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The Books of Earthsea

I first read the Earthsea trilogy by Ursula Le Guin back when it was just a trilogy. I was probably in late elementary school having more recently discovered fantasy novels (subsequent to finding a pile of D&D books in my brothers’ closet). I remember those paperback covers (between the three books, I read from two subsequent paperback editions with covers by Pauline Ellison and Yvonne Gilbert, respectively), but until a few years back I didn’t remember much else except magic related to names and the map in the front of The Tombs of Atuan which is oh so D&D dungeon looking (though missing the graph paper).

A few (5 or more) years back in a search for intelligent, readable fantasy novels (no easy task), I came upon the series again, by then 6 volumes, and quickly ended up rereading them in succession. I even planned on basing my first D&D campaign in a very long time in Earthsea but ended up only stealing the map. Rereading this books as an adult they stayed with me a lot more, and they immediately moved into my list of favorite fantasy books.

I was planning on rereading them again when I saw the announcement of this single volume collection: The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition (Saga Press, 2018) with illustrations by Charles Vess (not unknown to comics fans, particularly I think for his work with Neil Gaiman). Le Guin worked on the book (it has a new introduction and apparently she consulted with Vess) before her death earlier this year.

It is a wonderful experience to read all 6 of these books together (5 novels and a book of short stories) as one whole work. None of them really work as standalones anyway, they interrelate closely both in time and in the broader thematics, which is not to say they are all consistently of a whole. The first three were written as young adult fiction and a much more heroic fantasy (especially the first and third), while the later three were written after an almost 20 year hiatus and in many ways turn the earlier volumes on their head.

In this rereading I reinforced my feeling that the fourth book, Tehanu (one of the novels), is the best and most powerful of the bunch. Apparently, and Le Guin mentions this a few times in some of her introductions/afterwords, a lot of the fans and reviewers found it to be some kind of betrayal, an injection of politics, a rejection of fantasy, etc. And of course, as I was googling a bit to find some info about the older covers, the first blog I found with the info was written by a D&D playing man who clearly disparages the latter half of the books, holds up the first one as “the best”, and likes to say “the original three” to relegate the latter volumes to some kind of secondary status.

The reason for this, of course, is that Tehanu is not heroic fantasy, it is written from the point of view of a middle aged widow with grown children, an adopted child, and no magic powers or weapons (a grown up character who as a youth is the primary point of view (though not exactly the hero) from the second volume). In it, we see a more domestic fantasy, the world of Earthsea from a different perspective, struggles that aren’t defeated with magic. Even Ged the first three volumes’ protagonist wizard (and namesake of the first volume) is in this volume without magic, without goal, a hero who is no longer heroic.

In the various introductions/afterwords, Le Guin also writes a bit about the way she creates the world and its stories. After writing two short stories (included here) that vaguely mention a few elements, when asked to write a novel, she started out with a map (a later copy in her hand included within also), and then as she wrote the novels and stories, she discovered for herself what was on that map, who the characters were, what the history of the land was. It feels like the opposite of what you see with so many fantasy worlds, where everything is planned in excessive detail (I think we have Tolkien to thank for that), and then the stories are almost the forgone conclusion.

But, this is, very much so, the way of a lot of D&D campaigns, where you “play to find out what happens.” You start with some characters and a village and some wilderness on a map, and then you see where it all leads. What is my character like? I’ll figure it out as I play them. What is on that side of the map? We’ll see when we get there.

What is amazing in the Earthsea works is that Le Guin manages to take early elements that seem a kind of historical given, and then in the later volumes interrogate their origin or meaning, teasing out implications and thematic concerns. In a lecture/essay included in this volume from after the publication of Tehanu (but before the fifth and sixth volumes), she discusses the change in her thinking (and a bit the culture around her) between the first three novels and the fourth, how she began to question the traditional male heroic fantasy and where it lead her in Tehanu. That essay “Earthsea Revisioned” is one of the gems of this collection (as is a short epilogue story about the dying Ged that, being first published this past summer after her death, must have been a very later addition to the series).

So, I do highly recommend the Earthsea books. As for this particular collection… I’m less enthusiastic. This is a huge hardcover volume, 3 inches thick, making for an awkward reading experience. It’s not something you’d take on the train to read, or carry in a backpack, even reading it in bed (where I read most of it) was often annoying. The paper is thick which adds to the heft, as does all the illustrations (some in color on glossy paper). That might be easier to take if Vess’s illustrations were worth it, but on the whole I find them vague and uninspiring. The figures all look tiny and child-like, the settings are fairly generic, and they don’t add anything to the text.

I would have much rather gotten a nice Library of America collection with thinner paper, smaller text, and shorn of extra adornment that would have be more comfortable to carry and hold. I have their two volume set of Le Guin’s Hainish Novels & Stories, and, based on their size and page count, all of Earthsea could have fit in 1 volume, half the size of this Saga Press edition.