Ursula Le Guin on war as metaphor in fantasy fiction

It was more than twenty years ago that I first read Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, and in re-reading it this month I discovered anew why the world of Earthsea and the adventures of Ged the wizard enthralled me so long ago.

I have always had a soft spot for fantasy. As a child the genre fed and developed my imagination. But today, much of what I read feels stale and predictable, products of the genre, rather than of a great stories.

At a time when fantasy is enjoying renewed interest from mainstream readers and audiences, it feels important to shine the spotlight on authors who are more fixated on redefining the genre, than polishing its tropes and character staples.

I am always on the hunt to rekindle that romance I once had with the genre. And damn it, if I can’t get it in the present, I’ll visit the past. And that’s how I came to recently re-read A Wizard of Earthsea.

Despite being initially pitched at the Young Adult market, Earthsea is a rare breed of fantasy that I would describe as literature; having qualities that make it readable by all, at any stage of life.

When the book was released in 1967, dark skinned main characters were not exactly a staple of the genre (depressingly, nor are they today), and bucking the trend, Ursula Le Guin put forth a cast of characters from a refreshingly diverse racial palette.

Ged, the books main character, is described as copper-brown, and his friend is black. Many of the lands that make up Earthsea are populated by people of various shades of brown, black and white, making the world feel a million (good) miles away from the Arthurian stereotypes that define most popular fantasy fiction.

As a YA book, the prose is light but mature. Earthsea is not a book that dumbs down its language to appeal to a younger audience, instead Le Guin presents a great example of how its possible to distil vocabulary down to the essentials and still present a rich, complex and believable world.

The story itself is concerned with how wizards become wizards, and it is a true feat that Le Guin weaves a story filled with danger and dread, and yet her characters scarcely spill a drop of blood.

In her afterword, Le Guin explains her intentions for Earthsea a little more eloquently than I have, revealing her desire to subvert the tropes of the genre which, up until then, was fixated in placing righteous heroes in wars against unrighteous enemies – a War of Good Against Evil.

“But there are no wars in Earthsea. No soldiers, no armies, no battles. None of the militarism that came from the Arthurian saga and other sources and that by now, under the influence of fantasy war games, has become almost obligatory. […]

“War as a moral metaphor is limited, limiting, and dangerous. By reducing the choices of action to ‘a war against’ whatever-it-is, you divide the world into Me or Us (Good) and Them or It (Bad) and reduce the ethical complexity and moral richness of life to Yes/No, On/Off.

“All too often the heroes of such fantasies behave exactly as the villains do, acting with mindless violence, but the hero is on the ‘right’ side and therefore will win. Right makes might.”

Suffice to say, Le Guin’s hero does face an enemy of pure evil, but the form it takes is surprising, and for the time, highly original.

Rather than setting out with axe or sword in hand, Le Guin inspires a more personal quest of discovery, and her metaphor can be related to without the need for mimicry or acting.

And it’s for that reason that A Wizard of Earthsea has stayed with me all these years, whilst other stories barely survived the pages they were written on.


3 comment(s)

I’ve only read two of LeGuin’s books — The Left Hand of Darkness and, more recently, The Dispossessed — but found them both intriguing. Great stories and intriguing ideas explored through them. Have you read any other books of hers? I’d like to read Octavia Butler but my library doesn’t seem to have any of her titles.

Hey Elizabeth – yeah I just finished reader Lathe of Heaven the other day, Dispossessed is on my Kindle at the moment, but haven’t yet got to it. It’s supposed to be quite dense?

I’ve found her books to be just that bit left of centre, with a really consistent but unique voice. I don’t get to read too many female science fiction writers, and without generalising, I found that those females that are writing in the space provide a different perspective – which I always like discovering.

I get the same feeling from Ursula as Margaret Atwood – a fresh voice.

Hmm, it didn’t strike me as dense, as such — it’s got a rollicking pace and plenty of plot points. The structure is pretty innovative; just another aspect to experience and (in my case) admire. But I think I preferred The Left Hand of Darkness. It might just be that I preferred the broad idea explored — gender neutrality — which was juicier, for me, than than The Dispossessed’s capitalism v. socialism. All fascinating, though. And while you’re exploring complex possibilities, the books never feel like hard work, or anything less than a page turner

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