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(originally presented as an academic lecture at WisCon 31)

Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin. Image © Marian Wood Kolisch. Used by permission.

Oscar Wilde insisted, "The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it" (The Critic as Artist), but even in fictive history such rewriting has its hazards. Genre fans are legendary for spotting continuity flaws, or griping about a revisionist take on beloved material. The Star Wars jury is still out on the question of whether "Han shot first" when confronted by Jabba's collection agent, Greedo.

Leaving Greedo aside, my intention is to focus on the unfolding historical narrative of Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea, and on Le Guin's rhetorical, revisionist negotiations with that history.

There are, at present, six Earthsea books: five novels and a book of short stories, separated by decades. If these are divided into two distinct trilogies, the latter three books drastically revise Le Guin's worldbuilding as established by the original three novels. Eternal-seeming parts of the mythological landscape turn out to be historically contingent, and the official fictive history is thrown into serious question.

Darko Suvin has already provided an excellent analysis of the series's transformed attitudes to its own magic, and has offered the helpful paradox that "in the two trilogies Earthsea is and is not the same world" (Suvin 491).

Alexis Lothian has done similar work with Le Guin's science fiction, examining the means by which "she has quietly brought antiessentialism, postcolonial politics and critiques of heteronomativity into the great unfolding narrative of her combined Hainish stories" (Lothian 391).

Earthsea has been subject to horrifying revisions in film adaptation. The first Earthsea trilogy is well loved, and resists change.

The Left Hand of Darkness

The fact that these books are classics of high fantasy presents specific challenges. Le Guin has successfully revisited and revised her earlier SF material, most notably in the short story "Coming of Age in Karhide." Lothian writes that "though [Le Guin] would never disavow the earlier text, this quietly feminist story clearly maps the development of her politics since The Left Hand of Darkness" (Lothian 391). It is a more difficult task, however, to work similar revisions in high fantasy; the genre depends in large part on eternal verities, ancient truths, and an ahistorical understanding of time. In Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter, Prince Orion wonders what elves do in Elfland. "Watch time," is the answer.

"That would not amuse me," said Orion.

"You've never done it. . . . You cannot watch time in the fields of men."

"Why not?" asked Orion.

"It moves too fast." (Dunsany 148-149)

Le Guin has this to say on the topic:

All times are changing times, but ours has been one of massive, rapid moral and mental transformation. . . . [W]hat everybody knows is true turns out to be what some people used to think. It's unsettling. . . . So people turn to the realm of fantasy for stability, ancient truths, immutable simplicities. (Le Guin Tales from Earthsea xvi)

This form of comfort can be a very conservative one. Just prior to the 2004 election, George W. Bush posited an ahistorical fantasy that gender-mixed marriage is and ever has been the cornerstone of civilization.

It is not easy to bring a Foucauldian understanding of historical contingency to high fantasy. The genre resists. Le Guin manages anyway. Here are just a few examples among many.

A Wizard of Earthsea

A Wizard of Earthsea reports that women's magic is weak and wicked, and the text does not argue with that folkloric judgment. Women in the novel are either wicked and selfish or caring and selfless, defined solely in relation to Ged's agenda, and their own private sphere remains, for the most part, invisible and unsung. The trilogy as a whole supports a Great Man theory of history; Ged does turn out to be a pretty great man, but his strength of character does not redeem the theory.

The novel Tehanu, published 22 years later, demonstrates that the private and domestic sphere is also political, and worth writing about.

In the short story "Dragonfly," Irian insists that women can be wizards too. Her girl-power quest is all well and good, but only becomes revolutionary if considered in combination with "The Finder," the first tale in Tales from Earthsea, which reveals that Roke Island was founded almost entirely by women. The first trilogy restricted magical education to menfolk, but this turns out to be temporary in both temporal directions. It seemed essential, and eternal. It turns out to be historically contingent, and this is the revolutionary bit.

Tales from Earthsea

Tales from Earthsea is filled with transformative revelations. My favorite has to do with Ogion, the wizard who first taught Ged. He's introduced in A Wizard of Earthsea as "that one who tamed the earthquake." In Tales we get to go back and witness the event.

It was Ogion who stopped the earthquake. They saw it, they said it. "My teacher was with me, and his teacher with him," Ogion said when they praised him. . . . They praised his modesty and did not listen to him. Listening is a rare gift, and men will have their heroes. (Le Guin Tales 170)

This is a tale of heroics, of personal bravery, but one that undermines rugged individualism and the Great Man histories it engenders. The short story does not contradict what is already known about the character, Ogion, but it is a revision—a new look, not only at what we knew but at how we thought we knew it to begin with.

The Other Wind

Finally, I want to focus on a single revision in The Other Wind, the last book of Earthsea to date. This is a spoiler. I apologize for that.

The first trilogy describes a stone wall between the Archipelago and the lands of the dead. We know that this wall exists as a material as well as a metaphysical place; Ged crosses the boundary more than once. Both the wall and the dry land on the other side seem to be eternal, essential parts of the cosmology and geography of that world.

We find out that someone built the wall.

A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way

Actual people in Earthsea's imaginary history created both wall and afterlife, acting from a fear of death. (The Other Wind may be in dialogue with Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass as well as Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu's Tao Teh Ching; Le Guin has written her own rendition of the latter, under the title A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way.) At some point in history a group of individuals created that wall. Another such group can tear it down. Even the afterlife is historically contingent.

"[T]hings change," Le Guin writes, and "authors and wizards are not always to be trusted" (Le Guin Tales xv). However, given that this genre depends so much on eternal verities and conservative, ahistorical truths, and given that Han shot first, how does this author get away with such drastic reimaginings without losing the trust and loyalty of her audience?

Le Guin accomplishes this by negotiating respectfully with the older material, and by making a series of double moves. "We have inhabited both the actual and the imaginary realms for a long time," she says. "But we don't live in either place the way our parents or ancestors did. Enchantment alters with age, and with the age" (Le Guin Tales xvii).

She has changed, the times have changed, and Earthsea is no longer the same place, even in the original trilogy, even with each word identical to what it was then. Borges did not read the same Quixote that Cervantes wrote. In this respect, the changes in Earthsea have already occurred and the second trilogy simply noticed. It is already accomplished.

Le Guin employs her most sophisticated rhetoric in these negotiations when she strengthens the history of Earthsea by weakening the idea of history itself.

The way one does research into nonexistent history is to tell the story and find out what happened. I believe this isn't very different from what historians of the so-called real world do. Even if we are present at some historic event, do we comprehend it—can we even remember it—until we tell it as a story? (Le Guin Tales xiv)

Le Guin repeatedly makes her own fictive source material unreliable. She embodies the text.

Hilary E. Davis describes the principle of embodied criticism:

In order to truly comprehend the voice of the subaltern and to participate in anti-racist struggles, European-American philosophers of education such as myself must reflect not only upon "race" as an (external) object of study, but how we ourselves are "raced," or rather how whiteness has been "erased" by both public and philosophical discourse. My body becomes my reality check. (Davis)

It is important for whiteness to exist as an ethnicity, and not vanish into normativity, the standard, the objective. Maleness is likewise a limited and subjective position rather than the standard from which ribs are removed. Embodied criticism acknowledges its own point of origin.

Le Guin explicitly embodies the Earthsea texts, and the body of that imaginary manuscript, or the bodies, circumstances, and subjectivities of singers, tale tellers, and other imaginary sources, all become reality checks to a work of fantasy.

The Farthest Shore

She has done this before. A Wizard of Earthsea begins by telling us that this story is not in the Deed of Ged, or any of the songs about him. Right from the start she imagines for us an official history, and tells Ged's coming of age outside of that history. Source material exists, and this is authenticating, but the material cannot be trusted. The novel is what that saga leaves out. The Farthest Shore concludes with multiple endings: some songs say this; other tales say that.

Other authors have done very similar work. Susanna Clarke's stories include scholarly introductions and ironic footnotes that question the accuracy of the fiction. The Lord of the Rings begins with a complicated manuscript genealogy for Bilbo's Red Book. This increases the verisimilitude, but casts certain doubts on the text; if the fictive manuscript passed through so many hands and translators, then it cannot be considered an accurate retelling of events.

Negotiating with factual sensibilities is perfectly common to the entrance and exit talk of folktales as well as fantasy novels (Minchin). Many Scottish tales traditionally begin with this disclaimer: "If this is a lie as told by me, it was a lie as told to me."

Le Guin has embodied the text before, but in a way consistent with the usual tropes of high fantasy. She does it more explicitly now, and with a difference. Note her scholarly introduction to the short story "The Finder":

A story may be pieced together from such scraps and fragments, and though it will be an airy quilt, half made of hearsay and half of guesswork, yet it may be true enough. It's a tale of the Founding of Roke, and if the Masters of Roke say it didn't happen so, let them tell us how it happened otherwise. For a cloud hangs over the time when Roke first became the Isle of the wise, and it may be that the wise men put it there (Le Guin Tales 5).

Maybe it happened this way. Maybe it didn't. The hearsay comes from old men at the tavern, housewives working and talking, people who are not often considered heroes or authoritative sources of history—Great Man history, stories of wars and kings. I love the bit where she challenges the old wise men of her own invention to contradict her.

Once a text is embodied, the story becomes a part of the tangible world, subject to damage, manipulation, and misrepresentation. It loses authority. It also gains authority. This vulnerable subjectivity is already true. The story is part of the world, subject to change and history and interpretation. No sense pretending otherwise, about Earthsea, America, or anywhere else. All histories are stories. Words are slippery and they always mean more than one thing at once. Fiction, fantasy, and language are only able to work because words and things do not perfectly agree, which makes it possible for words to posit a world in which the two can agree, perfectly, by knowing true names in dragon speech—and then, decades later, to drastically revise that same world, and those same words.


Davis, Hillary E. "Good Intentions Are Not Enough: A Response to Kal Alston's 'Race Consciousness and the Philosophy of Education.'" Philosophy of Education Yearbook 1995.

Dunsany, Lord Edward John Morton Drax Plunkett. The King of Elfland's Daugher. Del Rey, 1999.

Le Guin, Ursula K. Tales from Earthsea. Ace, 2002.

Lothian, Alexis. "Grinding Axess and Balancing Oppositions: The Transformation of Feminism in Ursula K. Le Guin's Science Fiction." Extrapolation (Winter 2006).

Minchin, Elizabeth. "Ring-Patterns and Ring-Composition: Some Observations on the Framing of Stories in Homer." Helios 22.1 (1995).

Spolsky, Ellen. "Darwin and Derrida: Cognitive Literary Theory As a Species of Post-Structuralism." Poetics Today 23:1 (Spring 2002).

Suvin, Darko. "On U. K. Le Guin's 'Second Earthsea Trilogy' and Its Cognitions: A Commentary." Extrapolation (Winter 2006).

Wilde, Oscar. The Critic as Artist.

William Alexander

William Alexander holds an M.A. in English from the University of Vermont, and writes for Rain Taxi Review of Books. His fiction has appeared in Zahir, Weird Tales, Postscripts, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year, 2008 Edition. His nonfiction credits include articles in The Neil Gaiman Reader. His website is
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