Earthsea is a fictional realm created by Ursula K. Le Guin for her short story "The Word of Unbinding", published in 1964, but that became more famous in her novel A Wizard of Earthsea, first published in 1968. The books that follow A Wizard of Earthsea are The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind. All are set in the world of Earthsea, as are (to date) seven short stories by Le Guin, two of which are not collected in any of these books.
The term "archipelago" is used to refer only to the central grouping of islands around Havnor and the Inmost Sea. The outlying islands are loosely grouped into four "Reaches" (West, North, South and East), and the Kargad Lands, four large islands to the north-east inhabited by the war-like nation of Kargs. Some of the islands described in the stories include Havnor and Roke in the Inner Sea; Gont in the northeastern Archipelago, and Atuan, one of the Kargad lands.
Otherwise, individual cultural elements in Earthsea can be compared with Earth cultures, without permitting any complete identification. Like the peoples of the Pacific islands or the Mediterranean basin, they have a way of life based on contact with the sea. However, on many of the larger islands like Havnor, Gont, and Way, people can live a totally inland life. No archipelago on Earth has the mix of island sizes, close grouping, and distance from continental landmasses that Earthsea does; its largest island, Havnor, which measures about 380 miles N-S and E-W is only slightly larger than Mindanao, and the other islands are smaller. However, they are usually larger and much more closely grouped than the atolls of the Pacific.
The overall climate of Earthsea is temperate, comparable to the mid-latitudes (over a distance of about 1800 miles) of the Northern hemisphere. There is a yearly transition from warm summers to cold and snowy winters, especially in northern islands like Gont and Osskil. In the southern regions of Earthsea it can be much warmer.
Earthsea, with the exception of the Kargad lands, is a literate society using a writing system called the "Hardic runes"; the nature of the writing system is uncertain. The name suggests the Germanic runes, but there are supposed to be at least several thousand runes in use, suggesting a logographic system similar to Chinese.
The people of Earthsea, are for the most part "red-brown" in coloring, like Native Americans; in the South and East Reach and on Way they are much darker brown, but with straight black hair, like some South Asians; in Osskil they have a more central or eastern European look, though still with dark skin, and the Kargs resemble predominantly blond northern Europeans (a possible allusion to the historical Vikings).
Le Guin has criticised what she describes as the general assumption in fantasy, that characters should be white and the society should resemble the Middle Ages.
Little is known of the original inhabitants of Earthsea, but scattered legends suggest that humans and dragons were once one race. The ancient Pelnish lore and Kargad legends describe an agreement between them (called the Vedurnan or Verw Nadan) to separate because of their differing temperaments and goals.
Early in the history of humans on Earthsea the largest and most powerful realm was centered on the islands of Enlad and Éa, although this realm did not rule all of Earthsea, and it is unclear whether other realms existed. Later, as more of Earthsea came under the dominion of the Kings of Enlad, the center of the Kingdom moved from Enlad to the largest island, the more central Havnor. This dynasty of Great Kings ruled all or almost all of Earthsea but ended soon after the death of Erreth-Akbe, and the kingdom fragmented into many separate principalities and domains. By the time of Ged and the beginning of the series, this state of affairs had persisted for millennia, though the emergence of a new King had been prophesied.
Le Guin imagined the magicians of Earthsea as purveyors of an unknown science, and a strong theme of the stories is the connection of power and responsibility. There is often a Taoist message: 'good' wizardry tries to be in harmony with the world and to right wrongs, while 'bad' wizardry, such as necromancy, is unbalanced and must be resolved or lead to catastrophe.
There seems almost no limits of wizard's power, so the mightest of them could threaten disruption of balace in whole Earthsea.
Magic on Earthsea is verbal: All objects have a true name, in an old language still spoken by the dragons which is known simply as the Old Speech. By using this language, it is possible to have power over an object or living thing. To protect themselves from this, most characters have two names: one for everyday use and one, the true name, known only to select close friends and family members – sometimes no-one. For example, Sparrowhawk (Use name) is known as Ged (True name) only by his closest friends.
One vital aspect of magic is that it is impossible to lie in the old language, so that magic works by forcing the universe to conform to the words spoken by the mage. For example, to say "I am an eagle" in the old language means that the speaker becomes an eagle, so that the statement is no longer false. The consequences of this are dealt with in the most recent Earthsea novel, The Other Wind.
The school of Roke was founded by Elehal and Yahan of Roke, and Medra of Havnor, as a center of learning against feuding warlords who used magicians to do harm. The school rapidly grew in power and influence, until it effectively acted as a central government for the Archipelago. By gathering young people with magical potential and teaching them magic, the school controlled and guided their powers. With the new king, Lebannen, the school's political power has changed.
Teaching in the school is carried out by the nine Masters, each with a specialty:
There is also the Archmage, who leads the school.
The position of Finder was abolished by the first Archmage, Halkel, and replaced with that of Chanter, who teaches music and chanted spells. Halkel also banned women from the school.
The internal structure of the Roke school seems to be modeled on that of a Medieval monastery, while in its social and political influence, the Archmage is roughly equivalent to a Pope (and on his death, a successor is chosen in a Conclave).
It is revealed in The Other Wind that the world of the dead was a failed attempt by mages to achieve immortality for the Hardic peoples. The mages stole half of the land "west of west" from the dragons as a paradise in which their souls would dwell. When they walled off the land, however, its beauty vanished, it fell under eternal night, the wind ceased blowing, and the immortal souls that went there existed without any meaning. In one of the final scenes of the cycle, the wall around the world of the dead is destroyed, freeing the lost souls to rejoin the cycle of death and rebirth.
Dragons in Earthsea are neither good nor evil by human standards, but always extremely dangerous. There are several references to the dire consequences of looking a dragon in the eye and Ged avoids doing so on several occasions. Most dragons in the books are of positive, though not benevolent, nature. Legends tell that dragons were once of the same race as man, in the end them choosing the sky while man chose land.
They consider men to be uninteresting, short-lived mayflies and view all but a select few in that manner. In The Tombs of Atuan, the priestess Tenar asks Ged what a dragonlord is; Ged replies that to be a dragonlord one does not need mastery of dragons, but to be "one the dragons will speak with". A dragon will do one of two things with men – eat them or talk to them. The former is far more common. Dragons are very rarely ridden by men, though Kalessin allows Ged and Lebannen to ride him after they emerge from the Dry Land, when both are extremely weakened.
When dragons do speak, they are worth listening to, as they have long lifespans and the opportunity to gain great wisdom. Dragons speak only in the Language of the Making, from which the language of wizardry is derived. Though they cannot lie, they are able to mislead the unwary because it is their native tongue and while no wizard can live long enough to fully master it, they can twist it to their will. Indeed, much of the true speech remains unknown to humans. Dragons have a strange connection to the true tongue; one wizard described it by saying they live in it as a fish lives in water. In Tehanu, Ged says that perhaps dragons do not learn the old speech. Rather, it seems to be inherent in them and they simply 'are' the language. Dragons being powerfully magical creatures, this is possible.
Only wizards and other dragons are capable of defeating a dragon. Scales cover the whole body of a dragon, so they are almost invulnerable to normal weapons. The most famous example is the duel between Erreth-Akbe and the dragon Orm, in which each slew the other, their bones laying centuries after on the western most shore of Earthsea. Many centuries later in the same place on the Selidor there was another duel between the dragon Orm-Embar and Cob.
On his travels across Earthsea, Ged visited Iffish, the home of his classmate Vetch on Roke. There he met Vetch's sister Yarrow, who kept a harrekki as a pet. Ged told Yarrow he was going to the West Reach, where dragons are as common as mice. Yarrow said he should instead stay on Iffish, where dragons are as small as mice.
In "The Tombs of Atuan" Ged states that the Old Powers are not evil in themselves, but that it is wrong for humans to interfere with or worship them and that doing so might lead both the powers themselves and the humans involved with them to evil behaviour - as is indeed demonstrated in the course of the book.
Gods are worshipped in the Kargad Lands. The oldest gods are "The Nameless Ones", who are worshipped at "the Place" in Atuan. They watch over a labyrinth beneath "the Place" where no one can safely walk besides the First Priestess and her eunuch. The First Priestess is chosen to serve them when she is five years old. When the girl turns six, she is 'eaten' by the Nameless Ones and becomes Arha, which literally means "The Eaten One". When Arha dies, the other priestesses of "the place" search the land to find a girl who was born the night Arha died. If that baby lives until she is five years old without being blemished by any major illness, she is deemed to be Arha-Reborn and is taken to "the Place" to be the new First Priestess.
The Twin-Gods Wuluah and Atwah are said to be sons of the Old Powers. They are warrior-gods and their symbol is a double arrow. Their original place of worship was at the Kargad city of Awabath before it became the seat of the God-Kings. There is a Temple of the God-Brothers at "the place".
The God-Kings are actually mortals who rule the Kargad Lands from Awabath. The dynasty began with "priest-kings", but they now consider themselves gods. There is a temple to the God-King at "the Place". It is the most opulent temple there. The last God-King was overthrown in a civil war by Thol of Hur-at-Hur and fled to "the Place" in Atuan, where he was killed by a priest-eunuch.
The stories "The Word of Unbinding" and "The Rule of Names" have no clear place in the chronology, and are not entirely consistent with the other stories. Nothing absolutely prevents "The Word of Unbinding" from taking place at any time before The Other Wind, but the differences in magical terminology, the presence of the otherwise unknown "trolls" (whom Le Guin notes "became extinct in Earthsea at some point"), and the character of the evil wizard Voll the Fell suggest that it might be appropriately placed either before the time of Morred, or later, in the Dark Times after the death of Maharion and before the founding of the school on Roke; in either case before "The Finder". "The Rule of Names" can also be considered, in a way, an early draft of The Farthest Shore, dealing with some of the themes which stand at the center of the later book.
"The Rule of Names" apparently takes place some time in (about) the century before A Wizard of Earthsea; Le Guin writes that the main character "must have been on Sattins Island some decades or centuries before Ged found him.... on the Isle of Pendor". But that could place the story before or after "Darkrose and Diamond," which is "at any time during the last couple of hundred years in Earthsea". "The Rule of Names" has some plot links to A Wizard of Earthsea, while "Darkrose and Diamond" is an entirely independent story, so it may make more sense to read "The Rule of Names" second.
"The Bones of the Earth" takes place early in Ged's lifetime, ten years before his apprenticeship to Ogion, and is closely linked to A Wizard of Earthsea.
The events in Tehanu partially overlap those in The Farthest Shore, but nothing would be gained by reading them in reverse order; some parts of Tehanu assume, or are illuminated by information from The Farthest Shore.
Le Guin was not involved in the production in any way. She did publish the following remarks on her website:
I can only admire Mr [Executive Producer Robert] Halmi's imagination, but I wish he'd left mine alone... I wonder if the people who made the film of The Lord of the Rings had ended it with Frodo putting on the Ring and ruling happily ever after, and then claimed that that was what Tolkien "intended..." Would people think they'd been "very, very honest to the books?
Studio Ghibli's 2006 film, Gedo Senki — Tales from Earthsea, is loosely based in the Earthsea mythology. It was directed by Gorō Miyazaki, the son of Hayao Miyazaki. In the past, Le Guin had rejected Hayao Miyazaki's offer to create a film based on the series, but due to her love of his films, Le Guin granted Studio Ghibli the rights. The story is based mainly on elements of the third and fourth novels of Earthsea; however, Le Guin has stated that she found this rendition of her work "disappointing" and untrue to the spirit of Earthsea.