Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Ursula Le Guin Did Not Write Fantasy

Maybe you read Earthsea and couldn’t quite put your finger on just why it was so underwhelming, so flat. I know that happened to me!

Ursula Le Guin explains that this was entirely by design:

But there are no wars in Earthsea. No soldiers, no armies, no battles. None of the militarism that came from the Arthurian saga and other sources and that by now, under the influence of fantasy war games, has become almost obligatory.

I didn’t and don’t think this way; my mind doesn’t work in terms of war. My imagination refuses to limit all the elements that make an adventure story and make it exciting—danger, risk, challenge, courage—to battlefields. A hero whose heroism consists of killing people is uninteresting to me, And I detest the hormonal war orgies of our visual media, the mechanical slaughter of endless battalions of black-clad, yellow-toothed, red-eyed demons.

War as a moral metaphor is limited, limiting, and dangerous. By reducing the choices of action to “a war against” whatever-it-is, you divide the world into Me or Us (good) and Them or It (bad) and reduce the ethical complexity and moral richness of our life to Yes/No, On/Off. This is puerile, misleading, and degrading. In stories, it evades any solution but violence and offers the reader mere infantile reassurance. All too often the heroes of such fantasies behave exactly as the villains do, acting with mindless violence, but the hero is on the “right” side and therefore will win. Right makes might.

Or does might make right?

Now, once and for all this settles the fact that Le Guin’s exclusion from Appendix N in the first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide was entirely appropriate and natural. D&D sprang directly from the miniatures gaming of Chainmail and the early Braunteins. A fantasy series predicated on the arbitrary elimination of war and borders and nations is simply not going to offer a great deal to a game system that took for granted that players would progress to the point where they would establish kingdoms and wield armies in addition to henchmen and magical artifacts.

Not that subversion is foreign to the literary inspirations of the D&D game system. Michael Moorcock produced the anti-Conan, a demon worshiping drug addict albino hemophiliac by the name of Elric– whose series attempted to demonstrate even such an unlikely and unlikable anti-hero could nevertheless attain the same sort of heroic stature as Roland. That even a terribly flawed and untrustworthy agent of chaos could nevertheless find himself fighting for good and even the very cohesion of reality is certainly something D&D players find themselves recapitulating regardless of whether they’ve read Stealer of Souls! Its hardwired into the DNA of the game.

But Le Guin doesn’t just repudiate the epic battles of Barsoom, Cad Camlan, and the Pelennor Fields. She also dispenses with the tension between good and evil, law and chaos that makes them necessary, inevitable, and meaningful. And mark this well: she did not produce a different take on heroism. She didn’t offer a new and improved approach to heroism. She hated heroism pure and simple.

And she hated fantasy. Her work was something else entirely, though it was packaged into the same sort of dime store paperbacks as A. Merritt and Robert E. Howard stories were peddled in. It looked like fantasy novels, sure. But it was just another delivery mechanism for the exact same message baked into everything from John Lennon’s Imagine to The Fifth Dimension’s Age of Aquarius. That’s tacky, not timeless.

She didn’t write about human beings at all. She wrote about a people with nervous systems that are less developed than those found in lobsters. There’s nothing fantastic or mythical about that. Indeed, the correct term for it would be nonsense.

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5 responses to “Ursula Le Guin Did Not Write Fantasy

  1. John Boyle February 2, 2018 at 12:06 am

    The Arthurian Saga isn’t about militarism, it is about heroism, love, and loyalty, among other things. To reject it, is to reject Western Civilization, in a sense.

    As for War, like it or not, it is part of reality. And to quote H. Beam Piper:
    “What happened in the cloisters, and the guildhalls and the parliaments and the council chambers was important, but none of them went into effect until ratified on the battlefield.”
    Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen, 1965

  2. Cirsova February 2, 2018 at 11:43 am

    Earthsea did always feel strangely static.

    Her first novel is the only of hers I’ve read which featured a heroic protagonist who stepped up participate in a conflict for the purpose of resolving it and saving people. Others involved lots of wandering and waiting and often being a passive participant in the events around them, reactive rather than active.

    The characters in Planet of Exiles wait and prepare for an apocalyptic event.
    The character in City of Illusions is an outcast who wanders in search of himself, and only circumstances put him in a position where he could harm the villains.
    Ged spends most of Earthsea running from his problem (though the solution was to stop running)
    Tenar is a victim of her circumstances in “Tombs of Atuan” until Ged (who is not the book’s protagonist) comes to rescue her.
    Tehanu is literally about life after being an adventurer and coping with being a boring wizard with no powers and princess who’s no longer young and lives a simple life on a farm.
    In the Telling, a boring Indonesian lesbian from Vancouver hangs out with poor rural aliens until the alien’s government come in to kill everyone.

  3. taarkoth February 2, 2018 at 3:14 pm

    So what you’re saying is, a film adaptation of Earthsea should use lobsters as actors? /newman

  4. jsammallahti February 4, 2018 at 3:48 am

    Now you’re just being ridiculous. :D Okay, you don’t like her politics and you don’t like her books, nothing wrong with that. But saying The Wizard of Earthsea isn’t fantasy? Because, what, it’s not about a war between good and evil? What exactly is the essential ingredient of fantasy that The Wizard of Earthsea missing and all fantasy books have?

  5. nightfly February 7, 2018 at 4:14 pm

    I am sadly deficient in my LeGuin, but one thing is certain: her philosophy, as she outlines it above, is completely self-refuting. There is ALWAYS a yes/no, on/off moment, a place where all the gradients eventually reach the perfectly full or the perfectly empty. LeGuin says she utterly rejects this… well, fine. So that’s a NO, then. QED

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