A while back I had a wonderful conversation with my sister about the feminism in the Earthsea series. The question that we based out discussion on was one I had honestly never considered: Is Ursula K. Le Guin sexist?
When you read the first three books of A Wizard of Earthsea all the characters are male, the only students allowed to attend the wizard school are male, and all the female characters are seen as simple or dabbling in the dark powers. Earthsea is a world with very strong patriarchal views. It is very understandable that those reading the books with no background on the character would be bothered by the perceived sexism.
The good news is that this couldn’t be further from the truth. Le Guin was a strong feminist. “She was on the leading edge of the civil rights feminist and antiwar movements of the 1960’s” (Justice, 2001). For some this may cause some confusion; if she was such a strong feminist why would she create a world where women are so obviously held as lesser beings? One important thing to consider is that authors do not always put their personal views into the characters and plot. I haven’t been able to find much in regards to Le Guin’s personal reasons for writing the Earthsea Series the way she did, but this was what I was able to find:
“Nearly all fantasy fiction, from C.S. Lewis’ Narnia to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, featured male protagonists. Le Guin acknowledges, ‘That’s how hero stories worked.’ She started on the fourth book in the mid-‘70s to correct the imbalance, but put it aside. Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea … shows the underside of Earthsea from the point of view of a mature woman and a battered girl.” (Justice, 2001)
This “imbalance” that the author is referring to is the prominence of male characters. Le Guin wrote them because that was what she believed would help her get her books out. She admits that she “wrote like an honorary man” (Justice, 2001). In the beginning of her writing career she was far less outspoken, but as the years past and she continued to write we see her voice grow more confident about the issues of feminism.
The Left Hand of Darkness is another of her novels, which was published at the same time as A Wizard of Earthsea, about a man who visits a world where the inhabitants have the ability to change their gender. This book has received multiple awards and is known for it’s feminist theme and active questioning of society’s gender roles. Yet even this book shows signs of some shyness about publishing strong feminist works since she often referred to the heterosexual beings as “he”, thus still maintaining a male presence.
With both books being published around the same time we can see some correlation for her reasoning in making Earthsea such a patriarchal world. Ursula K. Le Guin is not a sexist; she is a strong feminist with a misunderstood book. A Wizard of Earthsea is a book that shows the imperfections of the modern society in regards to its treatment of women.
If anyone is able to find more information about Le Guin’s writing of The Earthsea books, please let me know. I would especially appreciate it if anyone could find an interview where they discuss feminism in A Wizard of Earthsea.
For any still in doubt of Le Guin’s views on feminism you can follow this link to see a letter written to an editor about publishing a sci-fi anthology. Link?
Faith Justice. Ursula K. Le Guin. Salon. 23 Jan. 2001. Web 31 Dec. 2014
Literary Ames. Ursula K. Le Guin, confronting sexism in sci-fi publishing since 1987. WordPress. Web 31 Dec. 2014.