Tales From Earthsea: More Dragons, I’m Assuming


Tales From Earthsea is a story collection, and some of the six stories in it are quite long, so I won’t be able to do a one-story-a-day thing. It’s going to have to be more of an as-many-pages-as-I-feel-like thing. We’ll see how that goes.

I don’t really have any predictions for this one, as the back-cover blurb implies that it revolves around characters I haven’t seen before. My main prediction is that there will be at least one dragon, if only in the final piece, “A Description of Earthsea.” This is not a hard prediction to make. The cover does have a dragon on it, after all.

As there are only two Earthsea books remaining, I’m beginning to make preparations for my next reading project, which I expect will begin at some point in May. Anne McCaffery’s Pern books are definitely on my list (the first few of them, at least), but I may take a dragon break and read Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy first. I’m in the mood for creepy Gothic weirdness.

Incidentally, if anyone has ideas for any other Books Kari Should Have Read Decades Ago, please feel free to let me know. This is clearly going to be an ongoing series. Here are my requirements:

  1. Series are preferred. Stand-alone books are okay if you feel really strongly about them.
  2. SFF is preferred, though I’m definitely not averse to genre-crossing.
  3. Older is better than newer, but if there is a more recent series you feel absolutely must be read by everyone, let me know.
  4. Series that go on for five hundred enormous volumes are not preferred. Even with McCaffery, I’m going to draw the line after six books. I’ll probably eventually do Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, and that’s pushing it. The Wheel of Time is out of the question.
  5. I’ve read most of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books, all of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (so far), most of Madeleine L’Engle’s books in both her fictional universes, Tad Williams’s Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, almost everything related to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, all of Diana Wynne Jones’s stuff, the whole Harry Potter series, and a lot of Arthur C. Clarke’s writing, including every sequel to 2001, even the last one. There are plenty of other authors I could add to this list, but those are some of the usual suspects of nostalgic reading projects.
  6. Anyone who brings up Piers Anthony will be banned for life.

24 thoughts on “Tales From Earthsea: More Dragons, I’m Assuming

  1. Foreword and “The Finder”: I. In the Dark Time:

    I like the way Le Guin writes about Earthsea as quietly developing its own stories in the background when she’s not looking, so that she has to wait for things to happen before she can write them down. It’s especially great that her “research” into Earthsea history takes place through her actually writing Earthsea history. This collection begins with a story set hundreds of years in Earthsea’s past and ends with one set more or less in the now of Earthsea (as a bridge to THE OTHER WIND), so it’s going to be interesting to see Le Guin play with the wider Earthsea setting without being bound to particular characters and their stories.

    “The Finder” is divided into four parts, the first and last very short and the middle two very long. I read the first part today. It goes through some of the history of Earthsea before locating the story in the dark times in which magic descended into chaos and the people turned against witches and sorcerers, magic users not as well defended as the wizards who were really causing the problems. Here we see the origins of “weak as women’s magic.” The trajectory is creepily familiar, resembling, as it does, the history of women in Europe, with women who have legitimate economic roles eventually being ridiculed into powerlessness.

    The story proper will begin in “The Finder”: II. Otter.

  2. As always, I’m very late at commenting. I read the first four Earthsea books years ago, and now re-lived them with your commentary. This was very interesting, thank you!
    So now I have to read Tales from Earthsea, in order to continue enjoying your commentaries.

    As to suggestions what to read: Have you read the Chronicles of the Kencyrath series by P. C. Hodgell? The first book was published in 1982, the eigth last year, and there’s hopefully more to come. I discovered the series some years ago and really love it. With its female protagonist and exploring of gender roles it would fit well after Earthsea.

  3. Thanks, Nobilis. That’s interesting. I’ve never heard of the Kencyrath series, but I’ll definitely look it up.

  4. “The Finder”: II. Otter:

    I meant to read only half this 53-page chapter, but I got through the whole thing, marking be damned. It was hard to stop reading, partly because I was never sure quite where the story was going. Le Guin tells the story of Otter (true name Medra), a shipbuilder’s son with a magical gift but little training. Otter’s unwavering sense of right and wrong gets him in deep trouble, captured and enslaved by a mad wizard who works for a pirate king. During his enslavement, he discovers both his greatest gift as a finder and his bond with another magic user, a dying woman named Anieb who joins her power with his to defeat the wizard and free them both. Anieb dies, but her family helps him escape from those who pursue him, sending him out in search of a rumoured community of magic users called the Hand.

    If the first three Earthsea books are Le Guin’s take on epic heroism, and TEHANU swings the pendulum wildly in the other direction in a feminism rewriting of this world, “The Finder” seems—for the moment, at least—to offer balance. The magical resistance is being led by women (or both men and women, really, but they choose to identify their organisation as female so that they sound weak to those opposed to them), but in the cooperation of Otter and Anieb, both powerful and both untaught, we see the potential for a sort of wholeness. Otter is appealing because he’s the opposite of young Ged; he’s certainly got his ideas about how things should be, but these ideas are unselfish, not inwardly focused. When Anieb’s family declares him a “man of great power,” his immediate reaction is to deny this and attribute everything he’s done to Anieb. The reader can see the truth is somewhere in the middle: neither Otter nor Anieb could have been successful without the talents and ingenuity of the other. I don’t know what will happen to Otter—whether power will corrupt, or whether he’ll continue along the unselfish path—but for the moment, he’s a little sliver of hope in a very dark time.

    The next chapter, III. Tern, is seventy pages long, so I think I’ll aim to finish either a half or a third of it tomorrow. We’ll see.

  5. Hey Kari – ( this is Mimi btw) I am a big fan of Sheri Tepper. I started with the Mavin Manyshaped series, and I was hooked. I think my favourite series of hers was the Marianne Trilogy. She was just a brilliant writer. I think I have read just about every book she wrote – even the horror stories – though I don’t like horror that much.

    She wrote a dystopia, The Gate to the Women’s Country which is a stand alone classic. And also – on it’s own – Beauty – a “retelling” of Sleeping Beauty. Her book “Sideshow” is one of the most disturbing books I have ever read. I don’t actually recommend it. It was a tough one for me.

    Maybe you have read her and hate her – I dunno – but you asked.

  6. Thanks, Mimi. I’ve actually read BEAUTY, but not any of her other books. I’ll definitely keep her in mind.

  7. “The Finder”: III. Tern (part one):

    Otter/Tern/Medra arrives on Roke, which is, of course, the place he’s been looking for. Thus begins a delightfully awkward love story and the beginnings of the school on Roke, as Medra’s idealism merges with the knowledge of the wise women of Roke. It’s all a bit painful to read, as we know that this nice little society of mostly female magic users is going to give rise to something great…but great only for men, while women are barred from the knowledge and relegated to lesser roles. But hey…that hasn’t happened yet. At the moment, everything is all shiny and new and Luke Skywalker rescuing the princess from the Death Star.

    I’ll try to finish III. Tern tomorrow, though since I have quite a few pages left to go, and I have to teach at 10:00 a.m., we’ll have to see.

  8. “The Finder”: III. Tern (part two) and IV. Medra:

    The end of “The Finder” is simultaneously surprising and not surprising at all. This is the story of the founding of the school on Roke, and the wizard it revolves around turns out to be the first Master Doorkeeper. The Doorkeeper is the most mysterious Master of Roke, the one who lurks behind all the stories but doesn’t really seem to be a proper part of them. Here we see a Doorkeeper before he finds his role, and it’s particularly fitting that this role is something he has to find, as his talents lie in finding.

    Medra’s story is gentle and moving, but behind it, things are changing on Roke, and we can see the beginning of the shift from the school being for all magic users to the school being for male magic users only. The story ends with men and women still taking part together, but hints of the future are there.

    This novella makes, as I observed a couple of days ago, a good balance between the first three Earthsea books and TEHANU, not just as per the gender roles but as per the action. It’s by definition a quest story, but it’s also one about staying still, finding a place of permanence.

    Tomorrow, I’ll delve into an Earthsea love story, “Darkrose and Diamond.”

  9. “Darkrose and Diamond”:

    The book’s back cover describes this as “a delightful story of young courtship, showing that wizards sometimes pursue alternative careers.” I’m not convinced that the author of the back-cover blurb has read the book. The story is a lot less light-hearted than this description implies. The protagonist, Diamond, is a merchant’s son with talents for both music and magic but passion only for the former. He loves Rose, a witch’s daughter. For some reason, when he’s sent to apprentice with a wizard for a short time, the celibacy spell the wizard lays on Diamond causes such a huge misunderstanding between them that Rose immediately takes up with another man, and Diamond decides he can only ever do one thing and gives up magic AND music AND his love for Rose to become a merchant. He eventually gets over it and runs off with Rose to play music, but he doesn’t seem all that happy about it and still retains the belief he can do only one thing at a time.

    The story is a little unsatisfying, not as a love story but just as a STORY, period. It seems disjointed. The whole crisis of the plot is based on a giant misunderstanding that could be solved with a few words (“I wasn’t ignoring your sendings; I was under a spell”). If it were a bit funnier, it would make a decent sitcom plot arc. The plot trajectory is basically, “Boy with musical talent faffs about for years, then becomes a musician. Also, he gets the girl.” It’s nice that the story has ragged edges and no definitive happy ending; I appreciate that. However, it just seems a bit pointless.

    Earthquakes are up next in “The Bones of the Earth.”

  10. “The Bones of the Earth”:

    This little story of Ogion, Ogion’s teacher, and Ogion’s teacher’s teacher is slight but still somehow has a lot in it. All that really happens in the story is that Ogion and Heleth stop an earthquake, or at least lessen its effects. The heroism in the story is quiet, not showy; Heleth’s sacrifice is known only to himself and Ogion, as it happens in silence and isolation.

    There’s an earthiness about this story, inherent in the recurring images of mud and dirt, as well as Heleth’s humble life amongst his chickens. The one surprise is the revelation that Heleth’s teacher, Ard, was a woman. The mystery of Ard’s bad reputation is solved when Heleth uses the pronoun “she” for the first time. Yet Ard teaches Heleth a spell unknown to the masters of Roke, and Heleth uses it to save Gont Port.

    The end of the story is understated but satisfying, with Ogion taking up residence in Heleth’s old house and resolving to get some goats. We met the descendants of those goats in the earlier Earthsea books.

    “On the High Marsh” is next, and I have no idea what to expect from that one, which apparently “tells of the love of power—and of the power of love.”

  11. “On the High Marsh”:

    I’m hoping “Darkrose and Diamond” is the weakest story in this collection, and so far, this seems to be the case. “On the High Marsh” is a story that takes place during Ged’s time as Archmage; Ged himself makes an appearance at the end of the story, telling a tale that solves the mystery of Irioth, the puzzling mentally ill mage who loves animals. The heart of Irioth’s story, however, is not in his past but in his quiet friendship with Gift, the dairywoman who takes him in. Irioth’s old need to control everyone and everything, which seems to have arisen from his inability to see those around him as people, is eventually overcome by Gift’s no-nonsense faith in him. There are some unfortunate implications here, similar to those of A BEAUTIFUL MIND–mental illness can clearly be cured via sheer willpower! (or, in this case, the Power of Love!)–but they’re somewhat mitigated by the fact that Irioth is not really “cured”; he just finds a place he fits, mental illness and all.

    Tomorrow, we move into Earthsea’s future (i.e., a time after the events of TEHANU) with the novella “Dragonfly,” which I’ll be reading in bits.

  12. “Dragonfly,” I. Iria.

    “Dragonfly” has four chapters, and while the first and last are much shorter than the others, they’re more substantial than the first and last chapters of “The Finder.” Therefore, I’m going to go chapter by chapter with this one.

    The first chapter introduces the basic situation of the story: on the island of Way, a land called Iria is owned by a quarrelling family that has divided the land into bits. One of the four Masters of Iria has a daughter whose mother died in childbirth; he neglects her, to the extent that when someone suggests it’s time for her to receive her true name, he declares that neither the village witch nor a nearby sorcerer is good enough for the job and leaves her nameless. The girl, Dragonfly, goes to the witch, Rose, and insists she be given a name, and the witch, without knowing quite why she does so, names the girl Irian. Irian is not pleased.

    The premise is an interesting one: a girl who feels as if she doesn’t belong is given a name irrevocably tying her to the place she is in the process of rejecting. I’m guessing this will have implications and consequences. As well, Rose tells Irian that she has some power, so she’s going to have to deal with that as well.

    Next up is II. Ivory.

  13. “Dragonfly,” II. Ivory:

    Ten years later, Irian meets a not-quite-wizard, Ivory, whose attempts to sleep with her get a bit out of his control and somehow end in him taking her to Roke, putatively to try to help her get into the school there, disguised as a man. At twenty-three, Irian is a strange combination of innocence and wholly untaught power. Ivory thinks of her as a bit stupid and ignorant, and we see her entirely from his perspective, so she remains a mystery to us as well. The shift in perspective turns a character we were beginning to get to know in the first chapter into someone who seems unknowable. It’s hard to know what to think about Irian. Is she as “simple” as she seems? What kind of power does she have? Her power seems almost the opposite of the usual wizardly power, as exemplified by the scene in which she tells Ivory her name. Rather than give him power over her, this seems to give HER power over HIM.

    Things will doubtless get weirder in III. Azver.

  14. “Dragonfly,” III. Azver:

    Irian is in a bit of a weird situation. We’re seeing things from her perspective again, but the “things” we’re seeing are mostly the Masters of Roke, and they continue to be very odd, as they have been in previous books. Irian has found a divided school on Roke. Four of the Masters are on her side, and five are against her, including the Summoner, Thorion, who has returned from death and just generally seems hugely problematic. Thorion is in the midst of making a power grab, trying to become Archmage and possibly setting himself up against the king. Irian’s presence has stirred something up and exacerbated the conflict, as the Summoner is using the forbidden presence of a woman to further his plans. Irian herself is also conflicted; she doesn’t know her place or her role, though she has developed a connection with the Patterner, whose use-name is Azver.

    We’ve also circled back to some aspects of “The Finder”; Irian is staying in Elehal and Medra’s old house, though the house is now associated only with “Otter”; Elehal/Ember has been erased. I’m sure THAT’S going to go over well.

    Everything will come to what I presume will be a dragony end in IV. Irian.

  15. “Dragonfly,” IV. Irian:

    The ending of this story seems more symbolic than anything. First, there’s the aspect of the regressive dead man; Thorion may as well be wearing a badge reading “Things Were Better in the Good Old Days.” He represents the patriarchy, the old establishment that continues to cling to power as the world changes around it, though it’s really (here literally) dead. Irian, on the other hand, is a new order that is also something very old, a return to a forgotten truth. The story doesn’t, however, end in a pat manner. Irian flies away, and the Doorkeeper recommends that the school open its doors. Thorion’s rule is over, but the future remains uncertain.

    This is an odd little story. Its meanings are sometimes a bit too obvious, but certainly not all of them, and it all ends rather ambiguously. It reads like a question that MAY be answered, partially or wholly, in THE OTHER WIND. We’ll have to wait and see.

    The final “story” in the book is not a story at all but “A Description of Earthsea.” It’s about forty pages long. I’ll likely read it in two bits.

  16. “A Description of Earthsea,” Peoples and Languages:

    This piece is divided into three large segments, so I’ll do it over three days, not two.

    Le Guin is here fleshing out some of the aspects of Earthsea life and customs that lie behind her stories, even if they’re not explicitly covered there. The first segment lists the types of people found in the various regions of Earthsea (including the dragons, who, as the narrator points out, make be included in the Hardic word for “people”), then describes their languages and forms of writing. Throughout, the Kargish people are very obviously separated from the rest, as their customs render them the only people of Earthsea who scorn magic. They’re also virtually the only white people (there are others, but those are probably at least partially of Kargish ancestry), and Le Guin’s emphasis on their separateness is thus a reversal of the problematic Western practice of portraying people of colour as the “Other.” We haven’t heard too much about the wizards yet—just a bit about magic in general, as well as the Old Speech—but I expect that’s coming up in the next two segments.

    It’s funny how even though this piece is “non-fiction” only in the context of Earthsea itself (in other words, it’s putative non-fiction about a wholly fictional world), my brain insists on treating it like genuine non-fiction and tuning out occasionally because there’s no plot. Behave, brain. You shouldn’t be treating non-fiction like that at all.

    Next up is the longest of the three segments: History.

  17. “A Description of Earthsea,” History:

    A lot of the information in this chapter is just a fleshing out of stories we’ve heard in the previous books. Le Guin even refers to two of the books by name when she’s discussing a song of creation. It’s interesting to see how the history of Earthsea both does and doesn’t echo that of our world. It’s a completely different history, which different kinds of impulses driving it (i.e., this is not historical fantasy in any sense of the term), but the turmoil and rapidly shifting political systems are recognisable in their broader patterns from medieval history.

    The final segment of this piece, and of the book, is a section on magic.

  18. “A Description of Earthsea,” Magic:

    A lot of the information here echoes that in earlier segments of the piece, but it’s necessary to bring things full circle, giving us a more complete understanding of the politics of magic in Earthsea (and especially on Roke).

    The whole of “A Description of Earthsea” is, as Le Guin mentions in her afterword, an attempt to piece together the history behind the stories. In that context, it’s a necessary part of the collection, a skeletal structure that holds the stories together, filling in the gaps between them.

    That’s it for TALES FROM EARTHSEA. I’ll try to write up an analytical post at some point in the next few days (it’s still Frantic Marking Time, so I’m no sure how long it will take). Then it will be on to THE OTHER WIND, the final book of the Earthsea series.

  19. It will probably take more effort than walking into your nearest used-book store or library to find a copy, but I’d like to see you read Doris Lessing’s Canopus in Argos series..

  20. Quasihumanist: Interesting. I don’t know that one, but I’ll keep my eye out for it.

  21. Hi Kari,
    I hope Frantic Marking Time didn’t eat yout Earthsea books … and that you are well.
    I’ve now read The Other Wind, and would like to hear your opinion on it.

  22. Yeah, the marking set me back, and then I just sort of lost track of the project. I *am* planning to get back to it, though. I’ll try to do that soon.

  23. _Lord of the Rings_ is missing from your list…

    I mention it because it’s the top of my “I really should have read this decades ago” list. I started the hobbit when I was really, really sick with mono, and couldn’t get through it. I’m sure this is to do with mono — I spent a couple of weeks sleeping 20 hours a day and eating nothing but popsicles and milkshakes (took 20 years before I could face popsicles again).

    I should really give the series a try when I’m not deathly ill. Also, I’m told the Hobbit is perhaps not the best book to start on.

  24. I guess I left out LOTR because I’m so familiar with it that it didn’t even occur to me that people would assume I wasn’t. I first read it when I was thirteen, and I teach THE HOBBIT three times a year.

    I would actually recommend starting with THE HOBBIT. A lot of people start with LOTR, then go to THE HOBBIT expecting it to be the same kind of thing, which it isn’t. THE HOBBIT is one of my favourite books. Tolkien wrote it explicitly for children, so do expect some of that 1930s’ condescension towards the reader, but it does work with the feel of the book, which is more of a fairy tale than an epic. In fact, Tolkien has taken an epic, BEOWULF, and effectively retold a third of it from the perspective of a minor character. While the epic plot is going on in the background, in the foreground we get a homebody hobbit who is, to his bewilderment, hired by a bunch of useless dwarves to steal a dragon’s hoard. Despite the dragon, it’s a much smaller story than LOTR, but perhaps because of that, it’s also much less conventional (even when you take into account that LOTR created a lot of the conventions of the genre; I’m talking more in terms of how each story fits into the hero’s-journey archetype).

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