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.

Eradicating Ecocide With Polly Higgins

It was the autumn of 2010 and I was on a bus from London to Oxford for the Oxford Climate Forum. In my hand was a short article I’d cut out of the New Internationalist about barrister-turned-eco-warrior, Polly Higgins, who wanted to have the large-scale destruction of the environment – termed ecocide – recognised as the fifth crime against peace in the UN. In essence, she wanted to make it illegal to trash the planet. I thought it was an interesting idea but perhaps a little ambitious. Anyway, the bus got to Oxford and I got myself to the Oxford Union debating chamber and listened to quite a large array of older white men drone on about different aspects of climate change. Then in walks a woman with wondrous salt and pepper hair and a beautiful Scottish accent. I sat up straighter and listened to her describe a world without ecocide and how we can make it happen – it’s actually quite simple. Suffice to say by the end of Polly’s talk my curious scepticism had given way to excitable hope. After the talks I went up to her and thanked her for speaking and I said how great it was to have a woman talk at the event and she smiled and said thank you.

That was the first time I met Polly and it wouldn’t be the last. Later that year I’d head to the South Bank Centre to hear her talk again and I’d ask her to sign the copy of her book I’d bought. She wrote, “here’s to making it happen”, and I told her I’d like to help, so she wrote her email address in the book as well. This is a long story, too long for a post, but one thing led to another and I became her Campaign Director for half a year and, thanks to Polly, I was whisked away on a number of adventures. One highlight was being asked to attend a talk given by Vanessa Redgrave, which Polly couldn’t make. What I hadn’t been told was that after her talk I’d be asked to go up on stage and share a panel with her. My face paled, my armpits began to sweat, and for the next thirty minutes I had to pretend I was meant to be there.

There are so many stories I could share about Polly – about how lost I felt when I stopped working for her, about how our friendship would last through the years, about the time she leant me her dress at her Delightfully Decadent birthday party, about her endless kindness and enthusiasm. I loved Polly dearly and it broke my heart when she passed away on Easter Sunday this year from cancer. She was a legend in life and she will be one in death. But as I finish this post what I really want to share is how all those years ago when I was a 22 year-old fresh out of uni without much of a clue what was going to happen next, Polly gave me direction. She also gave me permission – permission to dream as big as possible and to change the world. And today, as I write scripts, stories and run workshops I still dream big and I still want to the change world. Because life is incredibly short and whilst I do understand there’s so much more to changing the world than dreams, I also know that for those of us with the privilege and the power to make a difference it’s a very good idea to dream as big as we can. I still want ecocide to be recognised as an international crime and thanks to Polly’s work and the ongoing work of her team we are that bit closer. So please sign up to become an Earth Protector and please keep dreaming big.

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I Think It Is Called Belonging

The Quest, think Queer As Folk meets Lord of the Rings, just ran for a week at the Arcola Theatre in East London. For six nights I got to watch a fabulous, queer troupe bring a range of characters and worlds to life. There was Fred, the bisexual teenager on his first Tinder date, whose past catches up with him, and Zemuel, of the mythic Valley of Embers, sent on a quest to banish the monster that haunts them. There were other characters too such as adoptive mothers, gossiping friends, a village Elder, a sarky waiter, a loving dad, teachers, a LOTR-disliking intersectional feminist, a best friend and a waterfall lover. The directing was fantastic and it was amazing to see my words brought to life on stage. And the audiences loved it. There was laughter, tears and many words of congratulations. Many people felt deeply moved by the stories of Fred and Zemuel, and they hit home for a lot of the team as well, as growing up queer in an oft hostile world means we are all faced with monsters. So, really, this was so much more than a play, it was its own quest, one for belonging.

Because that’s what I crave as a member of the queer community. I want to feel like I belong among people who care for me and care for our wider community. People who are spiritually, emotionally and physically nourished, and given a chance to heal the wounds of their past so they can live lives of greater freedom and face the difficulties of today. I want us also to be able to enjoy the many joys of our lives – such as making an ace piece of theatre. There is so much unbelonging in the world, for so many of us, and the queer community is hit by this unbelonging at a number of intersections. As the King of Brunei imposes the death penalty for gay people, so the fight for survival is still very much real. In Britain there will continue to be high rates of LGBT+ suicide, especially among young people, there will be LGBT+ homelessness, and a range of mental health problems exacerbated by societal prejudice and indifference. It’s a tough world to live in and the quest for Queertopia continues. A quest that straight and cisgendered folks need to join, so they can offer their power and allyship to their queer companions who will stand by them in return (and make ace pieces of theatre to boot).

So, thank you to the wondrous cast and crew of The Quest who helped prove that Queertopia can exist here on earth. While the play might be over I know we have all come away with pride and, hopefully, a little more of our soul – a sense that even though many of us might still struggle with belonging in this world, we can at least belong to ourselves more deeply and, hopefully, one another. Now in an act of unforgivable arrogance I will leave the last word to Zemuel, after they have vanquished their monster and returned to the villagers in the Valley of Embers, their new home…

“They are all there. A feeling wells inside of me, one I can barely name, but I think it is called belonging.”

The Valley of Embers – photo courtesy of …

A New(ish) Story: The Heroic Community

Stories are often constrained by the medium through which they are told. Shakespeare’s five act play structure lent itself well to the amount of time people could sit/stand through a play at the Globe. Dickens’ instalment-stories leant themselves well to regular publications in periodicals. And for the past few decades Blockbuster movies have slavishly followed the Hero’s Quest style narrative with great, multi-billion dollar success. And we have the original Star Wars trilogy to thank for this, or should that be blame? Effects-heavy, stereotype-rich and plot-lite is the typical approach for your average Blockbuster – there are basically only 90 minutes to tell the story of one main character (usually a man) doing a series of heroic (usually violent) things culminating in an explosive climax. Meanwhile, in-depth characterisation and moral ambiguities are ignored. Endless films keep using this formula backed up by a growing library of how-to books based on questionable psychology and claims that the Hero’s Quest is the best structure for a good story. Really!?

But that was then and this is now, and there’s a new hero in town, namely the television series. Attracting mammoth budgets, very special effects, stellar casts and nuanced plots – each 45 minute episode is now a bit like an instalment of a Dickens classic. These stories can involve multiple characters and multiple plot strands as well as having the time to explore bigger questions beyond the best way of blowing something up. We finally have an antidote to Hero Quest-itis, we’re no longer just watching the story of one man desperately trying to invest in staving off a midlife crisis. This is no longer the story of the lone hero getting by with a little, token help from his friends, it’s when the friends get to become actual characters with depth, backstory and plot. It’s not just Leia, R2D2, Chewie et al being plot devices in Luke’s success, it’s about opening up heroism (in all its forms) to the whole group. It’s basically the movie Pride.

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Based on a true story this tells the tale of the group Lesbians & Gays Support the Miners who raised money for striking Welsh miners in the 1980s. One of the pioneers of the group was Mark Ashton, a young, London based activist, and Pride could have been The Story of Mark – how he went from living your average life in London to being a hero of the Civil Resistance to the 1970s/80s Conservative Government, how he had to face obstacles (discrimination, violence etc) but triumphed over them to glory. But no, this film wasn’t just about Mark, it was about tens of people – a mix of gays, lesbians, miners, protestors, parents, friends, families, women, men, homophobes, naysayers, and bigots. The film portrayed the lives of many people, not just one, and gave depth and personality to a range of characters – quite a feat given that they didn’t have at least 20 episodes to do it in. Multiple protagonist stories abound (Calendar Girls, August: Osage County, Shakespeare’s canon) and they are a good antidote to the idealised, hero story. Pride tells a very different story – that of the Heroic Community perhaps.

The simple point is that we don’t have to look far to see beyond the structural limitations of the Hero’s Quest – for too long this go-to plot has been gone to by movie makers because it lends itself brilliantly to 90-minute, Blockbuster, cash-making extravaganzas. But the bit that really bugs me is the huge amount of literature, science and philosophy that is used to justify the endless use of the Hero’s Quest (ahem, Joseph Campbell). Fortunatley, we can retaliate by populating our stories with diverse characters and not being afraid to diverge from the predictable path of the hero. TV, comics, books, plays and video games are already streaming ahead (and have been for a long time) and now mainstream cinema needs to catch up.