The Cusp of Change
Maureen Scott Harris
A review of Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind
The Other Wind is the fifth novel and sixth book that Ursula K. Le Guin has written about the fantasy world of Earthsea. The first three books (The Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore), published between 1968 and 1972, were written specifically for older children, and each of them received a prestigious children's literature award. These children's fantasies, however, have always had a devoted adult readership, so it was no great surprise when the fourth novel Tehanu, published in 1990, won a Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's Nebula Award for best novel. Tehanu is a darker novel than the earlier ones, and The Other Wind takes up the story left unfinished (in the way that life leaves things unfinished) at the close of Tehanu.
Earthsea is balanced on the cusp of change. Though Lebannen has been crowned king in Havnor, dragons are flying again in the outer reaches of the Archipelago and the School at Roke remains without an Archmage. Ged, hero of the early novels and the last Archmage, has lost his wizard's power; he lives a villager's life with his wife Tenar (she who was once priestess at the Tombs of Atuan) and their adopted daughter Tehanu (whom the dragon Kalessin also acknowledges as daughter) on Gont Isle. When Lebannen sends for Tehanu to advise him about the dragons, Tenar takes her to Havnor, leaving Ged to keep house. Into his solitude comes Alder, a sorcerer with the gift of mending. Alder, whose loved wife died in childbirth, is plagued by nightmares in which he stands beside the wall between the land of the living and the dry land of the dead. There the dead call out and reach for him, asking to be freed, and he fears he will unwittingly unleash them into the living world, breaking the laws of nature. Ged hears Alder's story as a portent of change but cannot free him from his nightmare. From this initial situation the novel unfolds, first in the court at Havnor, then on board a ship to Roke, and finally on Roke Knoll near the Immanent Grove and beside the wall that marks the edge of the dry land. Into the story come dragons, wizards from two differing traditions, a Princess from the Kargad Lands, a blunt-spoken ship's captain, and the Masters of Roke School. With Lebannen, Tenar, Tehanu, and Alder, they must join together to confront the great change. Lebannen describes the challenge they face, addressing the Masters: "It seemed to us that night by night all these things draw together, always more certainly, to some event, some end. It seemed to us that here, on this ground, with your knowledge and power aiding us, we might foresee and meet that event, not letting it overwhelm our understanding. The wisest of our mages have foretold: a great change is upon us. We must join together to learn what that change is, its causes, its course, and how we may hope to turn it from conflict and ruin to harmony and peace, in whose sign I rule." (p.221, galley) Change, the novel insists, is a requirement of life, and the characters must change internally to keep the changing external world in balance. In discerning what the change portends for Earthsea and its inhabitants, and understanding the meaning of Alder's nightmares and how to free him from them, Lebannen and the others question their own deepest assumptions about life and death. Only then can an accord be reached with the dragons, Tehanu discover who she is, and Tenar and Ged resume their life together.
Le Guin gathers together the various threads and characters of this story with her customary skill. In doing so she delineates a series of opposites life and death, men and women, the Art Magic and the Old Powers, the Kargish and Hardic peoples, humans and dragons, magic and daily tasks suggesting that opposites brought together rather than separated make a larger whole, that each term in fact requires its opposite to achieve its fullest being. Most powerfully, those gathered on Roke Knoll come to see that without death there is no rebirth. The separate and dry land of the dead is filled with dust and disembodied souls who yearn to rejoin the earth, to be absorbed into its on-going life. Tehanu speaks of the exchange between death and life: " ...when I die, I can breathe back the breath that made me live. I can give back to the world all that I didn't do. And that I might have been and couldn't be. All the choices I didn't make. All the things I lost and spent and wasted. I can give them back to the world. To the lives that haven't been lived yet. That will be my gift back to the world that gave me the life I did live, the love I loved, the breath I breathed." (P. 231, galley)
Le Guin's long-standing engagement with Taoism (in 1997 she published a "rendition" of the Tao Te Ching) and her feminism inflect this novel, and also the stories in Tales from Earthsea, published last year. The Tales enlarge the world of the first four novels, filling in details and revealing new things. "The Finder", the opening novella-length story, takes place about 300 years before Ged's time, and narrates the founding of the school on Roke through the life of Medra, its first Doorkeeper. At the beginning both men and women were part of the school and practitioners of the Art Magic did not fear or avoid the Old Powers of the earth. "Dragonfly" the final story tells of the young woman Irian who seeks, against the rule forbidding women, to enter Roke and discover who she is; it bridges the time between Tehanu and The Other Wind. The collection offers Le Guin's usual pleasures of engrossing and well-crafted stories, and for those already familiar with Earthsea it also offers something like the pleasure of discovering family secrets or meeting previously unknown relatives.
To keep a complex imagined world spinning and vital over the more than 30 years that Le Guin has been writing about Earthsea is no mean feat. Though no less a critic than Harold Bloom has called her "a superbly imaginative creator and major stylist" she has frequently been sidelined as either a children's writer or a fantasy/science fiction writer. For readers who are not familiar with her work, these two books can introduce you to a story-teller of great wit and wisdom, a writer of grace, and a thinker of depth and feeling. In these books she subjects herself and the early Earthsea titles to the same demands she makes on her characters: change in order to survive, look at your ideas and see if they still hold up. At the close of The Other Wind, Tenar says to Ged, once Archmage of Roke and thereby the most powerful ruler/leader in Earthsea: "...tell me what you did while I was gone." "Kept the house" is Ged's reply. This too is good and necessary work.
August 27, 2001.
Copyright © 2001 by Maureen Scott Harris
First published in The National Post, September 15, 2001. Reprinted with the kind permission of publisher and author
Tales from Earthsea. By Ursula K. Le Guin. Harcourt, 296 p.
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