It’s been a while between posts. I’ve been working on things that, alas, have very little to do with fantasy, science fiction or books of any kind. But now, it’s time for another review… and though I’ve covered an Ursula Le Guin book pretty recently, I wouldn’t mind revisiting a series that was partly responsible for getting me so very much hooked on fantasy in the first place.
It’s time to revisit the world of Earthsea. Written over more than 30 years, the very different books that make up this series tell much about Le Guin’s development as a writer, and more specifically, as a writer about women.
The earlier books have little to offer feminists, holding fast to the canons of high fantasy and eschewing any hint of a political agenda. In A Wizard of Earthsea, Le Guin introduces us to a world of action and magic from which women are largely excluded. They can be lords’ wives, village witches, mothers and sisters; they have power of sorts, and minds of their own, but they are still only tools that propel the storyline of the young mage Ged and his encounter with the dark side of his own ambition.
In The Tombs of Atuan, Le Guin introduces us to a more diverse cast of female characters, and in particular, to the character of Tenar, who must choose between filling the role of the First Priestess of the Nameless Ones, and living a life of her own. Though we see this but later, Tenar’s choice has consequences for all of Earthsea, returning an ancient token of unity and peace to a king-less, scattered world.
In the third book, The Farthest Shore, which deals with the making of a king and the final quest of the now-Archmage Ged, Le Guin sidelines women completely. Which is exactly why it is so satisfying to read The Other Wind. Published 10 years after the fourth book, Tehanu, it involves a return to the dry land — the shadowy realm where the dead of the Archipelago live beyond the passage of time and change. But this time, Ged, who is no longer a mage, remains on Gont to “keep the house”, while the struggle to restore the balance between the worlds of the living and the dead falls to others.
These others represent a major shift in the focus of Le Guin’s fantasy writing. Unlike the earlier Earthsea books — in which power and adventure were the province of the figures you’d expect — male wizards trained on Roke, lords and princes and priestesses of rank — this book is all about getting people who do not normally hold power to take centre stage. Which is why Tenar’s daughter Tehanu and an illiterate village sorcerer, Alder, are the ones who must set things right. And which is also why, in this final book in the Earthsea series, women are given a bigger stake in the world of magic.
King Lebannen, who crossed the dry land with Ged in The Farthest Shore, must now rely upon the shy, traumatised Tehanu and the “fearless” Irien to protect his people from marauding dragons. Women living alone (or in relationships with other women) make a living from practicing magic in every part of the Archipelago. Some of these women — like Lily, the wife of Alder — have powers that rival those of men (though I was surprised that Irien, who is part woman part dragon, was the first to stand at the door of the school on Roke, and ask to be allowed to study there).
Yet Le Guin is not only interested in women who can work magic or change themselves into dragons. In Tehanu, instead of simply allowing a few exceptional women into a man’s world of politics, magic and delicate equilibrium, she subverts the traditional preoccupations of the fantasy genre by suggesting that this world is not all there is.
Through the figure of Tenar, who began as a priestess on Atuan and was later recognised by the wizard Ogion as worthy of teaching, Le Guin re-examines her earlier, more conventional, understandings of noble causes and dangerous quests. Tenar’s decision to leave Ogion’s house for marriage and a family is forever a disappointment to Ged, because it also poses a direct challenge to a more conventional fantasy universe in which only the doings of the detached, celibate wizards of Roke are of any importance in the world.
In The Other Wind, it is also Tenar who continues to make this challenge by insisting on the recognition, and inclusion, of the High Princess Seserakh, the daughter of King Thol of the Kargad Lands, in the adventure. Unfortunately, though, it is here that I think Le Guin goes from refocusing her fantasy universe upon women’s experiences, to essentialising them.
Veiled entirely in red fabrics and ignorant of the world beyond her birthplace on the island of Hur-at-Hur, Seserakh does not at first resemble an active participant in a fantasy story. She is described as an object whose fate is yet to be decided — a “package” to be opened, “a bargaining piece to buy advantage with.” To Lebannen’s frustration, though, Tenar insists on treating her as a person, with courage, strength and valuable knowledge of her own. Tenar is frustrated by Seserakh’s initial reluctance to engage with the world she is brought to against her will, describing her and Tehanu as “two scared girls who didn’t know how to take hold of their power.”
While Tehanu does eventually take hold of her power — as the daughter of the dragon Kalessin, and part dragon herself — I was at a loss as to how that line could possibly apply to the princess. Shipped to Havnor and “given” to Lebannen as a token of peace, to either marry or cast aside, the only way that Seserakh can take hold of her power is to attract him and therefore be ‘chosen’. To uncover her face (before which he is unable to acknowledge her as a person); to learn his language; to prove that even she — a “harem woman” — has thoughts and knowledge that he has underestimated.
The idea that Seserakh, for all her limited choices, can still have power of her own is not, of itself, unconvincing. Throughout history, women forced into political marriages have wielded real power, and not only through their husbands and children. But what I find less convincing is the suggestion, made throughout this book, that by making Lebannen fall in love with her (and, conveniently, falling in love herself), Seserakh is the one in control. That whatever power Seserakh might have over the King is somehow stronger — more grounded and more in touch with the stuff of life — than the political and magical powers wielded by the men of the book.
At the end of the book, when the wall surrounding the dry land is finally brought down, Seserakh’s only role is, in Tenar’s words, to “keep the house”. Her courage and strength have no opportunity for expression other than in her love for Lebannen. He wins his kingdom by journeying alongside Ged through the land of the dead (where he makes a repeat visit in The Other Wind). She becomes Queen by sitting by his side and waiting for him to return from his spirit journey.
The men of Earthsea can pick and choose from a variety of identities, spheres and ways of relating to the world (Ged, for instance, is able to inhabit Tenar’s sphere once he is no longer a mage). They hold positions of authority, and cross seas of their own volition. Meanwhile, the women are confined to the local and the personal – and yet the book suggests that they have a power that is all their own. It’s the power to attract, to gain an influence over men (at least when those men are attracted to women). It’s the power to run the daily lives of others (though this is, upon closer examination, more burden than power, given that these women aren’t given the option of running anything else). It’s the power that marks the relationship between mother and child.
These forms of power are all real. But in being dependent upon the formation and endurance of a personal relationship, they are also incredibly fragile. Because to a great extent, they depend on love. And — as we see in Tehanu — the unavailability of any other kind of power to the women in Earthsea renders them incredibly vulnerable when that love’s not there. The scars that mark Tehanu’s face are a reminder of that. So is the fact that, even if Lebannen had not conveniently fallen in love with Seserakh almost as soon as she removed her veil, he would still be the one with the power to decide her fate.
The Other Wind is not a perfect book. It follows Tehanu in centralising women’s experiences in Le Guin’s fantasy universe — but at the same time, reinforces their exclusion from the contests of magic and power that shape that world. Perhaps it’s unrealistic, but I wouldn’t mind another addition to the saga involving a shift in the ground that is occupied by Earthsea’s women. Taking on a broader range of roles, or at least contesting their occupation by men, would give these women more ways in which they could finally “take hold of their power”.