A Wizard of Earthsea is in many ways an utterly delightful novel. Ursula Le Guin’s poetic prose combines the best of fairy tale and myth in a narrative that moves as smoothly as a ship borne by magewinds across a calm sea. Le Guin is one of the greatest masters of science fiction and fantasy alive today and is noted for her thoughtful treatment of race and gender in many of her works. (I still remember the enormous signing line she had at WisCon, a feminist science fiction convention, and the rapt attention her keynote speech received there.)
But because of Le Guin’s reputation as a progressive author, I was really not expecting the misogyny I found in this novel. The book is about Sparrowhawk’s coming of age as a wizard and as a man as he has to deal with the dangerous shadow he unwittingly summons from the land of the dead. On a broad level, it’s the story of an exceptional boy succeeding in a patriarchy – which is not in and of itself a problem. Loads of fantasy novels follow the hero's journey, and plenty of fantasy narratives present male-dominated societies because those are the ones we’re familiar with from Western history, fairy tales, myths and legends etc.
The novel’s story is told via an unnamed narrator; mostly the narrator is closely inside Sparrowhawk’s thoughts, but the narrator sometimes steps back to offer the readers glimpses Sparrowhawk’s future adventures or to step inside the heads of other characters. With this narratorial style, Le Guin can offer perspectives on the world of Earthsea that Sparrowhawk hasn’t thought of. The boy and other male characters could subscribe to misogynistic ideas concerning women and their capabilities and motivations, but the narrator is free to present alternative notions about why women behave as they do.
Early on, we find this passage concerning Sparrowhawk’s nameless aunt, who is portrayed as selfish, conniving, and limited in both magical power and humanity:
There is a saying on Gont, Weak as woman’s magic, and there is another saying, Wicked as woman’s magic. Now the witch of Ten Alders was no black sorceress, nor did she ever meddle with the high arts or traffic with Old Powers; but being an ignorant woman among ignorant folk, she often used her crafts to foolish and dubious ends. (Le Guin 5-6)
This is a clear statement of the sexist philosophy of the male wizards who rule Sparrowhawk’s society. I expected Le Guin to use the freely digressive narrator to show that other women with magical powers were not like Sparrowhawk’s aunt. Unfortunately, that never happens, and throughout the book, the female characters come in two basic flavors: weak, or wicked.
In the second chapter, Sparrowhawk first encounters a girl identified only as the daughter of the old Lord of Re Albi. Ged thinks she's ugly, but he’s still attracted to her, and she goads him into exploring the dangerous magic that ultimately unleashes the shadow that maims him. Later, his master Ogion scolds him for falling prey to her wicked feminine wiles: “The girl herself is half a witch already. ... The powers she serves are not the powers I serve: I do not know her will, but I know she does not will me well.” (Le Guin 25)
The next female character in the book is The Lady of O, who is a beautiful trophy queen. All the apprentice wizards sigh at her loveliness, but Sparrowhawk dismisses her as “only a woman.” (Le Guin 55) When the Lady speaks to her husband, the narrator describes her speech as “childlike”.
In Chapter 7, Sparrowhawk once again encounters the daughter of the old Lord of Re Albi; she’s now is married to the old, stern Lord of Terrenon. He finally learns that her name is Serrett, and initially he pities her, mentally comparing her to harmless animals and pretty possessions: “She was like a white deer caged, like a white bird wing-clipped, like a silver ring on an old man’s finger.” (Le Guin 123). But soon he realizes that Serrett is trying to enslave him and that she’s grown up to be every bit the conniving enchantress his old master warned him about.
The next female character that Sparrowhawk meets is an old woman who was marooned on an isolated island when she was a child. She’s completely harmless, extremely timid, and as with the Lady of O, depicted as childlike: “The old woman, wrinkled, dirty, clothed in an ill-sewn sack of sealskin, pointed at the little silken dress and at herself, and smiled: a sweet, unmeaning smile, like a baby’s.” (153)
In Chapter 9, Sparrowhawk meets the most fully fleshed female character in the novel: Yarrow, the 14-year-old sister of his best friend Vetch, who describes her as “prettier than I am as you see, but much less clever.” (169) Yarrow is described as quite shy, demure, and unfailingly helpful; her entire role in the book is to provide for the needs of Sparrowhawk and her brother. She is never portrayed as having any ambitions of her own, and later, when Sparrowhawk thinks of her, he remembers her “childish sweetness” (183).
So, to sum up, we have two women who have magical power, which is described as inherently inferior to male magical power ... and they're both wicked and conniving. And then we have a queen who is naive and childlike and only of interest because of her beauty, and an old, timid, babyish woman, and a childishly sweet and endlessly helpful kid sister. All the women with their own agendas and ambitions are portrayed as evil, and all the good women are passive decorations and helpers.
The novel was written in 1968, a time in which wildly sexist fantasies such as John Norman’s Gor series were commercially successful. In comparison to most fantasies of the era, A Wizard of Earthsea certainly doesn’t come off as misogynistic. But in her 1993 essay Earthsea Revisioned, Le Guin acknowledges the gender bias she’d unwittingly built into her series by portraying maleness as potent, dominant, and normal and femaleness as passive and inferior.
The big take-home message for me as a writer is that if Ursula Le Guin, whom I’ve long considered the feminist grandmother of speculative fiction, can accidentally bake misogyny into an otherwise delicious novel that thoughtfully presents people of color and pacifism? I will inevitably make similar errors if I don’t think very carefully about my worlds and characters. We writers must all keep our eyes open to what we’re creating in our work.
Le Guin, Ursula K. A Wizard of Earthsea. Berkeley: Parnassus, 1968. Print.
Le Guin, Ursula K. Earthsea Revisioned. Cambridge, MA: Children's Literature New England, 1993. Print.