For fans of Ursula K. Le Guin, the past few years have been bittersweet.
The bitter, of course, is that Le Guin died in January 2018, albeit at the respectable age of 88.
The sweetness, oh readers, is the recent wave of beautifully repackaged, definitive collections of her iconic works (which is most of them), starting with Saga Press’s publication of The Found and the Lost and The Unreal and the Real, a broad cross-section of her short fiction, lovingly assembled in two hefty volumes.
Two Library of America editions followed, The Complete Orsinia and The Hainish Novels and Stories, the former of which collects all the works related to an imaginary central European country; the latter, those set within a loose confederation of space-faring humans.
And then there is Earthsea, the last great literary canvas of Le Guin’s to be collected.
Real books go “thunk.”
That lacuna is now filled by The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition, which includes everything she ever wrote on the subject (they aren’t kidding about “complete), with a new introduction by Le Guin and more than 50 new illustrations by Charles Vess. It’s a beautiful thing: the kind of book you want to display, but also surprisingly readable, even at 992 pages and weighing in at more than five pounds.
Earthsea began with a couple of short stories set on the eponymous archipelago, written in 1964. Le Guin called these brief snippets “more like a sailor’s chance sighting of a couple of islands than the discovery of a new world.” In 1968, she published A Wizard of Earthsea, the first of a trilogy (continued in The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore) that eventually grew into a series of five novels and a short story collection, plus extraneous writings, addendums, and a lecture, all written over the long decades of Le Guin’s career. (One of the reasons Earthsea is so resonant is that she returned to the archipelago time and time again, her life experience changing the very landscape.)
Earthsea is a place of word-magic, where to name a thing is to control that thing, but true names are as tricky as a dragon. Dragons, of course, also feature in the Earthsea stories: they speak a true language that they can lie in, but we cannot. They are wild majesty and bestial grandeur, and all other paradoxes of wind and calm.
A Wizard of Earthsea is the story of a talented young wizard from meager beginnings who comes to terms with his own arrogance. In a slim volume, in a book for young adults, Le Guin shaped a perfect Western monomyth. The key detail elided by both the television miniseries and animated film adaptions and early book covers was that the young wizard is black. This was an important detail in the late ’60s, and it’s important now. Vess’s illustrations, which he shaped with the help of the author’s devoted attention, correct these earlier oversights.
Vess worked closely with Le Guin before her death to illustrate each novel and story found within The Books of Earthsea (there are painted endpapers and full-color frontispieces for each book, and scattered black and white drawings throughout).
A Wizard of Earthsea title page
About their collaboration, Le Guin said, “As a poet and story-writer I work strictly alone; but to find an artist that I can consult with, talk with, and watch as they make what I wrote into something new, yet still itself, something I couldn’t make, couldn’t even imagine—that is a privilege and a joy.” The plates range from landscapes to still life, the anatomy of dragons to more intimate portraiture. Vess’ drawings strike a balance between harsh realism and a more impressionistic cartooning, the way Le Guin’s stories of dragons and magic also speak to childhood abuse and adolescent failures. To misquote a line from Marianne Moore: it is an imaginary garden with real toads in it.
The Books of Earthsea also includes two important short stories: “The Daughter of Odren,” which has heretofore never been in print (it was published only digitally), and the last story of Tenar and Ged, “Firelight,” which was posthumously published with far too little fanfare in The Paris Review this past summer. “The Daughter of Odren” tells the stories of siblings, a brother and sister, and the gendered response to parental cruelty and abandonment. “Firelight”… Well, I’m not ashamed to say I bawled my eyes out reading it: “He would go on, this time, until he sailed into the other wind.”
Earthsea is about childhood, and childhood’s end; adulthood, and its rough choices; and, in the end, the end of the end—when “sea and shore were all the same at last, then the dragon spoke the truth, and there was nothing to fear.”