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The Earthsea Quartet compiles Ursula Le Guin's first four novels set in the Iron Age styled world of Earthsea. The first three books of the original trilogy were published over four years, from 1968 to 1972. A fourth book was released in 1990, erroneously subtitled the last tale of Earthsea but it ended up being the springboard for further tales.
The four books are set in the known lands of Earthsea; made up of a central archipelago encircled by four polar reaches and the Kargad Lands. Areas outside the provided map are unknown; however a land of the dragons is speculated to exist in the far west.
Earthsea is mostly populated by a dark-browned skinned people. The white Kargs are given a slightly more barbaric presentation than other races, shown to be less literate and superstitious of the practise of magic. Different characters from different backgrounds provide much variety. The character's ignorance of other cultures is acknowledged, but it never descends into racism that may not be suitable for the many children who the series was originally targeted at.
The mages of Earthsea manipulate the world verbally. The world has many low level magicians, who can create convincing illusions, and control the weather to some extent. Witches in rural communities also offer basic services to the population. More potent power relies on the Old Speech, the language spoken by the world's creator and dragons. All objects have a "use name" they are commonly referred to as, but the knowledge of a 'true' name in the Old speech gives power over the object. For that reason, sentient beings keep their true names a closely guarded secret. Taoist principles of balance are prominent aspects of magic - as one of Ged's teachers says; "To light a candle is to cast a shadow". Upsetting the world's balance is dangerous and unpredictable. The responsible attitude to the arcane arts means many of its practitioners tend not to showcase their abilities, to the frustration of their pupils.
All the novels are written from a third person perspective, with varying degrees of insight into the protagonist's mind. The first three books are written in the same, rather lofty style which lends the prose a mythical air. Succinctly yet vividly described, Earthsea is rendered with mostly imaginative descriptions, in flowing but never over-elaborate prose. Despite the short length of the books, the magical world is evoked brilliantly without filling pages with superfluous details. The storylines are pursued for the whole book with few distractions.
The first book tells the story of the one destined to be the greatest wizard of his time, Ged, also known as Sparrowhawk. "A Wizard of Earthsea" has the task of introducing readers to the world of Earthsea, accomplishing this through a coming of age story. Ged is introduced as a young goatherd, but upon the discovery of his magical talents he is soon brought under the wing of Ogion, the great, silent mage of his island. His apprenticeship is short-lived, Ogion's lessons of herb lore and reluctance to use magic frustrates his pupil, so Ged is sent to the Roke School of Magic with a note explaining his incredible ability. He becomes arrogant due to his spectacular talents and releases a great evil into the world through his pride, which attempts to possess him. The rest of the novel details how he comes to deal with his actions.
There is much travelling in "A Wizard of Earthsea", a result of which is that few locations are described in much detail. While a little frustrating, it adds to the sense of urgency that is appropriate, given the situation although it could become a little disorientating unless you frequently refer to the map.
As "The Tombs of Atuan" is set almost entirely in one area (a Kargish island), the setting is more fleshed out. Another coming of age story, it follows Tenar, a young girl determined by an arduous process to be the reincarnation of a high priestess whose death coincided with Tenar's birth. As she is taken to what is only ever called 'the place', her exploration of her new home informs the reader as well as herself. A place of protocol and religious politics, no man is allowed to enter (unless castrated). Her coming to terms with her new environment, her part in the sinister religion as the 'eaten one' and her questioning of the beliefs she holds are all dealt with in the narrative. A more personal story than its predecessor, its more involved with the vulnerable protagonist. Knowledge of the previous novel is not necessary although it enriches the experience. Never quite capturing the sweeping, epic scope of "A Wizard of Earthsea" due to the constricted setting, its still an essential read in the Earthsea series.
Yet another coming of age tale, "The Farthest Shore" is the most perilous of Ged's quests yet. Choosing (for reasons initially unknown) to be accompanied by a young, devoted Enlandian prince of a legendary bloodline, Arren, together they attempt to find the cause of the recent, inexplicable worldwide diminishing of magical power. Ged now an old sorceror of great repute, the reader comes to know him again via Arren's increasingly mature, but often unreliable insight. It's a return to the seafaring travels of "A Wizard of Earthsea", although fewer locations are visited. While not the darkest of the series, the presentation of the afterlife is haunting and prevalent topics like necromancy prevent it from being as child friendly as the first two novels.
"Tehanu" has a marked shift in focus from the earlier books despite following on directly from the events of "The Farthest Shore". It is a rather puzzling inclusion in this collection due to its sexual themes, feminist agenda, presence of extreme brutality and sedate style. This novels inclusion prevents the quartet being a suitable gift for any young child.
While previous tales focused on the dramatic exploits of youthful characters, "Tehanu" describes more sedately the situation of Ged and Tenar in their old age, showing their growing irrelevance in society as their respective roles as an archmage and a housewife are over. Tenar's ward, Therru is small girl rescued from nearly fatal burning injuries, horrifically scarred and abused. While the story is told from Tenar's viewpoint, Therru is a very important part of the plot.
Fans of the series may not take kindly to this re-imagining of their fantasy world. Published in 1990, 18 years after the release of "The Farthest Shore", a feminist re-imagining of Earthsea seemed rather unnecessary, and it never proved itself to me to be otherwise. The marginalised situation of women inherent in the rural society is treated in a ham-fisted manner, Le Guins's modern views constantly carrying over into the narration. To build up this ancient fantasy world, and then suddenly impose such glaringly anachronistic views on it seems an unnecessary analysis, providing little of valuable relevant insight. The ill-treatment of women is never seen as the result of anything other than misogyny. It was an interesting idea, explored in her other fiction already, but it seems the author was too passionate about her cause to give a balanced account and ended up prostituting her characters and their world to prove her point. Addressing sexuality in Earthsea does not seem to be done for its own sake, but rather to further the feminist argument, sacrificing the characters integrity and destroying the innocent idea of the adventure in the process.
However, this was no adventure. The writing tone accommodated the change in focus by looking inward; contemplating the quieter lives the characters lead. The elevated style of legends is gone, the prose much plainer, stripped of the flair of old, but retaining the elegance of the fundamental, minimalist quality.
Not to say that there is nothing of merit in "Tehanu". It is a well written, interesting character study, but I personally found it too much of a jarring change from previous works to enjoy it. It does not pass without incident, there are some precarious situations, but there was much I took issue with, from Ursula Le Guin's newfound principles, to the rushed (arguably dues ex machina) ending, to the liberties taken with the characters I'd come to know.
The Quartet is a fascinating, if not cohesive, or even complete collection of the Earthsea stories. Even the worst of the stories has its unique strengths. There are a few minor editorial issues (inconsistent fonts and typographical errors) but nothing too noticeable. It never tells of great battles or makes constant attempts to invoke grief, but what it does it does well. For a highly imaginative set of stories set in a unique,well realised world its highly recommended. Even, what was to me, the worst of the stories still had a lot of depth to it, and apparently can improve on a second reading.