Every author has their literary idol; Ursula Kroeber Le Guin is mine. I discovered her work in high school, when I would prowl the science fiction/fantasy shelves at the mall bookstore. I still have the paperback edition of The Wizard of Earthsea that I bought because I liked the cover featuring a dragon curled around the ruins of an island city. I can’t remember if I bought only Wizard that day and went back later to get The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore, or if I went all in and purchased the whole trilogy at once. I do know I fell in love with Ged, the titular wizard, as soon as I began reading. So began a lifelong admiration for Le Guin’s work.
Le Guin’s first novel, Rocannon’s World, appeared in 1966. When it came out, she hid her gender behind her initials (U.K. Le Guin), and her earliest works featured a male protagonist because it was hard for women authors and female protagonists to “make it” in that white male–dominated era of science fiction/fantasy. Yet Le Guin started breaking conventions and toppling barriers early. The Earthsea novels started appearing in 1968, and most of the characters, including Ged, are not white. Neither is Genly Ai, the protagonist of The Left Hand of Darkness, a science fiction novel Le Guin published in 1969. That novel, which explored gender identity in an era when transgender people were mainly found in burlesque shows, became the first book authored by a woman to win the Hugo Award, one of science fiction and fantasy’s most prestigious honors.
But what do I love about Le Guin’s work? Do you ever read a novel and think to yourself, this author speaks truth—as in, he or she views the world through the same lens you do? I feel that kinship with Le Guin—the topics she writes about are ones I care about: courage, ethics, gender politics, the environment, power structures. Le Guin is also a damn good storyteller, who crafts her characters with empathy and shows the beauty in nuance and small gestures. She is a prolific writer whose work spans science fiction, dystopian fiction, fantasy, contemporary fiction, and children’s literature. One of my favorite books of all time is Always Coming Home, a lengthy fictional anthropologist’s collection of short stories, poems, ethnographic notes, and historical documents, all woven in and around a dystopian, post-apocalyptic novel about a young woman who leaves her mother’s peaceful tribe to live with her father’s warlike clan. Another favorite is The Dispossessed, which won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards and follows a scientist who is recruited from his anarchist/collectivist homeworld to work in a hyper-capitalist society on another planet. I’m currently rereading Left Hand of Darkness, which is still immensely relevant to today’s political climate. But the works I treasure most are Le Guin’s fantasies set in Earthsea.
The Books of Earthsea
Earthsea is a fantasy world where people live on hundreds of islands in a large archipelago. Magical abilities are not uncommon, though in Earthsea’s patriarchal society, only boys receive formal training at a mage school, while girls must learn only informally from their local village witch.
The Wizard of Earthsea follows Ged, an arrogant young goatherd with magical abilities as he is first apprenticed to a local mage and then sent off to study at the mage school. (Sound familiar? The first Earthsea book was written thirty years before Hogwarts existed. I don’t know much about J.K. Rowling’s influences, but as I think about Ged’s life story and Dumbledore’s, a lot of similarities crop up.) At school, Ged comes into conflict with another student and, goaded into a magical duel, he accidentally releases a deadly shadow creature that will haunt him throughout the rest of the book. The other boy dies in the accident and Ged is hurt physically and psychologically; it takes him several years to recover his magical abilities, his confidence, and his courage. Eventually he leaves school to start work as a village mage, but the evil spirit is waiting for him. At first he flees it, traveling all over Earthsea and meeting many unique peoples and dragons, but eventually he finds the courage to confront the shadow creature, turns around, and begins to hunt it.
As I said, I fell in love with Ged when I first read this book. Though he starts out as an obnoxious, arrogant boy, his early comeuppance and slow struggle to regain his lost skills and confidence teaches him humility and the power of kindness and generosity, and eventually gives him the strength to defeat his enemy. His hero’s journey is exciting and moving, and it profoundly influenced my worldview.
The Tombs of Atuan is the second book in the series and for a long time was my favorite. Like Wizard of Earthsea, Tombs is a coming of age story, but this one features a girl named Tennar who is taken as a very young child to live in virtual slavery as a nun dedicated to the service of the Nameless Ones, which are very powerful but mostly dormant earth spirits. When she reaches her teens, Tennar is consecrated as a priestess and put in charge of an underground labyrinth used as both a treasure trove and an execution site for political prisoners. One day she discovers Ged sneaking around in the tunnels, looking for a powerful talisman that had been taken from his people centuries before. Tennar at first imprisons Ged for trespassing, with the intent of letting him starve to death, but her curiosity about this stranger leads her to show mercy. Ged opens her eyes to some truths about her world and the people around her, and together they decide to escape with the talisman.
The Farthest Shore was my least favorite of the first three books way back when I was a teenager, but when I reread the book as a mature adult a few years ago, it really spoke to me. This novel is another coming of age tale, in this case featuring Prince Arren, the teenage heir to the throne of Enlad. By this time, Ged has become the Archmage and headmaster of the mage school, and he’s concerned that magic seems to be fading from the world. Then Arren, who has no magical abilities, arrives to ask for Ged’s aid in quelling a strange illness that has been causing people all across Earthsea to lose their memories and go mad. The pair travel across the world, tracking the evildoer and eventually discover that he is a sorcerer who has used dark magic to make himself immortal, and the magic is siphoning all life out of Earthsea. Together, Arren and Ged must work together to stop him, but success will come at a tremendous cost. (Sound familiar? Remember I said there were a lot of similarities between Ged and Dumbledore.)
The fourth book, Tehanu, supplanted Tombs as my favorite when it came out in 1990, roughly 20 years after the original trilogy. Unlike the first three novels with their teenage protagonists, Tehanu’s central characters are mature adults facing the questions that come with middle age and family responsibilities. After decades apart, Ged and Tennar meet again when he retires to the village where Tennar has lived since she left the Kargad Lands. The pair join forces to rescue a severely abused child named Tehanu, and in the midst of a struggle to protect her, the seeds of love planted years before in Tombs finally blossom. Meanwhile, Tehanu begins to exhibit strange powers and becomes the target of a villainous sorcerer. Tennar and Ged, who has given up magic, must find a way to defeat the magician and protect the girl using only their wits.
Tales from Earthsea, the fifth book, is a collection of short stories that follows the history of the mage school, from the struggles of its founder in a world where magic is the tool of warlords and criminals; to early conflicts between male and female faculty members; the exclusion of women and girls from the school; to the arrival, shortly after Ged’s retirement, of a magically gifted girl who demands that school officials admit her.
The last book in the series, The Other Wind, picks up the story of a young adult Tehanu, when she and Tennar team up with Arren (now a young man and king of his realm) and Earthsea’s only female wizard, to help another wizard named Alder stop the dead from invading Earthsea. The group recruits a dragon to help them and goes to a sacred grove located near the mage school to uncover the true history of Earthsea and perform a rite to stop the dead from returning to life.
I love these books because they wrap some very big issues up in some beautifully written page-turning stories. Where Wizard has Ged come to grips with his own fragility and mortality—and find strength in those weaknesses—in Tombs, Tennar grapples with the moral dilemmas posed by different cultural definitions of justice and has to revive a suppressed conscience to find her moral center. The Farthest Shore and The Other Wind are about death, and life, and the yin and yang necessity of both—you can’t have one without the other. Tales From Earthsea contains stories about power structures, exploitation, and gender roles, with a strong message about how our bodies do not define our abilities. I also love these stories because in many of them, the primary conflict in the novel is resolved without bloodshed. That may sound strange coming from an author of a book about a warrior bent on revenge, but I hope readers of my work will see some of LeGuin’s influence. Even though our stories are nothing alike, she has certainly had a major impact on my life and my work.
My novel, A Wizard’s Forge, is available from all major book retailers.
Thank you Ms. Justice for your thoughts on your idol Ursula K. Le Guin and on The Earthsea books. I found your insights to be very honest and insightful into your love of this series.