Concluding my coverage of “The Books of Earthsea,” the recent omnibus edition of all Le Guin’s Earthsea material beautifully illustrated by Charles Vess in color and black and white.
“The Other Wind,” published in 2001, is the sixth and final long book. Not only does it continue some of the stories from the earlier books, it tackles a major problem in the structure of the imaginary world itself: the fate of those who die. In previous books we’ve learned that they are relegated to wandering a gray, dry, barren land beyond a wall of stones, unable to recognize or interact with those they knew in life, unable to rest or find any solace. This was always a grim fate dealt to the people of Earthsea’s island kingdoms, though some on the fringes thought they had another path. Ged, the main character of the series, made a harrowing journey through the land of the dead, and was stripped of his magic there in “The Farthest Shore.”
As “The Other Wind” begins, a village sorcerer, Alder, is being tormented by dreams about his dead wife in the land of the dead. He is repeatedly drawn to the stone wall at the edge of it while the dead reach for him, asking to be set free. Alder seeks out Ged, in his retirement on the island of Gont, and Ged sends Alder on to Havnor to tell his story to the king, Lebannen, Ged’s companion on that journey through the land of the dead. When Alder arrives, he finds the kingdom already threatened by dragons who are attacking from their strongholds in the west, even the western shore of Havnor. Ged’s adopted daughter, Tehanu, part dragon herself, goes with the king and his troops to confront the dragons, and what she she learns there brings everyone to a meeting on the island of Roke, the heart of Earthsea’s wizardry. Great changes are coming, and Earthsea will never be the same.
I found this novel much more satisfying in this reading after having gone through all that came before it recently. I salute Le Guin for taking on this rethinking of her classic world-building and making it all work extremely well.
Beyond the last novel are some shorter pieces. “A Description of Earthsea” lays out the entire history and structure of the world in a long essay. There’s not much new in it, but it’s interesting all the same.
“The Word of Unbinding” and “The Rule of Names” are early stories written before Le Guin had solidified her ideas about Earthsea. Interesting but not of major import.
“The Daughter of Odren” is a sort of ghost story about a family blessed by wealth then cursed by wizardry. It’s well told, but again not of great importance.
“Firelight,” on the other hand, is important because it tells of the last days of Ged. Though short, it’s exquisitely written by an author who had reached an age herself where she understood old age perfectly.
Finally, “Earthsea Revisioned” is a lecture given by Le Guin in 1992 when she had finished “Tehanu,” and she explains the changes she is making to her world.
I certainly gained a great deal of pleasure from reading this new edition of the Earthsea stories, and the illustrations by Vess make it even better. Highly recommended.