When people talk about people of color in fantasy, we often bring up Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series as an important example of the type. Earthsea is wonderful and I love it, but I disagree with this characterization of it, and I’ll tell you why.
Earthsea, as a collection of tropes, is of-color only in the loosest, most cosmetic way: the literal skin color of the characters is described in varying shades of dark. There aren’t many pale-skinned people in Earthsea. That’s not nothing—it’s great that not just any author, but a voice as far-reaching as Le Guin, is creating dark-skinned characters for readers to imagine—but it’s not the whole of the matter, either.
To me, Earthsea comes off as exactly what it is: a white person’s well-intentioned but blinkered idea of what a world of people of color might be like.
You see, if you look at the cultural references in Earthsea—the myths that connect to other myths, the parts of Earthsea that evoke things inside of us—they are firmly and unrelentingly European. I’d go so far as to say they are decidedly British and Norse. All these elements speak to me of this very particular, Northern European world:
- Gont, an island of cold, misty mountains and sheep herders
- wildlife: sparrowhawks! fir-trees, alders
- forbidding wizards wielding staff and wearing robe
- Ged as the wizard-warrior carrying both staff and sword
- a sacred place that is nothing but a stand of old trees
- books of sacred knowledge
- a conception of magic as an all-powerful Word
- the Word embodied in the rune
- the creator quite literally speaking the world into being
- wizards as itinerant sages, aloof and separate from society
- a rune-bearing ring as a symbol of kingship
- the conception of death as a one-way passage into a (semi-)conscious afterlife where we remain individuals but the functions and meanings of life cease to obtain
These references point to a pretty small set of sources: Ged is something of a cross between Merlin, Odin, and Gandalf, and you can trace most of Earthsea’s big ideas to a process of making those myths consistent with a world. For Ged to be like a Druid, there must be a grove of magic trees. For Ged to be like Odin, he must learn a magic that lives in the runes. For Ged to be like Gandalf, he must have a sword and rescue a ring and wander around, aloof from the world. There is a fairly explicit reference to Merlin in Ged’s other name, Sparrowhawk—another bird of falconry. If you weren’t explicitly told about the skin color of Earthsea’s people, based on the origins of these tropes I would not be surprised if many readers imagined them as uniformly white.
There’s not really any elements in the core of Earthsea that read as having POC referents, and for me, it’s important for those referents to be there for it to feel like the characters really are people of color. There are such elements in what I kind of think of as the periphery of Earthsea, and I want to acknowledge that they exist, but they are sharply earmarked as foreign and not of the Hardic-speaking people (the predominant population of the Archipelago): there is the reincarnating tomb-priestess Arha of the Kargad people, whose manner of selection is reminiscent of the reincarnating Tibetan Buddhist lamas, and the Long Dance of the raft people, which puts me in mind of the Hindu festival dances of my childhood. In both cases these are associated with outsider cultures and not with the core culture of Earthsea, and in the case of Arha, she is not only a being of an outsider culture, but also a relic of traditions that are no longer practiced by the population at large; she is the custodian of something old and mostly abandoned. These details add greatly to the depth of Earthsea, but they do nothing to relieve the whiteness of its dominant culture.
Interestingly, Le Guin is herself a professed Taoist and she has stated that the concept of balance that is core to the wizards’ philosophy and the nature of their magic, and likewise their policy of acting only when it is necessary and unavoidable, are elements that come from her Taoism, and I think these ideas are very distinctive in that you see them in Earthsea but not in so many other places that reference the same constellation of cultural touchstones. Again I want to acknowledge that these ideas are present in her work, but again they are not of the people of Earthsea; in this case they are ideas specific to the wizards, and they are not so much cultural elements as consequences of the “natural” laws of their magical working.
So in the end, what we have in Earthsea is an answer to the question, “What if there were a world where people of color lived in the same environment I, a white author, do, and what if those people had the same myths and worldviews I do, and what if in their world those myths were true or being enacted in the stories I tell?” It is something, but it’s a far cry from a world where our experiences and our stories provide the reference point for creation.