“Now,” he said, “now we’re away, now we’re clear, we’re clean gone, Tenar. Do you feel it?”
She did feel it. A dark hand had let go its lifelong hold upon her heart. But she did not feel joy, as she had in the mountains. She put her head down in her arms and cried, and her cheeks were salt and wet. She cried for the waste of her years in bondage to a useless evil. She wept in pain, because she was free.
What she had begun to learn was the weight of liberty.
–Ursula K. LeGuin, The Tombs of Atuan
I’ve been reading the Earthsea Trilogy, by Ursula K. LeGuin. I finished the second book a couple days ago, and will begin the third and final book today. It’s something that’s been on my (very long) To-Read list for quite some time now.
I first heard about these books two summers ago, when I was working at an organic meat and produce farm that’s hidden off the beaten path outside a little New England village, about forty-five minutes from my house. I worked there three days a week, weeding endless rows of lettuce, getting greened up to my shoulders cutting suckers off tomato plants the size of small trees, hoeing row after row after row of corn, eviscerating chicken carcasses on slaughter days. It was grand fun–the hardest I have ever worked, the earliest hours I have ever kept, the longest days I have ever know–but absolutely lovely. I learned more about the weather and the earth and the ways of life in that one summer than I did in all my years before combined. I also learned that I never want to be an organic produce farmer.
I spent a lot of that summer listening to my coworkers talk. An organic farm, especially one in Vermont, attracts a strange and unique crowd of folk – I worked with people who had gone to college for philosophy and literature, spent years of their life traveling the Middle East studying religion, who had incredible musical skills, or were planning to go on to massage therapy school after another summer spent traveling from farm to farm looking for work across the country. They were a fascinating bunch to talk to, and to listen to. I’d never have guessed the amount of knowledge and wisdom they held – that rag-tag group of unshaven, backwoods homesteaders who’d been living for years off the land or out of beater two-door cars that bore more rust than paint.
I had several discussions about literature with my coworkers, as they were all fairly interested in, and a good deal knowledgeable about, the subject. We debated different types of fantasy, and traded author and book suggestions. When they learned about my love for Tolkien, we had many conversations about his work, his writing style, his world-building, his brilliance. One of the women suggested I try reading Ursula K. LeGuin, and pointed out her Earthsea trilogy as comparable to Tolkien’s works.
I needn’t be told that twice. I immediately put the books on my mental reading list, though it’s taken me until now to get around to them.
I love them. I love them immensely. Granted, I haven’t yet read the third book of the series, but the first two are superb. LeGuin’s writing is different than a lot of what I have been reading this summer. I have been hiding in fairy tales and fairy tale re-tellings and Arthurian legend rewritten for young and more easily distracted minds. At one time I would have described these books, by authors like Robin McKinley, Gail Carson Levine, and Gerald Morris, as merely “fluff”–interesting fluff, no doubt, but fluff all the same, and bearing little to no literary value. I am quite ashamed of that, and I see them rather differently, now, than I would have in high school. Every word is precious. I unashamedly inhabit the Junior Fiction section of my library, though I am twenty-one. No shame. None. The Junior Fiction librarian loves me.
McKinley and Levine are lovely. I have so enjoyed getting to know Morris’s Terence, his Gawain, and his Arthur. Yet it’s true that these books are light and easy to read–that is part of why I have loved them so deeply as I discover them (for I’ve never really read any of these authors before–tragedy, I know). LeGuin’s books are not like this, and it took me a little while to tune my mind back to the high fantasy style when I picked up the first Earthsea book, A Wizard of Earthsea. Her writing is similar to Tolkien’s, I suppose–a bit denser, not quite as easy for the uncommitted reader of fantasy, requiring thought and effort and loyalty and love. All of these are good things, and part of the reason I love Tolkien’s writing–it’s not simple, and it’s definitely not fluff. LeGuin’s work is similar.
Her bare words are, perhaps, not so beautiful on their own as the words of a writer like McKinley. I read McKinley’s Beauty earlier this summer for the first time. I kept getting caught by her words, the sheer weight and, well, beauty, of them. Her similes and metaphors made me catch my breath and pause, hanging over them for long moments before reading on. Her personification of objects and elements, especially light, is absolutely captivating and entrancing. LeGuin’s books have very little of this. She has passages of beautiful words, of course–notably her description of the Undertomb when lit up, in The Tombs of Atuan–but her writing is not shaped by these, nor does it intentionally use them to their best advantage. Instead, it is the stories she tells that are so captivatingly beautiful, and that speak Truth.
LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy and Tolkien’s writings both, I think, rely on the stories themselves for power and Beauty and Truth. Tolkien, like LeGuin, has moments of beauty brought by the words of his stories themselves, and he uses these well and strongly. The moment of Aragorn and Eomer meeting on the battlefield of Pelennor makes me weep for the sheer glory and shining of the words, for instance, and his descriptions of Ithilien and Lorien and the Shire grip my soul. But the true strength and power of Tolkien’s works come from the stories he tells and the Truth these stories contain, not from the words they are written with. LeGuin is, I believe, the same.
I won’t go into detail here about the plots and characters of LeGuin’s books. I don’t want to give anything away for those of you who have not read them (because you must read them yourself–really, you must read them). But I love her thoughts on naming and names and the power they give, I love the way she deals with darkness and the worship of it, I love the way she brings light into that darkness, and I love the way she draws her characters out of the darkness and lets the light triumph–not easily or smoothly or without pain, but truly and slowly and excruciatingly–a type of drawing out that leaves behind deep scars. Truth.
And there are dragons and wizards and mages and sorcerers and boats and mad chases and insanity and storms and deserts and fire and languages and history and illusion and friendship and magic. There are moments of sheer and utter joy, and relief, and love–and bitter hatred, and anger, and despair. There are terrible and wonderful people, and sometimes they are one and the same. There are children, and flowers, and mist, and the music of the sea. There is enchantment. So really, is there anything not to like?