A few months back, I read an interview with Ursula K. Le Guin in which she frothed at the mouth a bit about the Harry Potter craze. She had written about a school for wizards long ago, she said: The Earthsea trilogy --- A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA, THE TOMBS OF ATUAN, and THE FARTHEST SHORE (which won a National Book Award in 1973) --- along with the later TEHANU and this new book, all are set in an archipelago where magic is commonplace and its uses taught on a mysterious island called Roke. Yet Le Guin's books have an allure that is quite different from the satirical, boyish charm of the Potter series. J. K. Rowling's college of wizardry, Hogwarts, evokes the heartiness, cruelty, and sports mania of the traditional British boarding school; and Harry and his friends have one foot in the land of magic and the other in the unrewarding "real" world where Harry's repulsive guardians, the Dursleys, dwell. Le Guin's Earthsea books (and many of her other novels) play out in a culture of their own --- there is no Oz-like transition from Kansas to fairyland --- and these stories belong to the realm of legend, myth, and song. They seem to be told rather than written.
Before reading TALES FROM EARTHSEA, I purposely did not go back to the previous Earthsea novels (which I haven't looked at since TEHANU came out in 1990) because I wanted to see if this book would prove obscure or difficult for the uninitiated. Not at all. Although Le Guin has constructed her alternate world with a scholar's seriousness and eye for detail --- an appendix to this volume, "A Description of Earthsea," covers topics such as history, language, royal dynasties, and dragons --- the stories themselves are fresh, deep, passionate and absolutely wonderful to read.
Like J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, Le Guin is a genius at creating an entire world that is utterly plausible and authentic; she has even drawn maps of Earthsea. But unlike these two, who in real life were marked by social conservatism, she is an authentic revolutionary. In the introduction to this book, she rips into "commodified fantasy": "It proceeds by depriving the old stories of their intellectual and ethical complexity, turning their action to violence, their actors to dolls, and their truth-telling to sentimental platitude...Profoundly disturbing moral choices are sanitized, made cute, made safe."
TALES FROM EARTHSEA does none of that. It is ethical without being polemical, fantastic but not especially escapist. Indeed, the themes of these stories are as modern (or as timeless) as can be. In "The Finder," a boy comes to terms with his inborn gifts, and it becomes clear that in Earthsea, magic is a lot like technology --- what matters is how you use it. In two stories particularly, Le Guin pays tribute to female strength, patience, and wisdom: "Darkrose and Diamond" is a tale of thwarted love showing that women of power (meaning, in this case, magic), attacked as witches, are actually healers and sages; "Dragonfly" tells of Irian, the first of her sex to seek instruction on Roke Island. A deep connection to the planet is the core of "The Bones of the Earth," and "On the High Marsh" describes the tender relationship between Irioth, a curer of beasts, and the animals.
These stories are not p.c. cartoons; they are an extension of the extraordinary and subtle sociopolitical imagination that presides over all of Le Guin's work, from the gender-challenging THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS to the anarchist society in THE DISPOSSESSED --- two of many that have been meaningful to this reviewer. Yet TALES FROM EARTHSEA, like all her books, does encompass an idea of good and evil, right and wrong; it shows its heart in an age when much literary fiction merely shrugs. Perhaps it is this quality that has brought adult readers of fantasies and fairy tales out of the closet lately, for in a moral flatland, more than ever we need heroes and villains --- complex ones, not Disneyesque figures, and not the conventional antagonists of the mystery or technothriller, either.
Le Guin called TEHANU --- foolishly, she now admits --- "the last book of Earthsea." Happily, she makes no such claims for TALES FROM EARTHSEA; instead, she promises that a new novel set in this charming and terrifying world, THE OTHER WIND, will soon appear. While I wait, I will be reading (for the third time) the four earlier books. If you haven't had the pleasure, join me.
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on May 4, 2001