The Earthsea Quartet - Ursula K. Le Guin The Other Wind - Ursula K. Le Guin

A Wizard of Earthsea was one of the first fantasy books I read and I also have very strong memories of being terrified by the underground world portrayed in The Tombs of Atuan, sharing Ged's very real fears of being left to die in the darkness. I'd also read The Farthest Shore at some point in the past, probably back when it looked like this series was going to be a trilogy and the final two books (Tehanu and The Other Wind) were barely thought of. I've had the books pictured on my bookshelf for a number of years, so I thought it was time I actually read (or re-read) the entire series in one go, because I probably should have already done so!

 

Anyway, the series starts off with a fairly stereotypical tale of a boy from a small island who discovers he has unexpected powers, though he continues to have a cantankerous relationship with anyone who tells him what he should do with them, regardless of how right they prove to be in the long term. Ged uses his powers to call the spirits of the dead, only for one of them to attach itself to him and literally chase him across the face of Earthsea until he figures out how he can free himself. We next meet Ged again a few years later, on Atuan, but this time the focus is on another character and he plays more of a supporting role. Tenar is the central character here, her upbringing among the tombs and rituals of a nameless god who she comes to question even before Ged makes an appearance. In some ways these two first books are a mirror of each other, the main character coming to understand themselves better in a world where the opposite sex plays a minor role at best (more passing than minor in the first book). 

 

The third and fourth books are books about growing old and dealing with loss - Ged has lost his powers towards the end of The Farthest Shore and so refuses to become involved in the crowning of the king he's helped bring to power. In Tehanu, we catch up with Tenar who has just lost her husband, having chosen an 'ordinary' path of marriage and family rather than the magic she had been offered by Ged's arrangements for her care. She has also taken on the care of a child who has been badly abused, both physically and sexually, and then Ged arrives and he's a mess too. Finally, in The Other Wind, we see the culmination of a number of storylines, though I could have done with more scenes where Tenar and Ged were together. They have forged a strong relationship, that much is clear from the little we see of it, but I would have liked to have seen more. 

 

These are not perfect books, with the first and third ones in particular having a real dearth of female characters - from what I recall, the main female character in The Farthest Shore is a weaver who has lost her mind, which doesn't really do much for representation. While men play a more supporting role in The Tombs of Atuan, the two male characters who are 'on screen' the most are at least fully fleshed-out rather than bit-players. There's also an egregious example of deus ex machina in Tehanu to fix a difficult situation threatening Tenar and Ged which felt a little too convenient to be anything other than an answer to writing oneself into a corner.  

 

While they'll continue to have a place on my bookshelf, not to mention fond memories, and the writing is consistently lovely, I'm not really sure if I'll read them again. In some ways, now I too am significantly older than when I first read some of these books, it was the idea of Ged having to deal with losing his powers that resonated most with me; they are what makes him who he is and the people he knows mostly struggle with the fact he isn't the Archmage any more, possibly more than he does.