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A classic trilogy that didn't need a fourth book
on 14 June 2004
'The Earthsea Quartet' is really an original trilogy from the early 1970s with a sequal, 'Tehanu', published in 1990. Unfortunately, Le Guin's philosophical interests had shifted quite dramatically in the meantime, and the fourth book doesn't sit too well alongside the others.
The world of the original trilogy is based around the relationship between language and reality (anyone with an interest in literary theory will soon see why Fredric Jameson became interested in Le Guin's work). Everything and everyone has a true name, hidden from all but the most trusted because the possession of the individual's name brings power over them. The language of true names is that of creation and is the source of magical power.
The first novel, 'A Wizard of Earthsea', is a satisfying adventure that focuses upon the youthful career of Ged, the future Archmage of Earthsea. It's a fairly conventional doppleganger story in the tradition of 'Faust' and 'Jekyll & Hyde', though it has enough battles, magic and dragons to keep the story moving along.
The trilogy really takes off in 'The Tombs of Atuan'. Much darker than the first book, this is an adventure of Ged's adult life seen through the eyes of Arha, a young priestess of dark powers. The philosophy starts to become more complex here as Le Guin explores the relationship between faith and power.
'The Farthest Shore' is, for me, the high point of the series. Magic is disappearing from Earthsea and Ged, now Archmage, must find out why. The story explores the longing for immortality and the need for death in order to bring meaning to life. There is still plenty of action, but this is Le Guin at her thought-provoking best.
'Tehanu', unfortunately, abandons most of the earlier themes as Le Guin moves into a story of feminist resistance against patriarchy. Nothing wrong with that in itself, but here it feels imposed upon a world that wasn't built to take that agenda. These issues of female oppression have not been flagged up in previous books and seem to appear from nowhere in the fourth. Characterisation is also a problem: I had difficulty in seeing consistency with the Ged and Tenar of the earlier novels. 'Tehanu' is not a bad novel by any means, but it should really be treated as a stand-alone text rather than as the fourth part of a quartet.
That aside, however, this volume is worth buying for the original trilogy, which remains a high point of fantasy writing.