Two Trilogies and a Mystery: Speculations on the Earthsea Stories

Margaret Mahy

I recently had the chance to read a new book by Ursula Le Guin, and any new book by Ursula Le Guin is large event in my personal reading life. I was astonished to find myself doing this, for I had imagined I knew everything that a reader could know about the islands of Earthsea and their various populations, including their magicians and dragons. "I think we can live there," Tenar, the wonderful heroine says in the last line of Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea thinking (as she says this) of replanting the dead Magician Ogion's garden and of the view from the small window that looks west. Stories work their way to an end, and it seemed reasonable to think that the story running through the Earthsea novels had ended. But now there is a new book, The Other Wind, alive and out in the world of readers — a declaration that there is still more to be told.

Stories are mysteries. When they are well told it seems they come through writers and tellers rather than from them, an effect that most writers, even when they feel the story coming in at them like a force from some other dimension, still have to work hard to achieve. And paradox haunts many stories, not least because the story generally takes final form as a published book, and the process of publishing and then selling the book makes some form of categorization advantageous, even necessary. So books are categorised not only in publishers' catalogues but on the shelves of bookshops and libraries. Someone anonymous decides that they belong to a certain genre or are appropriate to a certain age-group, even though the story within the book may strain against the boundaries in which it is has been caged.

For classification, though useful and necessary in some ways, brings problems of its own. Fantasy tales, often coupled with science fiction, constitute a genre peripheral to respectable mainstream adult fiction. And when fantasies do break into that respectable adult area they are often restyled as "magical realism" so that mature enthusiasts won't feel insulted at the implicit suggestion that they are succumbing to juvenile taste. Traditionally fantasy is perfectly respectable in children's books. It runs unashamedly through nursery stories and folktales and on through books for middle school children, stitching the reader, in due course, into what are called young adult books and the huge world of literature lurking beyond. For all that the initiating folk tales have never been simply children's tales but are the tales of human communities — tales whose influential symbolism extends throughout the whole pantheon of fiction, including stories for mature and academic adults.

And children's books themselves can have a curious ambivalence. Children, less experienced in life and language, generally require shorter sentences, simpler words and understandable adventures than adults do and their literature is often marginalised in the literary world. For all that the simple statements, the jokes and unelaborated events directed at children may successfully connect with the adults too, and sometimes in a potent fashion. The question "Who is this story written for?" becomes almost meaningless. It is written for me, the inward voice of the reader (child or adult) declares. It is written for me and I am reading it.

The first of Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books was published in 1968 and constitutes a milestone in children's and young adult fantasy. I was an adult, the mother of two, and a children's librarian when I first read it and was captivated not only on behalf of those good child readers out there, but on my own behalf, simultaneously as child and adult. Back then I read (and still read) searching not so much for escape ( and fantasy is often seen as escapist) as for transformation — transformation through an encounter with imaginative truth. Having read A Wizard of Earthsea I went on to anticipate and then to read with pleasure and fulfillment The Tombs of Atuan and The Furthest Shore. Like many other readers I felt, as I closed The Furthest Shore the deep satisfaction of having completed a story. "He is done with doing. He goes home," says the Doorkeeper of the wizard Ged, who has sacrificed his magical powers in righting a wrong deep in the substance of the Earthsea world. The curious thing is that Ged is somehow completed by this fundamental loss of power. His story closes with cryptic triumph and he moves away into mystery.

One of the things that struck me at a first reading and at subsequent re-readings (including a recent re-reading in 2002) was the way in which one's connection with this imaginary land — its history, geography and custom — was hugely reinforced by the language which is not only the vehicle by which the story is told, but is, at times, what the story is about. Even where good fantasies are concerned, there is often there is something a little self-conscious or even spurious about invented names. Yet searching the map in the front of the book for the islands of Roke and Gont, Iffish and Selidor I felt I was not so much acquainting myself with a new geography, but reminding myself of one that I already knew.

Talking to Ursula Le Guin I asked if she could give any account of how she came to command names which had conviction and inevitability (no small achievement when names themselves are essential mysteries in the first book of the trilogy and continue to exercise power in all three stories). She replied that both reading and telling were present in her family, rather more, she thought, than in many families. She remembered reading fables and folktales extensively. Asked for specific titles she replied that there to too many books in her childhood for her to pick on one, yet indirectly she did, for as a very small child she remembered listening in as her mother read Jules Verne stories to her three older brothers. And in her family stories were told as well as read. Her father would tell an Indian tale. Her Great Aunt passed on family accounts. On summer nights she would sit with her parents and brothers around a campfire and they would tell stories. Language was reinforced not only by events in the story but by family presence and the fire in front of them and the surrounding summer night. Ursula Le Guin grew up with these remembered experiences spreading, often unconsciously, into her own writing and storytelling life. I had asked about the power she had over naming places and people. "I must find the right name or I cannot get on with the story," she told me. "I cannot write the story if the name is wrong." She paused then added "It is a sort of mystical thing." It is hard to be sure of a voice over the phone but I thought she laughed a little as she said this, though without detracting in the slightest from the seriousness of what she was saying. And of course she was right. True naming is something of profound importance to people. On occasions people are prepared to fight and die for the right name.

The hero of A Wizard of Earthsea is a boy with a great magical talent , who becomes, during the course of the story, a man, and a wizard among wizards.. All three books of the first trilogy tell Ged's story but most particularly the first in which, as a young impulsive and probably ambitious man he uses his power rashly, and then has to find the true name of the "clot of darkness" he has released into the world in order to regain power over it. There are echoes of "Rumplestiltskin" and "Tom Tit Tot" and other folktales in this idea. However when I first read A Wizard of Earthsea I was fulfilled by its climax which seemed to touch truth in a way that many conventionally realistic stories cannot do. The story ends, and for the reader the end is enough. One closes the book with satisfaction. All the same the story is not to be contained by the closed covers. It is active not passive and keeps on working in ones mind, connecting with many other things.

The first Earthsea trilogy is made up of books ostensibly for good-reading children in that they are fantastic adventure stories... tales of pursuit and rescue... tales in which heroes and heroines, strong yet fallible, undergo tests which they finally pass (though not without anguish) to win home to some point of power and peace. But in 1990 a fourth book was published — Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea which in its very title seemed to declare itself as a definite conclusion. However this book was followed by a book of short stories Tales of Earthsea and in this year we have been given The Other Wind. Suddenly there are two Earthsea trilogies.

Tehanu came as a shock to many dedicated Earthsea fans. It was a different sort of book from the first three, written, it seemed, for different reasons, and for different readers. Its emphasis and tone, the nature of its events, contrasted strongly with those in the previous books. The magical elements are still there but they no longer dominate. The story is largely told from the point of view of Tenar, the heroine of The Tombs of Atuan, though Ged is there, experiencing in a very human way the trauma of having lost his power. He feels reduced... .but then begins to find ordinary life once more, as a different man with different capacities, including the power to love a woman. This book astonished many readers, and was seen by many as a feminist statement. Ursula Le Guin agrees, saying that Tehanu is absolutely a feminist utterance, but that the feminism of this story is intended to enlarge possibility not only for the women in the story and out in the world beyond, but for men too. She recalls that in the beginning it attracted many angry reactions from men who declared that she had made Ged a weak character. He was not doing male things any more. However from the author's point of view the feminism in Tehanu was basically asserting that women are complete human beings too. The desire to assert this as part of a story sprang not only from personal conviction but flowed in from the changing climate of the 60s and 70s. And from the storyteller's point of view this story sprang from the primary idea of the nearly-destroyed child... a child who had been silenced and profoundly damaged by terrible violence. Nevertheless future life is compressed in this child, and at the very end of the story... four pages from the end... the child moves into a position of power that, once again, takes a reader by surprise. Suddenly she blossoms with magical strength, saving both Ged and Tenar. Suddenly she names a name; she is able to speak the first language — the language of dragons — an ability that is to become hugely significant in The Other Wind. Once again the significance of language haunts the story

Considering Tehanu and the surprise of its different quality, Ursula Le Guin describes her own approach to writing it, and other books too, in terms of a particular image... the image of someone tentatively exploring another country... of seeing paths and asking oneself just where these paths might be leading. There was for her the sense of setting one foot in front of another, knowing a new story — a new land — was around her, but not knowing quite what it was about to reveal. The reader reading the book is undergoing some of the same processes of enlightenment that the author has initially undergone on the reader's behalf.

All this brings us once more to that curious question, connected to the fundamental function of story and of books (which have become so hugely the public source of story). Just who is the story written for? Tehanu is essentially an Earthsea book, and yet it certainly makes different demands on the awareness and maturity of the reader from the demands made by the preceding trilogy. Obviously some of the men who had enjoyed the first books recoiled from the later books in alarm. Children can be thrilled by the events of the first trilogy, and the sort of excitement these books generate, for all their underlying mystery, is something a good ten year old reader or a reader of sixty six (my own age) can enjoy with simple enthusiasm. But in Tehanu the events have a different quality. The story is told from the point of view of a woman who is no longer young, a woman who, having lived through terrifying experiences has married and had children, and has lived, with pleasure an ordinary life. Are children able to recognize and connect with the challenge and passion implicit in that ordinary life, and the ordinary life that Ged, in turn, must now lead?

Having asked this question I must acknowledge that it is not quite as simple as that. There are still adventures in Tehanu and adventures with their element of horror too. The largely silent presence of the damaged child Therru is a continual reminder of something savage and alive in this ordinary world. The book has a physically exciting conclusion. And yet the shift dominates. And the new book The Other Wind emphasises this domination. There is movement and event in the story but a great deal of the action focuses on the resolution of human errors of perception and the climax of the story is not so much one of adventuous achievement as of mystical release. Error is recognised and corrected and the characters, released, move on to a new completion. Is this second trilogy likely to be enjoyed in the same way and by the same people as the first trilogy. Probably not.

But why should we expect this? As a single reader I enjoyed the progress from one trilogy to another, thinking that the Earthsea saga was moving from being a children's-young adult- story to being an young adult-adult tale — a tale containing a paradox which is that it is a fantasy story about people achieving fulfillment beyond fantasy. Yet if I was still a librarian, trying to work out just where on which shelves to place this book so that the right readers would find it I stand, holding the book and looking from shelf to shelf frowning as I wondered where to place it. And, as I issued books from the second trilogy to the good child readers who had enjoyed the first, I might want to talk about the different experience ahead of them. I might want to prepare them. But of course if I suggested that they might want to wait a few years before tackling the second trilogy, most children would want to press forward, and, after reassuring me that they were good readers, would find themselves involved with a story that they needed to grow into.

I talked to Ursula Le Guin about the curious relationship between writer and reader. In the beginning the author is both writer and first reader. "I have always rejected the idea of inspiration by some muse. It is the work itself that supplies the idea. It is you and the work," Le Guin told me. She went on to talk about Tehanu, saying she began it without any clear knowledge as to what the story was about or where it was going. "The behavior of my characters," she said, "is somehow beyond my understanding. I don't always know why they do the things they do. I only know for sure that that is what they did." And going back to the beginning of this account it may be that she knew most clearly what they did when she was certain what they were to be called. Name and action are connected in these tales.

As readers we pick up the book and move into the story more or less effortlessly because of the work the writer has already done. And Ursula Le Guin agrees that the writer in many cases is not directing his or her story at a particular age group but at a particular sort of reader... a listener as well as a reader, for those words on the page translate into a spoken voice in the reader's head... and that reader-listener out there has an approximate connection to that first reader-listener... the one the author both generates and listens to.

For, far more than is commonly acknowledged reading is a creative process, and a highly individual one which is something it is difficult for a publisher to predict. Ursula Le Guin understands this and yet it came as a shock to her to find The Other Wind classed by British publishers as a children's book, a misleading classification which must have been brought about by the wish to connect with the readership of that earlier trilogy. It would be a mistake to say that no children could possibly enjoy Tehanu and even The Other Wind for readership is incalculable in individual cases but these books are certainly stories for young adults and adults in so far as these two categories are separated. Even in the first trilogy, Ursula Le Guin points out, Ged uses his magical powers less flamboyantly as he grows into a new maturity. In The Tombs of Atuan and The Furthest Shore he increasingly restrains his magical powers as his perception of himself and his power matures. And with the loss of those powers, as he moves on, after his time of shock and regret, to be gardener and goat-tender, to be husband and father, he is moving into new power and one he comes to welcome. "He is done with doing," the Gatekeeper says, but Ursula Le Guin agrees that this is a reference to his magical doing. A simpler but no less profound form of doing fills his life, and innate in these things is the richness of his past experience. Those men who were so indignant over Ged's loss of power in Tehanu were missing a point. The inner theme of the books, she says, is the balance between power and responsibility.

At the end of The Other Wind Ged and Tenar sit with glasses of good red wine watching an early autumn evening flare over the sea. Their damaged daughter Therru has indeed become Tehanu. She may come to them again from the west but, even if she does not come, if she does not come she is still there. While Tenar has been away Ged has kept house. It seems to me that the story, properly understood, tells us that this is as profound and meaningful as anything he has achieved as Archmage.

All the same it has taken me time in my own life to reach this particular perception and I think that few children would see it as fulfilling. During our early lives we go out into the world as Ged does, and have adventures. Later the process of individuation sets in and we return to consider inner selves to a greater degree. Many children might protest (like those outraged men) at Ged's loss of magical power and demand a more flamboyant fulfillment than the mysterious conclusion to The Other Wind.

For characters in The Other Wind somehow dance around a central idea — the deep error into which human beings have fallen over the desirable nature of individual immortality. And the story is also concerned with the relationship between dragons and men. "My dragons are not the conventional ravening hoarding beasts," says Ursula Le Guin. Somewhere in the distant past dragons and humans were the one people but they made different choices, the dragons opting for a life of fire and air, human beings choosing earth and water. I asked Ursula Le Guin if she saw earth and water as an inferior choice and she laughed at the suggestion. The four elements are equal in power and necessity. Nevertheless a curious materialism has crept into the human race. "Life" she says "has become a commodity of which certain people, (those typified by Cob the ruined wizard of The Furthest Shore) want more. They want it endlessly." But the sort of immortality Cob wins for himself and imposes on others is sterile. "Let stupid nature go its stupid course," he cries. "But I am a man, better than nature, above nature. I will not cease to be myself." The trap for human beings (set in place by these ideas and powered by Cob's declaration) is the trap that must be acknowledged and sprung in The Other Wind

At the end of The Furthest Shore Ged and the young King Lebbenen win their way back from the horrific realm beyond the stone wall, and at the end The Other Wind as that stone wall is torn down, as Tehanu, the ravished and disfigured child, transforms and become her released dragon self, the hosts of the dead, men women and children, press through without hesitation and dissolve. The dead go free, for surrender of self is the true release. Language and trust in the storyteller might ensure that some children would be able to rejoice in the declaration of this end, but the ideas that underlie it... that produce this triumph ... are complex, and apart from any inner imaginative conviction, call on an adult response. They are views and possibilities that many of us have to grow into, and that some people will reject.

This release from the sterile imprisonment of self seems like true completion. The dead are set free; the Princess Seserak breaks out of her column of concealing veils and is revealed as a lion of a woman; Tehanu, transformed, flies higher and higher until she burns like her name, a great bright star, and Tenar, set free in a different way is able to go home to Ged. What need is there to say anything more? It is the end. Yet I have already felt a similarly true completion at the end of The Furthest Shore and at the end of Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea. Perhaps it is not quite the end. "Tell me," Tenar says as she and Ged sit with their glasses of good red wine, looking out at the forests, at the mountain and the darkening heights. "what did you do while I was gone?" "Kept the house," he replies. "Did you walk in the forest?" she asks him. "Not yet." he answers. The ending is complete, though now that little word "yet" burns like a spark as the reader closes the book and moves on into silence filled with the containment of wonder and human affection. Once I would have thought on reading The Other Wind that it really was the end. Now I find I am not sure. But perhaps that first reader, Ursula Le Guin herself, does not know for sure, either.
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This article appeared in Magpies Vol 17 No 3, July 2002 and appears here with permission of Magpies Magazine Pty, PO Box 98, Grange. Queensland, Australia

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Updated Sunday July 13 2008