On ageing in fantasy and reading The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin

(Oh, sweet fantasy, how I have missed you.)

“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. Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not easy. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one. The road goes upward towards the light; but the laden traveller may never reach the end of it.”

Having taken a long hiatus from this blog, it’s weird to jump back into book-blogging, but a lot has happened that I want to write about, and a lot of reading has filled me with reviewer-ly inspiration. Before I begin, I have yet to read the final installment of the Earthsea books, the one titled The Other Wind, and I would appreciate staying spoiler-free. The Earthsea Cycle is a series of four (actually, six) books set in an alternate universe called Earthsea. It consists of a vast archipelago and the boundless sea surrounding it, is culturally quite unlike our world and is filled with magic.
Each of the four main books is a coming-of-age tale and the creation story of its hero. The first book is entitled The Wizard of Earthsea and it tells us about the tumultuous childhood of one of the greatest wizards of all time, a boy named Ged. The second book follows Ged on an adventure which introduces us to Le Guin’s second hero, a woman named Tenar. In what is perhaps the greatest fantasy book I have read, Le Guin brings out the darker sides of magic and the role women and witches play in fantasy through the character of Tenar. The third book is a prince’s journey, a story which deals with death, the history of war and chivalry. And the fourth book, a rather more mature tale, follows a young abused child and is an examination of feminism and patriarchy. The Earthsea books taken together are brilliant for many reasons – the extent of racial diversity, an entire cast of coloured characters is the most significantly noticeable. Over the course of the series, Le Guin also consciously makes feminism one of the prominent themes, scrutinizes gender roles and identities, and creates brilliant women characters. But my favourite thing in her books is something I had mentioned in initial musings in a Goodreads review – how gracefully all her characters age. Woven into all the books in the Earthsea cycle is the theme of age. 
Ageing is something I find sorely missing in fantasy tales. Nearly all of my favourite fantasy comprises coming of age stories – be it series like Harry Potter, the Bartimaeus trilogy, His Dark Materials, and even standalone books like Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. However, very few of them follow the main characters through into their adulthood. Some take a big leap into the future, like the Harry Potter series, but fail to show the many little middles which make up a life. We have immortality, and with it, characters opting out of immortality in order to live their short lives, but we don’t see them in action. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer series ends not with a wizened old slayer, but a sprightly twenty-something with a whole future ahead of her. In the Chronicles of Narnia, the older children just disappear. Even Peter Pan, which is about (not) growing up, doesn’t really do more than bring out the contrasts between youth and adulthood. 
Fantasy tends to deal with the big facts of life – birth, death, love, evil; it’s quite surprising then that it neglects to write about growing old. But the process is important. It’s a fact of matter. People age. Wizards grow old, as do witches, and the growth changes them, like it changes us. The boy is not the wobbly old man he grew up into, and though knowing the boy will help you understand the man, there is so much more to him. It is when you’re growing up that life reveals to you just how wily it can be; which maybe why teenagers are so difficult, and the twenties are depressing times. 
People around me are always telling me how they don’t recognize themselves anymore, or how choices made three years ago fail to make sense now. Or how you’d never imagined growing up that you’d end up this way but it’s so obvious now that you are. I wish more stories evoked that feeling, and brought out the sheer normalcy of change. And the change only accelerates with time. I’m nothing like the girl who started this blog six years ago, I’m unimaginably altered. I lose interest in many book characters because they have failed to alter in that way, because they seem a little too similar. I mean, is reality always as neat as Rowling writes it. Does a boy good at Herbology become a professor of Herbology? And all those high school couples make it, and all their children are good friends, and life is wrapped up in glitter-paper with a big fat pink bow on it. 
It often wonder about all the young adult heroes from stories I have liked, whatever happened to Lyra Belaqua after the events of His Dark Materials? Can I have a new book with her all grown up? And one with her as an old woman too? I can think of only one other example of such an ageing main character, and that is Christopher Chant from the Chrestomanci series by Diana Wynne Jones. Yet no one has done it quite so substantially as Le Guin. I feel this theme might have been explored a lot more with superheroes. (Edit: I found a song and a kind of review of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns in the first two seconds of Googling, so there ought to be more.) In the Earthsea books, life, real bloody fleshy life, happens between two books. In every consecutive book, Ged has grown years older. And through the series, we learn about the years between the books only through how different he has become.
It’s a hook, a big beautiful hook. Once you get a taste of her style, wanting to find out what the characters will be like later becomes a very good reason to read the next book in the series. I went on an Earthsea spree, buying Kindle editions to save delivery time, though I don’t actually own a Kindle, and hence had to read on the cloud reader. Couple the maturity of her writing (the pet themes of sex and feminism, identity and bravery) with her vivid wordsmithery, add into the mix this trick, and you have a very clever set of books. Do read the series, especially if you love fantasy, but even otherwise. 

4 thoughts on “On ageing in fantasy and reading The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin”

  1. thanks! I read volume 1 for my Classic challenge, and was debating if I should read the others in the cycle, it sounds like I really should


  2. Hi Emma, if you liked the first, at least give the second a try. The stories are essentially independent of each other, so you can stop at two. 🙂


  3. I always tell myself I should read Le Guin (I may even have a book of hers) but reading your review brought to mind another fantasy writer which I love: Robin Hobb. She writes trilogies and they happen in the same world but can be read separately even if they have interconnected threads here and there. She also deals with coming of age stories, with aging (or maybe I should say maturing), feminism, with an individual's place in the society and many other issues. I wonder if you've read her.


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