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About 3 months ago, some exec from the Sci Fic Channel working on the "Earthsea" TV movie put out an invitation to SFWA members to "write something they could use in promoting the premiere. They are interested in a whole range of responses - from the quick blurb to a reasoned, literary essay on Le Guin's impact on the field."

I wrote something and sent it in, but I don't think they've done a thing with it, so I present it here for you. (Please forgive in advance the length of this post; someday I'll get real sophisticated and figure out how to make it appear on a new page, but the time is not yet.)

* * * * * * * *

Le Guin/Earthsea Tribute
by Ellen Kushner

For Ursula K. Le Guin, I betrayed my high school friends. All of them.

And I didn’t have that many to begin with. This was in the days before Dungeons & Dragons™ had imparted a modicum of Geek Cool to liking elves and dwarves and wizards. In those days, it was hardcore: fantasy was J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings – The Trilogy, all 3 books of it. No skipping the index, either. We memorized the names of Gondor’s kings, and of course learned Elvish Tengwar script so we could pass indecipherable notes in class, and wore grey cloaks made out of bedsheets we dyed in my mom’s basement.

I loved the Tolkien, certainly, all three fat volumes of it. But then, one day, a friend gave me a book her mom had brought home from the library, written by her old college friend, “Ussy Kroeber.” It was called A Wizard of Earthsea.

I read it once. I read it twice. I couldn’t believe what was happening to me. This was better than The Lord of the Rings!!!

It was about this kid, see, who lived in a world of magic, but he was kind of difficult. He didn’t always get along with people, and people didn’t always like him. He made bad choices, and he lived with them.

And Earthsea’s magic . . . it was all about words, about language, about speaking, about art. You could memorize lists and spells, but in the end, you were born with power, and you had to learn to use it wisely.

Oh, how I longed to walk the forests of Gont! I longed for them instantly, far more than I had ever for even the most glorious vistas of Middle Earth.

The problem was – what to tell my friends? How could I say to them – “Hey, I found something better than Tolkien!”?

I kept my mouth shut . . . for awhile. I read everything Le Guin wrote – and I wrote stuff of my own. Oh, I’d been cranking out magical adventures for (and about) my friends and me since I was 12. But the Earthsea stuff was secret, was mine. It was about a girl who lived in a small house in the woods with a wizard who she wanted for a teacher . . . . It was intimate, and it was personal. I never finished it – but it set me off in a whole new direction as a writer. I’ve never looked back.

Sir Walter Scott, the superstar novelist of the 19th century who based his work on history and folklore, once wrote that he wrote in “the big bow-wow strain” and wished he could write with “the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting. . . . “ like Jane Austen. If Tolkien was the Walter Scott of fantasy, then Le Guin was its Jane Austen. The Earthsea novels of Ursula K. Le Guin taught me that great fantasy doesn’t have to be set on sweeping panoramas of lofty towers and heroic battles. Great fantasy can be domestic. It can be about the human struggle to distinguish right from wrong, balance from imbalance, even when it’s within ourselves. It can be about who gets the last hot cake, and whose pride is injured, and the need for solitude, and the need for friendship. Le Guin’s dragons are all the more grand for living in that world of ordinary things – and my breath still catches when I read of their flight over the sea at dawn. Great fantasy also lets us smell the wind from the fields of Otherwhere, and revel in the fact that it is full of mysteries for us to love.

I loved those books so much, that for years I wanted to grow up to be Ursula K. Le Guin. But something strange happened. All that time I spent with her, alone together on the isle of Roke, the courts of Havnor, or out on a boat on the open sea . . . she taught me to listen to the voice in myself; to heed my own shadow, and draw its lineaments on the page before me, until I could see it perfectly, and name it with words and words and words that would tell its story in many different guises.

Thank you, Ursula. I still love you best.

* * *

Ellen Kushner is the author of the “mannerpunk” cult novel Swordspoint, the World Fantasy Award-winning Thomas the Rhymer, and (with Delia Sherman) The Fall of the Kings. She is also the host and writer of the weekly public radio series PRI’s Sound & Spirit with Ellen Kushner (http://wgbh.org/spirit), an exploration of the myth and music, ideas & beliefs that make up the human experience around the world & through the ages, hailed by Bill Moyers as “the best thing on public radio!”

You can hear her one-hour program on the music of The Lord of Rings at: http://www.wgbh.org/wgbh/pages/pri/spirit/alphabetical.html#059


( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 14th, 2004 09:45 pm (UTC)
If you *want* to know how to make longer posts a click-through link:

[lj-cut][/lj-cut] With Greater Than/Less Than markers instead of the []. :)

Interesting read. Thank you.

Did you see what LeGuin had to say about the series on her website?
Dec. 15th, 2004 03:07 am (UTC)
Thank you!

What's the URL for the Le Guin response?
Dec. 15th, 2004 03:47 am (UTC)
It's here.

She was, shall we say, Not Happy about changes that were made.
Dec. 14th, 2004 10:07 pm (UTC)
This is lovely. Thank you.

I recently reread Lord of the Rings and Earthsea in alternating volumes (Fellowship followed by Wizard followed by Towers, followed by Atuan ...) I was struck by how much better Le Guin was. Tolkein had the grand scope, and his books were stunning--but Le Guin had the closeups on individual people living within that grand scope, and that was more stunning still.

I'll take Le Guin's close up view almost every time.
Dec. 14th, 2004 10:15 pm (UTC)
Beautiful, Ellen. But of course Sci-Fi would never use it, because you are describing the real Earthsea and the stupid mini-series has nothing to do with those things.

Dec. 15th, 2004 02:06 pm (UTC)
Thank you, Beth!

What a pretty horse you have....
Dec. 15th, 2004 08:59 pm (UTC)
That's my two-year-old colt. He's adorable.
Dec. 14th, 2004 10:47 pm (UTC)
Thank you
I really enjoyed reading this.
Dec. 15th, 2004 12:49 am (UTC)
Thank you.

Also ... yeah, I've been there too.
Dec. 15th, 2004 02:58 am (UTC)
This essay is far superior to the execrable 12 minutes of the Sci-Fi production I saw last night, before I turned off the television and went away.

Thank you.

Dec. 15th, 2004 04:34 am (UTC)
That's beautiful.

If you're feeling ambitious, you can put a post behind a cut tag by putting [lj-cut] in front of the words and [/lj-cut] at the end of them. Only replace the square brackets with greater than and less than signs.
Dec. 17th, 2004 11:34 pm (UTC)
Dec. 15th, 2004 02:02 pm (UTC)
Your essay shows that you learned your lessons from Earth Sea well. There is real magic in the use of words that is deepened by attention to practice and living. It touches hearts and creates a realm of emotional substance that is fecund. Tolkien, on the other hand, is a young males fantasy that is rich in paranormal, but is basically a young males coming of age, complete with wars and battles. It carries the power of Norse mythology, but in the end the world it brings to focus is one of aggression (in my opinion). I prefer the more (real to me) world that Charles de Lint has brought to focus in his words and worlds--one of human/paranormal interaction that happens just beyond the realm of normal perception, around the corners of normal perception and vision. I have often wondered what would happen if the world of reiki and kitsume interacted with the residents of Newford...or if polytheistic animist spirits were given more of a voice.

Much of my tastes are determined because I get to interact with the world on manly men daily in my profession. And I have a house of 20 year old boys playing Warcrack in my basement all the time. (I made the mistake of setting up a server for them when they were 14 and now have about 5 over every night for five years or so.) The hidden magics get missed in that not-so-subtle world. The beauty of unfolding narcissus and their aroma are often overlooked (dare I say trampled).
Dec. 15th, 2004 02:12 pm (UTC)
Are you familiar with Terri Windling's Studio for Mythic Arts?

Dec. 16th, 2004 01:50 am (UTC)
o yeah, but not often enough. some nights I am so burnt from working with engineers, regulators and budetary constraints I want a drink, some TV (instaed of fiction) until my brain goes to a place where, if I have the energy, I move to a more sacred place. rojo
Dec. 15th, 2004 07:09 pm (UTC)
Thanks, you've just managed to put into words the way I've always felt about the Earthsea books; my partner is reading them out loud to me right now, and I'm kind of in an ecstacy of rediscovery.

BTW, entirely off-topic, but I thought I'd mention that I work at Giovanni's Room in Philly, and I met you and Delia when you came to do a reading of The Fall of the Kings. I'm still handselling that book like mad (well, relatively speaking; it IS a small queer bookstore *g*).
Dec. 17th, 2004 11:33 pm (UTC)
Mad is good. Maybe it's thanks to *you* that Bantam just told me they're sending KINGS back to press for a few thousand more copies...!

I remember you from that fine night at G's Room - you'll be glad to hear that we did indeed manage to catch the last train out of Phila. to Penn Station, thanks to some truly inspired urban driving by our friend Dave . . . and lived to tell the tale. (In other words: there I am screaming at him from the back seat as we approach an orange light, "Run it! Run it!!" while he calmly replies, "You want to get there alive, don't you?" We did.)
Dec. 17th, 2004 12:00 am (UTC)
This is lovely. Thank you for sharing it. I haven't read the Earthsea books since 4th grade, at which time I suspect I was far too young for them. I ought to go back & try again.
Jan. 16th, 2005 10:40 am (UTC)
Le Guin speaks

has all her latest comments on the Earthsea TV series.
Jul. 18th, 2005 11:51 am (UTC)
I only just found this post of yours. Ever been to Acadia National Park up on Mount Desert Island in Maine? That's my mental model for Gont, with its quiet, wild beauty. It's a place that tries to be noplace but itself.
( 20 comments — Leave a comment )

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