Tales From Earthsea


Ursula LeGuin


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

March 5, 2022

ong after the original trilogy of Earthsea was published, LeGuin wrote a fourth volume called Tehanu. It got lots of loud praise, and I eagerly picked it up, expecting to marvel at the further adventures of Ged, ArchMage of Earthsea. I was aghast by the story. It seemed to me that in the intervening years, LeGuin had grown to hate Ged, and did her best to portray him in the worst possible light. The whole novel seemed to me to some strange feminist rant. What was especially disappointing was that LeGuin had proven that she could write wonderful fantasy novels, so why did she choose to produce Tehanu? I was so disappointed that I never read volumes five and six of Earthsea when they were published; I assumed that they too were more angry screeds. But recently Saga Press published a massive tome (992 pages! A tome indeed!) called The Books of Earthsea that includes all six of the Earthsea novels, plus a few extra short stories and essays. Best of all, The Books of Earthsea contained illustrations by Charles Vess. I was interested in Vess' artwork, so I checked the book out of the library. There is indeed interesting artwork to admire, and I found myself tempted to read book 5 of the series, Tales of Earthsea. I expected I would quickly set the book down in disappointment, but instead discovered some delightful tales.

Tales From Earthsea contains five stories set about the Earthsea archipelago. All contain some element of mages and wizardry.

The Finder - is perhaps the best story in this collection. This is the tale of an untrained young boy named Otter who possesses powerful wizardly talent. But Otter is unschooled and unguided; he works for his father, a shipwright. Though his father urges him to forget magic and learn an honest trade, Otter can not help but try some spells. His father's ships are built for the service of an evil warlord, who plans to sail forth and plunder and enslave nearby islands. Disturbed by that, Otter puts a hex upon a well-built ship so that it would never steer true. But magic users can sense magic, and Otter's magiccraft draws the attention of mages who serve the brutal warlord. A mage nick-named the Hound can track down magic, and he soon corners Otter and drags him into captivity. What follows is a tale of attempted escape, and Otter's learning about magic, and other magic users that he meets. Ultimately, the tale ends with the founding of the famous school of wizardry on the island of Roke, where Sparrowhawk would famously venture at the beginning of his exploits in A Wizard of Earthsea. The story of young Otter learning about magic has echoes to the tale of Sparrowhawk, and this is an excellent story.

Darkrose and Diamond is another tale of a young lad with the ability to work magic. Diamond is a privileged son of a wealthy merchant named Golden. He has a happy childhood, and his best friend is a girl named Rose. Rose and Diamond spends idyllic time together, trying out minor magic tricks that Diamond can work. Golden desires to send Diamond to the wizard school on Roke, there Diamond will be trained to use his talents and amass great power. Golden figures his son will then work to make Golden even wealthier. But Diamond isn't interested in power, he is enamored by music and song and Rose. The mage Hemlock warns Diamond: "Take care! To misuse a gift, or to refuse to use it, may cause great loss, great harm." But Diamond ignores this wizardly advice, flees his studies to return to Rose, and apparently spends his life in song with Rose without suffering any ill effect for not mastering his talents.

The Bones of the Earth - an old mage named Dulse has an apprentice named Silence. Silence rarely says a word, and he has been studying under Dulse ever since he was a young boy, twenty or twenty-five years ago. Now Dulse is indeed aged, and Silence, who's true name is Ogion, is still working with him on the island of Re Albi, beneath the towering mountain of Gont. A mighty threat faces the port of Gont and the old wizard is determined to use his remaining strength to avert catastrophe.

On the High Marsh - on the island of Semel, beneath the mountain of Andanden, an exhausted mage stumbles across a trackless marsh. The winter weather is harsh and the mage is at the end of strength, but he happens upon a cattle track and follows a cow to a lonely homestead. A woman named Gift allows him to enter her humble abode, and warm himself by the fire. The man claims his name is Gully, and that he can work to cure cows of their sickness. This is a welcome news, because the cows in the local herds are perishing due a plague. A curer could stave off disaster. Yet despite Irioth's (for that is Gully's true name), Master Alder would cheat him. Eventually, Ged makes an appearance, and this is not the impotent Ged from Tehanu, but Ged the wise and kind archmage. Even though Ged's time is brief (for this is Irioth's tale, not Ged's) it is still a welcome delight to meet him again.

Dragonfly - this is the story of Dragonfly, whose true name is Iria; she is a girl born into a wealthy family that has fallen into hard times due to selfishness and greed. Iria is girl, and everyone knows that girls cannot do mighty magic. Sure, some women work as hedge witches, but their healing arts and simple spells are nothing compared the power of the mages at Roke. A wealthy neighbor of Iria employs a suspect mage named Ivory - Ivory is suspect because he lacks a wizard's staff and cloak, yet nonetheless he claims to have schooled at Roke. When Ivory meets Dragonfly, he decides to seduce her. Upon learning that Dragonfly wishes to study magic at Roke, Ivory makes impossible promises and spins convincing tales to deceive the simple country girl. And yet somehow Ivory and Dragonfly find themselves on a ship sailing for Roke.

It was fun for me to revisit Earthsea. I now intend to read book 6 of the series, The Other Wind. I fairness, perhaps I ought to give Tehanu another try, to see what garnered all that praise when it first came out. But my memory of Tehanu is so disappointing that I cannot bring myself to reread it.