Follow TV Tropes


Literature / Earthsea

Go To

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)

Le Guin revisited Earthsea again in 2014 with the short story "The Daughter of Odren", followed in 2018 by the very last Earthsea story, "Firelight".

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 a 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 Earthsea 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. 2018's The Books of Earthsea, the first book to collect the Cycle in its entirety, books, short stories and all, clocks in at just over 1000 pages in hardback, including Charles Vess's illustrations.

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

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 original trilogy (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore) in six episodes, each half an hour long.

This series contains examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Ged's father beats him. Tehanu's father raped her and threw her into a fire when she was a child, and later on killed her pregnant mother.
  • Aggressive Categorism: As far as Earthsea is concerned, all female magic users are both weak and wicked. All those good and powerful ones are just because they're too weak to pose a threat or they stole it from other male magicians. It gets especially bad in Tehanu, where the local lord believes Aspen is trustworthy while Tenar is a Wicked Witch based solely on their genders.
  • All Deaths Final: Two cases of "exceptions become the fulcrum of the plot":
    • In A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged attempting to prove his prowess as a mage by summoning the dead spirit of a legendary woman instead releases the Gebbeth, killing Nemerle, scarring Ged and setting the stage for the hunt over the rest of the book.
    • In The Farthest Shore Ged encounters the mage Cob who claims power over the dead, and brings him physically to the barrier of life and death in order to humble him. The mage instead uses the experience to open a passage between life and death that allows him to return from death eternally but in doing so disastrously upsets the balance of the world, draining art and magic through the wound. In the climax, Ged reveals that even Cob himself has been diminished by sacrificing his mortality: he can no longer remember his true name, nor can he exert power through the true names of others.
  • Animorphism: Wizards are capable of transforming into animals, though the process is dangerous, due to the animal form's instincts slowly dominating and overriding their human thought processes. In one particularly memorable example, Ged turns into a hawk in order to escape an enemy—and, forced to spend weeks in his new form, almost ends up getting stuck that way. Also, a tragic warning story told at the Wizarding School is of a wizard who loved turning himself into a bear, until he actually became one in mind as well as body, killed his own child, and was hunted down and killed like any other dangerous wild animal.
  • Anti-Villain: Cob in The Farthest Shore.
  • The Apprentice: Ged to Ogion in A Wizard of Earthsea.
  • Badass Boast: In a world where the magic of true names is a serious thing, and someone who has your true name and sufficient willpower can control you with it, Orm Embar proudly uses his true name as his only name. Of course, he is a very powerful dragon, but it's still an impressive boast.
  • Ban on Magic:
    • While wizards are not strictly forbidden from using forms of magic other than illusion, there is a powerful taboo against it, for very good reason.
    • All "magic" is prohibited to Kargs and in the Kargad Lands. As it turns out, they worship evil gods who hate magic, which is actually OK.
  • 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, a tribe of nomadic raft dwellers 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 Blacksmith: Ged's father is a bronzesmith.
  • Blunt "Yes":
    • In the novella "The Finder":
      Rush: Are you fetching and carrying for witches now?
      Tern: Yes, and I will till she dies. And then I'll take her daughter to Roke. And if you want to read the Book of Names, you can come with us.
    • In the short story "Dragonfly":
      The Patterner: We are four against him.
      The Herbal: They are five against us.
      The Namer: Has it come to this, that we stand at the edge of the forest Segoy planted and talk of how to destroy one another?
      The Patterner: Yes. What goes too long unchanged destroys itself.
  • Brought Down to Normal: Sparrowhawk in the later books.
  • Celibate Hero: Ged, in the first three books.
  • Character Title: Tehanu.
  • Child Mage: Ged is this early on in A Wizard of Earthsea before he goes on to become Archmage. His aunt, a witch, notes that he has unusual magical power, and when he was eight or nine, he saved his entire village from the Kargs using a spell he essentially made up on the spot. Some time after, he goes to Roke, which, as it's a wizarding school, is also full of child mages.
  • Conlang: Hardic, which we see a little of. And Kargish, Osskili and Old Speech, in which wizards cast spells.
  • Cosmic Deadline: Tehanu is fairly slow-paced until the last chapter, when suddenly the main characters fall into a trap laid by the evil wizard who cursed Tenar, who savagely beats them then attempts to force them to jump off a cliff to their deaths. This prompts Tenar to finally call out the dragon's name she learned after spending all book dreaming about it, who arrives, burns them to death, and reveals that Tehanu is actually a dragon in human form.
  • Covers Always Lie: Early Earthsea covers had a marked tendency to show Ged as white, and the setting along the lines of Medieval European Fantasy. Le Guin resented the publishers' art departments for insisting that this was what would sell, and was ashamed of the misrepresentation.
  • Curse: Arha lays one in The Tombs of Atuan
    "May the Dark Ones eat your soul, Kossil!"
    • Aspen lays one on Tenar in Tehanu, which controls her speech and later forces her to come to him. She tries to use the same curse again, but to no avail.
  • Damsel in Distress: Tenar to Ged in The Tombs of Atuan. (It can be argued that Ged is also a Distressed Dude to her.)
  • 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.
  • Darker and Edgier: Every book has its fair share of darkness, but as the series wears on, more and more down-to-earth concerns are introduced. The Tombs of Atuan introduces religious fanaticism into the setting, The Farthest Shore discusses drug addiction and slavery, and Tehanu concerns child abuse and sexist violence.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Arha/Tenar fits this trope very much in The Tombs of Atuan, although there is a subversion in that 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.
  • Demoted to Extra: Ged is the main character of the first and third books (being the eponymous Wizard of Earthsea), and plays an important role in the second even though he's not its protagonist; but after he loses his power at the end of The Farthest Shore, he becomes a peripheral figure in Tehanu and The Other Wind, having given way to Tenar and Tehanu.
  • Deserted Island: Ged is sea-wrecked on a very small one during the first book.
  • Deuteragonist: Ged's character development is secondary to Tenar's in The Tombs of Atuan and to Arren's in The Farthest Shore.
  • Do with Him as You Will: Ged does this in The Farthest Shore. On a slaver ship. Where there are only half a dozen slavers. All he needs is to remove the slaves' chains.
  • Dragon Hoard: The dragons in the series are obsessed with hoarding jewelry... at least at first.
  • Dragon Rider: Ged earns the title of Dragon Lord simply because he's one of the few humans the dragons will deign to speak with. So when the most ancient dragon gives him a lift home, it's a significant mark of honor.
  • The Dying Walk: In Tehanu, Tenar helps her old friend Aihal (Ogion the Silent) walk from his deathbed to the meadow where he wants to die.
  • Eldritch Abomination:
    • The gebbeth that Ged unleashed.
    • The "Nameless Ones" are entities that the wizards refer to as the dark powers of the Earth, which are the focus of the oldest religion of the Kargad lands in The Tombs of Atuan.
  • Eldritch Location: The Immanent Grove of Roke, a place where the trees themselves seem to be teaching advanced magic. It is stated that for the people outside, the Grove seems to be moving all over the island of Roke. In reality, it is anchored in the very fabric of reality; the Grove cannot move, Earthsea does.
  • Endless Daytime: One of the backstory's greatest heroes, Erreth-Akbe, is said to have gained eternal fame by defeating a being (a mage or possibly a dragon) called the Firelord who sought to stop the sun at noon so that there would be light unending.
  • Enemy Mine: In The Other Wind, representatives of four cultures normally at loggerheads — if not outright enmity — have to pool their respective mythological knowledge in order to figure out the truth about an ancient evil.
  • Enemy Without: The shadow in A Wizard of Earthsea.
  • Epigraph: A Wizard of Earthsea and The Other Wind both begin with in-universe epigraphs, "The Creation of Ea" and "The Song of the Woman of Kemay" respectively.
  • Evil Counterpart: 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 remembered, 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 Counterpart Culture: Word of God claims there's no specific analogue but draws heavily from many non-European cultures, an aspect that perhaps is one of the setting's strongest points. Broadly speaking, the world seems to be based on a Polynesia with metallurgy, some cultures even vaguely matching Hawaii, Rapa Nui and the Maori, but elements from Babylon, Mesoamerica and West African are also abundant.
  • Fantasy-Forbidding Father: Ged's father, a blacksmith, is always telling him his fantasies will do him no good, and that learning to make a living as a blacksmith is the only realistic way for Ged to get by in the world. He's proven wrong when Ged becomes a wizard.
  • Fantasy World Map: One of the more famous examples.
  • Farm Boy: Ged starts out as a goatherd, son of a blacksmith, on a very rural island out on the edge of civilization.
  • Fat Best Friend: Vetch, although he is more intelligent and complex than most examples of this trope.
  • Females Are More Innocent: Inverted. Part of Earthsea culture is the assumption that female magic users are wicked.
  • Feminist Fantasy: In the later books, from Tehanu on, Le Guin re-examines the setting and its assumptions (such as that wizards must all be male and celibate) with a feminist eye.
  • Fictional Constellations: A Wizard Of Earthsea discusses the constellations of the land of the dead, which do not match those of the living world. Their names include the Sheaf, the Tree, the Door and the One Who Turns.
  • Fictional Holiday: The Long Dance, a festival celebrated by every culture in Earthsea.
  • Forced Transformation: A spell to change another person involuntarily into an animal is possible, but difficult.
  • 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.
  • Gender-Restricted Ability: The original trilogy features mostly male wizards. In fact, there was a proverb "As weak as a woman's magic." Later books reveal that this is more of a cultural restriction, however.
  • God-Emperor: In the Kargad lands, the (apparently mortal) Godking is worshipped as a deity, which, by the time of The Tombs of Atuan, has severely pissed off The Unknown Nameless Ones.
  • Gods Need Prayer Badly: The Nameless Ones in The Tombs of Atuan.
  • 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.
    • Averted in Tehanu, where Therru gets a terrible set of scars after being thrown in a fire, but these are not an indication that she's a terrible person.
  • Grand Finale: The story "Firelight", about Ged's last days, which also served as the last piece of fiction that LeGuin ever published.
  • Head Pet: In A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged has an otak, a small, very shy wild creature that rides around in his hood and will tolerate almost no one else. When he's attacked at one point, it tries to protect him, screaming (this is notable because otaks have no voices). Ged is heartbroken when it dies.
  • He-Man Woman Hater: In Tehanu, every unsympathetic man is one of these, especially the wizards.
  • 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.
    • His descendant, Orm Embar, goes out the same way, destroying Cob's physical form in The Farthest Shore.
  • 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.
  • High Priest: Arha, the Eaten One, the high priestess of the Powers in The Tombs of Atuan.
  • The Horde: The Kargs.
  • Human Sacrifice: Done (and threatened to be done) quite often in The Tombs of Atuan.
  • Humans Are White: Averted. White humans (Kargish) are rare in Earthsea, and are more or less Vikings. 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. The implications of this are intentional.
  • I Am One of Those, Too: In The Farthest Shore, Ged tells Arren they are going to pose as merchants from Arren's island, and has the foresight to ask him to give some large town as a fake birthplace — just in case they run into a townsman.
  • 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, because you would have to know the name of every shore it touches, something impossible for a man to do in one lifetime.
  • Internal Deconstruction: The first trilogy (and the first book especially), portrayed female magic users as near universally wicked and weaker than their male counterparts, and always out to steal power they couldn't control. The second trilogy gives a hard look at both where this assumption came from, and what believing in it can do to a culture.
  • It Was a Gift: Ged's half of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe.
  • Job Title: The protagonist of A Wizard of Earthsea is a wizard of Earthsea.
  • 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.
  • The Legend of Chekhov: The myth of human-dragon hybrids trapped in human form, mentioned at the beginning of Tehanu, is proven true at the book's end and forms the basis for the plot of the next novel, The Other Wind.
  • Liminal Being: The enemy in The Farthest 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.
  • Made a Slave: Prince Arren is briefly sold as a galley slave in The Farthest Shore, until Ged turns up, lays a smackdown on the slavers, and frees Arren and the other slaves.
  • Mage Tower: The Master Namer of Roke, Kurremkarmerruk, lives in a tower some way from the School.
  • 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.
      • Which makes for a parallel with his teacher Ogion, who used much of his magic up to stop a disaster of some kind prior to the first book.
    • The later novels suggest that the full-scale version may be beginning.
  • 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).
  • Magical Incantation: Magic works by the user speaking the language of dragons; since it is impossible to lie in said language, the universe will change to make what is said true.
  • Man in the Iron Mask: The brother and sister on the deserted island. They're a Kargish prince and princess who were abandoned to get them out of the way without outright killing them. It's from one of them that Ged gets the first half of the long-lost Ring of Erreth-Akbe.
  • 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. In A Wizard of Earthsea, the boy called Duny becomes the man called Sparrowhawk, whose secret true name is Ged.
    • In The Tombs of Atuan, the rite turning Tenar into the priestess involves taking away her name; henceforth, she is Arha, the Eaten One. Ged restores "Tenar" to her, a significant plot event.
  • 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 Mind Is a Plaything of the Body: The reason why it's dangerous for a wizard to stay shifted into an animal shape. The longer you stay in a given form, the more your mind gets taken over by that form's instincts.
  • Namedar: High-level wizards are implied to have Namedar for people's True Names, which is used in coming-of-age ceremonies, among other things.
  • Naming Ceremony: Children are given their True Name by a wizard in a special ceremony. Sparrowhawk receives his in A Wizard of Earthsea.
  • Never Learned to Read: The Kargs as a people view reading and writing as "black arts" and avoid them at all costs, though ironically they are excellent at mathematics. When Ged rescues Tenar from the Tombs of Atuan and brings her with him to his land, she eventually learns to how speak his language, and then to read and write in it.
  • Never Sleep Again: In The Other Wind, the wizard Alder is plagued by dreams of his wife in the land of the dead.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Herod: A king received a prophecy his empire will fall because of a person from the former royal house. By then, there were only two children left; a boy and a girl. He was afraid to kill them (Royal Blood), so he banished them to a desolate island. They survive until old age. Then, one day, Ged is washed ashore. The girl gives him an old family keepsake...
  • 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.
  • Ocean Punk: One of the classic and most refined examples.
  • Ominous Fog: The boy who will grow up to be Sparrowhawk uses a fog control/illusion spell to confuse invaders and save his village.
  • One-Winged Angel: Subverted in "The Rule of Names". Two sorcerers get into a duel involving shapeshifting; it ends with one back in his human form, and the other a dragon. The human says something like, "I'm tired of this; it ends now; show me your true shape, by the power of your True Name." He speaks the Name. The dragon is unaffected, and replies, "That is my true name; this is my true shape." CHOMP!
  • 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".
  • Orphan's Plot Trinket: The MacGuffin in The Tombs of Atuan.
  • 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. The dragons depicted in the earliest stories and novels resemble Smaug (intelligent, capricious Western Dragons), but gradually become more varied. They are highly magical, and indeed seem to be affected by the geographical limits to magic — magic in the West Reach, where dragons are huge, cunning, and rich, and rule both the skies and islands, is different from magic in the East Reach, where dragons are very small, unintelligent, and often domesticated as housepets. Although they're highly intelligent, often wise creatures, they're inclined to simply kill most people who get near them. A rare, powerful mage may become a Dragonlord, which Ged (who is one himself), describes as simply someone with whom a dragon will reliably speak rather than eat. Dragons and humans are strongly implied to be descended from the same original species. Also, dragons naturally speak the world's original language, the True Speech, which is significant because in Earthsea, magic is in words and names. Humans have to learn it, and cannot lie in it, while dragons can. There's also the existence of dragon-people such as Tehanu and Irian, though how exactly that whole thing works is never fully explained.
  • Path of Inspiration: Originally, the series portrayed the Kargish religion this way, its religious beliefs (particularly their prejudice against magic-users) being imposed by evil gods. This was later retconned into being a good/neutral religion which got corrupted.
  • People of Hair Color: The Kargs are typically blond.
  • Physical Heaven: In The Other Wind, the Heaven in the West West.
  • The Place: The Tombs of Atuan.
  • Politeness Judo: In A Wizard of Earthsea, the last task the apprentice wizard Sparrowhawk must achieve before he leaves the school as a fully-fledged wizard is to discover the name of the Master Doorkeeper. Since a wizard will always protect the secret of his name, he thinks long and hard about what form of magic he could use to wrest the information from the vastly more powerful Master Doorkeeper. Eventually he goes before the master and admits he must give up, but only after asking one question: "What is your name?" The Master Doorkeeper cheerfully gives him the answer: politely requesting his name was in fact the solution to the test.
  • Portal Statue Pairs: The land entrance to the Port of Gont is flanked by two dragon statues.
  • P.O.V. Sequel: The first half of Tehanu follows Tenar as she reacts to the changes wrought on Earthsea in The Farthest Shore.
  • The Power of Language: A Central Theme of the series. Earthsea starts out fairly simply, as a world with a Language of Truth that doubles as a Language of Magic reliant on the memorization of things' True Names, but as the story progresses, it questions the origins of this magic and reveals that words only have so much power—language-based magic is a relatively shallow, masculine form of magic, and there are deeper forms of magic and understanding that do not rely on the imperfect medium of speech.
  • 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.
  • Primal Polymorphs: A cautionary tale every wizard student knows tells of a wizard who liked becoming a bear so much, one day he became a bear for real and killed his own son. The people were forced to hunt him down after that.
  • Privileged Rival: When Ged arrives at Roke Island, he gains a rival named Jasper, who's the son of the Lord of the Domain of Eolg on the Isle of Havnor. Ged is just the son of a smith, and is rubbed the wrong way by Jasper's extremely polite but condescending manners.
  • A Protagonist Shall Lead Them: Arren/Lebannen from The Farthest Shore.
  • Reality Warper: A wizard can do this, if he changes something's true name, or otherwise changes something's nature.
  • Reality Warping Is Not a Toy: If you use the Old Speech to warp reality, you will face the consequences (probably). Plus, some forms of reality warping are just plain impractical: For example, one could use it to change a rock into a diamond, but due to the way True Name magic works, all of the islands of Earthsea would change into diamonds too, which obviously would make them pretty unsuitable for living on.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Ged to Cob, about exactly why his attaining immortality was a very bad thing.
  • Religion of Evil: Zig-zagged in The Tombs of Atuan: Tenar is a priestess who wears all black worships Eldritch Abominations who live in a labyrinthine Creepy Cave where it is always pitch black, and she offers them Human Sacrifice on a regular basis. Ged tells her outright that the beings she worships are very real and very evil, and that he has been expending all his magic to keep their powers at bay. But it's not quite a Religion of Evil — Tenar hasn't known that her religion is evil, and assumes that the Nameless Ones are deserving of worship because they are powerful and will destroy everything if they are blasphemed or aren't properly appeased.
  • Rescued from the Underworld: Attempted by Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea; he follows the soul of a dying child on the way to the land of the dead, but he doesn't manage to keep her from entering it and being lost.
  • Resurrected for a Job: It is mentioned that one wizard used to summon souls of ancient kings and wizards for royal council. It ended up with him being exiled, since, apparently, the advices of the dead are of little use to the living.
  • Rite of Passage: In A Wizard of Earthsea, the mage Ogion the Silent gives Duny his True Name of "Ged" in a coming of age ceremony.
  • Robe and Wizard Hat: Averted in the main series, as while wizards usually wear simple robes and practical cloaks, they never have hats - at most, they have a hood. However played straight in Tales from Earthsea: before the existence of Roke, when wizards acted as magical mercenaries and magic was still a wild and mysterious thing, they all wore extravagant robes of many colors covered in runes, as well as tall, pointy and wide-brimmed hats to look even more imposing.
  • 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: Sacred hospitality appears pretty deeply ingrained in Earthsea, in both the Hardic and Kargad lands. Despite Ged's private gripe in A Wizard of Earthsea, his boat was provisioned for free on the island where people thought he might be some kind of demon, and the innkeeper who told him their island already had a wizard gave him free lodging, food, and ale. Staff-carrying wizards almost never pay for such things, or for ship's passage. While hospitality to wizards is mere common sense, there are many examples in the stories of non-wizards (or wizards in disguise) getting the benefit of sacred hospitality.
  • Scars are Forever: Ged has disfiguring scars down one side of his face, inflicted by an evil Living Shadow he summoned as a boy, which remain even when he is the Archmage. He seems to regard them as a reminder of the cost of arrogance and misuse of magic.
  • 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.
  • Shadow Archetype: In A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged accidentally raises an evil spirit representing the darkness in himself, which is actually called the Shadow in the book. It follows him everywhere until he can call it by its true name—which is Ged.
  • Shapeshifter Mode Lock: Wizards who spend too much time shapeshifted into animal forms can forget their humanity, especially when distracted by the animal's power of flight or ability to freely range the oceans. 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.
  • Shout-Out: The word for stone in Old Speech is tolk and that for sea is inien, making Earthsea translate as "tolkienian".
  • Small, Secluded World: The exiled brother and sister Ged encounters on a small island in A Wizard of Earthsea. They were marooned on the island as small children, and having spent their whole lives there have "forgotten that there were other people in the world."
  • Somebody Named "Nobody": The Nameless Ones, formerly the main deities of the Kargad religion, are manifestations of Earth's more malevolent aspects. Some reside in the labyrinths on the island of Atuan.
  • Spoiled Brat: Jasper
  • Stern Chase: A Wizard of Earthsea has Ged getting chased from island to island by a creature from the shadow realms.
  • Summoning Ritual: In A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged decides to show off by summoning the spirit of Queen Elfarran from the dead. He succeeds, but also inadvertently calls a "Shadow", which promptly tries to kill him, then stalks him for the next several years trying to finish him off.
  • Telescoping Staff: Ged's staff in A Wizard of Earthsea. He picks a blade of grass, he speaks to it to expand it into a full-sized wooden staff, and to suit this trope, it is able to shrink/grow it again.
  • That's No Moon: Ged once goes to an island to fight off dragons. The first dragons are relatively small and easy to defeat... then the castle on the island moves and it's the main dragon.
  • 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.
  • The Trope without a Title: The Nameless Ones.
  • Tsundere: Tenar in The Tombs of Atuan. By the time we see her again two books later, in Tehanu, she seems to have grown out of it.
  • Turning Back Human: In A Wizard of Earthsea Ged spends too much time in the form of a hawk (and focused on nothing but survival), so he has to be turned back into human by his teacher and even then it takes a couple of days before his mind is back to normal.
  • Two-Faced:
    • Ged has a half scarred face from an encounter with a vaguely defined creature that he accidentally summoned. (It later turns out to be, appropriately, his own dark doppelgänger.)
    • Therru provides a full body example of this trope, having been horribly burned by her parents prior to the events of the book.
  • Unequal Rites: A distinction is made between "true" magic (based on an ancient language, studied in a Wizarding School, practiced only by men) and several lesser forms of magic, including sorcery, illusionism and village witches. There are also other forms of religious magic in different cultures.
  • Unusual Pets for Unusual People: In A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged ends up with an otak as his familiar. It's explicitly noted that otaks are not easily domesticated at best, and it is shown when his otak nearly bites some of the other students at his school.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: Roke Island is home to the School of Magic which results in all sorts of bizarre occurrences such as flying houses, people transforming into an animal (or vice versa), etc. The locals are used to this and barely give a second glance.
  • 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.
  • Wandering Culture: The Children of the Open Sea, a tribe of raft-dwellers who only come to land once every year, when they need to cut some trees for their homes. They provide a Bedouin Rescue Service to the heroes in the third book.
  • Weather Dissonance: Wizards like controlling the weather. It's the first ability that Ged manifests. But it's not always wise. In the sixth book, the sea-captain Tosla grumbles about sailing to Roke, saying there's not an honest wind or current for miles around the island, but all wizard's brew.
  • Weirdness Magnet: Even after Sparrowhawk loses his magic in the third book, he retains his ability to turn up precisely where and when he's needed. Tenar comments on this pointedly.
  • When You Snatch the Pebble: To graduate from the wizards' School on Roke, a student must find out what the Master Doorkeeper's name is. While there may be a way to find out by magic, it's perfectly acceptable simply to ask him what it is, and he will tell you.
  • White-and-Grey Morality: Le Guin dislikes unambiguously evil characters. Even obviously antagonistic figures like Cob and Aspen are portrayed as warped by society or their own fears, rather than doing anything For the Evulz.
    • 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.
  • Wizard Duel: Not actually a fight, but Ged's attempt to outdo a schoolyard rival with flashy demonstrations of magic led to tragedy in A Wizard of Earthsea.
  • 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.
  • Worldbuilding: 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: In A Wizard of Earthsea, the young students are showing off their spellcraft when Ged foolishly casts a dangerous and powerful spell to show off. He nearly dies himself, the Archmage does die, and a creature is unleashed.

Alternative Title(s): A Wizard Of Earthsea, The Earthsea Trilogy, The Tombs Of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, The Other Wind, Earthsea Trilogy