Before George Floyd was murdered on May 25, 2020, I was reading only Ursula K. Le Guin. It was the initial Covid-19 lockdown and in that strange, restless time, I found Le Guin’s books helpful. Availing myself of her wisdom was water in the political and social desert of wise elders and leadership being experienced in the U.S.
I read The Left Hand of Darkness, The Disposessed, and The Lathe of Heaven. There were three other books that had been hanging out together as a set in a little box on my bookshelf for many years, which I was ashamed to admit I had never read. They were her Earthsea Trilogy. I decided it was time to read them.
They pulled me in as all of her books do. The first book, A Wizard of Earthsea, about a young wizard named Ged, sent to wizard school in Roke (aha, I understood where J.K. Rowling got her ideas) is a fabulous exploration of a young man coming into his power as a wizard, abusing that power, then spending the rest of the book correcting his mistake. In so doing, he goes on a hero’s journey and becomes wise to the ways of the world, humans, his own shadow and the collective shadow of humanity. The plot, which includes dragons and magic, is speckled with wisdom snippets from the mind of Le Guin.
“It is very hard for evil to take hold of the unconsenting soul”(119).
“To hear, one must be silent”(18).
‘It’s no secret. All power is one in source and end, I think. Years and distances, stars and candles, water and wind and wizardry, the craft in a man’s hand and the wisdom in a tree’s root; they all arise together. My name and yours, and the true name of the sun, or a spring of water, or an unborn child, all are syllables of the great word that is very slowly spoken by the shining of the stars. There is no other power. No other name’”(164).
“…Ged had neither lost nor won but, naming the shadow of his death with his own name, had made himself whole: a man: who, knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself, and whose life therefore is lived for life’s sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark”(181).
When I read the second novel in that box, The Tombs of Atuan, I got a shock! An underground labyrinth! A Priestess of the Tombs! The main character, a woman named Tenar, the priestess and caretaker of these underground tombs. I was so excited. Being a scholar of the Goddess and the ancient cultures of Neolithic Europe where those cultures flourished with their underground temples and women leaders, I felt Le Guin was capturing this era and its way of life, the rituals and the initiations so beautifully.
“When she breathed in the drug-fumes to dance at dark of the moon, her head grew light and her body was no longer hers; then she danced across the centuries, barefoot in black robes, and knew that the dance had never ceased”(46).
Her descriptions of the underground labyrinth are exquisite. She had clearly done her research, but something felt a bit off.
Of course by the end of the book, I understood. Le Guin had sold Tenar out. The temple is a farce and it is a false god she is worshipping. Her fellow priestesses are manipulating and controlling her. The hero Ged arrives and saves her from it all. Darn.
That is not to dismiss the book wholesale. It is a good book and has a powerful female heroine and still stands strongly in its own right. It’s just that, what I was looking for, what Le Guin almost did….what made my heart beat and my head spin with excitement because she was so close — creating a culture of women in power, self-identified and strong— but then, in the end, she reneges. It was extremely disappointing. And I was left wondering why she did that.
In the third book in that little box, The Farthest Shore, we leave the realm of women and return again to the adventures of the wizard Ged as he travels to the land of the dead with a young prince to rescue the magic on Earthsea. He saves the day, but loses his own power in exchange.
Then I discovered that Le Guin had written three more Earthsea books, Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind (read them in that order), 18 years after she completed The Farthest Shore.
Le Guin writes:
“Between the last chapter of The Tombs of Atuan and the first chapter of Tehanu, twenty-five years or so pass, time enough for the girl Tenar to become a widow with grown children.
Between the last chapter of The Farthest Shore and the first chapter of Tehanu, a day or two passes, time enough for the dragon Kalessin to carry Ged from Roke to Gont.
Between finishing The Farthest Shore and beginning Tehanu, eighteen years of my life passed, time enough for me to learn how to write this book. . . . It looks years of living my own ordinary life, and a great deal of learning how to think about such things, mostly from other women, before I could understand why Tenar did what she did and who she was at the end of it. Then at last I could write Tehanu”(Tehanu 272).
And what a change there is between the first three and last three books. Le Guin gets her feminist groove on and everything changes. It’s absolutely fascinating to be able to hang out with a writer through all her changes and evolutions.
In an interview with Bill Moyers in 2012, Le Guin admits:
“When I started writing, the easiest thing for a woman to do was in a sense to be an honorary man, to pretend she was a man, to put men at the center of the story, which does seem to be very important to men.
Girls are used to pretending to be men or women protagonists. Boys very often refuse to identify with a woman protagonist in kids books and this seems to go on into adulthood, that men can’t have their masculinity compromised even by pretending to be a heroine for a little while.
But this strikes me as kind of sad and probably not necessary because I think that most men and women have both men and women inside them. Lots of them are capable of being much more than they are told they are capable of being. So when I realized finally, thanks to feminists… I sort of had to sit down and say well, “Ain’t I a woman?” and if I am a woman why am I writing as a man?
It was a big step for me because there are differences in sensibility, differences in audience. I knew I would lose some audience if I put women at the center of the story. I knew I would be accused of being a shrill and ranting feminist, which I was. But it was worth it, because it kind of put me more in the center of my own being to not pretend that I was male or that I thought that the world revolved around men. So it I think it strengthened my writing a good deal”(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O1bZe7bdXMw)
In another interview in the movie made about her life and work by Arwen Curry, World’s of Ursula K. Le Guin, Le Guin goes so far as to say “that her much-loved Earthsea books “are a total complete bust” as feminist literature.
An article in The Guardian reports:
“Le Guin’s first three books about Earthsea centre on the male wizard Ged, with women ‘either marginal or essentially dependent on men’, according to the author herself. . . . the novelist speaks of how when she started writing, ‘men were at the centre’ of fantasy and admits that ‘from my own cultural upbringing, I couldn’t go down deep and come up with a woman wizard’.
The third book in the series, The Farthest Shore, was published in 1972. When Le Guin came to write the fourth, which centres on the female character, Tenar, she found it ‘just wouldn’t go’. It took her another 17 years to work out how to tell Tenar’s story, with the 1990 novel Tehanu.
‘What I’d been doing as a writer was being a woman pretending to think like a man … I had to rethink my entire approach to writing fiction … it was important to think about privilege and power and domination, in terms of gender, which was something science fiction and fantasy had not done . . . All I changed is the point of view. All of a sudden we are seeing Earthsea … from the point of view of the powerless'”(https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/may/30/ursula-k-le-guin-documentary-reveals-author).
In Tehanu, written 18 years later, there is raw anger. It is an altogether different book. Le Guin has as a central character the young girl, Therru, who has been sexually abused, raped, beaten and left for dead in a fire by her own parents whom Tenar—her children grown, now widowed, and post-menopausal—takes on as her own child to raise.
This book is tough. The burnt child is frightening and a constant reminder of what happened to her and the evils of the world, especially for girls and women. We are forced to look at her, hear her burnt and disfigured visage described over and over, intimately feel her shaken and vulnerable inner state, observe the way others regard her. Le Guin won’t let us look away.
“…the left side of her face was smooth copper-rose, a dark bright eye under an arched eyebrow. The right side had been destroyed and was ridged, slabby scar, eyeless. Her right hand was like a raven’s curled claw”(The Other Wind 91).
The horrendous assault is referred to over and over. In one bone-chilling scene, the predator finds them, follows them and threatens Therru again. It’s terrifying. What a thing to take on, and in a series of books about magic….and male wizards. But this child who survived the fire, this phoenix, whose true name is Tehanu, rising literally from the ashes, is the magical one in this book and The Other Wind. In this new found feminist groove, Tehanu is the heroine and savior, and it is the priestess from the Tombs of Atuan, Tenar, who saves her, because she knows darkness intimately and she has also lived the life of a human woman.
“In both The Tombs of Atuan and Tehanu, books in which women are central to the story, there’s a kind of anger which I don’t think is in A Wizard or The Farthest Shore. It’s the anger of the underdog, fury against social injustice, the vengeful rage women have too often been made to feel. I’d finally learned to acknowledge such anger in myself and try to express it without injustice”(Tehanu 274).
In the last three books, Le Guin explores feminist theories, questions, and ideas and allows her characters to pursue issues around feminism, patriarchy and power: who has it and what is it? The books provide a fascinating dialogue.
Ged was the archmage of Roke until he lost his power. In the book Tehanu, he has not yet been replaced. In a meeting asking into the subject, the “patterner” on Roke receives this answer: the next archmage of Roke is “a woman on Gont.” But the wizards of Roke resist because there are no women in the school at Roke. For centuries women have been forbidden to learn the craft there. And so the following conversation between Tenar and Ged who are now lovers and living together on Gont with the girl, Therra/Tehanu, ensues.
“‘I learned to quibble a bit, on Roke,’ he admitted. ‘But this isn’t a quibble, I think. ‘A woman on Gont’ can’t become archmage. No woman can be archmage. She’d unmake what she became in becoming it. The Mages of Roke are men—their power is the power of men, their knowledge is the knowledge of men. Both manhood and magery are built on one rock: power belongs to men. If women had power, what would men be but women who can’t bear children? And what would women be but men who can?’
‘Hah!’ Went Tenar; and presently, with some cunning, she said, “Haven’t there been queens? Weren’t they women of power?’
“A queen’s only a she-king,” said Ged.
‘I mean, men give her power. They let her use their power. But it isn’t hers, is it? It isn’t because she’s a woman that she’s powerful, but despite it.’
‘She nodded. She stretched, sitting back from the spinning wheel. ‘What is a woman’s power, then?’ She asked.
‘I don’t think we know.’
‘When has a woman power because she is a woman? With her children, I suppose. For a while…’
‘In her house, maybe.’
She looked around the kitchen. ‘But the doors are shut,’ she said, ‘the doors are locked.’
‘Because you’re valuable.’
‘Oh, yes. We’re precious. So long as we’re powerless . . . I remember when I first learned that! Kossil threatened me—me, the One Priestess of the Tombs. And I realized that I was helpless. I had the honor; but she had the power, from the God-king, the man. Oh, it made me angry! And frightened me . . . Lark and I talked about this once. She said, ‘Why are men afraid of women?’
‘If your strength is only the other’s weakness, you live in fear,’ Ged said.
‘Yes; but women seem to fear their own strength, to be afraid of themselves.’
‘Are they ever taught to trust themselves?’ Ged asked, and as he spoke Therru came in on her work again. His eyes and Tenar’s met.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Trust is not what we’re taught.’ She watched the child stack the wood in the box. ‘If power were trust,’ she said. ‘I like that word. If it weren’t all these arrangements—one above the other—kings and masters and mages and owners—it seems so unnecessary. Real power, real freedom, would lie in trust, not force.’
‘As children trust their parents,’ he said.
They were both silent.
‘As things are,’ he said, ‘even trust corrupts. The men on Roke trust themselves and one another. Their power is pure, nothing taints its purity, and so they take that purity for wisdom. They cannot imagine doing wrong.’
She looked up at him. He had never spoken about Roke thus before, from wholly outside it, free of it.
‘Maybe they need some women there to point that possibility out to them,’ she said, and he laughed”(Tehanu 235-237).
Yes, a woman archmage, women in the school at Roke where they have been disallowed for centuries, female heroines, radical crones. In these last three books everything on Earthsea, a world that Le Guin herself created, is being asked to break open, break apart, change….transform. The author herself asks the characters to accept this change, allows them to resist and allows the readers to see how to meet change as well as the resistance to it.
And so now in August of 2020 after setting this post aside for almost 60 days, I return to it and see that the themes in the later three books are even more pertinent now.
Le Guin reflects:
“Maybe the change coming into Earthsea has something to do with no longer identifying freedom with power, with separating being free from being in control. There is a kind of refusal to serve power that isn’t a revolt or a rebellion, but a revolution in the sense of reversing meanings, of changing how things are understood. Anyone who has been able to break free from the grip of a controlling, crippling belief or bigotry or enforced ignorance knows the sense of coming out into the light and air, of release, being set free to fly, transcend”(Tehanu 274).
As Tehanu, the Phoenix, does in the end.
Ursula K. Le Guin is a #NastyWomanWriter.
©Theresa C. Dintino 2020
“How Ursula K. Le Guin Got Her Feminist Groove On” featured illustration by Mia Szarvas after photos by William Anthony.
Earthsea Books in their sequential order:
Le Guin, Ursula K., A Wizard of Earthsea. Bantam Books, 1968.
—————-, The Tombs of Atuan. Bantam Books, 1971.
—————-, The Farthest Shore. Bantam Books, 1972.
—————-, Tehanu. Atheneum, 1990.
—————-, The Other Wind. Harcourt, 2001.
—————-, Tales From Earthsea. Harcourt, 2001.
A Conversation with Bill Moyers & Ursula K. Le Guin. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O1bZe7bdXMw)
Flood, Alison. “Ursula K. Le Guin film reveals her struggle to write women into fantasy.” The Guardian, May 30, 2018. (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/may/30/ursula-k-le-guin-documentary-reveals-author)