Geek Reads: Legend of Earthsea

Ursula K. Le Guin’s scifi and fantasy world.

By Diana Estigarribia
January 06, 2005

Ursula K. Le Guin is one of my favorite authors. She is a constant inspiration and a model for my own writing. So I was thrilled about the miniseries based on the first two “Earthsea” books, A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan, which aired recently on the SCI FI Channel.

Filmed adaptations can be approached one of two ways: as a word-for-word visual representation of the source material; or, viewed entirely as its own entity, separate from the original novel. Does Legend of Earthsea, as the miniseries is called, stand up to either course?

The answer is a resounding “No” on both counts.

I’ve admitted to a bias for Le Guin material but—trust me, I do not let it cloud my opinion. After all, the other major adaptation of Le Guin’s novel, The Lathe of Heaven, is a faithful adaptation and a very successful film. In fact it was so well received that, twenty years after it first aired, it is still the most requested program ever on PBS. Thus I know that it’s possible to adapt Le Guin in an intelligent, entertaining manner.

SCI FI’s mini, however, was produced by people who do not—or willfully did not—want to be bothered with the story, characters, or meaning of the original books. They squandered an opportunity to create a world on film that could have enriched everyone’s understanding of scifi/fantasy. And let’s face it: a decent adaptation sure would’ve given the embattled SCI FI network something to brag about (other than ratings).

“Earthsea” is deservedly placed among the great fantasy literature of all time, a group that includes Tolkien. With the popularity of the LOTR films whetting the appetite of millions for more fantasy, you’d think SCI FI’s producers would put a little more effort into producing a good story. Instead, we got a watered down two-parter with the “Earthsea” name tacked on.

I was going to write a long diatribe about how terrible this miniseries was (and actually I got as far as about 1,000 words on the subject) when I realized that wouldn’t accomplish anything. Instead, I’m hoping that SCI FI’s inept treatment of Le Guin’s books doesn’t turn off readers to some wonderful, intelligent books, or to one of the genre’s greatest storytellers and most accomplished writers in literature, period.

If you haven’t read any Le Guin before, here’s a few suggestions to get you started:

If you like science with your fiction: Le Guin is by no means a hard SF writer, but she challenges readers with concepts and ideas…possibilities that can only be called science fiction. She does this best in The Lathe of Heaven. It’s the story of George Orr, a man who dreams “effectively,” that is, his dreams come true. (Geek heaven!) George seeks help for his “problem,” but he falls into the hands of an ambitious doctor who wants to exploit George’s gift for his own ends. Notice I didn’t say “evil ends,” because Le Guin creates a foil for the hero who is not exactly bad, not exactly good. And, if you’ve ever wondered what would happen if you dreamed away war, disease, famine, even something as “innocuous” as bad weather—well, let’s just say this book is a fascinating exercise in “what if?”

If you like wizards, magic, and dragons:Yep, I’m talking about Earthsea. There’s plenty more to Sparrowhawk/Ged’s story than was even touched upon in the miniseries. This is a must-read for all fantasy fans (and non-fantasy fans, too). There are six total related “Earthsea” books. When I came to the series, I actually read book two, “Atuan”, first. You can start with either one because both Ged’s and Tenar’s stories evolve independently (they do, however, meet in the second book). Disregard anything you saw of Kristin Kreuk’s performance in the mini; she had very little to work with; the greatest injustice was how Tenar’s story was diluted and displaced. But these novels are stunning stories with engaging characters and action (and no sign of Isabella Rossellini anywhere!)

If you want a mind-blowing trip to other worlds: Le Guin is so amazing that not only did she create the “Earthsea” world, she went and dreamt up the “Hainish” novels. There are eight books relating to the Hainish, and you can start with any one of them, but the most mind-bending is The Left Hand of Darkness.

“Left Hand” is a “first contact” type of novel, following the first Ekumen diplomat/emissary, Genly Ai, to arrive on the cold world of Gethen, known as “Winter.” The Gethenians have a natural androgynous ability to be female or male in alternating cycles. Thus this time around you can be a woman, and in your next cycle, a man…and so on.

Genly’s true intentions are constantly under fire, setting up a tension-filled story. The Gethenians fear the fact that Genly is only, and always, a male. He’s got a none-too safe place in the political landscape of Gethen, which is innately tied to Winter’s gender switching and of course, to the planet’s punishing, cold climate. The novel also features Gethenian folk writing in the form of stand-alone chapters, which reflect and add to the main story. There are dozens of set-pieces, but the highlight is the spectacular sequence where our hero, escaping from those who kidnapped, drugged, and left him for dead, must cross a country-wide glacier to save his life.

Other Hainish novels of note also include The Dispossessed and the semi-prequel novels, Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, and City of Illusions. The latter three are rip-roaring adventure sci-fi, the kind of story you’d have if you were to combine anthropology, the age of exploration, NASA, and Saturday afternoon serials.

We’ve only just scratched the surface here—any Le Guin you pick up is guaranteed to be excellent and probably unlike what you’ve read before. There are worlds out there ready to be discovered.