Ursula K. LeGuin – The Earthsea Novels (1968-’90)

earthseaConsisting of:

  • A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)
  • The Tombs of Atuan (1971)
  • The Farthest Shore (1972)

The Earthsea novels are considered milestones in the fantasy genre and have never gotten out of print. It has been adapted as an amine movie and as a TV series. Nowadays they are presented as the Earthsea Quartet, as the book Tehanu (1990) is added as a fourth, which is written almost 20 years after the third. Tehanu feels disconnected from the original trilogy in style and substance and I will say some more of it at the end of the review.

The three Earthsea novels have gathered a lot of critical acclaim thanks to LeGuin’s knowledge of anthropology and psychology. The Archipelago she sets up harbours an immense diversity in cultures and every book expands upon another psychological theme. Most impressive of all are the subtle differences in style that LeGuin used between books to get her themes across.

The first book, A Wizard of Earthsea, reads as a travel memoir and a coming of age story. It follows the adventures of the young wizard Ged while he travels from island to island and grows up. The wizard school he ends up in is a very clear progenitor of the later Harry Potter novels. The ending comes straight from psychoanalyst Carl Jung. LeGuin’s style is very descriptive and a bit detached.

The second book, The Tombs of Atuan, might be her best and is like a polar opposite of the first book. While Ged travels around the world, the girl Tenar stays her whole life in one single place. LeGuin takes her time to describe this place so that it really comes alive. There are only a few locations in the fantasy genre so fully realized (perhaps only Gormenghast).

If the theme of the first book is growing up, the theme of the second is love and trust. Tenar is a richly developed character and LeGuin’s style is personal and involving. The third book, The Farthest Shore, is again a travel story but not as detached as the first. Its theme is death and the circle of life. The adventures of Ged end, but overlap with those of the young prince Arren, who grows up.

By highlighting the psychology I do not want to convey that these are boring books. Not at all. For those who like to read about dragons, dark shadows, old forces and the open sea, Earthsea is a must read.

Then a word about Tehanu. The reactions to this book are almost solely negative. It is, let me say this, a very well written book. But the magic seems lost and almost nothing happens. The hero of the trilogy, Ged, returns in this book but is described as a shimmer of what he once was and is involved in little backyard adventures.

It may have a lot to do with the fact that LeGuin had become a passionate feminist and she gave Tehanu a didactic aspect that severely hurts the magic of the content. The main problem is that the book undermines the first trilogy by pulling down the characters, especially Ged.

All in all, I would recommend to buy the tetralogy. Enjoy the first three books and make up your own mind about the fourth. The series is a bit unusual when compared to more recent fantasy series and be prepared to keep an open mind for each new novel in the series, because they change in tone and focus. Even more recently, some more books have been added to the series, so there is a whole series waiting for you if you like the first three books.

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