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.