Ursula Le Guin’s world is where Tolkien fans probably go when they grow up

Long, long ago, in a land far away, it seemed as if everyone else in my high school was reading The Lord of the Rings. But then, everyone else had known each other since kindergarten and had each other’s phone numbers, so Tolkien was just one of many things that lay outside my very narrow track in 1978. It was only last month that I read The Hobbit. Tolkien’s writing in this book was a bit cloying, even for a children’s book, and I read to the end out of politeness, with no lingering desire to know what happens to Bilbo Baggins afterwards.

I thought I had also done with dragons but it happened that when I took home a novel by Ursula Le Guin, expecting science fiction, it turned out to be fantasy writing. I try not to be influenced by testimonials on the cover of a book, since any quote spotlighted by a self-serving publisher might be a lone squeak against a roaring thumbs-down from the majority. In this case, on the cover of Le Guin’s The Earthsea Quartet, a Guardian review was quoted: “Rowling can type, but Le Guin can write.” No weasel words there, just a summary order to pick up this book and read it.

Like Tolkien, Le Guin deals in dragons, quests, and wizards, but her writing is like cool Arctic air. Her world is where Tolkien fans probably go when they grow up. The tales are set in an age when spells are routinely invoked to set seed, bring rain, or put the right wind in the sails. In A Wizard from Earthsea, a goatherd finds he has unusual powers, and with teaching and seeking he becomes the respected mage Sparrowhawk, his young arrogance very early tempered by an encounter with death. He travels where he is needed.

In the sequel The Tombs of Atuan, a child is declared to be the next priestess who will preside over the tombs of the nameless gods and guard the labyrinth within them. She lives in that dark isolation until one day an intruder opens up the world to her. In The Farthest Shore, spells are losing power throughout the Earthsea archipelago. Sparrowhawk and a young prince go to the end of their world to find out why. These three books were first published between 1968 and 1973. Tehanu, the last work in this particular volume, was published much later, in 1990, and in it Le Guin deftly updates the perspectives without losing the weight of her earlier books. Tehanu brings together the threads of this story in a way I found most satisfying.

Le Guin’s Earthsea stories appear in various editions as a trilogy or a quartet, and there are related short stories and two more sequels to the four works I read in this volume, all of which form a teeming, writhing, richly plausible universe, as good fantasy writing should. I enjoyed travelling in it and, after nearly 700 pages, I want more.

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