Earthsea: Can You Imagine A Woman Wizard?

“The earthsea books as feminist literature are a total, complete bust. From my own archetypes and from my own cultural upbringing I couldn’t go down deep and come up with a woman wizard. Maybe I’ll learn to eventually but when I wrote those I couldn’t do it. I wish I could have.”

So said Ursula K. Le Guin at a writing convention during the 1970s and the clip is shown in Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, a documentary released shortly after her death in 2018. She was talking of the first three books of Earthsea: A Wizard of Earthsea (published 1968), The Tombs of Atuan (1970) and The Farthest Shore (1972). All beautiful books about magic, shadows, dragons and, more often than not, men. However, reading the lines and between them I do not consider this spell-binding trilogy of books to be a total, complete bust as far as feminist literature goes, even though there are no woman wizards (spoilers).

Much can be learned about the three books from the maps at the start of them. The Wizard of Earthsea shows the map of the whole archipelago of Earthsea, much of which the protagonist, a young wizard named Duny/Sparrowhawk/Ged (it’s a long story, go read it!),  gets to explore in his quest to defeat the shadow he conjured from the lands of the dead in an act of youthful hubris. The map in The Farthest Shore zooms in on the west of the archipelago and it is here the young Prince Arren joins a much older Ged as they sail from island to island in search of the great evil that is draining the world of life. As for The Tombs of Atuan, the map shows the enclosure of the Place of the Tombs including a few temples, dormitories and the Small House in which the young Tenar sleeps alone. A second map reveals the labyrinth beneath the Tombs, home to the Nameless Ones for whom Tenar is high priestess. These maps are symbolic of the terrain that male and female protagonists get to come of age within: Ged and Arren get the run of Earthsea, while Tenar is literally walled in. A further irony for Tenar is that even though the walls are crumbling and full of holes, the land beyond is miles and miles of arid desert. Escape is both lethal and unimaginable. She is well and truly trapped, while Ged and Arren begin their stories with a much larger degree of freedom. Yes, Ged’s early life is tough but because of his innate gift for magic his situation swiftly improves, whereas Tenar has no magic to improve her lot, there are no woman wizards in Earthsea after all.

Furthermore, in Book 1 Ged spends most of the time fleeing then tracking a shadow of his own creation and in Book 3 Arren gets to choose to join Ged on a mission to save the world from evil. Whereas Tenar is taken as a young child and forced to learn the arcane (and pointless) rituals of an oppressive faith, in which women used to have power but now have been reduced to tokenism within an increasingly patriarchal system. Tenar does not have the privilege to roam free and certainly doesn’t have the privilege to make a mess then clear it up. It is no surprise, either, that at the triumphant end of Book 3 Arren feels a great sense of “victory”, while in Book 2, Tenar does not have the time to win or lose, instead all she acquires is freedom from the oppression of the Tombs. The price of this freedom is high: she can never return to her family and must leave the land she grew up in, unkind to her in many ways but also one in which she found friendship and care. Her actions may fulfil a prophecy and Ged may escort her safely away from the Kargard Lands but her future is completely uncertain. This isn’t victory and it’s barely freedom, if anything, it is escape.

There is one woman wizard in the first trilogy, in Book 3, but she has lost her skill and only exists for a page or so. Meanwhile, the women who do have magic are looked down on as common witches who know herbs and petty love potions, “weak as a woman’s magic, wicked as woman’s magic” they say on the Isle of Gont, where Ged was born. Female characters do not fare too well in the first three books of Earthsea and acquire very little page space, save in Book 2. However. Beyond Ged and Arren’s typically heroic character arcs, Tenar shows an amazing resilience and bravery in the face of a patriarchal system that would see her dead. To survive the book she must challenge everything she has been raised to believe, she must reject the belief in her own supreme power as high priestess, she must let crumble the very labyrinths she has sworn to protect and betray the Nameless Ones she has long worshipped. To survive she must change entirely and agree to flee her home with Ged, who she rescues from the darkness of the labyrinths. In the face of all this Tenar survives and she grows in ways young Ged and Arren cannot because their very privileges deny them the ability to learn from what they take for granted. They strive and they suffer and they are admirable heroes (who I’d happily go sailing the high seas with) but in my recent rereading of the trilogy it is young Tenar I find myself caring for most, there is more nuance in her story and thus she is given more scope to be human: petty, selfish, wicked as well as brave, fearless and kind (curiously, when Arren starts to think mutinous thoughts about betraying Ged halfway through Book 3 it is because he is under a spell and not because he is revealing his own nuances of character).

The implication is that Le Guin thinks the first trilogy of Earthsea is a “complete bust” as far as feminist literature is concerned because there is no woman wizard protagonist. But it’s no surprise that the works of a woman living through a time of patriarchy would reflect the values and prejudices of such a system. The universities were full of men, not unlike the School of Magic on the Isle of Roke reserved exclusively for men, and the literary canon was full of men. “From my own archetypes and from my own cultural upbringing I couldn’t go down deep and come up with a woman wizard.” However, we do get Tenar as a protagonist, a young woman struggling to come of age within a callous and dangerous patriarchal world, and I think she’s brilliant. As for woman wizards, “Maybe I’ll learn to eventually but when I wrote those I couldn’t do it. I wish I could have.” And it’s that wish that is both heart breaking and inspiring: the former because it acknowledges all the ways Le Guin’s prejudiced world robbed her of the freedoms and privileges she so deserved and inspiring because it informs the second trilogy of Earthsea. TBC.

Frankenstein At The National

Content note: discussion of rape, racism, ableism, oppression, violence towards women of colour.

I remember watching Danny Boyle’s production of Frankenstein at the National Theatre back in 2011. Those heady days when I could sit in close proximity to lots of people in a darkened room and watch other humans move about on a raised platform, I’m talking about theatre darrling. One of the production’s clever tricks was to have the two lead actors, Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch, interchange the roles of Dr Victor Frankenstein and the Creature on different nights. I took my seat not knowing who I’d get and as one hundred light bulbs glared and fizzed there appeared before me a very naked Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature. I had a whale of a time.

Nearly ten years later and last week I decided to watch Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature and was once again impressed by the production, especially the quality of acting and the versatility of the staging as we were taken from busy steam trains to the Orkneys and way off into the Arctic. However, what I noted this time round is despite the supposed universality of the Frankenstein myth – when man plays God he does it very badly and lots of people get hurt (yup, pretty accurate) – the play’s protagonists lacked contextualisation. We are never asked to spend much time exploring Dr Frankenstein’s identity as a wealthy, white, able-bodied man who has the luxury to spend time building a human from bits of corpses and then immediately do a runner once things don’t go quite to plan (namely, he finds the Creature too ugly). Hmm, a man making a mess and not taking responsibility for it, sound familiar?

Another central theme of the Frankenstein story is how the monsters which haunt us are often of our own making. The Creature can very much be seen as parts of Victor’s psyche made manifest, some of which transcend his own capacity for morality while others turn to murder and rape (as implied in the book, as depicted on stage). And again, the Creature as a projection of Victor, a contextless man, also lacks context, he is an embodiment of feelings, sensations and impulses concocted in a laboratory. Whereas in our everyday world we create contextualised monsters all the time, for example, in the way racist white people treat black people, bigoted men treat women, prejudiced able-bodied people treat people with disabilities. Oppression often involves the projection of things we hate or do not understand about ourselves onto others. Yet watching Victor and the Creature clash on stage I felt they were robbed of any ability to offer a more nuanced take on oppression precisely because they lacked context. This relates to the diverse casting of the play with a brilliant Naomie Harris trying to get some mileage out of the brief stage time given to Elizabeth Lavenza before she is graphically killed by the monster. However, just as with the parts played by George Harris and Jared Richard, I would argue the production doesn’t ask us to think about race. The fact a black woman is raped and murdered on stage is less significant than the fact that Elizabeth Lavenza, Victor’s fiancé, is raped and murdered on stage because it’s his story after all (even though we’re never asked to explore much of who he really is).

Despite oppression, sexism and ableism being key themes of the story, the play fails to adequately explore them because it never really bothers to explore the contexts and privileges of the protagonists. In Victor we could see the embodiment of white, able-bodied, male, privilege writ large, outsourcing his violent desires to his reviled white, male Creature constantly facing violence for being “ugly” and “different”, but instead we just see Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller duking it out on stage. Frankenstein is an amazing novel which had much to say in 1818 and still has much to say today but Frankenstein, Danny Boyle’s production, while repeating many of the original messages didn’t say much more for 2011/20. Perhaps what the play inadvertently reminds us is that within supposed ‘universal’ stories lies an awful lot of unspoken privilege and injustice.

Homophobia In Twelfth Night At The National Theatre

Twelfth Night, it’s a Shakespeare rom-com classic: twins, ribaldry, much confusion and a bunch of marriages. The National Theatre very kindly shared their brilliant live version online, which I watched again last night. For the second time I was blown away by Tamsin Grieg’s show stopping performance as not Malvolio – the uptight steward – but Malvolia, the female version, who is tricked via a forged letter into believing that her mistress, Countess Olivia, loves her. Malvolia is over the moon, she even starts dancing in a fountain. “I thank my stars,” she shouts grimly, trying to smile, “I am happy.” She’s quick to don yellow, cross-gartered stockings (all things the Countess hates) and it’s not long before Olivia has her locked away only to be further bullied by her tormentors. Thus, thanks to the NT’s gender switch it transpires that the fate of a woman who loves another woman is…torture. Damn.

As Tamsin Grieg said in a recent interview, “I was very nervous of making Malvolio a woman and therefore a lesbian, considering what happens to the character in the play, which is monstrous.” And it’s true. For all Malvolia’s arrogance and her nastiness towards some of the other characters, her fate is one of torture at the hands of a bunch of sadistic homophobes. Grieg also said that, “Malvolia is a deeply wounded human being who becomes OCD and bullies the other people in the household in order to cope.” So we’re also seeing violence towards someone with a mental health condition. It’s no surprise that the play ends with a distraught Malvolia crying bitter tears in the rain swearing revenge on those who have bullied her, while most of the other characters are busily getting married. Damn.

As for the marriages, they need some explaining. Remember the twins – Viola and Sebastian. They were separated in a shipwreck, both thinking the other dead. Viola disguises herself as a man called Cesario and starts working for Duke Orsino who gets her to woe the love of his life Countess Olivia. Trouble is Olivia falls for Cesario/Viola while Viola/Cesario falls for Orsino, who keeps finding himself oddly attracted to Cesario/Viola. And then Sebastian turns up at the end and all manner of confusion/hilarity ensues. Olivia quickly marries Sebastian thinking he’s Cesario while Duke Orsino is over the moon to discover that Cesario is actually a woman, Viola, who he promptly marries. Even Sir Toby Belch and Maria get married (two of the characters instrumental in Malvolia’s torture). As for Antonio the friendly pirate who rescued and fell in love with Sebastian (they even share an early onstage kiss)…he’s left to watch Sebastian get married to Olivia. So it’s happy ends all round for the heterosexuals (who didn’t turn out to be queer after all, phew), while the people who openly love people of the same gender end up bullied and alone. Damn.

So I was left wondering if this was an appropriative queering of a classic by a group of well-meaning (but perhaps slightly ignorant) creative types or if it was a searing indictment of the ridiculousness that is heteronormativity and its associated rituals – I mean, Sebastian marries Olivia within five minutes of meeting her, which is incredibly problematic given she can’t consent to marry Sebastian because she thinks she’s marrying Cesario; Orsino is so utterly repressed he can’t let himself fall in love with a man, inappropriately persuing Olivia instead who has already made her disinterest clear. And there’s the brief scene at The Elephant, a queer-ish bar, with a drag performer who ends up getting punched by Sebastian, along with a number of the other patrons (a needless bit of queer bashing methinks). Not forgetting the queerphobic abuse that poor Malvolia suffers and it’s almost as if the moral of this production is that it’s shit being queer.

File:Johann Heinrich Ramberg - Olivia, Maria and Malvolio from "Twelfth Night," Act III, Scene iv - Google Art Project.jpg
Check out those yellow, cross-gartered stockings! By Johann Heinrich Ramberg

What Kind Of War Does A Virus Wage?

The world of virology is rife with belligerent metaphors. COVID-19 is a viral invader which attacks and attempts to colonise a host. The host fights against the virus with its own defence systems in the hope of repelling the invader. Meanwhile, the societal fight against COVID-19 is likened to a war effort as the heroes of the NHS support those infected by the virus while the rest of the country contributes to the fight by staying at home and doing all we can to lower the rate of transmission. We have to win this fight after all and it’s a big one, it’s a pandemic.

These metaphors are useful. The former helps describe how viruses exist and how they infect us, while the latter reminds us of the severity of the pandemic and the scale of the response needed to meet it. However, they are both metaphors – “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable” – and just as a virus can’t literally be said to invade a host (although we do talk of a virus spreading) so we can’t really go to war against a virus because a virus, strictly speaking, isn’t an enemy (even though it does very much threaten our lives). Because an enemy is defined as “a person who is actively opposed or hostile to someone or something” and personhood often depends on possessing conscious agency – the ability to desire something and act in a way so as to get it. So, really, when it comes to fighting the war against COVID-19 we aren’t at war with a virus we are at war with one another.

Today we see this war play out in the political decisions those in power make which determine how well (or badly) we will be able to survive this pandemic. The lack of ventilators, the insufficient supply of medical equipment, and the state of the NHS have their origins in politics. As did the decision to bail out the banks after the 2008 crash and foist the debt onto the public via austerity, which further undermined our social fabric. This response based on a long-standing neoliberal capitalist hegemony in the UK (and beyond) which prioritises commerce and capital over community and well-being. This politico-economic regime a logical continuation of our entrenched class system that sees a few (e.g. Kings and capitalists) hoard wealth at the expense of the many (e.g. serfs and workers). And the very wealth of this hierarchical system founded upon many genuine invasions, in which an attacking force attempted to destroy populations and colonise their territories. I am talking of the spread of the British Empire and its genocidal colonisation of so much of the world. If we were to use a viral metaphor the Empire would be the virus.

Many have fought and questioned this system of oppression for centuries and, now, the pandemic is making many more of us question it too. This violent and soul-destroying system can be replaced by ways of life that are more healing, communal and just. Ones which are ultimately founded on love, not hate. For this to happen I think it worthwhile to be able to trace the origins of our political circumstances in their long, bloodied and genocidal history. The pandemic is about so much more than a virus, it is deeply political, and for our politics to change we must understand them from as many different angles as possible including anti-colonial, feminist, queer and intersectional. In the meantime we will continue to fight a war on COVID-19 but who survives it and how depends on the politics we practice and, to date, it is our politicians, not our viruses, that wage war. This can change and we must be the people to change it.

“Truth counts, Truth does count.”

So says Mr Emerson in E.M. Forster’s lovely novel, A Room with a View, about repressed middle class Edwardians who happily travelled around Europe and went skinny dipping in ponds. Like those fusty Edwardians I too was long schooled in the fine English arts of passive aggression and stiff-upper-lipness. Confrontation was something to be avoided at all costs and emotions were best left repressed. Nevertheless, after a breakdown in my early 20s I slowly learned that mental health is vital as is the ability to experience, process and communicate my emotions. A not dissimilar breakdown last year taught me that telling the truth is also vital, be it recounting my own experiences of suffering and isolation as a gay man or speaking up for the wider suffering within the LGBTQIA+ community. Just like Lucy Honeychurch, the protagonist of A Room with a View, I have learned that love and truth do count, they really do (incidentally, my privilege let me go travelling in South America, much further away than Europe, and there was definitely the odd bit of skinny dipping).

The COVID-19 pandemic requires love and truth on an unprecedented scale. A love that is being demonstrated in abundance by the UK’s key workers who are working tirelessly to save lives and a love we need to show towards ourselves, those we care for, the vulnerable, the NHS, our key workers and, actually, everyone. And the truth matters just as much because many people still don’t understand the severity of the pandemic and the need for us all to take action following the recommendations of the WHO (World Health Organisation) and medical experts. This includes staying at home, regardless of whether we have symptoms or not, an incredibly simple yet powerful thing we can do to stop the spread of the virus.  We can follow the advice of the government as well but we must remember that the government has been slow to act, so there will be times when we can act more responsibly than Boris Johnson is telling us to. It’s in our hands (but hopefully not on our hands because we’re washing them regularly).

This isn’t a self-help blog and I can’t tell you what to do but I can tell you that I am doing my best to honour truth and love. I’m having difficult conversations with people I care about (conversations we might call ‘conflict’ but are actually about trying to do what’s best for everyone) and encouraging people to speak up for themselves. And, I confess, there are times when I have shied away from these conversations because I fear someone’s reaction more than I do the consequences of inaction. I will do my best to change this behaviour because it could save lives. I am trying to look after myself so I’m in a better place to look after others. I am trying not to catastrophise (too much) but I am also trying not to deny the rapid ways in which ‘normality’ has irrevocably changed. I am trying to love myself, I am trying to tell myself the truth, and I am taking it one day at a time. Over to you Mr Emerson and Dr. Rita Issa:

“…we fight for more than Love or Pleasure: there is Truth. Truth counts, Truth does count.”

Queer Medicine

“Queer people don’t grow up as ourselves, we grow up playing a version of ourselves that sacrifices authenticity to minimise humiliation & prejudice. The massive task of our adult lives is to unpick which parts of ourselves are truly us & which parts we’ve created to protect us.”

This tweet from Alexander Leon recently went viral and is testimony to the many, many struggles queer people face in claiming their identities in the face of prejudice, ignorance and violence. He went on to say:

“It’s massive and existential and difficult. But I’m convinced that being confronted with the need for profound self-discovery so explicitly (and often early in life!) is a gift in disguise. We come out the other end wiser & truer to ourselves. Some cis/het people never get there.”

And that last sentence, “Some cis/het people never get there”, really stands out for me as many cis/het people never get the chance to profoundly explore their identities beyond the aggressive and shaming narratives of patriarchal heternormativity telling them the sort of lives they should be living, the sort of salaries they should be earning, houses they should be buying, gender roles they should be conforming to etc. Whereas, for the queers who make it through the many dark nights of their souls and experience this “profound self-discovery” the results really can be liberating as the bonds that bind us snap and we gain one of the greatest gifts, freedom. We may well still be alone, trying to make it in a world that isn’t ready for us, but our souls are a little less bound and much more free.

I call this queer medicine. It might be bitter to taste (and that’s not even the half of it) but the results are healing. And the irony is that as the heteronorm excludes, kills and ridicules us, queer medicine is an elixir anyone can take, whatever their sexualities and genders. Because we are all capable of profoundly discovering ourselves and that wisdom and truth on the other side of unconditioning is available to us all. Queer medicine does not discriminate, it’s for the taking for everyone, bottoms up.

 

The Trouble With Sex Education’s Eric, Part 2

Content note/trigger warning: sexual assault and rape.

There’s a scene in the final episode of Sex Education season 1 (spoilers) which sees Eric, a fabulous, black, gay and queer guy, in detention with Adam, who has been homophobically bullying Eric throughout the series. The bullying continues and Adam shoots mushed up bits of paper through a straw at Eric’s face. They then fight over a music stand and Adam violently shoves Eric. Eric shoves back. The shoving continues until Adam overpowers Eric and pushes him to the ground. Eric, in self-defence, spits in Adam’s face. Adam does it back, asking: “How do you like it?” Eric says, “I don’t” to which Adam replies, “Yeah, didn’t think so.” There’s a pause as the two look one another in the eye and Eric raises his head a fraction (a tiny fraction) and then Adam kisses him before going down on him. You can watch the scene here (but you probably don’t want to) and you can reread a blog post I wrote on this last year. My biggest concern is that we’re being led to believe that violence between men isn’t problematic and that the ending of a storyline of physical and psychological abuse with barely-consented-to sex is somehow a happy ending. As the series creator, Laurie Nunn, said, they were “telling a love story through bullying.”

I want to make it categorically clear that it is impossible to tell a love story through bullying. Bullying and any form of abuse is the opposite of love and if it results in sex the likelihood is that the sex involved is actually rape or sexual assault. Naturally, I was all for not bothering with series 2 given I’d felt so let down but after a number of friends started singing its praises I decided to watch some of the episodes. Regarding the Eric and Adam plotline, Adam has been shipped off to military school and Eric begins a relationship with the epic and loving Rahim who is kind, compassionate, loving and all the things someone might want in a partner. But. Adam returns and surprise, surprise, Eric starts to fall for him again. Otis, Eric’s best friend, has a go at Eric for wanting to return to Adam: “…this is about you being so self-hating that you’d let yourself fall for someone who literally treats you like shit.” But Eric fights back, defending Adam and saying that he’s changed. We do witness a little of this change as Adam struggles with a lack of friends and his bisexuality but as for how he treated Eric, while he claims to now realise that he treated him very badly he doesn’t ever say sorry. Come the final episode and Adam interrupts the school play and makes a grant gesture to Eric, asking to hold his hand. Eric consents. It’s not long before he dumps Rahim and Eric’s family are delighted because apparently being with an emotionally sensitive man who didn’t attack and abuse him was a bad thing but getting with one’s aggressor is to be celebrated.

There are many things that Sex Education gets right but I don’t think this storyline is one of them. It glamourises and romanticises abuse and violence between men encouraging us to champion the dysfunctional and previously violent relationship between Eric and Adam. The sexual assault of series 1 gets zilch reference precisely because we’re not supposed to see it as sexual assault (likewise in real life) and men attacking men and finding romance through bullying is supposed to be sexy and the stuff of happy endings. The issue is infantilised and treated as a will-they-won’t-they sort of tease rather than a nuanced story exploring shame, self-loathing, violence and sexual violence between men within and without the LGBTQ+ community.