My introduction to fantasy fiction was The Lord of the Rings, which I encountered surprisingly early, while visiting a friend whose mother was reading it to him as a bedtime story. I suspect her assessment of its suitability as a bedtime story for a three-year-old may have had something to do with her own desire to read it… I remember the scene, before the gates of Moria, although it was several years before I returned to Middle Earth to fill in the gaps. Before that happened, Step-parent read me three slim volumes about wizards and dragons, and so the first secondary world into which I entered fully was not J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘Middle Earth’, but Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘Earthsea’.
I read the books myself at least once as a child, once I was able to read independently, and many years later I read them to Spawn. On each return visit my respect for them increased. They contain some of the best prose-fiction writing I’ve encountered, and certainly rank among the very finest examples of fantasy fiction, in my experience. What Le Guin understood about fantasy world-building, largely instinctively, as this was a long time before the methods of fantasy were codified and taught on creative writing courses, could still be taken as a definitive account of the field.
In fact, the lessons these books teach have not been learned by the majority of fantasy authors, who largely look only to other fantasy books for their understanding of culture and history. Her understanding of magic, as a way of knowing, as a mode of language, and as a fundamental facet of her world-building, enables her to do what most fantasy writers cannot: she relates the magic of Earthsea to the magical and creative practices of the primary world. The common assumption in contemporary fantasy writing is that magic is something entirely ‘made-up’, something which must be designed as a ‘magic system’, which inevitably leads to its appearance as a kind of imaginary technology. Le Guin understood, conversely, that the magic done by her characters is intimately related to the magic that she herself worked as a writer. She knew that, although it has rules and principles, ‘magic’ appears in inverse proportion to ‘system’.
Her prose is consistently beautiful through all three books, and her characters are as carefully wrought, as imperfect and vivid as any to be found in ‘proper literature’. Her world is not simply populated by people who could credibly live there, it is described to the reader through the behaviour of those inhabitants. Subject and socio-cultural field are shown in a mutually constitutive relationship, the one giving rise to the other in a way that makes both seem inevitable. This is the fundamental balance that fantasy fiction has to strike if it isn’t to stumble into either exposition or fable. The most beautifully composed fantasy world will not live except through its characters, and the quality, the poetry of the prose in which they are written will act as a limit condition on the reader’s immersion in the setting. The gradient in quality between Le Guin’s writing and that of most subsequent practitioners of fantasy fiction is precipitously steep.
From the outset, Le Guin set out to tackle some of the cultural chauvinism that was (and remains) rife in the genre. She initially decided to tackle the question of race, and gave her characters skin-tones not usually associated with the heroic figures of Western literature—the only white-skinned people in Earthsea appear initially as scary raiders, and although a character of that race becomes important, their culture remains the defining other against which most of Earthsea pictures itself. Many of her publishers frustrated her endeavours, by illustrating the covers with pale-skinned figures in medieval European clothing—this included the Puffin editions I first encountered, but later editions went some way toward rectifying this lack of moral courage.
From a twenty-first century perspective it’s easy to undervalue the radicalism of such a decision, taken in the 1960s. I don’t think many (if any) commentators have been ungenerous enough to criticise Le Guin on this basis, but I know that she reproached herself to some degree for making the first three books in the series books of heroic male figures acquiring and benevolently deploying power. The success of her work was probably contingent on this, as few publishers would have been remotely interested in any other kind of fantasy story, but in the introduction to the omnibus edition I’ve just read, Le Guin admits that it didn’t really occur to her to write any other kind of narrative. Feminism in the 1960s was still doing the heavy-lifting of raising women’s awareness and changing their minds, and even a signed-up feminist like Le Guin had to struggle under the weight of centuries of unquestioned assumptions around gender. This was just a story, and its gendering was not visible in the way it might be today. Putting a black man at the centre of the story was one thing (a thing which could be downplayed and concealed by the cover art)—a black woman might have been more than the market could accommodate.
Le Guin was acutely conscious of the gendering of fantasy narrative by the time she wrote The Tombs of Atuan, the third entry in the series, which is set in a religious community dominated by women, although it is still male power which animates the drama, and whose agency liberates the protagonist from her literal and figurative constraints. In the remaining three volumes, two more novellas, with a collection of short stories published between them, Le Guin abandons any market concessions on gender issues, and any pretence that her books are aimed primarily at children. To her great credit, the only way in which the Earthsea books address themselves to younger readers is by placing younger characters at the centre of the action. The last two novellas are narrated from the perspectives of middle-aged or elderly characters, but they are written in the same way as the earlier books, which is to say just as well as Le Guin knew how.
The Earthsea books can be read as critiques of various aspects of both society and fantasy literature, but they are not allegories, and they are not politically programmatic. They are the stories that Le Guin needed to tell, well-told, beautifully crafted, insightful and illuminating. I gather she received some negative reactions to her later books from long-term devotees who regarded them as feminist tracts. Well, that’s just what privilege does when it feels threatened, and there’s no reason to offer any time or thought to such idiocy—anyone who finds it impossible to enter into a story because its perspective is not male is not a fan worth retaining. However, it is certainly true that the later work does not accommodate male power fantasies in the same way as the first three books. Here Le Guin takes the opportunity to explore what her world is like for the weak, the marginal and the powerless—the stories remain power fantasies of a sort, but they are fantasies in which real power ultimately attaches to truth rather than violence, and can be attained only through wisdom. Power of the usual sort is shown as fundamentally toxic, inherently coercive, and yes, as gendered. Male power is misogynistic by definition, and by the end of the series this uncomfortable truth is out in the open.
In A Wizard of Earthsea we are presented with a classic bildungsroman, in which the central quest is a very clear metaphor for the passage into adulthood. By the conclusion of The Other Wind, the final volume, the series as a whole (which was written piecemeal, and was never conceived as a series) appears to have been a meditation on ageing. The central male figure’s loss of his power can readily be taken as a metaphor for the diminished social status of the elderly, and the interaction between this wavering of social power and the narrator’s own lack of power as a woman is explored subtly. I don’t intend to suggest that this is what the Earthsea books are ‘about’, however.
Most fantasy fiction is not ‘about’ anything, apart perhaps from their writers’ and readers’ desire to live in a morally straightforward world. When it is ‘about’ something, it often staggers under the weight of a single metaphor or conceit. But Le Guin’s stories, like all good fiction, are about everything. They’re about the way the world is, and the experience of living in it, for everyone, of any age, gender or social status. They are about magic, but not as something completely alien to the prosaic primary world in which we live—magic inheres, in Earthsea as on Earth, in stories and in words. Earthsea is not simply a world in which magic is ‘real’, the simplistic formulation which informs most fantasy fiction. It is a world whose stories explore the magic of the real.