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In The Other Wind, Ursula Le Guin brings closure to the longest arc of her Earthsea Books. This arc has to do with death, how people fear it, fight it, and in her world have changed the reality of death itself. In Earthsea, the real world is beautiful, sunny, fertile and bounded by the sea on all sides. Their afterlife is the Dry Land: barren, dusty and dark, where souls forget all they once loved and even parents and children can pass each other without recognition.

In A Wizard of Earthsea, the beast Ged brings into the world is his own knowledge that someday he will die. In The Tombs of Atuan, Arha/Tenar’s life is dedicated to the ancient, evil Nameless Ones who dwell in eternal darkness. In The Farthest Shore, Ged and Arren pursue a wizard named Cob who sought immortality and nearly drained the life out of Earthsea. In The Other Wind, the dead are literally tearing down the wall between Earthsea and the Dry Land. For Lily, the wife of a sorcerer named Alder, retained enough memory to recognize her husband and reach out to him across that wall.

Woven with this are other great changes. In the first three Earthsea novels, Le Guin wrote from a traditional perspective in gender roles. Only men did great magic and carried out great plans. No woman was even allowed to enter the Mage’s School on Roke. Women’s magic was dismissed; phrases like “weak as women’s magic” and “wicked as women’s magic” pervade these books. So great was the separation between men’s magic and women’s magic, wizards were required to be celibate, put away mere fleshly concerns, and devote themselves entirely to magic as a High Art. Ordinary magic and working with village folk was left to lowly witches and sorcerers.

Le Guin must have come to realize the stereotypes she was perpetuating, for the later books explore women’s role in Earthsea. One short story in Tales From Earthsea describes how the School at Roke was founded on equal opportunity for men and women, but once it became successful, prouder men came in and pushed the women out. Another story details what happens when a woman, a magical prodigy, dares ask to study at Roke and the masters split on whether to teach her or turn her away. In Tehanu, Tenar tries to heal an abused girl, only to have her own son come and take away her farm because he is the new master and widows have no property rights.

But the crux of all is the story of Earthsea’s dragons. As I related in a previous post, legends state that in the dawn of the world, there were no humans or dragons, but a single race of immortals with human form but dragon’s wings. All spoke the Language of Making. But some fell in love with things they had made and grew fearful of losing them, while others had no interest in things and wanted only to fly free. This great division led to a magical bargain.

Those who prized flight gave up all things and ownership. However, they retained the Language of Making and their immortality. They went into the west and became dragons. Those who prized material wealth had to give up their magic in return for ownership of things. They went into the east and became humans.

What the humans didn’t understand at first was that they had also chosen to age and eventually die. And so a further split occurred. Some stood by their bargain, believing that when they died their spirits would reincarnate and so they were still immortal. These were the ancestors of the Kargish people, who despise all sorcery. However, the majority betrayed their promise. They studied magic again, eventually invading dragon territory and killing most of the mighty beasts.

Men thought that by living in the magical west, their souls and bodies would go on together, forever. Instead, the conquered land lost all its fertility and turned into the Dry Land. Human souls who went to the Dry land could never reincarnate. What Lily had tried to tell Alder was that the dead were not truly immortal. They were only trapped, cut off from the world and its healing cycles.

Through the final volumes, Tehanu and The Other Wind, Le Guin presents the possibility of renewal. That some humans can become dragons, that the dead can be released by letting go of bodies as the definition of oneself. What does it mean for Earthsea, for Roke with its rigid separation of men from women and high magic from low? That, she doesn’t say. Le Guin presents a seminal moment of change, but not all its consequences. That is for us to speculate upon — at least, until she writes more about Earthsea.

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In The Farthest Shore, we can see the author reaching for a deeper understanding of dragons. Not only the magical monsters, cunning yet savage of appetite, she had shown in the first volume. In the fourth volume, Tehanu, and in the collection, Tales From Earthsea, her unique vision takes shape.

Years before, Tenar (a.k.a. Arha, viewpoint character in The Tombs of Atuan) returned to the Archiepelago with Ged, bearing an artifact of great power and promise. Yet she herself chose not to be part of that promise. After studying for a time with Ged’s former teacher, Ogion, Tenar opted for a “normal” life. She married, raised her kids, and the story begins with her recently widowed and taking on management of the farm where she lives.

This book takes place at the same time as The Farthest Shore and in the aftermath. Ged and Arren have gone on their quest, and nobody knows where they are. Piracy and banditry are everywhere. Indeed, Tenar saves the life of a small girl, raped, beaten and shoved into a fire by grifters. She strives through the novel to raise this scarred angel with some sort of normality.

One of the stories Tenar tells to the foundling Therru embodies Le Guin’s evolving concept of dragons. “When Segoy raised the islands of the sea in the beginning of time, the dragons were the first born of the land and of the wind blowing over the land. So the Song of Creation tells. But her song also told that then, in the beginning, dragon and human were all one. They were all one people, one race, winged and speaking the True Language. They were beautiful, and strong, and wise, and free.”

Some, as this legend goes, chose to be wild and fly without anything to tie them down. These became dragons. Others clung to things they had built, and they became humans. The enmity between these two arose when humans feared the dragons might destroy or devour all they had made.

It’s a really interesting idea, explored both in Tehanu and in “Dragonfly,” the final story in Tales From Earthsea. It appears that boundaries are shifting, and some humans can make the transition back to being dragons. I haven’t yet read the latest Earthsea book, The Other Wind, but I look forward to it so I can see what resolution Le Guin came to, between her human and draconic characters.

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If this thread seems to stop and start, it’s because I’m re-reading the books as I go. Some I have. Some I thought I had and can’t find. Some have been added since the series was written and I’m coming to them late. Some I buy for my Nook and some I borrow from the library. It’s been a journey worth taking, though. Le Guin is a master, and Earthsea is her masterpiece.

So I come to the third book, The Farthest Shore. This presents Ged, who started A Wizard of Earthsea as a youth and progressed to maturity in Tombs of Atuan, as an older man. He’s the Archmage now and a wise, patient teacher. But another gifted youth, Prince Arren of Enlad, comes to Ged with a terrible puzzle: all over Earthsea, magic is losing its strength. After some discussion with the other master wizards, Ged and Arren set out to discover why.

Arren is the viewpoint character, giving us fresh eyes on Earthsea and the horrific consequences of magic slowly lost. We see former magi mistaking a drugged haze for magic. Villagers turning against their sorcerers, claiming magic was mere fakery all along. Yet it isn’t only magic that’s dying. Artists and crafters of all sorts forget their arts. Robbery and slavery are rampant as social order breaks down.

Earthsea’s dragons are equally affected by the erosion of magic. After all, these creatures are pure magic. Their language is the original language of the world’s creation. In the latter half of the book, Arren and Ged come to the western reaches, where they find the dragons going mad, no longer recognizing their own names. Some fight each other blindly. Others fly and scream fire, knowing something has happened to them but no longer able to understand what.

In these passages we meet two major dragon characters. Orm Embar is known as the mightiest of all, and Kalessin is the eldest of all. Each retains enough sanity to help Ged by battling along with him (Orm Embar) and by greeting him at the end (Kalessin). Here is Le Guin’s description of Kalessin, when Arren tries to protect Ged from his approach. “The old dragon Kalessin looked at him from one long, awful, golden eye. There were ages beyond ages in the depths of that eye; the morning of the world was deep in it. Though Arren did not look into it, he knew that it looked upon him with profound and mild hilarity.”

Just as Le Guin had questioned some of the earlier fantasy tropes that were popular in the day, we see her examining her own treatment of dragons. In A Wizard of Earthsea, the great dragon of Pendor was a typical savage creature with an appetite for destruction. Beginning with this book, we see her creating a new narrative about who dragons are. In this LeGuin joined fellow author Anne McCaffrey, whose Pern series began its run in the same year the Earthsea books did.

The saga continues next Tuesday.

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I promised more Earthsea dragons, and I’m here to deliver. But first, a correction. In my chronology of the Earthsea books, I left out the most recent book. The Other Wind was published in 2001 and continued the saga of Ged even further.

The second novel in the series is The Tombs of Atuan. This will always be my favorite. It was the first I found in my junior high school library and it features an amazing setting. Those tombs! An underground labyrinth, which the heroine learns to navigate in total darkness. It set the stage for many D&D games to come.

Arha is High Priestess to the Nameless Ones, primordial spirits of darkness who brood in the deeps and silence of Atuan. She originally was named Tenar, but her name was stripped from her in a midnight ceremony. She grows up as Arha, the Eaten One, and questions nothing of her ordered fate until the night she discovers a stranger in her dark domain. It’s Ged, of course, come in quest for one of the great treasures given up to the Nameless Ones long ago. Arha traps him, but then must decide what to do with him.

As part of her deliberation, she interrogates Ged, who had mentioned he is a dragonlord as well as a powerful sorcerer. Arha sneers, “Tell me, what is a dragonlord?”

“One whom the dragons will speak with,” he said, “that is a dragonlord, or at least that is the center of the matter. It’s not a trick of mastering the dragons, as most people think. Dragons have no masters. The question is always the same, with a dragon: will he talk with you or will he eat you? If you can count upon his doing the former, and not doing the latter, why then you’re a dragonlord.”

Kinda tells you everything you need to know about dragons in Earthsea!

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The Earthsea Saga of Ursula K. Le Guin is another seminal work of fantasy that you shouldn’t overlook in searching for all things dragon. This series began with a few short stories published in magazines during the mid-60s. In these, Le Guin solidified her ideas about the setting in an archiepelago and how magic should operate. Later, Herman Schein, a children’s book editor with Parnassus Press invited Le Guin to write in a genre we now would identify as YA. Le Guin took up the gauntlet, and A Wizard of Earthsea was published in 1968. Later books in the series are The Tombs of Atuan (1970), The Farthest Shore (1972) and the much later final volume, Tehanu (1990). Also there are two short-story collections, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (1975) and Tales From Earthsea (2001).

We can see some hearkening back to Tolkein in the detailed world and frequent references to historical and legendary events. Yet Le Guin, a self-described “subversive,” also questioned some of Tolkein’s assumptions. In her afterward to A Wizard of Earthsea, she recalls wondering why all the wizards had to be crotchety old men, and why every fantasy setting had to be Medieval Europe, and why all the characters were white males. Le Guin upended these tropes by making the main character a young wizard whose pride gets him into deep trouble. She gave all her characters some shade of brown skin — red-brown like Native Americans, or black-brown like Africans. White characters do exist, but appear only briefly as raiders.

As the series unfolded, Le Guin also addressed the paucity of female characters by introducing a variety of women. Some were malevolent, trying to trick Ged (a.k.a. Sparrowhawk) into slavery. Others, notably Arha of The Tombs of Atuan, held their own as protagonists. These days we take female leads for granted, and debate whether they are important to the stories or treated as eye candy. It’s easy to forget those days when there weren’t any women characters to debate about.

However, Le Guin and Tolkein both shared a great respect for dragons. In Earthsea, dragonkind are an ancient race from the dawn of the world. They speak the language of true magic, which most humans no longer understand. This doesn’t make them any less dangerous than other writers’s dragons! Le Guin’s dragons have such a powerful presence that people who look into their eyes can become hypnotized. As you would expect, they are massive and scaly. And they love to spread terror from the air.

In A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged is hired to protect the Ninety Isles region from the threat of dragons on nearby Pendor Island. It’s known that the Great Dragon of Pendor is raising a brood of wyrms in ruins taken over from a pirate lord. Pressed by other difficulties, Ged goes to confront the dragons instead of waiting for them to strike. He taunts the young wyrms into attacking, then paralyses their wings, causing them to fall into the sea and drown. He also takes the shape of a dragon himself, and battles hard enough to make the others flee.

And then we meet the Great Dragon. This creature so huge that Ged mistakes its shoulder for one of the ruined towers. But now the time for battle is over. Ged defeats the dragon with words instead of spells. For in his research he discovered the true name of this dragon is Yevaud. No creature can resist the power of its own true name. Yet Yevaud knows Ged is pursued by a horrible shadow, and it uses the shadow’s true name as a lure to try and trick Ged. In the end, though, Ged succeeds in winning the dragon’s oath that it and its brood will never attack the Ninety Isles.

Come back Tuesday for more of Earthsea’s dragons.

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