Ursula K. Le Guin had never written books for young people before changing the field entirely in 1969. A Wizard of Earthsea introduced a world far more concerned with balance than the fight between good and evil and focused on a dark-skinned protagonist who saves the day not with strength, but by saying a single word.
As a child, Wizard was thrilling. Ged is a compelling protagonist — sometimes brash, sometimes arrogant, but also deeply loving and thoughtful — and the book’s climax, where Ged realizes that his own shadow side is the “monster” that has been plaguing him, is the first time I remember a book taking me by surprise in such a satisfying way. I loved Ged, and couldn’t wait to read the next part of his story.
As those of you familiar with The Tombs of Atuan already know, I had to wait a bit.
Tombs begins with a small girl from the Kargad Lands on the outskirts of Earthsea, stolen from her home and brought to the titular Tombs. Her name is taken from her and she becomes “Arha,” the Eaten One. Arha has her own home and servant, and the women of the Tombs train her to wield tremendous power, but it’s the sort of power that exists within a gilded cage. Arha is eaten, with no identity of her own; the power she wields is subject to the rule of her God-King.
We meet the Kargs briefly in A Wizard of Earthsea. They are a minority group, white-skinned and seen by the dark-skinned Hardic people as barbarians; Ged first shows his powers when Kargish raiders attack his village. Le Guin drops us into Arha’s world as quickly and overwhelmingly as we were dropped into Ged’s; we learn her culture and world from the inside out, adjusting to the dark as Arha does, and begin to take the world she is trapped in for granted.
And then — about halfway through the book — she meets Ged, and the two worlds connect for the first time.
The Tombs are ruled by priestesses, and Arha’s world has been filled with girls, women, and eunuchs. Everything about Ged is new to her; he’s an adult man, a dark-skinned, Hardic wizard; from a different race, culture and faith than her own.
Ged, aged a bit from when we last saw him in Wizard, is seeking a magical treasure he knows is in the Tombs, but the treasure is little more than a plot device. This story isn’t about Ged; it’s about Arha, and the choices she must make when she discovers Ged and imprisons him in her Tombs.
Arha, already haunted by overseeing one execution, is reluctant to order another. She is pushed to the limits of her faith and realizes how limited and limiting her powers truly are. Ged serves as both adversary, stranger, and, eventually, guide. In the end, Arha reclaims her own life and her own name — Tenar— but is forced to leave everything she knew and cared about behind.
There’s a lot more to the story than that; if you haven’t read it, I want to leave some stones unturned. No summary can really give you the richness of Le Guin’s prose, or the way she makes you feel the hollowness and darkness of Atuan’s Tombs and labyrinth. Le Guin rarely takes the expected path, and her Taoist faith refuses the simple Good vs. Evil framing of fantasy novels both then and now. In 1970, most Western fantasy was occupied with imitating Tolkien (often poorly). Le Guin’s choices were revolutionary, and still vanishingly rare twenty years later. Even now, in this era of #OwnVoices and bestsellers about lesbian necromancers and earth-based cosmologies, she stands out.
And she wrote her original trilogy, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore for children. Think of the number of children’s series you’ve read or heard of that changed their perspective character in the second book. How many of them dropped you in a completely different world? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Le Guin was groundbreaking then and is groundbreaking still.
Le Guin would return to Earthsea once more in the 1970s, for The Farthest Shore, with Ged acting as a guide and helper even more so than in The Tombs of Atuan. In 1990, she would revisit both Ged and Tenar in the novel Tehanu, giving the world a fresh look that was both richer and more complicated. (You may, for example, have noticed that the roles in Earthsea appear to be heavily gendered. Tehanu and the two works that follow, published eleven years after Tehanu, address that, and more.)
But Le Guin was always willing to learn, grow and re-examine. “Probably the biggest thing I learned from Phil,” she wrote of Philip K. Dick many years after inventing Earthsea, “was what now seems obvious but didn’t then: that you can incorporate Eastern mysticism into a Western novel without playing guru or getting woowoo. Matter-of-fact Taoism, middle-class yin-yang. He had pulled it off superbly several times. I tried my own version of it in The Lathe of Heaven, and it worked for me too.”
When I moved back to my hometown in the mid-1990s, I reread the first three Earthsea books. They’re small, quick reads (as a child and adult, I read the mass market paperbacks that are still ubiquitous in used bookstores), but they’re certainly rewarding for adult readers, especially with an eye for Le Guin’s work and influence . There are certainly few authors as comfortable and skilled writing for both young readers and adults, or with her willingness to trust the reader to follow her lead. Reading Le Guin always takes you somewhere new; unfamiliar and sometimes challenging, but well worth the journey.
And yes, Earthsea has been adapted several times, never accurately, and ranging from “kind of whitewashed” to “fuck, this is racist.” A24 was circling around it for yet another adaptation before the pandemic, but I’m not sure it’ll ever come to fruition. Stick with the books.