Earthsea

Hi all. I’m careening toward an anorexia relapse, how are you?

Anyway, today is kind of an up day so you get this.

I’m on a big Ursula Le Guin kick lately, and her Earthsea series is a really interesting work of fantasy spanning six books that I think is especially worth looking at because of Le Guin’s commentaries that are included at the end of the new editions. She has some really insightful things to say about social progress, the passage of time, and how writing can reflect the author’s feelings, so if you check these out make sure to get the 2012 “Atheneum Books for Young Readers” edition. The first book in particular is really only interesting because of what she has to say about it in retrospect.

I want to talk about the books themselves, but mostly about Le Guin’s thoughts, since she had some important stuff to say about fantasy as a genre and publishing as an industry.

Also, fun fact! This series is where the name ‘Mebbeth’ comes from.

The first book in the series, A Wizard of Earthsea, is really a novella, and it’s a creative but rather rote story. However, according to Le Guin, this was necessary:

When A Wizard of Earthsea came out, there had not been a book like it. It was original—something new. Yet it was also conventional enough not to frighten re- viewers. It was well received. […] The part of the tradition that I knew best was mostly written (or rewritten for chil- dren) in England and northern Europe. The principal characters were men. If the story was heroic, the hero was a white man; most dark-skinned people were inferior or evil. If there was a woman in the story, she was a passive object of desire and rescue (a beautiful blond princess); active women (dark, witches) usually caused destruction or tragedy. Anyway, the stories weren’t about the women. They were about men, what men did, and what was important to men. 

It’s in this sense that A Wizard was perfectly conventional. The hero does what a man is supposed to do: he uses his strength, wits, and courage to rise from hum- ble beginnings to great fame and power, in a world where women are secondary, a man’s world. In other ways my story didn’t follow the tradition. Its subversive elements at- tracted little attention, no doubt because I was deliberately sneaky about them. A great many white readers in 1967 were not ready to accept a brown-skinned hero. But they weren’t expecting one. I didn’t make an issue of it, and you have to be well into the book before you realize that Ged, like most of the characters, isn’t white. 

She also talks about how she couldn’t get a nonwhite character on the book cover.

The other interesting point she had was about the central theme of the book, that power for power’s sake will inherently destroy both you and those you care about. She didn’t want a series about war and grand battle, because she doesn’t believe that ‘might makes right.’ This is perhaps the book’s most subversive element, that the hero’s struggles are entirely against his own preconceptions that pure power is in and of itself a worthy goal, one that can quell opposition.

One really important thing to keep in mind about these books is their pub dates. Wizard came out in 1968, nearer the beginning of Le Guin’s career, where making concessions but not big waves was still important for her continual publication. The final book in the series, though, came out in 2001, when she was URSULA K LE GUIN, and could say more freely what she actually felt.

The second book, The Tombs of Atuan, was published in 1969, and it’s a very different kind of story. It follows a young woman named Tenar, who was taken from her family as a toddler, stripped of her name, and inducted into a religious order because she was believed to be a reincarnation. Late in the story, Ged from the first book is taken prisoner by the cult, and together, they escape.

This book was much more obviously issuefic, with Tenar’s helpless enslavement at the hands of organized religion as the centerpiece. Le Guin very much wanted a fantasy heroine, one that made a statement about our world, and very much didn’t want a Strong Female Character:

When I was writing the story in 1969, I knew of no women heroes of heroic fantasy since those in the works of Ariosto and Tasso in the Renaissance. These days there are plenty, though I wonder about some of them. The women warriors of cur- rent fantasy epics—ruthless swordswomen with no domestic or sexual respon- sibility who gallop about slaughtering baddies—to me they look less like women than like boys in women’s bodies in men’s armor. 

[…] I could put a girl at the heart of my story, but I couldn’t give her a man’s freedom, or chances equal to a man’s chances. She couldn’t be a hero in the hero-tale sense. Not even in a fantasy? No. Because to me, fantasy isn’t wishful thinking, but a way of reflecting, and reflecting on reality. After all, even in a democ- racy, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, after forty years of feminist striving, the reality is that we live in a top-down power structure that was shaped by, and is still dominated by, men. Back in 1969, that reality seemed almost unshakable. So I gave Tenar power over—dominion, even godhead—but it was a gift of which little good could come. The dark side of the world was what she had to learn, as Ged had to learn the darkness in his own heart. 

The really interesting thing I think Le Guin hits on RE: this novel is that she wrote it as a reflection of her own feelings of powerlessness and entrapment in a patriarchal world, one that seems endless and unfightable, and the bleakness of Tenar’s situation is meant to reflect that.

She also says something interesting about Ged’s helping Tenar escape:

Some people have read the story as supporting the idea that a woman needs a man in order to do anything at all (some nodded approvingly, others growled and hissed). Certainly Arha/Tenar would better satisfy feminist idealists if she did everything all by herself. But the truth as I saw it, and as I established it in the novel, was that she couldn’t. My imagination wouldn’t provide a scenario where she could, because my heart told me incontrovertibly that neither gender could go far without the other. So, in my story, neither the woman nor the man can get free without the other.

Anyone who read it this way is being weirdly uncharitable, because I thought it was pretty obvious it was meant to be a story about how they each had things to offer and only together could they go somewhere better. But I also think it’s interesting in the way it reflects life, and the fact that women cannot overturn patriarchy without the help of men. I talked a bit about this in the Buffalo 5 Girls post, where Anno’s story is very much about how even the strongest people need other people, about how women and men who see each other as equals are stronger than either alone, and I think here, as I did then, that there is a certain bleakness to that, that the oppressed do need the oppressor to be free. But I also think Le Guin’s attitude here, that we’re better as a whole, has some more truth to it, and that in cordoning off ourselves we risk cleaving wounds deeper instead of healing them. In the end, that’s what this book is about.

The third book, The Farthest Shore, is from 1972 and I’m finding now it’s the one in the series I have the least recollection of. This is perhaps because it wasn’t quite as genre-defying as the rest of them, and while it was a very well-written story, it didn’t have anything that made me feel like I needed to mull over it afterward. As for Le Guin:

As I look back at the book now, I see how it reflects that time. Along with the active movement to free America from racist injustice and from militarism, there was a real vision of getting free from compulsive materialism, the confusion of goods with good. Yet already we were watching much of that vision blur off into wishful thinking or become drug-dependent. Being an irreligious puritan and a rational mystic, I think it’s irresponsible to let a belief think for you or a chemical dream for you. So the book’s dark themes of loss and betrayal took shape. So Ged and Arren had to come to Hort Town, and drug addiction and slavery are seen for the first time in the Archipelago. Evil, in this book, has an immediate, ugly, human shape, because I saw evil not as some horde of foreign demons with bad teeth and super- weapons but as an insidious and ever-present enemy in my own daily life in my own country: the ruinous irresponsibility of greed. 

I don’t have anything else to say about this one, really.

But Tehanu! The fourth book, Tehanu, is strikingly different from the others, and here is where dates really start mattering: it was published in 1990, after Le Guin was established and could write what she actually wanted, and it’s basically a feminist deconstruction of the world from the first three books with Tenar as the focal character. Tenar is discontent with domestic life, Ged is a powerless whiny manchild like all those heroes really are, and the whole story revolves around Therru, a young girl who was raped and disfigured by her uncle then subsequently abandoned.

Tehanu is really a philosophy piece, and as you might imagine, it pissed dudes off (it also apparently pissed some women off, because as we know, saying that maybe not all women can be happy barefoot and pregnant their whole lives is exactly the same as rejecting anyone who wants children, and taking away Ged’s power means Le Guin thinks we should hate all men).

I actually think that was Le Guin had to say here was important enough I’m just going to show you the whole thing:

BETWEEN THE LAST CHAPTER OF The Tombs of Atuan and the first chapter of Tehanu, twenty-five years or so pass, time enough for the girl Tenar to become a widow with grown children. Between the last chapter of The Farthest Shore and the fourth chapter of Tehanu, a day or two passes, time enough for the dragon Kalessin to carry Ged from Roke to Gont. Between finishing The Farthest Shore and beginning Tehanu, eighteen years of my life passed, time enough for me to learn how to write this book. I never thought of Earthsea as a trilogy, but for a long time I saw it as a three- legged chair. I knew Tenar’s story needed to be told, and that she and Ged had to be brought together. So right after finishing the third book, I began the fourth one. But— though I knew Tenar had not stayed with Ogion but had gone off and married a farmer and lived an ordinary, unmagical life—I didn’t know why. The story got stuck. I couldn’t go on. It took years of living my own ordinary life, and a great deal of learning how to think about such things, mostly from other women, before I could understand why Tenar did what she did and who she was at the end of it. Then at last I could write Tehanu.

When it came out, some reviewers and readers were disappointed. It wasn’t like the first three books. It wasn’t what they expected. Nobody had made a fuss when I reversed the racist tradition of white heroes and black villains; but now I was messing around with gender. And sex. Heroic fantasies, even in 1990 and even if they included women heroes, were (and mostly still are) based on institutions, hierarchies, and values constructed by men. True to the tradition, the characters in the first and third books of Earthsea were almost exclusively male, and in Tombs Tenar shares the stage with Ged. But Tehanu is all about women and children to start with. Ogion appears only to die, and when Ged arrives he seems a broken man, so weak he takes refuge with a com- mon witch and then goes off to herd goats, leaving Tenar alone to deal with incom- prehension and malevolence. Where’s the guy with the shining staff? Who’s going to do the big magic? A little girl? Oh, come on. That’s not a hero tale! I didn’t want it to be. By the time I wrote this book I needed to look at heroics from outside and underneath, from the point of view of the people who are not included. The ones who can’t do magic. The ones who don’t have shining staffs or swords. Women, kids, the poor, the old, the powerless. Unheroes, ordinary people—my people. I didn’t want to change Earthsea, but I needed to see what Earth- sea looked like to us.

Some readers who identified with Ged as a male power figure thought I’d betrayed and degraded him in some sort of feminist spasm of revenge. So far as I know, I had no spasms and didn’t betray Ged. Quite the opposite, I think. In Tehanu he can become, finally, fully a man. He is no longer the servant of his power. But where did the power go? Is the magic, in fact, dying out of Earthsea, as it seemed was happening in the third book? I don’t think that’s the case, but certainly there’s a great change taking place in the world, only just beginning to be visible, and not yet comprehensible. Ogion sees it as he dies. Tenar has intuitions of it, from the story of the Woman of Kemay, from the painted fan in the old weaver’s house, from her dreams, from what she knows and doesn’t know about her adopted daughter, Therru. Therru is the key to the book. It wasn’t till I saw her that I could begin to write it. But what I saw took me aback. Therru isn’t ordinary at all. Her life has been ruined at the start. She is not just powerless, but crippled, deformed, and terrorized. She cannot be healed. The cruel wrong done her came with the breakdown of the soci- ety of Earthsea, which the new king may be able to repair; but for Therru, what reparation? “What cannot be mended must be transcended.” Maybe the change coming into Earthsea has something to do with no longer identifying freedom with power, with separating being free from being in control. There is a kind of refusal to serve power that isn’t a revolt or a rebellion, but a revo- lution in the sense of reversing meanings, of changing how things are understood. Anyone who has been able to break from the grip of a controlling, crippling belief or bigotry or enforced ignorance knows the sense of coming out into the light and air, of release, being set free to fly, to transcend.

IN BOTH THE TOMBS OF ATUAN and Tehanu, books in which women are central to the story, there’s a kind of anger which I don’t think is in A Wizard or The Farthest Shore. It’s the anger of the underdog, fury against social injustice, the vengeful rage women have too often been made to feel. I’d finally learned to acknowledge such anger in myself and to try to express it without injustice. So Ged the Archmage could be grandly serene as he paralyzed pirates with a wave of his staff, but Ged the goatherd in blind fury uses a pitchfork on his enemy. And so Aspen, the wizard of Re Albi, is detestable in a way even Cob is not, because Aspen flaunts all the behaviors that cause such anger—fear and loathing of women, the arrogance of the powerful, and the sick human lust to dominate that leads to endless cruelty. It’s not surprising that Tehanu was labeled “feminist.” But the word is used so variously that it’s worse than useless. If you see feminism as vindictive prejudice against men, the label lets you dismiss the book unread; if you see feminism as a belief in superior properties unique to women and expect the book to confirm that belief, you’ll find it equivocal. The conversation between Tenar and the witch Moss in the fifth chapter is a case in point. Is it “feminist”? Moss is pretty contemptuous of men in general, hav- ing been treated by them with contempt all her life. That’s all right, and I find her discussion of men’s power and women’s power harsh, incomplete, but interesting. Then she goes off into an incantatory praise of mysterious female knowledge: “Who knows where a woman begins or ends? . . . I have roots, I have roots deep- er than this island. . . . I go back into the dark!” And she ends with a rhetorical question— “Who’ll ask the dark its name?” “I will,” Tenar says. “I lived long enough in the dark.” I’ve often seen Moss’s rhapsody quoted with approval. Tenar’s fierce answer almost always goes unquoted, unnoticed. Yet it refuses Moss’s self-admiring mysticism. And all Tenar’s life is in it.

Tenar is three people. As young Arha she lived a cruel, rigid, mindless life of rit- ual obedience in a community of women worshiping the Dark Powers, the Name- less Ones. She broke free from this prison and came away with Ged, who could give her back her true name and show her the power of knowing the names of things. Then she took a second, more obscure step to freedom, by refusing to stay with the kind teacher, Ogion, whose wisdom was not quite what she needed. She’d had enough of the celibate, sexless life in Atuan. Thinking the best way to learn where a woman begins and ends was to live a woman’s life as fully as she knew how, and take all the chances a woman takes, she went off to get married, to live as Goha, the farmer’s wife, to bear children and bring them up. Now, older, and having made herself responsible for a damaged and vulnerable child, she knows she is ready, not for vague, innate mystical insights, but for the wisdom she needs and has earned. Beyond the obscure worship of dark earth- powers, and beyond the common sense of daily life, she wants understanding. Liv- ing the mystery of daily life, she longs for the clear light of thought. Tenar has a fine, strong mind. The two people best able to see and respect that in her were Ged and Ogion. Ogion is gone; Ged has come back to her.

But Ged, too, is in desperate need of a new wisdom. He has lost so much: his fame and high standing, the gift that shaped his life since he was a boy, the use of all he learned on Roke. How is he to live as an ordinary man? Now all his magic’s gone, used up, given away, can he even respect himself? Was he (as Moss slyly asked) ever anything but his power—is there anything left of him when it’s gone but an empty shell? Tenar may know the answer to that question, but for Ged to be able to answer it himself, as he must, he has to find out what he gave up to become a man of power. Which might be defined as everything but that power. Or which might be seen as a different kind of learning. The kind of learning ordinary people get from talking in the kitchen on winter evenings . . . Or is it beyond learning—is it the kind of magic that men lost, but the dragons kept?

The fifth book, Tales from Earthsea, was published in 2001, and is a short story collection of plot and character histories Le Guin wrote to help her mentally bridge the gap in both time and plot between the publishing of the fourth and sixth books. The final story bridges the gap between Tehanu and the sixth book. This was back in 2001, pre-smartphone, and Le Guin’s notes are somewhat kids-these-days-y, but still do some interesting meditating on the role of fiction in the modern world.

The real point, though, is that the stories set the stage for The Other Wind, the sixth and currently final book, also published in 2001. Wind is again, a much more traditionally structured fantasy, but at the same time it’s one that builds on the self-criticism brought up by Tehanu. The world, given to men, has been broken by greed and oppression, and it’s only when women such as Tenar and Therru are allowed back in that it can right itself.

I have, believe me, learned never to call any book “the last.” But I want to tell the kind people who write me asking for another Earthsea story that so far as I know, the story I had to tell ends here. With Tenar and Ged, on Gont. 

On a meta level, these book are such a fascinating case study of how female writers are treated. The first book was necessarily pandering to the male demo — it wouldn’t have gotten published otherwise, so there wasn’t really any choice. The second and third books inch toward portraying the actual feelings of a woman, but in a largely inoffensive way; after all, Tenar is trapped in a religion of nuns and eunuchs. But later, when Le Guin can say how she wants to say without jeopardizing her career, she’s criticized for having ‘become’ an eeeeeeevil feminist. And this was 1990 — I can’t imagine the hate campaign if this book had come out today.

I think, first, that this goes back to my post about genre, and how women don’t really get to choose where they end up. But Le Guin’s commentaries also hit on the issue of books for teens and kids being expected to be somehow ‘lesser’, and how she wanted this series to demonstrate how silly that was. The review of Tehanu I linked above also has the vapors about how a 10-year-old’s puny mind could never conceptualize something so horrible as a disfigured child zomg, and I think it’s Le Guin’s commentary that draws an important parallel between the lack of agency assigned to women and that given to children and teens. We’ve spoken briefly, before, about how children are expected to be seen and not heard bastions of pure pureness, but I’m not sure if we’ve ever really discussed the parallels between how women and children are treated. We even group them together in phrases. Both are seen as less intelligent, less interesting, less capable. Fiction “for women” is considered inferior, and children are expected to consume inferior fiction, because we can’t worry their precious little heads about actual issues. It makes me wonder if part of the trend of increasingly low standards for what kids read is packed with the idea that we don’t really think of kids as people, the same as we can’t really imagine adult fantasy starring a woman. I think it’s really interesting that that review conflates female/femininity, takes issues with the idea women should be able to forgo domesticity, explicitly says books for children should be different and lesser, and then mourns the loss of a man’s power. You don’t usually see those views together like that so plainly, but it really draws into focus that we, societally, view everyone but adult men as subhuman.

Anyway, this was an odd post, but I liked this series, it made me think a lot, and y’all should check it out.

54 Comments

  1. Roarke says:

    Hi all. I’m careening toward an anorexia relapse, how are you?

    Um, better than that, I suppose. Take care :( <3

    So, did Jemisin like, mainline Le Guin’s blood or something? I don’t want to look it up and be disappointed but I think it has to be one of her main influences for The Fifth Season and so on. So much of that commentary feels echoed in that trilogy.




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    1. Act says:

      I imagine pretty much every English-language woman writer of sci-fi/fantasy of her generation (I think she’s like 10 years older than me? (Nope, 20! IDK why but I pictured her mid-30s, not mid-40s)) was majorly influenced by Le Guin, if only because she was pretty much the only marquee female writer in that genre when she got really big. On top of that, she may well have been the only one writing nonwhite characters.

      One of the Jemisin books I have has a ‘holy shit this is good’ quote by Le Guin on the cover, and I can’t imagine what that must feel like.

      <3




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      1. Roarke says:

        Yeah, that’d make a lot of sense for her to be such a huge influence to a bunch of people. I’m also not actually surprised to hear that Jemisin is 40+; that’s about the same age as Essun. Not like Essun is a self-insert, but… I dunno. It just fits, for me. 




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  2. illhousen says:

    Earthsea is an old classic that everyone should read. I should return to it at some point. I do remember the second book being very evocative in its descriptions of the dark labyrinth with eldritch unspoken things hidden inside, which most likely influenced my interest in such matters.

    I would be interested in reading your thoughts on adaptations as I’ve heard they fuck up absolutely everything.




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    1. Act says:

      Oh god I had no idea there were adaptations. Are all the good guys white and bad guys brown?




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      1. Keleri says:

        There was a Sci-Fi channel adaptation that was pretty terrible, and in fact a Studio Ghibli(!) take on it that I watched and that I just… don’t remember. It wasn’t bad, I don’t think, but just, it was nothing. Goro Miyazaki’s first director spot and a source of contention between him and father Hayao.




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        1. SpoonyViking says:

          Le Guin herself was quite disappointed with it. She wrote a blog post about it, but basically she really wanted Hayao to direct, but had to settle for his son.

          It was quite unfaithful an adaptation, and more confusing than it should have been.




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          1. CrazyEd says:
            It was also, like, half an adaptation of some manga Miyazaki wrote in the seventies or something. For some reason.



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            1. SpoonyViking says:

              THAT I didn’t know. Which manga?




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              Reply
            2. CrazyEd says:
              The Journey of Shuna.



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              Reply
      2. illhousen says:

        I think everyone’s just white now.

        As was pointed out, there are two adaptations. The TV mini-series combine the first and second books for some reason and strip Tenar of what agency she had by turning her from a high priestess into a ritual sacrifice and also Ged’s love interest.

        The anime combines the first and third book for some reason, and I don’t remember much of it aside from Ged’s shadow being an apocalyptic threat. I don’t think Tenar’s even in it.




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  3. CrazyEd says:
    tw: everything in response to the first quote, maybe, just to be safe.

    Hi all. I’m careening toward an anorexia relapse, how are you?

    Sorry to hear that. I actually almost just casually answered this completely earnestly without thinking about it too hard, but since I’ve actually been having probably my best month of the last three years in terms of my anxiety and OCD (thanks to finally finding what I think is going to be my dosage of medication), it just came off as bragging no matter how I tried to phrase it.

    I hope you can still eat better than I am, though. I’m starting to think the pills also have some sort of effect on my hunger, which means so long as I continue to eat the occasional granola bar to enjoy the taste of peanut butter, I kind of forget to eat other things. Which is, well… obviously not good. Humans can’t live off granola bars.

    Or… is that the wrong thing to say to someone in your position? I have literally no experience in dealing with this sort of situation. I am trying to sound sympathetic and express my condolences to your hardship and wish you well, but it just doesn’t seem to be coming out right in text.

    Is this a situation where I can say “get better soon?” or is that like telling a person with an anxiety disorder to “just stop worrying about it”? I just don’t have a fucking clue what I’m doing, so I am just going to move on, but I just want you to know I mean this as kindly as you can possibly interpret it.

    I’m even going to put a trigger warning at the top of this just to be safe. I’ve literally never written a trigger warning before, so I hope that, at least, indicates what I’m trying to get across to you.

    The women warriors of cur- rent fantasy epics—ruthless swordswomen with no domestic or sexual respon- sibility who gallop about slaughtering baddies—to me they look less like women than like boys in women’s bodies in men’s armor. 

    It is very depressing how often nowadays you see people giving advice on writing female characters that essentially boils down to (if not explicitly is, which I have also seen,) “write them exactly the same as men and then give them tits”. It comes from a well intentioned place by people trying to be better people than the people who came before them, but that’s what makes it so hard to respond to them

    But I also think it’s interesting in the way it reflects life, and the fact that women cannot overturn patriarchy without the help of men.

    It’s also depressing how often modern day social justice vilifies exactly the group of people that they should be attempting to win over to their side. You’re never going to get anywhere by shouting “treat us equally, you evil monsters!”

     as we know, saying that maybe not all women can be happy barefoot and pregnant their whole lives is exactly the same as rejecting anyone who wants children

    This is the sort of person you should never worry about offending, because no matter what you do, you’re going to offend them. When I was writing my last thing set in the modern day, I wondered if I was sending the wrong message that the female half of the protagonist couple wanted a big family with lots of kids, even though I was presenting her best friend’s desire to get a doctorate as an equally valid life goal that she supported as much as her best friend supported her desire for children. After a certain point, I just decided to stop worrying about it, because I was doing the best I could and there was no way I could prevent someone from reading something horrible out of whatever I wrote if that was what they wanted to do.

     I never thought of Earthsea as a trilogy, but for a long time I saw it as a three- legged chair.

    I really like this metaphor.

     But— though I knew Tenar had not stayed with Ogion but had gone off and married a farmer and lived an ordinary, unmagical life—I didn’t know why.

    So, if I’m reading this right, at the end of the third book, her main character just… married some random asshole and settled down to do normal person things… and the author had absolutely no clue why she felt that was what this character would do next in the story?

    … Huh.

    when Ged arrives he seems a broken man, so weak he takes refuge with a com- mon witch and then goes off to herd goats

    Herding goats is a pretty sweet life, though. Is there some reason in the story not mentioned here that we should think it sucks? That’s what I’d do after saving the world as The Chosen One in a typical fantasy world.

    By the time I wrote this book I needed to look at heroics from outside and underneath, from the point of view of the people who are not included. The ones who can’t do magic. The ones who don’t have shining staffs or swords. Women, kids, the poor, the old, the powerless. Unheroes, ordinary people—my people.

    Interesting, then, that just six years later, A Game of Thrones would come out and people would fucking love it. I wonder what the difference was. Maybe, perhaps, that AGoT wasn’t continuing a beloved story from years ago?

    some sort of feminist spasm of revenge

    This is also a great line. I would like to experience a feminist spasm of revenge one day, just to see how it feels.

    But the word is used so variously that it’s worse than useless.

    This is why, for all I worry about how I portray women in fiction or possibly accidentally perpetuate hurtful social norms and all that stuff some people would label as “feminist”, I personally tend to not ever use the actual term itself. Labels are society’s way of contextualizing the other members of society, and when a label is so broad that essentially anyone who doesn’t explicitly reject it can fall within it no matter what their beliefs, it becomes a useless label.

    If I say I’m a feminist, someone looking to vilify me will call me a self-hating man. If I say I’m not a feminist, someone looking to vilify me will say I hate women. So what do I say?

    This was back in 2001, pre-smartphone, and Le Guin’s notes are somewhat kids-these-days-y, but still do some interesting meditating on the role of fiction in the modern world.

    Could you elaborate on this?

    Fiction “for women” is considered inferior, and children are expected to consume inferior fiction, because we can’t worry their precious little heads about actual issues.

    This leaves my own work in a peculiar spot. I don’t have any deep messages to send like a proper adult book for adults should do. I just want to tell a fun story, but I want to tell a fun story that might sometimes include a bit of sex and swordplay, and lots of feudal politics, which is a no-go for kids. It would be seen as too adult for kids, and too childish for adults, so where does that leave it? Is it somewhere in the middle? But, if so, why is it not for teens, who are in the middle of those two social groups?

    It’s something I think about every time I put pen to paper.




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    1. EnviTheFool says:

      So, if I’m reading this right, at the end of the third book, her main character just… married some random asshole and settled down to do normal person things… and the author had absolutely no clue why she felt that was what this character would do next in the story?

      Tenar’s not present in the third book; her initial story ends with the second book and she’s returned to in fourth in which we learn about the marriage and such. So it seems to be less about Le Guin writing herself into a corner and more that she knew internally how Tenar’s life had gone, and knew that she wanted to write about her, but didn’t know the why and how respectively.




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      1. CrazyEd says:
        Yeah, I got that; that’s pretty much how I read it. I just didn’t think I was reading it right, because… Hm. It’s hard to articulate why, actually. Let me think on that.



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  4. Negrek says:

    Hey, best of luck to you, and I hope you feel better. This was a really interesting post… I had no idea there were Earthsea editions with author commentary. I love hearing a writer’s thoughts on their own work, and while I actually find myself disagreeing with Le Guin a fair amount (not on anything here, though), she writes wonderful, thoughtful stuff.

    I have to admit, though, that I’ve only read the first Earthsea book and found it a bit of a chore to get through. I think it’s mostly the style; it’s kind of this detached, neutral voice that gets used in a lot of fairy tale-type stories, I think. Are the later books written in the same style, or does it change as the series goes on?




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    1. CrazyEd says:
      I actually find myself disagreeing with Le Guin a fair amount

      On what, may I ask?




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      1. Negrek says:

        Mostly craft kind of stuff. Most of what I’ve read from her in terms of essay has been about the art of writing rather than more political kinds of things, and I think we just have very different styles and ways of approaching the narrative/different things we value in stories.




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        1. Act says:

          Having now read a bit about her process, this doesn’t surprise me at all xD




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    2. Act says:

      I know exactly what you mean about the narration in the first book; it took me a few tries to get into the series for that reason. I do think the other books are much more engaging, and the second book, Tombs, was really excellent. Wizard was one of her first novels and I think it was a matter of her just improving over time. It’s not a particularly interesting story except in light of her commentary and how it sets up the other books; mercifully it’s quite short.




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      1. Negrek says:

        Oh, awesome! I’ll try to check out at least the second one, then. I’ve read other stuff by Le Guin and not had similar complaints about the writing, so I wasn’t sure whether she’d been deliberately using that kind of narration for Earthsea in particular.




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    3. SpoonyViking says:

      I think it’s mostly the style; it’s kind of this detached, neutral voice that gets used in a lot of fairy tale-type stories, I think.

      Yes, I loved it! :-) It is a bit unusual at first, though, it’s true.




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      1. Act says:

        I thought Le Guin did a much better job with this voice in Gifts. In Wizard it left me feeling more like it distanced me from the action, whereas in Gifts the fable-like tone made me feel like I was closer (and having it be a literal story being told firsthand in-universe was a clever, uh, gameplay-story integration).




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        1. SpoonyViking says:

          Oh, nice! Looking forward to it. Here’s hoping it gets translated soon – I hate switching languages mid-series!




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    4. SpoonyViking says:

      To be entirely fair, you’re objectively right about the style being an odd choice. We’re supposed to be focusing on Ged’s thoughts and emotions, but the tone does detach us somewhat from the experience.




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  5. SpoonyViking says:

    Sorry, you’re not feeling well, Act. Be well!




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  6. Keleri says:

    <3 u Act!!!1

    The Earthsea books puzzled me and left me feeling like I’d been “whooshed”, as they say on reddit– I just didn’t get them. Might be nice to revisit with this commentary. The “Creation of Ea” poem at the beginning quite affected me.




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  7. Nerem says:
    It is very depressing how often nowadays you see people giving advice on writing female characters that essentially boils down to (if not explicitly is, which I have also seen,) “write them exactly the same as men and then give them tits”. It comes from a well intentioned place by people trying to be better people than the people who came before them, but that’s what makes it so hard to respond to them

     

    Books that do this tend to just be really dissatisfying to me as everyone comes off as the same. If I had to point at a book series that frustrated me the most with it, it’d have to be the Honorverse books.




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  8. APen says:

    Le Guin’s commentary on wizards’ roles in fantasy reminded me of an early talk/essay by Terry Pratchett entitled “Why Gandalf Never Married” (1985). I reread it, and sure enough, it mentions the Earthsea series, taking Geb as representative of the typical or conventional wizard in fantasy. (Which, it seems, was what Le Guin intended at that point in time.)

     

    “I’d also like to bring in at this point a third wizard, of whom most of you must have heard — Ged, the wizard of Earthsea. I do this because Ursula Le Guin’s books give us a very well thought-out, and typical, magic world. I’d suggest that they worked because they plugged so neatly into our group image of how magic is ordered. They serve to point up some of the similarities in our wizards.

    They’re all bachelors, and sexually continent. In this fantasy is in agreement with some of the standard works on magic, which make it clear that a good wizard doesn’t get his end away. (Funny, because there’s no such prohibition on witches; they can be at it like knives the whole time and it doesn’t affect their magic at all.) Wizards tend to exist in Orders, or hierarchies, and certainly the Island of Gont reminds me of nothing so much as a medieval European university, or maybe a monastery. There don’t seem to be many women around the University, although I suppose someone cleans the lavatories. There are indeed some female practitioners of magic around Earthsea, but if they are not actually evil then they are either misguided or treated by Ged in the same way that a Harley Street obstetrician treats a local midwife.

    Can you imagine a girl trying to get a place at the University of Gont? Or I can put it another way — can you imagine a female Gandalf?”

    http://ansible.uk/misc/tpspeech.html

    But yeah, I highly recommend reading the essay. It’s about the different portrayal of male and female magic in the consensus fantasy universe. And since it’s written by Terry Pratchett, basically every line is quotable gold.

    On the consensus fantasy universe:

    “There are now, to the delight of parasitical writers like me, what I might almost call ‘public domain’ plot items. There are dragons, and magic users, and far horizons, and quests, and items of power, and weird cities. There’s the kind of scenery that we would have had on Earth if only God had had the money.”

    It’s also interesting, because Pratchett wrote it after publishing his first Discworld book, and his ideas on male and female magic were just starting to develop. Two years later he’d go on to publish a book dedicated to exploring this idea, Equal Rites. And from all that we get the Witches sub-series, which features some of the best-developed female characters I’ve ever read in fantasy. I highly highly recommend the Discworld books, by the way. I could write essays on why they are the best of modern fantasy, and really, literature in general, but I don’t want to spam you all with Discworld appreciation!

    (Hope you continue to have up days, Act!)




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    1. Farla and I are reading the Discworld series right now. We may do a post on it when we finish if there’s interest.




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      1. illhousen says:

        I’m ashamed for the both of you that it took you so long to read.




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        1. Farla says:

          To clarify, I read most of the books ages ago and he’s finally doing so himself.




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          1. illhousen says:

            I stand corrected. I’m only ashamed for Elmo now.




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      2. SpoonyViking says:

        Add my “tsk, tsk” to illhousen’s own.




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      3. Act says:

        are people finger-wagging because it’s entertainingly good or entertainingly bad I can never tell




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        1. SpoonyViking says:

          It starts out as “entertainingly good”, then becomes “absolutely awesome”. :-)

          Oh, yeah, I was curious: did you finish the “Prydain” series? How did you find it?




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      4. APen says:

        My favorite author meets my favorite critics. This should be fun.

        (You realize it’s a 40+ book series, so might be hard to fit into one post . . .)

         




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    2. CrazyEd says:
      Or I can put it another way — can you imagine a female Gandalf?”

      Hah hah, joke’s on him. Thanks to anime, I can imagine a female version of basically any historical or fictional man.

      Clearly, that makes me the best at gender equality.




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      1. Act says:

        I die inside every time I see one of those because all I can think is, “That mushroom gave us a beautiful story and you all literally fucked it.” 




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        1. CrazyEd says:
          You lost me at “mushroom”, sorry. What do you mean?

          (And the anime Oda Nobuna’s Ambition is actually pretty good despite it being “Oda Nobunaga’s Conquest of Japan: Cute Anime Girls Edition: the Anime”. It’s based on a light novel series, which is definitely skippable, as is the manga version from what I’ve seen.

          To quote Farla: It’s way better than it sounds, and not just because it sounds incredibly awful!)




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          1. Roarke says:

            I think she’s blaming Nasu for this in a roundabout way. He’s the Mushroom Man, after all. He created a female King Arthur with a lot of potential, but she ended up just being a flat waifu character designed to sate the masses. Now they’re lapping up loli!Jack the Ripper and I’m pretty sure I’m on a watchlist just for typing that sentence.




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            1. CrazyEd says:
              Ah, yes, that makes perfect sense now!

              But you’re forgetting a few, like Sir Francis Drake and Atilla the Hun.




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              Reply
            2. Roarke says:

              I didn’t ‘forget’ them. If I bothered to mention every gender-swapped character in FGO, I’d go crazy. And I know they’re not all bad, but I needed an example that would make Act die inside and picked the obvious one.




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            3. Act says:

              Yeah, regardless of The Route That Shall Not Be Named, Saber was a good, thoughful character that did some meaningful things with the genderswap, and people saw that and went “oh shit I can give Sherlock Holmes huge tits” and it’s such an insult to Fate, for me.




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              Reply
            4. CrazyEd says:
              Dude, have you seen what F/GO’s Atilla is like? The Sword of Mars is a fucking lightsaber.



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              Reply
            5. Roarke says:

              It must hurt to have The Route That Shall Not Be Named literally be the name of the franchise. But yes, this kind of idea shows people the real dark side of bandwagon culture – the race to the bottom of the barrel.

              What really hurts, though, is that this was ultimately Takeuchi’s idea, not Nasu’s. Nasu originally intended to have a male Arthur and a female protagonist, and made the swap for the eroge genre. In this sense, all the copycats are less a betrayal of the original concept, and just the logical extremity of it. 




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              Reply
            6. Nerem says:
              I’m so disappointed in Jack The Ripper outside of the short story featuring her. Since she was very interesting in that story! In actual Fate/Aprochypha she shows up like 3 times ever and doesn’t really get any character.



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    3. Act says:

      The reason why I loved Tehanu so much was because it tackled exactly all this stuff. The major subplot is about Ged losing his power and not being able to cope with not having a metaphorical dick around while also not being able to cope with an actual dick/relationship because he spent so much time enamored of himself, which Tenar and Moss have philosophical conversations about the nature of female magic. And then I believe in the last book (uh, spoilers) you find out Gont was founded by women and some radical faction took over and expelled them to stay in power so the way things are is completely upside down.




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      1. SpoonyViking says:

        The major subplot is about Ged losing his power and not being able to cope with not having a metaphorical dick around while also not being able to cope with an actual dick/relationship because he spent so much time enamored of himself […]

        To be honest, I’m not sure I want to read THAT. I like Ged, and I’d like to think that after the events of the first book he’d be wiser and more self-assured than that.




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  9. Farla says:

    I bounced off after the second book, which I guess was a mistake. On a feminist level, I thought the balance of power was actually pretty good and you can easily see it as a take on the common trope of evil man torments good woman who saves him with her love and kindness and tolerance for his evil bullshit because he’s good inside. But on a worldbuilding level, just once I want a religion that has all the cruft associated with evil religions to not be evil.




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    1. illhousen says:

      Back when I was young and played D&D, I had a theocratic nation worshiping an incredibly goth-y death goddess… that was good-aligned. The doctrine of the cult basically stated that death is simply the next step of life, which allows you to be closer to gods and learn their divine wisdom. Which they could share with the leaving thanks to Speak with Dead spell (and a couple of custom spells building on the idea). Clerics basically were the link between two worlds,  allowing the dead to guide and rule the living (without resorting to lichdom and such).

      The country also had a weird three-tier structure since it technically was governed by the goddess herself, but since she was usually busy doing godly things, the day-to-day running of the government was handled by her high priestess. Who was traditionally dead and speaking through a host of divine mediums. People were greatly encouraged to emulate that structure and seek counsel of their ancestors on important decisions.




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      1. CrazyEd says:
        Sounds like something a Deathlord and his Abyssal Exalted might set up. I sorta played a Midnight caste who was like that, once.



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