WITCH WEEK DAY SIX: The Genius of Ursula K Le Guin

Le Guin’s fantasy fans will recognize these few lines from The Creation of Éa, her imagined mythology of Earthsea:

Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying life;
bright the hawk's flight
on the empty sky.

Some of us know that Le Guin wrote poetry before she wrote fiction, but how many of us have read beyond the fragments in her novels? Today, poet and guest blogger Tanya Manning-Yarde tantalizes us with a taste Le Guin’s poetry.

Tanya Manning-Yarde, Ph.D., is a poet and freelance writer from New York City. A graduate of Rutgers University and University at Albany, she recently worked as a copy editor and contributing writer for Bronze Magazine. She blogs at tanyamanningyardephd.wordpress.com (Instagram @every_watering_word_author) and is a freelance blogger for the annual Montclair Film Festival in Montclair, NJ. Prior to pursuing a career as a writer, she was a high school English/Language Arts teacher, Assistant Professor, Instructional Coach, and an educational consultant. Her poems have been published at Literary Mama, Memoryhouse and Random Sample Review. Her first poetry collection, Every Watering Word, was published in 2017 (Wasteland Press).


Finding my Elegy: New and Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), by Ursula K. Le Guin, is a compelling constellation of poems. Spanning fifty years, this collection chronicles selected early writings to contemporary pieces previously unpublished. Although well known for her science fiction writing, Le Guin was also a prolific poet, demonstrating versatility in verse and dexterity in the topics she pondered. This compilation illustrates Le Guin’s agility; her poetry is unfettered, unobligated, reliant neither on topical boundaries nor compliant with poetic structural apparatuses.

Throughout several of Le Guin’s poems is an attentiveness to contrast in which she details observations of an object, concept or location and compares it to something else. In one poem titled “Writers,” Le Guin makes a stark comparison between visual artists and writers, between the art that is physically and sensorially rendered by sculptors and musicians to the revelatory unfolding that writers make readers do. It is this unfolding by the reader that Le Guin contends is the art of a writer.

Le Guin discusses the creating and delivering of written art as not occurring exclusively in the artist’s hands but as transactional; the unraveling and excavation of meaning occurs between writer and reader (“A writer’s work /is with the insubstantial word /the image that can only find /its being in another’s mind”). Writer and reader are collaborative cartographers.

Le Guin also demonstrates dexterity and alacrity in designing interpretive lenses for readers to use in entering her poems. Several of her pieces situate readers as sociologists accompanying her in examination of how nature and humans live and interact within a shared world. In one such poem, “April in San Jose,” Le Guin employs contrasting images of floral aesthetics and abject humanity, illustrating through contrast the experiential disparity between nature and man. Sensory laden descriptions of natural beauty present the experience of nature as abundant and self-affirming (“sweetness of freesias, garlands, wreaths,” “dark fragrance of eucalyptus,” and “glitter and rustle of inordinate palms”). Alongside such images are ones captured of men in conflict, downtrodden and deflated. In contrast to their thriving, colorful and natural counterparts, these men simply endure their existence (“bark wordless pain like dogs, /roar rage in one dark syllable, /or stand and beat an oak tree with their fists”). It is suggested here that the disparate descriptions are assembled by Le Guin to make the case for the reader that the experience of life itself is not absolute. More to the point, she juxtaposes many aspects of an urban setting to make the case for the reader how dissimilar phenomena can, paradoxically, co-exist and co-mingle (“in the valley of ghosts and orchards”).

Evident in Le Guin’s poems is the depiction of nature in service to a larger conversation. She references natural settings not only for their aesthetics but as markers of a larger transcendental journey, a means to consider Nature and our own existence as multi-faceted and multi-dimensional, as shown in this excerpt from “For Gabriela Mistral”:

If I walk south
with the ocean always on my right
and the mountains on my left,
swimming the mouths of the rivers
the estuaries and the great canal,
if I walk from high tide to low tide
and full moon to new moon, south,
and from equinox to solstice, south,
across the equator in a dream of volcanoes, ...

Le Guin provides a litany of natural locations, distances and natural artifacts to punctuate the lengths the narrator will go for his/her voice to be aligned with an original calling, an ethereal language. These descriptions of natural settings serve as markers along a larger journey, both physical and metaphoric.

Le Guin is astute in writing poetry in service to providing social commentary on phenomena characteristic of the human experience, spanning personal experiences such as parenting to collective experiences such as war. Conflict and war particularly are topics that permeate several of Le Guin’s poems. In “The Curse of the Prophetess,” centered on the conflict in the Middle East between Israel and Palestine, Le Guin creates a litany composed of invocations condemning irreverent behaviors humans show one another, and later, a hope for the restoration of recognition by those involved of one another’s humanity.

In “Soldiers,” she creates a space to illustrate the facets of war and its impact on both soldier and society, contrasting images of fallen soldiers and enthusiastic crowds, patriotic celebration and protests of fatalities, in service to a larger question regarding what is gained and lost in war.

Ursula Le Guin has left a legacy of writing that will require many lifetimes to digest. Dexterous and nimble in free verse and quatrain, agile in use of meter and rhyme, willful in refusing to align with any one form of writing, Le Guin evinces possibilities wildly imagined.

And willfully embraced.


Thank you, Tanya, for this thought-provoking post. Looking for an instant Le Guin poetry fix? A few of her poems have been published online here.

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WITCH WEEK DAY FIVE: Discussion of The Other Wind

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.

Posted in Fantasy, Feminism+Fantasy, Read-aloud book, Witch Week | Tagged | 4 Comments

WITCH WEEK DAY FOUR: A Famous Witch

Many of you know Lory, of Emerald City Book Review, as the creator of the Witch Week blogging celebration to honor Diana Wynne Jones. Lory announced last year that she was ready to hand over the reins to any interested blogger. We’re lucky (and grateful) that she was willing to be one of our guest bloggers this year.

LORY WIDMER HESS shares her reading journey at www.emeraldcitybookreview.com. Books based on fairy tales and mythology are among her favorite things, along with long walks, knitting, singing, and chocolate. She came up with Witch Week five years ago as a new blogger, and still considers it one of the best ideas ever. For more information about (and images of) the infamous witch of Greek mythology, Lory recommends a read of Madeline Miller’s photo essay.


Circe, Madeline Miller (Little, Brown and Co., 2018)

When I was casting about for a book to review for this year’s Witch Week, I hit upon Madeline Miller’s new novel, Circe, and knew it was the perfect choice. What better character to explore than one of the most ancient and famous witches of them all, with a charming propensity for turning men into pigs?

As in her first novel, The Song of Achilles, Miller takes us on an immersive journey into the past that makes us see the Homeric world with new eyes. Riffing on a brief episode in Homer’s Odyssey, Miller fills out and expands upon her source material to convincingly build a setting and a cast of characters through which we can contemplate the nature of deity and humanity, destiny and freedom, love and fate.

The first-person narrative begins with the childhood of Circe, divine offspring of Helios the sun god and his consort, a daughter of Oceanus the water-god. One might think such a lofty parentage would be of great advantage to the young nymph, but Circe is maligned by her mother for her unpleasant voice and appearance, and toyed with by her callous father. The halls of Helios are not a place of harmony, but of jockeying for power in a harsh world.

When it becomes apparent that Circe and her siblings are a new breed of divinity who practice pharmakia – manipulating the herbs and other products of the earth into drugs and potions, rather than purely manifesting the forces of nature – there is horror in the halls of the gods. What to do with this dangerous, unpredictable new element?

John William Waterhouse, The Sorceress (1911), Private collection

This was one of the most interesting ideas in the novel for me: that witchcraft originated in the divine world as a transgression against natural powers. I was reminded of the story of Cain and Abel, though played out here with divine beings rather than humans. Like Cain, whose sacrifice produced through working the soil is rejected by God, Circe becomes an outcast and exile, a scapegoat carrying off the shadow her bright father can’t bear to face. On the island of Aiaia she lives out her immortal days, haunted by one of her first magical acts, the transformation of the nymph Scylla into a terrible monster.

But the Greek word used here for witchcraft also gave rise to our word “pharmacy,” suggesting that this power can be turned to healing as well as harmful ends. And spurred by an early encounter with Prometheus, who was terribly punished for helping humans, Circe begins to question some of the assumptions under which the gods live, and to develop her own quietly rebellious way of thinking and feeling.

By the time Odysseus arrives on her island, she’s been through a great deal – including the birth of her monstrous nephew, the Minotaur. Her experience of the cruelty of monsters, gods, and human beings leaves her with an understandable tendency to turn men into swine, and to seek vengeance against those who hurt her. Yet unlike her brothers and sister, whose powers are used purely for selfish and evil ends, she tends toward a more compassionate moral stance. In Homer’s intriguing words, she speaks with a human voice – a mere phrase that Miller expands into a whole rationale for her behavior, and for a possible way forward into the future.

Written in a measured, elegant prose, which echoes the past yet has a highly individual voice all its own, Circe’s narrative is a pleasure to read. At times it reads a bit too much like a “greatest hits” of ancient mythology, packing an incredible number of incidents and characters into its pages, but overall it succeeds in weaving together these scattered elements into a coherent, satisfying whole.

Feminist themes are implicit in the story of how Circe comes out of an environment of abuse and disempowerment to become self-determining, emotionally mature, and ethically strong. Educated by the pains and joys of motherhood, matched at last by a worthy partner, she journeys toward life and wholeness. It’s definitely an odyssey worth taking.

Posted in Fantasy, Feminism+Fantasy, Greek mythology, Witch Week | Tagged | 5 Comments

WITCH WEEK DAY THREE: The Women of Witcher

We’re pleased to include in Witch Week this piece by Piotrek and Ola, authors of the Re-Enchantment of the World blog, here discussing the female characters of the Witcher novels by Andrej Sapkowski.

The Women in the World of Witcher

The Witcher! Monster-slaying character from computer games, soon to be made into a Netflix series starring Henry Cavill … but, also, as more and more people in the English-speaking world begin to realise, a book series by Andrzej Sapkowski. Well, actually the books predate games by almost two decades. The Witcher saga, which gave Sapkowski the World Fantasy Award (Lifetime Achievement, 2016) and Gemmell (2009), is finally translated into the language of Shakespeare, so it’s a good time to check it out before the Netflix adaptation.

One of the reasons it’s worth your time – and a good topic to discuss during Witch Week – is a multitude of female characters. Many of them are strong women, active and extremely important for the plot, which is set in a realistic European-medieval fantasy world where gender balance is a bit more equal than in our history, and not only due to the existence of powerful sorceresses. And that is what we want to discuss today, for the general review of the series we invite you to go here. We will try to keep the text spoiler-free, at least in regards to the major events, as our opinions about major characters will be visibly informed by our knowledge of their actions and fate.

Piotrek: The funny thing is, Witcher games are often, and not without reason (especially Witcher I), called misogynistic. Discreet, handsome and fit, Geralt of Rivia is very popular with the ladies, powerful sorceresses most of all, all ready to go out of their way to get him into their alcoves…

Ola: Maybe it’s his sterility, I don’t know 😉 But, to be fair, sometimes one is hard-pressed to decide who is using whom. Sapkowski’s world is in this akin to the Renaissance Europe – in both places the women use their bodies, and the promise of sex, as their best weapon. And more than once our protagonist finds himself on the short end of the stick in the intersex exchange of bodily fluids. Because, when you look deeper, the ideas of sexism and patriarchate are among the main concepts Sapkowski plays with – together with the ideas of slavery, destiny, racism etc. Women in his world are just as strong and ruthless and cunning as men (or maybe even more, skilled in the art of bending the societal rules of conduct).

Piotrek: Yes, they are. We have scheming beauties that would fit the Renaissance-like worlds of Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels, female wielders of great magics – magic often being a force equalizer in a fantasy setting, and rightly so, there is nothing inherently male in a fireball, but we also have warrioresses and women soldiers more common than in historical armies of late middle ages and early modernity. Not a gender-blindness of Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings, but Renfri, Milva and Julia Abatemarco are three very different women you’d want on your side in a battle.

Ola: Or at least you wouldn’t want them as your opponents. Having Renfri on my side would do nothing to bolster my courage ;). But the great thing about Sapkowski’s world is that there exist an inherent – ontological, we may say – equality of gender. Sure, the social inequality still exists, robustly — in addition to blatant racism, xenophobia, and deep divisions of wealth and status. Female roles are fewer, less paid and less venerated for the most part (with the exception of healers). If, being a woman, you try to overstep the social boundaries, you may get away with it from time to time — provided that you excel in what you do. And that you have a different kind of immunity to social scorn or other forms of punishment: magic, wealth, social status. But women in the Witcher’s world can be as good and as bad as men. There is nothing — except culture and social rules — that makes them naturally less cruel or less cunning. They are physically weaker, that’s true, but many of them are able to make up for it in a myriad ways. The sorceresses are an especially nasty bunch of women tough as nails, cold-hearted and cruel, and for the most part bent on acquiring as much power and wealth as they can. Even their famed beauty is artificial — a symbol of their status as much as an investment; a weapon, honed to perfection by years of a constant use of magic.

Yennifer and Triss

Piotrek: They are a special case and understandably so. And, generally, more capable of cooperation and, ultimately, more effective than their male counterparts. They are able to transgress the social norms with impunity, but not without costs. It’s probably not an accident that Sapkowski made most of them infertile, and more concerned by that fact than witchers. For Yennefer it was a great personal tragedy and for the long time she tried to cure herself.

Ola: But, to be fair, some of the other viewed their infertility as a very convenient development – a price willingly paid for the power, wealth and status. I wonder if there’s an author’s statement somewhere? 😉

There is a certain temptation to treat the sorceresses of the Witchers world as a homogeneous guild or caste. All of them have a certain magical propensity, all of them were uniformly schooled and moulded by their cruel, unforgiving environment, all share certain status and are expected to fill certain roles. Yet within this group are very diverse women with very diverse personal histories, perspectives, needs and wants.

Yennefer

Aside from Ciri, whom we’ll introduce later, Yennefer is ultimately the main female character of the series. The process of her personal growth centers on the realization that there are more important things in the world than power, wealth, beauty and impunity to do whatever you want, and the most crucial lesson she receives is one in sacrifice and selflessness. After decades of taking, Yennefer finally learns to give. To a point Triss Merigold remains her mirror image — or simply her younger version, not yet ready to understand the hard truths about the world. Whereas Yennefer emerges from her trails stronger, more independent and self-reliant as well as self-aware, Triss’ path leads her toward conformity: submission to what she perceives as a higher authority and a choice of safety over freedom.

Nevertheless, even though sorceresses in Sapkowski’s world are decidedly the most visible and eye-catching, there are also other female roles and characters worth mentioning.

Piotrek: And, perhaps, in some ways even more interesting, because they have to deal with being a female in men’s medieval world without the benefit of having superpowers. One we meet early is Calanthe, the Lioness of Cintra, capable on the battlefield but unlucky in dynastic politics, only able to rule as a widow of one ruler and then as wife of another, uninterested in wielding power personally and happy to pursue other entertainments. Her accomplishments were not enough to convince the nobility that a weak woman can be more than a wife, and it wasn’t easy for her to preserve her status as de facto leader of her country. She resembles the great women of Middle Ages suchas Eleonor of Aquitaine or Matilda of Tuscany, both in her successes and in her uniqueness.

Another character, secondary in the books, is Shani. A student of medicine who will later become a dean of the medicine department of the University of Oxenfurt, she’s a rare example of a female non-magical professional. It’s probably only possible because her chosen field attracts many women, albeit usually in less valued, auxiliary roles. Providers of care and comfort, but subordinated to true doctors. Not this one. Still, she’s another exception to the rules of male-dominated society and has to struggle with its prejudices.

Nenneke

Ola: And let’s not forget Nenneke, healer and priestess, a surrogate mother character to Geralt… As strong as they come, aware of her power, and more aware of her weaknesses as well as strengths.

Piotrek: Nenneke, the strong and caring prioress and example of a good human being in position of authority. Not a subversive character, as the likes of her existed in history way more often than warrior-queens or female knights, she is definitely worth reader’s respect and attention.

Finally, Cirilla Fiona Elen Riannon, product of several crucial bloodlines and, by the Law of Surprise, adopted daughter of Geralt of Rivia.

Ciri

Ola: It’s actually pretty rewarding to have a female (probable) savior for a change, and an accidental and unwilling one to boot ;). Being somebody’s genetic pet project can, I imagine, put one in a rather foul mood, not to mention the rising risk of certain hereditary diseases, as evidenced in most of the European and Egyptian ruling dynasties.

Piotrek: Yes, well, it’s not fun for the person in question, that’s for sure. And the Witcher saga is largely a desperate struggle of Geralt to give Ciri the freedom to choose her way in life. Ciri is a child, who needs to grow up in very harsh conditions. Even among well-meaning witchers, being a young girl isn’t easy. As Triss pointed out, you can’t just apply the training regime designed for young warriors without making some adjustments… On the road, where everybody really is out to get you, and you lose friends faster than you gain them, it’s much worse. What made it possible for Ciri to retain her very humanity, is family, and in a very modern sense of family of choice, good people caring for each, related or not. This is one of my favourite things about the Saga, and the swift, pointless slaughter of most of characters involved is one of Sapkowski’s greatest mistakes.

Ola: Aaaargh spoilers! I know it’s still painful for you, those many years later, but let it pass :P. Indeed, however, your emotional reaction perfectly underscores the impact of Sapkowski’s saga on whole generation of young Polish readers — and, now, hopefully, not only Polish. But I agree with you: for all Sapkowski’s nihilism and a decidedly grim outlook on sentient life, the Witcher’s saga is a tale of family and emotional bonds we choose to forge and respect. It’s also a tale of forging one’s own path through the world, and of the value of staying true to oneself, when you finally realize who you are and who you want to be. Gender is only one of many facets of one’s personality and, though important, it’s definitely not the most crucial one. As ethical choices make for so much of the Witcher’s saga, I’d venture an opinion that an old-fashioned morality perceived as a choice between good and evil, as well as belief in transcendental values, form the core of Sapkowski’s perspective here.

Ciri and Geralt of Rivia

Piotrek: Overall, I’d say Sapkowski did pretty well. Ahead of his times, and still holding up quite well. We have a variety of female characters, strong in all the meanings of the word, some as tough as their male counterparts, other feminine and still very effective. They have agency, they have weaknesses and depth. I believe they are as progressive as it is possible in this type of society, with its late-medieval technology and culture inspired by various cultures of Central and Northern Europe. Or is my male eye too easily deceived by superficial appearances?

Ola: I believe that gender was never Sapkowski’s main concern, which is only for the best. Initially focused mainly on overturning old tropes and certain genre expectations, Sapkowski finally found himself writing about very old-fashioned themes, albeit in a post-modern way: definition of family, duty, honor, patriotism. The portrayal of women goes in fact along the same lines as the portrayal of men in Witcher — which, at least in my book, is as equal as you can get in a world where cultural and social stereotypes form the very structure of our society ;).


Illustrations come from Witcher computer games, by CD Project Red and highly recommended.


Piotrek is an accountant by occupation and sociologist by training, but most of all a lover of stories, wherever they hide — in books, movies, songs, computer or tabletop games. “It can be history, or fantasy, I don’t really care if it really happened, only if it’s coherent, psychologically realistic and interesting. I’m born, raised and living in Poland, but don’t hold the circumstances of my birth against me 😉 Ours is not the only country descending into the ugly chaos of new authoritarianism, and there is still some hope.” His reviews can be seen here.

Ola is a sociologist by education, a researcher by vocation, and, by choice, a traveler through worlds small and big. “I am especially fascinated by the way the culture we create influences our worldviews and choices, but, from time to time, I also enjoy a quick, purely escapist entertainment, provided it’s done well. Born in Poland, currently living in New Zealand, I cannot help but be a realistic optimist.”

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WITCH WEEK DAY TWO: Sword-For-Hire

Tomorrow, two avid fans of Sapkowski’s Witcher series discuss the women of Witcher, so today Lizzie gives you a quick intro to the books and characters with this review.


The Last Wish: Introducing The Witcher, Andrzej Sapkowski (1993; English translation by Danusia Stok, Orbit Books, 2007)

The Last Wish comprises six short stories, framed by interludes that together constitute a seventh. Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher, offers his services to villages and towns in several principalities of a medieval world. Amphisbaena, basilisk, dragon, striga, vampire – if it’s troubling your district, he’ll get rid of it for you.

The Witcher is bred for battle and then schooled for a life of rescuing the world. Armed with various types of swords and knives, not to mention potions and elixirs, Geralt is nearly invincible. Yet he resents that people think he is a hired killer, “a job that wasn’t in keeping with either honor or the witcher’s code.” He also sees the irony of his work: the more successful he is, the fewer monsters there will be to kill.

Yet these stories focus more on Geralt’s clashes with women than with monsters: sorceresses, queens, rebels – all as skilled as men in battle or politics or both, all enraged enough to frighten whomever they challenge. Having been betrayed, they’re quick to betray another’s trust. A negotiated peace is often a feint; a shared secret the key to power over an opponent.

Two women play critical roles: The high priestess Nenneke provides him refuge and healing after a nasty fight with a striga leaves him near death. Nenneke is a “voice of reason” (the title of the seven framing interludes), counseling Geralt and negotiating with local nobility about how long the Witcher will be allowed to stay under her care.

And then there’s Yennefer, Geralt’s only love, but also a powerful sorceress he hopes never to meet again. We find out why in the final story, “The Last Wish”. As they vie for a genie’s third wish, Geralt and Yennifer fall in love, but the winner of the battle for the wish makes an enemy of the loser.

Sapkowski uses traditional fairy tales as inspiration – Aladdin and the Magic Lamp is the obvious source for “The Last Wish” – but he twists and complicates the stories in surprising ways, and none of them end with people living happily ever after. In “The Lesser Evil,” there is no “kindly huntsman” to set Renfri/Snow White free to befriend the seven dwarves. No, he rapes and robs her before dumping her in the woods. We learn this when, much later, she and her seven loyal mercenaries, on a killing spree, finally meet up with Geralt.

Yes, there’s plenty of violence in the Witcher tales. Blood gushes, limbs fly, and I lost count of how many people are killed – the total has to be in the hundreds. But Sapkowski shows us Geralt’s struggle to stay honorable. I’m reminded of Paladin, in the 1950s-60s series, Have Gun, Will Travel, a gun-for-hire who tries his best to kill no one (Paladin is the only male dragon-sayer in the Western genre that I can think of). Even though the Witcher’s body count is much higher than Paladin’s, he still struggles to stay honorable in his savage land.

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WITCH WEEK DAY ONE: Ten Kick-Ass Heroines

We’re excited to have this guest post from Marlyn Beebe, a west-coast (USA) librarian with Canadian roots. We thought a librarian would know of some fantasy books that would be new to us, and she did. With her permission, we’ve added 2 books to her suggestions, to make this a perfect Top-Ten list. Interesting side-note: These are all first books in series. No doubt about it, readers love a good series.

Marlyn grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, where she graduated from the University of Alberta with a degree in Library and Information Studies. Not being a fan of frozen water falling from the sky, she now lives in Southern California with her husband, Tod, and their cat, Puck. She works part-time at multiple libraries and spends the rest of her time reading, reviewing, blogging, and watching hockey games. Marlyn reviews books for School Library Journal, as well as for her blog Stuff and Nonsense. Head over to her blog to see what else she enjoys reading.

About her list, Marlyn writes:

I’ve always loved literature about strong women, whether realistic or speculative fiction, historical or contemporary. By the time the books below were published (yes, even the ones from the last century!), I was already an adult, and wished passionately that I could have experienced them as a child or teen. I’m grateful that these books, and so many more like them, are available for me to share with today’s young people!

Just to make things interesting, we (Chris, Lizzie, and Marlyn) have added a tiny spin to this list. Way back in 2009, The Alan Review published “Dragon-Slayer vs Dragon-Sayer”, an article analyzing female fantasy protagonists.¹ The authors argue that when fantasy writers give their female protagonists active roles (as opposed to waiting to be rescued by and then married to the hero), the characters tend to take one of two roles: Dragon-Slayer (basically the heroine acts just like a hero, using a sword to “overpower and conquer” villains) or Dragon-Sayer (the heroine uses feminine skills to nurture and take care of the villains’ needs, thereby de-fanging the villain). Marlyn, Chris, and Lizzie have identified where we think all but two of the heroines fall within this (imperfect) dichotomy. If you disagree, let us know! And if you can decide about the two we didn’t identify, let us know that as well.

¹Keeling, Kara K. and Marsha M. Sprague (2009), The ALAN Review, Summer 2009, pp. 13-17. Available online here: https://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/v36n3/pdf/keeling.pdf


LATE 20th CENTURY

Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce (Atheneum Press, 1983). The first of the 4-book Song of the Lioness series, in which Alanna pretends to be a boy in order to work as a page in the royal court of Tortail. DRAGON-SLAYER

The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley (Greenwillow Books, 1984). The story of Aerin of Damar, and her evolution from a shy princess to the heroic queen who saves her country from invaders (and a dragon!). McKinley’s novel won the 1985 Newbery Award, and is the prequel to The Blue Sword, a Newbery Honor winner published in 1982. DRAGON-SLAYER

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (HarperCollins, 1986). Sophie, the eldest of three daughters, unwittingly attracts the ire of the Witch of the Waste, who puts her under a horrid spell that transforms her into an old lady. (Two more books in series: Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways.) DRAGON-SAYER

 

Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede (Jane Yolen Books/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990). The first of the 4-book series The Enchanted Chronicles, which tell the story of Princess Cimorene, who leaves her boring kingdom to become assistant to the dragon Kazul. DRAGON-SAYER

 

EARLY 21st CENTURY

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin (Little Brown, 2009). To save her village from a devastating drought, Minli goes on a quest to find and petition the Old Man of the Moon for help. Along the way, she gains companions. A revisioning of The Wizard of Oz, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon was a Newbery Honor winner. Two more books complete this series. DRAGON-SAYER

Soulless by Gail Carriger (Hachette Book Group 2009). The first book in The Parasol Protectorate series introduces us to Alexa Tarabotti, a bluestocking living in a steampunk version of Victorian London, populated by werewolves, vampires, and ghosts. Carriger has written several series and stand-alones which take place in her “Parasol-verse”.

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor (Speak/Penguin Random House, 2011). Sunny Nwazue returns to Nigeria, the country of her birth, and has to adjust her New York attitudes to her new life. Soon after learning she has magical powers, she teams up with three other students to fight a powerful criminal. A sequel (Akata Warrior) was published in 2018. DRAGON-SLAYER

Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood (Penguin Putnam, 2012). Cate Cahill is the oldest of three sisters whose mother died when she was 14. All three sisters are witches in a world where witchcraft is feared. There are two more books in the Cahill Witch Chronicles, each focusing on one of Cate’s younger sisters.

A School for Unusual Girls by Kathleen Baldwin (Tor Teen, 2015). In the early 1800s, intractable upper class girls are sent to Stranje House “finishing school”, to be turned into proper society women. Each of the (so far) three books in the series focuses on a different student, who becomes entangled in espionage. This is more Regency romance than fantasy, but the alternative history slant tips the scales to qualify it for inclusion on this list. DRAGON-SLAYER

Borderline by Mishell Baker (Saga Press, 2016). Millie Roper, physically disabled with a personality disorder, is recruited by a mysterious organization, The Arcadia Project, which acts as liaison between Hollywood and Fairyland. So far, there are three books in The Arcadia Project series. DRAGON-SLAYER


OK, Dear Readers, that’s Marlyn’s list². Have you read any of these? What faves need to be included (and are the heroines Dragon-Slayers or Dragon-Sayers)?

²Chris has reminded me to mention my own Kenning Magic (Saguaro Books 2013) which he insists features a kick-ass heroine (not to mention dragons). Lizzie

 

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WITCH WEEK MASTER POST

… Witch Week, when there is so much magic around in the world that all sorts of peculiar things happen…

— from Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones

Welcome to the fifth annual Witch Week, an opportunity to celebrate our favorite fantasy books and authors. The inestimable Lory of Emerald City Book Review initiated this in 2014, inspired by Diana Wynne Jones’ book called, naturally, Witch Week. This is a fantasy set between Halloween and November 5th, Bonfire Night, marking the day in 1604 when Guy Fawkes was caught preparing to blow up Parliament.

Chris at Calmgrove and I have volunteered to co-host the event this year, and therefore posts will be appearing on both our sites; you may comment on either or both blogs. This year we’re focusing on Feminism+Fantasy, in honor of the late Ursula K Le Guin, and we hope you might feel inspired to join in by linking up your own posts about books related to this theme.

The goddesses of publishing have joined the celebration, for The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition (Saga Press, 2018; illus. Charles Vess) goes on sale TODAY (in the US). I need to replace my well-worn 1980s Earthsea paperbacks, so I’m rewarding myself with a visit to the nearest bookstore to grab a copy before they disappear.

You may also wish to join in the readalong of Le Guin’s final Earthsea novel The Other Wind; or comment on posts in response to points raised; or simply enjoy the reviews and posts.

Here’s what we’ve planned:

Wednesday October 31st, Day 1: Top Ten Kick-Ass Heroines by Marlyn Beebe
Thursday November 1st, Day 2: Sword-for-hire by Lizzie Ross
Friday November 2nd, Day 3: The Women of Witcher by Piotrek and Ola
Saturday November 3rd, Day 4: A Famous Witch by Lory Widmer Hess
Sunday November 4th, Day 5: discussion of Ursula Le Guin’s The Other Wind
Monday November 5th, Day 6The Genius of Ursula K Le Guin by Tanya Manning-Yarde
Tuesday November 6th, Day 7: Wrap-up and looking ahead to next year

Do please add your comments below and any links to your reviews on this theme — we’d very much like to see what you’ve all been reading — and feel free to respond to guest posts. However you participate, we hope you enjoy the week as much as we have putting it together!

 

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