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.

Why Slytherin Deserves A Rebrand

When I was a teenagar I went to a boarding school in the south of England. Picture tall sandstone buildings and large quadrangles of well-cut grass. Picture hundreds of boys in grey uniforms singing the national anthem, tackling each other to the ground on rugby pitches and sharing a common disdain for the local ‘chavs’. Picture, also, rampant masculinity, repressed emotions and a punishment system that involved either an early morning run or copying an article from The Times by hand. Yes, at my boarding school I was taught all the qualities a true man should have: ambition, cunning, resourcefulness, pride (in the British class system) and an unceasing desire to win at all costs. Sound familiar? Yup, I basically went to Slytherin.

Slytherin gets all the bad rep because it’s the house that attracts most aspiring fascists. Its founder, Salazar Slytherin, was a famed racial purist who despied m*dbloods and desired only the breeding of pure-bloods. In other words, a eugenicist, Social Darwinist and sociopath. This is categorically the last person who should be put in charge of the education of minors but then maybe the same could be said for some of the teachers at my school. OK, they weren’t Neo-Nazis but sexism, racism and homophobia were often popular. Yet despite the fact that it appears Slytherin has no redeeming features whatsoever why do I think it deserves a rebrand?

Because on paper lots of the qualities a Slytherin possesses are great, it’s just the fascist bit that’s problematic. If we take ambition, resourcefulness and pride whilst maybe dropping the cunning (unless it’s the non-evil sort) and unceasing desire to win (replacing it with a healthy competitiveness), then I reckon that’s a pretty good combo. Add to them Dumbledore’s observation that Slytherins also possess “a certain disregard for the rules” then it’s clear that these snakey folk are more than capable of answering for themselves. Of course, the other key is to not put a fascist in charge. Maybe have some inspiring role models like Merlin (he went to Slytherin!), Ghandi and Brene Brown and these ambitious folks might not end up heading the Tory party, burning money in front of homeless people and/or burning money on trading floors but could form a vital part of the movement to build a just, sustainable and loving future. Don’t worry, I can hear you snorting, how could a bunch of Slytherins become nice people!? Well, I actually think this question is quite important because it’s clear we Slytherins cannot manage our own emotions and aren’t taught how, only to end up taking them out on the people around us. Furthermore, if we’re ignored or under the tutorship of fascists it’s highly likely we’ll grow up to become dysfunctional, angry people. Not only that but we’ll take over the banking system, the political system and any other hierarchical institution that promises wealth and status. And that’s not a threat, it’s just kinda true. So get us while we’re young and please, please don’t leave it to the likes of Salazar Psychopath.

Fantastic Fascists And Where To Find Them

Yup, finally got round to watching the new Harry Potter film and, boy, does that franchise keep shamelessly chundering on. At least it was sufficiently entertaining and now for some spoilers. Ok, so the plot’s simple: Eddy Redmayne does his trademark stuttering and blinking thing whilst travelling to New York with a bunch of magic creatures in a suitcase. Turns out New Yorkers aren’t very keen on magicians so the magic crew all live in secret and there’s a bunch of outspoken religious loons who preach against witches. There’s also this weird black hurricane mist thing that’s going around terrorising US citizens and trashing buildings. Everyone thinks it’s one of Redmayne’s magic beasts because he spends most of the film letting them escape and having to find them (seriously, buy a new fucking suitcase with a padlock). However, it’s actually an Obscurus. A what? That’s right, it’s the new magic plot device and it turns out that if a kid is forced to suppress their magic, perhaps because their Mom is a quasi-Mormon, witch-hating loon, then all the pent-up magic becomes a ball of dark energy. Fyi, big spoiler ahead. Whilst we spend most of the film thinking the Obscurus is a little girl it actually turns out to be a teenage guy with a bowl haircut. Now for the analogy with fascism.

The young guy and his pent-up aggression are a metaphor for the rise of the alt right, aka fascists. It’s the slow build up of tension as those who’ve ridden off the back of a certain amount of privilege – namely being white and male – are made to feel increasingly angry for the things they don’t have – like lots of money and jobs – and are encouraged to direct that anger at convenient scapegoats – for example, women, people of colour, Muslims, LGBT folk or Muggles. And they are manipulated by those similar to them in appearance, namely white and male (in the case of the film it’s Colin Farrell), but who actually have far more power (Farrell turns out to be Grindelwald, an evil uber-wizard, not to mention the odd homosexual undertone between Grindelwald and the teenage guy because aren’t all older gay men just manipulative perverted villains, cheers JK). Then before you know it all that rage explodes and the young guy’s off on a killer rampage around NY blowing things up. None of this is new though, the fascists have been around for a long time, unleashing violence and hate at whim, and both Brexit and Trump have just emboldened them (curiously both Trump and Grindelwald have bottle dye blond hair).

Apparently Rowling has planned four more Fantastic Beasts films and I guess we’ll just have to watch as magical movies start to reflect real life a little too closely as the alt right fascists (seriously, “alternative” right, there’s nothing alternative about being an utter twat) continue their rise to power, playing on those age-old prejudices that just will not go away. Of course, we could learn our lessons and realise that capitalism is inherently exploitative and unsustainable and rigged in the favour of an elite few. Perhaps all that suppressed rage could be channelled into building a new system because when this one comes crumbling down, as it’s already doing, there won’t be wizards at the end to wave a magic wand and fix all the damage. No, many of us will be dead, beaten up or bereaved and another Fantastic Beasts movie won’t make any fucking difference. Also, it’s 2016 – why are we still watching four white, straight, cisgendered leads steal the show? Come on JK! Other than that I quite enjoyed it.