Ursula Le Guin: Tales from Earthsea
Orion Children’s Books 2002 (2001)
A story may be pieced together from such scraps and fragments, and though it will be an airy quilt, half made of hearsay and half of guesswork, yet it may be true enough.
— From ‘The Finder’
In the middle of Earthsea, nestled within the vast island archipelago, is the Inmost Sea. In the centre of that sea is the island of Roke. And on that island is the Immanent Grove, by the eminence that is Roke Knoll. And above all, the sky. Earth, water, wood and air: elements that we meet time and again in Tales from Earthsea and, indeed, in the whole saga. And to those we should also add fire.
Ursula Le Guin’s five Earthsea novels, expanded from the original trilogy to a quartet and then, three decades on, to a pentad, have felt at times like the saga of Duny, later called Sparrowhawk but now known as Ged. True, it drew in other participants — Tenar, Lebannen and Tehanu, for example — but principally we have followed Ged from boyhood to Archmage and on to old age.
We will have always known however that there were — that there will have to have been — other stories to tell, and in this collection we are offered five of them, along with an essay giving us some of the who, what, when and where of this magical world. And I mean ‘magical’ in all the senses of this word.
The five tales each feature inhabitants from five different islands around the archipelago: Semel, Havnor, Gont, Way and Roke. “The Finder” for example, though it begins on Havnor, in fact concerns the founding of the school of magic on Roke Island in the midst of the Inmost Sea. The second piece “Darkrose and Diamond” (which was actually first published in 1999) is set on Havnor, the large island on the northern edge of that sea. “The Bones of the Earth” takes us back to Gont, where the whole saga began; “On the High Marsh” is set on Semel in the northwest (just as Gont is an outlier to the northeast). Finally “Dragonfly” (published in 1998 and therefore the earliest in this collection) begins on the island of Way in the east.
It’s important to note that, even at this late stage, the author is exploring the geography of her secondary world, even as she guided us round the four compass points in earlier novels. Only the far outliers of the North Reach remain largely unknown to readers. One of the reasons I’m sure she ranges so far is not purely for completism but to show how the different peoples of Earthsea had a hand in determining how the balance of this world was to be effected.
“The Finder” is an almost novella-length piece about the founding of the school for mages on the island of Roke. Although a young man called Otter is the protagonist the tale is a subtle exploration of how the school’s origins owed as much to women as to men. It is Le Guin retro-engineering the initial perception that the school was entirely founded by male mages: she shows how it began as a joint enterprise, only to be subverted over three centuries by domineering men. Though many of the pieces in this collection emphasise that women’s magic was not, as the saying went, either wicked or weak, what stays with me as much as this approach is its melancholy, haunting quality, of rights and privileges hard won and not without pain.
“Darkrose and Diamond” is another melancholy piece, though much shorter. Ostensibly a love story, it is one with neither a happy nor a tragic ending, and so it’s pointless looking for a fairytale conclusion nor a rerun of Romeo and Juliet. In fact, for a fantasy collection Tales from Earthsea is remarkably realistic when dealing with relationships and the vagaries of fortune, and this tale is no exception. (And I especially appreciated the inclusion of a snatch of a boat song from West Havnor, the poignant words coupled with music: Where my love is going, | There I will go.) This is followed by “The Bones of the Earth”, a tale of Ogion, Sparrowhawk’s teacher, in the days when he was much younger. An impending earthquake is not just something he has to consider but a kind of metaphor for the seismic shift in the balance that awaits Earthsea in The Other Wind.
With “On the High Marsh” we continue our journey through time from Roke’s origins to this account of one of the tasks Sparrowhawk as Archmage had to address between becoming Archmage and the events in The Farthest Shore. This is a story of suspicion and acceptance and a lot more besides, on an island we’ve not before become acquainted with, though I fancy we’ve spied it at a distance. “Dragonfly” is also set on an island we’ve only skirted before, though it takes us eventually on to Roke.
What happened after the heartbreaking events of Tehanu, with its hints of unknown connections between humans and dragons, before the resolutions yet to be met in The Other Wind? “Dragonfly” fills in some of the details in its account of Irian, a young woman of Way. Here is a singular character, aloof, strong, sure of what she wants but who is feared for being different. The revelation of who she is and what she is capable of makes, for me, this tale one of the most uplifting in the collection and one that also comes closest to a kind of fairytale ending.
These five, as it were, episodes in the history of Earthsea, however spread out in time and space somehow partake of a collective character. They exude that melancholy I mentioned earlier, of pain slowly being addressed and ultimately remedied. Far from being pessimistic though they contain seeds of optimism; and far from expectations of so-called High Fantasy they contain none of the epic battles that typify much of the subgenre. These tales are honed down to reflect personal lives, of individuals struggling with acceptance and isolation, most of whom achieve some measure of victory, however small. Some are visibly different or suffer from a disability, others are sensed as something ‘other’ though it’s not always possible to put one’s finger on what the ‘otherness’ consists of.
Isolation, of course, comes from the Italian word for island, isola, but as Donne said, ‘No man is an island’: in these tales, as in an archipelago where all islands are joined under the surface of the sea, individuals seek to make connections with neighbours, with others of their kind, with the land they live on. Better that than insulation, another word to do with islands (insula is the Latin original from which we get ‘isle’) where separation from the outside leads to sterility and madness.
“A Description of Earthsea” bookends Tales from Earthsea with a Foreword; unlike the latter, the Description is fiction parading as non-fiction, purporting as it does to be a summary of Peoples and Places, History, and Magic in Earthsea. It is both detailed and yet allusive, hinting at more than is offered but authoritative in that it is penned by the only begetter.
May 1st is also the feast of St Walpurga, an Englishwoman venerated in Germany as someone to be invoked against, plague, rabies, whooping cough and witchcraft