Feb. 26th, 2017

white_hart: (Matilda)
It's probably 35 years since I first read what was, at the time, Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea Trilogy. Although I've counted the first three books among my favourites ever since, and Le Guin as one of my favourite writers, somehow even though I bought copies of the updated "quartet", Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind when the last two were published in the early 2000s I had never got round to reading any of the later books until now (I did try, about 14 years ago, and hit a bad patch of reader's block halfway through The Tombs of Atuan which put me off trying again in case it was just that I couldn't read Le Guin any more, though I think now it was stress and depression and tiredness and this time I certainly didn't have any problems reading all four of the "quartet" in a week).

A Wizard of Earthsea was much as I remembered it from multiple re-readings, though I was suprised at how short it was, how few words Le Guin used to evoke the world of Earthsea, and how vividly she did it. My sensitivity to setting, rather than plot, and my visual imagination have both developed a lot over the years since I first read Le Guin, and even though it's always been such a favourite I still found myself amazed at just how good it is.

I think The Tombs of Atuan was my favourite as a child, because although Ged, the wizard of the first book, reappears it's as a supporting character, and the central character is a young woman, and I liked that it was a book about a girl. It's a bleaker book, set in a harsh desert landscape and the darkness of the Labyrinth beneath it. I was struck once again, re-reading, by how atmospheric the writing is; there were elements of the plot and nuances of character I hadn't necessarily understood as a child, but overall it was still the book I loved when I was eight years old.

On the other hand, I had very little memory of The Farthest Shore, apart from a sense that I hadn't liked it much. In fact, I had so little memory of it that I felt as if I was reading some bits for the first time, although others were familiar. It's a beautiful, sad, complicated book; not really a book for children, though I suppose that in 1972 when it was first published books with wizards and dragons in them were just automatically assumed to be for children, and it is partly a coming-of-age story like the first two, although it's also (and, I think, more) a story about aging and accepting the inevitability of death. It felt very much like a critique of modern consumerism in places, as well as a wider exploration of the societies and cultures of Earthsea (Le Guin's fantasy world is not the usual one based heavily on medieval Europe; most of the people of Earthsea are dark-skinned and seem rather to have their roots in a variety of non-European cultures, and to set a direct challenge to the perception of those cultures, or any culture that doesn't share the same "values" and desire for "progress" as "primitive"*). It's not a comforting book; although on one level the ending is one of the traditional happy endings of fantasy, it also shows very clearly the huge cost of victory. I can see why I didn't like it as a child, but now I think it may be the best of the original trilogy.

And then Tehanu, which didn't exist when I first read the trilogy. Tehanu is a much more inward-looking novel; where the others, beyond their personal narratives, were concerned with high deeds, quests, bringing peace to a troubled world, Tehanu is concerned with the small thing, with domestic life, and with the position of women in Earthsea. It feels as though Le Guin, looking back with the hindsight of a decade and a half of the women's movement, realised that for all Earthsea's racial diversity and non-violence, for all its emphasis on balance and wholeness and acceptance, realised that she had created a world that ran along patriarchal lines, where high magic belonged to men, where there were kings and all the leaders were male, and where women were wives and mothers and village witches only capable of working minor charms, or priestesses serving the powers of darkness; and instead of shrugging and saying "that was a different time", she set out to deconstruct it, to re-examine Earthsea from a female, and explicitly feminist, perspective. And it's brilliant. It's done with care and subtlety; the language is simpler, more everyday, but no less beautiful or carefully chosen, than in the earlier books, and I loved the way this gave me the opportunity to understand what it might be like to live within the society of Earthsea, rather than simply passing through, aloof and untouchable, as the wizards do. Even though it's a story of small things, it's still just as much a story of big ideas as the earlier books were. And a fantasy novel about a middle-aged woman is a rare delight, and much to be treasured.

*I felt that Dorothy Dunnett did a similar thing with her portrayal of Timbuktu in Scales of Gold.


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