Book of the Week 15: The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula K. Le Guin

14th April, 2020


A change of pace this week for Easter: Ursula K. le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy. Last weekend I watched the Studio Ghibli Tales of Earthsea – which has its moments but is not up to the usual stratospheric Ghibli standards. (Le Guin agreed.)

It did, however, prompt me to turn to the trilogy once again. I read it as a teenager, and again on a  long holiday in China in 2003, alongside the fourth book, Tehanu. I picked it up with hazy memories about certain plot points, and was not disappointed by any part of it.

The writing is superbly poetic, the plots are fast-paced and unusual, and the world-building is deft and convincing. A Wizard of Earthsea was originally commissioned as a ‘young adult’ novel, and each of the three novels is told from the point of view of a teenage protagonist, but the themes are mature: ambition and envy, evil done in the name of religion, fear of aging and death, restraint in the use of power.

So many ideas here have been copied – a young boy going to a school for wizards; a wise and powerful order striving to keep the balance against the dark side – but the books still feel fresh and original fifty years on. Yes, there are wizards and dragons, princes destined to be kings and even a damsel needing to be rescued, but Le Guin transcends or subtly subverts each cliché.

Meanwhile I’ve been trying to figure out how to turn Earthsea into a role-playing game. An interesting challenge. An accomplished wizard seems to be able to attempt almost anything, if he is strong enough and is willing to accept the consequences, so part of the fun would be dealing with those consequences. Each success produces the seeds of later trouble. (There is an Earthsea-inspired game, Archipelago, but I have not yet looked at it.)

I know that Le Guin later revisited Earthsea decades later. Tehanu is the fourth book and there are others I’ve not yet read. I found it unsettling to read Tehanu immediately after the original trilogy; not only is it extremely dark, Le Guin so sharply questions some of the implicit perspectives of the previous books that she implicitly criticises herself for having written them, and the reader for having enjoyed them.

Nothing wrong with that – but perhaps leave a breathing space between finishing book three, The Farthest Shore, and picking up the fourth book, Tehanu.

Earthsea: Amazon UKBlackwellsAmazon US – Powell’s


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