Book Review: “The Earthsea Trilogy” by Ursula K. Le Guin

Do you ever look at a book on your bookshelf and think I’m pretty sure I read that but I honestly don’t remember it and then you pick it up and start reading and are like no, I haven’t read this book? This was “The Earthsea Trilogy” by Ursula K Le Guin and I’ve been trying to wrack my brain as to why I thought I had read it. The idea of Earthsea is so familiar to me, like I know I know the name and I can remember the book I’m thinking of and exactly where it was on my bookshelf when I was in high school but it’s clearly not this book. And you could be like, but Lauren, if it’s not this book then you probably got it mixed up with some other fantasy novel. And true…BUT I remember being super excited about Studio Ghibli’s “Tales from Earthsea” specifically because I had read the book. But now I don’t trust that so you might be like well Lauren you just forgot the entire plot. Maybe. But honestly, I should’ve had some sort of this is vaguely familiar feeling while reading and I didn’t get that. Everything was new. And believe me, I don’t easily forget stories or plots and usually, just a couple pages will remind me of most of the book. This is why when a friend doesn’t want to watch a movie or show I’m the one they ask to just retell it to them so they can understand the pop-cultural references without having to go and watch it.

So, what is The Earthsea Trilogy? It’s three books in one. It’s part of the Earthsea cycle which contains six books in full and then a couple of short stories. The three books contained in this book are: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore. 

First, let’s talk about world-building and what Earthsea is. Earthsea is a collection of islands and that is this world. There is a belief that beyond these islands is the end of the world but because it is an old fantasy world the people of the archipelago are avid sailors, or at least many many of them know how to sail. Magic exists within different frames. Witches are easily found in villages as are sorcerers, but wizards with their staffs are considered highly respected in most of the archipelago and are trained in a well-protected island called Roke where the school of wizardry (seems to be a school for only boys). There is darkness within the world and evil old gods as well as a strong need for balance. The levels of magic change: there are small charms and illusions that any villager sorcerer or witch can do then there’s more complex magic like transforming themselves into another creature. All people are born with a name given by their parents, but then when they reach a certain age (differing by character and culture) when they are to grow up and become an apprentice and prepare for a career and a life they are given their true name. Like fey rules, they have to keep this name close to their chest and not share it with anyone except those they truly trust, or others will be able to use it to control them. Because of this they adopt a nom de plume that they use with others and to navigate the world. Everything in the world has a true name and can be summoned using it. Magic is also ruled by words and language, a weaving of words together, and quite often by song. So for D&D fans, the wizards of Earthsea are also, often, bards.

A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)

For me, this story started slow and somewhat like the regular core of a traditional fantasy novel. We arrive in Gont, a part of the archipelago known for goat herders and we meet a young boy whose mother named him Duny before she died. He’s the youngest of the local blacksmith and left to raise himself. He overhears his aunt who hasn’t had much to do with him say something to the goats and he repeats it only for the magic to go awry and her to realize he has a talent for it within him and take him under her wing and teach her what she knows. The book seems to suggest that because she is just a small time witch, a local villager who wasn’t traditionally trained, that while her magics aren’t necessarily good or with good intentions she can’t really be blamed because she wasn’t formally taught how to be in balance in the world and will always be self-serving. But she does teach him a few true names and he is able to summon birds to him.

Foreigners, raiders, white barbarians, come to their shore prepared to destroy and pillage their village and Duny realizes he can, maybe, create an illusion to give their village a fighting chance of survival. But because he also isn’t formally trained he exhausts himself and becomes ill. It works however and word travels fast across the archipelago about this boy with latent power.

Up to this point many have vied for Duny’s attention as a possible apprenticeship, but a grand wizard who goes by Ogion comes to offer Duny an alternative outside of his small village, the chance to apprentice as a wizard. He gives Duny time to think about it and promises to return for his naming ceremony when he comes of age. Duny is excited at the prospect of being powerful and famous and the thought of the adventure that comes with apprenticing under Ogion, a wizard who quelled earthquakes and commands respect wherever he goes. It’s a no-brainer for him.

Ogion returns and names Duny his true name, Ged. And while traveling and apprenticing which Ged learns absolutely nothing except basic education like reading and writing. He becomes bored but gains the nickname Sparrowhawk from summoning birds to him.

Ged is prideful. He wants so much more. And any time someone suggests that maybe he isn’t as powerful as he thinks he is and is truly just an illusionist his pride bubbles up which leads him down a dark path. This path leads to a very dark book that he doesn’t know how to read with a spell in it to bring the dead to the world of the living.

Eventually through mistakes and due to a prideful thirst for knowledge that he doesn’t feel like is being fulfilled Ged, with Ogion’s permission, heads out of the mountains towards Roke to go to wizard school. Here his pride earns him enemies and eventually leads to his folly but his talent earns him praise from teachers and awe from classmates.

Ged however isn’t done courting death and through his hubris and to one-up a rival he creates a hole in the universe and unleashes a great darkness and becomes greatly ill, again.

This curbs Ged’s foolish pride and makes him look at himself and magic and the harping of teachers like Ogion to the ones at his school about balance as a true thing that is needed and how the ego has to be set aside for the greater good. It slows down his learning and he falls behind from his friends who graduate and leave.

While many books have powerful wizards not many of them show actual lessons for their hubris. Many paint their heroes in an upward trajectory where they may learn but it’s more or less just up and up and up becoming more powerful and without as many drastic roadblocks. But not Earthsea. Not with Ursula K Le Guin. Ged does a full about-face. He learns his lesson and then takes on the responsibility to deal with the consequences of the evil he unleashed on the world which sends him all over the archipelago to places he’s never been before.

Honestly if I had to describe following Ged as a narrator, it’s very quiet. Towards the end of the first book, the narrator switches, and the story which felt somewhat detached and cold, warms up by being through a different characters eyes and seeing Ged through another perspective. It felt melancholy to loose Ged as a narrator since throughout the rest of the trilogy he doesn’t really take up the reigns again despite being a major moving part in each.

 The Tombs of Atuan (1970)

We meet another small child at a very young age. This time a girl named Tenar. She is introduced well-loved by her mother but with her father being cautious to extend love towards her because they will not get to keep her. She is taken, at a very young age, to become the Priestess of the Tombs.  She is taken to lives among the high priestesses of The Place until she is taken for a ceremony in The Hall of the Throne to be renamed as Arha or “the eaten one”. The people of Atuan where she lives believe in a God-king and there are a few older gods like the ones she’s in charge of. They believe that high priestesses are reincarnated. So whenever a high priestess dies the priestesses and their servants (eunuchs and slaves) head out across the land in search of a baby girl born around the same time as the priestesses death and if she’s in good health she is brought back and trained or “reminded” of her job and her past lives serving the gods she had served before. Arha is in charge of the Nameless Ones and is the only one allowed in the Tombs the temple grounds. Here it is always dark and there is a labyrinth filled with riches but only herself and the occasional assistant is allowed to traverse down there.

Because Arha serves the oldest gods, specifically the Nameless Ones, she’s technically, despite her young age, one of the more important and higher ranking priestesses within the temple. However, this also brings her within the ire of older priestesses who serve the god-king and do not really believe in the old gods. It means she cannot be punished but if she tries to bring others with her to do what she wants to do, like skip chanting, they will be punished doubly while she is left alone.

Traversing the labyrinth and the Tombs of Atuan bring Arha joy. There’s not much else to do and she’s bored easily. Plus she knows a long time of the same old same old stretches out before her and most likely forever, as she is expected to constantly be reincarnated. Her guides, older priestesses tell her that occasionally people, men or wizards, try to break into the tombs in search of great treasures and she wonders about it until one day it happens and she finds a wizard bringing light, which is forbidden, into the tombs. He is in search of half of the ring of Erreth-Akbe. She traps him in the tombs and seems to be at odds with herself. It is her duty to make sure anyone who enters the tombs is punished severely with death. But instead, she plays cat and mouse with the wizard, watching and calling to him from above in the temple at various spy holes and trying to keep him alive.

Eventually, she gets to know Ged and to better understand herself and the darkness within the gods she’s the priestess of and the world beyond the temple walls from conversations with Ged.

It’s an interesting story because to an extent she is similar to Ged as a child. She is a young woman severely unsocialized and given a high position without a change in her scenery. She’s essentially a prisoner but a comfortable, prideful and very bored one who doesn’t realize she is stuck and has no desire to see life beyond the walls.

The Farthest Shore (1972)

We are back on Roke, this time with Arren who is a young prince who has come to try and speak with the archmage about the magic that seems to be escaping the world and the land at a frighteningly fast pace. Wizards have forgotten their skills, spell weavers cannot weave their spells, witches have forgotten their charms, and discord seems to be filling the land. The archmage meets Arren in the courtyard by a pond and Arren is absolutely smitten. He no longer wishes to return home, he wants to stay by the archmages side and protect him. He quickly offers his services and to follow the archmage wherever he may need to go.

Sparrowhawk, Ged, summons the leaders of the school, the masters of their craft and listens to them debate the failing magic of the world and what they think is happening and then tells them he shall set out in search of the source and try to fix it. He is after all not meant to be stuck in one place and it seems like a good excuse to flex his wings and leave the safe but walled city of Roke. They clamor to offer to join him but he declines them all instead choosing to take Arren up on his offer and they set off in his faithful ship, Lookfar.

Together Arren and Sparrowhawk travel the archipelago and find apathy and danger around every corner. People and places that thrived and were safe and filled with magic when Sparrowhawk was younger are now dangerous and the people have forgotten all of their drive, kindness, and skills. They’ve fallen on hard times or into drugs to escape life and death. Around every corner is a temptation to fall into a similar state. The loss of magic follows closely on their heels in every space where they find magic struggling to survive. Singers forget their songs, dancers forget the steps, artisans forget their art, and people are irritable and distrusting.

Arren and Sparrowhawk find dragons and people who’ve given up living on land and nothing is untouched by this ending until they land on the farthest land known to Earthsea where they must take a stand against shadows and face that death itself is what makes life so precious, and to discard one ruins both as well as the balance of the whole world.

The entire series was really well done and seemed to press on making sure the reader understands balance, to strive to learn, and an acceptance that one day we will all die.

This isn’t the first book I’ve read or even the first series that seems to try and help the reader with mortality and comfort them about the inevitable. However, I find these types of books rather melancholy. Peaceful yes but quiet and melancholy and a little sad. Sure there’s plenty of adventure but when a lot of time is glossed over and we learn about a character’s past in only a sentence or two, I guess I get bummed. I was expecting to follow Ged through all of his adventures that people write songs about but we only got a few and we watched him through others’ eyes during most of the important moments of his life. Which might be the point. We’re like a random villager in Earthsea hearing about it second hand through the songs sung about heroes and wizards and the epic tales of the world, but it’s just kind of sad to go from being with Ged every step of the way to suddenly sitting on the sidelines with other characters. Though with how quiet and introspective he gets with his age it might be for the best.

Have you read Earthsea or any other books by Ursula K. Le Guin? What did you think?

Want to read it yourself? It’s not so easy to find the whole set as a trilogy anymore but you can find the first three books here and help support local indie bookstores. 

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