Ursula Le Guin: The Other Wind
Orion Children’s Books 2002 (2001)
O my joy!
Before bright Ea was, before Segoy
Bade the islands be,
The morning wind blew on the sea.
O my joy, be free!
When Lebannen, king of all the isles of Earthsea, remembers this fragment of a ballad or lullaby from his childhood he is sailing on the Inland Sea. A storm has passed; whether it is the words, the tune or being on deck that has brought the words to mind matters less than that it is a leitmotif for this final novel in the Earthsea sequence, and perhaps for the whole sequence. It recalls a beginning and even an ending, for on the last page Tenar whispers the final words to Ged: O my joy, be free . . .
The Other Wind is, however one looks at it, the last novel in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea sequence: the collection Tales from Earthsea includes episodes which predate the events in this swansong instalment but these two books, along with Tehanu, form a balancing trilogy with the first three books which, the author came to recognise, gave a rather unbalanced worldview of her creation in terms of gender.
As Earthsea’s existence and survival is bound up with balance, it was only morally and poetically right for its Creator to follow the male-dominated first trilogy with a second reasserting female contribution; and if that involved if not retconning then at least establishing that the fulcrum of power on the Island of Roke was initiated by women as much as men justice could not only be done but seen to be done. And though some benighted erstwhile fans saw this somehow as too politically correct, to this reader at least Earthsea’s yin was finally complemented by its yang and Le Guin’s passion made manifest.
When The Other Wind opens we meet Alder, a troubled man who has come to meet Ged on the island of Gont for possible answers. Ged — whom we first met as in A Wizard of Earthsea as the eponymous mage, and who rose from nothing to become Archmage before losing his powers in order to restore balance to the world — is also troubled, but in a different way. Outwardly he seems reconciled to his loss of power and status, deriving a quiet joy from mundane tasks and routines, but we sense that that loss of status is not quite something he has entirely come to terms with.
This underlying unease is somehow tied up with Ged’s refusal to see Lebannen, the young man who’s now king and whom Ged took with him to the world of the dead and back again. But, as is the way with much fantasy, this impasse and others must be tackled before the troubles facing Earthsea can be addressed, let alone resolved.
Lebannen posits that when Ged had handed over temporal power to the young king the erstwhile wizard wanted not to appear to be a power behind the throne, that to seem in any way to be an adviser to Lebannen was to limit the young king’s capacity to act. This isn’t a full explanation of Ged’s motives in withdrawing from the world but it seems to be an explanation for Lebannen, that transfer of absolute power. If this is partly true then it’s a typically masculine thing to attribute power-play as the rationale behind actions.
As the novel progress it’s pretty clear that Tenar is the fulcrum around which everything pivots, the eye of the storm as it were; and her quiet presence and unassuming actions often appear to make a difference. After the opening male-centred chapter on the island of Gont the second chapter sees more emphasis on the women: Tenar, the enabler; the as yet unnamed Kargad Princess who starts to be revealed; the promise of a reacquaintance with the elemental Irian from the short story ‘Dragonfly’ from Tales from Earthsea. And then there is Tehanu, still the shy enigma from the fourth book but who begins to show her true self and power.
Irian and Tehanu are I think the most perplexing of Le Guin’s characters. If I came across them in our world I would suspect they’d be on the autistic spectrum (though I know not all would agree with me). Their sense of their own otherness, their solitariness mistaken as aloofness, their capacity to speak only truth as they see it, a lack of guile, different physicality and unique sensitivity – all these and more suggest females on the spectrum, of a different order from that presented by males.
The central part of the novel concerns the interplay of the personalities and proposed plans of action at the so-called Dragon Council at Lebannen’s palace before the setting off on the Dolphin for the Island of Roke, where a key part of what constitutes the energy and health of Earthsea resides. On that voyage the author asks us readers to consider the weakness of men who want to appear strong and independent but are suspicious of what they see as threats; she affirms the strength women get from talking and working together.
Thus Tenar the farmer’s widow comes across as the quiet mover and shaker. Along with Alder (who, like Ged, has voluntarily given up his power), she has sensed where there is unease, disunity, things not right with the world; unlike Alder she is unobtrusively proactive, persuading Tehanu to come out of her shell, advising Lebannen, coaching the Kargad princess Seserakh, comforting Alder until he is able to unite with his beloved Lily.
The author leaves us with a message for all times but one which is still unheeded despite an increasing urgency for the environment and humanity’s future. During the convocation in the Immanent Grove on Roke, Irian has just railed against the men who stole from the dragons, and is about to remind the gathering of the eldest dragon’s warning.
“Irian hesitated, and then said in a much subdued voice, ‘Greed puts out the sun. These are Kalessin’s words.’”
“Greed puts out the sun.” Why is this clarion call still ignored by the world at large? Published in 2001, The Other Wind was not necessarily prescient but it becomes more and more true, more and more urgent, and the warning may even be too late. We are endangering the world, upsetting the balance. And when I say We I mean specifically men: male politicians, CEOs, magnates, press barons, rogue nations led by men. Le Guin wrote of “the power that power had over the minds and hearts of men”. I think she was conscious of the power of words and did indeed mean much of one half of the population.
Some of these comments have been lifted from my remarks in a discussion conducted for Witch Week in 2018 on The Other Wind.
For those Earthsea fans puzzling over the timeline that dictates the sequence of events in the saga there is some interesting discussion here (accessed 20.12.2019): http://www.tavia.co.uk/earthsea/timeline.htm
Today sees the last concert I’m performing in before Christmas, after a month of school, church and community carol services, plus performances singing Renaissance music and settings of psalms, accompanying soloists and playing orchestral piano.
I’ve therefore been a bit hit-and-miss in responding to posts by fellow bloggers, for which I apologise. (You may, of course, not have noticed … ) After Christmas I do hope to be more attentive to your utterances into the aether!