Chris, Lizzie and Lory approached this discussion of The Other Wind, this year’s readalong book, not as a Q/A session, but rather as responses developing over time and in conversation with each other. Below: the edited version, with sections that match our Feminism+Fantasy theme. For the complete version (17 pages!), click here. And if you’ve read the book, please join the conversation in the Comments.
Chapter I. Mending the Green Pitcher
LIZZIE: I’m glad to see Ged play a part in the action – to hear his reference to Tenar as his wife, and watch him only minimally regretful/angry about the loss of his powers.
CHRIS: Time enough for Ged to be better reconciled to his loss of power and status. He derives a quiet joy from mundane tasks and routines, but it is now Alder who is confused by Ged’s acceptance of a massive change of status and refusal to see Lebannen.
LORY: Ged has made a huge journey through the novels. In A Wizard of Earthsea, we meet him as a proud, insecure, sometimes arrogant young man, eager to acquire and display power. He matured into a wiser man who recognized the importance of balance and restraint. Now, having given away his extraordinary powers to restore balance to the world, he recognizes the value of the mundane and ordinary. It’s where all the magic comes from, after all, and what it should serve.
It makes me think about our own world and the power of simple acts: mending, tending, healing, caring. But I still wonder: Why does Ged refuse to meet the King or his fellow wizards? Is it really shame and regret? Or does he simply not fit into their world any more, would he feel too out of place?
LIZZIE: I’ve wondered about that too, Lory. It could be both of those, and also a desire to step aside and let others have their chance. “He is done with doing,” someone says of Ged much later in the book, and he must know that wherever he goes, everyone will look to him for the answer. He no longer has answers, so why force people to defer to him?
LORY: Yes, I think it’s in that direction. There does seem to be an element of shame at first, in Tehanu when he first returns from his ordeal – but I think he overcomes this during the time he spends alone in that book, herding goats in the mountains. We never know exactly what passes through his soul during that time, but it does seem to bring him to peace, and to an acceptance that he must fundamentally alter his relationship to the powerful men of Earthsea. They can’t yet comprehend the change, so he has to make the break himself.
CHRIS: I’ve just reread the bit in Chapter 2 where Lebannen posits that when Ged had handed over power to the young king he wanted not to appear to be a power behind the throne, that to in any way seem to be an adviser to Lebannen was to limit the young king’s capacity to act. Not a full explanation of Ged’s motives in withdrawing from the world but it seems to be an explanation for Lebannen, that transfer of absolute power. If this is partly true then it’s a typically masculine thing to attribute power-play as the rationale behind actions.
LORY: It makes sense that after bearing such great power for so long, there should be a need for a time of readjustment and re-integration to come to a new wholeness. And this is in fact a “feminine” capacity – the ability to gestate in silence, to allow something to grow inwardly without public display and interference. Showing the value of this process, whether in man or woman, is to me what feminism is about. (And what makes it so discouraging that some readers find it a “punishment” to put Ged through such a process.)
LIZZIE: Le Guin also finds that idea of “punishment” surprising. She says (2004 interview in The Guardian)¹, “I thought I was rewarding him.” I think the reward has at least 2 parts: one, of course, is the loving relationship with Tenar and Tehanu, but the other is the ability to live a life outside the realms of power, no longer responsible for saving the world. I love your point, Lory, about the time Ged spends alone, coming to understand his new self, as being a feminist approach to change.
LORY: Contemplative practices are the essential counterforce to the extroverted, action-oriented part of our being – which gets a lot of emphasis in our male-dominated Western culture, as in the “old” Earthsea. Ogion already knew this, and some of the other wizards (the Patterner, the Doorkeeper). Yet still, they perpetuated the separation, the division that gave the power of speech to certain parts of society and silenced others. But now the silent feminine side is gaining a voice, a more active presence, something quite new! What will it say?
Chapter II. Palaces
LIZZIE: Everyone seems uncomfortable in this chapter – no one’s “at home” in either of the palaces, not even Lebannen, whose home this is. Either they’re homesick (Tenar, Tehanu, the Karg princess), or troubled (Alder by his dreams, Lebannen by the inconveniences of others’ expectations). Only Tenar seems to be without fear. I count this as a benefit of her age – one of the reliefs of reaching middle age is being able to discard many irritants, because they just don’t matter any more – does this make her a perfect mediator?
CHRIS: I find these very useful points, Lizzie, especially the observations about Tenar: she seems a sort of fulcrum around which everything pivots, the eye of the storm as it were, and her quiet presence and unassuming actions often appear to make a difference. Chapter 2 sees more emphasis on the women. Tenar, the enabler. The as yet unnamed Kargad Princess who starts to be revealed. The promise of a reacquaintance with Irian from Dragonfly. And Tehanu, still the shy enigma but who begins to show her true self and power.
Irian and Tehanu are I think the most perplexing of Le Guin’s characters. If I came across them in our world I would suspect they’d be on the autistic spectrum. Their sense of their own otherness, their solitariness mistaken as aloofness, their capacity to speak only truth as they see it, a lack of guile, different physicality and unique sensitivity – all these and more suggest females on the spectrum, of a different order from that presented by males.
LIZZIE: Autism spectrum aside, Chris, I agree with you about Irian and Tehanu. Their dragon halves/selves are perhaps what makes them solitary and truthful. I’d argue that LeGuin wanted us to understand, by the end of Tehanu, that the initial attack on Tehanu was an attack on her otherness, on her dragon-self.
Chapter III. The Dragon Council
LIZZIE: Near the end of this chapter, Orm Irian reports that Kalessin said (to the dragons after returning from Roke), “in every generation of our people … one of us is born who is also human. Of these one is now living in the Inner Isles. And there is one of them living there now who is a dragon.” Tehanu and Irian, right? If so, that gives us 3 examples of the dragon-human melding (don’t forget the Woman of Kemay), and all of these are female. I’m just sayin’.
LORY: That does seem significant. In archetypal terms, women are the ones who hold the secrets of life and death within their bodies, through their monthly cycle and through motherhood. They are not disconnected from the sources of life. Men don’t have such immediate access to this experience; they must achieve it in another way. That forms a great opportunity for independent consciousness, but is also highly dangerous.
In the first book of the series, we learned that there are wizards with an awareness of equilibrium who are respectful of the balance of the whole, not using power carelessly or thoughtlessly. These seemed like “good” wizards in comparison to the “bad,” selfish ones who grabbed power for themselves.
But now it seems that the very basis of wizardry upset the balance of nature in a fundamental way. How will this disjunction be healed? Can there be a wisdom that respects the feminine, more nature-connected principle – the dragonish part of us that never forgot the language of the Making – rather than seeking to “conquer” and subdue it? It is a fascinating question.
LIZZIE: Lory, can you say more about what you mean by “independent consciousness”? What is the other way that men achieve it? Through wizardry?
LORY: In the context of Earthsea, yes. Wizardry is a metaphor for what I’m talking about. In our world, which is apparently without magic, we achieve independent consciousness by freely grasping the principles that govern and sustain life. Through thinking, you could say.
But this should not be only a dead intellectual thinking that spreads death in its wake – rather, a living thinking that moves and changes, as our living world is constantly evolving. Both men and women can strive towards this goal. But women have an extra help through their bodily experience, and men can benefit from listening to them and understanding the feminine way of being. In fact, I think that’s the only way forward, for all of us.
LIZZIE: Thanks for this, Lory. We haven’t yet made explicit any connection to #MeToo and #TimesUp, but the implications are there, in your points about “independent consciousness” and “thinking that moves and changes”. The moves are nearly impossible and take so much time and conscious effort – Lebannen models reluctance and resistance, Ged models slow acceptance (how many years out on his own?).
LORY: We’re in a time of ferment and change in our own world, for sure. And just as in Earthsea, what initially seems threatening and disastrous can hold the key to future growth. There can be no healing if you won’t even look at the wound, won’t even admit it’s there. But those long-held wounds are hard to look at, at first. The resistance is discouraging, but there are also acts of great courage to see and celebrate. Le Guin shows us a picture of this, in her courageous women (and dragon-women) and the men who listen to and learn from them.
Chapter IV. Dolphin
LIZZIE: Tenar, walking in the palace garden before the Dolphin sails, wonders why men fear women. “Not as individuals, but women when they talked together, worked together, spoke up for one another — then men saw plots, cabals, constraints, traps being laid.” Links vs chains, bonds vs bondage.
CHRIS: This is a key moment for me too. UKLG also talks of the weakness of men wanting to appear strong and independent, suspicious of what they see as threats; she affirms the strength women get from talking and working together.
Tenar comes across as the quiet mover and shaker. Along with Alder (who, like Ged, has voluntarily given up his power), she has sensed where there is unease, disunity, things not right with the world; unlike Alder she is unobtrusively proactive, persuading Tehanu to come out of her shell, advising Lebannen, coaching Seserakh, comforting Alder until he is able to unite with his beloved Lily.
LORY: Links vs chains, bonds vs bondage is indeed the issue. I have to reference this book I’ve been reading, I Don’t Want to Talk About It by Terrence Neal. It’s about the covert depression that many men carry as they are systematically socialized, and often individually traumatized, out of experiencing and valuing the relatedness and connection that every human being, regardless of gender, needs for healthy development.
Of course, bonds can become bondage, there can be emotionally unhealthy dependence and so forth, but what is little recognized is the “passive trauma” caused by the thoughtless neglect and disconnection so rampant in our society, by the raising of boys in particular to be indifferent to their own feelings. Contempt for the so-called “feminine” will inevitably maim and incapacitate a vital part of their own souls. This creates an endless cycle of trauma and abuse, until someone wakes up and decides to break it.
Again, Le Guin has given us so many pictures for this process. Tenar taking in the damaged child feared by others. Ged renouncing his spectacular powers, putting mere knowledge in service of the greater wisdom of love. Seserakh putting aside her veils so that Lebannen can see her and be changed by the encounter. Alder consciously suffering the pain of separation from his wife, a pain wizards avoid by not marrying at all. We have to overcome our fear of enslavement, and connect to one another in freedom, compassion, and love. Then the world may be mended.
Chapter V. Rejoining
LIZZIE: And we’re back to mending the green pitcher – in this case, Earthsea.
CHRIS: During the convocation in the Immanent Grove, Irian has just railed against the men who stole from the dragons. “Irian hesitated, and then said in a much subdued voice, ‘Greed puts out the sun. These are Kalessin’s words.’”
“Greed puts out the sun.”
Published in 2001, TOW was not necessarily prescient but it becomes more and more true, more and more urgent, and the warning may even be too late. We are endangering the world, upsetting the balance. And when I say we I mean specifically men: male politicians, CEOs, rogue nations led by men. UKLG writes of “the power that power had over the minds and hearts of men”. I think she is conscious of the power of words and does indeed mean just one half of the population.
¹You can access the Guardian interview here.