Ursula K. Le Guin: Tales from Earthsea

Coyote walks through all our minds. Obviously, we need a trickster, a creator who made the world all wrong. We need the idea of a God who makes mistakes, gets into trouble, and who is identified with a scruffy little animal. — Ursula K. LeGuin

Some books are just too good not to review as soon as they arrive. Such is the case with Tales from Earthsea, five mostly new tales of Earthsea, the delightful universe created by LeGuin more than 30 years ago.

Ursula LeGuin wrote the first three books between 1968 and 1972, a time when truly interesting and intelligent fantasy was scarce — ’twas as rare as a well-spoken dragon. I consider this Cycle of novels — she later added a fourth novel — to be a true classic that should please all readers looking for a really interesting read. Although often considered to be children’s literature, I think that The Earthsea Cycle is a somewhat dark fantasy set in a world where really old gods and dragons lurk at the outskirts of civilization, and bad things happen to good folk. If you want a look at the four novels in this series, go look at Rebecca Swain’s excellent review of the series, as my business here is to discuss Tales from Earthsea, not the earlier novels.

It took me years and a great deal of effort to find the original four novels in their quaint and eccentric nine-inch by six-inch format. (Don’t be going to try and find them these days, as any of them will cost you very dear in the purse!)

Ah, but there are treasures within Tales from Earthsea not in the original books such as not one, but two maps of Earthsea grace this volume, including a full colour one on both of the inside pages. I think that this is the first time that a map of this kind has been provided by LeGuin, and she adds a map of ‘The Inner Lands of The Archipelago’ at the beginning of her introduction to this volume. As a bit of imagined geography, they are quite detailed, as one might expect from the consciousness of a creator who has spent decades living in her Earthsea universe. Yes, you heard me right … She clearly indicates in her introduction that she believes her imagined reality and its people are as real as the history that historians ‘create’ by interpreting the flotsam and jetsam the past has provided them. LeGuin revels in doing this — just read her Always Coming Home, an ‘ethnography’ of the Kesh culture in which she notes in an online interview:

‘I’ve never lived in a culture like the one in Always Coming Home. What we’re talking about here is partly a matter of literary tactics. The book is made of words. The Kesh have to have a lot of verbal rituals so that I could write about what they did. And their rituals had to be lively and interesting so that they could be told through stories and poetry. I wasn’t conscious of these processes when I was writing the book, but I know that’s the way it works. These rituals are part of the context of the book, but they also show a society living well, doing no harm, while at the same time not sitting on their hands and doing nothing. Like a climax forest, the Kesh society is in good balance. They have a refined technology, but not a growth technology. They may change the details and the style in the way they do things, but not quickly or radically as in a society built on growth technology such as ours. One way to demonstrate the difference in the way the Kesh lived is to show them involved in the ritual of repeated activities and festivals. The rituals of the season reveal the Kesh embeddedness in the texture of existence, environment, culture. Everything flows in one direction.’

Tales from Earthsea is indeed yet another ethnographic venture for her. It is intended to fill in some of the blank pages of her not terribly well-documented history, which is rather vague on such things as the relationship between dragons and men, or just how did the school for wizards come to be?

Do note that she says — and me opinion’s the same — that one must not read this volume unless one has completely read The Earthsea Cycle as these tales will make bloody little sense to you. But if you’ve read The Earthsea Cycle, you are definitely in for a treat! Except for Ursula LeGuin’s ‘Dragonfly,’ which takes place after the events depicted in the Earthsea series, included in the Legends anthology, all five of the tales herein have been published before.

‘The Finder,’ set several hundred years before A Wizard of Earthsea, the opening volume of the Cycle, presents a dark and deeply troubled Archipelago and shows how this culture came to be. ‘The Bones of the Earth” features the mages who taught the wizard who was Ged’s first instructor in the art of sorcery — and demonstrates how humility, if great enough, can contend with an earthquake. ‘Darkrose and Diamond’ is a rather delightful story of young courtship, showing that wizards sometimes pursue careers beyond that of being just all-powerful beings. ‘On the High Marsh’ tells of the love of power –and of the power of love, and the aforementioned ‘Dragonfly’ shows how a talented and stubborn woman can make the most pig-headed of mages. All are delightful tales that will add much to the understanding of Earthsea and its folk. LeGuin says in her introductory notes that these tales are ‘a bridge’ — a dragon bridge — to the next Earthsea novel, The Other Wind.

She concludes this collection with an essay about Earthsea‘s history, people, literary works, magic, and languages, which is not as bleedin’ detailed as the various Middle Earth histories, and is quite a bit more charming. (Does anyone know how many volumes of weird material the Tolkiens have spewed out since The Lord of the Rings was originally published? Not me! And does anyone really care?)

Ursula certainly likes playing in her created universe and me feeling is that we’re all richer for that. If youve read The Earthsea Cycle, run to your nearest bookstore and buy this now. If you haven’t read The Earthsea Cycle yet, there’s hope for you yet so long as you read The Earthsea Cycle immediately! After you read it, drop me a line and we’ll chat over tea ’bout it. Now I’m off to read to her Always Coming Home novel as one can never have enough LeGuin!

(Harcourt, 2001)

Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>