Saturday, 3 May 2008

Tales from Earthsea - Ursula K. Le Guin

I don’t usually read short stories. But this collection might have changed my mind.
Ursula K. Le Guin is possibly my absolute favourite author and she has confirmed it with these stories. I waited a long time to read them and now I regret it.

I would have a hard time to choose which one I liked most of these five stories. They were all beautiful and meaningful in their own respect.

The first, “The Finder”, is more of a novella than a short story. It tells of how the school of wizardry on Roke was founded, about three hundred years before the Earthsea novels. The Archipelago was going through a difficult and chaotic time. Wizards were selling their powers to the highest bidders, causing plague and famine. The common folk considered all magic to be black, and those who practised and taught it to be the source of all troubles. When a child was born with the gift, the family did anything they could to hide that power, afraid that their son might be taken away, or killed by the “Crafty Men”.
That’s why when Otter starts to show sign of magic, his father tries to beat it out of him, in vain. His powers are recognised by Hound who takes him to the old mines of Samory, where he becomes a finder of cinnabar, or quicksilver. The powerful wizard Gelluck takes him under his wings and fills him with his talks of power and Greater Good. He shows him how the metal is refined using slaves, who work till their death, with no hope of survival, to achieve a pure and powerful substance. It’s thanks to one of these slaves, a woman called Anieb, that Otter defeats the wizard and leave the mines. Then one day he hears about an island where a group of people, called the Women of the Hand, live in peace using magic and wisdom and decides to find it.

Whoever read the Earthsea novels knows that school of Roke can only be accessed by men. Wizards are men, while women’s magic is considered to be the lowest form. “Weak as women’s magic” is a common saying. With this tale Ursula Le Guin explains how this came to be.
How, ironically, it was a group of wise women who founded the school , together with the Finder. Only women managed to keep magic sacred under the chaotic Dark Times. Without them, Roke would have never existed. And yet men managed to grab that power from them and make it exclusively theirs. They established new rules and acted as if nothing was ever different.
It reminded me of a theory offered by the archaeologist Marija Gimbutas. According to Gimbutas before the arrival of patriarchy, pre-indoeuropeans lived under a matristic system . They didn’t know any metal weapon and lived in harmony with the seasons. Then men with iron and horses came and destroy this society. They took their goddesses and transformed them, making them wives and daughters of their male gods. They brought war and violence and patriarchy.
I don’t know if Ursula Le Guin had this in mind when she wrote this story, but I can’t help to find the two fascinatingly similar.

“Darkrose and Diamond” is a love story, pure and simple. It tells of a gifted young man who is destined to become a magician, but turns his back to magic for the sake of love. It’s probably the less powerful story of the group, but still wonderfully written and highly enjoyable.

“The Bones of the Earth” is a short one and very peculiar. Only Ursula Le Guin could have pulled this off so beautifully, giving it a profound meaning and substance. It’s about an old wizard and his assistant Silence, and how together they manage to save their town from an earthquake. It doesn’t sound like a great plot but it ended up being really moving and even subtly humourous.

“On the High Marsh” is one of my favourite, because it smells of the spirit of Earthsea. The semi-deserted countryside, the eerie marshes, the windswept lands. In the midst of all this appears the figure of a man, a wizard, probably travelling in disguise. He comes to a house in the marsh and a kind woman offers him hospitality. This story is great because it mixes the mystery of the wizards, with the simplicity of the rural world. It describes a gentle and shy friendship between the healer and the woman. And it shows that the change’s in man’s life may be beyond all the arts we know, and all our wisdom.

The last story “Dragonfly” is supposed to be a bridge between the last book in the Earthsea trilogy and The other wind. That’s why I’m looking forward to reading The other wind as soon a possible.
Dragonfly tells the story of a beautiful and tall young woman who tries to challenge the established system and, in doing so, finds out her true self. It’s a rather long story and until the end I didn’t know I would have liked it so much. Dragonfly is a strong-minded heroine, impulsive and probably naïve. I liked her temperament and her wild nature that allowed her to go against centuries of rules. I’m not sure I completely understood the story, but that doesn’t matter. It’s beautiful and it has the feeling of a legend or myth. Just like the rest of them.

Le Guin’s writing surprises me all the time for its ability to capture me almost instantly, even though it’s not easy nor quick. It feels ancient and poetic. In other words, it’s powerful.

I will always be in awe of Ursula Le Guin and eternally grateful for giving the fantasy genre such depth and artistry.


heatherlo said...

I have seen a lot about this author around the blogosphere, but I have never read anything by her. What title would you suggest for a first timer?

mariel said...

I'm a little ashamed to say that I still haven't read Ursula Le Guin...nope, not even The Earthsea Quartet. There are just so many books to read and not enough time! Maybe I should take a month off work and devote it to catching up on half the books I want to read!

Glad you enjoyed this one!

Nymeth said...

Beautiful review, Valentina. You're making me want to read this all over again! And I can't wait for you to read The Other Wind! That book is seriously perfect. Well, for me anyway :P But I think you'll love it as well.

valentina said...

Heatherlo, I started with "A wizard of Earthsea", and it's still my favourite, so I'd definitely suggest that one. It's also the first in the trilogy (or quartet considering "the other wind"?). It's a classic!

Mariel, I like that idea, I'd love to do that too:P But Ursula Le Guin is definitely an author everyone should read at some point in their life!!

Nymeth,thanks! I'm sure I will enjoy it, and possibly love it:) just need time...*sigh*

Trish said...

This collection sounds beautiful. I had a bad experience with The Left Hand of Darkness a few months ago, but Nymeth keeps reassuring me that I need to give Le Guin another go. Sounds like a good place to start--thanks for the review!