Last time on Planet of the Hats I plunged languidly into the children’s fantasy world of Narnia, and encountered there what seemed to me a diverse range of plausible, well-developed and sympathetic characters male and female. I noted how the world of Narnia itself was, like the world of wartime Britain and the medieval culture that Lewis loved so much, explicitly patriarchal – yet the characters and the stories seemed, to me, to gently yet comprehensively challenge and subvert those cultural assumptions. By contrast the world of Warcraft seems to be a place in which anything is possible and structural sexism doesn’t really exist… yet the main story-driving characters in this apparently egalitarian world lack the sort of depth and diversity which I saw in Narnia.
I also wondered if it was being unfair to compare the cartoony game-world of WoW to the literary masterpiece of one of the previous century’s great academics – but hey, I figure if you’re going to learn, you may as well learn from the best!
Narnia is, especially if you put it next to WoW, a parochial and quaint place, much like a walled garden in an old middle-England college cloister. It’s a far cry from the vast epic landscapes and tragic heroism of Tolkien or Donaldson, which is part of its appeal and part of why I think so many children (and adults) find it a safe and comforting world to explore in the imagination. It’s precisely this narrowness of setting which throws into relief the (relative) depth of its characterisation.
This post is going to go in quite a different direction and explore the vast, dangerous, mundane and exciting world of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea. Again, you don’t need to have read her to understand what follows, and this time there shouldn’t be any major spoilers.
Wall-breakers (rather smaller wall this time):
- Le Guin and me
- The world of Earthsea
- Earthsea’s phases and their significance
- Y u h8in on mah erf-c
- Fantasy credentials
Le Guin and me
I encountered Le Guin’s work considerably later than Lewis’, and to this day I don’t know as much about Le Guin the person as I have since learned about Lewis. But thanks to the Internet there is some stuff I do know: Le Guin was a child of a later generation than Lewis and an American rather than a Brit. Lewis was a career academic for whom writing was a side-project, but Le Guin became a career author and poured her heart into her fiction. Significantly, Le Guin was the daughter of an anthropologist, and this awareness of human diversity and value seems to have made its way into her writing.
I first read The Tombs of Atuan in my early teens during a brief flirtation with the otherwise unspectacular school library. Tombs is the second of the Earthsea books and focuses largely on the girl-priestess Tenar and her eventual encounter with the mysterious wizard Sparrowhawk (aka Ged). Later I read A Wizard of Earthsea which seemed to me rather unremarkable compared to Tombs, and then after wandering through The Farthest Shore I closed the book, returned it to the library and mostly forgot about Le Guin for 10 years.
I say “mostly” because, though I couldn’t remember the characters or the stories, the setting of Earthsea had a very strong influence on my imagination over those years and eventually, last summer, I was so tormented by the fact that I had such a strong and powerful concept of this world in my head but no idea about the stories which had first taken me there that I went to amazon and ordered the original Earthsea trilogy – only it was a quartet. There was a weird book tagged on the end called Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea, which I actually remember starting after Shore but don’t know if I ever finished (I think I did, but don’t remember clearly). To be sure I didn’t know what to make of the book at the time and so probably forgot about it very quickly, but when I remembered it existed it became a fascinating turning-point for my understanding of Le Guin. I greedily devoured the trilogy and eagerly opened up Tehanu… only to be confused and, if I could admit it, disappointed. This was not the triumphant corrective work I had expected.
Amazon kindly informed me that there were yet more Earthsea books, so I ordered Tales from Earthsea – a collection of short stories set in that world and written after the main four books – and then finally The Other Wind, an entirely new Earthsea novel published in 2002. This was fully 12 years after the publication of “Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea”, and that was itself written 17 years after The Farthest Shore. Now, at last, my vision of Earthsea was complete and my curiosity about Le Guin’s narrative satisfied. In Narnia we see the consistent and fully-developed thought of an author near the end of his life; through Earthsea we follow the personal journey of an author who discovers through her works a new way of seeing the world. Narnia neither asks direct questions nor gives direct answers – everything is implication or inference; in Earthsea we see both characters and author struggling with their world and challenging their world views.
Unfortunately I’ve not yet read any of Le Guin’s other works, so as with my Narnia post this will focus entirely on Earthsea, but contrary to my Lewis post will do so in conscious ignorance of any thought she expresses elsewhere.
The world of Earthsea
Earlier I said that Narnia’s world was small and parochial, like a walled garden in an old English town. Le Guin’s Earthsea contrasts quite dramatically: it’s big, it’s intriguing, it’s often dangerous, it’s sometimes exciting but mostly it’s just a place – there’s not the same sense of earth-mysticism that there is in Lewis’ doting descriptions of Narnian glens and glades. If Narnia is the sort of scene you’d expect from a gentle watercolour painting then Earthsea would be more at home in an IMAX film.
As a space in which the story can develop, from the very start Earthsea is shown to be home to diverse cultures and races. I mentioned Le Guin’s dad was an anthropologist, and I should also mention that she married an historian. I think these influences are visible in her books because the world she creates seems like it’s trying to be real whereas Narnia is tacitly mythological. So we have the Kargad barbarians to the east (Viking-esque), the more Afro-Caribbean look of the South and East Reaches, the European-themed people of Osskil, and the majority of the central lands populated by a people resembling Native Americans. Similarly there are a variety of languages, dialects, cultures, economies and worldviews that feature prominently in the stories. Le Guin never spends all that much time describing the world or its scenery, but she still makes her readers feel immersed in a place that is concrete and real.
So from the very first page of the very first book, Earthsea is deliberately and consciously a diverse and authentic world.
Curiously enough, the exception to this diversity is in the area of gender representation.
Earthsea’s phases and their significance
Earthsea can be divided into three phases:
- The Trilogy – 1968 to 1973, the story-arc of A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore.
- The Transition – 1990, the follow-on book Tehanu (subtitled The Last Book of Earthsea).
- The New Way – 1997 to 2002, encompassing the short stories collated in Tales of Earthsea and the cathartic The Other Wind.
Phase One: The Trilogy
In the first trilogy, the heroes are all male, the world is male-dominated and women are visibly and carelessly marginalised. Only men can become the powerful and skilled “wizards” and women are limited to mere witchery; “weak as women’s magic” and “wicked as women’s magic” are both popular truisms uttered uncritically by many people within that world. Unlike in Lewis, there’s no sense of playful subversion here – these sentiments are real and powerful. I presume that Le Guin does not condone this understanding but her world and her characters go a long way to support it. In Wizard, the first female we encounter is an ugly old witch, capable of only petty and pathetic magic and despised by her village (as indeed all witches are). The hero’s ascent to tutelage under a true (male) wizard is presented almost as a lucky escape. The next significant female character, Serret, is in thrall to an ancient evil and is killed while trying to escape because she isn’t as strong or smart as the hero Ged. Shore features no significant or notable female characters as it focuses on the bond between the boy-who-will-be-King and the ageing Archmage. Tombs by contrast is full of female characters but they’re deliberately unlovely, yoked in ignoble service to evil powers of the deep earth and gnawed at by character flaws, jealously, bitterness and anger; the rescue of Tenar by Ged is only partially balanced out by her rescue of him, which is at any rate put down to the effect of his intriguing personality and compelling speech.
But a word of nuance here: it’d be very easy to give the wrong impression of the story at this point. Yes, witches are pretty pitiful characters in the first trilogy (quite unlike the fearsome and dangerous witches in Narnia), and no, Le Guin does not tinge this portrayal with challenge – she’s content for the in-world culture to dress the story rather than be the story. But her main storylines are actually very challenging, unexpected and yes, subversive – even, marginally, of some particular gender stereotypes. The hero Ged’s machismo and recklessness causes his ascent to wizardry to unleash a horrible danger upon the world, and only as he matures and learns his weaknesses and limits can he begin to confront this danger. Ultimately the confrontation is not one of military might or magical prowess, but one of character, friendship, self-belief, appropriate self-doubt and ultimately balance. It’s counter-cultural themes like this which dominate the trilogy, not the incidental details of a blind institutional patriarchy. So please don’t think that I’m presenting the first trilogy as some kind of macho misogyny-fest. Tombs especially manages to expose the tyranny of a culture which has produced such a fetid community and exalt the bravery of Tenar as she throws off her shackles.
Nevertheless, Tehanu picks up all this baggage and doesn’t quite know what to do with it.
Phase Two: The Transition
What I’ve called phase two is just one single book, a little longer than the others in the trilogy, but unlike them set on a single island and mostly in one little village. I think that sometime after writing The Farthest Shore, Le Guin encountered feminist critiques that changed her perspective on what she had written. Tehanu expresses little but hatred and anger towards the previous three books, almost as if they are a stain on her past which Le Guin wishes she could erase. Tehanu seems to be her attempt to draw a line under Earthsea’s misogynist worldview and make up for the mistakes by focusing entirely and exclusively on the oppression of its women. Suddenly witches are sympathetic and tragic characters and the heroine is a struggling adoptive mother (Tenar, in fact) who has to cope with both racism (she’s a white Karg in brown-skinned Gont) and sexism while dealing with violent and privileged men and their subjugated female thralls. Ged is back but has lost all his power (as we knew at the end of Shore) and is himself struggling to fit into the women’s world of powerlessness. The titular Tehanu is a badly burned and disfigured child who Tenar and Ged are trying to nurse into some sort of emotional and mental health. The narrative is a downward spiral of oppression and injustice and struggle which finally ends in the utter domination and humiliation of the “heroes” by the “villain” – a wealthy young male wizard.
Then a big strong dragon shows up and incinerates the bad guys and it turns out Tehanu is really a dragon and some other lady is also really a dragon and there’s some kind of clumsy metaphor in there and it’s all just a bit embarrassing.
Still, Tehanu is a bloody brilliant book, not least because we see the author taking this restrained journey of apparent self-loathing and regret through her earlier works and trying desperately to redeem and balance those aspects I talked about under phase one. And best of all, it isn’t the last Earthsea book.
Phase Three: The New Way
Tales from Earthsea is a beautiful and elegant collection of subtle and joyful stories. Gone is the author’s crushing guilt over the first trilogy and her desperate attempt to retrieve and/or destroy that world, and in its place is a new kind of confidence and determination: yes, her world has given its women a bad time – but it’s her world, and she can therefore explore:
- How it got that way in the first place and
- How it might start to be set right, on both structural and personal levels.
And she doesn’t just stop at gender, but re-examines everything we’ve so far taken for granted about the entire Earthsea worldview. Key to this re-examination is the appearance in Tales’ Dragonfly of the atypical woman Irian, who goes on to play a major but not Mary-Sueish role in The Other Wind, and the story of the humble man-witch (my own assessment) Otter in Tales’ The Finder. From this point on our journey through the world of Earthsea is at the side of important and incidental characters both male and female, with one eye on the quiet injustice and tragedy of the world and another on its gentle hope and future.
And, as with her wonderfully atypical story themes in the first trilogy, again violence and brute force are not glorified but rather cautioned against, skill requires responsibility, hope goes hand in hand with fear and ideals are tempered by reality.
The Other Wind is the climax of this process. The child-king-guy of Shore is back – now actually the King, and engaged in a difficult relationship with the awkward foreign princess Seserakh – and trying to save the Archipelago from destruction by a mysterious problem, seeking the aid of powerless former wizard Ged and his partner Tenar, accompanied by their still troubled and still questioning child Tehanu. The story is a process of questioning, testing and even failure for all the characters. They face criticism and personal attacks and misunderstandings and they can’t seem to find any solution to the impending destruction of their world in either the traditional wizardry of Roke or the new mysterious… uh… dragonry of Tehanu. Only together with old enemies and forgotten figures of history can the abscess at the heart of Earthsea finally be discovered and healed. And it is. Wonderfully, gently, unspectacularly, brilliantly. A story of generosity, acceptance, gentle hope and honest fear. I cannot express how much I love and value these wildly honest stories.
Y u h8in on mah erf-c
In case it seems like I gave Earthsea a bad rap at the start there, please understand I was looking at it critically rather than through the eyes of a fan. I’m so used to fiction which blithely sets sail through the wide open seas of stereotype and prejudice without even noticing it’s doing so that I didn’t judge Earthsea for the “flaws” of its world – they were just part of the authentic, realistic setting, and the clear virtue of its stories and the impressive development of its (male) characters were the more striking feature. Rightly then has Earthsea been called groundbreaking, even the first trilogy, and its female characters are lovingly crafted even if they sometimes seem a bit embarrassing now.
What I do find fascinating is the way that Le Guin herself turned on that original trilogy through the pages of Tehanu, tearing it to shreds before eventually reconciling to herself in Tales and Wind, and in the process crafting new and even more brilliantly groundbreaking stories to make Earthsea truly complete. And how the author’s journey translates so visibly into the pages of her books, so that we are essentially reading two stories when we open the cover of Earthsea.
There’s far more I could say in praise of the way Le Guin’s stories are crafted and the types of plotlines and resolutions she comes up with, not to mention the thoughtful in-world details that make these possible, but it wouldn’t serve the purpose of this post and I’d eventually get tired of wiping all the drool off my keyboard.
Before I finish I should probably establish a little more firmly the limits of my fantasy hardcore credentials. I’ve already talked about Narnia and Earthsea. Well, I read The Hobbit around 20 times and LotR from cover(s) to cover(s) repeatedly at least 14 times (I counted!) during my teenage years, and around the age of 20 read the whole lot through again. I also read the Silmarillion a couple of times and the LotR appendices. In my late teens I encountered Stephen Donaldson through my English class and read The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever and The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. They were far, far, far too densely written and long for me to consider reading them again, but they were amazing books to read through once and I strongly recommend them. One day perhaps I’ll read them again. Off the afterglow of Donaldson I encountered Stephen Lawhead’s Celtic-influenced Paradise War series, as well as his rather patchy science fiction works. For many years Lawhead’s trilogy was my favourite work of fantasy, gently displacing Tolkien as I came to see more and more things in the great author’s thought that I didn’t really like. In addition my childhood was framed by a wonderful but little-known series of children’s books called Stories of the Six Worlds, most especially Hostage of the Sea. I read other fantasy books, mostly aimed at children, but none had any significant influence on me. In that sense my exposure to the genre is rather limited, and I read at least as many real-world novels and stories as I did fantasy – but I always cherished fantasy, even more than sci-fi, for its power to take us to that other place.
WoW is not really a natural fit for my interests because when I started playing – which was in order to meet up with an old friend – I wasn’t really that interested in fantasy or sci-fi. But the power of the immersive virtual world to draw you in and get you to live out your own stories is very affecting and, from the twilit boughs of Teldrassil to the pale sunlight of Dalaran, WoW has managed to grab a special place in my affections.
As with Tolkien, now that I can officially call myself a WoW fan, I notice more and more where it falls short.
So whereas Narnia put clever and deep characters into a quaint and patriarchal world, and whereas the Warcraft world is broadly egalitarian yet mystifyingly lacking precisely these kinds of interesting characters, Earthsea shows us transformation from vaguely egalitarian to oppressively patriarchal and then to hopefully healed and whole, and allows us to journey along with the author herself. None of these worlds are “perfect” or “ideal”, nor do they try to be. But they each approach their imperfections rather differently. WoW glorifies its cartoonish simplicity, Narnia scrapes away at the underbelly of assumption and prejudice and Earthsea wrestles head-on with the questions and confusions of a world divided.
In my previous post I talked briefly about the value of stories and fantasy as escapist safe places where we can explore, freely and without fear, difficult questions and confusing answers. For this reason I don’t want to address the subject of gender head-on in a blog post – that’d overlap too much with my varsity work and be impossible to do justice to in the complicated and tenuous world of Warcraft. When we take our questions into the fantasy world, we can look for opportunities to explore them in safety. When we ask our questions of that world, then the risk is that we inadvertently threaten those who have found safety and escape inside, and something of our community is damaged and lost.
I don’t think that is a reason not to ask questions. I do think it’s a reason for those worlds to better accommodate the questioners. Narnia and Earthsea were both worlds with agendas, and though those agendas were quite divergent, they had common ground in being healthily challenging and subversive. I fear that WoW, with a simple agenda to entertain and attract subscribers, is content merely to pastiche and stereotype and not really make space for the questions or the exploration. Many video games go too far in the opposite direction and make clumsy attempts at being “edgy” – I’m glad WoW doesn’t. But look at where other fantasy worlds have got it right, and where they’ve got it wrong, and how beloved and safe and nonthreatening and wonderful they can still be – surely we could see a little more of that in our world of Warcraft?