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Earthsea

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.

Geography

The world of Earthsea is one of sea and islands: a vast archipelago of hundreds of islands surrounded by uncharted ocean. It is uncertain whether or not there are other landmasses, though reference is made to lands "beyond the west" where the dragons have their realm.

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.

Peoples and cultures

The cultures of Earthsea do not directly resemble those of our world, except insofar as there are general resemblances to any literate pre-industrial civilization. Technologically, Earthsea appears to be an early Iron Age society, with bronze still much used in places where iron is scarce. Weapons also include the use of wood and other hard but easily crafted metals. (Ged's father was a bronze-smith.)

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.

Ethnic Groups

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.

In Tehanu, Archipelagan men wonder if Tenar is "white all over" - a satiric inversion of the sexual/racial curiosity sometimes exhibited by white men at black women.

History

The Creation of Éa is a 31-stanza poem, the oldest part of Earthsea's oral tradition. It describes how Segoy raised the islands of Earthsea from the Ocean by naming them in the true speech.

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.

Magic in Earthsea

One of the most distinctive aspects of the Earthsea universe is the magic. Magic is a central part of life, and magic appears in all parts of Archipelago civilization, from weather workers on ships, fixers who repair boats and buildings, entertainers and court sorcerers, and most important of all, the staff-carrying Wizards who are trained on Roke. In general, magic is usually the result of inborn talent, and, with the exception of witches, mostly restricted to men.

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 Magic on Roke Island

Roke Island is the magical heart of Earthsea and is protected by potent spells and a magical wind and fog that ward off evil. It contains several places of power, such as Roke Knoll and the Immanent Grove.

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:

  • Master Windkey, who teaches weather control
  • Master Hand, who teaches illusions
  • Master Herbal, who teaches healing
  • Master Changer, who teaches transformation
  • Master Summoner, who teaches calling
  • Master Namer, who teaches the True Speech
  • Master Patterner, who teaches meaning and intent
  • Master Finder, who teaches seeking and returning
  • Master Doorkeeper, who watches the gates and protects the school.

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).

The world of the dead

The world of the dead – "The Dry Land" – was a realm of shadow, dust, where nothing changes and "lovers pass each other in silence". It was a place where it was always night and no wind blows within the land. Although the sky was filled with stars, they were small, cold, and did not move. The constellations in the sky were not the ones that the people of Earthsea recognise from the living world. People crossed over from the land of the living to the land of the dead by stepping over a low stone wall on the crest of a hilltop. On the other side the souls of the dead wandered, never recognizing or caring for one another. At the bottom of the valley of the dead (known as the dry land) was the dry river, and beyond that lay the mountains of Pain, the only way back to the land of the living once one stepped across the low wall.

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.

In a Q&A with Ursula Le. Guin, she stated that the idea of the dry land came from the "Greco-Roman idea of Hades' realm, from certain images in Dante, and from one of Rilke's Elegies.

Creatures

Dragons and dragonlords

The dragons usually keep to themselves far to the West of Earthsea, but they sometimes attack inhabited islands in search of food or treasure and must be driven back by wizards. In A Wizard of Earthsea, the young Ged guesses a dragon's true name and forces him to promise not to attack people again.

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.

Otaks

Otaks are small, furry mammals that slightly resemble squirrels, or rats. They are rare predators, eating for example mice. Otaks, live only on four islands of south Archipelago: Roke, Ensmer, Pody and Wathort. The wizard Ged kept an otak as his familiar, which was unusual, because these animals are wild, and do not trust humans.

Harrekki

Harrekki are tiny dragon-like lizards, found in the East Reach, most commonly on the populous island of Iffish. They live in oak trees, and eat wasps, worms and eggs. Harrekki typically grow no bigger than an adult human's hand, and are often kept as pets.

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.

Religion in Earthsea

The people of the Archipelago do not worship any gods, but there are many references to the "Old Powers" of the Earth, which are beings that have existed since before Segoy raised up the lands. It is revealed in Tales from Earthsea that once, the women of power (mages) spoke with and learned from the Old Powers, but in Ged's age, they are considered evil. Most of these powers exist in another plane of existence. In A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged accidentally releases a creature of shadow from that realm, while attempting to summon a spirit from the dead. Some of the Old Powers that are present on Earthsea include "The Nameless Ones" in Atuan and the Terrenon in Osskil.

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 Earthsea canon

Short stories

Novels

Chronology

The internal chronology of the stories is different from the publication order. It is, with some uncertainties:

  • "The Word of Unbinding"
  • "The Finder"
  • "Darkrose and Diamond"
  • "The Rule of Names" (uncertain)
  • "The Bones of the Earth"
  • A Wizard of Earthsea
  • The Tombs of Atuan
  • "On the High Marsh"
  • The Farthest Shore
  • Tehanu
  • "Dragonfly"
  • The Other Wind

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.

Awards

Each novel in the series has received a literary award, including the 1979 Lewis Carroll Shelf Award for A Wizard of Earthsea, the 1972 Newbery Honor for The Tombs of Atuan, the 1973 National Book Award for Children's Books for The Farthest Shore, the 1990 Nebula Award for Best Novel for Tehanu, and the 2002 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel for The Other Wind.

Earthsea in other media

Radio

A BBC-produced two-hour radio dramatisation of A Wizard of Earthsea was originally broadcast on Radio 4 on 26 December 1996. This adaptation was narrated by Dame Judi Dench, with Michael Maloney as Ged, and used a wide range of actors with different regional and social accents to emphasize the origins of the Earthsea characters (for instance, Estarriol and others from the East Reach were played by actors with Southern Welsh accents). The adaptation was highly praised and was subsequently released on audio cassette.

Television

The U.S.-based Sci Fi Channel broadcast a three-hour loose adaptation for television of A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan in December 2004, and was broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK in Easter 2005 in two parts. Titled Legend of Earthsea, it angered fans of the Earthsea novels (and Le Guin herself) with the announcement that Ged and the vast majority of the other characters would be played by Caucasians and with the dramatis personae posted on the official website (see below), which featured non-canon characters called "The Archmagus" and "King Tygath", "Diana", "Penelope", and "Marion", and several references to "Kargide" (not Kargad, Karg, or Kargish) characters. The religious practices of Atuan were portrayed differently, and the celibacy of Earthsea wizards overlooked as Ged and Tenar become sexually involved.

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?

Anime

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.

See also

References

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