Cardiff BookTalk Le Guin event

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.

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21 thoughts on “Cardiff BookTalk Le Guin event

  1. Pingback: Winding Up the Week #45 – Book Jotter

  2. Thanks for this post, Chris. I’m so glad you were able to attend this event. And I get a little frisson of pride when I see how so many of the Witch Week posts overlapped with the speakers’ points. Dr. King’s point about Ged’s withdrawal, in particular, was especially interesting given our discussion of The Other Wind — I’m going to have to read more about Taoism before my next journey to Earthsea.

    Also, I love that line: To light a candle is to cast a shadow. It may be that the essential difference between heroes and villains (both female and male) is that those who wish to do good understand the law of unintended consequences, and then try to do only what they must, rather than what they want.

    1. Thanks so much for this reply, Lizzie. It was indeed very gratifying to hear those overlappings with WW2018 contributors’ conclusions, not just on The Other Wind but also with the foci in other posts.

      I was particularly interested, after just a little bit of online research, to discover how many Internet memes which included aphorisms were often unattributed quotes from Lao Tzu’s writings. Your point about the law of unintended consequences is especially pertinent given the state of current global politics (and you’re right about it not being confined to males).

  3. This was a fascinating post. As I read this

    “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 . . .”

    …it brought Taoist philosophy immediately to mind, and also the balance of nature in the real world, especially in biological homeostatic systems. Then later, when I saw you quote Lao Tzu, I suddenly saw the whole saga from a new perspective. It’s like I had understanding of taoism and of biology and of Le Guin’s fabulous stories and they were all separate but your post showed me how they are very much speaking with one voice.

    It also makes me wonder about the traditional concept of nature being female, for example, we say “mother nature”. In Earthsea and in real life the world is full of balanced systems which are mutually dependent. Pushing one part of one system too far can have huge unexpected and sometimes destructive results. In Earthsea this happens by misusing magic. In our world perhaps it is a misuse of science and technology which does the same.

    Thanks so much for such a thought provoking post!
    Jo

    1. I’m pleased you found this stimulating, Jo, and in return I enjoyed your responses too.

      It’s very hard to avoid gendered language, isn’t it: our vocabulary is steeped in it as, for example, when we talk about ‘a matrix’ being the motherly womb from which ‘material’ both physical and mental is ‘generated’. Mother Nature falls into this category, to my way of thinking — Natura being a feminine noun — and it’s hard to think of how to ungender our concept of it and divest it of sexist preconceptions. (See, it’s almost impossible to even avoid sexual metaphors like ‘conception’!)

      But your wider point about balance is central to Earthsea and indeed to our life on this earth. It’s present in the idea of yin and yang, which Lao Tzu alludes to (in this translation by J H Mcdonald):

      The Tao gave birth to One.
      The One gave birth to Two.
      The Two gave birth to Three.
      The Three gave birth to all of creation.
      All things carry Yin
      yet embrace Yang.
      They blend their life breaths
      in order to produce harmony.

      1. I see what you mean. It is odd how some descriptions, concepts and words are so tightly bound to gender. The reality is much more complex I think. My guess is that nature is sometimes seen as female because people have always seen how things grow out of the ground but really that growth is either from vegetative reproduction, which is asexual, or from male-and-female-together sexual reproduction, e.g. flowering plants. So I think I see it as neither the male nor the female but the dance between them which really counts.

        I’ve not read McDonald’s translation of the Tao Te Ching. It reads really well. I’m using Derek Lin’s annotated translation at the moment.

        Thanks again for an interesting post.

        1. I’ve only read a bit around Lao Tzu from general philosophy and what I’ve gleaned more recently online, so I really ought to take the plunge and get a translation, maybe Derek Lin’s, or Le Guin’s own ‘rendition’ (her preferred term).

          As for gendering issues, whether languistic or as found elsewhere in nature, I’m inclined to agree with you, Jo, especially when you characterise the generation as a dance.

  4. piotrek

    Very interesting follow-up to the discussions of the Witch Week 🙂 Such events should be always taped and put on YouTube for the benefit of interested people from far away…

    We’ll be putting a review of The Other Wind on Re-E shortly, as we both re-read it after reading your discussion. It was high time for me to remind myself why I love Le Guin so much!

    1. I’m looking forward to reading that review, Piotrek, thanks, and seeing the results of your collective reconsideration! (I was involved in a rehearsal and performance of Haydn’s oratorio ‘The Creation’ all yesterday, so couldn’t give my full attention to blogging and responding to comments here.)

      Recording talks like this: I may mention this to the organisers of Cardiff BookTalk as, since this event took place in a lecture theatre, taping it shouldn’t present too much of an obstacle if this is something they could or would consider.

      1. piotrek

        I’m impressed, I’m no expert, but I like me some Haydn from time to time 🙂

        I love such things, YouTube is full of fascinating discussions that would be otherwise witnessed only by their small (or, perhaps, large, in this case, but territorially limited anyway) initial audience…

        1. Haydn’s music is full of tunes, and also humour (if you know how to recognise it, but too many audiences think it’s meant to all be serious…). Next, I’m playing the piano part for two performances of film music, including La La Land, Jurassic World, Star Trek, Tom and Jerry, and The Pink Panther—so much the same difference! It won’t be televised but we’ll get big audiences. 🙂

  5. Sounds like a very interesting evening, Chris! It’s good to see Le Guin’s work discussed and dissected – it definitely deserves as much recognition as it can get, especially in times when stereotypically masculine Game of Thrones is considered the pinnacle of fantasy 😉 I hope you’ll like our own discussion of The Other Wind, inspired by your Witch Week event 🙂

    1. It was, Ola, especially to be able to see and hear two of the speakers in person, one of whom I’ve been aware of online for some time and the other whom I respect as an authority on authors of children’s fantasy.

      And a corrective to GoT’s current dominance of fantasy is certainly to be desired (however good for its type it may be it personally doesn’t appeal to me).

      I’ll be off in a mo to see your reviews of The Other Wind … 😊

  6. Pingback: Cardiff BookTalk Le Guin event — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

  7. Gah, I’m so jealous you could attend! At least I can read the highlights here in the chilly Midwest, where the air smells of fertilizer spread before the ground freezes and the children are bouncing in their seats for Christmas. 🙂 xxxxxxxx

    1. Does Christmas ever get any easier? I suspect not, though there is a movement here to take individual responsibility and call a halt to the expensive excesses of the season. Really hard with an expectant family, I know.

      And I don’t envy you fertiliser, not one little bit. At least I don’t remember it from the list that begins “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” 🤔

  8. Pingback: A reader’s view: Check out this fantastic report from our recent event celebrating Ursula Le Guin – Cardiff BookTalk

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