Knossos, Crete

Classic-ness can be a gilded cage: A Review of Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘Earthsea’

Less than a decade after Tolkein’s LOTR, another kind of literary magic appeared on the  scene.  The story of a man called Ged, also known as Sparrowhawk.  He is the creation of writer Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018).  I say ‘is’ not ‘was’ for although Le Guin died in 2018, her books have never been – and will never be – out of print.  They are true classics.  Although I am aware that in using the word ‘classic’ I am invoking the dreaded ogre of the literary ‘canon’ and the evil spirits of opinion.

As China Mieville writes in his introduction to another of Le Guin’s books The Left Hand of Darkness (1969):

“The unluckiest books are those ignored or forgotten.  But spare a thought too for those fated to become classics.  A classic is too often a volume that everyone thinks they know. ‘Classic-ness can be a gilded cage, constraining a live book’s unruly pages.  It can be preserving fluid, or a sumptuous coffin.”

In other words, let us not cease our search for wisdom because someone made a film of the book and we know what it is ‘about’.   This is no criticism of Studio Ghibli who made a film of the first book.  I love all things Ghibli.  It is just a plea to go to the source.   To this I would add that mid-twentieth century fantasy classic-ness is at risk of burial in its ‘sumptuous coffin’ beneath the unstoppable megalith of Tolkein’s fame (and now Potter as well).  Also burial under those hideous encasing words ‘fantasy genre’.  I hate the check box mentality that pervades and delimits the telling of a modern fable, by wrapping it up in that most plastic of all words ‘fantasy’.   Spells, Check. Wizards, Check.  Dragons, Check.

There is no way to appreciate the true power of Le Guin’s works except by multiple readings.  She was so ahead of her time, on so many issues.  Writing during the time of second wave feminism in the 1960s gender is key to her book  The Left Hand of Darkness which features an androgynous race known as Gethenians – a time when the word ‘gender’ was just starting to be used in a political context and find its way into modules for English degree courses.


In her introduction to The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition (Gollancz 2018), Le Guin writes: ”

I was 42 in 1972; in 1990 I was sixty.  During those years, the way of understanding society that we’re obliged to call feminism (despite the glaring absence of its opposite term masculism) had grown and flourished.  At the same time an increasing sense of something missing in my own writing, which I could not identify had begun to paralyse my storytelling ability.  Without the feminist writers and thinkers of the 1970s and 1980s I don’t know if I could have identified this absence as the absence of women at the centre.”

She was accused Le Guin writes in her book Tehanu – about an abandoned and maimed girl child of betraying the romantic tradition of heroism.  Yes she claims that it was only byincluding women fully in her stories that she gained a larger understanding of what heroism is.  Although the fourth book, Tehanu, is named for a child character, neither it nor the two books following – Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind are books “for children or definable as “young adult”.

Le Guin continues:

“I had abandoned any attempt to suit my vision of Earthsea to a publisher’s category or a critic’s prejudice.  The notion that fantasy is only for the immature rises from an obstinate misunderstanding of both maturity and the imagination.”

Earthsea contains constant references to the human connection to the environment.

“It is said that the trees of the Grove themselves are wise.  It is said that the Master Patterner learns his supreme magery there within the Grove, and if ever the trees should die, so  shall his wisdom die, and in those days the waters will rise and drown the islands of Earthsea which Segoy raised from the deeps in the time before myth, all the lands where  men and dragons dwell.”

To Le Guin magic is all about balance and pattern and knowing the true names of things. If a wizard raises a rain, then it will come at the cost of a drought somewhere else.   Wisdom we in the 21st century have yet to learn?  The ‘old powers’ of the earth are essentially humanistic… that divine spark within human beings.  Knowledge is not power; nor ultimately is technology. These things are of the past.  Wisdom is the future.  The better future that most of us are trying to create.

West Wales

We meet Ged in the first book A Wizard of Earthsea which was published in 1968; a second book The Tombs of Atuan in 1972; The Farthest Shore followed in 1973 and finally Tehanu in 1990.  All of these were my holiday reading and they are not difficult to read, they are not even very long books as all four appear in a single paperback volume published by Penguin at 690 pages.  There are two additional books that were written later.  I don’t include these in this review.

A student of exceptional ability Ged falls victim to a vicious test of his vanity. Against the protocol of Roke, the school where he trains to become a wizard,  and with disastrous consequences, Ged enters into a competition which unlooses a pandora’s box style evil out into the world. Whether he succeeds, and how, well… you’ll have to read the books.

There are no rings of power in this story – although in the second book there is a ring of Erreth-Akbe – an innocuous looking metal thing which, way back in the deeps of time, became split into two halves.  It is a ring of wholeness and healing, lying lost in the darkness beneath the Tombs of Atuan and the two halves need to be rejoined.    From Stonehenge to the witches in Macbeth the circle is an essential symbol of continuity and power.

Physical journeys abound.  But in true buddhist fashion,  the most important journeys are the ones that the characters must make towards their own enlightenment.



Earthsea: The First Four Books, Ursula K. Le Guin.  This book is #1 on My Classics Club list.  Only 49 left to go!!!


Next week.  My review of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.

6 thoughts on “Classic-ness can be a gilded cage: A Review of Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘Earthsea’

  1. I can’t now remember if there are five or six in the full series but I read the final one a little while ago and it was all that I wanted it to be. She is amazing; I love Tolkien too and she’s very different to HP but I do push her AND Diana Wynne Jones on people who want someone marked as a wizard to leave their home and learn and travel … !

    1. Six in the full series. Volume 5 is short stories and Volume 6 The Other Wind takes up where Tehanu left off. I haven’t read Wynne Jones so that’s another to add to the list. Thanks Liz

  2. Thank you! These books were never on my radar, but your review (and the fact that the amazing China Mieville liked them!) has me searching for them at my library.