Revising death and dragons: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Other Wind

Each Tuesday, in honor of The Center for Fiction‘s Big Read of Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic Wizard of Earthsea series in October, we’re posting a Jo Walton article examining the books in the series. Click the above link for more coverage.

My problem with this book is how much I like the first trilogy, and how much The Other Wind needs to undermine them to make its point. Probably if I had read all these books in the same week, whether in 1974 or in 2002, I wouldn’t have this particular problem. This problem comes from reading the first books over and over between 1974 and 2002 and seeing my own things in the margins, so that when Le Guin gives me different margins I turn into the Winds from Ventus and disbelieve. This is only my second reading of this book, which I read immediately it was published and haven’t picked up since. I cannot like it.

Spoilers.

Let’s start with my personal problems. I mentioned in my post on The Farthest Shore that it had helped me cope with death in real life. This is why the idea of revising death in Earthsea and is very difficult for me to deal with. Also, I had worked out my own way of reconciling the reincarnation of The Tombs of Atuan and the dark place behind the wall, which was to think that people went behind the wall and then on from there to rebirth. So the problem The Other Wind is dealing with looked to me like a platypus—a non-problem created by looking at things the wrong way.

Setting that aside, but still on the subject of death in Earthsea, there’s something else problematic. It turns out in The Other Wind that it’s the Kargs who have been right all along. So this manages to combine the meme of “over-sophisticated civilized people should have listened to the the unsophisticated savages who were close to nature” with “the white people were right all along”. I have always liked the white people being the savages—I liked it when I was a child and I like it now; it’s a reversal worth doing. But if they were right about how to live all along, that undermines that. It’s a reversal of a reversal.

I also have a problem with the dragons in this book. Again, this is probably largely caused by the twenty-year gap in my appreciation of Earthsea. Like Arren, I felt everything was worthwhile because I had seen dragons rising on the wind. Now I’m supposed to believe some very difficult things about dragons that don’t much seem to fit with my understanding of them. My first reaction to The Other Wind was that Le Guin didn’t understand her own dragons anymore.

Apart from the issues of death and dragons, this strikes me as a flawed book. The shape is strange. We begin by following Alder to Gont to find Ged, and it seems as if it will be a book about Alder and his problem. He leaves Ged on Gont and goes to Havnor, and once he gets to Havnor the book almost forgets him, he is secondary to a story focused on Tenar and the king Lebannen. The bits I like most are about Lebannen and the princess from Hur-at-Hur, where the book seems to warm up a little. It ends on Roke with uncomfortable redefinitions of death and dragons.

Ged doesn’t feel like himself. Tenar feels as she did in Tehanu, which isn’t as she did in The Tombs of Atuan, but I’ll take it. I was interested in Alder, but I felt the narrative wasn’t.

The whole thing feels tentative and questioning as if the cloud-capped towers could melt away to air at any moment. The worst thing about this second trilogy is that they do reflect back on the first three, I can no longer read the early books without the shadows of the later ones falling back onto them. I’m so glad Le Guin has gone on to make new worlds, ones where she can be confident again.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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