A Wizard of Earthsea * The Tombs of Atuan * The Farthest Shore * Tehanu Ged is but a goatherd on the island of Gont when he comes by his strange powers over nature. Sent to the School of Wizards on Roke, he learns the true way of magic and proves himself a powerful magician. And it is as the Archmage Sparrowhawk that he helps the High Priestess Tenar escape the labyrinth of darkness. But over the years, Ged witnesses true magic and the ancient ways submit to the forces of evil and death. Will he too succumb, or can he hold them back?
The Earthsea Quartet is one of the fundamental reads for fans of the fantasy genre. With deep, well-developed characters and an intriquing and thrilling plot, this story is bound to enthrall. This is the perfect first fantasy for young adults, but it is also a great read for us grown-ups.
A Wizard Of Earthsea - is the introduction to the world and follows the adventures of Ged as he embraces his wizarding powers and learns that all actions have a consequence. A little slow to start but once you are in the world, totally gripping.
The Tombs of Atuan - is my favourite of the quartet. It's very engaging, easy to read and has a strong message of light and shade alongside the questioning of one's faith. A story I want to return too as I don't feel I managed to do it justice in my first reading.
The Farthest Shore - what happens when magic begins to die? Le Guin looks at the inevitability of death and why it's necessary for the continuation of other things. I much prefer Ged as the learned mentor, somehow it seems to suit him better than when he was younger.
Tehanu - the final book in the quartet continues where the previous story left off, but switches the emphasis to Tenar. There is a different kind of magic at work here as love seems to be the main thread, coinciding with Ged's loss of powers.
Overall, a brilliant set of stories which suck you into a believable world of magic, philosophy and human relationships.
Le Guin is a master of writing, or so to say. The first time I read "A Wizard of Earthsea" I didn't like it. Only some years later I could see why that was: Back then I read the german translation instead of reading the english original. Language is important in the world of Earthsea. If it wasn't, all the spells wouldn't work. Le Guin takes you on an adventure of the Archipelago in the first book, into the world of the Kargard Lands in the second book, to mend the world in the third and then gives you more insight about magic and Ged's healing in the fourth.
If you like magic, dragons and witty wizards whose power comes from words, then this is a book for you. The author shows how words can be magic, just as a story inspires the reader's mind and paints a picture inside.
Who now has the stature and respect to call out poseurs like Atwood and Ishiguru? Who is there who can be relied on to correct the lazy and meretricious? She led lead by example, not just in speeches or reviews. The world is poorer for this but it's going to be decades before we really see how much.
Ursula k. Le Guin is one of my lifelong favourite authors who I return to often. I first read “A Wizard of Earthsea” when I was 8, in between the Hobbit at 7 and The Lord of the Rings at 9 (precocious child…), followed by the rest of the trilogy, and then later books like “The Left Hand of Darkness”, “The Lathe of Heaven”, “The Dispossessed” and on and on.
What a writer - in the six Earthsea books alone, she said more, and with more purpose and clarity, than any other fantasy author, except Tolkien, at least in my opinion. And she wrote extraordinary SF too. Speaking of the devil, as someone who has a pretty encyclopedic knowledge of Tolkien, the greatest tribute I can pay Le Guin is this: every fantasy epic I have ever read has been at best a pale copy of Middle-Earth, because he did such a thorough job of creation over many years. Every epic except one that is - Earthsea. The Archipelago is not Middle-Earth, her dragons are not like Tolkien's dragons, and Ged is not Gandalf, although he is every bit as wise and kind. That is a very great writing achievement in itself. And I was aware of the significance of Ged, Ogion, Vetch, etc., not being white from my very first reading of the books. And that was in 80s. Remember, early on in Earthsea when Ged sneaks a look in Ogion's book, and the shadow begins to appear by the door? A metaphor (all the more powerful for being a genuinely scary piece of writing) for what can happen when we crave power and use knowledge without awareness of the potential consequences, and with no thought for upsetting the balance of the world. Of course it's a thread that runs right the way through the series. The story of how Ged continuously grapples with this issue makes him, for me, one of the great figures in literature. I think, partly because I am a Computer Science graduate, I have always particularly appreciated the fact that magic in Earthsea has rules and structure, whereas in Tolkien it doesn't seem to - although, to be fair, he did address that point in some detail in one of his letters: 'I am afraid I have not been at all consistent in my use of the word "magic"...'
I have also always rather hoped that, should there turn out after all, against all the odds, to be a paradisiac afterlife of some sort, that it might contain elements of Rivendell, Valinor and the Immanent Grove of Roke. Of course, I'm well aware that this is not a notion that someone who is thoroughly familiar with the laws of Thermodynamics (especially the Second Law) should rationally entertain!
I feel like "magic" is not so important in Tolkien, in a way. His books are more a combination of great adventure, exploration of moral principles such as loyalty and sacrifice, and incredibly complete world-building. Le Guin's books probably explore more complex ideas, which doesn't necessarily make them better, just different. I am still absorbing the extension and in some cases revision to Earthsea in the three books she wrote long after the trilogy. But what I like about the "magic" in Earthsea is the deep exploration of the power of language and also the reminders that every action has a consequence.
To consider the Earthsea trilogy as “juvenile” in any pejorative sense would be grotesquely off the mark. They are technically superb examples of the Bildungsroman genre (of which Hamlet and Jungen Werther also deserve honourable mention). They contain passages of Dickensian evocation of sight, sound and smell; are compassionate, urgent and questioning; and they tell a damn good story of quests, chases, shadows, and authentically hot-smelling dragons, which by and large avoid descending into tropes of nobility and Tolkeinesque conservatism/ monarchism, and in the latter 2 installments, actively reposition that discourse. To put my neck out, I’d say there is currently no equivalent writing (i.e., writing of equal intrinsic value) - in any genre. I find it so endlessly re-readable partially because I see different things in it as I move through my own life and as Ged moves through his; “Wizard” being about the potential for arrogance and pride to (literally) cast strange shadows and the need to confront rather than externalise fear, “the farthest shore” being an acute meditation on the fear of death. There’s a lot of wisdom in it - the passage about “what is the use of you, or I, or Gont Mountain” always struck me as something very profound to be in what was ostensibly a children’s book.
Now that I've heard she's gone, I wish that I had written to tell her how much her Earthsea trilogy affected me as a child, the first trilogy (as it was then) of fantasy novels with emotional intelligence, and language that is the closest prose will get to poetry. I rated those works of fiction as the greatest in the fantasy genre ever written, surpassing even Tolkien because her perfectly realised world told a story with a profundity which is rare, and which he perhaps could never aspire to match. The thoughts in them occupy me even today, as I contemplate the inevitability of my own death, the wall of stones "no higher than a man's knee" which we must all cross, and where she has now gone before.
And now, since she abolished the wall of stones in the last book of Earthsea, I hope she is dancing with her dragons on the other wind. RIP.
NB: I didn't care much for Tehanu. Still worth reading for completists.
Sadly, I found A Wizard of Earthsea a largely disappointing (2.5 stars), very stiff, dry and unexciting tale for the most part, and I must admit to feeling rather excluded given the scarcity of female characters (those that do appear do so briefly and are with just one or perhaps two exceptions nasty/evil.) The great Ged struck me as an arrogant twerp much of the time. Perhaps I'm of an age where immense wizardly power alone does not impress! I need more: I need personality, I need insight, I need (or at least appreciate) entertainment in a work of fantasy, even one aimed at a young adult readership.
I was greatly surprised at the dullness of the writing as I've read a lot of le Guin in the past and know how brilliant she can be, but this was terribly laboured apart from a period near the end where things started to flow. My reaction was so negative overall that I felt as though I couldn't be bothered to continue with the rest of the omnibus, but luckily I had a glance at other reviews and noted that people who had started with the same poor reaction felt that things improved afterwards.
As indeed they did. The Tombs of Atuan is psychologically interesting, has strong female characterisation (and a much more fascinating and likeable Ged!) and an adventure plot that is well-paced and constantly interesting. It also introduces intriguing new possibilities, making me want to keep on reading. (3.5 stars)
The Farthest Shore is probably more like the story I wish the first novel had been, although it also wanders into becalmed, uninspired waters at times. Overall, however, it advances the history and is quite enjoyable (3 stars).
The best, in my opinion, was the last: Tehanu (which I have just reread after finishing Tales From Earthsea, so I can remember how things ended before I start on The Other Wind.) Perhaps I prefer this because I'm reading it for the first time in my early 40s. It's much more adult than any of the preceding tales, and much more satisfying. The plot and the secrets contained therein are complex and well-managed: there are none on the periods of "dead air" that I experienced in some of the other books. When no great exciting, magic-y stuff is happening intricate, beautiful, moving and thoughtful observation of relationships and personal journeys kept me enthralled. Along with some of the characters (no spoilers!), I fell in love. (4.5 stars)
As a result of that wonderful finish, I sat me down and ordered Tales From Earthsea immediately, and was not disappointed.
Initially, my re-read of A Wizard of Earthsea went quite slowly. However as I’d hoped, once I passed the defining event, which I remembered, reading went faster as I’d forgotten most of the other details, so the suspense came back and I needed to read on to find out what happened, or rather, how it happened.
The Earthsea Quartet is the first four books of the Cycle of which A Wizard of Earthsea is the first. It begins with Sparrowhawk's childhood, before he undertook great deeds - thus implying more tales to come - when he was known as Duney. It tells of how the great talent for magic that was in him was recognised and nurtured, how he met Ogion the Silent and was given his true name of Ged and how he went to Roke to learn to be a mage.
And it tells of how, half-trained and in his pride, he loosed a great evil on the world and how he had to deal with it afterwards, crossing the known world and being helped or hindered by the different peoples inhabiting it.
I've read this at least once, a long time ago, and it was enjoyable revisiting it for the group read to honour Le Guin's passing.
I had forgotten about the hoeg and even the old dragon of Pendor and I think Yarrow will make a good mage in her turn. There is a good mix of ethnicities in this continent of islands (which, as far as the characters know, comprises their entire world); there are Asian-like, African-like and Scandinavian-like people. It is not something that jumped out at me, being folded naturally into the narrative, until I read other reviews and articles that remarked on it.
A short story, by today’s standards, but so richly and densely written that, even though it spans almost twenty years of Sparrowhawk's life in under 200 pages, it holds up well against current, more lengthy novels. Deservedly a classic.
5 stars *****
Averaging out 5 stars
Earthsea, a world where sorcerers and wizards are simply professions, where dragons are living parts of old songs and where your old aunty may well be a witch is a world of islands where peace and nobility is only remembered by the few. Stories of great heroes belong in the past, and many there are reluctant to take part in great quests. But still the value of bravery and valour still runs true through certain people and their stories we enjoy in this Quartet.
The sheer depth in the characters, their lives and their acts allow the young reader and the older reader to see great lessons of life and to be enchanted by the simple heroism of simply people in a great story.