Ursula Le Guin – The Earthsea Quartet

A superb work of fantasy, comparable with the work of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, the Earthsea books follow the fortunes of the wizard Ged from his childhood to an age where magic is giving way to evil.

As a young dragonlord Ged, whose use-name is Sparrowhawk, is sent to the island of Roke to learn the true way of magic. A natural magician, Ged becomes an Archmage and helps the High Priestess Tenar escape from the labyrinth of darkness. But as the years pass, true magic and ancient ways are forced to submit to the powers of evil and death…

These four spellbinding works of imaginative genius offer a parable that is sometimes joyous, sometimes sobering, for readers of all ages.

The Earthsea Quartet, an omnibus version of all four Earthsea books, is another one of my #bookfails. I’d never read any Le Guin and this book has been standing in my bookcase since 1997. I did start it at the time I bought it, but I just couldn’t get past the first fifty to sixty pages. In this way it reminded me of The Lord of the Rings a lot, since I had similar problems there. It wasn’t just the false starts that made the books feel similar to me, it was the language as well. The share a similar stately feel in the rhythm of the prose. But were Tolkien uses the entire section set in the Shire to set up for the action, Le Guin sketches out the scene in three pages and away we go. Though it took me until Ged gets to the school in Roke to become fully immersed in the story.

In the flap text the books are called parables, stories that illustrate a lesson or moral, and the books certainly do that. Each book seems to have its own lesson, while the overarching leitmotif for the books seems to be fear in all its facets and not to let oneself be limited by it. Each book has its own protagonist who has to deal with fear, be it their own or other people’s. Two of the books include a physical journey, while the other two are more spiritual journeys. But in all of them the journey is more important than the destination. There is a lot of symbolism in the books, such as the maze in the Tombs of Atuan, the juxtaposition between the rise of the new king in The Farthest Shore and Ged’s waning power, and the echoing of Ged meeting the Archmage at the fountain on his arrival on Roke and his similarly receiving Arren.

My favourite character in the books is Tenar. I like that we got her history as a girl in The Tombs of Atuan and later got to see the story of her later life in Tehanu. In both books we see her strength and courage and I love how she takes charge of her own life in both of the books. On the whole Tehanu is my favourite of all four books, since everything comes full circle here and all our protagonists return. And of course light conquers dark yet again.

If I had one complaint with the books, it would be that the story didn’t seem finished. This could have been intentional, as a sort of “Endless struggle of good against evil” cycle. It also leaves room for perhaps one more book, in fact a collection of short stories, Tales of Earthsea, and a final novel, The Other Wind, were published in 2001. The Earthsea Quartet remains a classic of the speculative genre, written by one of its Grand Masters. Any fan of the genre should have read some Le Guin and these books. I know I’ll be looking to read more of Ms Le Guin’s work.

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3 Responses to Ursula Le Guin – The Earthsea Quartet

  1. I really need to read this. I've had them recommended to me over and over again but I never quite get that far. Thanks for reminding me.

  2. Pingback: Fantasy Mistressworks Fifty | A Fantastical Librarian

  3. Pingback: Ursula K. Le Guin – The Left Hand of Darkness | A Fantastical Librarian

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