The Earthsea Quartet – Morality and Race

Despite my second blog post on literature now featuring another Ursula Le Guin book, I would like to assure my loyal reader (Hi Janie) that this is not an Ursula Le Guin fanpage (although she is very good). It was by sheer chance that the next book that piqued my interest happened to be ‘The Earthsea Quartet’.

I had seen the Studio Ghibli version entitled ‘Tales of Earthsea’ a couple of years ago when Film4 provided the world with a fantastic Studio Ghibli season. The film was…average – if anything it was a let down by usual Studio Ghibli standards but that’s a post for another day – but I was intrigued by the concept and as I tend to, I like to read up on books/films/games after I finish them. It was then that I discovered it was based on the series by Ursula Le Guin but imagine my surprise when I read that she was disappointed with how the film strays from its original material.

So here I am, a few years late and finally finding out why she felt this way and whilst I am only now approaching the end of the first book, ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’, it is already apparent how it differs and once again, my interest has been piqued.

My first thoughts on the book are that it is well written, with vivid detail and description (almost too much for me to comprehend sometimes) but ultimately, it follows some of the classic tropes you can expect to see in a fantasy novel. Young man from humble beginnings is actually incredibly powerful and destined for greatness. Cue adventure.

This isn’t to say there is anything wrong with that. It’s a common trope for a reason and that reason being that it works. I often find the naivety and ambition of a young character is endearing and this is the case with Ged. He shows great potential thus far and the only thing that you find irritable about this bold, young wizard is his temperament and arguable arrogance. This is, however, when classic fantasy morality comes in to play. It is no coincidence that in a book with a literal ‘shadow’ released in to the world that morality is all played out in a very black-and-white way.

The book is filled with superb quotes about life lessons for Ged to learn and mull over. I was particularly fond of an early passage where a young Ged is warned by the wizard Ogion as to the dangers of magic after Ged accidentally performs an ‘evil’ spell:

“Ged, listen to me now. Have you never thought how danger must surround power as shadow does light? This sorcery is not a game we play for pleasure or for praise. Think of this: that every word, every act of our Art is said and is done either for good, or for evil. Before you speak or do you must know the price that is to pay!”

 

From early on, Ged is being forced to face the consequences of his actions and this only continues. I often think that whilst fantasy literature is not considered high brow, there are few better genres than science fiction and fantasy, in which to explore the extents of human morality. It is only when you place exceptional power in the hands of humans that you can really explore how far the limits of morality are. I am still near the relative start of the series but already, I look forward to seeing how morality will affect Ged’s progression. So far he has shown arrogance and naivety despite the warnings offered to him but you feel that you can forgive a child for being so foolish. The question then becomes, can Ged learn from his past mistakes and take on board the lessons he has been given? Only time will tell!

I was also somewhat surprised that the majority of characters in ‘The Earthsea Quartet’ are for the most part dark skinned with white characters few and far between. My expectation was somewhat affected by the movie adaptation in which all the characters are indeed white (or Japanese, perhaps to suit its major audience?) so I suppose my surprise is more curiousity as to why Le Guin decided to invert such a common trope. It is also a rarity in fantasy for a protagonist to be of any ethnicity that isn’t caucasian and if there are any sort of other ethnicities present, they are more often than not portrayed as ‘Others’ as Edward Said would say. I looked up Ursula Le Guin’s opinion on the film and was interested to see her comments on her choice of race in the book:

“My purpose in making most of the people of Earthsea colored, and the whites a marginal and rather backward people, was of course a moral one, aimed at young American and European readers. Fantasy heroes of the European tradition were conventionally white — just about universally so in 1968 — and darkness of skin was often associated with evil. By simply subverting an expectation, a novelist can undermine a prejudice. “

 

And there we have it. The great thing about the subversion here is that Le Guin was comfortable enough to do this without trying to force any sort of message about equality in to the book. The characters are largely black and beyond descriptions when a character is introduced, it never gets mentioned. And why should it?

Slightly off topic but I noticed something similar with the casting of Peter Dinklage as Bolivar Trask in the most recent X-men film. Despite having dwarfism, it isn’t mentioned by anyone. Why? Again, because it doesn’t matter. His character is their for his role as a scientific genius, not for his physical appearance.

Anyway, that’s about all I have to say really. In summary, I suppose I was just tickled by the commonality of fantasy as a setting for teachings in morality and I was also pleasantly surprised to see Le Guin break away from racial stereotyping so well – especially in a fantasy book, a genre which can be archaic with its approach to race and gender.