After my longest Queanbeyan review hiatus so far, the time has finally come again. I have finished another novel. This time, I jumped into Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin.
I always like to mention why I picked a book. There were a few reasons for this one. The first was that I wanted to read a fantasy, since I haven’t in years. The second was that nearly every book we have reviewed so far was written by a man, and the third was that I received this book for Christmas in 2015, four years ago, and still not read it, and the fourth, and most important, was that I have heard it is very good.
It is indeed very good. Fantasy offers something really special in fiction. With the rise of epics like A Song of Ice and Fire and The Dresden Files, among others, it seems modern fantasy has a growing interest in characters, plots, and great worldbuilding. Enormous casts of characters take on world-wide cataclysmic events, and some amazing stories ensue.
Don’t get me wrong here, I love epic sagas, and I love when a writer can make ambitious projects like that work, but the aspects of Earthsea that I loved were a touch more humble.
Earthsea is a little different. It does take the reader to literally the ends of the world, to places outside of time, and pits its characters against existential threats of good and evil. Somehow though, it actually does this without being melodramatic.
Further, by focusing on developing a smaller cast of characters extensively, Le Guin’s characters achieve a connection with the reader that seems to outshine those achieved (in my opinion of course) by the saga writers of modern fantasy.
The cast interacts much more intimately and personally, often chapter after chapter is dedicated to the development of a single relationship, allowing later events to be built on the wealth of experience the reader has with the characters and their feelings.
To me, this intimate style is the crux of what made Earthsea such a gorgeous read, but it was not the only thing I liked about it.
If I was to say that the novel had a single theme, or at least my favourite, that theme would be the struggle of good and evil. Now you may think “well no shit Patrick, this is a fantasy”, and sure, every hero’s story must have its antagonist, but what makes Earthsea great is that across the antagonists of the various stories within, there is the overwhelming feeling of evil, and that evil is expressed in a way fundamentally in line with how I personally see evil.
Le Guin works with the simple things, tackling classic sins and virtues with style and grace, drawing the reader in all the way.
Pride, in the form of an evil Ged accidentally wreaks on the world playing with magic, must be overcome in the first story.
Then, in the depths of the Tombs of Atuan, Ged and Tenar struggle against the heresies of the ‘Old Powers’ of the Kargish lands, whose fundamental beliefs are those of sacrifice, a ‘tooth for a tooth’, and their wrath is overcome when the heroes’ bond and reject them.
In the third story, a young boy is asked to follow the archmage on a trip to the end of the earth, and it every day tests his faith. But when he takes the final step, having faith, choosing to reject nihilism, pays off.
In the last, it is love for one another, and exercising free will, that wins out over greed and abuse.
Perhaps it was the armchair Catholic theologian coming out in me when I read Earthsea in this way but reading an author whose characters and interactions so lucidly explore good and evil, all while the prose and world-building kept me immersed, was a deeply rewarding experience.
On page 361 in the Farthest Shore, the third story of the novel, the archmage Ged says to the young Prince Arren, “Do you see, Arren, how an act is not, as young men think, like a rock that one picks up and throws, and that’s the end of it. When that rock is lifted the earth is lighter, the hand that bears it heavier. When it is thrown the circuits of the stars respond, and where it strikes or falls, the universe is changed.”
He goes on to talk about how whenever we act, we must act in a way that maintains the balance of good and evil, how every act brings us either to darkness or to light. This distinct rejection of nihilism, the idea that our actions matter, pervades the book, and it gave the struggle of the characters a heart I did not expect to see.
There are many examples of this kind of reflection in the novel, which all lead to its final conclusion, another strikingly Christian viewpoint: free will.
Earthsea argues that we are what we make of ourselves. Surrounded by magic, gods, dragons, and mad coincidence, it would be simple enough for the characters to believe in destiny, to resign themselves as ‘unlucky’, or ‘cursed’. Though they are tempted to give up, to decide they can’t make a difference, they don’t, because they know that isn’t true.
Without spoiling the end, the final act of the novel is one of emancipation. The characters decide what they want to do next. Despite anything they have lost or been through, they unshackle themselves from shame. They have autonomy, they have choice, and the world is whatever they make of it.
Complimenting this theme, relationships in the novel are its narrative heart. There are loving, abusive, fractured, distant, intimate, and difficult relationships all throughout the stories of Earthsea, and in their own right, the stories of these relationships are wonderful. Le Guin writes them into her world with incredible skill, linking them to the events of the novel. The harrowing interpersonal aspects of the fourth story in particular, Tehanu, will remain with me for a while.
What I love is that Le Guin does not shy away from judging the actors in these relationships as protagonists and antagonists, or even as good and evil. In fact, I have rarely seen so clear a dichotomy between intended villains and intended heroes executed so clearly and so wonderfully.
Honestly, this is utterly realistic. After all, in life, there is so often a victim and a perpetrator, and often fairly and clearly so. By engaging with that kind of relationship, and not hiding from its ugliest aspects, Le Guin explores her characters in a way that led me to truly know them.
So, if ever you want to dip your toes into a world that is utterly fanatistical, but explore the lives of the people within whose struggles are so strikingly real, Earthsea is surely for you. I’m certain you won’t forget it.
My final praise of Earthsea is that in the profoundly derivative, yet still wonderful, world of post-Tolkien fantasy, Le Guin wrote something that simply drips with orginality. A thing much easier said than done.
Last, and as always, I leave you with a favourite moment.
Lost on a boat in the middle of the ocean, the young Prince Arren is arguing with the archmage Ged who brought him there. Seemingly faced with death, Prince Arren is arguing that there is no force of evil no anti-King, as they are calling it, or of anything really in the world. He says simply that he’s never seen him. Defeated, he is saying nothing matters. He asks, “A king has servants, messengers, soldiers, lieutentants. He governs through his servants. Where the servants of this – Anti-King?”
What follows is a wonderful reflection on the human conscience.
Ged snaps back at him “In our minds lad, In our minds! The traitor, the self, the self that cries I want to live, I want to live! Let the world rot so long as I can live! That little traitor soul in us, in the dark, like a spider in a box. He talks to all of us. But only some of us understand him, can recognize his voice. Heroes, ones who seek to be themselves. They listen. To be oneself is a rare thing, and a great one. To be oneself forever, is that not greater still?”
The book can be bought here: