The Earthsea cycle of novels and short stories, by Ursula K. LeGuin are among my favorite stories and a huge influence on my own writing. When I was a kid there was a battered old copy of “A Wizard of Earthsea” lying around which I finally read when I was ten or eleven. I’ve been hooked ever since, and that book remains one of my all time favorite novels (The image above, while also apparently used later for a boxed set of the original Earthsea trilogy, is also the cover of the copy of “A Wizard of Earthsea” I read as a kid and which I still own).
As might be deduced from the name, the world of Earthsea is a place of islands. The central grouping is known as the Archipelago, the outer areas are the four Reaches, one for each direction, and then you also have the Kargad lands, a few islands that are home to a separate culture and ethnicity of people. The Earthsea setting is a little different from many other fantasy worlds-rather than the Middle Ages, the technology level and culture is more similar to an Iron Age one. Also, aside from the Nordic-like Kargs, the peoples of the Archipelago and Reaches are all dark-skinned peoples (with the possible exception of the people of Osskil who seem to have an Eastern European vibe. Most of the cultures of Earthsea are at least somewhat maritime; sailing, fishing and magic relating to the wind and sea are all important elements. Most of the residents of the Archipelago and Reaches are collectively referred to as Hardic Peoples, after the Hardic language they speak which is based on the True Speech.
The magic of Earthsea is very much a part of the world and one of my favorite aspects of the story. The magic is based on the True Speech, the language of the dragons and the tongue used to raise the islands from the sea. In this language all things and all people have a True Name that defines their nature. Further, it is impossible to lie in the Old Language (though the dragons, who are sometimes spoken of almost as embodiments of the language, are able to twist the truth in their speech) and so when a person of power speaks a thing in that tongue, reality is forced to comply and by changing the name of a thing its form can be shifted. People’s true names are generally given/revealed in a naming ceremony at the age of thirteen which is typically conducted by a wizard. People do not reveal their true names, except to people they trust implicitly, each person having a publicly known “use-name”, or sometimes several. Magic, especially in the early books, is primarily the province of men; all of the full wizards are male and the majority of female magic-users seen are “village witches” with limited abilities and very little training. Women are bared from the wizard’s school on Roke Island, though it is revealed in later works that women helped found it. There are also sorcerers, a sort of intermediate rank of the Roke school between apprentice and wizard and a variety of folks with specific magical talents, such as the weather-workers found on many sailing ships and folks with skill in mending broken objects.
There is a strong element of Taoist and other Eastern type philosophy in the Earthsea stories, especially as regards the use of power and action versus inaction. Although I disagree with some of the philosophic concepts found in the series, they are all quite interesting and especially at the time of the original book’s publication relatively unusual for Western fantasy literature.
The original Earthsea series was a trilogy consisting of “A Wizard of Earthsea,” “The Tombs of Atuan” and “The Farthest Shore.” Years after the publication of TFS, “Tehanu” was added to what became the Earthsea Cycle, followed yet more years later by “The Other Wind” and the “Tales of Earthsea” short story collection. These latter works are somewhat different in tone and theme than the previous novels and some of them could be seen as “re-writing” a bit of Earthsea history. Or at least, presenting us with history quite out of tune with the impressions of things given in earlier books, having to do largely with the role of women, the history of the School on Roke and Hardic wizardry as a whole and also certain matters of the afterlife and human/dragon relations. I’m not personally quite as partial to the newer works, though as a writer I can sympathize with a writer wanting to use existing creations to express a changed or expanded worldview, but I did find the newer books a bit jarring. The somewhat negative light in which the Hardic wizards and Masters of Roke are cast in these newer books is a little off-putting to me, but I still enjoyed them. I think that in the end, “A Wizard of Earthsea” will always be the epitome of what the world of Earthsea is to me.
The influence of Earthsea on my own writing is considerable. My word choice and style especially when writing high fantasy are influenced by LeGuin’s style in the Earthsea novels. The stories are also partially responsible for my obsession with the number nine and particularly with the idea of magic divided into nine forms with nine masters, since the school of Roke has Nine Masters, each with a different specialty. The stories have also left me with a love of sea-faring wizard imagery that I indulge in my stories now and again.