In high school I discovered A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin and fell in love with the entire trilogy, though the first book was my favorite.
But slowly the books kept coming! I had just gotten married when Tehanu was published in 1990: at the time, I didn’t really appreciate it. I was a father of four by the time Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind were published in 2001; I ended up reading aloud A Wizard of Earthsea to one of my sons to launch my re-reading of the series. I missed the publication of two short stories in 2014 (“The Daughter of Odren”) and 2018 (“Firelight”).
Why share these details?
Because the author’s life and experience were changing and shaping the books over this time too. And your knowledge of what Earthsea is may, like mine, have lagged behind what Le Guin finally developed.
The Books of Earthsea (2018) collects for the first time all the short stories, books, and essays into one volume. Earthsea actually started with two short stories, published in 1964: “The Rule of Names” and “The Word of Unbinding.” As Le Guin writes in the book’s introduction, “They are slight; more like a sailor’s chance sighting of a couple of islands than the discovery of a new world.” In 1968, when asked to write a fantasy novel for young adults, Le Guin started with a map: “The first thing I did was sit down and draw a map. I saw and named Earthsea and all its islands. I knew almost nothing about them, but I knew their names. In the name is the magic.”
A Wizard of Earthsea was subversive for 1968. The hero was brown-skinned and the enemies were white-skinned. But it was a masculine fantasy, because that’s what the Le Guin had been raised on herself. And it is masculine despite Le Guin being a pioneer of feminist science fiction with The Left Hand of Darkness. (See her essay “Earthsea Revisioned” for her take on this.)
Tombs of Atuan is about a heroine, but her ability to act is restricted in part by her femininity.
The Farthest Shore is a rather conventional fantasy tale, and in my opinion the weakest of the five novels.
Though, still, like all the Earthsea stories, and unlike much modern fantasy, it does not centralize violence. The Earthsea series may have the lowest on-screen body count of any fantasy series I’ve read. And you can’t say that’s just because it starts as children’s literature: The Hobbit, after all, has a battle with five armies. “‘Of course’ a heroic fantasy is good guys fighting bad guys, the War of Good Against Evil,” Le Guin writes in the new Afterword to A Wizard of Earthsea. “But there are no wars in Earthsea. No soldiers, no armies, no battles. None of the militarism that came from the Arthurian saga and other sources and that by now, under the influence of fantasy war games, has become almost obligatory.”
Le Guin started Tehanu in 1972. “I wrote the first three books in five years: ’68, ’70, ’72. I was on a roll. None of them was closely plotted or planned before writing; in each of them much of the story came to me as I followed what I wrote where it inevitably led. I started confidently on the fourth book.”
She ended up setting it aside for 18 years.
The fourth book was about a widow, but she couldn’t figure out how to continue the tale. It would sit for 18 years before she knew how to approach it. At one point she joking titled the resumed draft Better Late than Never. Re-reading Tehanu now, in my fifties, I appreciate it in ways that were beyond me when I was in my twenties. The book may be young-adult literature but probably is not: “I had abandoned any attempt to suit my vision of Earthsea to a publisher’s category or a critic’s prejudice.”
And there Earthsea rested for 10 years. After all, Le Guin had subtitled it “The Last Book of Earthsea.”
Le Guin’s approach to world-building was very different to Tolkien’s. Much more improvisational. She wrote, “The way one does research into nonexistent history is to tell the story and find out what happened.” When Le Guin was asked to write a short story set in Earthsea, she ended up writing five short stories plus a descriptive essay. “The fifth book has been treated as marginal, but it’s integral. The…story ‘Dragonfly’ is a key part of the whole story of Ged and Tenar. It is the link between Tehanu and The Other Wind. It foreshadows the material of that book.” (Don’t make my mistake of reading this book last.)
Soon after writing “Dragonfly,” she started The Other Wind, writing that the muse came to her like a dragon, and she followed. Finally, the overall series ends with the short story “Firelight.”
The Earthsea series is unique and rewards re-reading. Whether you are new to the Archipelago or a seasoned sailor there, I encourage you to read The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition.
Maps and drawings are copyrighted to the Ursula K. Le Guin Literary Trust and are made available under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs license (CC BY-NC-ND). Earthsea map in the Watershed lab at PNCA. Photo by Celeste Noche, courtesy Willamette University.