Ursula K. Le Guin wrote the first three books of her Earthsea series in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Le Guin then turned to other work until writing a fourth and, she thought, final book in 1990. Belying her expectations, she returned to the story in 2001 with a novella and some short stories (collected in Tales from Earthsea), as well as another novel (The Other Wind).
In the thoughtful foreword to Tales from Earthsea, Le Guin writes about how it is to come back to the Earthsea world and some about her writing process. And then she discusses the purpose of fantasy in an age of “massive, rapid moral and mental transformation”:
For all our delight in the impermanent, the entrancing flicker of electronics, we also long for the unalterable. We cherish the old stories for their changelessness. Arthur dreams eternally in Avalon. Bilbo can go “there and back again,” “there” is always the beloved familiar Shire. Don Quixote sets out forever to kill a windmill . . . So people turn to realms of fantasy for stability, ancient truths, immutable simplicities.
Whether you agree with Le Guin or not about the purpose of fantasy, she’s clearly looking for ancient truths and immutable simplicities in the Earthsea books. Her heroes and heroines struggle for good against evil, striving for balance and harmony. Her plots reward humility and punish the proud and self-serving. One has the sense while reading Le Guin of being more attentive to the weather, the birds, the rocks, the people, and all the physical world. You become more thoughtful and deliberate about what and how much you say, introspective and attuned to the world. And in reaching for wisdom, she sometimes succeeds, though the knowledge is often more an inexpressible sense of rightness than explicit knowledge (which is a strange thing to write about something written in words).
Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind, continue and expand the world, adding rich context for and completing (in unexpected ways) the story begun in the first four books. The tone, while written for a more mature writer than the first novels, is consistent with Le Guin’s earlier work, and includes a more complex and subtle conversation about integrity, responsibility, and destiny. If you enjoyed the first four Earthsea books, you’ll like these two as much or more.
By comparison George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series (actually called the A Song of Ice and Fire, but ever since HBO started making the books for TV, everyone knows all the books by HBO’s, and the first book’s, title) appears to be about little more than wars and political intrigue, with a little sex and a dash of magic on the side. Nevertheless, after reading the third in the series, A Storm of Swords, I find them compelling in their exploration of motivation and character and the sometimes-unpredictable plots hold my interest through a 1000-page paperback.
The world Martin paints is often brutal and misogynistic. Certainly, there doesn’t seem to be a “point” to the books – unless it’s that almost people are driven by their desires for power, wealth, sex, and honor (not necessarily in that order). The few people with integrity and principle are as likely as not to die cruel and obscure deaths as the rest of their less-principled neighbors. And maybe that’s part of the point: to demonstrate that good deeds are often not rewarded and bad deeds punished. Or maybe Martin just wrote them because he enjoys developing a more fully-imagined fantasy world and story than almost any before written.
Which brings me back to Le Guin’s foreword in Tales from Earthsea.
Commodified fantasy takes no risks: it invents nothing, but imitates and trivializes. It proceeds by depriving the old stories of their intellectual and ethical complexity, turning their action to violence, the actors to dolls, and their truth-telling to sentimental platitude. Heroes brandish their swords, lasers, wands, as mechanically as combine harvesters, reaping profits. Profoundly disturbing moral choices are sanitized, made cute, made safe. The passionately conceived ideas of the great storytellers are copied, stereotyped, reduced to toys, molded in bright-colored plastic, advertised, sold, broken, junked, replaceable, interchangeable.
Considering the differences between the worlds Le Guin and Martin have created, my first impulse was to say that Martin’s was “commodified,” a sort of R-rated version of Tolkien; the use of the same double-R as middle initials seemed to reinforce that impression. But, after further thought, I don’t think Martin’s series deserves Le Guin’s derision. While very different than Le Guin’s, his anti-heroic approach, frequently killing off sympathetic characters, is certainly as risky.
Le Guin’s foreward implicitly puts the Earthsea story in a short list of classic fantasy, along with the Arthurian legend, Tolkien’s Middle Earth story, and Cervante’s iconic novel. Martin has been called the “American Tolkien.” For my money, neither Le Guin’s nor Martin’s tales have the elegiac punch that these three do, with their strong sense of the loss of innocence, passing into a new age of ennui and disillusionment. Nevertheless, Le Guin and Martin are great storytellers and earn a place among my hall of fame of fantasy writers.