On Ursula K. LeGuin and J. R. R. Tolkien

“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

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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.

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 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?


16 Comments Add yours

  1. Kodiak says:

    Polysyndeton in the last paragraph—nice.

    Did you know, Hayao Miyazaki’s son, Goro Miyazaki, directed a film based on the Earhsea Trilogy? It’s called Tales from Earthsea. It’s pretty bad for a Studio Ghibli movie.

    I’d like to find out more about your summer farming. Did you write about it?


    1. AnnaEstelle says:

      Why thank you. I enjoy polysyndeton rather a lot. It might be a problem.

      I didn’t know that – interesting. I’ve been wondering, as I read, how a film of these books would work out. I can’t imagine how one would make it believable and still follow the books closely. I also can’t imagine it done in animation, without live actors.

      Unfortunately, I really didn’t write much about the summer on the organic farm. I would like to go back and write more about it now – it was an awesome job, and I got to spend so much time with really interesting, wise people who had a very different view of life than I did. I always intended to write about it, but by the time I finished work each day I was so beat that I basically ate dinner and fell into bed without doing anything else. But if I ever do go back and write more about it, I’ll post it here. =)


      1. Kodiak says:

        Try out anthimeria some time. Mix it in with straddled adjectives, be all Milton meets e e cummings.

        If you haven’t watched any Miyazaki movies, I’d get on that. You could check out Totoro (mostly feel-good whimsy), Princess Mononoke (music, story, combat—all epic, and also firmly grounded), Howl’s Moving Castle (actually, this one’s probably most up your alley), Spirited Away… There are plenty of other good ones, but that’s a start.

        Challenge for you: Read any Wendell Berry novel and try not to think back on that summer. Matter of fact, I’ll bet you one nickel that it’d inspire at least a blog post.


        1. AnnaEstelle says:

          That’s actually another of my favorite things, though I don’t use it as much in my own writing…I’ll get on that. ;)

          I have seen some Miyazaki – all the ones you mentioned (except Spirited Away – I may not have seen that one). And you’re right – Howl’s Moving Castle is one of my favorite things ever. =)

          Ah. Wendell Berry is on my reading list too. I have read a bit of his writing, but not a whole lot – I loved what I did read, though. I’m not sure what our (sadly lacking in several areas) library has in that area…I’ll see if I can find some. Thanks for the suggestion!


      2. Kodiak says:

        Eh, anthimeria and straddled adjectives are more common in poetry, so they might not be the best tools for putting together blog posts. They’re still fun, and they’re great fun to spot in the wild.

        Howl is like a steampunk, dystopian, Dr. Who-type anime wizard. He even has a moving home (and a companion).

        I’ve only read a couple of his novels. His essays are just as good and everything-provoking. Traveling at Home is another good book, half prose sightseeing at home, the other half poetry. Wendell Berry’s poetry is also usually good. I think that’s because, usually, you know what he’s talking about, always because he actually knows, too (and knows better). Mark Twain wrote how his experience as a river man emptied river sunsets, seeing as he was always connecting marvelous sights to what they meant. Mark Twain concludes with the same idea applied to an experienced doctor and the one he loves. It looks bleak. I wish I could get him and Wendell Berry together. Wendell Berry pulls it off. (Plus, he wrote one of the best criticisms of Mark Twain in my small knowledge. I can’t find it right now. I bet it’s in one of his essay collections, Standing by Words, which is what I can’t find right now.) Here are some examples of what I mean about Wendell Berry’s poetry:
        These are chance poems, not selected on my part, just some of the first poems listed alphabetically on the website. They all mean distinctly. Just goes to show, I’d say.

        So cool!


        1. AnnaEstelle says:

          Thanks for the poetry suggestions. =) My college advisor is really into Wendell Berry, and we’ve read a few of his essays and poetry together (specifically his essay My Friend Hayden, which is a beautiful essay on poetry and friendship and finding one’s place in the world). Man, I’d love to go to a symposium with him…=)


  2. sarahtps says:

    I’ve been debating whether or not I should put these books on my TBR list for a while- they keep coming up on my Goodreads recommendations. Since you speak so high of them, I think I will put them on my list.


    1. AnnaEstelle says:

      You should! =) They aren’t long, and they are ever so worth it.


  3. joctavianr says:

    I love your literary rants and reviews. You have quite a way with expressing the nuances of writing. Very clear analyses. I enjoyed reading this even without having read the books discussed.
    Btw, when I finally get around to self-publishing, I expect reviews from you with just as much thought and analysis. ; )


    1. AnnaEstelle says:

      Why thank you. I’m glad you enjoy my literary rants. Usually they aren’t quite so coherent as this, though…;)
      When you publish, you will have to pay me NOT to rant about your books for all the world to see. So no worries there. =)


      1. joctavianr says:

        Yes, this one did seem particularly neat and well thought out. I bet the exercise of putting this together was also rather helpful in making you appreciate the work you read.

        Haha. Well, hopefully you’ll get the chance sometime this year.


        1. AnnaEstelle says:

          It was, yes. I’d like to post more about books – I like doing it, and I think it’s good for me.
          Really? This year? What are you going to publish? I’m so excited.


  4. taethiel says:

    I’m so glad you posted this!! I’ve been looking for good fantasy books for Anna (my sister) to read, and when I was younger I didn’t actually read much fantasy beyond Lewis and Tolkien… but I stumbled across The Wizard of Earthsea on a fantasy list the other day. I wasn’t sure if it was any good, since I’d never heard of it myself. I’ll get it for her to read, now that I have such a good recommendation ;) And I’ll have to try it myself – after reading the Space Trilogy, of course.

    I’d forgotten about Robin McKinley, too. I’ll have to see if I can find some of her books to give my sister… I loved those ;)

    Le annon veleth nin <3


    1. AnnaEstelle says:

      Beloved! My blog misses you. So do I.
      My dear, if you get your hands on Earthsea for your sister, you simply must read it too yourself. I’m enjoying it greatly. It’s especially interesting because each book has a different main character – the original MC from the first book comes back into the second and third as well, of course, but each one is told from a different perspective, so one gets to know much more of LeGuin’s world. And the stories are wonderful. I can’t say it beats the Space Trilogy, because nothing can ever beat Perelandra. But it’s really, really good, and you would love it too. =)
      Yea, you recommended The Blue Sword to me back in TPS. I put it on my To-Read list then, but never got around to it (because Tolkien…). But I got it from the library last week, and will start it once I finish Earthsea. =)


    2. joctavianr says:

      Anna just got me to read the Space Trilogy this month. SO GOOD. Bekah, I would add my recommendation to Anna’s if you’re thinking of reading it.


      1. taethiel says:

        I’m just reading that right now, actually. Not very far into the first book, but it’s already reminding me of why I love C.S. Lewis. So much beauty and depth…

        Liked by 1 person


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