The map fantastic

Contemporary sketch map of Rye (17th century?)

Contemporary novels, set in the real world, rarely if ever need a map included in the text. Historical novels occasionally offer one, especially if they show old territories or ancient names for places. Dystopian futures and distant planets do often require them and, ideally, so should fantasies: the more fantastical they are the more we need a cartographic guide, however sketchy, to orientate ourselves.

What happens though when either no map is available or, if one is offered, it’s so sketchy as to be next to useless?

The answer, for people like me, is to make my own from whatever clues are offered in the text, letting logic — and occasionally imagination — fill in the rest.

And that’s what I have been doing recently: tripping the map fantastic, as it were.

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An archipelago of stories

Smoke drifting across a copse

Ursula Le Guin: Tales from Earthsea
Orion Children’s Books 2002 (2001)

A story may be pieced together from such scraps and fragments, and though it will be an airy quilt, half made of hearsay and half of guesswork, yet it may be true enough.
— From ‘The Finder’

In the middle of Earthsea, nestled within the vast island archipelago, is the Inmost Sea. In the centre of that sea is the island of Roke. And on that island is the Immanent Grove, by the eminence that is Roke Knoll. And above all, the sky. Earth, water, wood and air: elements that we meet time and again in Tales from Earthsea and, indeed, in the whole saga. And to those we should also add fire.

Ursula Le Guin’s five Earthsea novels, expanded from the original trilogy to a quartet and then, three decades on, to a pentad, have felt at times like the saga of Duny, later called Sparrowhawk but now known as Ged. True, it drew in other participants — Tenar, Lebannen and Tehanu, for example — but principally we have followed Ged from boyhood to Archmage and on to old age.

We will have always known however that there were — that there will have to have been — other stories to tell, and in this collection we are offered five of them, along with an essay giving us some of the who, what, when and where of this magical world. And I mean ‘magical’ in all the senses of this word.

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Once-upon-a-time realms

Inverted commas 9: Imaginary Worlds

Imagination like all living things lives now, and it lives with, from, on true change. Like all we do and have, it can be co-opted and degraded; but it survives commercial and didactic exploitation. The land outlasts the empires. The conquerors may leave desert where there was forest and meadow, but the rain will fall, the rivers will run to the sea.
— from the foreword of Ursula Le Guin’s Tales from Earthsea (2001)

The late Ursula Le Guin knew all about fantastic realms. She created several, including the abiding world of Earthsea, that archipelago of islands amidst a boundless ocean.

In her foreword to the collection of short stories about this world she took a tilt at what she called commodified fantasy which, she asserted, “takes no risks: it invents nothing, but invents and trivialises.” We’re well aware of that derivative impulse that somehow diminishes what it feeds on: we see it constantly in never-ending book franchises, films, TV series, video games and assorted spin-offs: it’s a desperate experience to watch as they dilute the originals, before squeezing every last drop of merchandising out of them.

But she is optimistic about the capacity of the imagination to mount rearguard actions whenever needed, to defend against insidious exploitation whether of the commercial or intellectual kind:

The unstable, mutable, untruthful realms of Once-upon-a-time are as much a part of human history and thought as the nations in our kaleidoscopic atlases, and some are more enduring.

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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.

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Witch Week Day 5: Discussion of The Other Wind

THE OTHER WIND Discussion, Witch Week 2018

Lizzie, Lory and Chris approached this discussion of The Other Wind, the read-along book, not as a Q/A session, but rather as responses developing over time and in conversation with each other. Below: the edited version, with sections that match our Feminism+Fantasy theme. For the complete version (17 pages!), click here. And if you’ve read the book please join the conversation in the Comments.

Chapter I. Mending the Green Pitcher

LIZZIE: I’m glad to see Ged play a part in the action – to hear his reference to Tenar as his wife, and watch him only minimally regretful/angry about the loss of his powers.

CHRIS: Time enough for Ged to be better reconciled to his loss of power and status. He derives a quiet joy from mundane tasks and routines, but it is now Alder who is confused by Ged’s acceptance of a massive change of status and refusal to see Lebannen.

LORY: Ged has made a huge journey through the novels. In A Wizard of Earthsea, we meet him as a proud, insecure, sometimes arrogant young man, eager to acquire and display power. He matured into a wiser man who recognized the importance of balance and restraint. Now, having given away his extraordinary powers to restore balance to the world, he recognizes the value of the mundane and ordinary. It’s where all the magic comes from, after all, and what it should serve.

It makes me think about our own world and the power of simple acts: mending, tending, healing, caring. But I still wonder: Why does Ged refuse to meet the King or his fellow wizards? Is it really shame and regret? Or does he simply not fit into their world any more, would he feel too out of place?

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A week to go to Witch Week

One week from today, Lizzie Ross and I will be hosting Witch Week, a celebration of fantasy fiction and feminism. If you haven’t already, do look back at my announcement post or at Lizzie’s post here. Then come back here and/or to Lizzie’s blog on October 30 for a preview, a schedule, a readalong and more before the fun really starts on Halloween, continuing until Bonfire Night on November 5th, followed by a wrap-up post. Do join us!

Incidentally, the Witch Week 2018 logo features a detail from The Little Foot Page (1905), a painting by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale. This shows Burd Helen, a tragic Scottish heroine who dressed as a page boy to follow her cruel lover barefoot while he rode on horseback. The painting shows her dressing as a boy and cutting her long hair. (After this painting was exhibited we’re told that female art students started cutting their hair in page boy style, possibly inspired by this image.)

An old Scottish ballad in Francis James Child’s 19th-century collection gives a flavour of her awful treatment by the lover who’d made her pregnant.

‘And ever I pray you, Child Waters,
Your foot page let me be!’

‘If you will my foot page be, Ellen,
As you do tell it me,
Then you must cut your gown of green
An inch above your knee.

‘So must you do your yellow locks,
Another inch above your eye;
You must tell no man what is my name;
My foot page then you shall be.’

All this long day Child Waters rode,
She ran barefoot by his side;
Yet was he never so courteous a knight
To say, Ellen, will you ride?

But all this day Child Waters rode,
She ran barefoot through the broom;
Yet he was never so courteous a knight
As to say, Put on your shoon.

When feminism combines with fantasy, female characters are more likely to ride, and to wear shoes — as we’ll learn during Witch Week. Past conventions required women to sacrifice quite a bit — the fates of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and other heroines — exactly what Le Guin was fighting against in her re-visioning of Earthsea and as we hope to explore further!

Something witchy this way comes

Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series is like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, one of those secondary worlds that I’ve found I’ve needed to revisit every so often. I’m not the only one, I know, that — however familiar the outline plots — discovers something new each time I step into those universes, whether it’s an insight, a revelation or an emotion.

With the imminent arrival of Witch Week 2018, its theme this year of Fantasy+Feminism and focus on Ursula Le Guin (further details here and here, and also here), I’ve been re-immersing myself in Earthsea as I originally promised myself in a mini-review back in 2015.

Lizzie Ross and I will be co-hosting Witch Week (30 October to 06 November), with a week of posts celebrating the fantasy genre and Diana Wynne Jones.
We’ve lined up some exciting posts from guest bloggers, including a Top-Ten list of fantasy heroines, and a discussion of a Polish fantasy series.
AND don’t forget our readalong: Le Guin’s The Other Wind, the final book of her Earthsea series.

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