Jun 15, 2016

Earthsea Revisited

Date label on library copy of The Tombs of Atuan, with return stamps going back to 1972
Date label on the copy of The Tombs of Atuan I read

A few months ago, I felt the urge to reread one of my favourite fantasy series of all time: Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea. It’d been a long time since I’d last read them, and I confess I wondered briefly if I’d still like them as much as I did nearly a decade ago. As it turns out, I like them even better — though in slightly different ways, and for slightly different reasons. This, of course, is one of the pleasures of rereading: as Maureen so well explained in her post from earlier this year, it gives us the opportunity to commune with our past selves, and trace changes in our thoughts, values, and emotional states through the aspects of a work we respond to the most.

I decided, this time around, to revisit the Earthsea novels that focus more on women’s lives, as they were always the ones that spoke to me the most. I do want to reread the others at some point, particularly The Farthest Shore, but it was The Tombs of Atuan, Tehanu and The Other Wind that were calling to me now. Last time I read them, The Tombs of Atuan and The Other Wind were my favourites, with Tehanu ranking as a somewhat distant third. Now it was the reverse — for the moment, Tehanu is my favourite Earthsea novel. Needless to say, this doesn’t mean I didn’t find them all brilliant: there’s such richness to them, such depth, and so many sentences that cause me to have to pause to catch my breath. What a writer Le Guin is.

I remember why my younger self loved The Tombs of Atuan so fiercely, and why I love it still: it’s because it’s a story about a girl who has known great unkindness, to whom a great harm has been done, choosing not to embrace the darkness her life was supposed to be devoted to. I was especially moved by a scene near the end — one when, just after making it onto the boat that will take her and Ged to Havnor, Tenar becomes convinced she’s terrible because terrible things have happened to her. How awful; how familiar; how brilliantly portrayed. The scene ends with a letting go that feels almost physical — and although Tenar’s isn’t a struggle that could really be resolved in a single moment, it still resonates deeply. It’s a beginning, and the novel does it justice.

Before the boat, though, and before leaving the powers of darkness behind, there’s this moment between Tenar and Ged, which I can’t imagine ever not being deeply moved by:
“They would not let us get out. Ever.”
“Perhaps not. Yet it is worth trying. You have knowledge, and I have skill, and between us we have…”
“We have the Ring of Erreth-Akbe.”
“Yes, that. But I thought also of another thing between us. Call it trust… That is one of its names. It is a very great thing. Though each of us alone is weak, having that we are strong, stronger than the Powers of the Dark.” His eyes were clear and dark in his scarred face. “Listen, Tenar!” he said. “I came here a thief, an enemy, armed against you; and you showed me mercy, and trusted me. And I have trusted you from the first time I saw your face, for one moment in the cave beneath the Tombs, beautiful in darkness. You have proved your trust in me. I have made no return. I will give you what I have to give. My true name is Ged. And this is yours to keep.” He had risen, and he held out to her a semi-circle of pierced and carven silver. “Let the rings be rejoined,” he said.
Trust is a risk for both of them, and they embrace it with openness and care. Everything that happens next happens because of that initial leap.

The fourth Earthsea novel, Tehanu, takes place many decades later. It shows a shift in Tenar’s relationship with Ged — one that couldn’t have happened until circumstances made it possible for the two to meet as equals. One of the things that stood out on this reread is how very concerned this novel is with powerless and what that means. Ged, having lost his magic and become physically frail, describes describes being afraid of men on the road when he’s travelling on his own. His vulnerability brings him great shame, but it is, of course, extremely familiar to Tenar. She’s a middle-aged woman who has lived all her life in a world whose gender politics are akin to our own, so of course she understands fear and helplessness. Part of what’s so interesting about Tehanu is watching Ged grapple with his fall from hegemonic masculinity. He moves from shame to acceptance, and in the process shows us that it’s not inevitable for men to respond to this with violence. I have a lot of feelings about the benefits of accepting a certain degree of powerlessness in this world, both because we’re frail human beings and because most ways of rejecting that cause such harm. But of course that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight disempowerment politically. This novel deals with the intricacies of this delicate balance with more skill than anything else I can think of.

I’ve not even begun to do Tehanu justice — this is also a novel about surviving abuse, and healing in a context of love and care, of tenderness and openness, that allows trust to flourish. It’s lovely to watch Tenar and Ged come together, but it’s just as lovely to watch them treat Therru, the child in their care, with the respect she deserves. How brilliant Le Guin is at capturing the space between people, and the rich emotional currents that reside therein.

And then there’s The Other Wind, an incredible novel about life and death and letting go, where Tenar finds herself thinking that Lebannen, the king she loves like a son, might yet break her heart. There’s plenty to like about this novel, but I was particularly touched by the alliance between Tenar and the Kargish princess Seserakh. Tenar insists that she be treated like a human being, rather than as a political opportunity or an inconvenience, and she holds the men in her life to this standard, even when they’re powerful and even when it hurts. It’s a reminder of what we can do for each other, and of what a difference a friend, and act of kindness, and a voice willing to speak up for you can make when you’re vulnerable and alone.

10 comments:

  1. I have been wanting to revisit this series for years, now too. The Other Wind sounds unfamiliar, so I must have not read that one yet.

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    1. It was the last one she wrote - it was only published in 2001. It's an incredible novel, especially if you like what she did after the original trilogy.

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  2. That was so beautiful Ana. I keep meaning to get to these books and you have given me another nudge.

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    1. Oh, do read them! I'll be very surprised if you don't love them.

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  3. The Earthsea books were an early and now a perpetual favorite for me. Part of where my blog name comes from, you know!

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    1. I feel like I should have known that, but I don't think I did!

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  4. You know, I've never read the Earthsea series - I'm not sure why. My childhood series that definitely held up was The Dark is Rising Sequence that I re-read a few years ago.

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    1. Read them, Maree! They are so amazing!

      I've reread the second The Dark is Rising book quite a bit around Christmas, but not the others. I need to revisit them one of these days.

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  5. I have only read The Other Wind once...must re-read! But Tehanu I have reread lots. It says so many powerful wise things in a setting that is so small and domestic and un-vastly sweeping....I love it! And I love how the writing of the later books was part of Le Guin's own growing as a person and thinker about what it is to be a woman.

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    1. Yes, exactly! I love the fact that we can trace the shifts in her thinking, and that she added so much depth to the world she'd created.

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