Wednesday, February 13

Earthsea: Race and the Fantasy Genre

The 1993 Penguin Book cover design.
 I've had the pleasure of reading and owning the Earthsea Quartet ever since I studied at Trinity St. David in Wales. We were assigned to read Le Guin for my Science Fictions class, and although we studied The Left Hand of Darkness, I did a brief fantasy detour to Earthsea for a little bit, just to get a larger understanding of Le Guin's style and contributions to speculative fiction.

I was ecstatic I got to read A Wizard of Earthsea again for my Readings in the Genres class at SHU because The Earthsea Quartet is one of a very few epic fantasy series that I've read and loved.  Not only that, but it's a fantasy series that touched me so deeply that it's shaped not only who I am as a fantasy writer, but it shapes the fantasy that I write. However, that's an enormous topic to get into (which I'd prefer to save for my final paper and future blogs) so I'd like to dive into something else related to Earthsea that I've followed for years--the issue of race.

Because I love Ursula Le Guin and the Earthsea Quartet so much, I'll still read about it in blogs and articles in my spare time. And the thing that's fascinated me the most is the concept of "whitewashing" Earthsea and how often Le Guin has to step in to remind people that her lead characters are of many different, darker colors.  She shouldn't have to constantly remind audiences what her characters look like, especially when she clearly describes them in the text, but she's had to anyway; which I think speaks to a larger and quite serious  issue with race and the fantasy genre overall.

I mentioned in our previous on-board discussions  in class (as well as on this blog) some of the tropes that occur with epic or high fantasy (although it was mostly about maps, I did briefly mention fantasy settings). Although modern fantasy continues to grow and thrive and explore different worlds and races, there is still the perception that epic fantasy is stuck in Medieval Europe. To oversimplify, Medieval Europe =white people, usually of nobility or royalty.  If Medieval Europe is the default world building model for high fantasy, that means high fantasy casts by default will also be white.
The Three Knights by Edward Hasted, 1793

Although A Wizard of Earthsea is epic fantasy, it doesn't fall under the default settings for the genre. Ged and Ogion, like many other characters, are Gontishmen or from the Archipelago, meaning they are "dark copper-brown" (25) or described as "reddish brown" (44).  Vetch is referred to as "black-brown" (44). It's not that there aren't white people in Earthsea--there are races like the Kargs, and characters like Skiorh and Serret, who are described as white; although Serret is referred to more as "sallow" (28). But overall, the lead characters, and even the top supporting characters, happen to be people of color.  Well, not just happen to be--this was a deliberate choice made by Le Guin:

"My color scheme was conscious and deliberate from the start. I didn't see why everybody in science fiction had to be a honky named Bob or Joe or Bill. I didn't see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white (and why all the leading women had "violet eyes"). It didn't even make sense. Whites are a minority on Earth now—why wouldn't they still be either a minority, or just swallowed up in the larger colored gene pool, in the future? The fantasy tradition I was writing in came from Northern Europe, which is why it was about white people. I'm white, but not European. My people could be any color I liked, and I like red and brown and black. I was a little wily about my color scheme. I figured some white kids (the books were published for "young adults") might not identify straight off with a brown kid, so I kind of eased the information about skin color in by degrees—hoping that the reader would get "into Ged's skin" and only then discover it wasn't a white one." (Le Guin, Slate Magazine).

Race may never matter to certain fantasy readers or writers…but even so, there are few novels that are said to define the entire fantasy genre  like A Wizard of Earthsea does.  The fact that this small tome climbed to fame and importance the way it did is an enormous deal, because it's a fantasy that primarily involves a multi-racial cast. And yet for a book so powerful, it still meets with resistance--there is a population of readers, directors, producers, designers, etc.--who cannot seem to let the characters look the way the author intended.
Compare this to the book cover above.
Syfy's Ged is the polar opposite
of Le Guin's Ged.

Image Source

Le Guin has been very vocal about this issue. Probably one of the most famous examples of her frustration is the Syfy channel's miniseries adaptation Earthsea, which combines and adapts the plots from A Wizard of Earthsea and the Tombs of Atuan. I remember when it debuted, and I watched maybe an hour of it and personally thought it sucked. On top of that, there was a glaring problem--aside from Ogion (Danny Glover) no other leads were of color. Especially Ged. Le Guin wrote a marvelous article for Slate magazine with the subtitle How the Sci-Fi Channel Wrecked My Books where she lambasted casting choices and felt like she had to apologize to her reading audience for the choices the network made without her approval.  Her Slate article is probably the most famous, but she catalogued several of her various responses about the whitewashing of Earthsea, which you can read here.

Another famous treatment of the Earthsea stories is StudioGhibli's Tales from Earthsea which came out in 2006. Studio Ghibli is home of the noted works by Hiyao Miyazaki, although it was in fact Miyazaki's son Goro who directed Tales from Earthsea. Anyway, I also watched this adaptation and thought it was visually gorgeous but overall disappointing (an "almost, but not quite" reaction). As for the racial depiction of characters, Studio Ghibli didn't make the story as white as Syfy did. Characters have dark brown or black hair, and the skin…I'm not sure how to describe it. I think they're too light-skinned, but on the other hand, they aren't exactly the pale ivory skin that's so lauded in medieval high fantasy...but I do think they are paler than Le Guin intended. You can read more about race in both the Syfy and Studio Ghibli film here as well as Le Guin's own response to the film here. I can say Studio Ghibli did improve on the debacle Syfy created.

Prince Arren and Ged, from Tales of Earthsea.
Image Source
Perhaps the most infuriating aspect of whitewashing (to me, anyway) of A Wizard of Earthsea are the actual book covers themselves. I could possibly understand why film ignores the wishes of authors simply because Hollywood has a long-established track record of ruining fiction (not that that's a good excuse); but since the original medium of the story is in fact a book, you'd think at least publishers would get it right. Nope. This article shows how with Earthsea, like many other books, publishers have falsely depicted character races on the actual book covers.  An even more thorough article, One of the Most Whitewashed Characters in Fantasy/Science Fiction is Ged shows various interpretations.

I feel incredibly lucky that the copy of the Earthsea Quartet I picked up in Carmarthen was the Penguin UK edition that depicted Ged mostly the way I imagined him in my mind. There's no mistaking it: every character on that cover has black hair and reddish-brown skin. I cannot think of any other better visual representation of the characters that has appeared on a book cover. But honestly, there should be more than one example of art in existence that properly reveals race in the series.

Oh, wait a minute--here's something awesome!

Earthsea comic art by deviant artist MelanieComics.
(CC Licensed)
So! 

What can we as authors do when these long-existing issues with race and whitewashing can't seem to go away? First of all, we can help break down the old high fantasy tropes by actually breaking away from them. Write fantasy that isn't defaulted to the white, European medieval based traditional epic. But even if we do that, though, as the treatment of Le Guin's books show us, there's a good chance the work will be whitewashed anyway--by publishers, filmmakers, producers, etc. So what do we do then? We can emulate Le Guin and defend our work as we have written it. Le Guin may have had her books horribly misrepresented multiple times, but she doesn't go down without a fight!
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Works Cited
LeGuin, Ursula K. The Earthsea Quartet. London: Penguin, 1993. Print.
LeGuin, Ursula. "A Whitewashed Earthsea." Editorial. Slate.com. The Slate Group, a Division of the Washington Post, 16 Dec. 2004. Web. <http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2004/12/a_whitewashed_earthsea.html>.