“I think in his heart the Patterner believes I am what I was. He believes I’m merely hiding here in the forests of Gont and will come forth when the need is greatest.” The old man looked down at his sweaty, patched clothes and dusty shoes, and laughed. “In all my glory,” he said.
It is worth noting that A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan and Tehanu are all distinctive in their non-world-threatening plots. Of course the prospect of Ged’s becoming a gebbeth is worrying, but would threaten destruction, not any sort of paradigm shift. Of course the rescue of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe is of great importance, but to improve things, not to avert some imminent disaster. Tehanu I have already described as “almost domestic, in the best possible way.” The Other Wind, like The Farthest Shore, gives us a real upset-the-order-of-things story. We go back to the wall between the living and the dead; we delve into the nature and history of humans and dragons. The Doorkeeper continues to be excellent.
It’s confusing in places. What you thought you knew about Earthsea will change. But it’s none the less excellent for it. It continues with themes Tehanu and The Farthest Shore began exploring – the limitations of the knowledge of Roke, the wish to cheat death, the strange beings both human and dragon.
There’s a wonderful passage when the village mender Alder, who is the catalyst of the story, recounts an episode from A Wizard of Earthsea to Sparrowhawk, and it’s not clear whether he knows that the sometime Archmage is the principal of the tale or not.
There are a couple of things that don’t seem to make sense. The first is an early reference to Sparrowhawk having forgotten the names of things, which doesn’t quite seem to sit right. His power was overspent; there’s no reason for him to have forgotten the language he painstakingly learnt. It’s not like the blight in The Farthest Shore which drains and distorts the entire fabric of magic. The second is the claim Tenar makes that the Archipelageans say king as Agni – if they did, Arren would have understood being called Agni Lebannen by Orm Embar.
It’s a beautiful book that vastly enriches the Earthsea canon. What more is there to say?
A brief remark or two. First: I’ve never read Tales from Earthsea, a collection of short stories. I’ve never come across a copy, and although I keep meaning to seek it out I never managed to. Le Guin’s website claims that it answers some of the questions (especially to do with sex and female wizards) that were left floating around in the wake of the supposed “Last Book of Earthsea”. Second, and relatedly: next year will see the publication of Earthsea omnibus The Books of Earthsea, collecting all four novels from the Quartet, The Other Wind, Tales from Earthsea, three further short stories and an essay by Le Guin herself. I am outrageously excited.
The Other Wind
Author Ursula Le Guin
Best line “If the dragons here can talk and are so big, I can see why that would be a reward. Being one of ours never seemed like much to look forward to.”
Best character Tehanu.
Photo copyright © by Marian Wood Kolisch.