Ursula K. Le Guin,
Tales from Earthsea
(Harcourt, 2001; Ace, 2002)

Ursula Le Guin admits in the foreword to Tales From Earthsea that she once thought she was done chronicling that particular world. Happily for fans, she's found herself to be wrong. Her writing is as persuasive as always and has an extra crispness in these stories of Earthsea's past and sort-of present. These five stories fill in some important gaps in the history of Roke, the fate of Ged's acquaintances and the lives of normal people on the archipelago.

I've felt more than once that current practice of magic on Earthsea is rather lifeless. Wizards can't be women, can't have sex -- or children, of course -- can't marry, and in general can't really be part of the world they're supposed to serve. Women with magic can be witches, remaining a part of their communities, but they can just as easily be condemned and ostracized for being that dangerous creature: a powerful woman. Why are women such second-class citizens? Why is the school on Roke so paranoid? And how long can a society lasts that isolates some of its most powerful citizens? The first and last story in this collection answer some those questions and show a hope for change in the tradition-bound world of Earthsea.

"The Finder" goes back to Earthsea's Dark Ages, when Roke was just an island nobody could find and the world was ruled by military might. Otter is just a shipbuilder's son with a little magic skill when he is kidnapped by the local warlord and made to help create mercury, which the warlord's mad wizard thinks holds the key to ultimate power. With the help of a talented girl also slaving away, he manages to escape, and with the sign she has given him and his own Finder's talent, he comes across the island of Roke. He's greeted with suspicion by the island's women. The women rule Roke because, they say, women are easy to overlook. But men are angered by other men with power. The story follows Finder and Roke from being a mere fugitives' island, however magically guarded, to a center of power in Earthsea. It also hints at the sadder tale of how women fell from being a bastion of learning to being forbidden from it.

"Darkrose and Diamond" follows the conflict of a boy who doesn't have a great gift -- he has two. It's so nice to see a fantasy character loaded with magic who isn't burdened by a Destiny. Diamond is burdened by the expectations of society and family, and those can be almost as heavy as destiny. There's a triumph here not of magic.

"The Bones of the Earth" is also about sacrifice, and the greatest unseen work of magic ever performed on Earthsea. As with all the Le Guin's stories, great actions here have a price, and happy endings can't happen for everyone. Older fans will also be glad to see some of the history of Ged's quiet mentor revealed.

Ged's life has of course had ripples beyond what could be covered in the previous books. "On The High Marsh" takes up the story of a former adversary, and his gentle redemption. It also shows more of the regular people of the world, and how they regard magic. The reactions of the villagers near the marsh suggest that wizards have indeed lost some connection with the people outside Roke. But there are hints of improvement.

"Dragonfly" offers the satisfaction of watching a woman break past the glass ceiling on Roke at last, attaining again some of the power women had in its founding. The damnation of one of Ged's contemporaries in his return from the dead is disturbing. "Dragonfly" ends the tales of Earthsea on a hopeful note, with change on the wing.

Finally, there is "A Description of Earthsea," which is not a tale but a sort of abbreviated atlas. There's a history of Earthsea, including the events Le Guin has already chronicled, and a sort of traveler's guide to the different lands. It's a great primer for those who are just being introduced to the world and fills in some gaps for those who have followed the Earthsea chronicles from the beginning.

In the introduction to Tales, Le Guin says she once thought she had finished her stories of Earthsea, that she'd caught up to "now" and had no more to say. She goes on to say that "now" is always changing, and she'll be returning to Ged's world to show what happens next. I'm looking forward to seeing the future of Earthsea, but more stories from the past would be welcome.

[ by Sarah Meador ]
Rambles: 31 August 2002

Buy it from Amazon.com.