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Book Review : Tales from Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea novels were a source of pure delight when I first discoverd them as a boy. Earthsea lay somewhere between Narnia and Middle Earth in the geography of my mind, a place of magic, terror, beauty and wisdom. I loved all these worlds (although rereading Narnia recently was a disappointment), but it was Le Guin, I think, that had the greatest effect on me. Years later, when I started writing, it was Earthsea that I sailed closest to. Le Guin's work affects me in ways I'm not even aware of. Even down to the use of individual words that I've "made up" only to find that Le Guin thought them up decades ago.

Tales from Earthsea is a collection of short stories - novellas really - set in Le Guin's fantasy world. Various events from the whole history of Earthsea are dramatized. Thus we get the story of Ogion's taming of the Gont earthquake in The Bones of the Earth, events merely alluded to in A Wizard of Earthsea published some thirty-four years earlier. In On the High Marsh, Ged himself turns up, like a long-lost friend.

I was struck, as I was reading the stories, that the wizards in Le Guin can be read as metaphors for writers. It isn't just the way they tend to live in poverty, devoted to their arts. It's more to so with the way they spend their lives searching out and understanding the language of "true speech" : the words of power that allow the world to be understood, identified, manipulated. If you know the true name for something you have power over it, like a writer capturing the essence of something with the perfect word or phrase. Both wizard and writer conjure up believable illusions by using the correct words. Writers, as it were, as spellers, spellmakers. Whether this is deliberate on Le Guin's part I have no idea.

Always, Le Guin's writing is profoundly human, in the widest sense of the term. Everything that people are capable of, good and bad, glorious and horrific, is described. This is literature that is also fantasy : far, far removed from the "commodified fantasy" churned out by the "mills of capitalism" she describes in the introduction. It deserves the widest readership. Le Guin has won numerous "genre" awards for her writing over the years, but never the Booker or the Nobel. It's a strange world.


  1. That's beautiful, Simon. To be a weaver of magic - much nicer than the day job!

  2. Probably my favorite fantasy series ever. Such beautiful prose, and not a wasted word or an excessive one. I re-read them every couple of years or so and marvel anew.


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