Farther west than west
beyond the land
my people are dancing
on the other wind.
The song of the Woman of Kemay
Grey Walker wrote this review.
Those of us who have voyaged in Earthsea have reason to rejoice that its creator, Ursula K. Le Guin, has further news from the Archipelago. When we read the epic adventures of Ged, Tenar and Arren in < cite>A Wizard of Earthsea, < cite>The Tombs of Atuan, and < cite>The Farthest Shore, these books were a trilogy. Many years later Le Guin continued the story, while changing directions slightly, in Tehanu. And then, less than a year ago, she surprised and delighted us yet again with Tales from Earthsea, five more stories that brought previously unknown aspects of the islands vividly to life. To quote Le Guin herself in her forward to Tales from Earthsea, “At the end of the fourth book of Earthsea, Tehanu, the story had arrived at what I felt to be now….Unable to continue Tehanu’s story (because it hadn’t happened yet) and foolishly assuming that the story of Ged and Tenar had reached its happily-ever-after, I gave the book a subtitle: ‘The Last Book of Earthsea.’ O foolish writer. Now moves. Even in storytime, dreamtime, once-upon-a-time, now isn’t then.” In < cite>The Other Wind, Le Guin acquaints us with what is happening in Earthsea “now.”
It must be said right away that < cite>The Other Wind is indeed very much like “news,” in that the story takes up chronologically where the story “Dragonfly” in Tales from Earthsea leaves off. If one hasn’t read all of the previous Earthsea books and at least “Dragonfly” from Tales from Earthsea, the book will be somewhat confusing. Also, if one hasn’t read those other stories, this review will be somewhat of a “spoiler.” Consider this fair warning.
The opening scene of < cite>The Other Wind is Le Guin at her classic best. A tired man, presumably a mage — or at least a sorcerer — disembarks from a ship in Gont’s port. He is treated with indifference or hostility by all the Gontish natives he encounters as he makes his way up a steep mountain path to the small, dusty town of Re Albi, home of the Old Mage. On the road, he asks a passing carter how far he has left to go. “‘Ten mile,’ the carter said. He thought, and said, ‘Or twelve.’ After a while, he said, ‘No less.'” It is only because we the readers remember the previous story that we know that the “Old Mage” referred to so casually by the Gontish folk is Ged, the greatest mage in the modern memory of Earthsea.
Le Guin is a master at portraying a dirty, busy, “earthy” world, a world in which the great deeds of the wise are enacted on the stage of the common people, people who care about a mage only if he cares about them and tends to their small needs of healing, mending and finding. And yet, one senses that Le Guin is not merely amusing her readers at the expense of the little people. Indeed, their innate and simple understanding of things must constantly be factored into the deliberations of the wise if the balance of life is to be maintained.
As the story continues, we discover that this balance has been threatened, and as the plot further unfolds, we become more and more certain that the wise are seriously to blame. The man who has come to see Ged is a simple sorcerer named Alder. Other than his innate skill at mending broken things — pottery and such — Alder has nothing remarkable about him. Except that the dead are calling to him in his dreams, begging him to set them free. In his dreams, his dead wife touched him. When he awoke, the skin of his hand bore the dark shadow of that touch. Ged listens to his story with growing disquiet, yet also a sense of exultation. Ged himself has been to the land of the dead, but even he was never able to touch one of them. He tells Alder, “I do not understand it. All I know is that it is changing. It is all changing.”
Ged sends Alder to Lebannin the king with his dreams. Ged’s wife, Tenar, and his daughter, Tehanu, have gone there already. It seems that dragons have begun attacking the islands of the Archipelago, a thing they have not done for many years. Given that the dragons consider Tehanu to be one of them, Lebannin has hopes that she will be able to help him communicate with them and find out why they have suddenly become hostile.
Of course, as the narrative develops, Alder’s dreams and the depredations of the dragons become entwined with each other on deeper and deeper levels. To reveal anything further would ruin the satisfactory denouement of the story. Suffice it to say that, before reading very far, one begins to suspect what the outcome of the book must be. It is a tribute to Le Guin’s genius as a writer that, even though one turns out to be right about the outcome, there are still surprises, and the end is still almost painfully “right” and inevitable.
Genius is a strong word to use about a writer, but in this case I believe it is merited. There are very few imagined worlds that are as fully developed, as real, as Earthsea. The early trilogy portrays the Archipelago as being indelibly, innately, createdly, a certain way. Yet, as Le Guin writes elsewhere, “Praise then creation unfinished!” She begins to look at Earthsea through different eyes in Tehanu: we learn that mages, while they wield great power, are in some ways unfinished, limited men; that dragons and humans were one race severed at the dawn of history, yet there are still those born who are both. In < cite>The Other Wind, a fundamentally accepted truth about life in Earthsea is revealed to be a great lie. Yet, these deep changes do not break Earthsea or make it a place that is strange to us. Instead, it is made richer, more various, more real than ever before.
On a listserv devoted to Le Guin’s work, there has been a lively discussion of < cite>The Other Wind. One of the contributors remarked, presumably based on his reading of < cite>The Other Wind, that Le Guin seems to regret choosing a male protagonist for her earlier Earthsea books. I don’t agree. Certainly, beginning with Tehanu, Le Guin has chosen women characters to carry much of the action in her stories, but men are still very much present, and many of them presented positively. In fact, one of Le Guin’s great strengths as a writer is her ability to write about both men and women as men and women, yet also as people with more complexity than their gender. Both male and female protagonists take up the narrative at different times in < cite>The Other Wind, and Le Guin tells the story from their viewpoints with lively interest and complete empathy.
On one level, my reading of < cite>The Other Wind was an immediate, emotional experience. My eyes teared at certain points, and at one particularly exhilarating revelation, I found myself expelling an audible “Ha!” of delight and triumph. Yet, the book returns to me over and over again, lending itself to moments of reflection on the nature of life in our own world. It goes without saying that I could not recommend this book more strongly. I urgently hope that Le Guin will continue to discover the changing “now” of Earthsea and bring us news from there.
While Le Guin does have her own Web site now.