My kids are older than my brother’s kids, so I steal his old books when I go back home. We were working our way through Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea, the 1977 trilogy edition, when I went and looked up the series for some reason or other and realized that she had, after an 18-year layoff, kept going—and that Simon & Schuster was about to publish a gigantic omnibus of it all. It came out yesterday, 992 pages of it.
In the introduction, Le Guin writes about how her understanding of her characters and their world had to change over time—how it took years and years for her to transcend the conventions of both fantasy literature and literature in general, to write a story with a grown woman as protagonist:
I knew what men did, in books, and how one wrote about them. But when it came to what women did, or how to write about it, all I had to call on was my own experiences—uncertified, unapproved by the great Consensus of Criticism, lacking the imprimatur of the Canon of Literature, piping up solo against the universally dominant and almost unison chorus of the voices of men talking about men.
From the beginning, the resulting novel, Tehanu, has an immediacy and close attention to life beyond anything in the first three books. The occasional homely domestic details from before are now stitched together into a whole. Dishes need washing. Questions of gender and power, and Le Guin’s revisiting of them, are explicit.
The unraveling of magic and society, a puzzle and challenge to the wizards in the previous book, is not a grand crisis but a thing with direct effects on people in their daily life:
Beggary was common where it had been rare, and the unsatisfied beggar threatened violence. Women did not like to go alone in the streets and roads, nor did they like that loss of freedom.
So, too, however, are the preexisting rules of the wizardly world in its old proper order:
Village witches, though they might know many spells and charms and some of the great songs, were never trained in the High Arts or the principles of magery. No woman was so trained. Wizardry was a man’s work, a man’s skill; magic was made by men…
The ordinary village witch…lived on a few words of the True Speech handed down as great treasures from older witches or bought at high cost from sorcerers, and a supply of common spells of finding and mending, much meaningless ritual and mystery-making and jibberish, a solid experiential training in midwifery, bonesetting, and curing animal and human ailments, a good knowledge of herbs mixed with a mess of superstitions—all this built up on whatever native gift she might have of healing, chanting, changing, or spell-casting. Such a mixture might be a good one or a bad one. Some witches were fierce, bitter women, ready to do harm and knowing no reason not to do harm.
There is an ongoing, angry resistance to this sort of critical thinking, among the consumers of fantasy or science fiction stories—to stories that stir up politics and complaints, where people are used to the uncomplicated and unexamined sweep of heroism and wonder. Why does everyone have to think so hard about everything?
But then, before too long, a dragon shows up. There were dragons in the earlier books, dragons important to the plot, wily and mystifying and dangerous ones. None of them arrived like this one:
Straight to Gont it flew, straight to the Overfell, straight to her. She saw the glitter of rust-black scales and the gleam of the long eye. She saw the red tongue that was a tongue of flame. The stink of burning filled the wind, as with a hissing roar the dragon, turning to land on the shelf of rock, breathed out a sigh of fire.
Its feet clashed on the rock. The thorny tail, writhing, rattled, and the wings, scarlet where the sun shone through them, stormed and rustled as they folded down to the mailed flanks. The head turned slowly. The dragon looked at the woman who stood there within reach of its scythe-blade talons. The woman looked at the dragon. She felt the heat of its body.
This dragon has been rounding into form for 18 years, too; it has weight, smell, anatomy. It is as solid and present as a dirty plate. While Le Guin was doing the long, difficult work of putting real life into the fantasy world, she was dragging the fantasy world toward reality.