Friday, April 21, 2017

Book Review - Ursula K. Le Guin's Tales from Earthsea

Tales from Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
Published by: HMH Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: 2001
Format: Paperback, 480 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

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.

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