The Earthsea Cycle

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The book that started it all
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The Earthsea Cycle is an often overlooked but hardly overrated fantasy series written by American author Ursula K. Le Guin. Starting with the first book, "A Wizard of Earthsea", published in 1968, and going up to its fifth and most recent publication, "The Other Wind" in 2001, this seemingly small series has made a name for itself and become surprisingly influential in the field of modern fantasy. It's most endearing element being it's status as one of the first well-known attempts to subvert the tropes of the genre imposed by authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard, the most notable and often talked of these being the diverse ethnicity of the main characters, with the main protagonist Ged being described as having a reddish-brown hue to his skin, much like native Americans.

So how is it relevant to /tg/?

Well, for one, it's fantasy (duh); two, it's an influential example at that; three it's an original and unique setting compared to both its predecessors and competitors from around that time; and four, they're just really well written books, filled with likeable characters, efficient yet dense and fascinating world-building, philosophical themes of morality, gender and religion, and good messages, which you'd hope it would have, given that it was written with children in mind.

Earthsea itself[edit]

A map of the setting. As you can see, there is both much earth, and much sea.

One of the key deconstructive elements of the series is the setting itself which, as the name suggests, is mostly ocean filled with many islands and archipelagos. This is compared to The Lord of the Rings where the setting is one massive continent that spans several hundred, maybe even thousands, of miles.

The inhabitants of Earthsea live mostly in a bronze-age society with the basic metalwork and farming skills and live in villages and basic cities on the various landmasses. Magic exists in the form of words of power which are various sentences and phrases from the old speech, which is the native language of the Dragons (yes, they exist and, like they should be, they're cunning motherfuckers, too). As such, speaking the true name of anything, be it a rock, eagle, goat, whatever, allows you to exert power over it. A spell which would make grass grow, translating it into the old tongue, would literally be the caster telling the grass to grow.

As such, the inhabitants of this setting have multiple names; those that they use in day-to-day conversation with strangers, their "use-name", and their true name which is only told to their most trusted and most beloved friends and family.

The books' philosophy is heavily routed in Taoism, and as such, magic acts much like the force in Star Wars, which is from similarly derived sources. There is much talk about the responsibility wizards have in being careful and reserved when using spells so they do not upset the great balance the entire world hinges on.

Also unlike other series, Earthsea has a distinct lack of fantastical races. There are many different fantasy creatures, but the only intelligent ones able to communicate and have structured societies are Humans and Dragons, the latter of which only have a minor role in two books and a brief cameo in the others. To make up for this, there are many different ethnicities which are native to the various islands. This also makes this setting unique as the story-telling is deeply human and at points touches on relevant themes about culture and religion in a slightly more explicit way than others tend to do.

The Books[edit]

Main series[edit]

  • A Wizard of Earthsea: The first book in the series is a bildungsroman about a young wizard named Ged, later to be known as the Archmage Sparrowhawk who, after discovering a talent for magic, saves his town from invaders and is apprenticed under a local wizard who sends him off to the Isle of Roke to learn the art of magic and become a wizard of his own. Here, he gets cocky and is dared by an asshole kid into performing a huge spell which he fucks up massively bringing him back to square one. The rest of the book is his fight for redemption and self-acceptance so he can fulfil his destiny of becoming the greatest wizard in living memory. This book should be noted by DMs for its ability to, despite it's miniscule page length of 205, set up almost the entire setting of Earthsea, without so much as missing a beat from the actual story-telling. This is in part due to its detached third-person narration which makes it similar in reading to older stories like the Poetic Edda and Beowulf, without the weighty and archaic words found there. It also manages to teach the reader a vital lesson, that being that even the greatest of achievers started by making mistakes, something the book's copiers failed to do.
  • The Tombs of Atuan: Book two takes a much slower pace and focuses more on a singular setting with a new main character. Tenar, known also by her sort-of use-name Arha (The swallowed one) is a woman chosen at birth to be the priestess of the titular Tombs of Atuan. Here she's taught that all magic and foreigners are evil. Part-way through the book, Ged shows up trying to steal a relic from the tomb and their interactions cause her to question the life she had been living so far. Notable for being one of the first fantasy books to have a female lead and, until Ged shows up, a majority female cast (of one). Perhaps not as engrossing as the first book, but still pretty well-written and short enough to justify a read.
  • The Farthest Shore: The story of Ged, now Archmage of Roke, embarking with a teenage prince on a journey to save Earthsea from some magic affliction which is plunging the entirety of Earthsea into chaos. Turns out there's a necromancer trying to cheat death, upsetting the aforementioned balance over the world that magic has. While Ged is a main character, the main story emphasis is on Lebannen, or Arren, the prince of Enlad who later becomes the emperor of Earthsea, after going through the similar bildungsroman treatment as the first book (might seem like a spoiler, but the book makes it quite obvious that this is going to go down). A more exciting pace than the Tombs of Atuan, it still contains similar themes of morality, but also touches on more bigger human themes such as mortality and corruption, and is marked by a step towards the grimdark for the series, though ends quite positively. Worth skipping to if Tombs of Atuan sounds too boring for you.
  • Tehanu: Book four returns to Tenar some decades after book two, now living on the Isle of Gont and partly looking after Ged's old teacher. Continuing the series' move towards grimdark, she's also looking after a girl with a half-burned face that was horribly treated, implied possibly raped, and is mistrusted, even despised, by the surrounding villagers. Ged returns home, this time without his powers, and is has to find new meaningful ways to live his life. This book deals more with themes of gender and taoist philosophies of being and doing. Would advise a skipping if you did the same for Tombs of Atuan.
  • The Other Wind

Short Stories[edit]

  • Tales from Earthsea

Film and Television[edit]

Now, some more lazy fa/tg/uys and/or ca/tg/irls may not want to read the 860 collective pages of the main series, and may probably go looking for something much more easy to consume. A quick google search of "Earthsea film" will yield two results; The sci-fi channel's "Earthsea" mini-series and studio ghibli's "Tales from Earthsea".

The unfortunate result from watching these two would likely be an unwillingness to investigate the books from which they came, and as such, watching either of these is unadvised.

The Sci-fi channel original mini-series is everything you would expect. A poorly produced, cheesily executed, and just plain bad skubfest that managed to turn the author, sweet old Ursula, into an Angry Marine due to how bad it was. There are many ways that this adaptation rapes the source material, from the hasty salad-toss story that mixes book one and two together, the terrible acting, cinematography and over-abundance of stock sounds but the biggest and most horrendous offence is how it turns the ethnically diverse and unique setting of Earthsea into some generic, Tolkienesque medieval world, something that, you know, the books were trying to AVOID!!!

The much less offensive of the two is the studio ghibli made "Tales from Earthsea" made by the one and only Miyazaki...Goro Miyazaki, that is...Hayao's son. While the name may lead you into thinking it's an adaptation of the short-story collection, don't be fooled, because the main chunk of its story comes from "The Farthest Shore", with a bit of "Tehanu" mixed in...and book one...and book two...yeah.

It's kind of a mess.

At least, unlike the mini-series it gets the setting and tone right enough, even if there's a bit of ghibli weirdness thrown in. Its biggest problem, however, is that it's just not that entertaining of a movie. To top it all off, it's also clearly not their best animated film, with the animation having a reasonably low frame-rate at times and a noticeable lack of detail compared to their other films.

If you absolutely have to, though, as in you're dyselxic and also deaf rendering you physically unable to read the books or listen to the audiobooks, the Ghibli version is the best way to go, but not even Willem Motherfucking Dafoe and Timothy "the best bond" Dalton could make this one a worthy substitute for the original.