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The books of Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea series:


A Wizard of Earthsea (1968).
The Tombs of Atuan (1970).
The Farthest Shore (1972).
Tehanu (1990).
Tales from Earthsea (2001).
The Other Wind (2001).

o—o—o

The parallels between The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore (the second and third books of the Earthsea series) are striking. In both books, the Archmage Ged – known to most by his use-name Sparrowhawk – assists a teenager to find their true name and their own path in life. In both cases, Ged leaves the young person once they have come to womanhood/manhood.

Ursula K. Le Guin states in her essay "Dreams Must Explain Themselves" (in the collection The Language of the Night) that The Tombs of Atuan is a sexual coming-of-age story. She then goes on to say that The Farthest Shore is about the moment when a young person discovers his own mortality, and adds, "Coming of age again, but in a larger context."

In fact, sex lies much closer to the surface of The Farthest Shore than of The Tombs of Atuan. It is never stated in The Tombs of Atuan that Tenar has romantic feelings toward Ged, but in the very first scene of The Farthest Shore it is stated flatly that Arren "felt the Archmage's touch as a thrill of glory. For Arren had fallen in love." This fact continues to be stated several times in each chapter of the novel, until the chapter entitled "Lorbanery," which takes place shortly after Ged rescues Arren from the slaver. At that point, Ms. Le Guin says, Arren's "heart went out utterly to his companion, not now with that first romantic ardor and adoration, but painfully, as if a link were drawn forth from the very inmost of it and forged into an unbreaking bond. For in this love he now felt there was compassion: without which love is untempered, and is not whole, and does not last." No further references are made to Arren having romantic feelings toward Ged, but Lebannen's unbroken bond with Ged is evident in his grief over their separation in the later novels.

It seems likely that Ms. Le Guin envisioned Arren's romantic attachment as a nonsexual crush such as young people sometimes acquire toward their elders. But even if she had envisioned the crush as having a sexual component, she would not have been free to state this, for The Farthest Shore was published as a children's book in 1972, when it was taboo to mention sexual feelings in juvenile fantasy literature. It seems not unlikely to me that a boy as close to manhood as Arren is stated to be in The Farthest Shore might be beginning to experience a sexual awakening. This seems even more likely since Arren is seventeen at the time he meets Sparrowhawk.

Ged's attraction to Arren is of course wholly my invention; there is no suggestion in The Farthest Shore that Ged's interest in Arren is anything but that of a mage toward his young follower. But there is also no suggestion in The Tombs of Atuan that Ged has romantic feelings toward Tenar, who will later become his lover. My gloss on The Farthest Shore seems to me justified, given the strong parallels between those two novels.

An objection might be made that Ged could not have found himself attracted to a male, or to a male so young. As far as the question of male/male attraction is concerned, Ms. Le Guin states in Tales from Earthsea, in her section on magic and sexuality, that many witches in Earthsea "pledge 'witch-troth' with another witch or an ordinary woman." Ged would therefore have been familiar with same-sex attraction, even if he had never experienced it himself. As for Arren's age, Arren is the same age as Tenar was when she first met Ged. If Ged's meeting with young Tenar sparked a later love, it is not impossible that his meeting with Arren in The Farthest Shore seemed about to do so as well.

Indeed, I think that Ged, if he had found himself falling in love with Arren, would have been most shocked by the fact he was attracted to any human being at all. As Ms. Le Guin makes clear in the later stories, wizards were supposed to be sexless beings, reserving all their power for wizardry. Much of the plot of Tehanu is focussed upon Ged's fear of entering into a sexual relationship with Tenar. In Cold Stars, I have simply suggested that Ged's fear had a foreshadowing in his relations with Arren/Lebannen, and that Lebannen's act of rescuing Tenar required more sacrifice than the original text suggests. Indeed, even on a purely platonic level, Lebannen's decision to help Tenar – the woman who has been hiding the location of his closest friend from him – shows the qualities that made Ged refer to Lebannen as "my lord and dear companion."

As readers learn in the sixth book of the Earthsea series, The Other Wind, Ged never permits Lebannen to see him again.