While there are more famous series and more commercially successful series, the one that I return to, the one that I reflect upon. Despite wearing some of the trappings of conventional fantasy - fire breathing dragons, wizards who carry staves, seafaring raiders with swords, and so on - Earthsea is a decidedly unconventional fantasy. Tolkien supposedly wanted to create an older, more mature protagonist in the vein of Väinämöinen from the Kalevala, but despite his age and wisdom, Gandalf is ultimately a very standard type of hero, carrying a sword, hacking up goblins, facing down Ringwraiths, and generally filling the role of a manly protector. In contrast, the protagonist of the Earthsea books gains his power by knowing things, by figuring things out, by understanding the world. He doesn't carry a knife, let alone a sword. Through the course of the books, he only kills one person, and that is by accident. He defeats a dragon by talking to it - and aspires to talk with dragons rather than slay them. Granted, he kills some baby dragons along the way, but only because they attacked him. When danger threatens, he doesn't, and by the nature of the challenges the world poses, cannot strap on his sword and run out to confront it.
What is most intriguing about Earthsea is that the characters, at least the characters who we are meant to pay attention to, are acutely aware of the fact that their actions will have ramifications far beyond the immediate. Ged, also known as Sparrowhawk, late in his career explains to Arren that lesser wizards, seeking their own comfort, might send a storm away, and then another might do the same, sending it bouncing across the countryside until it drifts out to sea. But if all the wizards send the rain away, then how will the plants grow? And with this story, one realizes why Ged's own mentor Ogion the Silent would sleep under the rain. And why Ged told Tenar that he couldn't summon a rabbit for them to eat even though he could hold off the Nameless Ones in their own place of power. Actions, even small actions, have consequences, a point that forms the entire basis of the third book The Farthest Shore. The dangers in LeGuin's world are posed by those heedless of the implications of their decisions.
But the other thing that makes Earthsea so interesting is the role luck plays in the stories. The most important event in the series, perhaps the most important event in Earthsea's history, is almost an afterthought. When Ged is pursuing the nameless thing he accidentally summoned from the netherworld, he shipwrecks on an isolated sandbar. There he finds and old man and an old woman who take care of him, allow him to rebuild his ruined ship. They do not speak any common language, so he cannot communicate with them except by sign language. The only gift he can give them is to make their brackish well give clean fresh water. But before he leaves, the old woman gives him an old tarnished piece of metal. Ged stuffs it in his pocket and heads out into the open sea, later deciding to wear the gift on a chain around his neck. It is only later when talking with the dragon Orm Embar that he learns that what was given to him was half of the fabled ring of Erreth-Akbe. Though Ged is a powerful wizard, he accomplishes one of his greatest achievements by nothing more than pure luck.
LeGuin wrote the first three books in a short period, leaving the series for some time before returning with Tehanu. Many people were disappointed with the additions in the book and the various short stories that followed. I have mixed feelings about them. They change the world of Earthsea, but they deepen it as well, bringing to the fore the question of gender that existed only at the fringes of the earlier books. But this doesn't change the fundamental nature of the world, a fundamental nature that makes the thoughtful men the centerpiece, and makes men with swords and armor the barbarians. Where men of action must give way to men of understanding. Where men must learn to deal with women on equal footing. Where the good guys all have dark skin and the uncultured barbarians are white. And for these things, and for the lovable and flawed characters, the sublime and thought-provoking plots, and the beautiful world, Earthsea is my favorite genre series.
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