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Artist, Heather Oliver             

“As Weak as Women’s Magic”

Ursula Le Guin is one of the speculative fiction authors I respect and admire. Her imagination seems endless, her capacity enormous. I’ve read her novels, her stories, her essays — even her poems. I’ve written reviews of her books and she’s the SF/F author I most often reference and hold up as an example in my essays.

However, some of her stances make me uneasy as a woman, a feminist and a scientist. One of them is her insistence that magic must be gender-specific. When she recently reiterated this credo (in the context of ridiculing the idea of a female Prospero or Lear), my views on this aspect of her outlook crystallized.

The result of these reflections just appeared in Crossed Genres: “As Weak as Women’s Magic”.

Image: Cover of Tombs of Atuan: Yvonne Gilbert/Gail Garraty.

20 Responses to ““As Weak as Women’s Magic””

  1. Caliban says:

    Another incisive essay.

    You’re absolutely right (of course) that one could play gender tricks with Shakespeare. The particular performance may or may not work, but I too have seen so many variations that I can’t be intrinsically bothered by tinkering, only with a specific production. A number of reviews of Taymor’s Tempest said, more or less, “This doesn’t work,” but none that I recall blasted the effort as being doomed to failure. I rather like the idea of Mirren as Prospera (though, due to weak reviews, didn’t get around to seeing it in the cinema; we don’t go to many movies anyway).

    And why not Queen Lear?

    My apologies for not posting over at the Crossed Genres website; for some reason my wordpress password didn’t work, and I didn’t feel like trying to figure it out (or, worse, register yet again at yet another website).

  2. Athena says:

    I’m glad, Calvin! Don’t worry about posting at CG, I like having company here. *smile* And, needless to say, I agree with you about Shakespeare. If anyone can carry such plasticity, he’s the foremost candidate.

  3. asakiyume says:

    We’ve talked about her essay at BVC, but I’m glad you’ve shared your thoughts here and on the Crossed Genres website.

    Tombs of Atuan is the only of those books that I can remember in any detail at all. I recall doodling pictures of Tenar.

  4. Athena says:

    Your comments are most welcome in all venues, private and public, Francesca!

    Along your last line of thought, I believe Tenar is one of the great underused figures in speculative literature.

  5. Sovay says:

    See, I belong to the category of people who preferred Ged and Tenar when they were not lovers, because a romance was so obviously the traditional conclusion of The Tombs of Atuan that I was delighted when it wasn’t, and I have problems with the language when they do make love in Tehanu. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t still saddened to see Le Guin thinks Shakespeare and genderplay don’t go together.

  6. Athena says:

    I agree — a romance would have been too obvious as the end of Atuan, and I found the love language in Tehanu curiously flat. Nor do I think that the two should have necessarily ended up bedmates. Turning Tenar into a housewife was the no-no.

  7. Sovay says:

    and I found the love language in Tehanu curiously flat.

    It wasn’t the flat: it was the heterocentrism. Or maybe the sexism. At least, I couldn’t find another way to read the line:

    “They lay that night on the hearthstones, and there she taught Ged the mystery that the wisest man could not teach him.”

    So . . . men do magic and women fuck? If the book was supposed to be a feminist rebalancing of Earthsea, I keep thinking it shot its kneecaps off right there.

    Turning Tenar into a housewife was the no-no.

    I wouldn’t even have had a problem with Tenar’s marriage if it hadn’t been the kind that left her with a dead husband and grown-up children who no longer have much to do with her: not just a housewife, but a lonely and unfulfilled housewife. There is something to be said for the quiet heroism of the everyday, the idea of making one’s garden grow, truly, not the Candide-satire. It’s that balance Le Guin gets right in “On the High Marsh,” I think: a woman’s life through which magic passes, but in whose absence she is not second-class or bereft; Emer of Semel is an ordinary person and she’s lovely with it. The same with Ged’s introduction in The Other Wind, when the mender arrives from whatever far isles to find the dragon-riding, death-conquering ex-Archmage and gets a skinny old man barefoot on a stepladder, picking pears—it startles Alder, but Ged doesn’t think he’s settled for second best. If that’s what she was aiming for with Tehanu, however, Le Guin doesn’t pull it off. We feel merely that Tenar is being punished with mundanity, then pulled back into the mythic because it suits the plot. She drowns her books at the end of The Tombs of Atuan, but she is never given the chance to rule Milan.

    . . . I have problems with Tehanu. You may be able to tell. I like that it takes up the story after the earth-shaking finale of The Farthest Shore, that the world still goes on after life and death have been set right and the hero flies away on a dragon’s back—it’s not Medea at the end of Euripides, the dragon has to land somewhere. I like that Ged is a wreck for most of the novel. I like what we learn about dragons. Periodically I pick up the novel again and hope I’ll find more this time, but it never happens.

  8. Athena says:

    Excellent points, all. Like you, I felt that the treatment of Tenar throughout the cycle verged on the punitive for no good reason except to shoehorn her (and the concerns/powers she represents) into the plot. Like you, I wondered where her grown-up children were (especially since this is a close-knit society) and what her husband had been like, to hold a sorceress all these years. Basically, once again she’s conveniently there for Ged, when he decides he wants a mundane life and a family.

    “On the High Marsh” may be my favorite Earthsea story, with “Darkrose” a close second, precisely because both achieve the balance that I think has eluded Le Guin in all the novels of the saga.

  9. Sovay says:

    “On the High Marsh” may be my favorite Earthsea story, with “Darkrose” a close second, precisely because both achieve the balance that I think has eluded Le Guin in all the novels of the saga.

    It is mine. “Dragonfly” may still come in second, but mostly for the scenes with Irian and the Patterner, Azver, another outsider-character who deserved more of a story than he receives.

  10. Athena says:

    Also, Irian and Azver act like colleagues, friends, collaborators: another ingredient missing between the genders in the novels of the cycle, but finally present in the story collection.

  11. Sovay says:

    Also, Irian and Azver act like colleagues, friends, collaborators: another ingredient missing between the genders in the novels of the cycle, but finally present in the story collection.

    I would read a novel about them. The Other Wind wasn’t it.

  12. intrigued_scribe says:

    Engaging and incisive as always!

    Though Le Guin remains one of my favorite authors, the reduction of Tenar’s role to a convenience is why I haven’t reread a good deal of the Earthsea series. (And I agree; where are her children, anyway?) Some balance definitely does come later, but only after what’s, to me, too much divisive representation.

  13. Athena says:

    Sonya, so would I.

    Heather, Le Guin remains one of my favorite authors as well. That’s why I was stunned to see that post, which set me to thinking about what she says in her work. The more recent trilogy, Annals of the Western Shore, is much better in that respect.

  14. s johnson says:

    Over time, the most interesting of the Earthsea books for me is The Tombs of Atuan, specifically the problem of being Arha, the Eaten One, servant/mistress of chthonic powers. Becoming Tenar was not quite a resolution.

  15. Athena says:

    The chthonic Powers are among the items that got short shrift in the first Earthsea trilogy and got re-evaluated (but still never explored in depth) in the second round. Among other things, they represent a counterforce to Segoy, who looks suspiciously like Jahweh/Uranus/Odin, while the Powers Arha/Tenar serves are even more primordial and pluralistic: something between the Elohim and the Vanir/Titans. They never get accommodated or resolved.

  16. Thalia says:

    Just a note that that cover art is actually by Yvonne Gilbert.

  17. Athena says:

    I had a very difficult time finding the name of any of the cover artists for these books. I’ll add that to the post.

  18. Julezyme says:

    I saw Vanessa Redgrave play Prospero at The Globe and she was marvelous; androgynous, strong but brittle. It totally worked. And what is Prospero, the male version, if not “menopausal”? Past the peak of his power, ceding to the next generation.

    I never made it very far with the Earthsea books as a kid, and I think it was because the gender unfairness made me squirm.

  19. Athena says:

    Julia, I wish I had seen that production! Your point about Prospero is another bull’s-eye: the dilemmas and hardships of being past one’s peak are not gender-specific.

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