Earthsea, Ursula Le Guin’s magical world of islands and archipelagoes, is going through a period of intense, uncomfortable social change. The old ways no longer work and the new ones are not yet clear. At last there is a central government, though its young head of state is still establishing his authority, and it’s bumpy going in the wild Kargish lands, where the religion, language and ethnicity are different and the women wear burqas. He has also encountered some resistance from the college of wizards at Roke, a theocratic caste that has ruled for centuries and become rather stiff and doctrinaire, as well as hateful toward women. Now Earthsea has suddenly been plunged into turmoil by two simultaneous assaults. One is an invasion of the collective unconscious by the voices and images of the dead, who beg to be set free from the dry land behind the wall of stones where they are confined. The other comes in fire from the skies, as dragons zoom in from the west to attack farm and forest. What is the reason for these threats? Are they connected? And does this society have what it takes to meet them?
Such are the themes of Ursula Le Guin’s two new Earthsea books: Tales From Earthsea and The Other Wind: the boundary between life and death, terror from the sky and how hard it is for male-dominant societies to listen to women. Timely themes, from an acknowledged master not only of fantasy but of science fiction as well, a feminist, anarchist and Green whose books are taught in universities, and who has won many literary prizes (five Nebulas, five Hugos, the National Book Award for children’s literature, a Newbery silver medal, Horn book award). In a country that valued wisdom and symbolic thinking, these two books would have been met with hosannas from coast to coast.
Does it matter that they weren’t? I think so. To me, Le Guin is not only one of the purest stylists writing in English but the most transcendently truthful of writers. The books she writes are not true in the way facts are true; they speak to a different kind of truth and satisfy a desire for narrative that is so fundamental it must be in our cells. As she puts it:
The great fantasies, myths, and tales are indeed like dreams: they speak from the unconscious to the unconscious, in the language of the unconscious–symbol and archetype. Though they use words, they work the way music does: they short-circuit verbal reasoning, and go straight to the thoughts that lie too deep to utter. They cannot be translated fully into the language of reason, but only a Logical Positivist, who also finds Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony meaningless, would claim that they are therefore meaningless. They are profoundly meaningful, and usable–practical–in terms of ethics; of insight; of growth.
“The Child and the Shadow” (1975), in The Language of the Night
Le Guin wrote the first three Earthsea books thirty years ago. A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) is the coming-of-age story of the boy Ged, who meddles in forbidden lore and summons up a rough, bearlike Shadow, who attacks and nearly kills him. The rest of the book concerns Ged’s struggle to understand this Shadow, so strong it could bring destruction to the world unless he can defeat it. What is this rough beast? Why does it increasingly resemble him?
The second Earthsea book, The Tombs of Atuan (1970) takes place in the Kargish lands, which are separate from and more primitive than the rest of Earthsea. It is the story of Tenar, who as a small child became Arha, the Eaten One, priestess of the tombs of Atuan, ruled by the old earth powers of death, blood and brooding revenge. Into this dark underground labyrinth comes Ged, looking for the ring of Erreth-Akbe, which bears a lost rune of peace that can bring about a new era. Injured, starving, trapped, he is not strong enough to fight the old earth powers and escape unless Tenar helps him. Her entire upbringing urges her to kill him, but he is the first man she has ever seen as well as the first wizard, and she is tempted. In the end, she chooses life and escape, seeing that, by freeing him, she can also free herself. But then what? Where can she go once she is free?