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.