||This article includes a list of references, but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient inline citations. (April 2012)|
Boxed set cover art of the first three books
in the "Earthsea" series, as issued in 1975.
Artwork by Pauline Ellison.
|Author||Ursula K. Le Guin|
|Genre||Fantasy, Young-adult fiction|
|Publisher||Parnassus Press, Atheneum Books, Harcourt Brace & Company (US)|
|Published||1968 – 13 September 2001|
|Media type||Print (hardcover and paperback)
Earthsea is a fictional realm originally created by Ursula K. Le Guin for her short story "The Word of Unbinding", published in 1964. Earthsea became the setting for a further six books, beginning with A Wizard of Earthsea, first published in 1968, and continuing with 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 seven short stories by Le Guin, two of which are not collected in any of these books.
The world of Earthsea is one of sea and islands: a vast archipelago of hundreds of islands surrounded by mostly uncharted ocean.
The central grouping of islands around the main island of Havnor and the Inmost Sea are called "The Archipelago". The outlying islands are loosely grouped into four "Reaches" (The West, North, South and East), and the Kargad Lands, four large islands to the northeast inhabited by the warlike nation of the Kargs. Islands pivotal to the novels include Roke and Havnor in the Inner Sea; Gont in the northeastern Archipelago, and Atuan, one of the Kargad lands.
The archipelago resembles the Indonesian or Philippine archipelagos, although Earthsea contains no large continents. The largest island, Havnor, at approximately 380 miles across is about the size of Great Britain.
People and cultures 
The cultures of Earthsea are not direct analogues of those of our world, but are literate non-industrial civilizations. Technologically, Earthsea is an early Iron Age society, with bronze used in places where iron is scarce. Ged's father is a bronze-smith. Weapons also include the use of wood and other hard but easily crafted metals.
Like the peoples of the Pacific islands or the Mediterranean basin, they have a way of life based on contact with the sea. Only on the larger islands like Havnor, Semel or Way can people live a totally inland life.
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 name suggests similarity to the Germanic runes, but there are supposed to be hundreds of runes in use (in A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged learns to read and write "The Six Hundred Runes of Hardic"), suggesting a logographic system similar to Chinese.
Ethnic groups 
The racial characteristics of 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; in Osskil, they have a more central or eastern European look, though still with dark skin, and the Kargs resemble predominantly blond northern Europeans.
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. The dragons chose the free life of air and fire, while humans chose the life of the material world of earth and water.
Early in the history of humans, the largest and most powerful realm was centered on the northern 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 
Magic is a central part of life in most of Earthsea, with the exception of the Kargish lands, where it is banned. There are weather workers on ships, fixers who repair boats and buildings, entertainers, and court sorcerers. Magic is an inborn talent which can be developed with training. The most gifted are sent to the school on Roke, where, if their skill and their discipline prove sufficient, they can become staff-carrying wizards.
A strong theme of the stories is the connection between power and responsibility. There is often a Taoist message: "good" wizardry tries to be in harmony with the world, while "bad" wizardry, such as necromancy, can lead to an upsetting of the "balance" and threaten catastrophe. While the dragons are more powerful, they act instinctively to preserve the balance. Only humans pose a threat to it. In The Farthest Shore, Cob seeks immortality regardless of the consequences and opens a breach between life and death which endangers the living.
Magic on Earthsea is primarily verbal. Everything has a true name in the Old Speech, the language of the dragons. One who knows the true name of an object has power over it. Each person also has a true name, and which is revealed only to those who are trusted implicitly. A "use-name", which has no magical property, suffices for everyday purposes. For example, the wizard whose true name is Ged is known by the use-name Sparrowhawk.
One vital aspect of magic is that it is impossible for humans to lie in the old language, so that magic works by forcing the universe to conform to the words spoken by the magician. 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. Only the powerful are able to say such lines in the Old Speech and force these transformations.
The School of Magic 
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, a refuge for magicians fleeing feuding warlords who used them to do harm. The school gradually grew in power and influence, until eventually its leader, the Archmage, was considered second only to the king. However, through the long centuries, the wizards of Roke remained always loyal, though no king could have stood against their magic. Even in the long interregnum when the Archipelago was without a king, the Archmage did not try to usurp power, but sought only to maintain the balance. With the advent of the new king, Lebannen, the school's role must change. When the last Archmage, Ged, loses his magical abilities, no one is appointed to replace him.
Teaching in the school is carried out by the nine Masters, each with a specialty:
- Master Windkey, whose skill lies in weather control
- Master Hand, who deals with illusions
- Master Herbal, versed in healing
- Master Changer, who knows the arts of transformation
- Master Summoner, skilled in calling or summoning
- Master Namer, who teaches the students the rudiments of True Speech
- Master Chanter, teacher of music and chanted spells
- Master Patterner, seeker of meaning and intent
- Master Doorkeeper, the guardian of the gates of the school.
Their leader is the Archmage, chosen by the nine Masters, and often from outside the school. The position of the Master Finder was abolished by the first Archmage, Halkel, and replaced with that of Chanter. Halkel also banned women from the school.
Evolution of Magic 
Over the span of the novels and stories, there is an evolution of certain themes, echoes of which are repeated throughout Le Guin's entire body of work. Different uses of power, magic and balance, cooperation vs. dominance, the eternal soul of the Archipelago vs. Kargish concepts of reincarnation, and the position and importance of women in magic, are introduced and redefined. This revision of the depiction of Earthsea is illustrated in the way the role of women evolves throughout the series.
In the early novels, magic in Earthsea is strongly male-dominated. Women practicing magic are relegated to the role of village witches who are considered inferior to male wizards and mages. Excluded from the school of Roke, where systematic knowledge of magic can be obtained, they know, at most, a few isolated words of the Old Speech which is the basis of magic. A saying quoted in the outset is "weak as a woman's magic, wicked as a woman's magic".
In the three books of the original trilogy, the impression is given that this is inherent in the nature of magic itself. Ged makes his first steps in the world of magic under the tutelage of his witch aunt, but it is taken for granted that she cannot give him very much and that in order to realize his potential he must study with male mages, first with Ogion and later with the masters of Roke.
However, in later books Le Guin delves deeper into the history of Earthsea and reveals some early events that helped shape the dichotomy of male -female magic. As the Ring of Erreth-Akbe is forged whole in "Tombs of Atuan", and the door between the lands of the dead and the living is shut and Arren made king in "the Farthest Shore", so is the dualism between male and female magic weakened. There is a shift in the world. As slavery is made illegal, other forms of inequality are addressed as well. The dynamic of Earthsea is turned on its head. In the following stories, "Tehanu" and "the Other Wind" new information is introduced, and old events are seen in a new light, revealing that to begin with women had a central role in founding the School of Roke, and that - far from being an inherent characteristic of magic - their exclusion was the act of narrow-minded male chauvinist mages.
The Dry Land 
The Dry Land is where the people of the archipelago and reaches of Earthsea go when they die. It is a realm of shadow and dust, of eternal night where the stars are fixed in the sky, and nothing changes. The souls who live there have an empty, dreary existence, and even "lovers pass each other in silence". Wizards can, at great peril, cross from the land of the living to the Dry Land and back again by using their magic to step over the low stone wall that separates the two realms. At the bottom of the valley of the dead is the dry river, and beyond that lie the Mountains of Pain. In The Farthest Shore, Ged loses his magical powers in the Dry Land; no longer able to cross the wall, he and his companion Arren become the first to traverse the Mountains of Pain to return to life.
It is revealed in The Other Wind that the Dry Land was a failed attempt by early mages to gain immortality. The mages stole half of the land "west of west" from the dragons to create a paradise in which their souls would dwell. This earned them the enmity of the dragons, who considered it a breach of the agreement between them and humans called the Vedurnan. However, when the mages walled off the land, its beauty vanished, it fell under eternal night, the wind ceased blowing, and the immortal souls that went there existed without any meaning. The Other Wind recounts how the wall around the Dry Land is destroyed, freeing the trapped souls to rejoin the cycle of death and rebirth. Tenar, who was born in the Kargish lands, makes clear that the Kargad, and all other living things, were always part of the cycle of death and rebirth. It was only the people of the archipelago and reaches who entered the Dry Land after death, on account of the actions of what the Kargish traditionally called their 'accursed sorcerors'
Ursula Le Guin has stated that the idea of the Dry Land came from the "Greco-Roman idea of Hades' realm, from certain images in Dante Alighieri's work, and from one of Rainer Maria Rilke's Elegies."
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 wizard 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 a positive, though not benevolent, nature. In The Other Wind, it is revealed that dragons and men were once of the same race. However, they chose to part ways because of their very different natures.
Dragons consider most men to be uninteresting, short-lived mayflies. The exceptions are the dragonlords. In The Tombs of Atuan, the priestess Tenar asks Ged what a dragonlord is; Ged explains that it is not someone with a mastery of dragons, but "one the dragons will speak with" (rather than eat). Probably only a wizard could become a dragonlord, because only they knew old language well enough to talk with the dragons. In the setting of the five Earthsea novels, Ged and his enemy Cob are the only dragonlords. The most famous dragonlord was Erreth-Akbe, who is a legendary hero by Ged's time.
When dragons do speak, they are worth listening to, as they have long lifespans over which to gain great wisdom. Dragons speak only in the Language of the Making, from which the language of human magic is derived. Though they cannot lie, they are able to twist what they say and mislead the unwary because it is their native tongue, while no wizard can live long enough to fully master it. 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.
Only wizards and other dragons are capable of defeating a dragon. The most famous example is the duel between Erreth-Akbe and the dragon Orm, in which each slew the other. Many centuries later, there was another duel between the dragon Orm-Embar and the dragonlord Cob.
A gebbeth is a person who has been consumed and taken over by a power. In The Wizard of Earthsea, a man possessed by a creature that Ged inadvertently summoned nearly takes the wizard unawares.
In a time prior to the setting of the novels, the Enemy of Morred turns Elfarran's brother into a gebbeth and uses it to trick her into travelling to the Jaws of Enlad.
Otaks are small, furry carnivores with an aggressive temperament that prey on mice and insects. Otaks are rare, living only on four islands of the southern Archipelago: Roke, Ensmer, Pody and Wathort. The wizard Ged kept an otak as his pet, which was unusual given wild otaks rarely trust humans.
Harrekkies are very little reptiles looking like miniature dragons. They were living on East Reach. Vetch's sister Yarrow had a pet harrekki.
Trolls are enormous creatures with rock-like hands and gravelly voices who serve as guards and servants for evil magicians. Trolls went extinct in the realm of Earthsea at an unspecified time before the events described in the books.
Religion in Earthsea 
The people of the Archipelago do not worship any gods. While there is a creation myth involving Segoy raising up the lands from the sea, Segoy is known as a powerful wizard and is not worshipped. At the end of Tehanu, the child Tehanu addresses Kalessin - oldest and wisest of the dragons - as "Segoy", raising the possibility that Kalessin is identical with Segoy or is manifestation or incarnation of him. This point, however, is never taken up again in the series.
There are the "Old Powers" of the Earth, which existed since before Segoy raised up the lands. These include "The Nameless Ones" in Atuan and the Terrenon in Osskil. It is revealed in Tales from Earthsea that once, the women of power spoke with and learned from the Old Powers, but in Ged's age, they are considered evil. 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.
Gods are revered in the Kargad Lands. The oldest are "The Nameless Ones", who are worshipped in Atuan. However, the reverence given them has gradually been usurped by human beings. The God-Kings were the mortal rulers of the Kargad Lands. The dynasty began with "priest-kings", but over the years they promoted themselves, until finally they declared themselves to be gods. The last God-King is overthrown in a civil war by Thol of Hur-at-Hur and flees to Atuan, where he is killed by a priest-eunuch.
The Earthsea canon 
Short stories 
Seven short stories appear in two collections of Le Guin's work (and some have been reissued elsewhere). Two seminal stories were originally published in 1964 and were collected in The Wind's Twelve Quarters (Harper & Row, 1975). Five much later stories were collected in Tales from Earthsea (Harcourt, 2001), where three were original.
- "The Word of Unbinding", Fantastic Stories of Imagination, January 1964
- "The Rule of Names", Fantastic Stories of Imagination, April 1964
- "Dragonfly", Legends: Short Novels by the Masters of Modern Fantasy, Tor Books, 1998
- "Darkrose and Diamond", The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Oct-Nov 1999
- "The Bones of the Earth" (2001), original to Tales from Earthsea
- "The Finder" (2001), original to Tales from Earthsea
- "On The High Marsh" (2001), original to Tales from Earthsea
Tales from Earthsea also includes about thirty pages of fictional reference material titled "A Description of Earthsea" (2001) and catalogued as short fiction by ISFDB.
- A Wizard of Earthsea (Parnassus Press, 1968)
- The Tombs of Atuan (Atheneum Books, 1971)[a]
- The Farthest Shore (Atheneum Books, 1972)
- Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea (Atheneum Books, 1990)
- The Other Wind (Harcourt, 2001)
The internal or fictitious historical order of Earthsea stories differs from their publication order. There is some uncertainty in this "historical" list, but the five novels were published in historical order and the birth of Ged preceded all but the first four entries.
- "The Word of Unbinding"
- "The Finder"
- "Darkrose and Diamond"
- "The Rule of Names"
- "The Bones of the Earth"
- A Wizard of Earthsea
- The Tombs of Atuan
- "On the High Marsh"
- The Farthest Shore
- The Other Wind
- "A Description of Earthsea", the last part of Tales from Earthsea, is fictitious reference material rather than narrative.
The two 1964 stories are not entirely consistent with the others and they have no certain place in Earthsea chronology. "The Word of Unbinding" may be set 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" 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.
"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; some parts of Tehanu assume, or are illuminated by information from The Farthest Shore.
Each novel in the series has received a literary award, including the 1969 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction & 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.
A BBC-produced two-hour radio dramatisation of A Wizard of Earthsea was originally broadcast on Radio 4 on December 26, 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 subsequently released on audio cassette.
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 personæ posted on the official website (see below), which featured several original characters such as "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?"
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 "entirely different" from her creation.
- According to ISFDB, "The Tombs of Atuan (Complete Novel)" appeared in Worlds of Fantasy, Issue 3, 1970–71 (on the cover), also known as Winter 1970.
- Interview with Ursula K. Le Guin, Gifts.
- Ursula Le Guin Q&A | By Genre | guardian.co.uk Books.
- Petty, Anne C. Dragons of Fantasy: The Scaly Villains & Heroes of Tolkien, Rowling, McCaffrey, Pratchett & Other Fantasy Greats, (Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Press, 2004).
- Le Guin, Ursula. The Wind's Twelve Quarters. (New York: Harper & Row, March 1981 Bantam edition), page 65.
- [ISFDB]. "Earthsea Cycle – Series Bibliography". Internet Speculative Fiction Database. Retrieved 2012-04-09. Select a title to see its linked publication history and general information. Select a particular edition (title) for more data at that level, such as a front cover image or linked contents.
- "A Wizard of Earthsea". Retrieved 2011-07-10.
- LeGuin, Ursula, "A Whitewashed Earthsea", web page at Ursula K. Le Guin on the TV Earthsea. - By Ursula K. Le Guin - Slate Magazine. Retrieved 2007-05-06.
- Ursula K. Le Guin: Earthsea.
- Le Guin, Ursula K. (2006). "Gedo Senki, A First Response". UrsulaKLeGuin.com. Retrieved 2011-09-04.
- Attebery, Brian (1980). The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature: From Irving to Le Guin (1st ed.). Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press. ISBN 978-0-253-35665-9.
- Bernardo, Susan M.; Murphy, Graham J. (2006). Ursula K. Le Guin: A Critical Companion (1st ed.). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. ISBN 978-0-313-33225-8.
- Cadden, Mike (2005). Ursula K. Le Guin Beyond Genre: Fiction for Children and Adults (1st ed.). New York, NY: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-97218-5.
- Le Guin, Ursula (1968). A Wizard of Earthsea (1st ed.). Berkeley, CA: Parnassus Press. ISBN 978-0-395-27653-2.
- Le Guin, Ursula (1971). The Tombs of Atuan (1st ed.). New York, NY: Atheneum Books. ISBN 978-0-689-20680-1.
- Le Guin, Ursula (1972). The Farthest Shore (1st ed.). New York, NY: Atheneum Books. ISBN 978-0-689-30054-7.
- Le Guin, Ursula (1975). The Wind's Twelve Quarters (1st ed.). New York, NY: Harper and Row. ISBN 978-0-06-012562-2.
- Le Guin, Ursula (1990). Tehanu (1st ed.). New York, NY: Atheneum Books. ISBN 978-0-689-31595-4.
- Le Guin, Ursula (1993). Earthsea Revisioned. Green Bay Publications. ISBN 978-0-948845-03-1. OCLC 29598010.
- Le Guin, Ursula (2001). Tales from Earthsea (1st ed.). New York, NY: Harcourt Brace & Company. ISBN 978-0-15-100561-1.
- Le Guin, Ursula (2001). The Other Wind (1st ed.). New York, NY: Harcourt Brace & Company. ISBN 978-0-15-100684-7.
- Martin, Philip (2009). A Guide to Fantasy Literature: Thoughts on Stories of Wonder & Enchantment (1st ed.). Milwaukee, WI: Crickhollow Books. ISBN 978-1-933987-04-0.
- Petty, Anne C. (2004). Dragons of Fantasy: The Scaly Villains & Heroes of Tolkien, Rowling, McCaffrey, Pratchett & Other Fantasy Greats (1st ed.). Cold Spring Harbor, New York: Cold Spring Press. ISBN 978-1-59360-010-5.
- Le Guin's official website has a map of Earthsea drawn by Le Guin herself
- Earthsea series listing at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database
- The World of Earthsea offers more Earthsea maps
- Ursula Le Guin's Magical World of Earthsea by Jon Griffin
- The Isolate Tower: An Earthsea Compendium Features a Glossary of names and places, a dictionary on the Old Speech, and a Timeline of Earthsea
- To Light A Candle: An Unofficial Earthsea Companion An ebook which features original fan artwork and an encyclopedia of the relevant places, events, and people of Earthsea.
- Chronicles of Earthsea Guardian Unlimited Interview with Ursula K. Le Guin, February 9, 2004.