The Earthsea Series by Ursula K. Le Guin

Werthead

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#1
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Book 1: A Wizard of Earthsea

When Karg raiders attack the island of Gont, the inhabitants of a small village are saved by a young boy who has discovered that he has magical powers. A sorcerer directs him to the island of Roke to there learn the ways of wizardry and controlling his abilities. Ged, as he becomes known, shows great promise but his pride is his downfall: an arrogant display of magical power goes awry, and unleashes a dark evil upon the world which only Ged can defeat.

Originally published in 1968, Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea has become an acknowledged classic and required reading in the fantasy canon. Fantasy was in a far more nascent state in the 1960s than now, with the genre divided between more literary works (such as Gormenghast) and action-driven swords and sorcery adventures, such as the Conan tales by Robert E. Howard. However, the immense success of The Lord of the Rings had driven publishers to seek out or even commission more work in the genre. Le Guin agreed to write a story about a wizard, inspired by the idea of what Merlin was like when he was a child. For a setting Le Guin was struck by Earthsea, a vast archipelago of hundreds of islands she'd created for a couple of short stories in 1964, and began work on a story that expanded the detail of the setting considerably.

She also tremendously popularised the "wizarding school" idea later used to blockbuster effect by J.K. Rowling. Le Guin didn't create the trope, which was first deployed by T.H. White in The Sword in the Stone (1939) and then by Theodore Cogswell in "The Wall Around the World" (1953), Robert Sheckley in "The Accountant" (1954) and Eleanor Estes in The Witch Family (1960), but she certainly ran with it.

A Wizard of Earthsea is still, however, a work that wrong-foots the audience. Most such fantasy tales feature the hero encountering an external threat (a monster, a dragon, an enemy wizard, a dark lord) and working to overcome it with their wits, skills and the help of friends they meet upon the way. This book doesn't do that: instead, Ged's primary opponent is himself, his own hubris, arrogance and the dark shadow of his own soul. His enemy is his internal fears and weaknesses, given form. The result is a profoundly introspective book about a character having to find himself and grow up, but where the metaphor becomes literal.

It's an audacious and, I suspect, slightly bemusing idea for younger children, but it certainly adds a tremendous amount of depth to the character of Ged, helping him avoid being a traditional "chosen one" hero figure. Before he can do any heroics in the future, he has to first come to terms with himself.

Which isn't to say that Le Guin skimps on the other elements required for a classic fantasy. The worldbuilding is excellent and atmospheric, the small secondary cast of characters is well-drawn, and for such a short book there's quite a few memorable set-pieces, running from Ged defeating the Karg raiders with his wits, to his mage-duel with Jasper which goes horribly wrong to his epic confrontation with the Dragon of Pendor. The book also touches on the value of friendship and the true nature of a hero.

A Wizard of Earthsea (*****) is fifty years old this year, but with its focus on internal conflict and its sophisticated worldbuilding, feels fresher and more vibrant than ever. It works well as both a stand-alone novel and as the opening novel of the six-book Earthsea sequence. It is available now in the UK and USA as part of The Books of Earthsea omnibus edition.
 

farntfar

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#3
It's presumably a Sparrowhawk HB.

Ged, as he becomes known
He "becomes known" as Sparrowhawk, not Ged surely, which was his true name and therefore kept fairly secret.
 
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Werthead

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#6
Book 2: The Tombs of Atuan

Tenar is the high priestess of the Nameless Ones. She serves at the Tombs of Atuan, deep within the Kargish Empire, a place of rote and ritual. Despite the importance of her role she feels lonely and listless...until the day a wizard comes to her island.

The Tombs of Atuan (originally published in 1971) is the second novel in Ursula K. Le Guin's classic Earthsea sequence of novels, set in an enormous archipelago. It is not a direct sequel to A Wizard of Earthsea, the preceding novel, and in fact feels like a companion book more than a successor. The book focuses almost exclusively on the new character of Tenar, with the book's connection to A Wizard of Earthsea not becoming clearer until later on.

Tenar is an interesting character and it's a surprise to learn that she is Le Guin's first major female protagonist. Tenar is painted in Le Guin's traditional depth, as we get to know this young woman who combines curiosity, ruthlessness, loneliness and leadership skills. The book also inverts its presentation of Ged from the earlier novel. A Wizard of Earthsea was, for all of its travelling and epic journeys and mighty set-pieces, a deeply internal story of a boy finding out who he really is and making peace with himself. The Tombs of Atuan, being told entirely from Tenar's POV, instead allows us to meet and see Ged as strangers see him, wholly externally with only hints at what's going on under the surface. Thus our understanding of the main character of the series is expanded.

Le Guin's prose is powerful and evocative, and it's interesting in this novel that she flips the setting and feel of the earlier book on its head. A Wizard of Earthsea took place on land and sea under the sky, with the wind blowing in the characters' faces and freedom all around them, even as they were forced into a confrontation with a dark force they didn't understand. The Tombs of Atuan takes place almost entirely underground, our characters sometimes literally stifled and near-entombed under the earth, in claustrophobic surroundings. Le Guin nails this oppressive, stifled atmosphere and the elation the characters experience when they finally escape (not a spoiler, hopefully, since this is Book 2 of a six-book series).

There are some weaknesses to the novel. This is a short book, but even so, it does feel like an extended single episode rather than a novel-length narrative. Indeed, the book started as a short story for a magazine and had to be expanded to a longer word count for commercial reasons. It feels like maybe this should have been the opening section of a longer novel exploring more of Tenar's character (and it feels like her development is cut off just as it was starting to get interesting, and won't be revisited until the fourth book of the series) or remained as a short story. As it stands, the story feels a bit too slight and claustrophobic to sustain a full novel, despite the strengths of the writing and characterisation.

The Tombs of Atuan (****) is a slight story and perhaps a tad underwhelming compared to A Wizard of Earthsea, but it remains an ambitious and fascinating novel. Le Guin's writing power and her mastery of character is on full display. It is available now in the UK and USA as part of The Books of Earthsea omnibus edition.
 

HareBrain

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#7
The Tombs of Atuan is my favourite of the original trilogy. It absolutely nails that feeling of an ancient chthonic religion that has almost been forgotten and is hanging on by a few shreds of ritual, but which, when challenged by something fresh and new, still shows itself to have a dark, bitter power. (That might, to be fair, be a feeling unique to this book.) I think it's the book in this series that most shows le Guin's anthropological knowledge.
 

CTRandall

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#8
I second the Great Rabbit's comments. Out of the series, The Tombs of Atuan is the one that stands clearest in my mind.

On a different note, after recently reading Madeline Miller's Circe, it occurred to me that I couldn't imagine that book without The Wizard of Earthsea as a predecessor. Despite all of Circe's travails, Miller defines her fundamental struggle as internal and psychological. It is Circe's attempt to escape herself (or at least a part of herself). Not to take away from Miller's storytelling--which is inspired--but echoes of Earthsea ring through much of the book. I found the connection quite pleasing and it would be interesting to know if Miller is a fan of Le Guin.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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#9
The Tombs of Atuan is my favourite of the original trilogy. It absolutely nails that feeling of an ancient chthonic religion that has almost been forgotten and is hanging on by a few shreds of ritual, but which, when challenged by something fresh and new, still shows itself to have a dark, bitter power. (That might, to be fair, be a feeling unique to this book.) I think it's the book in this series that most shows le Guin's anthropological knowledge.
I agree!

It's always been my favorite, too. But my favorite of all the Earthesea books, not just the original trilogy.
 

HareBrain

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#10
But my favorite of all the Earthesea books, not just the original trilogy.
I wouldn't like to firmly decide between it and Tehanu. I'd need another read of both first. But on reflection, it's certainly the one that made the deepest impression. I'll go further and say it perhaps made the deepest on me of any book I first read as an adult, similar to reading The Dark is Rising or The Grey King as a child.

(The Other Wind, sadly, I was very disappointed by. Another thread recently mentioned that le Guin was reluctant to return to Earthsea, and I think it shows.)
 

Hugh

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#11
"The Tombs of Atuan". I can see it'll be good to re-read this before long. The other three of those first four are all part of my inner landscape (whatever that means). They connected with me in some helpful way that gave meaning/ expression to the place I was in. It's not that Atuan was not a good story, it's just that there was not that inner connection. I'll give it another try in a while.
And yes "The Other Wind" disappointing. I thought at the time that it was as if she was trying to re-balance the Earthsea World in line with her evolving understanding of Taoism and patriarchy.
 

farntfar

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#12
Another vote for the Tombs of Atuan as the best book in the series.

And I certainly preferred Tehanu to The Other Wind, which seemed like the final episode of a TV series often is: trying too hard to tie up all the loose ends.

Tales from Earthsea had already tied them up really, I felt.
 

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