Literature / Earthsea Trilogy

A classic series of high fantasy books by Ursula K. Le Guin, which began as a pair of short stories in 1964, "The Word of Unbinding" and "The Rule of Names". These stories were shortly followed by a trilogy of young adult novels:

  • A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)
  • The Tombs of Atuan (1971)
  • The Farthest Shore (1972)

Decades later, Le Guin returned to Earthsea with a fourth novel, followed after another decade by a collection of new short stories and one final novel. These books were more adult than the original trilogy, dealing with some very mature subjects.
  • Tehanu (1990)
  • Tales from Earthsea (2001)
  • The Other Wind (2001)

The world of Earthsea is a sprawling archipelago where magic is a part of everyday life, dragons are an occasional threat, and the afterlife is a very real place. The original trilogy focuses on Ged, a wizard who rises from a modest life as a goatherd in a sleepy village to become the Archmage, the master of the school of magic who rules in place of Earthsea's long-abandoned line of kings. Ged overcomes grave mistakes made early in his life in A Wizard of Earthsea, then acts as a mentor to the young priestess Tenar in The Tombs of Atuan and the young prince Arren in The Farthest Shore as each of these characters comes of age and accepts their role in life as he once did.

The later books shift the focus away from Ged and instead build Earthsea itself as more complex and rich character, exploring the history and geography of its various islands, examining the lives of commoners who don't spend their days sailing around on grand adventures and speaking to dragons, and addressing the massive weaknesses of the archipelago's society, especially its treatment of women.

In many ways the Earthea Cycle represented a radical departure from the then dominant view of fantasy in featuring a wizard as the main character rather than as a supporting character, featuring a cast of mostly brown-skinned and red-skinned characters, featuring women in prominent roles, exploring an islander society instead of the standard medieval European setting, and advancing the story by having the characters make increasingly complex moral and personal decisions rather than simply winning in sword fights or obtaining treasure. It also avoids ever becoming particularly verbose; all but the fifth book are well under 300 pages, with few words spent on the intricate and time-consuming exposition that defines other fantasy authors like Tolkien.

The series was the subject of an animated film from Studio Ghibli called Tales from Earthsea and a poorly-received TV adaptation by the SyFy Channel, originally called Legend of Earthsea, and later retitled Earthsea.

The The BBC adapted the works as radio dramas twice: In 1996, as a two hour adaptation of A Wizard of Earthsea, and in April and May 2015, as a full adaptation of the trilogy (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore) in six episodes, each half an hour long.

Provides Examples Of:

  • Anti-Villain: Cob in The Farthest Shore.
  • Bedouin Rescue Service: Happens in The Farthest Shore, when Ged is badly wounded and the heroes run out of water. They are stranded in the middle of the ocean, but fortunately, there is a tribe of nomadic raft dwellers who happen to pass nearby.
  • Big Eater: Penthe, who is plump when she is introduced and continues to gain weight because of her enormous appetite.
  • The Bronzesmith: Ged's father.
  • Celibate Hero: Ged, in the first three books.
  • Con Lang: More than one of them.
  • Curse: Arha lays one in The Tombs of Atuan
    "May the Dark Ones eat your soul, Kossil!"
  • The Dark Side Will Make You Forget: At the end of The Farthest Shore, after breaking the laws of magic to conquer death itself, Cob can't even remember his own true name.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Arha/Tenar fits this trope very much in The Tombs of Atuan, although there is a subversion in that while the protagonist, Ged, who plays the role of dashing adventurer in the novel, does not "defrost" her through sex as often happens, but rather helps her develop a sense of morality and reconnect with her buried humanity.
  • Deserted Island: Ged is sea-wrecked on a very small one during the first book.
  • Deus ex Machina: At the end of Tehanu, where Kalessin arrives and saves Tenar right as she's about to be pushed off a cliff by Ged. Aspen and the rest of the men are unceremoniously done away with as well.
  • Deuteragonist: Ged's character development is secondary to Tenar's in The Tombs of Atuan and to Arren's in The Farthest Shore.
  • Dragon Hoard: The dragons in the series are obsessed with hoarding jewelry... at least at first.
  • Eldritch Abomination: The Nameless Ones, as well as the gebbeth that Ged unleashed.
  • Evil Counter Part: The shadow to Ged.
  • Expanded Universe: Le Guin's Earthsea short stories, some of which were compiled into Tales From Earthsea.
  • Exponential Potential: Dragons seem to follow this pattern. Any competent wizard can kill a young dragon with little to no effort—early in his career, Ged defeats six dragons in rapid succession pretty easily. Ancient dragons, however, are almost impossible to kill by conventional means and can use magic just as well if not better than the most powerful human mages.
  • Famed In-Story: A Wizard of Earthsea is explicitly described as being about Ged when he was young and not famed in story; in it, a friend declares he will make a song so his deeds will be remember, but either he didn't or the song was lost (only distorted pieces survive). However, by The Farthest Shore, Ged is indeed famed.
    • Despite the lines in A Wizard of Earthsea saying that stories of the events of that novel were lost, it is clear that they are common knowledge by the time of The Other Wind, as shown by Alder.
  • Familiar: Ged's Otak—a small, rodentlike creature similar in size and disposition to a weasel. He tames it in the wild using the Old Speech, and it follows him around everywhere after that, usually riding on his shoulder or resting in his hood.
  • Fantasy-Forbidding Father: Ged's father.
  • Fantasy World Map: One of the more famous examples.
  • Fat Best Friend: Vetch, although he is more intelligent and complex than most examples of this trope
  • Functional Magic: The magic taught in Roke seems to cover the gamut pretty widely, though with an unusual caveat of geography: the further one gets away from Roke, the less reliable the magic that Roke teaches becomes. Vetch, grown up in the East Reach, says that certain spells he learned at home are useless at Roke, while some spells taught to him in Roke lose their potency in the East Reach.

    Additionally, the way magic works in Earthsea is that it's impossible for anything said in the true speech, the dragons' tongue, to be a lie. Anything you say in the true speech is true, even if physical reality has to change to make it so. The only exception seems to be dragons, who speak nothing but the true speech, and can still lie all they want.
  • Good Scars, Evil Scars: Ged, after unleashing a never-exactly specified evil into the world, is scratched up rather terribly by the thing on one side of his face, and scarred for life. However, in that same book someone says approvingly that the scars indicate him as a true hero—and more importantly they are a sign of his kinship with the Nameless Ones, which Tenar is priestess of. Ged himself is actually not aware that anyone thinks his scars are heroic. The guy who thinks this is very young, and very awed by Ged, and he thinks the scars are the tracks of a dragon's claws, since Ged is known for having vanquished an important dragon early in his career.
  • He-Man Woman Hater: Oh so very much in the fourth book.
  • Hero Antagonist: Ged to Tenar in The Tombs of Atuan.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Erreth-Akbe. The dragon Orm attacks Havnor, forcing Erreth-Akbe to take dragon form and prevent Orm from destroying the city. Erreth-Akbe manages to defeat Orm, but dies in the process.
  • Heroic Suicide: In The Word of Unbinding, the good wizard Festin is entombed by the evil Voll, and after trying every means he can to escape but failing, ends his life with the titular word. This sends him into the afterlife, in which he can find Voll's corpse and seal him to it, which prevents him from harming any more of the living.
  • Humans Are White: Averted. White humans (Kargish) are rare in Earthsea. Most people we encounter are Ambiguously Brown, with Le Guin having said that they look vaguely Native American, or black. Ged has red-brown skin and Tenar has white skin.
  • Human Sacrifice: Done (and threatened to be done) quite often in The Tombs of Atuan.
  • I Know Your True Name: The name is the thing, and the true name is the true thing. Know the true name, and you can control the thing. This power is limited in that there are literally countless numbers of names in the world, and no human, at least, can ever learn them all. You can't control the sea, for example, for to control you the sea you have to know the name of every shore it touches, something impossible for a man to do in one lifetime.
  • It Was a Gift: Ged's half of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe.
  • Language of Magic: It even has regional dialects!
  • Language of Truth: The Old Speech. Except for the dragons. Well, dragons can't lie, but they can certainly omit, obfuscate and otherwise mislead.
  • Liminal Being: The enemy in Shore claims to be this.
  • Living Legend: "His life is told of in the Deed of Ged and in many songs, but this is a tale of the time before his fame, before the songs were made."
  • Living Shadow: What Ged summons up and then must deal with in the first book.
  • The Magic Goes Away: A much more specific example, limited to Ged only, who used up all his magic to seal the door between the land of the dead and the living.
  • Magic Staff: Wizards trained on Roke are distinguished from mere sorcerers by carrying staves. Ged is awarded a staff made of yew bound with copper in A Wizard of Earthsea. When it is lost in Osskil, Ogion makes him a replacement from a length of wood formerly intended for a longbow. Wizards of Paln, certainly Seppel in The Other Wind, and at first Cob in The Farthest Shore, do not seem to use staves- but Cob does acquire the metal staff of the Pelnish Grey Mage later in the book.
  • Magic Versus Science: Tenar (the priestess) is ironically disbelieving that Ged can perform magic until she sees him actually cast a spell. This is because of her Kargish upbringing—the Kargad are magically uninclined and take a rather arrogantly skeptical view of the western world's magical abilities (this isn't because they are in any way rationalists: in fact the Kargads are the only people in Earthsea who actually worship gods, and nasty ones at that—the Nameless Ones that Tenar serves are pretty horrible, while most Kargads prefer to worship their own kings).
  • Man in the Iron Mask: The brother and sister on the deserted island.
  • The Maze: The labyrinth in the tombs of Atuan
  • Meaningful Rename: Every human gets a new secret name when they come of age, and adopt a publicly-used nickname.
  • Medieval European Fantasy: Totally averted. Most of the characters are dark-skinned/non-white (with great care taken to distinguish between the various shades of brown), and if any era of actual history matches Earthsea, it's ancient times, not the Middle Ages (for instance, the tech level is late Bronze Age, augmented by widespread use of magic for things like animal husbandry and weather control).
    • If you're having a hard time figuring this out, just envision the settlements as looking Middle Eastern or Indian or perhaps Polynesian (and yes, African), and you'll probably end up freeing yourself from the chains of this trope forever.
    • The first edition cover appears to be Mayan-inspired.
  • The Nothing After Death: The land of the dead is presented as a dry sunless place where the dead keep their names, but not their spirits. This is later revealed to not be the real afterlife but a barrier to reaching the real one, established because the first human wizards wanted access to the true names and thus power. Nice job breaking it, wizards.
  • Never Learned to Read: The Kargs believe that reading and writing is abhorrent, so literacy in their lands is virtually nonexistent. When Ged brings Tenar with him back to the main archipelago, she eventually learns to speak his language as well as read and write it.
  • The Obi-Wan: Ged has three of them: his aunt, Ogion, and Archmage Nemmerle. Only Nemmerle dies. Well, Ogion (Ahal) does, too, but from extreme old age, and not until after the end of the original trilogy.
  • Ocean Punk: One of the classic and most refined examples.
  • Ominous Fog
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Most people in Earthsea are like this—they receive a true name when they come of age, but keep it a secret to all but those whom they trust completely. Ged for instance, is known to the vast majority of Earthsea's population as "Sparrowhawk".
  • Our Dragons Are Different: The intelligent and deadly Tolkien variety, at least in the Dragon Run corner of the far West Reach. When one approaches the East Reach, the farthest islets of Earthsea, there are still dragons... but they're about the size of housecats, and completely harmless and unintelligible.
  • People of Hair Color: The Kargs.
  • Powers That Be: The Nameless Ones in The Tombs of Atuan. Their actual existence is up for debate until the point where Ged pisses them off and they retaliate by trying to collapse the great labyrinth around him and Tenar.
  • Reality Warper: A wizard can do this, if he changes something's true name, or otherwise changes something's nature.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Ged to Cob, about exactly why his attaining immortality was a very bad thing.
  • Royal Blood: Why the God-Emperor did not just kill the prince and princess but instead stranded them on an island where Ged ran into them.
  • Sacred Hospitality
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: Most Eldritch Abominations are this. Some are locked in tombs, one is bound into a rock... doesn't stop them from causing a good deal of trouble.
  • Shapeshifter Mode Lock: Ged almost loses his personality once. It is stated that one wizard spent so much time as a bear he lost his humanity and killed his son. He had to be hunted down afterwards.
  • Shoulder-Sized Dragon: The harekki Yarrow keeps as a pet in A Wizard of Earthsea, possibly the very first example.
  • Space Whale Aesop: While probably not intended to be a simple Aesop, Ged's explanation to Arren about life and death and how Cob's actions disturbed The Balance may look like one: "Do not desire eternal life, or else words will lose their true meanings and everyone will eventually go mad".
  • Spoiled Brat: Jasper
  • Title Drop: A variant-the titles of the books are often casually said early on, and then dropped traditionally with meaning. In the case of The Other Wind, the title could almost be considered Arc Words.
    "Where," the Summoner said, "where is that land?"
    "On the other wind," said Irian. "The west beyond the west."
  • Together in Death: Averted. There are no emotions in the afterlife. Though this is possibly subverted in The Other Wind, when Alder is reunited with his dead wife Lily.
  • Training the Gift of Magic: Ged is first taken as a trainee by a witch when he shows a remarkable ability to cast simple spells after hearing them once, then recruited for (extensive) training at a Wizarding School after showing greater but still limited power. It's possible that anyone could achieve something if they knew the right true names, but most people would probably be dangerously clumsy at best.
  • Trilogy Creep: Additional volumes were very belatedly added to the original three.
  • Unfamiliar Ceiling: Turns up surprisingly little, given Ged spends an absurd amount of time being generally passed out. This specific trope only occurs once, at Osskil.
  • Vow of Celibacy: Wizards are required to be male and celibate. One entry in Tales from Earthsea shows the origins of the Wizarding School on Roke, showing that they initially admitted women and didn't require celibacy, but an extremist faction gained control of the order early on and changed the rules. Another entry has a woman with magical gifts attempt to gain admittance to Roke, with the help of a wizard who was kicked out for bringing a barmaid back to his dorm room and getting caught in flagrante delicto.
  • Weather Dissonance: Wizards like controlling it. It's the first ability that Ged manifests. But it's not always wise.
  • Wizarding School: The school for magic on Roke, which only admits men, and which is portrayed pretty much as the center of the magical world. May be the Trope Maker.
  • White and Grey Morality: Le Guin dislikes unambiguously evil characters.
    • Dragons are described as having their own morality, and while perilous for humans to interact with, are not actively evil. They appear to qualify more as Blue and Orange Morality.
  • World Building: Le Guin and her creation of Earthsea.
  • Your Magic's No Good Here:
    • When Sparrowhawk (Ged) travels to the island of Osskil in the far north, his magic fails because he isn't familiar with the differences in magic there.
    • The mage Vetch tells of the differences in magic between locations.
      Sparrowhawk: They say, Rules change in the Reaches.
      Vetch: Aye, a true saying, I can tell you. There are good spells I learned on Roke that have no power here, or go all awry; and also there are spells worked here I never learned on Roke. Every land has its own powers, and the farther one goes from the Inner Lands, the less one can guess about those powers and their governance.
  • Youth Is Wasted on the Dumb: Ged foolishly casts a spell to show off.

Alternative Title(s): Earthsea, A Wizard Of Earthsea, The Earthsea Trilogy