Nearly 10 years ago, right at the time one of the later Harry Potter books was coming out, I was home visiting my parents in Michigan so that I could attend a midnight book release party with my Mom. (Yes, I traveled 700 miles to go to a book release party.) My Dad has always been skeptical of the appeal of Harry Potter, and I think he wanted me to also get exposure to some of the great classics in Fantasy literature. He plopped down his copy of A Wizard of Earthsea in front of me and said “You should read this.”
10 years later, I did.
This review is of the Earthsea trilogy* by Ursula K. Le Guin: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore. Our journey takes us to another world, a world with mages, dragons, islands, legends, and runes. A world where language and names are of the greatest importance. It takes us to the edge of life and death and back again. We’ll ride on dragons, get lost in underground mazes, and sail the seas on a boat called “Lookfar.”
We’ll have an excellent time. And along with adventures, we’ll encounter some very beautiful writing and a lot of wisdom.
On our connection to nature:
“From that time forth he believed that the wise man is one who never sets himself apart from other living things, whether they have speech or not, and in later years he strove long to learn what can be learned, in silence, from the eyes of animals, the flight of birds, the great slow gestures of trees.” – A Wizard of Earthsea
On choosing to face our own enemies and our demons:
“If you go ahead, if you keep running, wherever you run you will meet danger and evil, for it drives you, it chooses the way you go. You must choose. You must seek what seeks you. You must hunt the hunter.” – A Wizard of Earthsea
On becoming a dragonlord:
“The question is always the same, with a dragon: will he talk with you or will he eat you?” – The Tombs of Atuan
On the joy of traveling the world:
“It is marvelous to see them: the new lands rising from the sea as your boat comes towards them. The farmlands and forests, the cities with their harbors and palaces, the marketplaces where they sell everything in the world.” – The Tombs of Atuan
“What she had begun to learn was the weight of liberty. Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not easy. It is not a gift give, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one. The road goes upward towards the light; but the laden traveler may never reach the end of it.” – The Tombs of Atuan
On being vs. doing:
“Try to choose carefully, Arren, when the great choices must be made. When I was young, I had to choose between the life of being and the life of doing. I leapt at the latter like a trout to a fly. But each deed you do, each act, binds you to itself and to its consequences, and makes you act again and yet again. Then very seldom do you come upon a space, a time like this, between act and act, when you may stop and simply be. Or wonder who, after all, you are.” – The Farthest Shore
On seeing things through the eyes of departure:
“So when one stands in a cherished place for the last time before a voyage without return, he sees it all whole, and real, and dear, as he has never seen it before and never will see it again.” – The Farthest Shore
Unlike The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, the three books that comprise the Earthsea trilogy do not have an overarching plot or quest that unifies the three books. There’s no Voldemort to kill or ring to destroy that occupies the focus across the series. These are individual stories that center around the Wizard Ged in the world of Earthsea, although only the first book is from his perspective.
In A Wizard of Earthsea we meet the book’s unifying character, Ged, and he learns that he’s a wizard and goes off to Wizarding school. (In a way less dramatic manner than Harry Potter.) At first, I’m sorry to tell you, he’s a bit of a doof. But don’t worry – he grows up rather quickly and by the end of the book he’s quite wise. This book centers around the idea that the main demons we have to defeat in life are our own.
In The Tombs of Atuan, we meet a totally awesome heroine named Tenar. This story starts off a little slow, which reflects Tenar’s uneventful life as a High Priestess in the tombs. But then Ged shows up, and it gets quite exciting. The main theme here is of self-discovery and the shedding of the life and beliefs that are placed upon you. The remaking of oneself.
The Farthest Shore is the culmination of Ged’s legacy as Archmage. (Telling you he was named Archmage is not a spoiler, Le Guin spills those beans herself on page two of the first book.) The parallels Harry Potter has to its fantasy roots are most apparent in this story. It’s told from the perspective of Arren, a young prince. He goes on a quest to defeat evil from the world with Ged, and their relationship reminds me a lot of Harry and Dumbledore. This book deals with life and death and the choice to accept death as part of life, rather than seeking a way to live forever or defeat death.
So as you can probably tell, I’ve been on a bit of a Le Guin kick this year, which started with her book of essays, The Wave in the Mind. I think Ursula K. Le Guin is a spectacular writer (and human), and that she deserves to be read more widely. If you’re a fan of fantasy, great adventure stories, or just great writing, I encourage you to discover Le Guin.
One more important note: if you’re into audiobooks, I highly recommend listening to these on audio. I did “readalongs” for all three of these books – where I sit with my book and read along with the audiobook. Rob Inglis, who also did the narration for the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, narrates this trilogy and he’s absolutely incredible. His voice is pure magic. (Another note: if you use Audible, the audiobooks are only $3.49 each if you buy the Kindle editions first for $6.99. So you can get each audiobook and its Kindle companion for $10.49 – cheaper than using a full credit.)
Other reviews / articles about the Earthsea Trilogy:
- Shaina Reads, Why My Nonexistent Kids Will Read A Wizard of Earthsea
- 10 Reasons Why Le Guin’s Earthsea Books Can Still Change Your Life
- Margaret Atwood Chooses ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’
- The Best YA Novel of All Time? EW Staff Pick: ‘The Earthsea Cycle’ by Ursula K. Le Guin
*(I should note that there are now six Earthsea books, referred to as The Earthsea Cycle. However, the later novels and short story collection were published nearly 20 years after the first three, so the original three were often referred to as a trilogy. I intend to read the later books as well, but I figured for simplicity I will start with reviewing the first three.)