Monday, March 12, 2007


I just finished reading all four of Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea novels. Any fantasy fans who have not read these really ought to. They are wonderful.

A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), the first book, is probably the most accessible. Which is as any first book of a series should be. This story builds the world and lays the foundation for the other stories, but it could stand alone, if someone chose to read only one. However, but it becomes much stronger in the light of the rest of the series.

While A Wizard of Earthsea is a grand adventure with a wild chase, The Tombs of Atuan (1970) is much more introspective. Both are tales of self discovery, but since they focus on different characters, the flavors of the stories are very different.

The Farthest Shore (1972), which completed the original trilogy, reclaimed the original air of adventure the first book possessed. Although all three books told tales of struggle against great darkness, they were themselves not truly dark books, or at least they did not seem so to me.

Decades later, with an obviously different perspective on life, LeGuin returned to Earthsea to add a fourth book, Tehanu (1990). Nearly twice the length of any of the previous books, Tehanu is profoundly different in tone. The darkness is real, palpable. The first three books speak often of the dark. The fourth speaks less of it, but shows more of it. There were times I had to put the book down and pace around the room, shaking, angry. I felt the emotions of the characters much more deeply than in the earlier books. While the original trilogy seemed to be written for young people, Tehanu is an adult story. It makes sense, in a way. The author and the original readers of the trilogy would have grown up, so of course the world would have matured.

I doubt one could read Tehanu without first reading the original trilogy. You have to know the characters’ histories to feel the full power of it. But it brings the story to a good and satisfying end, bringing together all of the lost threads of the previous books.

Altogether, the Earthsea books are superb. LeGuin is a skilled writer, painting vivid mental images. The stories are interesting and the characters engaging. I recommend this series highly.

On a tangental note, the reason I decided to read this series was because I heard that the latest Studio Ghibli movie is Gedo Senki/Tales from Earthsea. I’m sure it will bear as little resemblance to LeGuin’s books as Howl’s Moving Castle did to Diana Wynne Jones’s, however I have yet to see a Studio Ghibli movie that wasn’t good. (Then again, this is also Goro Miyazaki’s first movie--and although his father is practically a deity, Goro is untested--so we shall see.) Looking online, I see that it was actually released in Japan months ago, although it won’t be in the U.S. any earlier than 2009. Bummer. That’s a long wait.

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