Ursula Le Guin thoughts

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We recently finished listening to Harlan Ellison's reading of Ursula Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea. This novel is often thought of as one of the great fantasy novels of our time (well, the time of the people saying it; I wasn't around yet). It was difficult going to such a sparse story, with very little character development and hardly any dialogue (and Ellison, while very expressive in prose narrative, reads dialogue like it's the phone book). My sense is that Le Guin is appreciated for the world she created rather than for her storytelling, which simply didn't impress me, not after coming off of listening to the whole Harry Potter series. Rowling is a much more entertaining writer. Her characters are much more fully developed. The world is much more developed, even in the first book. It's much more imaginative. There's a richer, more complex plot. There's nothing to latch onto in Le Guin's book. It's like a short story extended over a whole novel.

So it surprised me to see Le Guin's derisive comments about J.K. Rowling:

Her credit to JK Rowling for giving the "whole fantasy field a boost" is tinged with regret. "I didn't feel she ripped me off, as some people did," she says quietly, "though she could have been more gracious about her predecessors. My incredulity was at the critics who found the first book wonderfully original. She has many virtues, but originality isn't one of them. That hurt."

She doesn't think Rowling ripped her off. Yet she is hurt that people think Rowling was original. I'm guessing she thinks there's a level of borrowing between ripping her off and being original and that the Harry Potter books are in that area. I don't see it. The way magic works is very different in the two worlds. The general storyline is very different. I don't see much similarity at all, actually. Wikipedia's reference to the above quote offers some explanation, however:

The basic premise of Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), in which a boy with unusual aptitude for magic is recognised, and sent to a special school for wizards, resembles that of Harry Potter. The hero encounters Jasper, a typically unpleasant Draco-like rival, in the Flashman tradition.

The way Harry Potter's unusual aptitude for magic is recognized is nothing like Ged's. It's a completely different kind of magic that gets discovered in a different way, and the way he ends up at the school isn't remotely similar. The school itself is nothing like Hogwarts and occupies only a fairly brief section of the book. The rival Jasper appears for maybe one chapter. If that's the best they can do, then I think they're grasping at straws. If that's what Le Guin really had in mind, then it doesn't reflect well on her to have said this.

This isn't the only time I've seen Le Guin overreacting to something and taking it way out of proportion, to the point of almost ignoring more important things. Her response to the by-all-accounts awful pseudo-adaptation of her novels has an introductory paragraph mentioning that the story of the miniseries doesn't resemble the novels at all, four paragraphs on her role, or lack thereof, in the process of producing the miniseries, nine paragraphs on the issue of race, and one final condemnation those who produced the miniseries. She says the miniseries changes her story almost entirely, using some scenes from her books but putting them together in a very different overall plot and removing the important context. That's a significant claim. Yet she doesn't substantiate it, at all.

The one thing she does complain about in detail really is worth complaining about. I would have been very upset if I'd written something like what she wrote, and they had done this to it. She explicitly made most of her characters something like darker natives of the Americas in look. There's a small minority of brown-skinned characters (with straight hair, so more like Indians than Africans) and a small minority of Viking-like pale, blond, blue-eyed barbarians. Most of Earthsea is dominated by people she describes as reddish. She's deliberately playing with people's sense of race and the assumption of whiteness as a norm. She doesn't make a big deal of it in the books, but it's noticeable just because she mentions it offhand as if it's normal.

So it would have been nice if the miniseries had gotten that aspect of her world. But it's far from being central to the storyline itself, as she says it is, and it's certainly not worth nine significant paragraphs when absolutely nothing in her complaint surfaces about any specific things they changed about the storyline. I have no sense, since I haven't seen it, of what specifically they did to change the plot, and I couldn't evaluate it other than the racial issue, which again is relatively minor to the plot of the book, without actually seeing the thing. The way she deals with race in her books is very important for her world and for one of the points she wanted to get across with her novel. But it's simply not central to the novel itself, which is a story that race hardly enters into in the course of the events that take place in it. She deliberately made it non-central, so it's strange that she sees it as so central that she can spend all her time complaining about it without even a quick mention of what they got wrong on more significant matters.

8 Comments

I tried hard to read her books last year, as J remembered them fondly from his teen years and was rereading them. I dozed through the first five or six chapters, which means I woke up at midnight with it on my chest for several consecutive nights. This is no great insult as I did this through the first 150 pages of LOTR, the first three times I tried to read them. The difference is, I kept at it with LOTR until I was loving it. I don't see myself trying again with Earthsea. I am however plugging through Harry Potter at present, and although I am moving pretty slowly, I am enjoying them very much. I am still looking for what will send me and my children to hell for reading them.

I think you may be misreading Le Guin, here Jeremy. I'm not sure she's saying that Rowling borrowed from her at all. She's saying that Rowling borrowed heavily from the tradition of fantasy fiction, but didn't give much credit to her predecessors. Thus when Le Guin says "I didn't feel she ripped me off, as some people did, though she could have been more gracious about her predecessors," she may mean "she didn't borrow as much from me as from others," rather than "she borrowed from me but didn't rip me off." Granted, that doesn't fit so well with the last, "That hurt," unless by that she means that it hurts that people are so unfamiliar with the tradition of fantasy literature that she and others have been writing for decades that a popular book which follows that tradition rather closely is considered wildly original solely because people aren't familiar with what else is out there.

I'm not sure about the merits of the argument, but it's different from how you're interpreting it.

I suppose she could have meant that, but the "that hurt" does seem to me to indicate that she thinks Rowling relied on her to some extent, even if it's not to the extent that it counts as ripping her off.

But either way it's just quite plain that the world Rowling created is very original. No one else put together such an intricate world of magic users in contemporary times to comment on so many aspects of modern society while having the depth of character and wonder that her stories involve. She's got significant diversity of character, motivation, and relationships. She of course takes the history of fantasy as a source for a lot of the elements of her world, but like Tolkien much more of it comes from pre-20th century works than from 1960s fantasy, and I don't think there's any sense whatsoever that she made everything up wholesale. She fully acknowledges her debt to C.S. Lewis, for instance, and there's no question that her stories are much more like the Narnia books than the Earthsea books. So even if I'm reading her wrong about what she thinks Rowling relied on, her charge against Rowling's character just doesn't hold up.

There is a middle ground between "ripping off" another author and being completely original. It seems clear to me that LeGuin feels that this is one of those cases. Perhaps somewhere Rowling made a comment implying that she was doing something new by setting a fantasy novel in a school or somesuch. I don't know, but it sounds like that's the kind of thing that LeGuin feels aggrieved about.

Aside from that, I would take some issue with your view of Rowling's originality. I dearly love Rowling's work, but I don't feel that it is wildly original as you seem to think. Magic in the contemporary world is a fairly common setting, and Fantasy as social commentary is as well. Diversity of character, motivation, and relationship are hardly innovations in the fantasy genre. Certainly the particular combination she employs is unique, but as far as I can tell, the only true innovation she brought to the genre is having all of these potentially world-ending event occur and having school go on as normal. The exams, house rivalries, and harassment by unfriendly teachers are as much a crisis to the main characters as Voldemort. The only other place I've seen that done is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but that's TV, not novels.

But there's only a very small percentage of her book in the school. It really doesn't seem to me to justify the kind of harsh language she uses.

It's the particular combination and the way the magical world reflects so much of the way things are done in the real world, with magic replacing technology and a government that's supposed to parallel the real-world government in many ways. It's the particular ways she's got diversity of character, motivation, and relationship, not the mere fact that she does that (although I do have to say there's much more depth in those ways than anything I've read by Tolkien, Lewis, Le Guin, McCaffrey, Brooks, Pratchett, or any other fantasy book I can think of).

I think you are being rather over sensitive about Le Guin's comments on Rowling. I'm sorry but not everyone is obligated to be a blind fan of Harry Potter whether you agree with their reasons or not. I find Harry Potter to be a page turner and little more. I'm not sure what you mean by characters in Rowling being "more fully developed". Perhaps you meant that unless a character has a complicated personality he or she is not "full developed". Ged is a fully developed character if you read the novel carefully. He comes from a "working class" background, being a goat herd from Gont. This leads to his sense of his inferiority in front of Jasper and projecting his inferiority on to him. He suffers from pride and anger because he had no mother to raise him and his father used to beat him when he helped him at the smithy. None of this is given in endless hundred page detail as fantasy novels these days tend to do, conflating the mundane as if that gave their story greater depth through uninspired description. Ged's arrogance and humbling is great character development, showing his transition from arrogance to uncertainty, his desire to hide rather then adventure. His guilt over his inability to save the fisherman's son despite defeating a dragon, also shows the genuine depth of character, as well his conflict in trusting an evil stone to protect him from his own Shadow, versus trusting his own faith in the light. Unfortunately, readership prefers melodramatic incidents and exaggeratedly colorful characters because it is too shallow to appreciate nuanced and emotionally mature writing. So while the world Leguin has created is credible the characters are no less well developed. As for your caveat about Leguin's treatment of Ged's skin color as misinterpreted in the TV series, I disagree with you again. I was very aware of Ged's red-brown skin, and Vetch's dark almost black complexion and didn't need Race to be made a central issue to appreciate it. It was there as an essential part of the background because the way a character appears in your imagination is essential, not just incidental.

I'm not expecting everyone to be a blind fan of Harry Potter. I'm asking for more fairness in criticism. Le Guin strikes me as going way beyond reason in her critique, as if there's some personal element that she's pretending isn't there.

What seems more fully developed about Rowling's characters is that we have much more of a sense of how the characters think, speak, and interact with other people. There's a lot more dialogue, and it's a lot more revealing about the inner workings of the characters. It's not that you never learn anything about the characters in Le Guin's book, but it's an older style of writing that doesn't explore things as deeply. I'd say the same thing about Tolkien, and I hold Tolkien in much higher regard than I do Rowling (so much for your "blind fan" comment).

I'm not sure what you're saying about the race issue. My point is that the race issue was not more central to the book than what actually happens, although it was important, and there are good reasons not to distort it in a movie version. I agree with almost everything Le Guin said on that issue. What I was arguing is that she spent a vastly disproportionate amount of her critique on that one issue to the detriment of the several much more central ways the TV miniseries failed to capture her story, such as the actual storyline or the issues of character development that you spent so much time detailing.

Le Quin gets funny sometimes. As Neil Gaiman, who probably could have really made a huff, said to a journalist: "I disappointed him by explaining that, no, I certainly didn't believe that Rowling had ripped off Books of Magic, that I doubted she'd read it and that it wouldn't matter if she had: I wasn't the first writer to create a young magician with potential, nor was Rowling the first to send one to school." Jane Yolen probably thought "true" while grumbling. lol

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