Cardiff BookTalk describes itself as “the book group with a difference: we listen to experts on great literature and then explore the big themes from the books in lively conversation.” Recently its members have been exploring science fiction and fantasy genres, including a screening and discussion of the biopic Mary Shelley as part of Cardiff FrankenFest, a contribution to a worldwide Frankenreads initiative.
Earlier this week I managed to attend a special discussion of Ursula LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, and hope you’ll enjoy the report on the evening that follows, not least because Lizzie Ross and I hosted a Witch Week event which included posts on Le Guin. This year marks not only UKLG’s death in January but also the fiftieth anniversary of the groundbreaking A Wizard of Earthsea, and as a feminist she remains a notable figure in a year that has seen the #MeToo movement take off, plus the centenary of partial women’s suffrage being won in the UK, along with unofficial recognition of 2018 as being the year of the woman. And not before time, as most years irritatingly seem to be dedicated to only half of the world’s population.
Dr Dimitra Fimi is Lecturer in Fantasy and Children’s Literature at the University of Glasgow and an expert on Tolkien. When A Wizard of Earthsea appeared The Lord of the Rings was the prototype which most fantasy writers chose to follow but, as Dr Fimi pointed out, in any timeline both development and evolution are likely if not essential. Le Guin’s original brief from Parnassus Press was to write a children’s fantasy novel, and clearly she resolved to break the Tolkienian mould.
Firstly, her wizard would not be of the Merlin/Gandalf type but a youngster, one not merely a lone apprentice like T H White’s Wart but a student at a school of magic. (The debts owed by J K Rowling to these tropes is obvious.) Secondly, her world would consciously be non-Eurocentric in having peoples of colour to the fore and being set in an island archipelago (as opposed to Tolkien’s westward-facing continent). Thirdly, there would be no epic battles, with conflict of a physical kind restricted to a brief skirmish at the beginning of A Wizard of Earthsea; disagreement was otherwise limited to face-to-face disputes or inner struggles.
Le Guin’s Earthsea was predicated from the first on equilibrium, as a master wizard explained to Ged in Chapter Three (“The School for Wizards”):
‘The world is in balance, in Equilibrium. A wizard’s power of Changing and of Summoning can shake the balance of the world. It is dangerous, that power. It is most perilous. It must follow knowledge, and serve need. To light a candle is to cast a shadow . . .’
As much as Earthsea relies on thoughtful non-action not upsetting the balance, it needs its magic-users to nurture an acceptance of death, because wizards seeking immortality are a sure way to overturn that equilibrium. Le Guin’s worldbuilding, Dr Fimi emphasised, is at heart anthropological, not linguistic as Middle Earth was. Bound up with the cosmology of Earthsea is that staple of fantasy, the dragon; unlike Tolkien’s fire-drake Le Guin’s dragon is neither benevolent nor malevolent — it is the embodiment of balance in this world, unless human forces contrive to disrupt it.
A Wizard of Earthsea is from the start feminist, though it may not at first appear so. Le Guin remedied the more male-centred bias as the series developed but Ged has to be seen to not accept the responsibilities being a magic-user entails so that he can learn from his mistakes and from experience. After the master wizard’s metaphor of the candle and the shadow we’re told
Ged left dissatisfied. Press a mage for his secrets and he would always talk, like Ogion, about balance, and danger, and the dark. But surely a wizard […] was powerful enough to do what he pleased, and balance the world as seemed best to him, and drive back darkness with his own light.
This is the masculine muscular view of the world that le Guin holds a mirror up to, to let us see where such an arrogant approach leads to. One of the consequences of Ged’s foolish actions is the loosing of the gebbeth, the kind of peril he was being warned about; and though it put Ged on a quest, an internal journey to self-knowledge, it was a dangerous enterprise and one which threatened to end his life.
Dr Fimi ended her insightful talk by drawing attention to a study by Theodora Kroeber, Le Guin’s mother, entitled Ishi in Two Worlds. As an essay by Dr Fimi’s colleague Rob Maslen makes clear, this study is illuminating in the light it throws on Le Guin’s literary protagonists and the journey they often have to take to try to bridge the gap between cultures.
Dr Liesl King‘s discursive address was entitled ‘On otaks and equilibrium’, though we heard very little of the tiny otak which helped restore Ged to health. Deputy Head of Humanities, Religion and Philosophy at York St John University, Dr King’s interest in spirituality encompasses science fiction and the Chinese philosopher and founder of Taoism Lao Tzu, one of whose poems was read at Le Guin’s funeral (as well as at Le Guin’s father’s).
Taoism is central to Earthsea. It is enshrined in phrases Ged is taught on the island of Roke, at the school for wizards, such as this one preceding the statements quoted above on equilibrium and balance:
But you must not change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow on the act.
Le Guin’s message is about minimalism, as Dr King explained: it is Do less, and then do more less. In Chapter Four, “The Loosing of the Shadow”, Ged is told by the Master Summoner:
‘You thought, as a boy, that a mage is one who can do anything. So I thought, once. So did we all. And the truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower; until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do . . .’
Interestingly, though Dr King didn’t mention this, one of Lao Tzu’s most famous quotes has a parallel with Ged’s position when, despite being the Archmage, he chooses not to restore direct contact with his former protégé Lebannen, now the King:
“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, | When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, | They will say: We did it ourselves.” — Lao Tzu
Ged’s withdrawal from the world is therefore very Taoist, as is the underlying philosophy of the Earthsea books.
Dr Catherine Butler is Senior Lecturer in English at Cardiff University and a noted writer on fantasy and children’s literature (as Charlie Butler she superbly edited and arranged Diana Wynne Jones’ non-fiction pieces as Reflections: On the Magic of Writing). In the final talk of the evening she drew attention to Tehanu: the Last Book of Earthsea as Le Guin’s feminist critique of Earthsea.
Unlike most epic fantasies, Earthsea doesn’t exhibit moral dualism (though of course there are moral issues in abundance in the novel): there is no Dark Lord, only wayward wizards such as Cobb; there are no great battles, only raids; and the quest structure is always subverted. For example, The Tombs of Atuan de-centres the classic hero journey by featuring not Ged as he wanders the labyrinth, Theseus-like, but Tenar, guardian of that labyrinth. On the other hand there is a ‘medieval’ world of sorts, there is magic and, above all, dragons. In addition, the origins of the hero, Ged, are obscure, he is a kind of Everyman, albeit with outstanding potential. Finally, there is the use of an archaic kind of language, and what Butler calls an “elegiac sense of decay”.
But in Le Guin’s Earthsea Revisioned (1993) the author outlines her repurposing of the anti-feminist aspects of the original trilogy, in particular its masculine bias in phrases such as “weak/wicked as women’s magic”, Roke’s magic school being reserved for males, and the obvious gendering of the nature of heroism, especially in the first and third books. Le Guin wanted to reconfigure Earthsea so that, in her own words, we could have heroism without “quest, contest and conquest as the plot, sacrifice as the key, victory or destruction as the ending.” As Dimitra Fimi later put it, in Tehanu and The Other Wind and Tales from Earthsea Le Guin aimed to be revisionist without herself being destructive of the world she had created.
During the course of the evening a few titles were alluded to, though I wasn’t able to take details of all of them. Short poems from two of Le Guin’s collections — Wild Angels (1975) and ‘The Old Novelist’s Lament’ from So Far So Good (2018) — were read. Also mentioned in dispatches were Carol Pearson and Katherine Pope’s The Female Hero in American and British Literature (1981) and Maureen Murdock’s The Heroine’s Journey (1990).
This was a very stimulating evening, efficiently and informatively introduced by Dr Alix Beeston, well attended by both students and the general public and, sadly, over with far too quickly.