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.

Do I Owe You Anything?

“For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever pulled in the tombs of the dead Kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving whiles others ate? No [one] earns punishment, no [one] earns reward. Free your mind of the ideas of deserving, the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.” This quote from the sci-fi novel The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin ended one of my previous posts. And now I want to take a closer look – what might it actually mean if we were to free our minds of the ideas of deserving and earning?

To explore this I am going to get personal and focus on relationships. One sort of relationship is friendship and it is often governed by notions of deserving and earning. For example, if I give my friend a present for their birthday then I might think that I deserve to get one for my birthday, that I’ve earned it. But if we free our minds of the ideas of deserving and earning how then can we describe this scenario? It’s obvious that my friend and I care about one another, which is why we’re friends, so I give them a birthday present predominantly as a means of expressing that care. I don’t have to give them a present but I do choose to. Now, I’ve done a nice thing for them but does that mean they have to do a nice thing for me? Well, if earning/deserving are out the window then the simple answer is no. There is no universal law or cosmological truth or fundamental principle that means every good deed deserves another. However, my friend, uncompelled by abstract principles, might still choose to give me a present because they also want to express their care for me and because they know I like getting presents.

The two situations I’ve described above aren’t hugely different – they’re both about giving and receiving presents. However, in the first we can fall back on ideas of earning/deserving – “I gave you a present, so I deserve one”, as if there are unwritten laws that govern how friendships work. In the latter, we cannot fall back on these invisible laws but instead must take responsibility for our actions and choose what we’ll do accordingly. To go back to the quote we can consider the ideas of earning/deserving from two angles: either, everyone deserves everything, or no one deserves anything. The former suggests that we all deserve birthday presents and that sounds great but as soon as the scenario arises in which some people get lots of presents whilst others get none then the principle is undermined. Likewise if we all deserve nothing then we could use this to justify hoarding presents for ourselves whilst never giving them to other people. However, without the ideas of deserving/earning then the act of giving presents is about choice. We love our friend and might choose to express that via giving a present. And so, freeing our minds of the ideas of deserving/earning changes everything. Rather than being governed by rules or laws or decrees or commandments we are suddenly free to act however we wish – we can give as many or as few presents as we want. We get to choose. To put it another way rather than being forced to sing to another’s song we get to compose our own: we get to make our kind of music.

How Do We Beat Trump?

It’s going to take anarchy to defeat Trump, real anarchy. And that begins with the absolute freedom of the individual. In previous posts I’ve written about how money makes the world go round and whilst it dictates all our financial relationships it also affects our personal lives as we come to view friendships and partnerships as cost benefit calculations. We quantify the unquantifiable and enumerate what others mean to us. We refer to this as social capital and there’s even natural capital when it comes to measuring the use of the environment. Jessie J was right, everything has a price. I’ve also posted on the concept of debt, which is crucial to our monetary system, and how key to any debtor-creditor relationship is the threat of violence. Just as the master can threaten the life of their slave, so the bank can threaten with fines, the boss with unemployment, the government with benefit cuts and so on. Crucial to debt is the nature of ownership – that a boss can own a company or a master can own a slave, that anything can be anyone’s property. It is clear Trump, with his billions, thrives in such a world but there are others. In anarchy, where the principle of absolute freedom of the individual is realised, no one would own and no one would be owned. Can you imagine that?

Given we live in a world ruled by money and private property it’s hard to imagine absolute freedom. It’s the opposite of ownership, a world with no masters and no slaves. We would all be free. And whilst anarchy is often misunderstood as chaos and disorder there is one vital thing it would have in common with the current world ‘order’ of capitalism. Namely, relationships. If the bonds of capitalism are dependent on money, debt, ownership and the threat of violence then, I imagine, the relationships of anarchy would be dependent on trust, choice, freedom and the possibility of ceaseless love. Jessie J said it first – if it’s not about the money then “we’ll pay them with love tonight.” And can you imagine that, an economy of love? It sounds like a utopian dream and it sounds great.

We’d need to agree on some core principles such as equality for all – not just equality for the rich, or the white, or the male, but equality for all. This would mean we’d all be fed, housed and watered, no one would go hungry whilst others gorged. There would be enough for everyone. We would all have access to meaning, work and leisure. Competition would be replaced with collaboration. We wouldn’t hoard, we would share. We would all be loved. And whilst we’d still bicker, fall out, shirk and fight, we’d do it with the goal of absolute freedom in sight and not whatever the goals of today are. We’d do all this in honour of the generations that have gone before, for the sake of the ones to come, in reverence for the world we live as part of and we’d do it for each other and ourselves. And we would do it not because someone was holding a gun to our head or because the rules say we have to or because our masters forced us to, no, we would do it out of choice. Can you imagine that, such choice, such responsibility, such freedom.

I will leave you with the words of a character in The Dispossessed, one of Ursula Le Guin’s award winning sci-fi classics that compares the planets of Urras and Anarres, the former a mix of capitalist and communist states and the latter a world of anarchism (I’ve slightly edited the quote so it is suitable to all genders, not just men). It is an amazing book that asks us to imagine a world without earning and deserving yet a world in which all are free. It’s hard to get your head around it but I have a sneaking suspicion so many of our hearts are already there. Because to beat Trump and the system of which he is a puppet, figurehead and ruthless profiteer, we must at least be able to imagine an alternative. I dare you.

A thin, small, middle-aged man beside Trepil began speaking, at first softly, in a voice hoarsened by the dust-cough, so that few of them heard him. He was a visiting delegate from a Southwest miners’ syndicate, not expected to speak on this matter. “…what [people] deserve,” he was saying. “For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever pulled in the tombs of the dead Kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving whiles others ate? No [one] earns punishment, no [one] earns reward. Free your mind of the ideas of deserving, the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.” They were of course Odo’s words from the Prison Letters, but spoken in the weak, hoarse voice they made a strange effect, as if the man were working them out word by word himself, as if they came from his one heart, slowly, with difficulty, as the water wells up slowly, slowly, from the desert sand.