2.17.2010

Review: Tales from Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin

“I don’t care what’s ‘allowed,’” he said, with a frown she had never seen on his face. “The Archmage himself said, Rules are made to be broken. Injustice makes the rules, and courage breaks them. I have the courage, if you do!” – “Dragonfly"

I’ve never read any of LeGuin’s work. The Left Hand of Darkness sounds familiar, but I went into this book not knowing anything about the series. Very fortunately, this particular book is a source: it doesn’t interrupt or on rely the rest of her series for its foundations. It acts as the foundation. And what’s great is LeGuin has created this entire world, so there’s no attempt to compare it with the world we live in, in terms of confirming facts or dates or events. We rely solely on LeGuin for the validity of her stories.

I compare it to the way that Brian Jacques’ Martin the Warrior acts as a source, a reference, for the novels that take place later in Redwall's and Mossflower’s history. I was able to relate more to it, actually, by comparing it to Jacques’ series. It’s pretty interesting when you think about it, the way LeGuin’s characters rely on the magic, on the religion of wizardry while in Jacques’ world they rely on the history and the nature around them in a very agnostic fashion.

LeGuin’s world is beautifully crafted. I especially appreciated her ending the piece with her “Description of Earthsea” (which perhaps I should have read first) that made me even more interested to read the series. Both her male and female characters are painted with bright bold strokes that keep the reader engaged the whole way through, and her mysterious land of the archipelago is so well established, that I sometimes actually believe it exists.

The most poignant of her included stories, for me, was “Dragonfly” in which a young girl harassed by her drunken father (who rules over a dying society) chooses to seek out her true name for herself. When she finds it, she is dissatisfied and ends up on the island of Roke where wizards are bound by their rules to only instruct men. Half of the mages side with her, though, and her quest for her true identity becomes the mages’ path toward change, revision, rebellion and truth.

Her journey toward finding, understanding and knowing her true self is so relatable. True, we women don’t all turn into dragons and fly into the West once we find ourselves, but she really embodies the strength and pride of womanhood to me. It was moving, and it made me appreciate LeGuin in a way that I hadn't anticipated: as a model for social change.

Laced throughout LeGuin's prose are markers of social inequity: child labor, slavery, subjugation of women, anti-feminist behavior, disparagement of youth and an ignorance of truth. Every one of these themes is easily related to our real world. We'd like to believe that our time does not still enslave children or submit to the belief in inequalities. But these things still exist. These characters overcoming the trials that we still suffer through, is pretty inspiring. In no way does LeGuin's world pretend to be a Utopia; it only seeks to give us the guidance needed to build the keys to one. Perhaps, as the mages discover once Irian has defeated their powerful fellow mage, a "pure" and "chaste" religion is not what we need. Perhaps what we need is a return to nature. Perhaps the mysticism from LeGuin is not so different from Jacques after all.

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