I’m super late to the party on this series, but I only just completed the six book cycle of Ursula K. LeGuin’s EARTHSEA and it was one of the best things I have ever read. When I finished the final book I wept, not because it was sad, but because I didn’t want to leave her enchanting world.
I’m not going to do an in-depth analysis of the six books and what they mean. More eloquent and educated writers than I have done that over the years. But I will speak about the elements of the books that spoke the most to me, and maybe they will have resonated with you, too, if you’ve read them. (If you haven’t, you absolutely should.)
Fantasy often falls into the habit of taking place on a huge scale. It’s almost commonplace for armies to be running at each other, or for intrepid heroes to be facing down godlike beings from hellish dimensions, or for the stakes to be nothing short of worldwide in their scope. The Earthsea books are mostly small in scale. Not once is there a clash of armies or a final showdown with an all-powerful god-being bent on destroying reality. The journeys of the heroes are intimate and their confrontations small in number (though not lacking in size when dragons are involved). The stakes can get high, but they never felt overwhelming. It was refreshing.
She writes the magic of Earthsea in such a way that it is, well, magical. It’s not modern action magic, much like the kind I was prone to using in the Oracle for Hire years, that was all fireballs and flying like superheroes and hordes of undead. It’s a slow, subtle, mysterious, and magical magic that made me feel like I, like the students of the school on Roke Island, was tapping into something great and powerful and connected to the world, but I was never meant to fully understand. I became lost in it, and I didn’t want to find my way out.
Her characters are easy to love because they are (save for the antagonists) tender, sensitive, and more inclined to talk than to fight. The greatest archmage in all of Earthsea is spare in his use of magic. A former child-priestess in a forgotten temple becomes a loving mother and fierce protector of her found family. A prince’s journey to king is not one borne of combat and conquest, but of persistence and loyalty and love. The burned child. The haunted mender. The reluctant princess. I could go on and on about them but I don’t want to spoil your discovery of them.
Earthsea is beautiful, simply put. The characters, the magic, the setting. This is a fantasy world I want to escape to, not from. This is a fantasy world not made bleak by hardship and in need of rescuing. This is a lovely world to set sail to and discover, and to lose yourself in its delightful magic. When it is in danger it needs protecting, and when change comes it is not the end of all magical things but the beginning of something even more wondrous.
Endings are so important to me. But even as I came to The End and knew her stories of Earthsea were complete, the world felt as though it were still moving ever onward. Beautiful change set in motion. Characters still with tasks yet to complete. The tides ever moving about the archipelago. I knew there was more, and yet I knew it was done. It was like my visit to Earthsea had come to its conclusion, and it was time to come home.
Thankfully, I can revisit the magical magic of Earthsea whenever I like, and I feel like I will escape to its shores more than once again.