Tue
Nov 1 2011 5:00pm
“What Everyone Knows is True Turns Out to be What Some People Used to Think”: Ursula Le Guin’s Tales from Earthsea

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.

Tales from Earthsea (2001) is a collection of stories set in Earthsea, written between Tehanu (1990) and The Other Wind (2002), and clearly meant as a bridge between those two novels. Le Guin says in the introduction that “a great deal about Earthsea, about wizards, about Roke Island, about dragons had begun to puzzle me.” These stories are uncertain, questioning, puzzled stories, as different from the certainty of the first Earthsea trilogy as you could find. Le Guin is questioning the things she took for granted, and finding tentative answers, answers that go against the grain of story. This was a brave thing to do, but not always a successful one. These stories are beautifully written and contain flashes of wonder, but I neither really like them nor really believe in them. The first three books are rock solid and makes a world that feels like a real place. These stories are set somewhere wavering. Even as I get caught up in them I am thrown out of them.

“Finder” is about the founding of Roke. I quite like the beginning of it, Medra’s talent for finding and how he is enslaved and escaped, but once it gets to Roke it feels forced and I can’t believe it. Also, and this is a small thing, I really liked not seeing Havnor. Havnor’s the central and most important island, and we never went there. There’s a moment in A Wizard of Earthsea when people on some distant island ask Ged about Havnor because it’s the only place in the archepelago they’ve heard of, and he’s never been there and he has to talk about a white city he’s never seen. I liked not seeing it. It was part of the way the world was. So I was disappointed to see it, not just disappointed to see it full of pirates and evil wizards, but to see it at all.

“Darkrose and Diamond” is a love story that depends on the wizardly celibacy that was unexamined in the original trilogy and revealed in Tehanu. It’s not a bad story, but it doesn’t need to be Earthsea.

“On the High Marsh" is the best story in the book — a broken mage comes to a remote village to cure a murrain among the cows. Ged feels like himself and all the characters and the world feel solid.

“Dragonfly” is the direct bridge between Tehanu and The Other Wind and I cannot like it. I don’t like Irian, so passive. If a girl was going to go to Roke and ask to be let in, why did it have to be her? And I don’t believe she’s a dragon — it’s too easy and insufficiently grounded. I’d question why Thorion has to be a bad guy too. The only bit of this that feels authentic to me is the Master Namer being distracted by etymology.

Again — Le Guin at her weakest is always beautifully written and thought provoking, and a million times better than I’ll ever be. But I cannot like this book, and I have even more problems with The Other Wind.


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.

6 comments
Sovay
1. Sovay
"On the High Marsh" is my favorite of the short stories and close to my favorite story of Earthsea; I have arguments with "Dragonfly," but I like the relationship between Irian and Azver. I would have loved a novel about them, but The Other Wind wasn't it.
Sovay
2. etv13
I'm not going to be able to say this clearly, but (a friend of mine told me her therapist told her to ignore everything that comes before the "but" and maybe that's good advice) the post-trilogy Earthsea stories remind me in some ways of learning US history in its various iterations in elementary school and high school and college and then again in adulthood. You get the "George Washington and the Cherry Tree" and the Gettysburg Address first, and then later, if you're lucky, you get an inkling of the stories of the slaves and the women and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and the other complexities and complications. And in the end, you come away thinking George Washington was a really admirable guy in some ways (stepping away from the Continental Army and the chance at being, in essence, Julius Caesar, or Cromwell) but deeply compromised by the fact that he owned slaves all through his life. So on the whole, while I liked the version of Earthsea I got from the original trilogy when I was a kid, I also appreciate the revisionist Earthsea of Tales of Earthsea and The Other Wind. Though I have to admit, I've read and reread the original trilogy, but have read the other three only the one time.
Sovay
3. etv13
I'm not going to be able to say this clearly, but (a friend of mine told me her therapist told her to ignore everything that comes before the "but" and maybe that's good advice) the post-trilogy Earthsea stories remind me in some ways of learning US history in its various iterations in elementary school and high school and college and then again in adulthood. You get the "George Washington and the Cherry Tree" and the Gettysburg Address first, and then later, if you're lucky, you get an inkling of the stories of the slaves and the women and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and the other complexities and complications. And in the end, you come away thinking George Washington was a really admirable guy in some ways (stepping away from the Continental Army and the chance at being, in essence, Julius Caesar, or Cromwell) but deeply compromised by the fact that he owned slaves all through his life. So on the whole, while I liked the version of Earthsea I got from the original trilogy when I was a kid, I also appreciate the revisionist Earthsea of Tales of Earthsea and The Other Wind. Though I have to admit, I've read and reread the original trilogy, but have read the other three only the one time.
Sovay
4. etv13
I'm not going to be able to say this clearly, but (a friend of mine told me her therapist told her to ignore everything that comes before the "but" and maybe that's good advice) the post-trilogy Earthsea stories remind me in some ways of learning US history in its various iterations in elementary school and high school and college and then again in adulthood. You get the "George Washington and the Cherry Tree" and the Gettysburg Address first, and then later, if you're lucky, you get an inkling of the stories of the slaves and the women and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and the other complexities and complications. And in the end, you come away thinking George Washington was a really admirable guy in some ways (stepping away from the Continental Army and the chance at being, in essence, Julius Caesar, or Cromwell) but deeply compromised by the fact that he owned slaves all through his life. So on the whole, while I liked the version of Earthsea I got from the original trilogy when I was a kid, I also appreciate the revisionist Earthsea of Tales of Earthsea and The Other Wind. Though I have to admit, I've read and reread the original trilogy, but have read the other three only the one time.
Sovay
5. limasbravo
I'm frustrated when it comes to Ursula K. LeGuin's works; I really, really, really love her plot ideas but when I try reading her books I end up disliking them. The Left Hand of Darkness was enjoyable, but jumped around too much. The Dispossesed was dull and so was Wizard of Earthsea.

Maybe I just haven't read enough of her, maybe Tales from Earthsea would be good for me since they're a collection of stories, instead of one work?
Sovay
6. andr01d
etv13: You hit the nail on the head! (or the ax on the tree as the case may be.)

That disillusioning loss-of-innocence feeling between the new & old Earthsea trilogies is perfectly alluded to in your example of learning history as a child in school, then as an adult in the 'real world'.

But unlike history and our home countries, we've no need to tear away the veil for a fantasy story. I like 'em nice and unspoilt!

I'm staying far far away from Tales of Earthsea and The Other Wind, to preserve both my innocence, and my sanity.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment