The Earthsea books have been discussed and evaluated and reviewed to within an inch of their lives over the years, so I won’t go into a terribly long or analytical entry, except to say that this is the series to which I compare pretty much every subsequent book on wizards (specifically, those concerning schools of wizardry), dragons, and voyages of mystical self-discovery. Here’s a review of the series as a whole, and another here. Here’s a review of A Wizard of Earthsea, with kids’ comments, and suggestions of further reading. Here’s one for The Tales of Earthsea.
This was originally just a trilogy: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore. Eighteen years later, Le Guin returned to this world with another novel, Tehanu, a collection of short stories Tales from Earthsea, and another novel, The Other Wind1, though for the sake of brevity, I’ll stick with the first three in this entry.
The books are set in an archipelago populated, in the main, by dark skinned people with a peripheral, and very savage, culture of fair skinned raiders sidelined to the north. The dominant culture bears similarity to our world’s fifteenth century in terms of technology and social delineations, although with the addition of it being primarily a seagoing culture–not surprisingly as we’re talking an island world. Dragons are very real, though not wicked as they are in European culture; they’re a bit closer to Chinese dragons in terms of being very wise, and very distant from humans though curious about them and extremely amused by what they regard as foolish mayflies. Wizardry plays a large part in this world, part religion, part science in the sense of providing medical care and (literal) guidance through storms; there is a central wizarding school to which all professional wizards attend.
My short description is that these are fantasy epics. Not epic works of fantasy, in the sense of being verbosely purple in their prose, such as The Lord of the Rings or George R. Martin’s long running series. We’re talking something closer to actual epics–the kind in which the hero rips off a monster’s arm at the root before facing down the monster’s decidedly displeased mama in her underwater lair, or rides off on his charger to search for the ghostly knight who picked his head off the floor to better declaim the fate of the hero after said hero lopped off said head from said declaimer in scene one…purely to fulfill the Hero Knight’s sense of honor and duty. Don’t worry, the first three books aren’t very bloody. They’re more psychological quests, in which the central characters must face down their own fears.
In A Wizard of Earthsea, we first meet the unifying character, Ged/Sparrowhawk, as a young boy in his home on Gont Island; early on he evidences a great power for wizarding and ultimately attends the school on Roke. There, he plants the seed of the remainder of this book and indeed his career: in a duel with an older student, he releases a spirit of darkness which pursues and haunts him, and in the end must face what turns out to be his own dark side, challenging it and absorbing it into himself thus rendering himself whole. The Tombs of Atuan begins with and is largely centered on the “savage” culture of the first book; a young girl, Tenar, is believed to be the reincarnation of the High Priestess of the Nameless Ones (spirits of darkness worshiped in a desert temple compound) and on her sixth birthday is claimed by the temple. In her teens, just as she is coming into her power as High Priestess, a Wizard of the Dark Lands (surprise, surprise: it’s Ged from the first book) finds his way into the labyrinth under the temple to find the other half of the Ring of Erreth Akbe (the completion of which will bring peace and unification to Earthsea). He claims both the ring and Tenar, bringing both back to the civilized portions of Earthsea. The Farthest Shore is set when Ged is the Archmage, at a crisis point in Earthsea’s history: the magic is leaking out of the world and Ged, as the most powerful wizard there, is the only one who can solve the problem…which he does with the help of a young princeling. In some ways, this third book was the darkest of the first three: it deals with the breakdown of what has been an otherwise fairly stable world–it’s not as if there’s universal love and brotherhood but at least everyone’s reasonably happy with their place in the world.
The first trilogy is appropriate for fairly young children, though adults will see deeper layers in them…but that’s a common occurrence with many books. The second trilogy? It’s distinctly darker, with a much more modern tone. Parents might want to read it themselves before letting kids read it. If you stop to think about it, the first three had some pretty gruesome themes–drug use, obsession with death, child neglect and more–but all were couched in such symbolic or allegoric language that the true real world impact might well slip over most kids’ heads. (Certainly it did mine!)
1I’m not convinced that makes it two trilogies, but I’ll take Le Guin’s word for it