The balance has not yet been set right. After the Ring of Erreth-Akbe was once again made whole and the prophecy of a king placed on the throne came to pass it was assumed the world would right itself because of this change. Yet Lebannen has been king for half his life and yet the change isn't for the better. Lebannen has called for Tenar and Tehanu to come to give him counsel so Ged is alone on Gont when Alder arrives. Alder is a village sorcerer from Way who specializes in mending. He has been having horrible nightmares since his wife Lily died. He is on the other side of the wall from the dry land, the land of the dead. His wife is there on the other side calling to him. They even embraced across the wall and when Alder awoke he was scarred where his wife had touched him. The next night more dead were at the wall in his dreams including his mentor. Each night he goes to that wall and he sees the dead trying to break through, trying to destroy the barrier. At his wits end he went to the wizards on Roke who then sent him to Ged, who has been to that dry land. Ged listens to Alder's story and sends him on his way to his wife, Tenar, with a kitten and two questions.
Once at the seat of the king in Havnor Alder is but one problem among many sticky political situations, from an unwanted bride from the Kargs to rumors of dragons attacking the western islands. Soon the dragons attack Havnor and Tehanu helps to make a temporary peace. But Alder isn't shunted aside, far from it, Lebannen and his counselors listen closely to him and soon realize that his problem, the dragons, everything might be connected. A delegation is assembled representing all parties involved, from dragons to wizards to man, and they talk, and they listen, and they realize that the cycle of death has been somehow interrupted by the wizards building that wall in the dry land causing unrest. This unrest is becoming dangerous, especially to Alder who can hear the call of the dead even in his waking hours now, and the delegation decides decisive action must be taken. They set forth to Roke, the center of the world. They know not what they will do there or how they will accomplish what needs to be done but with all of them working together they must find a solution otherwise all Earthsea will perish.
The main thing I have always admired about Le Guin's Earthsea cycle is that there was an originality to it. Yes, there were references, pastiches of other series that came before, and in Lebannen's journey more than a nod to The Once and Future King. But while there were these building blocks, this DNA, what Le Guin created was something entirely new out of all that had come before. Until now. And I really am left a little at a loss for words. What she wrote over many decades was a new and unique story that ended much like every other fantasy series and in doing so fails the reader. It's just so derivative, and mainly it's derivative or Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings series. I mean, there is no way around the fact that Lebannen basically assembles the Council of Elrond. Instead of men, hobbits, dwarves, elves, and wizards, we have men (two different races), wizards (two different methods of training), sorcerers, and dragons. Dragons and Kargs and Kings oh my! Oh, and remember there's a ring. And they have there meeting in a secret grove and make decisions that will effect all of Middle-Earth, oops, I meant Earthsea. And in the end the dragons, the most mystical of all the beings, head into the west... so yeah. Not. Original.
Yet this lackluster finish doesn't discount the whole cycle, even Tolkien wasn't perfect, and Peter Jackson is even more fallible with those horrid Hobbit movies. Looking at the cycle as a whole I came to a very interesting realization. I looked at my favorite books, The Tombs of Atuan and Tehanu, and the stories that most affected me in Tales from Earthsea, and they all had something in common. The writing I have loved the best is when Le Guin has her story set in a specific location. When she has her characters traveling hither and yon I don't feel the connection to them as I do when they are rooted. Le Guin is able to create such a deep connection to place in sustained narratives that when her stories aren't given this sense of place they flounder. The Tombs in The Tombs of Atuan become their own character, as does Re Albi in Tehanu. In fact when Alder visited Ged in Re Albi at the start of this book I was given momentary hope. Here I was at home. Here I was in Ogion's cabin which was made for his master. This place had become a part of me. I wanted to stay there, I wanted to abide. But perhaps that's just me. One of my friends jokes that I'm the only person she knows who wouldn't jump at the chance to travel with The Doctor because I love being home. I love my roots.
Where The Other Wind also stands out is how they figure out what is going on through the different lore. I love folklore and how it evolves over time and how it informs our cultural identity. All the different cultures had a similar take on a similar tale, from Pelnish lore to Kargish, all the way to the dragons, they all contain a grain of truth. By comparing and contrasting and combining they are able to find the essential truth, that which will help them. The Other Wind is basically an ode to comparative literature analysis. Hearing these stories and trying to work out the truth before it's revealed is a wonderful little puzzle. But as with many puzzles if not solved in a timely manner they outstay their welcome. After awhile the stories become repetitive and not just by their similarities but by the fact the characters are actually repeating themselves to work out how best to handle their situation. So while problem solving through storytelling really appeals to me I reached a point where I just wanted the problem solved. Le Guin belabored the point in what is ironically a very slim volume.
But what is once again a problem is the ending. I thought that Tales from Earthsea had worked out some of Le Guin's issues with endings, but if this book is any judge it just made it worse and took a bit of the spark with it. So the question I have is once the Council of Elrond has gotten to Roke and the Immanent Grove and passed over to the dry land how does breaking down the wall actually help? The wizards built the wall eons ago to capture immortality by creating nirvana. But once the wall was up the wind stopped blowing across the land that used to belong to the dragons and all died there and the dead were trapped, not in heaven but in a hell of their own making. So yes, there's no wall now, the trapped souls can escape, but the wall wasn't built consciously, or at least that's how Le Guin makes it seem. The wall was built because man dared use the language of the making and in giving people their true names they forced them into this dry eternity. So by still giving people their true names the wall will just be rebuilt. Therefore what actually needed to happen is that magic needed to be fully removed from the equation. But this doesn't happen. Le Guin always takes her stories right up to the end and then seems to lose interest and can't be bothered to see it through to it's logical conclusion by tying up the lose ends.
In fact she doesn't just illogically stop the imbalance, because seriously, I don't think it will work, she starts laying on all this new information in the final pages. So while this is supposedly the end she's laid so much new road down that it seems like the jumping off point for another six books. Ignoring the whole problematic continued existence of magic, we learn that dragons can supposedly go between worlds? WTF!?! Shouldn't we have known this before beyond Ged's cryptic question asking if dragons can go over the wall. So dragons just go here there and everywhere? So why exactly didn't they just take down the wall in the first place? Dragons are beings of magic and time and time again they are shown to be pretty equal to magicians and yet they let that wall stand? Yeah, not likely. But what really annoyed me is that I felt Tehanu's story was just forgotten. At the end of the forth book I needed to know her story but instead Le Guin gave it to Irian in "Dragonfly" in Tales from Earthsea. Irian took Tehanu's thunder! It's just, gaw. It's annoying. So much wonderful setup and so much disappointment in the follow through. Part of me wants more books so that the wrongs can be righted. But the other part of me just wants the journey over because I have a feeling that more questions would be raised than answered if another book existed. ...more
Magic has always been at the center of the epic stories of Earthsea. It is the heart of the great archipelago just as much as the Immanent Grove on Roke is. But magic takes many forms and also takes a toll. From the days when magic wasn't institutionalized and evil wizards could take advantage of others, leading to the safe haven of Roke and magic being taught by men and women to those with a pure heart and ability to having to face the ultimate choice between one's ability for magic and one's true heart's desire, stories can be grand in scale or seemingly small, like the love between two people. And love takes many forms, between man and woman and between master and apprentice. The great mage Ogion's master, his teacher, made the greatest sacrifice to save Gont and yet, years late, all people remember is Ogion's heroism. Yet surely all Ogion remembers is that he didn't get to say goodbye. But Ogion left Roke, went to Gont to complete his training, while there were those on Roke whose true love was power. Power that can break a human completely. Power that is so dangerous that it is best to forget, it is best to choose a new path, a new destiny. But there are some destinies that can never be avoided. The latent power within where you know you weren't destined for this world, you were destined to fly. But your sex, your station, precludes you. So what's wrong with breaking a few rules if the magic inside you is leading you to who you're meant to be? It all depends on your story.
What's interesting about Tales from Earthsea is that the whole book feels like a writing experiment, which Le Guin herself basically confirms in her foreword and afterword. These tales being not much more than trial and error as to how best to handle the conclusion of the Earthsea cycle and come to grips with the narrative arc. What this means is that they vary in quality from transcendent tales of Ogion saving Gont to rather ponderous tales of choosing your journey through life, be it music or magic. I do find it interesting though that she is rather blunt in her bookends to the tales and what comes across is the feeling of a writer who is visibly struggling with her shortcomings. What I admire is that she obviously knows she needs improvement and was willing to take the time to try to fix her failings. Because the truth is we all can improve and hone whatever craft, whatever calling we have, and to admit this so publicly? I really am in awe of that. But more than that, I can see the improvement! Le Guin's biggest flaw is her inability to handle endings properly. There's an ineptitude there that all these tales are working to redress. In fact of the five tales here collected, only 'Darkrose and Diamond' had a slightly convoluted ending. Now that is improvement. Because even though I adore The Tombs of Atuan, I have to say, even it has a rushed ending that could have been improved.
Yet she's not just redressing the issues of her plotting, she is redressing the balance, the equilibrium that is so out of whack in Earthsea that it could be the cause of the great change that is underway in the archipelago. What she is finally doing is firmly establishing women and their roles within the cycle. Because this series has always been about maintaining the balance. This series was never just about Ged, it was about Ged and Tenar, two sides of a coin. So therefore, aside from reading about Tenar, how are women set within this universe? While a more traditional series written by a male author might just ignore this whole issue and not even question an entire male party heading off to Mount Doom, a modern female author would hopefully in this day and age not do this. Thankfully Le Guin is such an author. Therefore we're finally seeing in much more detail how woman fit into the magical system of the mages. It's not just hedge witches anymore! While we would dearly miss the hedge witches we've come to know and love, seeing more into the male hierarchy of Roke and the holes in their theories when we see that women were a part of that founding, we see that women are far more powerful than the males would like to think. There's a feeling of reclaiming their story throughout the pages of this book, seeing that it's not all celibate men dictating the course of history.
But those celibate men have been causing troubles and there's a big plot hole in this book because of it. In the first tale, 'The Finder,' we read about Otter and his arrival at Roke, which was run by women, and the founding of the school for wizards there. A founding wherein his partner was female and she was the first Master Patterner. Yet in "modern" times the school is basically a monastery with men hoarding all knowledge of magic because women can't deal with it because of their delicate sensibilities and all that bull shit. So sex AND women were originally allowed, but come the "modern" times in the fifth tale, 'The Dragonfly,' and Irian is being turned away because she is female, though she did attempt a male disguise. So the plot hole is HOW THE HECK DID THIS HAPPEN!?! How did Roke go from an egalitarian to a patriarchal society? There is ONE mention in the history of the land in 'A Description of Earthsea' that the first Archmage just got ride of the women. How!?! And when!?! I mean, I thought this book was kind of here to fill in the blanks and yet to show us this wonderful golden age of equality and then show us what we know it becomes without an inbetween seems like a major oversight. I mean seriously, how and why? Le Guin made this world, the least she could do is explain how this major imbalance of the sexes came to be.
Le Guin though loves to leave her stories a little messy. She picks up threads in later stories and books and so while this book as well as the final book, The Other Wind, doesn't address this seismic shift, just the fact of it's being, I wouldn't rule out her finally coming back to it years from now. In fact it wasn't until this book that we got some much longed for resolution when it came to Therru and her being a dragon. While it is only repeatedly insinuated in Tehanu that Therru is able to turn into a dragon, as she can call the great dragon Kalessin and speaks the language of the making, we never see her turn into a dragon. She stays human and with her humans and it's really a big letdown. In fact you kind of start to wonder if she even CAN turn into a dragon and maybe you were just reading what you wanted to read in Tehanu. But then comes the story "Dragonfly" and we FINALLY have a girl turning into a dragon! Not only that, she arrives on Roke and puts the masters all out of whack and then, bam, dragon. It's not a perfect tale by any means, starting off with a very creepy "wizard" Ivory trying to seduce Irian in her human form. But once we journey to Roke everything seems to fall into place. We see Irian doing the transformation that Therru may one day do and proving all my daydreams about Tehanu right. Yes to women not only being powerful but being dragons!
Yet in the end Tales from Earthsea has a very Tolkien vibe. Because this isn't one consistent narrative but lots of little stories that help you piece together the history of Earthsea. This can be seen most in 'A Description of Earthsea' which is SO Tolkien in that it lays out the races, the sexes, the languages, the dragons, everything is set down, but it's set down in a quick and perfunctory manner which mercifully doesn't go to the multiple volumes Tolkien would. I think that is what I love most about Earthsea, you know what you need to know and so much more is hinted at but you don't have to laboriously plod through all this ephemera to get the history of the archipelago. Yes, it might bother me that I want to know exactly how women were thrown out of the school on Roke, but would I want to read a three volume box set to learn why? No I wouldn't. The reason why Earthsea is so good a place to journey to is that's it's accessible. It's not bogged down in history and stilted writing like Tolkien, sorry to Tolkien fans but he was a historian not a writer. It's not replete with religious overtones that are trying to convert you to Catholicism, and yes, I do love Narnia, but that ending is brutal. Earthsea is like this wonderful middle ground that has the stories, the history, but also powerful women and an approachable text. So while I might not love everything about it, I do love visiting and hope that one day maybe in the not too distant future Le Guin will give us another adventure to this cycle.
The Finder ★★★★ Darkrose and Diamond ★★/★★★ The Bones of Earthsea ★★★★★ On the High Marsh ★★★ Dragonfly ★★/★★★ A Description of Earthsea ★★...more