Probably every reader of a good trilogy or tetrology has come to the end and wished there was more. Usually there is not, but as I got misled looking for storybooks at the local library and discovered this book instead. I felt a bit like an archaeologist who finds an archive of previously unknown history. And so this book proved to be. Some of the stories shed light on the back history of Earthsea, and some add flavor to the culture, but all are interesting and well worth reading.

“The Finder”

In the days before the school of magic on Roke was founded, after the rule of the Mages, when the Archipelago was ruled by local warlords, a young Gontish carpenter’s son with emerging wizardry curses a boat that his father’s shop was making, because it would be used for war. He was found out by “The Hound,” the local warlords “finder” and shipped off to an encampment where a wizard obsessed with the supposed properties of quicksilver enslaved people to smelt the ore. One of the women working there is a witch and she helps him undo the web of spells that binds his mind and communicates a spell of the earth that opens the earth underneath the wizard and traps him. In his escape he finds some women who are members of a secret group of witches who have preserved knowledge of magic and who teach him a little. Pursued by the warlord, he changes shape to an Otter and arrives at another island, where he continues his escape by signing up as the weatherworker for a ship. The ship is ruined by a magewind attack and he changes to a bird and flies to the nearest island, Roke.

Here he finds a very pastoral community of mostly women, some of whom know magic. They are skeptical of his intents, since men had razed Roke because of the wizards there, but he eventually earns their trust and they teach him what they know of magic. (At that time mages could be women.)  He and one of the women develop a sort of love relationship and they decide to start a school of magic to bring peace to the archipelago from the warlords. The Roke women had founded a society of the Hand, and Otter goes to various islands using the network to find capable students. Along the way he happens across the Book of Names, which he recovers and brings back to Roke. Eventually capable mages for all the major branches are found, with his love spending much of her time as the Master Patterner in the Immanent Grove. As the school becomes better known, the Mage of Gont (who was controlling the warlord there) attacks Roke with a fleet of ships. He flies in arrogance as a dragon, but becomes himself as he alights on Roke Knoll and one of the women strip him of his power. After the school is established, Otter becomes the Master Doorkeeper, determining who is worthy of letting into the school.

“Darkrose and Diamond”

Diamond is the son of an aspiring lumber producer who shows signs of being both a skilled musician and a powerful mage. His father sends him off to a mage to be trained, but he does not love magic, and he is not willing to be celibate (as mages are, in this time period). Particularly since he is in love with the village witch’s daughter, Darkrose. Unfortunately, the mage set a spell around him such that Darkrose’s sendings did not reach him and she, thinking that he had lost his love for her, abandons him for a local troubadour. Diamond runs away from the mage, returns to the village, and finding that Darkrose is no longer interested in him, returns to his father and begins to learn the family business. On his 18th birthday, his father throws a large party and hires some local musicians, one of whom is Darkrose’s boyfriend. Late in the evening he finds Darkrose and asks if she would live the minstrel life with him. She quickly accepts and the two run away, eventually becoming a well-known and liked minstrel pair, although Diamond’s father never forgives him.

“The Bones of the Earth”

The story begins with the mountains of Gont being restless. An old wizard who lives in the area becomes aware that something is not right. He seeks an oracle from a certain spring and realizes that there is going to be an earthquake very soon which will destroy the populous port of Gont. He Summons a well-loved pupil of his whom he tells to hold the mountains at the port, while he deals with the roots of the mountain. In his youth he was taught a spell of transformation that would make him one with the earth, but which is irreversible. Sacrificing his pastoral life for the people of Gont, the wizard casts the spell and works within the bones of the earth to remove their tension, saving the people of the city.

“On the High Marsh”

A half-crazed wizard who cannot completely remember who he is wanders off the mountain highlands into the home of a farmer woman. She hosts him and he cures her cattle of the plague and spends a week curing the cattle of another local farmer. After he finishes, he gets into a fight with a incompetent (but successful) healer who accused him of taking away his business, almost destroying him. Most of the town rises up against him, but Ged, the Archmage arrives seeking him, for it he is one of the Masters at the School of Roke. He had grown arrogant, powerful, and jealous, and had sought to destroy the other Masters, one by one. After one success, his next victim was able to get a Sending off to Ged and the two of them barely defeat him. In the intervening time the wizard realized that what he did was wrong and desires to live a simple life. He has built a good relationship with the woman who hosts him, and begins a love relationship that promises to be much deeper in oneness than her husband who had died.


A woman from a declining lordly family uses a inept mage-in-training to get to Roke to become a wizard. The Master Doorkeeper feels that he should let her in, even though the rule is that women are not allowed to become mages. The Masters are somewhat split, and the Master Patterner takes her into the Grove to let her learn from the Grove what the patterns are. The Archmage, Ged, had used all his power sealing the rift between death and life in the fourth book, Tehanu, and refuses to come to resolve the dispute. A new archmage is not forthcoming, although the Master Summoner, who returns from his long sojourn following Ged to the wall between death and life, desires the position. The Masters opposing the teaching of the girl come to throw her out by force, but she goes to the knoll, where all things are as they really are and no magic can be done. There she discovers her true identity as she turns into a dragon and flies off.

The stories are the same quality as the original Earthsea trilogy (I, personally, did not think that Tehanu met the same standard). Like the trilogy, the reader vicariously experiences many islands and subcultures as the characters travel throughout the Archipelago. The stories retain the epic, mythic quality that the trilogy, particularly A Wizard of Earthsea, has but yet are more peaceful, less driven. Instead of the goal being clearly laid out, the reader is quietly introduced to the goal as the characters themselves become aware of it, which leads to less tension in “will the protagonist succeed in what happens next” to more of a curiosity "what will happen next?” This has a calming effect and the stories tend to be relaxing, although equally gripping.

One of the interesting things is that the stories are an odd combination of adventure and relationship. In the classic fantasy trilogy by Tolkien, the story is virtually pure adventure, although there are hints of deeper relationships and and outworking of a long history that largely remains a mystery to the reader. The Chronicles of Narnia, by Tolkien’s fellow writer, C.S. Lewis, have a similar simple adventure, although the adventure is actually an allegory. Le Guin’s stories have adventure in that the characters travel many places and experience many things, but unlike her male counterparts, for whom adventure appears to be the end in itself, for Le Guin, adventure is merely the means for the relationship. Adventure is necessary, but the focus is on the relationships. As such, the book has a unquantifiable female feel about it, which as a male reader, I found rather odd. Somehow the adventure was lacking something—probably a grand reason for the adventure, a grand task to accomplish. The relationships she describes and builds have a deep quality, but left me, as a male reader a little unsatisfied. I should hasten to add that this is merely a minor quibble and more of a note about the differences between male and female writers of fantasy.

The relationships are actually very interesting. For example, “On the High Marsh” has a particular quiet mystery about it, as the farm women gets to know the unknown man, gentle but with some serious past. The story is about the wizard, but the reader is drawn not to the wizard, but to the woman’s reactions to the wizard. The story is equally about the woman discovering a man who is all that woman deeply desires (gentleness, caring, oneness), even though he is confused and broken. Aspiring single males could learn a lot about the desires of a woman if they pay attention to the subtleties of this story.

The Earthsea books have an increasingly pantheistic view of the world, but this becomes much more prominent in this collection of stories. The primal spirits change from being evil to being good and something that perhaps ought to be embraced. There is an implication in the stories that the Witches are somehow more in tune with the primal, mothering nature of the world than the Mages are, despite their greater depth of understanding. There is sort of an implicit suggestion that the Mages, in their intellectualism, have lost an important experiential understanding of the world. I doubt that this was intentional on Le Guin’s part, but one could see a feminine emphasis on relationships showing up here, contrasting the Witch’s relationship with the world to the male Mage’s greater power that is largely divorced from the earth itself.

The stories are a pleasure to read. Although as a Christian and a scientist, I really find pantheism to be untenable, and as a man I found the relationships vaguely unsatisfying, the stories really are a grand adventure and the relationships are deep and meaningful. These stories are well written and a pleasant change from standard goal-driven fantasy (although most readers will not find this coming to consciousness). They introduce the reader to new lands and new people and constantly leave the reader wondering what new experiences they will (vicariously) have next. The stories are a fine addition to the Earthsea books and I recommend them highly.
Review: 9.7
Very well written. Although I did not notice it until I started writing this review, I like the subtlety that the stories have. There always is a goal, but it is only revealed to the reader piecemeal, which I think makes the stories somehow calming. Le Guin has a fine imagination and creates beautiful lands and compelling subcultures. I always find myself exploring the world along with her. Unfortunately, the themes of female equality with men that run through most of the stories kind of bother me, not because I am opposed to it, but because I have always assumed that women are just as important and men and it seems a waste to keep talking about it. I was surprised to find myself a little unsatisfied with the tales, but although I suspect it comes from being a man, in reality, any story with a deep and consistent backstory and culture will leave one longing for more, so this is not really a serious complaint. I really think the writing is a superb example of fiction, and this book will be enjoyed by all who read it.

Magical Things

Book of Names A fairly comprehensive list of the True Names of many things. Knowing the True Name of someone or something gives the mage power over that thing.
Quicksilver Some lore suggests that drinking quicksilver (mercury) gives the drinker the great power and wisdom of the metal, although this is likely completely false.
Witch’s lore Sort of a hodgepodge of spells. Witches do not have the deep understanding of magic that Mages do and their spells are less powerful.
Earth spirits In previous books these spirits were untamed, evil spirits that were located at certain places in the Archipelago. Le Guin redefines these to be primal, pantheistic spirits that one could invoke for certain nature spells.
The Wall A low, brick wall that separates the world of the living and the dead. Once a spirit crosses over the wall, the person dies. Very, very rarely can a Mage lead someone back from across the wall, and there is a large risk that the Mage himself will become lost in the land of the dead.
Immanent Grove A grove of trees on Roke whose roots go to the roots of the world. The Grove is Truth, and the patterns of its leaves, shadows, and life under its branches reflect the state of the world, albeit in a difficult to perceive fashion. The Grove is bigger than it seems.
Roke Knoll A grassy knoll where every transformation is reversed and all things appear in the proper form.
Magewind A wind originally cast by the women of Roke to keep ships away, but which is now controlled by the Master Windkeeper. If any evil or opposing force approaches the island the Windkeeper creates a virtually irresistible wind to keep them at bay. Thus, if anyone arrives at the island, the Windkeeper has expressly permitted it.
True Name A True Name can only be given to someone in late adolescence, by a magic worker, either a Mage or Witch. The namer listens for the name from the currents of magic (or perhaps the pantheistic spirit that everyone is a part of) and names the child. The name is in the Old Speech, as all True Names are, and becomes their name.