The Usefulness of Sexism in the “Earthsea Cycle”

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The world of Earthsea is very, very sexist. Women are relegated to very low-level jobs, they are essentially chattel, and they have very few options in life. What could be the most powerful position for a woman–that of witch–is undermined by a culture of misogyny. And make no mistake: this is blatant, unveiled misogyny. Multiple men throughout the books say things like “everything women spew is mindless poison,” “you and all of your kind are despicable,” or “women’s work is beneath me and without value.”

Obviously, Ursula LeGuin herself is not sexist. Although one could say she is not without sin: she did knowingly make all the women characters in “A Wizard of Earthsea” into stock treacherous seductresses. But that’s beside the point.

What she was trying to do in these books was deal with the sexism of the real world through its reflection in Earthsea. She intensified what she had gathered from reading history and fantasy, and from living in the world of the mid-twentieth century, and created a world of rampant sexism.

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What I can’t help but wonder is: was this at all useful? You see, this mode of “intensifying” sexism in Earthsea implies that what LeGuin sees in our world is misogyny. It claims that the root of sexism is hatred of women, and that it must be dealt with on those terms.

But most of the men of our world–and indeed, perhaps the majority of men of the past–did not have these attitudes. They might claim that women cannot be as smart as men, but they be unlikely to insist that every single woman is stupid. They can call women’s work “less,” or of lower status, but they wouldn’t say it is without value. After all, they had to eat too–they can’t call their food valueless.

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Today, what are considered the most sexist societies on the planet insist that they honor women. The Saudis claim that women’s beauty is too powerful to be shown in public, Qataris believe their women are above the world and should be kept away from it. Eastern Asian societies demonize working mothers by celebrating motherhood itself. The Christian extreme right insists that women are pure and beautiful, and thus must be protected. And this is far from a new phenomenon: throughout history, societies have celebrated the “women’s role” and kept the woman confined to that role.

Arguments can be made that this is just a way of disguising misogyny. But I would wager you’d be hard pressed to find a man who doesn’t love his mother, even among the ranks of the worst sexists int he world. Can a man who loves his mother truly be a misogynist? If the answer is yes, how do we change anything?

I don’t have the answers. But maybe the fact that Earthsea has me asking the questions at all is the whole point.

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The Earthsea Cycle

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Big readers know the feeling of picking up one of those “great books,” reading for a bit, and hating their life. See, sometimes the “great books” don’t seem very good when you read them. So you’re left going “was everyone else stupid? Does the book just not age well? Am I just actually someone with terrible taste?”

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I almost gave up about a dozen times in the first three Earthsea books. Sure, they’ve got a lot of great things to say. But they’re as unsubtle as an anvil, sometimes overwhelmed by the ’60s that gave birth to them. Many early scifi writers had the same issue, and the books age terribly.  There’s pages upon pages monologues and snoozeworthy pages’worth of description.

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And the characters–they’re just bad. In an afterword, LeGuin says that she is interested in writing fantasy that reflects the world she sees. That’s what the characters are–pale reflections, shadow puppets. Cool to watch, but not worth investing in. And no one talks like a person; Tolkein syndrome but not as pretty as Tolkein so she can’t get away with it.

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Then I started reading Tehanu. Seriously, what happened in between The Farthest Shore and Tehanu? Tehanu’s characters are beautiful, they’re real, they breathe. There’s no “the old gives the young wisdom” that was basically all of The Farthest Shore, no uncomfortably simplified stories like in Tombs of Atuan (although I like that one the best of the first three), and little of the unsubtlety that was the ultimate flaw of the first book. It’s really, really good.

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Doll Bones

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“We had a story, and our story was important. And I hate that both of you can just walk away and take part of my stroy with you and not even care. I hate that you can do what you’re supposed to do and I can’t. I hate that you’re going to leave me behind. I hate that everyone calls it growing up, but it seems like dying. It feels like each of you is being possessed and I’m next.”

The mad halfway place between childhood and adolescence. The arrival of a new, deep kind of shame. The discovery of new things about people who seemed so simple. That’s what Doll Bones is about. Also: creepy-awesome doll.

I love short little books like this that just have so much depth to them. This is a book full of important truths, a uniquely modern book, and a damn fine ghost story.

Growing up–not hitting adulthood, just hitting adolescence–involves so many truths being unveiled. The selfish “heartlessness” of children gives way to the realization that everyone else is as much a complicated person as you are. Including your parents. It’s such a big and scary truth that it’s no wonder so many teenagers sink into depression and hatred. These kids are still ahead of the true teenage years, but instead they are wandering around the weird gray area between childhood and adolescence. They still remember and love so much of their childhoods, but development is starting to get uneven. Zach, the protagonist, can’t figure out why girls seem so mysterious now as opposed to six months ago.

And, hovering over all this, is the idea of “normal.” All weird kids (and maybe we were all weird kids, really) know what it is to have their parents worry about whether they’re normal. Are the kids hitting the developmental markers? Are they doing something that will make their lives harder? What can the grown-ups do to fix them?

The thing about growing up for the kids in this novel is that you realize the world is a much bigger, scarier, and more fantastic place than you every realized before. Everyone is real, and maybe everything in the world is real. “Maybe all stories were true ones.”

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A Snicker of Magic

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Some books are just perfect.

This is one of them. Every note it plays rings clear, every character is mad and brilliant and real. The book sings and dances. It’s alive and beautiful.

A central concept is that of shadows, detaching from the body and living in ways that their owners can’t or won’t. Well, the shadows of this book walk out and dance for the reader. They perform their magic and then fade back into the book, leaving memory behind.

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Sounder

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The black family without a father. The man sent away to prison and destroyed by the system. The pain of poverty. This story is not unique to the world today–it is in fact the story of “Sounder,” which takes place in an unnamed time. Time is loose in this novel, the exact years never specified, the story moving at the same pace across weeks or hours. Time, like history, is ever-present but hard to name.

It’s funny how problems we think of as contemporary can go so very, very much deeper than we like to think about. We blame a lot of things on the media, or the modern drug culture, or the modern whatever. So many people take it for granted that things are worse than they used to be.

But that lets us off the hook. We can complain that someone else brought this to us. This is a new problem, and its newness makes it vulnerable.

The problems of the prison system are not new. And if contemporary society were as free of racism as so many like to claim, this book would no longer be relatable.

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The High King

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No one ever accomplishes anything alone.

Sure, Taran is the hero of “The High King.” His transformation from young boy desperate for glory to a sober and strong leader of men is completed. But in these books, “ Of wisdom there are as many patterns as a  loom can weave,” and victory would have been impossible without the full complement of characters–without Eilonwy and her stubbornness, Gurgi and his loyalty, and all the rest with their unpronounceable Welsh names.

This book cuts deep, fearlessly killing old characters and bravely hurtling to the end of the journey. There is a sense that a great epic is coming to a close, that the world is changing and will never be the same. But at the same time, a boy and a girl are in love, a former giant is whining, a bard-king is wandering and embroidering the facts. Destiny is only visible in hindsight (but if that is so, can it properly be called destiny at all?).

At the center of this book is choice. Who we are is who we choose to be. Who we become is, ultimately, in our own hands. That is the terrible and beautiful truth whose knowing, perhaps, is itself the door between childhood and real adulthood.

The pattern is of your choosing and always  was.”  “My choosing?” Taran questioned. “Not yours? Yet I believed…” He  stopped and raised his eyes to Orddu. “Yes,” he said slowly, “once I did believe the world went at your bidding. I see now it is not so. The strands of  life are not woven by three hags or even by three beautiful damsels. The pattern indeed was mine. But here,” he added, frowning as he scanned the final  portion of the fabric where the weaving broke off and the threads fell unravelled, “here it is unfinished.” 
“Naturally,” said Orddu. “You must still choose the pattern, and so must  each of you poor, perplexed fledglings, as long as thread remains to be  woven.”
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Taran Wanderer

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Before there was Harry Potter, there was Taran Wanderer.

When you grew up reading Harry Potter, Harry grew up with you. My age was never more than two or three away from Harry’s. He became an adult just as I did.

I didn’t know until now that Lloyd Alexander had done the same thing with Taran in the Chronicles of Prydain. As the books continue, as the readers age, the characters grew from children to adults. And they learned what it was to be an adult, in ways that perhaps went far deeper than Harry’s.

It is in this book that the foolishness of growing up is revealed for itself, that the journey of the self is finally to be understood. In so many fantasy novels, destiny is the guiding force–and indeed, Taran sets out on a quest believing it to be his destiny.

This belief in destiny is linked to the notion of “finding yourself.” People set out to find themselves, looking for their parents, for their calling, for their own worth. Looking everywhere but into the mirror.

‘”Why, my luck’s  no greater than yours or any man’s. You need only sharpen your eyes to see  your luck when it comes, and sharpen your wits to use what falls into your  hands.'”

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