Copyright 2014 by Paula S. Jordan
When Ursula Le Guin revisited Earthsea some years after her completion of Tehanu, as she explains in her Foreword to Tales from Earthsea:
A mere glimpse at the place told me that things had been happening while I wasn’t looking. It was high time to go back find out what was going on now … [and also about] … things that had happened back then, before Ged and Tenar were born. A good deal about Earthsea, about wizards, about Roke Island, about dragons, had begun to puzzle me ….
And so, as she put it, she went back, “to spend some time in the Archives of the Archipelago.” The five luminous stories that resulted shed a few bright rays on the people and the forces that unmade and remade and reoriented the world of Earthsea during the 300 years before Ged. They are told in that quiet Le Guin voice that contains the raging of the storm. The calm that is the storm
“The Finder,” recounts the time after “Elfarran and Morred perished and the Isle of Soléa sank beneath the sea,” after further depredations from warlords and self-serving mages and wild dragons out of the west, after Erreth-Akbe’s Ring of Runes was broken. In that dark time the safest and most reliable magic rested with the “Women of the Hand,” long forgotten in Ged’s time, and with a Finder named Otter, a man who, with the women of the heavily-warded enclave on Roke, began to build the future.
“The Bones of the Earth” gives insight into the selfless strength and generosity of the true mage, and of the sorcerers who would teach the sorcerer who would teach Ged.
“Darkrose and Diamond” tells of the love between two gifted people and the trials they face in times when such gifts were both coveted and suspect.
“On the High Marsh,” from the “brief but eventful six years” when Ged was Archmage of Earthsea, tells the story of a child whose great powers were so harshly misunderstood and repressed that even on Roke he could not be mended, and of the one who went alone and on foot to find him in yet another place of ignorance to which he had run.
The final story, “Dragonfly,” occurring a few years after the end of Tehanu, introduces a powerful new character and provides a bridge, “a dragon bridge” as Le Guin says, between that book and the next one, the masterful novel The Other Wind.
Tales concludes with a 23-page “Description of Earthsea,” filled with details and explanations for much of the world of Le Guin’s creation. Close readers of her stories will revel in this. And for writers aspiring to Le Guin-quality fantasy, there are riches to be found in the Foreword: about “the way one does research into nonexistent history,” and the importance of stories that “have weight and make sense.” You’ll want to read it. Over and over again.
The Other Wind reaches back, nearly to the dawn of history, to identify and address the greatest wrong ever done by the mages of Earthsea. This ancient miscalculation, a colossal failure of magic, comes to light through the heartbreak of a sorcerer named Alder, whose young wife calls to him from across the low wall between the living world and the realm the dead. What can be done to mend this vast error and make right the harm it has caused? And who has the power for the task? Tenar, Tehanu, the young king Arren, the former Archmage Ged, and Irian, a dragon who can take the shape of a woman, gather in the Immanent Grove on Roke, to try.
It was in reading the Tales From Earthsea this past week that I felt the whole of this long, patient story wash over me, the slow gathering together of whose parts Le Guin has pursued over these thirty-one years. It is a simple story, seen whole: a world of sometimes rough, sometimes marvelous beauty, populated by a people of rich imagination and great but often flawed intention, who insist on the superiority of their own limited vision over the deep-rooted wisdom and power of the natural world around them.
So, is there more of Earthsea’s story yet to come?
Le Guin tells us in the new Afterword provided in the 2012 edition of The Other Wind that, so far as she knows, “the story that [she] had to tell ends here.” And yet, she says, she knows what Tehanu will do, and where Ged will go now.
For this series of posts there is definitely more: the science fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin. The Dispossessed, which many consider her masterwork, and my favorite, The Left Hand of Darkness, and Always Coming Home. And more? We shall see.