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.

Does The Quest For Queer Happiness Have A Destination?

Only two days now until the premiere of The Quest, a play I’ve written that parts mythic, part modern and follows the stories of Zemuel and Fred, both yearning to find home in an oft hostile world. It’s being put on as part of the Arcola Theatre’s Creative Disruption festival, which celebrates its many community theatre groups, including the Queer Collective, of which I am a part. Since January an ace group of queers have been tirelessly bringing the script to life with movement, voice, body and even sticks. The result is already beautiful and I can’t wait to see it on stage. You can too, get your tickets here!

Inspired originally by Matthew Todd’s great book, Straight Jacket, which outlines a number of problems the gay, male community is suffering from and how to face them. Whilst I was reading it I went off for an adventurous week in a rewilding Welsh valley. It was all very Legend of Zelda and whilst the people there with me were fabulous there was not much space for queerness. So the Queer Warrior character came to life to challenge this as well as the repetitive plot of the Zelda games – a young dude going off to rescue a Princess from a big monster, yawn. I wanted to be able to imagine an inherently queer fantastical world, one in which all LGBT+ folks can experience wholesome rites of passage as they step deeper into their identities. However, while I think it’s very important to be able to imagine these things I also know that I don’t live in such a world. All the problems outlined in Straight Jacket continue to exist, which is why The Quest is also set in London where shit happens and the characters have to deal with it.

So does the quest for queer happiness have a destination? I think so. But I don’t think it’s necessarily a place. I think it’s a state of mind and being that is hugely dependent on the places in which one finds oneself. For me it’s about cultivating self-love, pride and resilience in the face of self-loathing, shame and prejudice. It’s tough and all over the world LGBT+ folk are being persecuted simply for wanting to be themselves. Queertopia remains a distant dream but I still think it’s worth imagining these brilliant places where queer folk are happy and well nurtured whilst recognising the challenges we face in getting there. I do hope you’ll join us on The Quest.

Some People Are Trans. Celebrate It.

I’ve just filled out the government’s online consultation form regarding the Gender Recognition Act. The reality is saddening but the reform could be inspirational. At heart it’s about the right to one’s identity and the power of self-determination. So many of us get to take our identities for granted. We are assigned male or female at birth and that’s that but for trans, intersex and non-binary folks this is still a struggle that often entails discrimination, humiliation and isolation. We can change this and the epic LGBT+ charity Stonewall has a page on their website which guides you through answering some of the most important questions on the consultation. The deadline is soon, 19th October, and the process only takes about ten minutes.

I learned some pretty shocking things while filling out the form. For a trans person to have their gender legally recognised they have to apply for a Gender Recognition Certificate. Not only is this process long and costly it also requires a diagnosis of gender dysphoria. Yup. Being trans is regarded as a mental illness. But what of the many people who are trans and not suffering from gender dysphoria – how on earth do they have their true identity legally recognised? And what about intersex folk who were assigned the wrong gender at birth and want to change this in law? There’s also the requirement for a trans person to provide evidence of living in their ‘acquired gender’ for two years. What sort of evidence might this entail – wearing enough blue or pink, preferring rugby or cooking, being loud or quiet? And who on earth gets to decide if there is sufficient evidence? We’re talking about people’s identities and their right to self-determination within and without the eyes of the law. It’s as simple and fundamental as that, which is why the intrusive and dehumanising process we currently have in place for applying for a GRC needs to change.

Filling out the form was an educational and empowering process, I feel I’m contributing to the potential for positive change in this country. It got me thinking as well. What if we just stopped assigning gender at birth? What if children are raised as children and there is an opt-in process for gender, with parental/guardian/carer consent prior to the age of 16 and then self-determination from 16+? What if we stopped obsessively gendering children from such a young age and pushing them down pink or blue paths, submission or aggression, compassion or callousness? What if we educated children to be good people – to treat one another with love and respect, to try the things they’re interested in and to never assault or harm? And while we’re doing this of course we can recognise the importance of gonads, hormones and the effect puberty has on different bodies, and maybe the key thing here is to talk about it and to stop shying away from conversations about sex, gender, sexuality, attraction, consent, romance and love. The GRA consultation is about stepping up for trans, intersex and non-binary folks and it’s also an opportunity for everyone else to explore their own genders and identities, emerging from the process with a stronger and more nuanced understanding of themselves. The times are changing and there really is a future in which we all win. Or maybe just a future in which identity and self-determination are no longer competitions rife with discrimination and prejudice but a chance for all of us to be ourselves brilliantly. And here’s the Stonewall link again (it only takes ten minutes!).

Obsession With Nigel Biggar Identity Goes Too Far

A response to Nigel Biggar’s article in The Times titled: Obsession with gender identity goes too far (if you replace the instances of Nigel Biggar with transgender you effectively get his article).

Recently a man decided to come out as Nigel Biggar at a public gathering somewhere north of Hadrian’s wall. He did it to raise the profile of people who identify as “Nigel Biggar” (of which I believe there is only one) who, he claims, are being refused “their human right to be recognised as they wish”. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are certain aspects of identity that I think are vastly important, especially sexuality, gender, religion, ethnicity, race, but being Nigel Biggar is not one of them. Unfortunately, the alleged Nigel Biggar seems to think that because he identifies as Nigel Biggar then others should identify him as such. He claims to feel his identity very deeply but, unfortunately for him, not all identities are equal and some just aren’t worth holding on to. No identity deserves uncritical respect and I think it’s time we jettisoned the identity of Nigel Biggar entirely.

When the self-professed Nigel Biggar came out as Nigel Biggar he claimed that his own community has difficulty grasping such a “complex concept”. He went on to explain that the signifier Nigel Biggar “describes anyone who feels that they do not exclusively fit the accepted definitions of people who do not identify as Nigel Biggar.” I have to confess to being a little puzzled by all this. Now, before you accuse me of being Nigel Biggarphobic, I can’t be, because before I can fear or hate something, I have to achieve some idea of what it means. And, frankly, I struggle to make sense of the claims of the new Nigel Biggarism. I mean, why should someone identifying as Nigel Biggar demand that society behave in such a way as to acknowledge their existence? Should we even bother having to put the words Nigel and Biggar together? Should Nigel Biggar identifiers be allowed to go to the toilet, fill out census forms or sleep? As far as I’m concerned the Nigel Biggar identity adds nothing new to our already diverse array of identities and is just an act of private obscurity made manifest. For example, we’re told that “Nigel Biggar” describes any person that trascends the “accepted system” of people who aren’t Nigel Biggar. But why does this already established system need any further identities, we have enough. Self-professed Nigel Biggars claim to transcend those who are not Nigel Biggar but I wonder what qualities actually remain after all other identities have been claimed? I’m struggling to imagine Nigel Biggar’s existence beyond some amorphous blast of hot air.

Most importantly though, why should we care? Whatever Nigel Biggar identity is supposed to be, what’s it good for? What does it achieve? The strength of felt attachment alone can’t endow it with value. So my attitude towards Nigel Biggarism is very much like some random person’s view that the inability of square pegs to fit into round holes has nothing to do with their shape. There are plenty of people out there who are in urgent need of our help – for example, the many transgender folks who are being routinely discriminated against, violently abused and killed in Britain and around the world. In their light, obsessing about the social recognition of the elusive Nigel Biggar identity does look awfully like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

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This man claims to identify as Nigel Biggar but I struggle to see the point of him doing so.

The Depth Of My Longing

In an age of so-called self-made-men and hyper-individualism it seems we’re destined to go it alone and build ourselves from scratch. This, of course, is just one of many bullshit lies fed to us by an economic-political system that thrives when we’re unhappy and buying more crap. I’m not saying it’s a conspiracy but it’s kinda true that miserable folk make for better consumers and what better way to make people miserable than make them feel alone. Certainly, loneliness has long been a friend of mine, and something it has taken me years to change my relationship with. Now, periods of loneliness, while still making me sad, do not necessarily have to dunk me into depression. Yet under the loneliness I’ve recently found something else: longing. The longing to belong and to be part of something, namely, a tribe. And it was during a snowy week in February that I found a place that felt like home – the Arcola’s Queer Collective.

In its own words, “a performance collective exploring queer identity and how to present it theatrically…the group is open to anyone identifying as LGBTQI*.” Theatre and queerness, what’s not to love! However, what surprised me in between rehearsals of my play The Cluedo Club Killings – think a queered Miss Marple meets Skins with farce – was the depth of my longing. As someone who has striven hard to find community, be it in valleys in rural Wales, at Buddhist retreats in Scotland and occasionally on the dance floor (and often found these places to be distinctly unqueer), reaching my longed for destination proved both heartblowing and heartbreaking. Suffice to say, at the after party, a lot of tears were shed.

I think I cried for many reasons: because the weather was so damn awful; because a show we had so much fun making was now over; because I had been able to fully express my queer self through a piece of theatre; because I fell over on the ice (it really hurt, particularly my pride, but that’s another post); and because that journey to find community had been such a long one. From the corridors of boarding school to the Arcola stage, my longing ran deep, and it was only when I found the Queer Collective and the wondrous people who make it, did I begin to grasp those depths. All those tears for all those years of longing. Yet having found a destination I can finally put faces, places and names to my longing. I know what’s possible now, a privilege my 10 year-old self was never allowed. Nevertheless, thanks to the Queer Collective I believe 10 year-old someone elses and queer folks of all ages for that matter have something tangible and inspirational to look to. Long may it continue.

The Cluedo Club! Photo courtesy of Ali Wright

 

Why I Hated Hufflepuff

Since I was little one of my big fears was being a loser. To avoid such a terrible fate I spent much of my youth trying to ingratiate myself with the ‘cool kids’, whether it was hanging out in the woods with the eight-year-old rebels or trying to pretend I enjoyed drinking alcohol at age sixteen. Higher education wasn’t too dissimilar as Oxford University provided all sorts of cliques to hang out with: the ‘rahs’ who wore Jack Wills and drank champagne, the ‘thesps’ who were terribly dramatic, the ‘journos’ who hacked about trying to get the best scoop and many more. Yet at age twenty-two my fear finally caught up with me and things came to a rather climactic head (to be blogged about anon). I was forced to consider that maybe I wasn’t so cool after all and was just one giant loser. Despite my best efforts it seemed the sorting hat had decided to put me in Hufflepuff.

Because isn’t that what a Hufflepuff is, a loser? I mean, their defining characteristics are being just, loyal, patient, true and unafraid of toil. They sound a little like hard-working sheep or maybe even lemmings, depending on how the mood takes them. And what even does patient mean? Do they hang around waiting for something interesting to happen whilst all the Gryffindors and Slytherins take the bull by the horns and have a fun time? And isn’t ‘unafraid of toil’ just a synonym for uber-geek? No, Hufflepuff is definitely not the house for me, I’m cool after all, aren’t I?

Well, no, as I was forced to learn the hard way, because there is nothing less cool than trying to be cool. Those self-professed ‘cool kids’ who fashion a large part of their identity on being cool and get a kick out of being cooler than others are clearly something and it ain’t cool. What they are is insecure, forming little cliques from which they can take potshots at others, regularly consoling themselves that they’re OK as long as they’re not like those dreaded losers over there. But what a sad life to live when someone spends so much time trying not to be like others rather than getting down to the hard task of being themself. Like me, I imagine they fear what’s waiting for them on the inside. Meanwhile, a true Hufflepuff doesn’t have time for trying to be cool, instead they seem pretty chill with just being themselves whilst also knowing that this is no easy task hence the patience, hard work and loyalty. So, after all this time, as I busily projected my insecurities at Hufflepuff I’ve come to realise that when those narratives of superiority and coolness die it’s clear that the Hufflepuffs are no losers. Maybe they’re the real winners because they realise being true to oneself is not a competition. Now here’s J.K telling it how it is (and not giving away any spoilers about the last book which, incidentally I still haven’t read…eek).