Friday, July 28, 2006

Book Review: The Other Wind by Ursula K. Le Guin

Warning: Mild plot spoilers ahead.
Fans of fantasy will remember how Tolkien ends his Lord of the Rings. Frodo along with the other ringbearers sets sail for "The Grey Havens" leaving behind a world he had helped save but cannot be a part of. A new age is born, the old way of life in Middle Earth is changing. A sorrowful Sam stays behind, for the moment, to usher in and experience this new world order. LOTR ends on a painfully poignant, yet hopeful note.

Ursula K. Le Guin's The Other Wind is a similar ending to the great Earthsea series. The entire novel is about the change of the old order in Earthsea. A new world is beginning to be born, one that leaves the various characters of Earthsea totally changed, an order that shakes the very fundamentals of the way of life and magic on Earthsea leaving nothing the same again. Like LOTR, it ends on a poignant note and like in LOTR, the people of Earthsea can now hope for a better world.

The Other Wind picks up a plot strand from The Farthest Shore and to it adds the story that needs to be told at the end of Tehanu and Dragonfly from the Tales From Earthsea. A word of caution: If you are not familiar with the mythology, history, and geography of Le Guin's Earthsea, don't touch this book. While it would be a good read, you would probably lose about 80% of the experience. Without the framework of the earlier books of Earthsea, it'll be tough to understand the state of Earthsea portrayed in this book and it might be virtually impossible to appreciate the numerous references to the earlier books.

As the novel begins, Alder, a humble village sorcerer, who specializes in the art of "mending" — the repairing and fixing of pots, pans, anything that is broken — comes to the Isle of Gont looking for the retired archmage Ged. Since the death of his wife Lily, Alder has troubled dreams of the dry land of the dead. In one of his very early dreams Alder dreamed that he had kissed Lily across the low stone wall that separates the afterworld of Earthsea from the land of the living. In Earthsea, this is not supposed to be possible, even in dreams. Soon Alder dreams not only of his wife, but of the other dead too, who gather at the wall and call out to him to set them free. Because of his disturbing dreams, Alder, can barely sleep for he fears that the dead somehow mean to use him to pass into the living world.

Ged is no longer a mage having used up all his power long ago (in The Farthest Shore) to heal the breach that had then been opened between the afterworld and the land of living by the wizard Cob. Ged, Earthsea's archmage had entered the dry land and defeated Cob. Ged has no magic to help Alder. But wisdom he has and he assists Alder in a more down-to-earth way. Ged is certain that the dreams of Alder bear on larger issues auguring a change in Earthsea and its equilibrium and that Alder possibly is the unwitting cause. He therefore sends Alder to Havnor to Earthsea's king.

In Havnor, Alder meets Tenar and Tehanu who had gone earlier from Gont to advise Lebannen, Earthsea's King. Alder finds himself from this point to involved in a world of kings and wizards, and dragons and politics. In the courts of King Lebannen, Alder hears of another troubling portent: the dragons of Earthsea, which for centuries have kept their promise to remain aloof in their western lands, have suddenly begun moving east, attacking humans and burning farmland.

Also present in Havnor is a Kargish princess Seserakh. The barbarian kargs have recently made a perturbing gesture of peace and have left behind their princess Seserakh, implying that Lebannen marry her as a "Confidence Building Measure." Importantly Seserakh knows Kargish legends that are now unfamiliar in Earthsea's more civilized worlds.

And there are stories that on the Island of Roke — The Isle of Wizards — one of the masters has been reduced to ashes by a dragon that had come to the island in human form. This is Orm Irian (The Irian in Dragonfly from Tales From Earthsea), a dragon who is also a woman. Orm Irian comes with news that the dragons are attacking humans because they believe that humans have encroached on a part of the dragons' domain.

Slowly all the pieces of the larger puzzle are pieced together. Putting together Orm Irian's warning, the dreams of Alder, the Kargish legends of Seserakh, King Lebannen, Tenar, Tehanu and the others realize that the unbalancing of Earthsea has its roots in the now lost and almost-forgotten compact by which dragons and humans, once a single people, divided themselves in two. Lebannen and the others journey to the Isle of Roke and there in the Immanent Grove that lies in the center of all things in Earthsea, they realize that the present divisions between humans and dragons and those between humans that have prevailed across Earthsea for ages are the result of the ancient agreement gone wrong. It is a truth that can change the fundamental nature of Earthsea for among all the other things it is also realized that the nature of magic of Earthsea itself is a result of the compact gone awry — that it is anti-life and an aberration. But something would have to be done or Earthsea will destroy itself. And to prevent that from happening, the various inhabitants of Earthsea, both dragon and human, must come together and use their collective knowledge to delve into the ancient myths and undo the error of the past. This is the central tale of The other Wind — the slow realization of an ancient mistake followed by the heroic resolve to redress the imbalance.

In all these grand happenings and in meetings with royalty and dragons, Alder wonders why he has to be present in virtually every frame of the story. But the wise king, Tenar, and the others know that in the end Alder will be the one to understand what must be done.

I had said earlier that The Other Wind picks up threads and continues the stories started in three earlier Earthsea books. The vision of the dry land, the afterworld and its impact on the world of living is a continuation of the idea first introduced in The Farthest Shore. In The Farthest Shore the dry land is simply presented as a bleak and dark land where the dead lead a very hollow and empty afterlife. Why the afterlife is so was never explained. The Other Wind provides the answer.

The Other Wind also continues the story of the burned and disfigured Tehanu. At the end of Tehanu readers realize that though she is in human form, Tehanu is the daughter of the dragon Kalessin and that she has been sent to the world of humans to fufill her destiny. The Other Wind is also Tehanu's tale, a story that follows her destiny.

The theme that humans and dragons were once one people appeared initially in Tehanu but wasn't explored. The theme was carried forward in Dragonfly from Tales From Earthsea. Dragonfly was intended by Le Guin to function as a link between Tehanu and The Other Wind. The theme of Dragonfly has now been made central to the life in Earthsea. In describing the discovery of the ancient mistake and the attempts made to rectify it, Le Guin also continues the story of Dragonfly/Irian who makes an appearance in The Other Wind as Orm Irian.

Of course, apart from these grand themes, Le Guin, the master storyteller, neatly weaves in the love story of Lebannen and Seserakh. Le Guin is a master storyteller. The Other Wind also neatly brings a closure to all the tales that were begun in the earlier books. Lebannen's story and his rule as Earthsea's king is told. So also is told the story of Tenar, once a high priestess of the Kargs and now a counsel to the king of Earthsea and a companion to Ged. And Le Guin never forgets Ged, the archmage who isn't a mage, the wizard who is "done with his doing" two volumes ago. Yet his wisdom helps shapes the new Earthsea. Ged might not be a mage now and he might be one of the many characters in the novel — all well fleshed out — but he is still Earthsea's star.

This is also a tale of how the small things, the common everyday life, is as meaningful, perhaps more important than magery. Le Guin is one author (read any of her other works) who I feel tackles the "ordinary" excellently, never neglecting it and weaving the small concerns intricately within the larger fantasy. Sitting in a garden, milking goats, and a meal of cheese, plums, and dry bread too are important in maintaining and restoring Earthsea's equilibrium. The reader is constantly made aware that while more sweeping and grand things are happening in the world, while ancient powers awaken and clash, the domestic details too matter. These smaller, personal threads help keep a grand fantasy, very down to earth and intimate.

For people unfamiliar with Le Guin's work it is very difficult to explain why she is so good. Her writing, like Earthsea, is simple, without any decoration and yet powerful to portray both deep sorrow and quiet happiness. Le Guin is a master of the muted, and the simple. Her compelling characterization also follows her writing style. Her story may be about magic and her characters take part in an epic fantasy, but they are never larger than life. They are undoubtedly heroic, but they come in human sizes. The Other Wind in keeping with Le Guin's style and the other books of Earthsea encourages contemplation, rather than exciting the reader. The Other Wind shows a writer who is at the peak of her craft.

The Other Wind is a very satisfying close to the Earthsea series. It very nicely extends the themes and concerns of the earlier books. It might not appeal to readers who prefer thrills and wizard duels and spells at the turn of every other page. But any one, who loves fantasy and wants to read the work of a master, should find The Other Wind worthwhile.

You'll find my review of Le Guin's Tales From Earthsea here.


Madhat said...

I had to stop reading...
please do put a spoiler alert.

mandar talvekar said...

There's now a "Mild plot spoilers ahead" warning in the post I should have done it earlier. Sorry. But I didn't feel it was necessary.
There were two reasons for not putting up that warning:
1. I believe I have outlined an overall sketch about how the novel proceeds without giving the end away. While the core characters, conflicts, and themes are mentioned, there's much that is left out. None of the pertinent plot moments find a place in the review.
2. I didn't believe there would many Le Guin readers in India (from where this blog gets most of its readers). I have come across very few people who are familiar with Le Guin's works -- her books are notoriously difficult to come by in India. And often when I talk about Le Guin, I find that I have to start from the scratch, explain her world and then outline the story before moving on to any other discussion. I thought outlining the basic plot would help readers know what the book is all about and understand how Le Guin is diffrent from most of the "Glitzy" fantasy that one finds on bookshelves these days.

However the mistake is mine. Please accept my apologies.

Aishwarya said...

I plan to buy this soon. LeGuin is magnificent.:)

Madhat said...

well, I am glad that you took my suggestion.
I think the Earthsea series grows in complexity with each book. And I suppose you, by giving an overview of the plot, are not really revealing much. But still...

@aishwarya: I concur, Le Guin is absolutely magnificient.

Madhat said...

PS. Thanks for reminding me. I need to put up an email id on my blog.

Anonymous said...

Don't you think it's funny and charming when birds speak to each other in 'Tales of Earthsea' and 'The Other Wind'? Especially in Tales when he asks the hen if she's got anything to say and she says her name a few times!