the true nature of all things is revealed. This initiates great changes in the school and in the world of Earthsea.

Dragonfly was intended by Le Guin to function as a link between Tehanu and the next Earthsea novel, The Other Wind. This is probably the reason that the story leaves behind an impression of being unfinished. While it provides a few answers, it raises a lot more questions, some of them very important: To what extent is the order going to change in Earthsea? Who is the next archmage? And does Ged's story end the way it has in Tehanu? Hopefully The Other Wind will answer these questions.

The book concludes with A Description of Earthsea, a comprehensive essay on Earthsea's history, languages, culture, customs, music, and dragons. It is, in spirit, very close to the extensive background material that Tolkien prepared for The Lord of the Rings. In Le Guin's favor, one can only say that A Description of Earthsea it is not as exhaustive or as complicated and much more readable than any of Tolkien's "histories." Le Guin's history of the Archipelago offers background material that explains many of the incidents in the Earthsea saga. There's also a note on the school of Roke explaining the roles of its nine master-teachers. It also explains how the name and office of the archmage came into being.

For hardcore Earthsea fans, and for people who delight in such things, Le Guin has also provided two maps: one of the inner lands of the archipelago and a more detailed and updated map of Earthsea.

Tales from Earthsea is a wonderful work and fans of the Earthsea books will be delighted with the insights that Le Guin offers into her magical world through these five tales. And though the author recommends that readers first tackle the previous Earthsea books, I feel even a people new to Earthsea can start on a reasonable secure footing provided they read Le Guin's introduction to the book and the A Description of Earthsea that she has so thoughtfully appended at the end. Having said that, the tales are a much more delight, if you are familiar with the Earthsea series. . . you just take away that little bit extra from the book.

Tales from Earthsea book is easily amongst the best that I have read in the fantasy genre for some time. The stories are excellent and beautifully crafted; Le Guin is a master storyteller. Le Guin once again shows her mastery over characterization. Otter/Medra, Dulse and Ogion, Irioth and Dragonfly are entrancing and compelling characters. Moreover, Le Guin shows that it is possible, for both writers and readers to visit an alternative world again after many years and still delight in its vision and complexities.

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A note: I first came across the Earthsea books through Harry Potter. An online essay (I can't find it now) mentioned how J. K. Rowling's Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry was an extension of Le Guin's School of Magic on Roke Island. That was about five years back. My search for Earthsea books began then. After looking for them unsuccessfully in bookshops for a few months, I mentioned this to a techie friend who managed to procure soft copies of the books from IRC network.

The Earthsea novels are still not easily available in India, at least I haven't come across them in Mumbai. Tales from Earthsea is the one that you'll find on the bookshelves now and if am right it was published in early 2001. The Other Wind is still unavailable though it too was published in 2001. I found a single copy of The Earthsea Quartet (The Earthsea trilogy + Tehanu) in the British Council Library, Mumbai. Amazon, I think, still remains the best bet for these books.

13 comments:

Jabberwock said...

Very nice - these have all been on my reading list for ever. BTW, at least the couple of the books are available in Delhi - or at least were last I checked in Khan Market.

mandar talvekar said...

Thank you Jai Arjun,
Coming from the Jabberwock it felt really nice.
I am sure you already have the books, if not I suggest you snap up whicever book you can lay you hands on.
The only copy of one of the novels from the Earthsea Trilogy that I have seen was of The Farthest Shore in Gangaram's Bangalore. Unfortunately, I then decided to wait till I could buy all the books in a single purchase.
Mumbai has been disappointing -- I had placed an order for these books in two book shops and they haven't been able (or didn't bother) to procure them.

Dhar said...

I read le Guin sometime back. Didnt know that there is a fourth book in the Earth Sea series that has come out. And you are very right, some concepts in Eragon and Eldest seem to be 'inspired' from the Earth-Sea series.

BTW, I too stay in Mumbai. You can check out Paperback at Thane. Mahesh (the owner) is amazingly good at procuring titles that you have been looking for a long time. He is contactable at paperbak@vsnl.com. If you need his phone number, send me a mail at sumit.dhar at gmail.com.

Cheers,
D.

flygirl said...

hi,

nice review. this latest le guin came out a few years ago and was hard to find even here in Oz. le guin suggested in an interview that another Earthsea novel, tying up the loose ends of Tenar's story, would also be written. this was two years ago and i still haven't seen any new ones, but keep your eyes peeled!

flygirl said...

whoops, the fifth novel was The Other Wind :-) Sorry!

Ambar said...

Good review. I've been trying to get my hands on Le Guin's work for quite some time now. No luck yet.
And about the Inheritance Trilogy, it seemed to me that Eragon was inspired a lot by Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series.

mandar talvekar said...

Sumit (Dhar), Flygirl, Ambar,
many thanks.
Sumit, thanks for the Paperback tip.
And Ambar thank you for mentioning Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series. I haven't read it. But now that you've mentioned it, I'll try to get my hands on that series.

niti bhan said...

Mandar

I found an "all in one" of the trilogy in Bookworm in Connaught Place for like 200 bucks - that was about 10 years ago. He places orders as well.

This is one of my alltime favorites, thank you for the review.

mandar talvekar said...

Hi Niti,
Thanks for the comment. I still haven't come across The Earthsea quartet (or trilogy) in Bombay. Neither have I come across individual books.

In Phoenix (Arizona) though I came across a half-price book store that had The Other Wind and a few other books by Le Guin which I picked up. But not a single Earthsea book.

Zain said...

Great review. 'The Finder' is one of my favourite stories as well. I highly recommend 'The Dispossessed' by Ursula le Guin, if you haven't read it, although it's science fiction rather than fantasy.

manolin * said...

Hi

Nice review..was wanting to read this. On availability of these books in bombay, the lesser said the better. I get out of the problem by ordering from flipkart.com. I remember buying my first ursula le guin from crosswords when it had just opened up in bangalore 6-7 years back. Bookworm and Midlands in Delhi are good places to pick them up. Landmark generally also has a good collection of high fantasy. Anyways, thanks for the review:-)

Tenelilli said...

Lovely review. I just finished reading the book in Polish, and as it's been over 10(15?) years since I read Tehanu, I wass doing some bg check with wikipedia to see what I remembered. Their article about Tales, was sadly lacking so I'm glad to have found your review and confront it with my thoughts on the subject, first of them being: 'Hey! They cut out the essay in Polish publication!' Other that than I really loved this book, probably more than Tehanu really. Tehanu is a great one but I read it still in my teens, only couple of years after reading booke 1 through 3, and I found the tale woven from an elderly woman's (to a teen Tehanu was way elderly) pretty much depressing, which kind of put me off for years from the Earthsea cycle in general, and made me sigh upon the release of the new books. I kinda felt that like ULG (pretty much like George Lucas does constantly) kept trying to earn more by squeezing juices from the good thing, that should have been left in it's original fashion. Many years later(aka nowish) I saw Tales and 'The Other Wind' in a library and decided to give them a go nonetheless. I'm after Tales now, will be digging into 'The Other Wind' soon, and I'm glad I did. I may even go back and read everything from the start again, as now being a different and more adult version of myself I can actually see and understand much more of the underlying themes.
And your review helped me in putting my thoughts together so thank you for that. I love discussing books I read with friends, trouble is when you're not reading same book simultaneously.

On another note it's been 7 years from your review so I really hope that availability of the Earthsea books in India is better now. For me personally it's hard to imagine not having those at hand as after reading all of (then published) Tolkien at the age of 10, I reached for a slightly worn copies of The Earthgsea Trilogy at the age of 11 or 12, which pretty much defined fantasy genre and good reads for me. When I think of not having that experience I shudder, but than again I probably wouldn't do that, not having known of it. Still I do find my memories of it precious and am extremely glad to rediscover this world.
Don't get me wrong- I love Harry Potter books as a next girl (I have not read Paolini's books though) but there's a different a sort of ethereal quality to Le Guin's books. She's one wise lady.
Now, I'm quitting with over-sharing and going back to reading :)

mandar talvekar said...

Hey Tenelilli, thanks for sharing. your comment makes me want to pick up and re-read my entire ULG collection all over again. She is a gem of a writer.

7 years is a long time. Bookshops in India have discovered ULG and now her books are more easily available.