Subtly Literary – The Earthsea Series by Ursula Le Guin

There’s a lot of debate on what constitutes genre writing and what constitutes literary writing; a quick Google will get you any number of different opinions and comparisons. I’m going to add mine to that list, not to inflame further debate, but purely so you’re aware of what I mean when I use the terms in this and forthcoming blog posts.

So it’s pretty simple: For me, genre writing is writing that is primarily about the story, and literary writing is writing that primarily uses the story as a mechanism for communicating or reflecting on something else. That’s it. This definition will likely change as I mature and learn more about writing fiction, but for now I think that’s a good baseline.

You shouldn’t feel pressured to prescribe to my definition of these things, but there’s one thing that I hope you’ll agree with me on: neither genre nor literary writing is intrinsically superior. The Google searches I mentioned above will reveal that countless people, and especially writers, are convinced that whichever type they write or read is better than the other. They should know better. As writers, we should celebrate different forms of writing, not condemn them. Personally, I find genre writing good for the escapism. When I want to disappear from this world and enter another, I read genre. On the other hand, when I want to gain insight about the world, or if I want to learn more about what literary writing looks like (because I’ve read way more genre than I have literary) then I read literary. Both have their uses, but neither is better.

It’s also worth noting that most writing will have elements of both. Even the most dedicated  genre writers will have moments in which they inject their personal views into their work, and all literary fiction writers have to maintain at least a veneer of story, otherwise they’re just writing non-fiction.

The blend of genre and literary writing, the synergy between plot and deeper meaning, is something that Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series excels at. It’s probably the best mix of the two that I’ve read so far, and so I’m going to talk about the series briefly. This review won’t be nearly as organised as my last book review, but I’m hoping it’ll still be useful. We’ll start off spoiler-free, but there will be a clearly marked spoiler section later on.

The Earthsea series spans five novels and a volume of short stories. The first novel was originally published all the way back in 1968(!), so this is a series that has been written over a long time. There are some parts where you can tell, especially if you read the whole series back-to-back like I did, but Le Guin’s writing doesn’t slacken. The great part about her writing is that the themes and issues she’s commenting on through it all tie naturally into the story. None of it feels forced, though the representation of real world issues becomes stronger with successive books. The story itself is layered, the characters well-constructed and the setting deep and expansive, though Le Guin doesn’t overload the reader with exposition. The first book, A Wizard of Earthsea, serves effectively to introduce the setting and familiarise the reader with everything, and in the sequels you’ll notice is that there will be threads placed in each book that the next book capitalises on. Considering how long it took for Le Guin to write this series, that takes some good effort and planning; each book is a complete unit and none of them end unsatisfactorily, but Le Guin always leaves herself enough material to neatly link a new book into the series. Each novel has its own plot and I don’t doubt that Le Guin would have no trouble introducing new elements without prior foreshadowing (which she definitely does), but it makes them so much more satisfying when they’re linked in with a tie to a previous character or event. In the foreword to “Tales of Earthsea”, which is the volume of short stories, Le Guin talks about how some of the short stories came about: she was “researching” some of Earthsea’s history so she could better write The Other Wind (the fifth novel). She says “When I was asked to write [another Earthsea novel]…”, so it seems that she hadn’t actually planned on writing it, but nevertheless the story flows on naturally from The Farthest Shore.

Even at the surface level, Earthsea is delightful to read. Ursula Le Guin is incredible at metaphors; her sentence-level writing is very pleasing. An example is a ship’s sails: “long and white as swan’s wings.” Her writing is compact and not too wordy, but rich and flowing and easy on the eye, and she likes her description, which aligns well with my reading tastes. I feel like a lot of fantasy places primary emphasis on dialogue, with immersing the reader in the world placed taking second priority (though maybe I’m just reading the wrong fantasy). Le Guin doesn’t compromise on this. Description and dialogue interface comfortably in her writing, and little snippets of colour and texture surprise the reader all throughout her books. In this way, Earthsea has served as a reminder to me of the possibilities of fantasy, and reading it told me that the way I like to write is okay too.

The plotting is a little slower than some readers might be used to, though that doesn’t actually mean it drags. Earthsea pauses to contemplate what is happening within it and the characters reflect on their actions and desires. This is not a sword and sorcery series; don’t expect battles and swordfights (though there is conflict). Expect, instead, a journey of discovery of the setting’s mysteries, as well as the characters discovering themselves. Plot threads intertwine nicely, and the climaxes are formidable, but I think they’re intentionally written not to be overwhelming: the series has a subdued tone all throughout that implies the reader should be thinking about the events, not just reading them. This is important, because although some of the themes and social issues the books tackle are out in full force and plain sight, there’s also a lot that isn’t obvious, and taking the time to fill in the gaps yourself only makes it more satisfying.

I’m now going to directly talk about events in the books, so stop reading now if you don’t want that. Go and read the books instead. They’re amazing, and have my wholehearted recommendation. To wrap up: no matter whether you want to run away to a different world, or to think more deeply about your own, Earthsea is great. Le Guin says that the novels should be read first, before the short stories, and I agree. Find these books and read them. You’ll be wiser for it.

The rest of the review contains spoilers.







There’s a theme of environmentalism to the books that I honestly didn’t notice until I read Le Guin’s Wikipedia article. On reflection, it’s definitely there. Every spell or use of magic has a consequence for the natural world. “Rain here might be drought in Osskil,” is a phrase used a couple of times. Le Guin urges us to live in harmony with our world and not to impose our will on it. I don’t identify with environmental issues as much as I do with gender issues (which is the other big running topic that I’ll get to in a bit), but it got me thinking and the idea of an intrinsic equilibrium that magic can disrupt lends credence to, for example, the archetype of the stoic wizard who only uses magic when absolutely necessary. When I switched to reading a different series after Earthsea, for a little while I was surprised that experienced spellcasters were freely using magic without caring, and after I remembered I wasn’t reading Earthsea anymore, the other book felt a little shallower. It’s a system that encourages thought and reflection on the impact that our actions have on the world, which it seems is the whole point.

I mentioned gender issues before. At the start of A Wizard of Earthsea, a couple of sayings are mentioned: “Weak as woman’s magic,” and “Wicked as woman’s magic.” Reading this broke my immersion in the novel for a bit, because I was surprised that a female author would actively put this sort of discrimination in her world right from the get go. It’s only two books later, in Tehanu, that planting this seed pays off. Tehanu takes a huge diversion from the tone of the first two books, and brings a variety of gender issues front and centre, often brutally. The most obvious ones are rape and violence against women. Personally, these are issues that are very important to me and ones I want to help make better in the real world, but as a man I suffer from a fundamental lack of perspective, and this isn’t the sort of thing you can just ask about in social situations. Tehanu, both the character and the book, provides some of that missing perspective. Reading the third book made me experience perhaps a tiny fraction of what women have to live with in the real world, and it affirmed my view that feminism is an incredibly necessary movement today. I was able to experience something of the ever-present fear of rape and objectification that plagues real people right now. This, more than anything, was the effectiveness of the book. It at times reads almost like a horror story, especially when Handy and his thugs show up at Tenar’s house, and the comparison is perfectly appropriate, because there are few things more horrific than rape.

One of the reviews of The Other Wind on the back cover says (and I paraphrase) “The magic of Earthsea remains as potent and as necessary as ever.” Necessary is the key word there. I don’t know what effect the later books would have on someone who didn’t support feminism, or on someone who was in fact a domestic abuser or a rapist, but I think it’s something someone could point to as a resource; the only trouble is that it somewhat relies on reading the first two books beforehand. Also, I want to reinforce the fact that the in-your-face issues that come up in Tehanu and continue to a lesser extent in the last two books don’t actually jar with the setting. Le Guin weaves it all naturally in, and uses the character development as an integral part of exploring the magic and the history of Earthsea.

It’s pretty clear that Le Guin longed to have her voice heard on these issues, but crafted the series patiently so that it drew the reader into its setting, so that the reader knew to listen by the time the issues came up. Tehanu makes the reader uncomfortable, but because it’s the third book in the series the reader is already invested and less likely to put it down. If it came first, I think many would. Le Guin’s foresight here is as much a sign of her mastery as the writing itself. The Farthest Shore and The Other Wind take these issues and continue discussing them, as well as branching out to others. It’s a refreshing read, balancing between immersing the reader and making them think about their own circumstances. I’m very glad that Le Guin sought fit to write about the problems she does, because they’re things that really, really need talking about, and her books might help people get a better understanding. They certainly did for me.