We live in a time of riches, as far as fantasy book series go — tons of sprawling sagas are being told, by authors with a huge diversity of styles. But if you want a life-changing visit to a fantasy world, you can't do any better than Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea. Here are ten reasons Le Guin's fantasy series still rules.
Top image: RASOUL SHAFEAZADEH
Le Guin's Earthsea books consist of a trilogy, published between 1968 and 1972, and then two other novels, from 1990 and 2001, plus a short story collection. You can read just the original trilogy, and get a rich, bracing saga — but if you choose to read the two later books, you'll find Le Guin turning a lot of the themes of the original trilogy on their heads. So here's why these books, even in the midst of so much fantasy bounty nowadays, are still essential and amazing:
1) They offer three very different takes on the heroic journey
We live in a time when the "Hero's Journey" rules popular culture, in the wake of Star Wars. But years before George Lucas decided to distill Joseph Campbell into a simple space Western, Le Guin had already come up with two versions of the "rise to heroism" story, which turn a lot of your expectations on their heads. First the wizard Ged becomes a hero mainly by facing his own darkness and fixing his own awful mistakes. And then the young priestess Tenar comes into her own, reclaiming her identity with Ged's help, and they wind up rescuing each other. Later, in Tehanu, Le Guin gives us still a third heroic origin story, of a girl who turns out to have a unique connection to dragons.
2) They're about life in an Archipelago
and that's something that could be very relevant to a lot of us in the future — many futurists believe that with rising sea levels, coastal cities will become archipelagos. So the fact that the Earthsea books take place in an archipelago, made up of hundreds of islands with cities and settlements on them, is helpful to those of us coast-dwellers who want to imagine our own futures.
3) They're about facing up to the reality of death
Without giving major spoilers, as the series goes on, Le Guin deals more and more with the idea that accepting your own death is one of the keys to sanity and goodness. When one character tries to become immortal, he nearly wrecks the entire world — and later, in the final book, we learn that the afterlife itself wasn't what we thought it was, in a philosophical masterstroke.
4) Le Guin has the best dragons
As Campbell Award-nominated writer Max Gladstone (Three Parts Dead) argues over at The Ranting Dragon:
LeGuin’s dragons set the gold standard. Ancient, wise, capricious, beautiful, mighty, and sometimes sad, she salts Tolkein’s profoundly Western dragons—for all his majesty, Smaug the Terrible is a clear descendant of the “St. George” and the species of dragon—with elements of the Chinese demigod. LeGuin’s dragons, especially in Earthsea, are selfish and terrifying in a way that Chinese dragons don’t tend to be, but their power and wisdom is of a kind. Her dragons point to the wonder and the danger of her world and its magic—which is to say, the wonder and danger of the truth, beyond and beneath all transformation and evasion.
And he argues that Le Guin's influence on more recent dragons, including Temeraire, is massively underestimated.
5) It's like the anti-Narnia
Le Guin creates a fantasy world that appeals to a lot of fans of C.S. Lewis' Narnia books — it's another secondary world where there are fantasy creatures and legends that feel timeless. But in a 1982 interview, Le Guin said "the view of life and death in Earthsea is not only non-Christian but anti-Christian." Le Guin has said the spirituality in Earthsea is largely based on Daoism. So if you want an antidote to the Christian allegories in Narnia and other works, Earthsea is a great alternative.
6) It's fantasy where you can feel the interaction of cultures
And this is one reason why attempts to adapt the series, including Syfy's widely criticized miniseries, fail so badly. In Earthsea, Ged and the other wizards are dark-skinned, and we get to see a lot of their interaction with other groups, including the light-skinned Kargs, who have a very different approach to magic and their own set of gods. People pay lip-service to the idea of "multicultural fantasy" — but this is a series where cultures interact in a meaningful way, much like in Le Guin's other great anthropological novels like The Left Hand of Darkness.
7) It's one of the few series that gracefully ages its characters.
Even just in the original trilogy, Le Guin shows Ged moving past "coming of age" into confident adulthood and then into real maturity — but when she returns to the series in Tehanu and The Other Wind, she gives us older versions of Ged, Tenar and other major characters, who have aged in real time and have very different perspectives than their younger selves. But also, Le Guin manages to show us a youthful romance between Ged and Tenar, and then a romance in old age — which is one of the great pleasures of a series that allows its characters not just to grow up, but to grow old.
8) A really good system of magic.
Long before Hogwarts, Le Guin gave us a great wizard academy on Roke — and there's a terrific system of magic in Earthsea, which is based on knowing the true names of things and using them to shape the world. But also, Le Guin's fantastic worldbuilding integrates magic into every part of Earthsea, so that we see statecraft and social interactions through the lens of magic. The whole thing feels like something you could learn yourself, if you could only make the trip to Roke.
9) A fantasy series with a feminist message
When you get to the final two Earthsea novels, Le Guin revisits the patriarchal society she created in the first trilogy, and shows how a lot of the things we thought were iron-clad laws were only rules made by the men in charge. And going hand in hand with the revelations about death and the nature of magic, these books turn the whole of Earthsea into a brilliant narrative about discovering that the world is bigger, and more amazing, than any hierarchy can encompass.
10) It will teach you to become a good person
The first book, A Wizard of Earthsea, doesn't just show Ged going through a rite of passage — some scholars argue that reading this book could serve as a rite of passage for children reading it. But with the later books, especially Tehanu, write Laura B. Comoletti and Michael D.C. Drout in their essay "How They Do Things With Words":
Le Guin demonstrates that after the rite of passage is completed the child must settle into the difficult, frustrating chore of being an adult, fighting the endless tiny existential social battles — be they struggles against gender oppression, inequities of power, illegitimate domination, and the enforcement of ideology on unwilling minds, or the crises of conscience, losses of motivation, and fears of failure — that make up adult life.
In these books, growing up isn't something you do until you reach adulthood, and then stop doing — it's a process that continues for the rest of your life.