I suppose there was a real symmetry to my feelings about these five stories: I enjoyed the middle three, and relished the first as much as I was disappointed by the last.
The opening story, ‘The Finder’, is set deep in Earthsea’s past, and Le Guin does a great job of painting nobility amongst nightmare fear, corruption, and petty robber-Lords.
As with most of her romance plots, I found ‘Darkrose and Diamond’ a bit twee, and with Darkrose I never quite get Diamond’s insistence on sacrifice – why wizardry is seen to demand chastity and misogyny, even by seemingly wise, respectable characters who know women can do magic (Ged’s own teacher Ogion, we find, for example, was taught magic by a man who’s teacher was a woman). Le Guin does address this in the interesting afterword ‘Description of Earthsea’, saying that, “The belief that a wizard must be celibate was unquestioned for so many centuries that it probably came to be a psychological fact.” Moreover the central relationship breakup seems more like a silly misunderstanding, a spat, so I lost some of the sense of the grandeur of the reconciliation. Still, there are pleasures to be had in the way Le Guin ably sets up the characters and sets the scenes.
‘The Bones of the Earth’ and ‘On the High Marshes’ are as good as anything else in the Earthsea mythos (and that means pretty damn) at setting apart her wizards as special – power isn’t cheap, and it changes who you are, at best purifying you, setting you apart from the blind grasping of the every day. Probably there’s a Ph.D. out there somewhere detailing Le Guin’s presentation of the peasantry: I suspect for the most part they’re nasty, bigoted and childish, with the occasional utter paragon thrown in.
‘Dragonfly’. Ugh. And from Le Guin, of all people. It just feels so daydreamy – like a little boy, “And just when the bad guy was about to get me, I used my (inexplicable, ex-nihilo) super-special powers and punched him right over the street.” Like any of those inferior fantasies where the hero with appalling predictability finds his amazing fighting/wizarding talent from nowhere just at the last possible minute. So on p. 261 the baddie says to our lone girl heroine (who until now has exhibited no powers, nothing to warrant her special treatment except a few wizards feeling there’s something odd there), “Learn your place, woman.” Booo. This is so in your face panto. And then two pages later – stone me if just at the critical moment she doesn’t just turn out to be A DRAGON who incinerates uberbaddie in a heartbeat. Yaay! Phew, that was lucky. One of the greatest merits of Earthsea over many other fantasy worlds is the way she paints the cost of wizardry, so it’s not just a nifty daydream trick, “Hey, look at me, I can fly – wheeee!” But then with the same abandon that, say, David Eddings throws immortality out to anyone, Le Guin just throws in some grrrl power to Tehanu and Irian – who just get to slip into ‘God’ mode, bam. How do you admire that? Might as well admire someone for being tall or whatever.
Where is the wisdom – that the power that some men crave and squabble over actually reduces them – and the trust and community that some women have is of greater value that some of these guys will never actually even comprehend. You haven’t defeated misogyny by becoming a dragon, you’ve just become a bigger man. You haven’t challenged the system, you’ve just confirmed it. Le Guin can be so insightful and counter-cultural, so maybe it hurts me all the more when she, of all people, is the opposite. As here and in the more dragony bits of The Other Wind. Thank goodness – from the reviews – I’ve never read Tehanu.