Ursula LeGuin’s The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition

In October, Saga Press released Ursula LeGuin’s collected Earthsea works, beautifully illustrated by Charles Vess. This collection includes the original trilogy: A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs of Atuan (1971 ) and The Farthest Shore (1972), as well as the novels in which LeGuin revisited the trilogy, Tehanu (1990) and The Other Wind (2001), which conclude the saga many years after the events of the originals. Also included are Tales from Earthsea, LeGuin’s 2001 collection, and four other stories, including the never before published “Daughter of Odren.” Her illuminating essay, “Earthsea Revisioned,” which she delivered as a lecture in Oxford in 1992, is also here, along with an introduction from the author. In short, this giant of a volume includes everything you need to know about Earthsea, and it’s a delight to see it all collected in one place.

Vess’ illustrations are a wonderful complement to these works. According to Vess, he worked closely with LeGuin to align his vision of Earthsea with hers in what is likely to be the definitive edition for many years to come. The book includes over fifty illustrations and boasts a lovely, vivid jacket that depicts Ged amid tempest-tossed seas and a dragon hovering above him. It’s a lovely treatment of a beloved world that both longtime LeGuin fans and those new to the series are sure to want in their collections. To me, this Saga Press version is reminiscent of the 1990s era Houghton Mifflin version of Lord of the Rings, which was illustrated by Alan Lee.

The one complaint that some readers may have is the sheer hugeness of this book. At almost a thousand pages, and weighing in at nearly five pounds, it isn’t exactly portable. Instead, it’s reminiscent of the old favorites of college literature students, The Riverside Shakespeare/Chaucer, and indeed, I think that is the point. This is a serious work, meant for distraction free reading, if you can manage it. It might be nice at some point to see a version of this collected as individual volumes and in paperback for those who may want to bring it along while traveling.

Earthsea is a fully realized world and a groundbreaking work, one of the true classics of the genre, in which LeGuin blended magic, mythology, and philosophy into an enchanting story beloved by generations of readers. It even had a school for wizards, which in 1968 was not a ubiquitous idea. LeGuin’s writing and world creation is something to cherish, because it is so rare, and it can be revisited time and again. She was a great writer by any measure, as the countless writers and readers inspired by her work can attest. The original trilogy is a classic, about which much has been written, and the later Earthsea novels gave us more insight and depth into her immersive world. If you’ve not read these books, don’t delay; if you’ve enjoyed Harry Potter or any number of other fantasy series over the past decades but are unfamiliar with LeGuin, it’s akin to having never read Tolkien but enjoying Game of Thrones.

The new work in this volume, “The Daughter of Odren,” is a welcome addition to Earthsea, involving a woman who helps her father gain vengeance years after he’s been turned to stone by an evil wizard. It’s full of the kind of beautiful prose LeGuin is known for, and it’s great fun to revisit her world in this harrowing, violent tale. “Firelight” rounds out the collection; it’s a tale of the wizard Ged, hero of Earthsea, in his old age, as he ruminates about the choices he’s made throughout life. His wizardry at the cost of having a family haunts him, though he’s found some peace with Tenar and the wounded child Tehanu. In thinking back on his life, he recalls his training and how he unwittingly brought evil as he sought to learn. It’s an emotional coda, wonderfully told.

Earthsea Revisioned is a must read for anyone trying to gain some greater insight into LeGuin’s imagination. In it, she writes of Ged, her male protagonist, and questions why heroes in Western literature always have to be male. “The tradition I was writing in was a great, strong one,” she writes. “The beauty of your own tradition is that it carries you. It flies, and you ride it. Indeed, it’s hard not to let it carry you, since it’s older and bigger and wiser than you.” In this seminal essay, she questions everything about her characters, and lays the groundwork for the novels Tehanu and The Other Wind, which told the story of Earthsea from the perspective of the women. These later books also show the evil that male wizards have wrought in the world through their ignorance, and lust for power. We see Ged not as a heroic wizard, but as an old man who has been greatly weakened by the use of his magic. This revisioning of her own series was a bold stroke that most writers wouldn’t attempt, but then LeGuin is nothing like other artists. In this essay, she describes how she would return to the series, and like her other famous essay on fantasy, ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,’ it should be required reading for aspiring writers, or anyone interested in the creative process. It’s fascinating and quite instructive to see how a great writer like LeGuin thought about fantasy, mythology, history, and her own art. We were lucky to have such a gem of a writer, and the world is poorer now that she’s gone.

(Saga Press, 2018)

About Chris Tuthill

Chris Tuthill’s work has recently appeared in The Mythic Circle, A Companion to JRR Tolkien, and Dark Tales From Elder Regions, among other venues. Chris is a librarian who lives in Poughkeepsie, New York with his wife and two children.