TALES FROM EARTHSEA

FICTION BY URSULA K. LE GUIN

Harcourt, 2001
ISBN: 0-15-100561-3
Tales From Earthsea, a collection of five short stories by one of the world's most respected authors of science fiction and fantasy, marks a somewhat unexpected revisiting of a compelling world. The first three Earthsea books, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore, were published in the 1960's and 70's, and were one of the finest fantasy trilogies of the twentieth century. In 1990, Ms. Le Guin released Tehanu, a moving but not entirely successful return to Earthsea. It was also subtitled "The Last Book of Earthsea." However, most admirers of the series will be glad of this new addition, which continues the somewhat altered worldview introduced in Tehanu, while blending it with the stark beauty and archetypal undertones of the original books. Ms. Le Guin will release yet another Earthsea novel, The Other Wind, later this year.
         Earthsea is an immense archipelago of small and large islands, with most of the trappings of standard fantasy: magic, lonely towers, kings, wizards, and dragons. However, the difference in Ms. Le Guin's writing is in her avoidance of the usual cheap thrills and quick fixes common to fantasy, the elegance of her style, and the universal truths that she illuminates. Her particular emphasis is on language and identity. In Earthsea, a word spoken or unspoken can disturb the balance of the world or restore it. Each intelligent being, including humans and dragons, has a true name. Humans have one or more usenames during their life, but their true name, given to them at the end of childhood and seldom or never revealed to others, is the key to their identity and gives others power over them when it is known. Ms. Le Guin is one of only a few authors who have created a convincing and fully developed alternate world. She may be the only author to do it with as much success, or nearly, as J.R.R. Tolkien.
         Tales From Earthsea seems to be Ms. Le Guin's way of exploring corners of Earthsea to which she had not previously given much attention, and of explaining the genesis of some of the most important concepts in her novels. In the foreword, she says: "The way one does research into nonexistent history is to tell the story and find out what happened …You look at what happens and try to see why it happens, you listen to what the people there tell you and watch what they do, you think about it seriously, and you try to tell it honestly so that the story will have weight and make sense." As far as these objectives go, Ms. Le Guin is more successful in Tales From Earthsea than in Tehanu, which often seemed strained in its attempt to offer a more feminist perspective on Earthsea and its engagement with the ills of modern society. Tehanu's greatest failing as a fantasy novel, all in all, may have been that most of the story felt like its setting was of little importance. In Tales From Earthsea, at least four out of five stories unmistakably belong in the Archipelago, though the stories still have universal elements that give them wide appeal.
         "The Finder," the novella which opens the book, is an extraordinary work that ranks with Ms. Le Guin's very best writing about Earthsea. It is about the founding of the school of magic on the island of Roke, the "Isle of the Wise," and the spiritual center of Earthsea for hundreds of years. It is the story of a young man, Medra, who possesses a gift for magic at a time in the Archipelago's history when such a gift was deeply mistrusted and feared. After experiencing great injustice when still young, he is told of a place "where the rule of justice is kept as it was under the Kings"–the time of the kings being Earthsea's Golden Age. He travels there and learns how he can help to alter the dark course that his world is taking. With its images of underground journeys and Roke's Immanent Grove, which extends "as far as the mind goes," "The Finder" seems to be partly about the power of archetypes. It includes moments of great beauty, as in Medra's dream of "long mountainsides veiled by rain, and the light shining through the rain … clouds passing over the shores of islands, and a high, round, green hill that stood in mist and sunlight at the end of the sea." It also shows how women have played a far more important role in the history of Earthsea than was indicated by the original trilogy, but without heavy-handedness. A powerful story with sympathetic characters, "The Finder" is hard to fault.
         "Darkrose and Diamond" is a story of young love and the choices that love can force us to make. It is a pleasant story with engaging characters, but it shows that Ms. Le Guin is just as capable of fluffiness as anyone else. It is by far the weakest story in the collection.
         "The Bones of the Earth" is a very localized story, in contrast to the more national flavor of a wide-ranging story like "The Finder." It takes place on Gont, which fans of Earthsea will recognize as a crucially important island in Earthsea's history. Its main character, the elderly wizard Dulse, chooses to make an unacknowledged sacrifice to save his island from catastrophe. It is a moving story, with some subtle touches of humor: "Dulse remembered how he hadn't lost his temper when Silence asked about keeping goats; and the memory gave him a quiet satisfaction, like that of finishing the last bite of a perfectly ripe pear."
         "On the High Marsh" is a story about otherness. It is a variant on the often-told tale of the mysterious stranger who arrives in a remote village, but with many original touches: for instance, the arrival of not just one mysterious stranger, but one at the start of the story and another at the end. The main character, Irioth, who is "mad in patches, mad at moments" because of some past disaster in his life, is one of the most compelling characters in the collection. "On the High Marsh" is also interesting for its inclusion of a very current problem: mad cow disease.
         "Dragonfly" is intended as a link between Tehanu and Ms. Le Guin's upcoming Earthsea novel, and as such it is probably the most important piece in the book. It is the most deliberately feminist tale of the five, telling the story of a young woman who is challenged by a male sorcerer to go to Roke and study at the school of magic–a privilege that at this time in Earthsea history is reserved for men. Through this story, Ms. Le Guin shows that Earthsea's institutions are not infallible institutions, but rather, that they are made up of changeable individuals who are prone to error; presumably, she is also commenting on the institutions of our own world. The depiction of Roke's council of ruling mages, here shown as disunited, impetuous men, is actually more interesting than the forthright young woman who is the story's title character.
         After the stories, Ms. Le Guin includes "A Description of Earthsea," a compendium of facts about Earthsea's culture, traditions, and history. Le Guin offers convincing reasons for seeming anomalies in her world, such as the existence of institutionalized religion in only one area of Earthsea. She also discusses writing and literature, quoting exquisite lines of poetry from some of Earthsea's most important epics. Her history of the Archipelago is fascinating, offering background to many incidents in the books. When this history is compared to the original trilogy, Le Guin occasionally seems to be indulging in a bit of revisionism, but there are seldom any real contradictions.
         Tales From Earthsea is a fine work from an author whose "height of her powers" has continued for several decades now. It bodes well for the next installment in the Earthsea saga. More than the previous Earthsea book, it shows how an author can revisit a beloved world after the passage of time and the changing of certain beliefs and attitudes, while still remaining true to the original vision.