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Ursula Le Guin

Posted on Thursday, June 26, 2008 in Books, Fantasy, Reviews, Teen books

One summer when I was a child, I was on the Swedish island Öland, in the Baltic sea. Being the voracious reader that I’ve always been and still am, I had to go to a library. It was a small library in a very small place, and it probably doesn’t exist anymore. In any case, there was a man, who might have been a librarian, or a teacher and he began to ask me about what books I usually liked to read. I told him, then he walked across to one of the bookshelves and picked out a few books.

They were part of the Earthsea trilogy (now there are a few more books in the series). It was almost like magic. That man had found books that suited me perfectly.

Soon, I bought the whole trilogy. I just had to own the books myself and I also wanted to read the first one, which must have been missing that day in the library.

Ursula LeGuin has created a fascinating world. She must have put a lot of work into it, because the whole world is so evolved.It’s easy to visualize the different islands with their diverse cultures.

The first book, A Wizard of Earthsea, is about a little goatherding boy, Ged, whose mother died when he was very young. Ged turns out to have a talent for magic and ends up helping the village witch. One day, enemies attack Ged’s island and with a mixture of cunning and a little magic he manages to save his village. This eventually leads to his being sent away to become the apprentice of a wizard.

There Ged meets a girl, who he tries to impress, and so ends up in trouble. The wizard he was apprenticed to sends him to Roke, the School of Magic. But the shadow Ged has released follows him everywhere. The rest of the book is about how Ged finally manages to ban the evil he set free, in his youthful folly.

The second book, The Tombs of Atuan, is about a young nameless priestess. She serves some nameless gods and leads a dull and somewhat frightening life. One day a man shows up. Until now, she’s only encountered eunuchs and seen the King’s warriors from afar. The priestess is immediately drawn to the stranger who has dared to penetrate into their sanctum.

She’s supposed to kill him, but finds herself reluctant to do so. Instead, she can’t resist going to see him and talk to him, though that’s the last thing she should do. Arha – the Eaten one – can’t forget him and eventually, it leads to a major change in her life. Ged – because it’s Ged who has shown up again, now as the Arch Mage of Roke – gives her back her name and takes her away from the Tombs where she’s spent all her life, at least as much as she can remember.

Ged was on a quest and he was able to conclude it sucessfully., while helping Tenar – the former Eaten One.

You get the impression Tenar has fallen in love with Ged, but a wizard has to be celibate, so he leaves her. She ends up in a relatively good situation, but overall women don’t count for much in Earthsea.

The third book, The Farthest Shore, is more mature and considerably darker. The magic is beginning to run out, in Earthsea. Since everything is based on magic, nothing else works very well in their society. Ged is accompanied by a young prince, who’s trying to save his realm. It doesn’t take very long for Ged to realize that what is happening, isn’t an accident. Someone’s caused the crisis. The trail leads him all the way into death. It’s a horrifying world, where mothers don’t care about their children and everything is barren and dusty. An endless torment. Even a wizard fears death.

Since there will be more books in the series, you might be able to guess that Ged somehow survives. He doesn’t escape unscathed though. At the end of it all, his hair is grey and he’s lost all his powers. The young prince emerges as a new kind of ruler – the Mage King.

Ged is taken unconscious, to Tenar’s home. By now, she’s been married and had children and is now a widow. Since Ged’s lost his powers, he’s allowed to love a woman.

I’ll comment on the rest of the books in the series later.

If you like evolved fantasy worlds with an entire mythology and history and – an important detail – maps, I think you’ll appreciate Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea series. The characters are memorable and easy to like.

The first book, A Wizard of Earthsea, is in many ways more of a book for children than the others.

The second book, The Tombs of Atuan, is among other things, a love story, very romantic and sad, but if you don’t like that, you’ll find many different layers to the story.

The third book is more grownup and, as I mentioned before, dark. Here, the fear of death is a constant subtext. You begin to understand what’s waiting for Ged and everyone else – but not Tenar – she’s from another culture, and for some reason it means she doesn’t have to fear the bitter afterlife.

It’s easy to get swept up in this world and be fascinated by the islands with their varied cultures. There’s even a people who live their entire lives on the open sea. It’s all described skillfully and vividly by LeGuin.

Perhaps I should mention something I see as negative.The entire world is rather mysgynist – a patriarchal world. Everything of value is owned by men. Women hardly count, except as bearers of heirs and as an unpaid workforce. To begin with the author doesn’t remark on this in any way. You get the impression that she takes it for granted. Perhaps it isn’t too surprising. She was born in the 1920’s.

Later in the series, it seems as if that problem’s caught her attention. You get some insight into the situation, from Tenar’s point of view and in a way, some comments on it. There will be more in the books I’ll go into later on.

This series of books belongs to my very favorites, so I can really recommend it. I hope you’re going to enjoy it as much as I have and as much as i still do.

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