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The Tombs of Atuan (The Earthsea Cycle, Book 2) Mass Market Paperback – September 1, 2001
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About the Author
Ursula K. Le Guin has published twenty-one novels, eleven volumes of short stories, four collections of essays, twelve books for children, six volumes of poetry, and four of translation, and has received the Hugo, Nebula, Endeavor, Locus, Tiptree, Sturgeon, PEN-Malamud, and National Book Award and the Pushcart and Janet Heidinger Kafka prizes, among others.
In recent years she has received lifetime achievement awards from World Fantasy Awards, Los Angeles Times, Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, and Willamette Writers, as well as the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Grand Master Award and the Library of Congress Living Legends award. Le Guin was the recipient of the Association for Library Service to Children’s May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Award and the Margaret Edwards Award.
Her recent publications include the novel Lavinia, Words Are My Matter, an essay collection, and Finding My Elegy, New and Selected Poems. She lives in Portland, Oregon, and her website is UrsulaKLeGuin.com.
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The antagonist in this novel is the unwillingness of people to accept death. This also causes them to lose their passions in life: "To refuse death is to refuse life... You will die. You will not live forever. Nor will any man nor anything. Nothing is immortal. But only to us is it given to know that we must die. And that is a great gift: the gift of selfhood. For we have only what we know we must lose, what we are willing to lose... Would you give up the craft of your hands, and the passion of your heart, and the light of sunrise and sunset, to buy safety for yourself -- safety forever?"
When the archmage is asked why he is unaffected by the malaise going over the world, he responds that wants to do what he is doing: "Because I desire nothing beyond my art... And if I am soon to lose it, I shall make the best of it while it lasts." In the book, his art represents all of the meaningful crafts and endeavors that people engage in and that make people happy. Desiring nothing beyond his art evokes Camus' "Myth of Sisyphus" for me -- that even though Sisyphus is only pushing a rock up a hill, we should still imagine Sisyphus happy. And making the best of his art while it lasts is a tight fitting analogy for making the most of a life that will end too soon.
He also accepts death: "Did you not understand that he, even he, is but a shadow and a name? His death did not diminish life"
I was struck by the total opposition of the philosophy of this book to another I read recently, The Transhumanist Wager, by Zoltan Istvan. Istvan is seeking immortality through recent scientific breakthroughts. LeGuin puts it plainly in her afterword, “The idea of individual immortality, an endless ego-existence, is more dreadful to me than the idea of letting go the self in death to rejoin shared, eternal being.” Her fantasy writing puts that point of view even more clearly in the reader’s mind.
I read The Farthest Shore as a break from Philip K. Dick’s 900 page Exegesis, but when I returned to that I immediately found this comment by Dick, “... the two modes of interpretation (of his strange experience) which I hover between are S-F and theology, which surely tells us something about S-F we otherwise might not know. The two must be related in some important way.”
Of course, you can’t think of LeGuin without dragons, so here is one of my favorite parts. “It did not move. It might have been crouching there for hours, or for years, or for centuries. It was carven of iron, shaped from rock – but the eyes, the eyes he dared no look into, the eyes like oil coiling on water, like yellow smoke behind glass, the opaque, profound, yellow eyes watched Arren.”
As with Tombs of Atuan, Ged is a major character but not the primary point of view character. By writing the story with Arren and placing some distance between the reader and Ged, I think LeGuin is able to emphasize Ged's mystique and power a bit more (at this point, Ged is Archmage). Arren himself is pretty interesting and struggles with his own reactions to death. He never becomes a cliche child hero, something I appreciate especially in light of Harry Potter.
While I like the plot of The Farthest Shore, I can't help but feel that it treads some of the same territory as A Wizard of Earthsea. Without revealing too many spoilers, both involve Ged on a journey to restore the balance between the worlds of life and death. In both, they land on new islands and encounter new cultures. Farthest Shore has by far the more detailed depictions of the peoples, as well as the consequences of the world being out of balance. The scene with the Masters at Roke was wonderful for how it succinctly demonstrated the effect of the problem on even the greatest wizards. But I still prefer the original book for the sense of wonder and mysticism it managed to convey.
Overall, another fun entry into Earthsea, one that will definitely encourage me to continue with the saga.