Having re-read Ursula Le Guin's original three Earthsea novels in three months, it's understandable to see them as the 'Earthsea Cycle' rather than the 'Earthsea Trilogy', not because she eventually got round to writing more books, which she did, but because the three originals are utterly different from each other in tone and voice. Sure, Ged appears in all three of them, but they don't feel remotely akin to each other and there's very little other commonality to be found except the world in which they were set and the fact that they're all coming of age stories.
'A Wizard of Earthsea' was Ged's coming-of-age novel, in which he let loose a horror and then spent the rest of the book questing to contain it. He was a grown man in 'The Tombs of Atuan' but not the lead; while that story was another coming-of-age book, it belonged to Tenar and he was just a supporting character in it. Here, we've moved on again; while Ged's prominent throughout and drives the story more than anyone else, it's Arren's book and, yes, he very much comes of age during it.
Arren is a young northern prince, from the island of Enlad, who travels to the wizards' school in Roke to bring bad news. He's not the only one, as the same news has been coming from the south too: magic is dying and losing its power. Wizards forget how to work their spells, singers forget their songs, regular people forget what magic has done for them. Ged is now the Archmage, the most powerful wizard of them all, to whom the others defer and who now runs the school he once attended. Naturally, it's to him that the wizards look for a solution and he decides to set sail once more in search of one. Arren is the one companion he takes with him, though the boy is blissfully unaware as to why.
While there was certainly darkness in the first two books, they weren't dark books. In 'A Wizard of Earthsea', the darkness was the enemy, which initially sought Ged until he sought it in return and it ran; there was strong potential for it to affect others, but it was really kept in isolation. In 'The Tombs of Atuan', the darkness wasn't new but it had faded into ritual and it was overthrown by enlightenment. Here, the darkness is what's inflicted on the land; Ged and Arren find their enemy to fight but are assaulted by the darkness long before that. It lies upon the land, affecting the populations of entire islands and threatening to engulf the world.
It feels like a 'grim up north' sort of novel, appropriate given that both Ged and Arren are northerners but ironic given that they search for a solution in the southernmost and westernmost reaches of Earthsea. There's a point, late in the novel, when they finally sail north to be engulfed by a fog; the language seems to sum up the novel: 'The fog was welcome, like an old friend. Softly it enclosed the boat so that they could not see far, and it was to them like being in a familiar room after many weeks of bright and barren space and the wind blowing.' The only thing that sentence misses is that fog isn't only a literal escape from the sun but a metaphorical homecoming to begin their escape from the darkness that plagues the land. The Finns and the Icelanders and the Yorkshiremen know what I'm talking about.
Le Guin makes little effort to detail this threat. While we might easily see magic as being threatened by science or religion, Ged has a handle on it from the start. He's modest and close-lipped, certainly, telling the Summoner: 'If I knew, I would speak. I know nothing. I guess much.' But he understands the philosophy that drove Le Guin to write the book, a Taoist philosophy about balance to which the mages refer as a great Equilibrium. Others see the malaise as an evil or a pestilence, but Ged moves past that immediately, explaining to Arren that pestilence is a part of things, 'a motion of the great balance'. Nature cannot be unnatural; so the only way that balance can be upset is by man lusting after power over nature through the search for eternal life.
If that sounds deep, then that's fair. This is a slower, more thoughtful, much more philosophical volume than its predecessors. Of course, they contained much thought and philosophy, but they were wrapped up in story; here they are the story. When Ged quested through 'A Wizard of Earthsea', we learned about the world as he did so. We don't learn much more here about Earthsea, with the glorious exception of the Children of the Open Sea, a population who live on rafts on the waves, only returning to land once a year. Here, where we visit places or meet characters, we're not seeing them as they should be but as they have been changed by the darkness. In many ways, they're merely props, even when they're all-powerful dragons. With only Ged and Arren themselves and even them not entirely, it's the tone and the philosophy that we must follow and both are deep.
Arren's journey is a unique one within this cycle. Ged's fight was with something he created because it must be him who destroys it. Tenar went through a lot as she grew, but it took years and she knew little else. Arren, however, finds himself fighting a battle he doesn't understand against an enemy he doesn't know and without any knowledge of why he's even there. Within that framework, he's still beleaguered. At one point, he's chased and abducted onto a slaver ship, a nightmarish trip that unfolds like a hallucination. We're not even sure it's real until he's rescued. Later, when Ged is severely wounded trying to land on an island, they sail aimlessly and he finds his faith in his master seriously tested by powers unseen but not unfelt. It's a heck of a journey for him.
I can't say I didn't like 'The Farthest Shore' but it's a much harder, deeper read than either of its predecessors. It has a harder, deeper ending too: a happy one, to be sure, with Arren growing into an important new position and Ged retiring to his own land, his job done, but Le Guin cuts all that off so severely that it hardly happens. She quite clearly felt that, while it wasn't really the end of this book, it was the beginning of another that she didn't need to write. No, it isn't the next one, 'Tehanu', which she wrote almost two decades later.
I did, however, appreciate it. It's a rare trilogy (or cycle or whatever we want to call it) that manages to say so much, often without seeming to. That goes double when written specifically for children. I've personally had a blast revisiting it perhaps three and a half decades on from my last time through and I'm sure I'm reading with fresh eyes that benefit from those thirty-some years of experience. Above all that I found, though, I have to ask myself, if Ursula K. Le Guin is this good and this deep when writing for children, how good must she be when writing for adults and winning Hugo awards? ~~ Hal C F Astell
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For other books by Ursula K Le Guin click here