Set your sails by a mage wind and gather round the werelight: it’s time for this worldbuilding series to take a look at the prolific and influential Ursula K. Le Guin, an author who penned everything from high fantasy to children’s stories about cats with wings.* It’s the former category we’re interested in today, which also happens to be Le Guin’s debut series, the Earthsea books. These tales have it all: wizards, boats, and wizards in boats. But how good is the worldbuilding, and what can storytellers learn from it? We find out by dissecting the first three books and seeing how they hold up. That’s A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore, for those keeping track at home. The other Earthsea books were written much later, so we’ll save them for another day.
I won’t sugarcoat it: Earthsea’s worldbuilding is more than a little thin. That’s why I call it a shaky foundation. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing worthwhile to be found among this windswept archipelago.
Speaking of archipelagos, Earthsea is entirely constructed of islands and ocean. If there are any larger landmasses, they lie beyond the explorations of humankind. This emphasizes sailing and shipbuilding skills; when the characters travel, they do so by boat. The focus on sea travel sets the series apart from other foundational works of high fantasy, where everyone walks everywhere, maybe riding if they’re lucky.
And this isn’t just my weird love of boats talking! Le Guin clearly either had a passion for sailing or did a lot of research, because the books are full of cool details on the subject. We learn about tacking into the wind, what different lines do on a boat, and, of course, how to patch leaks. For the most part, this is all integrated into the plot, so it doesn’t feel like we’re pausing the story to learn nautical trivia. When heroes set out on journeys in Earthsea, knowing how to handle a boat is far more important than sword fighting.
Then there are the islands themselves. While Le Guin isn’t as devoted to describing locations as she is boats,* each island the characters visit gets at least a few defining details, usually in terms of the local economy. Gont is a rural island where great flocks of sheep and goats are raised in the highlands. Lorbanery is wealthy and cosmopolitan, rich off the coin from a vibrant silk trade. Havnor is known as the archipelago’s urban center, a cultural hub that influences other islands through fashion trends as much as edicts and decrees.
Islands provide a lot of potential for worldbuilding because they have clear boundaries. It’s easy to explain how one island is like this while another is like that. You can still do this on larger landmasses, of course, but it takes more effort to create boundaries between one area and another. This does create the danger that your islands will invoke the planet of hats trope, in which each location has exactly one trait, but Le Guin easily avoids that. Her islands are distinct from one another while still feeling like part of a larger, interconnected culture.
Cultures of Color
Even today, fantasy worlds have a problem with diversity. All too often, these wondrous settings are filled with wall-to-wall white people, and when Le Guin first put pen to paper, the problem was even worse. Fortunately, Earthsea bucked the trend back then, and even now it stands out. Our protagonist, Ged, is dark skinned, as are most of the characters we meet in the archipelago. Le Guin is explicit about this, so there’s little chance of readers being confused about what people look like, but she doesn’t make a big deal about it. It’s just a world populated mostly by people of color.
In addition to avoiding any explicitly negative stereotypes, Le Guin doesn’t fall for the trap of making her dark-skinned cultures into a perfect utopia where nothing bad ever happens. While the average islander is generally a good person, the archipelago has its problems just like anywhere else. Some islanders turn to piracy, out of either greed or desperation, and while some rulers do a good job, others are negligent at best. It feels like a real world with real problems.
The major exception is the Kargad Empire, populated by blond-haired, blue-eyed Norse analogues. The empire is warmongering, slave trading, and aggressive, always sending out raiders to loot and pillage. When Le Guin wants human antagonists for her heroes to fight, she usually reaches for the Kargish. The only significant storyline that takes place in the Kargad Lands focuses on how their religion revolves around human sacrifice and worshiping literal demons.
I’m not a huge fan of inherently evil empires in any setting, as they tend to come across as somewhat cartoonish. But if a setting is going to have one, I’d much rather it be based around Vikings than Arabs, Mongols, Sub-Saharan Africans, and so on. The reason is simple: in the real world, there are still lots of harmful stereotypes about how Asians, Muslims, and anyone with even slightly dark skin is dangerous and out to destroy us. The “us” being white Westerners, of course. Any story that reinforces these stereotypes does real harm. Le Guin avoids that.
Focusing on Commoners
Alongside an overabundance of white people, fantasy stories routinely feature another problem: an obsession with the ruling class. To a certain extent, this is understandable. Rulers have the most power to act, and protagonists need agency to be compelling, so it’s not hard to see why so many authors immediately reach for princes and dukes. Even so, spending too much time in the royal court can make it feel like the other 99% either don’t matter or don’t exist at all.
Fortunately, Earthsea is a setting based around the common folk. From shepherds and farmers to shipwrights and fisherfolk, the world is all about those who don’t walk the halls of power. Some of this is down to plot and character, of course. Even with his prodigious magical talent, protagonist Ged has humble roots on the island of Gont. The first book sees him acting as resident wizard to a remote chain of islands, where their concerns become his concerns. Later entries give us an even broader view of the archipelago, as our heroes travel far and wide on important quests.
But as important as plot and character are, worldbuilding is vital too. Le Guin envisioned how Earthsea functioned from the bottom up rather than the top down. That allows the series to have plots about poor villagers trying desperately to protect their lands from raiders while the lords are off enriching themselves, or about how whole islands suffer when the weather turns foul and destroys local industries. Never in the first three books do we even set foot in a castle or palace, which is a welcome change of pace.
A Safe Magic School
The main center of magic in the archipelago is Roke, the Isle of the Wise. While non-magic folk do live on Roke, the island’s main claim to fame is hosting a school for wizardry.* Just about every mage in the archipelago learns their craft on Roke, including Ged, who eventually becomes archmage of the place. Roke has nearly everything you’d expect from a magic school; a council of master wizards, obtuse entrance exams, even forbidden knowledge that the students aren’t meant to learn.
So what is it that makes Roke worth mentioning, you ask? I’ll tell you: it’s safe. There are no monsters wandering the halls, no tests where students have to put their soul through a spectral cheese grater. Nor are the kids left unsupervised to bully each other with dark magic. It appears that the masters of Roke actually care about the pupils under their care and work to provide a healthy learning environment. The one time something does go wrong, with Ged accidentally summoning a demon, the teachers intervene immediately. The current archmage even gives up his life to send the demon packing, rather than conjure a contrived reason Ged has to do it himself.
This might not seem noteworthy in a vacuum, but it’s probably the most trope-breaking aspect of Earthsea’s worldbuilding. In most stories, magic schools are so dangerous that no loving parent would send their child there if they had a choice. On the rare occasion when a magic school isn’t a nightmare zone of dead children, it’s terribly run, forcing our spunky protagonist to sneak around their stodgy teachers to where the real magic is. Roke is neither of those. It’s a well-run school where faculty and staff alike take their responsibilities seriously.
Of course, the downside is that Roke isn’t conducive to a compelling plot, which is probably why the books spend so little time there. The most conflict Roke ever sees is Ged’s rivalry with some jerkass noble kid, and that serves mostly as a way to drive Ged into the dangerous magic that accidentally summons a demon. The choice to make Roke such a healthy learning environment forced Le Guin to look elsewhere for her story’s conflict. Even so, it is such a refreshing change of pace, and I’m glad she did it.
When I started my reread for this article, something that constantly surprised me is how much of what I remembered as Earthsea’s worldbuilding is actually due to Le Guin’s wordcraft. I had strong memories of a world where even low-level magic is rare and treasured, but that’s not the case at all. Instead, Le Guin gives that impression at the beginning when she describes a goat-charming spell with such evocative detail that it lets the reader imagine a world where even these tiny acts of sorcery are stupendous. Once we look beyond the wordcraft, the picture isn’t so rosy.
Vague and Overpowered Magic
The magic of Earthsea is an absolute nightmare, which is an issue when the main character is a wizard. At first, I thought it was like having Gandalf as the main character, but then I realized it’s so much worse. At least Gandalf’s powers seem to tire him out, and we can imagine that he’s saving them for a critical moment. Ged, and seemingly most wizards in Earthsea, can do things Gandalf would only dream of.
As an example of how amazingly overpowered Ged is, in book one he defeats a group of several dragons attacking him at once, mostly without breaking a sweat. He just knocks them out of the air one by one, until he turns himself into a dragon to finish off the last two. Admittedly, these aren’t full-grown dragons, but they’re still huge, and Ged takes them out no problem.
But it’s not just combat magic, oh no. Wizards can also craft incredibly detailed illusions, control the weather, and create permanent enchantments that can do just about anything. Sometimes, these enchantments take concentration to maintain, like when Ged conjures a boat from nothing. Other times, they just last forever, like when he turns a brackish spring fresh or gives his friend’s net +1 Fish Catching. Then there are true names, which do… something. Mostly they let you order a person around if you know their true name, but objects also have true names and I still don’t understand what effect that has.
Magic in Earthsea is more powerful than just about any other fantasy series I’ve ever read, even high magic settings like The Wheel of Time or The Name of the Wind, and I still haven’t covered everything Le Guin’s wizards can do. They can also heal, though that might just be herbalism rather than actual magic. Then there are the fields of Chanting, Patterning, and Summoning, which I have even less idea about. Each of them has a master wizard at the magic school on Roke, so they must be important, but that’s all I know. Ged never seems to do any chanting in his magic, and the only kind of summoning we’re told about is explicitly evil, so it seems unlikely they’d have a special class for it.
Just about the only limit in Earthsea’s vague magic is an even vaguer fear of upsetting “the balance.” What the balance is, how using magic upsets it, or what the consequences would be are left entirely up to our imagination. Honestly, it seems more like an excuse Ged made up to explain why he doesn’t use magic more often without having to admit he’s lazy.
Lest you think the magic of Earthsea is all fun and games, it also has some important gender politics to share with you: namely that girls have gross cooties and need to get out of the magic clubhouse. The books let you know this right away by sharing a common Earthsea saying, “weak as a woman’s magic, wicked as a woman’s magic.” Uh oh. Naturally, there are no girls on Roke, and the only women we see who use magic are explicitly weaker than their male peers. Most of them are also sinister, but never particularly competent about it.
This is all left just vague enough that if you really want to, you can claim it’s social prejudice, but that’s a lackluster defense. The Earthsea books use an omniscient narrator, meaning it’s super easy to give us information about the world. If Le Guin wanted us to think that women in her world weren’t inherently inferior at magic, she’d have said so. Or maybe just shown us some women who are good at magic.
In a bizarre twist, this is a social justice area where Earthsea is significantly weaker than many of its contemporaries. Even Lord of the Rings doesn’t come right out and say that women are worse at magic than men. It’s still heavily implied of course, but by not actually saying the words, Tolkien at least left us more room to imagine a version of the story where Galadriel kicks as much ass as Gandalf.
It’s bad enough to have sexist plots where women are sidelined, stereotyped, or worse. It’s a step further to bake that sexism directly into the physics of your world. It poisons the story’s well, and any narratives crafted from it will carry the stink of misogyny. Breaking the timeline a bit, Le Guin eventually wrote a fourth Earthsea book to address this, but the best she could manage was gender essentialism. Man magic is one way, woman magic is another way. Pro tip: if you’re having problems with sexism, the solution is not to crib notes from The Wheel of Time.*
A Static World
Another unfortunate wrinkle of Earthsea’s magic is how little impact it seems to have on the rest of the setting. Other than having a lot more boats, the people of Earthsea live the same way people in every other medieval fantasy setting do. Subsistence fishing and agriculture are the norm, work is done by hand, and only those of at least the urban middle class have any spare coin to throw around.
That’s fine for a low-magic setting, but Earthsea is the exact opposite. Magic is everywhere, and as we’ve seen, permanent enchantments are child’s play. Wizards can control the weather, a power that would revolutionize agriculture all on its own. Earthsea should be wealthy beyond imagining, with even the common folk having plenty of leisure time thanks to the incredible efficiency of their magical tools.
We see no sign of this. In fact, most of the islands seem to go on as if magic didn’t exist. And yet we’re also told that most towns have at least one mage in residence, even if most of them aren’t as powerful as Ged or the other masters. What do these wizards and sorcerers do all day? We get occasional references to stopping earthquakes and warding off dragon raids, but that can’t possibly be the norm. Maybe the ruling class* is meant to be hoarding the wealth of this extra productivity for themselves, but if so, the book gives no sign of it.
The closest we get to an explanation is in book three, when magic starts to disappear and everything immediately goes to heck. Crops fail, industries falter, and villages starve. So maybe the idea is that the archipelago is so harsh that only the intervention of magic makes it livable at all. That’s certainly not the impression given by the rest of the books, so if it’s supposed to be the case, then some serious rewrites are called for.
The Evil Empire Rejects Magic and Worships Demons
Remember the Kargad Lands we talked about earlier? The evil Viking people who menace the rest of the archipelago? Well, it turns out that these blond boys have something strange going on: they hate magic. There are no Kargish wizards, as they were all killed a long time ago. This raises an obvious question: How is the empire a threat to the rest of the archipelago, which is full of wizards?
At first, I assumed that the Kargad Lands were a vast continent and they just outnumbered the islanders, but one look at the map disproves that idea. It’s simply not feasible for the empire to be a major threat when they have no magic of their own, especially in a setting with magic as powerful as Earthsea’s. Kargish longships would be smashed to pieces by sorcerous storms or blown off course by mage winds long before they could get any raiding done.
Then we get to the Kargish religion, which could have solved the problem, but doesn’t. While most of the archipelago worships a creator figure called Segoy, the empire has its own beliefs, which include the Nameless Ones. These are basically shadow demons, and Ged actually spends most of the first book fighting one, so we know they mean business.
The obvious next step is for the Nameless Ones to grant their followers evil magic powers as a counterweight to the wizards. They do not do this. While there are stories of Kargish priests having magical powers, the ones we actually see have no such abilities. The best they can manage is that wizard magic doesn’t work very well inside the Nameless Ones’ holy spaces, which isn’t useful for raiding. So much for that explanation.
This raises yet another question: Why do the Kargish worship these shadow demons at all? The most obvious reason would be appeasement, but in book two we see that this worship is fading without any kind of retribution, so that doesn’t hold up. The best explanation I can think of is that the Nameless Ones were more powerful in the old days, and the worship we see in the books is just a leftover tradition. But there isn’t any direct evidence for this idea that I can see, so at best it’s papering over a massive hole in Earthsea’s worldbuilding.
If you’re surprised to see this section after I specifically praised Earthsea for presenting life from the common people’s perspective, you’re not the only one. For most of books one and two, the archipelago’s governing structure is left somewhat nebulous, but we do know one thing: there is no king of all the islands, nor does there seem to be any need for one.
But then toward the end of book two and for much of book three, Ged talks about how not only does the archipelago need a king, but it’s apparently been waiting for one since days long past. Why doesn’t it have a king? Because there’s a special magic rune for kingship that got lost a long time ago. Without it, no one can be a good king. Once Ged retrieves the rune, a rightful king should be along shortly. That part happens in book three, when a young prince demonstrates that he’s totally ready to be king because he’s personally brave, as opposed to understanding economic policy or being able to delegate.
You might recognize this as not how anything works. Why does there need to be a special rune in order for the islands to have a single leader? If there’s a magic rune of kingship, does it even matter who the king is? But beyond the practical questions, there’s a more disturbing implication: the issue with monarchy in Earthsea isn’t its inherently authoritarian nature, but that it doesn’t have the correct supernatural blessing. A divine right, if you will. Once you take care of that, monarchy is great!
It’s not even clear why the archipelago needs a king. There’s occasional talk of pirates, but they’re so absent from the narrative that it’s hard to see them as a real problem. In book three, we do see islands and villages going to war with each other, but that’s because they’ve been corrupted by evil magic. Maybe a king would make dealing with the Kargad Lands easier, but that’s already something a few wizards could do without breaking a sweat. Instead of real justification, we’re left with a vague idea that having a king is better than not having one, for reasons.
What We Can Learn
Earthsea is beloved for many reasons, few of which have to do with its worldbuilding. Other than a really cool map, there just isn’t much here, and what’s there rarely stands up to scrutiny. That means most of the lessons are cautionary ones, and some are hopefully self-evident by now. I don’t know how many ways I can say “don’t make your magic sexist” at this point. Fortunately, it’s not 100% bad, so let’s start with something positive.
You Don’t Need Appropriation for Novelty
As a content editor, I work with a lot of authors who’ve been told over and over again that their setting will be boring if they don’t incorporate non-Western cultural elements. While this advice often means well, it’s also a direct route to cultural appropriation town, which isn’t a fun destination for aspiring storytellers. As we’re fond of saying on Mythcreants, non-Western cultures should usually be left to authors who are from those cultures. White authors should focus on diversity through their characters instead.
Earthsea is a great example of how you can up your setting’s novelty without appropriating anything. All Le Guin had to do was set her story in an archipelago, and she had a series that still feels fresh when compared against much of the high fantasy genre. She doesn’t exotify or distort anything; she merely lets the world’s geography dictate its form. If that sounds simple, it is. Unusual terrain types are a great way to make your world feel new and different without reinventing the wheel.
That’s what readers actually want when it comes to setting novelty: something they haven’t seen before. There are a lot of ways to provide that feeling, but reaching for someone else’s culture is almost always going to cause problems. Instead, take your cue from Le Guin and alter your setting’s physical characteristics, then let the culture follow from those choices.
Only Include the Magic You’re Prepared For
Earthsea’s biggest worldbuilding problem is definitely its magic. Sorcery seems to have no limits, but at the same time, Le Guin isn’t at all interested in the implications of that choice. You can see this in the setting itself, which barely seems affected by all the wizards running around. But this problem also shows up in the plot, where Le Guin is constantly inventing excuses why Ged can’t use magic to solve his problems.
In book one, the shadow Ged is chasing knows his true name, which completely shuts down Ged’s magic. In book two, he is constantly waging an unseen battle with the Nameless Ones that just so happens to take almost all of his magical power. In book three, Le Guin seemingly gives up, and Ged just stops using his magic for unknown reasons. Ironically, that’s the book where magic is disappearing, so there’s an easy explanation, but Ged is actually the only wizard who isn’t losing his power.
When building your world, you can either use a lot of magic with a lot of planning, or you can use a little magic with a little planning. If you try to put in a lot of magic with only a little planning, you’re heading for disaster. Magic isn’t something you can just throw haphazardly into the story, as it is changing the basic rules by which the world operates.
The good news is that most stories don’t actually need the long list of magic powers seen in books like Earthsea. In fact, Earthsea itself probably doesn’t need half of the magical elements that Le Guin included. Wizards barely use their illusion magic, even though it’s incredibly powerful, and Ged doesn’t need the power to create freshwater springs at will. A smaller list of supernatural abilities would have gotten the job done just as well and also created far fewer inconsistencies in the story.
Not Everything Has to Connect
Another odd quirk of the Earthsea books is that several story elements are connected in ways that create problems where none would otherwise exist. For example, in book two, the Nameless Ones are established to be the same type of creature as the shadow Ged fights in book one. This creates some serious problems. The shadow demon had powerful abilities at its disposal, along with a very specific objective: kill Ged and take his place. Meanwhile, the Nameless Ones don’t demonstrate anything like that level of power, nor do they seem interested in absorbing identities.
Another example comes in book three. In that book, magic is disappearing from Earthsea, so Ged and his princely companion set out to find the cause and repair it. That’s a perfectly serviceable premise, but then later on, it turns out that magic is disappearing because an evil sorcerer has been summoning the dead, just like Ged once did in the first book. It’s never clear what summoning the dead has to do with the disappearance of magic. It feels like the book started with one plot, then jarringly swerved into another.
To a certain extent, this is a plotting problem, but it also has worldbuilding considerations. It’s cool when different elements of your world connect, but all the benefits will disappear if you have to force it. Your best options are either to plan these connections ahead, or only go with the ones that crop up organically if you’re more into the discovery writer life. If there’s no natural connection between two different setting elements, just leave them unconnected.
Make Your Setting’s Prejudices Clear
For this last entry, we consider the possibility that Le Guin really did mean for women’s magical inferiority to be a social prejudice rather than an objective fact. If that were the case, then she needed to be explicit about it. For Earthsea, she could simply have the narrator explain that the derogatory saying about women’s magic is untrue, and that would have done the trick. Of course, some readers would still be turned off by a setting with such prevalent sexism, but the ambiguity would be gone.
Remember that in fiction, readers have only what they’re told to go on when trying to understand the world. If a character says, in this setting people with dark hair are the dangerous creations of evil sorcerers, that could very well be true, for all the reader knows. When it comes to real-world prejudices, readers are even more likely to assume that this is just true in the world because a lot of them already believe it in their daily lives.
If you don’t have an omniscient narrator to explain things, the best bet is for either your POV character or a respected mentor figure to step in and do the job. In most cases, this should happen as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the more chance there is that readers will get the wrong idea stuck so deep in their heads that you won’t be able to dislodge it.
Of course, this requires you to know whether a particular setting element is due to social prejudice or not. For that, you need to plan ahead, which is probably the most important lesson to take from Earthsea. Much of the worldbuilding feels like it was invented on the fly and then never revised, which leaves the whole world feeling like a thin facade, unable to withstand even mild scrutiny. Problems are papered over with clever wordcraft, or just left unattended. It’s a poor construction job, and we can all aim to do better.
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