Saturday, September 15, 2012

Review of "Tales from Earthsea" by Ursula Le Guin

In 1972 Ursula Le Guin completed The Farthest Shore and felt the Earthsea series was finished at three books.  However, in 1994 she published Tehanu:The Last Book of Earthsea in an attempt to revision the gender and social roles she’d laid out in that original trilogy.   Based on the title, this too was supposed to be the be-all, end-all.  Apparently not satisfying enough, 2001 saw Le Guin publishing two additional books in the Earthsea Cycle, The Other Wind and Tales from Earthsea, that both complement and redress the original books.  The former a novel that rounds out the entirety of Earthsea’s story into a nice whole, the latter is a collection of short stories that fills certain gaps Le Guin identified in Earthsea’s mythos.  The following is a loose breakdown of those stories.

“The Finder” – The opening story in the collection tells of the boy Otter, his imprisonment and escape, and subsequent joining of the Roke school of magic.  Not what is expected given the state of the school readers have become familiar with, Le Guin shows that education regarding wisdom and magic in Earthsea once had a different root.

“Darkrose & Diamond” is a short, simple tale of youth, lost love, and a person finding their way in life.  Traveling musicians and magic the motifs, Le Guin tells the story of a young man and the conflicts he has with an overbearing father.  A relatively light tale, thankfully Le Guin does not linger long on romantic elements, focusing instead on talent and the importance of understanding.

“The Bones of the Earth” – The shortest in the collection, it is the story of how Ogion saved Gont Town in his youth from an earthquake.  In addition to telling the real story behind the legends that have grown around the silent mage, the tale also tells of Ogion’s master and his training, proving there are different forces than nature to defy.

“On the High Marsh” is the story of a sick man wandering the wastelands of Semmel Island.  Suffering from fatigue and memory loss, the man knows only that he wants to help and heal.  He boards with a lonely family and offers what services he can to their inflicted livestock.  Given its themes of forgiveness and a new start, this may be the most emotionally impacting in the collection and is an excellent prelude to The Other Wind.

“Dragonfly” – Perhaps the least coherent story in the collection, “Dragonfly”, on top of being a sort of postscript to Tehanu, is the story of a young woman who becomes more than she is—or thought she was.  The symbolism inherent to In the tale’s conclusion slightly saccharine, not to mention the journey to that point overflowing with overt moralizing, the story nevertheless shows Le Guin walking the talk of her intentions to revision Earthsea from a feminist point of view.

“A Description of Earthsea” – Not a story, Le Guin offers a survey of the archipelago in demographic fashion.  Almost as if taken from her personal notes, the cultures, mages, history, dragons, islands, etc. are relayed in formal text that both summarizes what attentive readers already know, congealing the raw data of the setting and cultures into a single essay.

From the origins of the Roke school to the revelation of what happened to the Master Summoner in The Other Wind, Le Guin attempts to fill certain voids in the mythos of Cycle with Tales from Earthsea.  With the inclusion of thematic material like freedom of choice, gender equality, and the value of breaking from oppressive tradition, she likewise tries to bring into balance the qualities of theme in the Cycle as a whole.  Though not all the stories are award winners, they nevertheless have the desired effect: Earthsea becomes more multi-layered, and in turn relatable.  Recommended only for those who have read and loved the Cycle to date, including Tehanu.

(For those who have read the book and the Earthsea Cycle as a whole, you may be interested in reading a paper I wrote on its Daoist tenets and angles on contemporary theory called "Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle: Paralleling Contemporary Theory with an Eye to the Past".  Part I is here and Part II, here.)  

(This review has also been posted at

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