Review of the Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. LeGuin

The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. LeGuin (b. 1929 – d. 2018)

(Book 1: A Wizard of Earthsea, 1968. Book 6: The Other Wind, 2001)

The Earthsea Cycle is a series of 6 “Young Adult” novels set in a fantasy universe much like Tolkien’s Middle Earth, or C. S. Lewis’ Narnia. (Although by book 4 “Tehanu”, they are hardly “YA”.) Like all fantasy fables the series is a moralizing tale; the light and the dark, the correct use of power, the grand story of all human imagination, all tightly bound within an imagined land with magic and dragons. I’ll hesitate to describe the whole series but rather describe, briefly, what it could mean to all of us in 2019.

The real beauty of Earthsea is that in telling this long story LeGuin lived 32 years of her life. This is not the high concept genius of a young writer trying to blow your mind. This series is a rhythmic song and with each successive book learns a bit more of what being human means. There is something deeply endearing about this, it is hard to put my finger on it. Yet when book 6 (the other wind) finally ended I felt that the story could never been told all at once. The long story needed real time. And in an intellectual climate of ‘superstars’ and ‘bold ideas’, and ‘look how many books he/she wrote by the age of 30!’, the long despairing, hopeful, joyful fable of Earthsea provides an alternative: eternal ideas we grow old with; a slow and communal wisdom where we recognize our errors and continue story beyond youthful energy.

And the heroes of Earthsea grow old. It begins (in book 1) with a coming of age story of Ged and ends (book 6) with him in his late 70s, grey haired and without his grand magical powers. As I said, fantasy is moralizing, Ged’s own moral journey progresses like this: with encountering his own shadow; to navigating the labyrinths of mind; to touching the Nietzschean void of meaning in middle age; to overcoming shame and the loss of (masculine) power; to trust in others, and that real wisdom may in fact come from drinking wine, at night, in front of a fire wandering in thought with those you love, and the beauty of walking in the forest silently in autumn.

Of the fantasy tradition: Tolkien’s moral world describes a war on “amassing evil”. LeGuin’s world has slavery but no epic battles. Tolkien’s Darkness is absolute, and deeply corrupting, and only overcome with genuine friendship. LeGuin’s Darkness isn’t absolute, it is just a function of the Light, and is never overcome but recognized. Both are careful retellings of human myth, affecting and dynamic in their own ways, but in the end I prefer LeGuin’s Taoist revision. Her story lacks the feeling of a single epic quest yet contains the enduring truth that we are not forever protagonists: at best we get a trilogy.

The full arc of the stories tells of an imbalance of power. This imbalance is only understood when peoples from every background and cultural history, and school of learning, come together and compare their myths and knowledge, finding that one truth was remembered over there and another truth remembered here. As the stories coalesce we finally (after 6 books) learn how we became unbalanced. Memory is odd. And institutions remember even more strangely. Thus, LeGuin’s final moral hint is ethnographical: your culture will not mend the divisions in reality alone; perhaps the answer to your question is in another’s story.

So in 2019, a year after LeGuin herself rejoined the earth, with the internet and air travel pushing our traditions in a dangerous and wonderful confluence, in the twilight years of our planet, how will we mend the essential divisions in reality, how will we survive the unknown? Through power and marshal strength? Or in gathering, translating, and the raw courage of acknowledging our own ignorance?

Or… in a line: When the winds of change arrive, I will be there with you to unbuild the wall.