Article – “As Weak as Women’s Magic” by Athena Andreadis

“As Weak as Women’s Magic”
– common saying in the Earthsea Archipelago

A few days ago, I read an opinion piece by Ursula K. Le Guin that sprang as a reaction to Julie Taymor’s version of The Tempest, in which Helen Mirren plays the role of Prospero. I was frankly stunned to read this:

“My husband was not bothered by Prospero being “Prospera.” I was bothered by it. This bothers me. The botheration has nothing to do with the quality of Helen Mirren’s performance. She is a very fine actor, her heart is in her part, and she knows how to speak the poetry. Once or twice she looked so dishevelled and harried that the word “menopausal” came into my mind.”

That was bad enough. But then Le Guin went on to argue that Shakespeare’s gender arrangements should not be tampered with:

“I find the idea of Queen Lear intensely silly. Though for all I know she’s blundering half-naked across a blasted Hollywood heath towards me at this very moment, bellowing “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!”

Dishevelled, menopausal, silly, blundering, bellowing. Excessively contemptuous and harsh terms for women who violate traditional gender conventions. To a middle-aged woman who is a research scientist (as close to a sorcerer as you can get), they sound venomous. Yet these are the words of someone whose fiction and essays I’ve read with pleasure and admiration across genres and years, someone who I thought had an intellect of infinite capacity – the creator of androgynous Gethenians, anarchist Odonians and sedoretu four-partner marriages.

Le Guin’s essay contained two kernels. One, Shakespeare is sacrosanct because he was a genius. Two, gender confers intrinsic, immutable attributes. Thus, women who try to play “male” authority roles can only appear hysterical or silly. Sort of like girls trying to wield lightsabers. Or, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson and Le Guin’s own Roke wizards, “Sir, a woman wielding a magic rod is like a dog walking on its hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

Let me briefly deal with Shakespeare first. Coming from a culture whose mythology and history has been endlessly – and most often horribly – toyed with, I don’t see why Shakespeare should be uniquely untouchable. He’s admittedly a languagesmith and some of his protagonists have become archetypes to Anglophone readers. But there’s nothing particularly original or inspired about his plots and character scaffoldings, which he plundered from all kinds of sources — from pagan myths to work of his contemporaries, since copyright didn’t exist back then.

For all we know, Prospero may have been originally female before she got shoehorned into the Elizabethan mould of what a powerful sorcerer should be. There is also the long shadow of off-stage Sycorax, the original owner of Prospero’s island and a sorceress in her own right along the lines of such powerful primeval goddesses as Tiamat. On the other side of the theater curtain, Shakespeare has been adapted in every way imaginable – from a MacBeth in Stalinist Russia to a totally race-reversed Othello, to a sympathetic Shylock, to West Side Story. Many of these retellings were hailed as imaginative takes that made the aging material newly relevant.

Having read almost all of Le Guin’s work, however, I suspect her dislike of Mirren as Prospero has two sources beyond the antagonism of one powerful, successful woman towards another. One is Le Guin’s own experience of the “bleaching” of Earthsea in its horrific Sci-Fi miniseries treatment. But in that case, the casting of white actors to play characters clearly depicted as non-white allowed viewers to retain blinkered, comfortable default assumptions. In contrast, having a female Prospero challenges such assumptions. Which brings us to the second source: Le Guin’s own assumptions.

As I said earlier, I think Le Guin believes that women and men are fundamentally different and their magic should obey the demarcation lines. For good and ill, men are creators and destroyers; women must be content to take the leftover preservation slot. Having Prospero be a woman blurs these boundaries. In Le Guin’s view, this is an error that endangers balance. Hence her use of coded, loaded words like “menopausal” and “blundering” that aim to conjure the stereotypical Baba Yaga image. And hence the insurmountable problems I have with Le Guin’s Earthsea and its magic.

I’ve read all the Earthsea works. The universe is original, beguiling, carefully and lovingly constructed, from the pelagic geography to the cultures (many-hued and non-Anglo, though still quasi-feudal and with a romanticized view of iron-age subsistence technology) to the vivid characters to the magic woven into the very bones of the world. Le Guin can be a subtle and imaginative storyteller and is willing to tackle complexity. Like Shakespeare, she did her share of plundering, transmuting the loans “into something rich and strange”: Hellenic myths, Kabbalism, Catholicism, Jung, Daoism. From the latter come the separate-but-equal domains of power.

This last dichotomy effectively exiles me from Earthsea. There’s no way I could be myself there. The magic I like and do well is defined by Le Guin as men’s magic. By her logic, this makes me a gender traitor and a “silly” pretender (a menopausal one, at that) who can only be second-rate at my chosen magic, since I have the wrong equipment. It makes me a bitch staggering on her hind legs.

The first three Earthsea novels (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore) are frankly reactionary in their depiction of women. That is not because magic-gifted women are banned from the Roke Academy and denied training. This attitude can be assigned to the fictional culture. What reveals the creator’s mindset is that the rare women in the trilogy have no independent agency. They exist solely as props to make Ged’s life comfortable or pleasant.

The greatest betrayal is that of Tenar in the second book (there’s no major female presence in the other two). Tenar is a trained sorceress but her magic is the wrong kind, by the judgment of both Ged and Le Guin. So Tenar’s magic is taken from her, and she’s turned into… a housewife. It’s like a tiger being made to pull a plow. Le Guin has argued that what Tenar does in her hut is as important as what Ged does in his tower. Except she doesn’t choose to show us Tenar mending socks and raising children. She shows us Ged wielding his rod and compelling dragons and ghosts.

I had such a strong reaction to this aspect of the first three Earthsea books that I haven’t been able to reread them, despite the many other pleasures and resonances I found in that world. Someone could say that the first three Earthsea novels reflect the era in which they were written – but this is the same era in which Joanna Russ wrote The Female Man. Also, when the first Earthsea novel appeared Andre Norton had already written several Witch World stories with female protagonists.

After the trilogy and two standalone stories there was a twenty-year hiatus in Earthsea: Ged had completed his arc. Le Guin could have stopped there and most readers would have continued to adore a universe that left the status quo undisturbed. Yet she apparently was as dissatisfied as I. Not only did she revisit Earthsea; she also subjected it to heavy-duty retrofitting.

Women fare differently, though not necessarily better, in the two later novels (Tehanu, The Other Wind). In them, Tenar and Ged at long last become the lovers they were meant to be, except Ged is spent by then. Tenar is more caretaker than partner – and she might as well be called Griselda, given the humiliating trials she’s made to undergo. Young Tehanu plays an equally stereotypical victim role, despite her stated power. And the queen provided to Roke’s king verges on caricature.

Women finally and belatedly become important in the five-story cycle Tales from Earthsea which is considered ancillary and optional by most Earthsea aficionados. For me, though, these are the best stories of that universe. In them, we discover that women created the Roke Academy; we glimpse Ogion in his youth and Ged in his zenith; and we get to see Roke Academy opened to non-males, of which more anon. In these seemingly effortless, deft, compelling stories Le Guin re-evaluated her assumptions and arrived at deeper, richer, more nuanced takes except on one issue: gendered magic.

Le Guin posits that magic which rends the fabric of the world is wrong. I couldn’t agree more. This is a real, concrete issue for me, a scientist who is researching the molecular regulation of brain function, a monist who’s intensely aware and wary of sunderings. But in the second half of Earthsea, Le Guin still only allows women the role of preserver. Even Roke is founded to ensure that magical practices, banned at the time, are not forgotten. And Le Guin still insists that women can legitimately wield transformative magic in that universe only if they’re non-human.

In Dragonfly, the story that closes Tales from Earthsea, young farmer Irian is inexplicably drawn to Roke even though she has no magic abilities that she or we can detect. Once there, she meanders around the Immanent Grove, the omphalos of Earthsea, while the mages bicker over the girl cooties she’s shedding all over the Academy. But when the moment of crisis arrives, she duels with the dominant mage – and kills him (for real, as he’s already dead but powerful enough to maintain his spirit in his body). So much for Le Guin’s ideals of wu wei and satyagraha.

Of course, Irian can kill a fully trained Roke wizard because she’s in fact a dragon (giving new meaning to the term “dragon lady”). An untrained woman, even if gifted, would have ended up as a dark stain on the ground. But it’s all right for Irian to kill because killing is part of dragons’ true nature – plus it conveniently restores balance. Tenar, on the other hand, must submit to violations because that’s what “real” women do: endure and keep mending others and the world. This is essentially a variation of the Victorian Angel in the House. It’s also reminiscent of Lucas initially making all the Jedi male. When reminded that girls could also buy lunch boxes, he started turning out female Jedi in the cartoons and tie-ins – except none was human.

Le Guin’s insistence that men’s and women’s magic must be different verges on the reactionary. It’s the other side of the coin tendered by fundamentalists independent of religion or philosophy. The fact that all other separate-but-equal divisions have served humanity very badly (women in particular) does not seem to faze her, because women’s magic as she defines it is morally superior. She defines women’s magic as holistic, non-hierarchical, egalitarian, context-sensitive and lacking the “will to power” that disturbs balance and harmony in nature and society.

These are all admirable (indeed, crucial) attributes, but they are not confined to women. If we truly believe – and act on the belief – that men have no innate capacity for such behavior, we might as well revoke women’s hard-won rights right now, and save ourselves wear and tear. Conversely, women have the inherent capacity to be as combative and competitive as men. Nor should they let such abilities atrophy, given the fates meted out to the passive and the powerless. As another woman dissatisfied with her allotted role of wing-clipped hearthkeeper said, “The women of this country learned long ago that those without swords can still die upon them.” In point of fact, one characteristic that distinguishes humans from their ape cousins is that women’s natural hierarchies and alliances have been largely obliterated through millennia of punitive patriarchal cultural practices, artificially suppressing and masking women’s will to power.

Because of the quality and versatility of her work, Le Guin has attained a deservedly high stature among writers and feminists. It is incredibly disheartening to see that she seems to have embraced the “different spheres” concept. She turns Mirren’s brave choice not to smooth out her wrinkles against her. And by stating that a female Prospero is illegitimate and “silly,” she tells every woman who has the ability and desire to wield a staff of power that women can have babies but cannot represent the clan to the ancestors, nor form a minyan – and that’s that.

In my opinion, the best hope for humanity to thrive in the long run is to forge ourselves into a species that does not separate the genders in any way. We may heal our home and perhaps even gain the stars if we manage to turn ourselves into cultural Gethenians, if not biological ones. Otherwise we’re unlikely to survive at all, let alone live well.


About the Author

Athena Andreadis was born in Greece and lured to the US at age 18 by a full scholarship to Harvard, then MIT. She does basic research in molecular neurobiology, focusing on mental retardation and dementia. She is an avid reader in four languages across genres, the author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek and writes speculative fiction and non-fiction on a wide swath of topics. Her work can be found in Harvard Review, Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Stone Telling, Cabinet des Fées, Science in My Fiction, H+ Magazine, io9, The Huffington Post, and her own site, Starship Reckless.