I had planned on writing something about Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea Cycle once I’d finally read all of them, but knowing me, it will take a while before I get anywhere near a copy of Tales from Earthsea. So, in the interest of not completely forgetting everything that I’ve already read by the time I’m ready to talk about the books, I’ll say some things about the middle three books: The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, and Tehanu.
I think I’ve mentioned before that A Wizard of Earthsea is one of my favorite books. It’s the first one of LeGuin’s books I ever read, and sparked my interest in her work. The world of Earthsea is rich and intriguing beyond belief, and LeGuin is easily one of my favorite writers, enjoyment of individual books aside. That being said, here’s what I thought of the three middle books of the series.
The Tombs of Atuan is dark and terrifying in a lot of ways. It introduces the character Tenar and follows her through her early life as the chosen reincarnation of a High Priestess. She is essentially imprisoned on the lonely island of Atuan, trapped within a decaying religion, but she has a fighter’s spirit. Tenar chooses which parts of her role to embrace and finds ways to reject the others. Most notably, she fights through her fear of the underground labyrinth that guards a treasure, determined to make the labyrinth hers and hers alone. She succeeds, and by the time the wizard Ged enters the narrative, she’s able to trap him and claim victory over him, though Ged intrigues her. She bonds with him, and together, they bring about a great change to Atuan and the rest of Earthsea, to put it lightly.
I greatly enjoyed the beginning of The Tombs of Atuan, but the ending left me a little frustrated. Tenar is such a wonderful character, but she does end up taking a backseat to Ged once she helps him through the labyrinth, allowing him to shape her future. This is something that starts to make sense after reading Tehanu, but at the time, it was such an abrupt shift in character that it felt jarring to me, and I didn’t like seeing her sacrifice her agency. I love Ged as a character and greatly enjoy the books that follow him, but I wanted Tenar to retain control over herself. Perhaps that is a harsh criticism, seeing as her world is quite literally crumbling around her, and she has no idea what to do or where to go now that she cannot stay on Atuan. A future that she is not entirely certain that she wants is thrust upon her, and the book ends with her reluctantly agreeing to follow the path Ged is setting her on. At least for now. Even with this ending, I enjoyed the book overall, and while it did not displace A Wizard of Earthsea as my favorite, it did introduce me to one of my favorite characters.
The Farthest Shore takes place several years after the events of the Tombs of Atuan and follows a young boy-who-would-be-king named Arren as he seeks out and draws Ged into a quest to discover why the magic of Earthsea is slowly dying. The two embark on an epic quest to understand why the magic is drying up, traveling well beyond the lands shown in earlier Earthsea books. There’s plenty of danger and intrigue that they find along the way, and in a true fantasy-lover’s dream (well, this fantasy-lover’s dream, at least) there are dragons. It’s a very good book, but I found that my interest was slow to catch. Arren is an interesting character, swinging between devoted companion to Ged and arrogant young prince too impatient to rely on the old wizard’s wisdom, but in my opinion, the book takes a bit too long to hit its stride and the beginning feels a little dry. I am 98% certain, however, that if I reread this book, I would have a very different opinion. Much like LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, the third book of the Earthsea Cycle has more layers than the reader can appreciate upon first read. I do plan to go back to it some day and see how the details of the beginning that I initially wondered over the importance and relevancy of turn out to be key factors that point towards the climax of the book. The Farthest Shore is a book that you need to take your time with, and have a little patience for. You’ll be rewarded with a tense climax and the transformation of Arren from boy to king, but you do need to give the beginning a chance to sink in before you get there. Your opinion may differ, depending on what kind of reader you are, but that was my experience with the book. And again, I would like to reread it someday. When I do, I may write a completely revised review. Such is the nature of these things.
Tehanu, on the other hand, I greatly enjoyed all the way through. This book follows Tenar again and her adopted daughter Therru. It’s very different from the others of the series, focusing entirely on the emotional struggles raging within Tenar as she tries to reconcile what she might have been with who she chose to be. Ged and Ogion offered her a life of greatness, but a lonely, harsh one. Tenar rejected that life in favor of becoming a farmer’s wife and a mother.
For a lot of people, this would be a frustrating choice, and some readers may resent Tenar for making it. Why become a housewife on a farm when you could be a pioneer in magic, be the first female mage? There are witches in Earthsea but the male wizards give them condescending pats on the head at best, and women are not schooled in magic as men are. Tenar could have shattered that, but she chose not to. She spent her entire childhood locked away as the proverbial Chosen One of Atuan, set up on a pedestal and revered rather than respected. She had no true bonds with anyone, and her only sense of self-worth came from her ability to master the dark labyrinth and make it her domain. She rejects going through anything like that again, choosing to be a wife and mother rather than suffer through a life alone. She would have been powerful, but she would have been feared more than respected, and more likely than not, her male colleagues would have shunned her, no matter how skilled she was. Unfortunately for Tenar, her domestic life did not pan out as she had hoped, and she finds herself feeling empty and dissatisfied by the time Ged reenters her life.
This is not to say she made the wrong choice. After all, if she had studied under Ogion and become a mage of Gont, Tenar never would have adopted Therru, and never would have been in the right place at the right time to help Ged back from the edge of death. Tenar may not be a mage, but there is power within her, and it’s because of her that Ged and Therru both live. And if you somehow doubt the significance of Therru, do give The Other Wind a read.
There are external conflicts that Tenar faces in Tehanu, so if you’re worried about there not being enough action or tension within the narrative, I would say that there is enough there to take the place of the magic Tenar rejected. There are men who haunt and hunt Therru, not to mention Aspen, the dangerous young wizard who hates Tenar for daring to know Ogion’s true name following that wizard’s death. Aspen’s danger is of the irrational, unreasonable kind, making him all the more deadly, and though he’s even further in the background than the men who hunt Therru, he’s still an ominous presence. If you’re hoping for fast-paced action, you will most likely be disappointed, but Tehanu is a great book and is more than worth the read.