Book Review of Earthsea Quartet by Ursula Le Guin

There is sEarthseaomething captivating about epic fantasy classics. I’m rereading one of my old favourites – The Earthsea Quartet by Ursula Le Guin. This quartet includes the first four books from the Earthsea Cycle: A Wizard of Earthsea; The Tombs of Atuan; The Farthest Shore; and Tehanu.

While I witnessed of Sparrowhawk’s journeys in A Wizard of Earthsea, I could feel the crisp sea breeze on my skin, smell the salt of the ocean, and taste his desolation while he sailed into uncharted waters. The ability to transport the reader into another world is one of the hallmarks of well-written classic fantasy. As much as I enjoy my brief forays into dystopian YA novels, there is a lush, complex and gorgeous terrain only found in well-written, classic fantasy. Books like Tolkien’s and Le Guin’s take much, much longer to complete.

Le Guin’s writing style is both richly descriptive and tantalisingly sparse, leaving plenty of room for the reader to imagine the world of Earthsea. She expertly weaves themes like friendship, loneliness, the cost of pride and other human foibles into her stories. Any good story must have character growth, and Le Guin’s characters go on humbling journeys of self-discovery.

You know the old joke about fantasy novels? About how all fantasy worlds can somehow fit on two pages? Ha. It’s true, even in Le Guin’s case. This time, I actually made the effort of tracing Sparrowhawk’s journey on the map of Earthsea, and it made for even more vivid imaginings.

Without giving away too much, I’m curious about your thoughts on Le Guin’s take on gender, magic and mythology. Her depiction of women’s ineffective hedge magic versus the more serious craft of male wizards is…intriguing, particularly in today’s context of female-centric heroic narratives. If you ask me, I prefer a balance of both male and female protagonists. Le Guin is 85 years old, and she is unapologetic about her earlier works embracing the male-centric heroic narrative. I read one of her interviews, to help me understand the context she wrote in. Fascinating! In the Earthsea Quartet at least, the contrast between Le Guin’s gendered character descriptions to Margaret Atwood’s is very stark.

I’d like to end with an inspiring quote by Le Guin, given at the November 2014 National Book Awards:

I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies, to other ways of being. And even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom: poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality. Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. The profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable; so did the divine right of kings. … Power can be resisted and changed by human beings; resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words. I’ve had a long career and a good one, in good company, and here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. … The name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.

On Antagonists and Peacocks

“You know my powers, my dear Watson, and yet at the end of three months I was forced to confess that I had at last met an antagonist who was my intellectual equal. My horror at his crimes was lost in my admiration at his skill.” – Arthur Conan Doyle, Sr (1859-1930)

What makes a good antagonist? Here’s a quick list of what comes to mind:

  • Lord Of The Rings: Sauron
  • Star Wars: Darth Vader & Emperor Palpatine
  • Moby-Dick: Moby-Dick
  • Little Red Riding Hood: The Big Bad Wolf

If you scan that list, it’s easy to spot why I’ve picked them as the antagonists. They were clearly trying to endanger the protagonist. However, I read a blog post by K.M. Welland that suggests something different – antagonists don’t have to be actually bad guys. An antagonist could even be, as she says, the weather! Of course, antagonists are most commonly crafted as characters whom the protagonist can flee from or fight. It’s interesting though, to think of a protagonist grappling with inner demons as being his own antagonist – inside his own mind. I remember being fascinated by the protagonist Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. He was the narrator of the story who committed a hideous crime, then drove himself insane with the guilt. Who’s the antagonist there? Well…to a large degree, I think he was. Sure, you could argue that Ilya Petrovich, the police inspector who was tracking him down, was the antagonist, but it was Raskolnikov’s decision to confess that ultimately sent him into exile.

Black and white, cookie-cutter bad guys are a lot less interesting than far more complex antagonists, who are determined to push back against the protagonist. And when they’re all bundled up in the same person…well. Definitely interesting.

On another note, I’ve been hearing these loud and bizzare sounds in the middle of the night. My husband and I think that maybe it’s some kind of bird. Except what kind of bird squawks so loudly at two in the morning? I need to find closure with this, so I’ve been trawling the web.  It kind of has the volume of the Great Malay Argus, but it’s missing something…then I found the sound of a peacock! I honestly think it is peacock mating season. And it is NOISY. You know, there must be some cosmic irony in this. We moved to this lovely apartment to escape the rock-hammering at our old place, and now, we’re being trolled by MATING PEACOCKS! *facepalm*