“If women had power what would men be, but women who can’t bear children?”
The earthsea quartet is four books that all follow Ged, known as Sparrowhawk, from his first feeble steps into magic, through his prideful youth, to a brave adulthood and then finally in his final years as Archmage of the wizard school on the island on Roke.
“But it is one thing to read about dragons and another to meet them.
The Wizard of the Earthsea is the first book were we meet a young boy in a village who suddenly finds himself defending his village from an attack. He calls upon magic to do so and is then placed in an apprenticeship with a wizard. But Ged is young and foolish and hungry for life so he sets off to the wizard school on Roke where he makes a fatal mistake that follows him for years to come…
“But need alone is not enough to set power free: there must be knowledge.”
The second book, the tombs of Atuan, starts in a completely different place with a completely different character and slowly builds the world for us. Only in the crescendo of the book does Ged appear, not to save anyone, but to give them the courage to save themselves.
In the third book, Ged is older and wiser. He sets out to save the world from something and he brings a young apprentice along. But the journey meanders, they do not know what they are fighting or where to find it, only that time and fate will bring them to it. Where in the first book Ged was an apprentice, and in the second book the two heroes were on equal footing, this book clearly shows us Ged coming into his own as a teacher and mentor.
“A rock is a good thing, too, you know. If the Isles of Earthsea were all made of diamond, we’d lead a hard life here. Enjoy the illusions, lad, and let the rocks be rocks.”
The last book, however seems a bit of an afterthought, almost a feminist critique of her own works. Returning to Tenar, the hero from the second book, who rescues a girl from a fire. There is a lot of waiting and passivity in this book, but Le Guin is an expert in showing the strengths, as well as the weakness of waiting, of taking care and of nurturing. Nurturing is not just a selfless act, sometimes we save people not for them, but for ourselves. Because the act of saving gives us something that we cannot give ourselves. The final book is an exploration of feminine power and Le Guin flips her world on its head, but, as is characteristic, it is not a dramatic act with fanfare and sacrifice. It is a girl, standing on the edge of the shore and saying, “Yes, I’ll save this world.”
I read the books slowly, taking time to savour the language. Written in a distant language with remnants of verbal storytelling and poetry, these books flow so gently through the stories that one hardly deciphers the beginning and end of the plot. It’s fantasy unlike any fantasy I’ve ever read. Small intimate stories wrapped in poetical prose and the power of life and death. Nothing is ever solved by pomp, but always by one human carrying another.
“ I’ve thought on it. Often I’ve thought on it. The best I can say it is like this. A man’s in his skin, see, like a nut in its shell.” She held up her long, bent, wet fingers as if holding a walnut. “It’s hard and strong, that shell, and it’s all full of him. Full of grand man-meat, man-self. And that’s all. That’s all there is. It’s all him and nothing else, inside.”