Review of 'Earthsea: The First Four Books'

Earthsea: The First Four Books by Ursula K. Le Guin

earthsea.jpg This is a collection of the first four “Earthsea” books by Ursula K. Le Guin: “A Wizard of Earthsea”, “The Tombs of Aruan”, “The Furthest Shore” and “Tehanu” that recounts the story of “Ged” a goatherder who becomes Sparrowhawk, Archmage of the land of Earthsea, an archipelago of hundreds of small islands.

A Wizard of Earthsea

In this first book, Duny, known locally as “Sparrowhawk”, is a goatherder from the northern island of “Gont” where he is taken under the wing of the mage Ogion who quickly sees in Ged, Duny's “true” name, the potential of becoming a great magician. Ged is frustrated at the slow pace of Ogion's learning so leaves to join the School of Wizardry on the island of Roke where he flourishes with his skills readily apparent. Earning his title as a wizard he is stationed on in Ninety Isles as their local magician to protect them from the dragons that threaten their villages. Having unleashed a dark spirit while in school the dragons may end up being the least of his problems…

A slow start to the series, we come to understand the integrity of Ged, a young man struggling to find his place in the world, a world he hardly knows. As with many such books this first chapter seems a bit like a travelogue as we are introduced to the various lands and characters that we are to see more of in the following chapters so this book does suffer by being a bit slow in terms of action.

The Tombs of Aruan

In the Kargish empire Tenar, having been born on the day the last high priestess of the Tombs of Atuan died, is taken from her parents as a child to take the priestesses place in the temple. She lives a lonely life in the temple with only a couple of other priestesses for company as she is indoctrinated in the various rites she is required to perform. When she discovers a wizard in the undercroft beneath the temple she becomes intrigued, little knowing the wizard is none other than Sparrowhawk, Archmage of Earthsea. It is through him that her cloistered life will be ripped open and her eyes open to the world around her.

This is a much more quickly paced novel than the first told from the perspective of the rather strong spirited Tenar. We are taken to a completely different part of Eartsea to the land of Karg where the old superstitions of the ruling class are still held to but are gradually fading away. It is a delight to see the cloistered Tenar slowly discovering that her life can be ever so much more than the small temple she finds herself confined in.

The Farthest Shore

A strange malaise is spreading across Earthsea with people forgetting not only magic but also the meaning of existence. Songs are being forgotten and people and animals are growing sick or going mad…or both. Though many do not see this happening, the Archmage Sparrowhawk is quick to spot the signs so sets off from Roke in his boat Lookfar with Arren, the young Prince of Enlad, to solve the riddle of the darkness. In the south islands they find themselves succumbing the power of a “dark wizard” with Ged feeling his powers fading and after being wounded Ged is nursed by Arren. Adrift in the sea and close to death they are rescued by a group of people living on great rafts. It is there they learn the dark wizard is to the north but there will be a terrific toll to defeat him.

Another travelogue chapter in the Earthsea saga as we are taken from the extreme north, to the extreme south then to the extreme west of the land but encounter quite interesting cultures and peoples with an intriguing mystery that baffles the great Sparrowhawk and proves, ultimately, to be his biggest challenge yet. In this book the perspective is of Arren who seems mostly around for the ride but ends up being critical to the plot. As with other chapters “The Farthest Shore” is a bit slow paced, even in the climactic scenes which you might expect to be a bit more exciting. We spend an awful lot of time here on the open ocean with things getting worse and worse for the main characters. The story is more about understanding oneself than big action so some fantasy lovers may be disappointed. Though there are more dragons…


Former high priestess Tenar is now living on Gont having married a local farmer and settled down to a quiet life after having first spent time with Sparrowhawk's mentor Ogion. She is brought a severely injured child of vagabonds having been pushed into a fire by her father. Having lost half her face, Tenar names the child Therru which means “flame” in her native Kargish. When learning Ogion is near death she comes to his side and is told it was very important to correctly teach Therru but it is unclear why. A short time later her now eventful life is once again thrown into turmoil with the arrival of Ged on the back of a dragon having only just barely survived the events of the previous story and now stripped of his magical powers. After recovering from his injuries, Ged returns to the hills of his youth and once again tending goats. What does destiny have in store for Tenar? What is the mysterious power of the quite, reclusive Therru? Will Ged get back his magical powers?

Another slow burner, “Tehanu” follows Tenar after the events of the second book “The Tombs of Aruan” and her decision to settle into a quite life as a farmer's wife. We see here how this intersects with the events following “The Farthest Shore” with Ged's return to Gont. The pace is very slow and it feels little like a story but more like a diary reporting on daily life. Again the focus is on the characters trying to understand their role in life and what it is they are supposed to do but unlike the other chapters this book is confined solely to a single island so less of a travelogue. I found this chapter a lot more human with much more fleshed out characters that I grew to love in the course of the story but it is bittersweet in the lack of any real narrative progress. Nothing really “big” happens here, but rather it is another gentle human story.

Quite a bit different than many fantasy books I have read in the past. For example, there is the feeling of a great amount of history behind the lands and events that unfold but Le Guin makes little attempt at explaining it other than the essentials we need in order to understand the context. There is no huge digression into these general irrelevancies. These are also very slow paced novels that seem, certainly in the later instalments, to concentrate more on the inner story than the outer as we live through the turmoil of the characters as they struggle to find their way through life, indeed, “Tehanu” has a lot to say about the role of men and woman in society.

For fantasy there is not particularly a lot of action though there is a generally mild magic and some pretty cool dragons. But if you are expecting huge action or battle sequences you will be disappointed. These are not books of epic stories, these are books about normal people who, through no fault of their own, happen to be pivotal to history. They are often slow and ponderous to read as we follow the sheer drudgery of events as they unfold over large periods of time: Years in the countryside of Gont, weeks and months on the open ocean travelling from island to island…Le Guin brings this all vividly to life.

The stories are all consistent and take us in surprising directions but take their time doing it. There are lots of interesting things said here but don't expect any huge climax or dramatic revelations, just human emotions and frailties in a fantasy setting.

Rating: “It is OK but I have some issues”

Review Date: 2021-03-13

Genre: Fantasy

Publisher: Penguin

Publication Date: 1993

ISBN: 9780241956878