Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea

(Guest lecture for English 146, 23 August 2011, University of the Philippines Diliman)


Ursula K. Le Guin is usually labeled a science fiction writer, perhaps because she became widely known for her sci-fi novels, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974), both of which won the two major speculative fiction awards, the Nebula and the Hugo. She doesn’t exactly appreciate the label “science fiction writer,” however, because she disapproves of narrow genre-labeling. For one, many writers cross genres — Le Guin herself writes not only novels, but also short stories, poetry, drama, criticism, translations, etc. For another, science fiction and fantasy (SF&F), along with horror literature, romance literature, young adult literature, and other literary modes lumped in the “popular” or “genre” literature category are traditionally marginalized by the literary establishment, which puts a premium on “serious,” “literary” fiction, which is predominantly realist.

Today, though SF&F persist as market-driven, convention-laden publishing categories, as modes of storytelling, they command greater respect. And that’s thanks to writers like Ursula Le Guin, who prove with their works that some of the best writings being produced today belong to the nonrealist mode.

Indeed, Harold Bloom has written that “Le Guin, more than Tolkien, has raised fantasy into high literature, for our time … because her questers never abandon the world where we have to live, the world of Freud’s reality principle” (3). Fantasy is often dissed for being “escapist” or “moralizing”—consider Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (Tolkien wrote the very pastoral LOTR during the height of the Industrial Revolution; The Chronicles of Narnia is usually read as a Christian allegory). Le Guin’s fiction, however, is very much preoccupied with “real,” socially-relevant issues. Her writings are greatly influenced by the social sciences—anthropology, sociology, psychology, philosophy, etc. (By the way, her father was an anthropologist, her mother was a psychologist, and her husband was a historian.) Running themes in her works include race, class, gender, ecology, Taoism and the dual nature of things, language and power, and so on.


Fantasy has its roots in mythology and folklore—people using stories to explain the world and their existence to themselves when science was still unheard of. Fantasy as a literary genre—what is referred to as “Modern Fantasy” to distinguish it from the likes of, say, The Odyssey and Beowulf—began in the mid-19th century with John Ruskin, George MacDonald,  J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, William Morris, etc.

Fantasy literature, in the modern sense, is usually divided into two: High/Epic Fantasy and Low/Urban Fantasy. The major difference between these two is the world they inhabit. Low/Urban Fantasy is set in “primary” or “real” world, or “consensus reality” with the inclusion of certain magical elements—for example, the “real world” bits of Harry Potter, Coraline, and Twilight. High/Epic Fantasy is set in a “secondary world”—one that is imagined, and one which usually has its own rules (which often do not adhere to the rules of physics)—for example: LOTR, Narnia, Discworld.


The Earthsea Series by Ursula Le Guin, with its complex world-creation and rich myth-making is regarded as a classic of contemporary high fantasy. It is composed of six books: A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs of Atuan (1970), The Farthest Shore (1972), Tehanu (1990), Tales from Earthsea (2001), and The Other Wind (2001). These are usually divided into two trilogies: the FIRST, which includes Wizard, Tombs, and Shore, and the SECOND, which is comprised of Tehanu, Tales, and Wind.


Published in the late sixties and early seventies during the Women’s Movement, the First Trilogy became the target of feminist critique for its supposed male bias. With the publication of the Second Trilogy eighteen years later, recent criticism has focused on Le Guin’s development as a feminist author and on her revisioning of the representations of gender in Earthsea. Le Guin acknowledges this shift of perspective in her foreword to Tales:

In the years since I began to write about Earthsea I’ve changed, of course, and so have the people who read the books. All times are changing times, but ours is one of massive, rapid moral and mental transformation. Archetypes turn into millstones, large simplicities get complicated, chaos becomes elegant, and what everybody knows is true turns out to be what some people used to think. (xv)

Thus, in analyzing the Second Trilogy, one has to consider the ways in which it, as Sharada Bhanu puts it, “enlarges, interrogates and deconstructs the first”—with the main point of contention being gender.

Now, I don’t want to pre-empt your reading of Wizard and Tehanu (suffice it to say that these two books exemplify the First and Second Trilogies). What I want to talk about are the archetypes, simplicities, and truths that Le Guin mentions.

As we’ve discussed, Earthsea belongs to the High Fantasy tradition, and this tradition has certain conventions—in terms of style, for example, high fantasy is usually sweeping in scope (here you have your sagas) and serious in tone (notable exception: Discworld); it uses HEroic language (which is elevated and “masculine”) and focuses on a hero who is superhuman or exceptional and embarks on epic adventures. More than anything, what characterizes High Fantasy is what Warren Rochelle calls the “monomyth” of the Hero and his Quest. As Barbara Lucas writes in Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy, Heroic or Epic fantasy at its heart is about the making of heroes, which is achieved through journeying, learning from mentors, and facing various difficulties, all of which prepare the hero to triumph in his conquest of darkness. So this is your good ol’ fashioned Good vs. Evil narrative slash Bildungsroman. Wizard exemplifies this tradition.

Tehanu, meanwhile, departs from the conventional heroic fantasy narrative. Rather than a young, powerful wizard, here we have a protagonist who is a middle-aged widow living a common life. There is no one epic quest, but rather, as Rochelle writes, “the small journeys of life and death common to all” (54), the stories of which are often left out in a genre that celebrates male heroics and female hysterics—men go on heroic quests while women are relegated to narrow roles (that of the mother/nurturer or damsel in distress, for example) and given minimal participation. As Rochelle put it, while the “hero was off slaying the dragon, someone was back home cleaning the castle, minding the farm, looking after the children. Le Guin asks who this someone is, and calls attention to her deeds, asking the reader to consider her value and worth” (34). In Tehanu, then, Le Guin directs the reader’s attention to those stories of everyday struggles, of “women’s work” that often remain untold and uncelebrated, that are often belittled. “Tehanu is, in essence, the story of what is happening while the hero is gone: it is the story of what the heroine does” (Rochelle 52).


My analysis of the Earthsea Series is hinged on dualities, especially gender-based ones (because, well, that’s what my undergrad thesis is about). But there are many other ways of reading Earthsea. You can interpret it from a postcolonial perspective (Earthsea, departing from the traditional High Fantasy setting of medieval Europe, is set in an archipelagic world and has a colored protagonist; in Earthsea, whites are marginalized and considered barbarians). Or you can bring in ecocriticism and read it as an ecological fable (in this world, nature is supreme—the most formidable supernatural forces are the “Old Powers of the Earth”; the ultimate magic is knowing enough to maintain the Equilibrium, the balance of nature). You can look at the influences of myth (cosmic/national) vs. folktale (personal/communal) on the First and Second Trilogies, or flesh out the Taoist philosophy underlying the work. You can also analyze language and its relation to power in the Earthsea universe (Le Guin also has much to say about the “father tongue” and “mother tongue”).

But beyond maintaining an awareness of these perspectives and ideologies, enjoy the work, revel in the artistry of it, because though Earthsea evidences sociopolitical relevance in fantasy, in the end, it’s a fine, wonderful piece of literature that enriches you in your experience of it. :)


Bhanu, Sharada. “Tehanu: A Return to the Source.” Not Two: An Indian Perspective on Western Fantasy Fiction for Children. Diss. Madras University, 2007. ursulakleguin.com. Ursula K. Le Guin. Web.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Ursula K. Le Guin. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. Print.

Le Guin, Ursula K. Tales from Earthsea. 2001. New York: The Berkley Publishing Group, 2002. Print.

Lucas, Barbara Lynn. “Epic Fantasy.” Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Robin Anne Reid, ed. Vol. 2.Westport and London: Greenwood Press, 2009. 102-104. Print.

Rochelle, Warren. Communities of the Heart: The Rhetoric of Myth in the Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2001. Print.

You may read my thesis, titled  “‘Authors and wizards are not always to be trusted’: Le Guin’s Feminist Revision of Earthsea,” on Scribd. Or just scroll to the end to view the bibliography. Spread the Le Guin love! XD


4 thoughts on “Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea

  1. Hi! Loved this! It got me to think about the novels (and short stories – but why did you not include the two short stories written before Wizard?).

    I wonder what you would make of the continuity/change between Wizard and Tehanu of the wounded/healer motif. Been always intrigued by that one!

    Will read your thesis :)
    Grazie for sharing your thoughts on LeGuin’s work


    • Hi, Giuseppe! Firstly, thanks for reading this and pardon my tardy reply; I’ve been swamped with work and stuff so I wasn’t able to update this blog in a while.

      I didn’t include the short stories in my discussion because I wanted to focus on the novels and their overarching narrative/pattern, to which the previous short stories were tangential (even if they do enrich the understanding of the Earthsea universe and the importance of language in it). Also, if I remember correctly I’ve only read one of those two stories — “The Rule of Names.” I wasn’t able to find “The Word of Unbinding” in our library, although the internet being what it is, I’m sure there’s a copy of it online though I haven’t been able to look it up.

      As for your point about “the continuity/change between Wizard and Tehanu of the wounded/healer motif” — wow, thanks for raising that! I didn’t really think of that while I was reading the series, but now that you point it out — yeah. From Ged being the “healer” of Tenar’s scarred psyche in Wizard, the roles were reversed in Tehanu, in which Tenar becomes the “healer” of the emasculated — because powerless — Ged, and the nurturer of the scarred Therru. I think this ties in nicely with the inversions and deconstructions present in Tehanu. But I would also like to hear YOUR thoughts about this, how do you find it intriguing?


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