A Wizard of Earthsea et al

There was the beginnings of a hijack here, and I thought it maybe deserved its own thread.

Talking about Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea books, and that the fourth, Tenar, was a bit of a, for lack of a better term, shark-jumping moment for that series.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read them now, though I’ve read them maybe five or six times (I gave the books away to a friend a few years back), but a few reasons that Tenar might have been the departure from goodness that was the first three books might be:

[ul]
[li]The story about Ged is pretty much through after The Farthest Shore. LeGuin passes the torch to Tenar, but the compelling story she had to tell about Ged is part of what was so great about the first three books (yes, even though he is not the main character in The Tombs of Attuan).[/li][li]Tenar felt to me (and please correct me if I’m wrong; like I said, it’s been a while) like a heavy-handed book about contemporary gender attitudes set in a mythical world. Which is fine, if you like that sort of thing, but again, it was a big departure from the previous books.[/li][/ul]

Er, that’s all I can think of at this unogly hour of the morning. Thoughts? Also, thoughts on what you’ve loved about those books. I’m a huge Tolkien fan, and as I said in that other thread, Earthsea is the only other world that captured my imagination in a way similar to Middle Earth. The sense of scope, of humanity’s vastly important and wildly insignifiant struggle to find it’s sense of self and place, resonates throughout the story.

Perhaps my favorite part is…

…when Ged is sailing in the Southwest sea and meets, in the middle of the endless ocean under stars and constilations he’s only heard about in myth/history, the raft people who live their years isolated and alone (in small groups) on their rafts in the middle of the vast, and who meet once a year after following the currents to repair, have community, and mourn those who didn’t make it.

Something about the way she writes about him waking up and his meeting them makes me cry with a sense of beauty, desperation, and… essentialness I suppose. Love it.

I only have read the first book, A Wizard of Earthsea and is transfixed by the how deadly and beautiful magic is in the stories. The subject is treated with much sensitivity and is shrouded with a lot of mystery. Magic is not just “another” tool you use to get things done. It could rend the fabrics of space apart, causes imbalance throughout the world and could even kill you. Magic in Harry Potter is mild by contrast.

A Wizard of Earthsea is in many ways the perfect fantasy novel. Short - less than 200 pages - and without a single word wasted, it manages to convey a sense of wonder, scope and drama along with some very well-drawn characters, without descending to the repetitive blathering so common in the genre today (Robert Jordan, for instance, should have a copy of the book stapled to his forehead). The scene where Ged picks up a blade of grass and turns it into a staff is perhaps my favorite passage in all fantasy literature.

The following two books were good, but not at the level of the first. I didn’t read beyond them - I understood the more modern books were tainted with Allegory and Importance.

I have always wished that LeGuin had stopped after “The Farthest Shore.” I gather that she wrote the subsequent books to rectify the sexism she built into the first trilogy (“Weak as women’s magic” “Wicked as women’s magic,” the lack of girls at the Wizard school at Roke, etc.) and ultimately to change the bleak nature of the afterlife (the dry lands) which she had created. (P.S. – you have to have read “Tehanu” and “Other Winds” for this to make sense, if I remember correctly.)

At any rate, I wish she had left Earthsea as its original, flawed self and made her points in entirely new works. All she achieved was to muddy her own created world and turn a series which, though beautiful, had some profoundly depressing elements into something which was unremittingly bleak.

Oh! And my bad. In my OP I called the fourth book Tenar, when, as you say, it is in fact Tenahu, and the character is Tenar.

Like I said, it’s been a while.

I’ve never actually read ‘tehanu’, partly because I couldn’t find an audi version of it on audible.com Checked a paperback copy out of the library, but could never really get anywhere with it, possibly because I’ve heard so many bad things about it I wasn’t willing to invest much effort with something that I thought would probably disappoint me.
‘The other wind’ I have to say I loved… the incredible vividness with which Alder’s journey from Gont port up to ten alders drew me in from the start, and a bunch of different elements kind of came together… Alder’s own story of young love cut tragically short and arcane mystery beyond his meager skills to fathom, Ged’s quiet dignity, living up in the old mage’s house and distrusted by the townspeople, Lebanon’s fierce stubborn streak as a king on a throne long unoccupied, deeply suspicious of King Thol and his daughter. All building up to the inevitable realization that…

(spoiler for the end of ‘other wind’, just in case.)

…the afterlife, the ‘dark land’ was a horrible mistake, a travesty against the original laws of death and rebirth, and a personal insult to and theft from the dragons besides. It must be undone – but how??

I think I may well just leave the series as that in my mind. Four books, with the story of how Tenar and Ged found Tehanu left more than a littly mysterious. Both Tenar and Tehanu struck me as good and interesting characters in ‘other wind’, at least.

Not going to get into what I like about the original trilogy right now… because that could take all day and I’ve got work to do. :smiley:

Well put Alessan, it really is a magical book, as you say - perfect.

Its hard to describe how bad tenar is without descending into a rant on what an execrable author Le Guin has become in recent years. Its probably easiest to say that its a book that simply doesn’t work on any level. It doesn’t work as a story, because there isn’t one, there is no narrative tension and the characters are as flat as pancakes; it doesn’t work as a book because its poorly written in leaden and didactic prose; it doesn’t even work at offering a different take or POV to the earlier books because it is joyless and has nothing interesting to say.

Tenar is one of those books that makes you reassess an authors entire output. Like are ‘Left hand of Darkness’ or ‘The dispossessed’ really that good? I thought so when I first read them, but reread in the light of Tenar I’m not so sure I would like them. The stink of Tenar is retroactively degrading her work.

Thomas Disch described le Guin as undergoing a ‘slow PC ossification’. I’ve read some of her later stuff like ‘Always coming home’ and ‘The telling’ and its just harmless rubbish. Tenar would be likewise, if it wasn’t for the link to the superlative books that came before.

Sorry for the Tenar mixup Eonwe! I think I started it in the other thread. :smack:

well first let me say, im shocked that le Guin is a woman! I never knew that. Not that it matters, just funny to me for some reason.

Again, the book is Tehanu. I don’t think it’s all that bad, actually. It’s just sort of dull and the ending is a real “what the FUCK?” moment. I still don’t really get it. Maybe reading on will help, I guess.

You know a lot of guys named Ursula :p?

Although I guess it is a lot less common now as a name, so maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised. But when I here the name I always think of Ursula Andress as “She Who Must Be Obeyed” in She.

  • Tamerlane

This thread makes me want to seek out the early “Earthsea” books; I read them in the early 1970’s, but remember very little.

Baldwin: I re-read them for the first time in 20 years after watching the incredibly lame TV adaptation. I found them (by “them”, BTW, I mean the trilogy; I’ve never looked at the later stuff) to be even richer than I’d remembered.

BTW, for comparison, I remember reading ‘wizard of earthsea’ as a child and loving it, reading about half of ‘tombs of atuan’ before giving up, and not sure if I even found ‘farthest shore’ or not.

Rediscovered them, (like a few other things,) on audible.com, got tombs and farthest shore first, then wizard of earthsea, (harlan ellison’s narration is annoying in places but not too bad,) and finally the other wind. Love 'em all.

I’m reading the books right now; finished The Farthest Shore and started Tehanu on the subway this morning. I haven’t read enough of Tehanu to speak to the quality of it, but I’m glad that Le Guin wrote it because I kept wondering what happened to Tenar after Tombs of Attuan and why there weren’t any woman with as much magical power as the wizards.
In this interview she says

This is exactly why I liked LeGuin- there’s no filler in this or in LHoD. Anything that’s not absolutely plot essential makes the characters feel human later on. I hated the ice chapters from LHoD up until I finished the book, and then realized that they’re exactly why Estraven mattered to me. She gets more done in 50 dry but interesting pages than most people get done in a whole series.

[quote=Alessan]
The scene where Ged picks up a blade of grass and turns it into a staff is perhaps my favorite passage in all fantasy literature.

[quote]
Ditto. While watching the latest Harry Potter movie, my mind flashed back to this in the first battle, and I spent the rest of it wondering “why the hell can’t he arm himself and fight back instead of hiding until he happens across a weapon?”

The original Earthsea book are the best fantasy ever written, much better than Tolkien. The prose style is beautiful, lean and stripped back with not a word wasted. She manages to create an entire credible world without going into 1200 pages of family trees or descriptions of clothes. The dragons are brilliantly done: ancient, wise, and neither good nor evil - just other. There’s a coherent rationale behind the magic - it’s not fairytale magic or invisible rings, this stuff is tampering with the fabric of existence. It’s dangerous.

Best of all, though, is the characterisation and plotting. There are no Dark Lords or evil fortresses. Most of the evil Ged is forced to confront is very human, the result of pride or folly or arrogance. His own included: he’s very flawed initially, and has to learn his lessons the hard way. He causes great evil through pride and spite, and has to rid the world of the horror he’s unleashed - his dark side {I’m pretty sure Lucas was taking notes here}.

There’s no reward at the end, though, other than the lessons he’s learnt: no fanfare of trumpets for him. The ending of The Farthest Shore, where the Archmage Ged, having spent his powers saving the world, simply wanders back alone into the forests of his boyhood is so simple, yet so powerful and moving: “He is done with doing. He goes home”

There are no unnecessary characters: indeed, apart from “bit parts” there aren’t many characters at all. Those who are important, like Ogion, are minimally yet beautifully sketched. Ged’s companions Lebannen and Tenar are beautifully delineated as humanly flawed too: no-one is perfectly good or evil. They have things to do: they aren’t simply along to admire Ged, need rescuing or do the cooking or carry the bags. The plots revolve around them: indeed, Ged doesn’t make an apperance until well into The Tombs Of Atuan, and then as a supporting character.

Tehanu, however, was just a rumour. Never happened.

Hey! I liked The Telling! It is a bit (okay, a whole lot) preachy, I think I would like it just for the phrase, Caves full of being. Of people telling and listening..

From what I remember about first reading the Earthsea series when I was about twelve, the first three were magic. They were proper fairy tales, with Chestertonian fairy tale rules- all things depend on the arbitrary- on names, and proper ritual, and on courage. They were dark and complicated and alive. They had an immersive quality that could go from magic to goat-herding without changing tone.

Tehanu felt like grinding to a halt.

I liked it, but it felt so different, and so much angrier than the first three. Suddenly Tenar had turned from a confused but powerful girl to an angry woman who was very aware of the sexist inequality of Earthsea society. There was a profound change in tone and style that I didn’t understand. I didn’t want politics and feminist rage, I wanted another fairy tale.

I’ve never tried to analyse more reactions before, but I haven’t re-read the books in at least five years. Interesting.

Oh, I thought The Dispossessed (which I read about six months ago) was good, but sometimes like reading a complicated poli sci textbook.