TT: A Wizard of Change

JANE: Last time you mentioned that the first of Ursula K. Le Guin’s  novels you read was A Wizard of Earthsea.  That was certainly the first of her novels I read.  By the time I read it, all three of the first books in the sequence were out, so I don’t so much think of “Earthsea” as consisting of three novels as one.   I was probably in my early double digits at the time, the exact target audience for the series.

Ged’s Story

It worked for me very well.  I was swept up not only by the mythic feeling of the story, but because Ged’s grand journey is so deeply rooted in reality.  For all its dragons and wizards, Earthsea felt distinctly real.  This ability to make unreal places real is something that I would continue to admire in Le Guin’s work.

ALAN: I had much the same reaction as you, though I was older than you (in my twenties) when I first read the books. It’s probably worth mentioning that fantasy novels were few and far between in those days, and any new addition to the canon was always met with glad cries of glee, no matter how good or bad it was – but the Earthsea books were clearly something special and, in later years when sprawling, derivative fantasy doorstop novels seemed to be everywhere, it became more and more obvious just how special and how well-crafted Le Guin’s fantasies were.

My copies of the books were published by Puffin, which was an imprint that Penguin used for children’s books. So officially, I suppose, I was far too old to be reading that childish rubbish. But I couldn’t see that it mattered. A good book is a good book, and there was a depth and a maturity to the Earthsea stories, as there is to all the best “Young Adult” fiction, which transcended categories.

JANE: I agree!  What’s great about the Earthsea books is that they grow with the reader.  A kid might be caught up in Ged’s quest.  An older reader starts wondering about the consequences of impulsive actions.  And so on…

The Earthsea books also contributed to an element of my mental landscape as a writer.  This happened when LeGuin’s fourth novel in the sequence, Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea was published in 1990.  Tehanu was published with much fanfare as a work in which the writer who – by then – had become a feminist icon made amends for having been so sexist in her earlier works.

ALAN: If I remember rightly, Le Guin’s protagonists up to that point had mostly been male. But I’m not sure that’s inherently sexist in and of itself. Can you elaborate?

JANE: I agree with you that male protagonists alone were not enough to make Le Guin’s books sexist.  Indeed, “male as protagonist” was still a major part of the landscape in the late 1960’s.  Even when I started writing many years later, I automatically envisioned my protagonists as male.

For example, Sarah in Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls started out as Sam.  I made a conscious choice to write women – and women as I know them to be – which has led to me being identified as a writer of “strong female characters.”

ALAN: Perhaps I’m in a minority here, but I have no problem identifying with the protagonist of a story, be they men or be they women. So I consider both you and Ursula Le Guin to be writers of “strong characters”. For me, the adjective is not necessary.

JANE: I’m like you in that.  No one was more surprised than I to be praised for creating “strong female characters.”  I just wanted to include more characters who were female.

But the problem Le Guin created in Earthsea was more complicated than having her protagonist be male.

Le Guin’s lack of respect for the feminine went further than putting her women in the background.  Phrases such as “Weak as a woman’s magic” and/or “Wicked as a woman’s magic” occur in the Earthsea books.   Ged’s first teacher is a woman, and she leads him and his considerable magical talent astray by her manner of teaching.

Le Guin’s admission that she had basically been blind to her own cultural biases had a huge impact on me.  I’d already begun to write more female characters.  (Once again, I must remind our readers that publication date and writing date are not the same; although my first novel would not come out until 1994, I was already absorbed in writing.)  Le Guin’s admission made me wonder what my own blind spots might be.

ALAN: A question that worries me as well. I’m sure I must have them, but I don’t know what they are…

I do remember the fanfare that greeted the publication of Tehanu but I never wholly agreed with it. Certainly Le Guin’s view of women in the world of Earthsea did perhaps leave something to be desired, but she didn’t impose that point of view on her other literary worlds.

In 1969, only a year after the publication of A Wizard of Earthsea, she published The Left Hand of Darkness, a novel that was deeply preoccupied with gender issues and the societal roles played by men and women.  So in light of that, the claims made for Tehanu were perhaps a little disingenuous.

JANE: I agree with you – and I felt so at the time.  Nonetheless, I’m grateful to Le Guin’s admission because it set me questing for what I might be blind to and led me to write more varied characters and situations as a result.

ALAN: And it seems to me that the quest was successful – a lot of your characters and situations have stuck in my mind for years. If that’s the result of Le Guin’s influence on your writing, then good on her!

But there is another aspect of her work that I think we ought to talk about. Next week, perhaps?

Advertisements

3 Responses to “TT: A Wizard of Change”

  1. James Mendur Says:

    For me, “A Wizard of Earthsea” was the first fantasy story I remember reading where I realized partway through that Ged wasn’t white. I remember that it stopped me for a moment. I looked at the cover, but the back cover’s main character clearly had blonde hair (see image). It puzzled me for a bit. The cover didn’t match what I was reading. Quickly enough, however, I realized the cover was wrong, Ged was brown-skinned, and I shrugged and kept reading. it did make me wonder, though.

    Later, of course, SyFy completely whitewashed Earthsea, much to Ms. Le Guin’s epic disdain (if not fury).

    Also, just an aside, as a lover of fantasy maps, I think Earthsea’s map is one of the most interesting. I spent a lot of time exploring the map and tracing Ged’s journey.

  2. futurespastsite Says:

    I probably liked her earliest work best…which I’m sure puts me in the minority.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: