How Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea Subverts Racism (But Not Sexism)

As part of a series for Tor.com commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of A Wizard of Earthsea‘s publication, Gabrielle Bellot considered what Le Guin’s pioneering sci-fi classic meant to her, as well as the ways it pushed against the boundaries of its time while simultaneously not quite pushing far enough. A short extract from Bellot’s article can be found below.


A Wizard of Earthsea was riveting, yet conventional—except in the important way that its main characters quietly subverted one of British and American fantasy’s most notable tropes, in which white, often Europeanesque figures are the presumptive standard. Heroic characters in sci-fi or fantasy who looked like me—brown or black, hair tightly curled—seemed strange, impossible, like the dreams of a forgotten circus tent. While the novel’s female characters left something to be desired—as Le Guin herself acknowledged in the afterword—its embrace of brown and black figures as protagonists was revolutionary for its time, particularly in a decade in which a fiercely divided America found itself embroiled in tense, often bloody debates over civil rights for black Americans.

I came to the Earthsea series late. The first book surprised me in its elegant simplicity. At the time, I had read SFF by some writers of color already, from earlier efforts, like W. E. B. Du Bois’ short story “The Comet,” to works by Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, Samuel Delany, and others, as well as graphic texts featuring a diverse cast of characters, like Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ series Saga. A Wizard of Earthsea both reminded me of them and was unlike them, all the same, in the way that it told such a standard but gripping narrative for its genre. I breezed through it in bed, on the rattling subway, on a weekend trip with my partner. It felt enriching to enter a world where people whose skin resembled mine were the majority, the norm, the foundation of a world. It felt surprising and courageous, too, when I remembered the date of its publication.

A Wizard of Earthsea tells a classic tale—“conventional enough not to frighten reviewers,” in Le Guin’s words. It begins with Ged as a boy learning that he may have the ability to use magic from a duplicitous witch; Ged’s powers, raw but potent, save his village from an attack by barbarians. Ged ventures to a wizarding school, where he learns the greatest key of magic: that knowing the true name of something gives one control over it. From his early days in the school, however, another boy, Jasper, repeatedly provokes Ged, looking down upon him for his humble bucolic origins. When the two decide to see who possesses the greatest magical ability, Ged naively and arrogantly claims he can raise the dead. He does—but at great cost, as an evil, monstrous shadow is let loose into the world from his casual rending of the boundary between the living and the dead. The shadow attacks Ged; he is only saved from it devouring his soul by the quick appearance of a mage from the school, who scares it off. After the assault, Ged is left near death and with almost all his power gone, and the rest of the book sees him attempting to both regain his powers and finally face down the shadow. The shadow is the result of his inexperience, his hubris, his braggadocio—but it is also the perfect foe for Ged, who eventually learns that he can never fully escape his shadow, for it also represents Ged himself. The past is never dead, as Faulkner tells us; our shadows never quite disappear, even when we think they do.


This article was originally published on 30th October 2018 on Tor.com and is available to read in full here. It is the first piece in a series being run on Tor.com to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of A Wizard of Earthsea that aims to provide a different look at the world of Earthsea each day for a week. You can read the other Earthsea articles in the series (and more) here.

Our next event takes place on the 19th November 2018 and will be a celebration of the works and legacy of Ursula K. Le Guin half a century after the publication of A Wizard of Earth.

Tickets are available on Eventbrite.

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