John Plotz on Earthsea, Anarchism, and Ursula K. Le Guin

John Plotz on Earthsea, Anarchism, and Ursula K. Le Guin

John Plotz’s work has always had an eclectic and interdisciplinary slant: his scholarly career started with a book on the crowd in Victorian fiction and another on the aesthetics of virtual experience in Dickens, William Morris, and Buster Keaton, which he describes as semi-detached. More recently, he has delved into fantasy and science fiction with a new book about reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series. This conversation with Elizabeth Ferry originally appeared as an episode on Recall This Book, a Brandeis-based scholarly podcast affiliated with both Public Books and the New Books Network (listen to the full conversation here); previous PB/RTB conversations include Laurence Ralph, Samuel Delany, and Kim Stanley Robinson. In it are interspersed clips from a marvelous interview John had with Le Guin in 2015.

Elizabeth Ferry: I am so pleased to be having this conversation with you, John! Can you tell us a little bit about the book, and also about how you came to talk to Le Guin?


John Plotz: Elizabeth, thank you so much. It’s so exciting and weird to be on this side of the microphone with you. I love it.

This book is a total labor of love. I was invited to join this series called My Reading, which has wonderful books, for example, by Rosemarie Bodenheimer about Beckett. They basically just said, “Pick a book that changed your life.”

You won’t be shocked to know that I originally thought about Hannah Arendt, and I thought about Willa Cather too. But really, Le Guin kept with me for reasons that I try to talk about in the book, because of the dual-aspect reality that she creates. That she’s telling stories for adults and for children as well.

I learned in my long-ago Public Books interview with her that the Earthsea books were actually commissioned literally as the first young adult fantasy series ever. And that rings true to me in that way that young adults can tip two different registers at once. What I wanted to get at in writing about the Earthsea books—and for those of you who haven’t read them, I hope you will read them because they’re wonderful, even if you’re an adult—but if you have read them, you’ll know that they’re dragon-based adventure stories. They’re about magicians who learn a language that, if you can channel it, enables you to change reality by way of words.

They are quest adventures that began quite simply. They are also, as Le Guin herself says, in the old sexist Western European fantasy tradition, in which the boys go on adventures, and the girls hope for them to come home. But then they evolve. Even in the first trilogy (that’s A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore) but especially in the second trilogy (Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea, and The Other Wind), they evolve into something much more complex, and something that reflects Le Guin’s own politics. Which are progressive anarchist, not really utopian, I would say. But emancipationist, and anarchist, and very feminist.

I loved the first trilogy, and I still love it, but I never would’ve written this book if it weren’t for the second set of Earthsea books that Le Guin wrote. She wrote the first set when she was relatively young, in her 30s and 40s. She went back decades later and wrote a second series. It didn’t undo the first series, but added a whole new layer to our understanding of this entire world of Earthsea.

So, I basically tried to write a book about what it is to look at an author as a re-reader, to look at them going back, and to return to a naive experience they had when they were younger. To have a second, not ironic but more seasoned and perhaps comprehensive vision of the world.

So, that’s the argument for the two-sidedness of Le Guin herself, and the two-sidedness of what it’s like to read the books.


EF: One thing I really love about your book, John, is the way in which you have this mirroring quality between what it’s like for her to revisit writing the series while also exploring what it’s like to be a child or a very young adult reading them, and then what it’s like to be a middle-aged person reading them. And how this produces a certain bemusement for Le Guin as a writer, and for you and me too as readers. I thought you captured that really poignantly.


JP: Thank you. I like your point about that doubleness. Schiller has this essay called “On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry” where he uses the word sentimental (which I don’t think we use in quite that sense anymore) to capture that notion of going back with a seasoned eye, where you see what it was like to believe originally. It would be like the difference between how Don Quixote believes in the giants in the world, when all Sancho Panza believes in is that Quixote believes in them. You’re looking at a simpler form of belief. And so I definitely see Le Guin going back that way.

But the thing I’ll say about Le Guin, that’s really great—she has a wonderful essay on the craft of writing fantasy called “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie.” And in it, she says that the thing about fantasy novels is that they completely know they’re made up, and they never tire of reminding you how invented they are: “There is only a construct built in a void, with every joint and seam and nail exposed.”

That’s a crucial point about fantasy, and an argument against J. R. R. Tolkien, who says in “On Fairy-Stories” that world-making depends on completely fooling the reader, deluding them into living in that world. My idea with Le Guin is much more … well, I call it “semi-detachment,” which I’ve written about in the past. Fantasy is two things at once. She wants you there with the heroes, and their goats, and their dragons and all that. But she also wants readers to remember this is magic, this is make-believe; we have to live with both those things.


EF: What you’re saying about fantasy reminds me a little about things like miniatures, or things that are made at a bigger scale.

When you have a miniature dollhouse, furniture, or a pocket watch that’s tiny, the pleasure comes from the fact that it’s so well done. But you always know that it’s building a tiny little world, it depends on the consciousness of its artificiality, even as it’s trying to get you to momentarily forget about that.


JP: That’s a great point. I try to talk a little bit in the book about how this belief relates to religious belief. Le Guin talks about herself as a secularist, or a secular humanist, and that rings true to me. But she’s not trying to throw religion under the bus.

In fact, she’s really quick to note that it’s not just organized religion that’s a problem, but all sorts of governmental structures, including state socialism as well as the corporate structures of capitalism.


EF: That’s maybe also why you say she’s not a utopian, right? All of her worlds are complicated, and there’s plenty of room for unpleasantness even in imagined political systems that she’s approving of.


JP: Completely. Relatedly, it can be useful to think about Le Guin as writing both fantasy and science fiction. Sometimes they mix, but usually they’re somewhat separate. Like, there’s these incredible science fiction novels she wrote between 1968 and 1974, while she was writing the first Earthsea books: The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven, and The Dispossessed. Each is exploring a different aspect of what would happen if certain things about our world got fixed. Her point is that even when things get better, the muddle continues. In The Left Hand of Darkness, for example, gender is completely different from the rigidly binary male/ female world of the 1970s. So different that our gender terms don’t even really apply to what people are like on this world. Nonetheless, it’s not as if everybody has everything figured out. It just pushes a different set of problems to the fore.

EF: Tell us about how you reached out to her, and how that came to be.


JP: I sent her a copy of that children’s book that I wrote about William Morris, and we discovered a shared love of Morris.

She’s proven her generosity in so many different ways in print, but also in terms of human contact. She used to go to science fiction and fantasy conventions and was apparently very generous, spending time with people who were fans or would-be friends. So, anyway, my experience about three years before she died is just probably typical.

She was in a ruminative frame of mind. She didn’t seem nostalgic to me. I wouldn’t say she was talking about herself in the past tense, but she was looking back at the arc of her own career and thinking about how her writing compared to 19th-century writing.

It was a lovely conversation. Here, she’s talking about how names work in the Earthsea books, and how she basically came to write them.

John Plotz: When did the map come for you of the Earthsea map? Did you draw it before or…?


Ursula K. Le Guin: I wrote a couple of short stories that took place on islands that had wizards. And then I was asked by a publisher to write … We didn’t even have the word young adult then, to write a fantasy for older children. I was like, “Oh, no, I can’t do that. I’ve never written for children. I don’t know how to do that.” But I went home and thought about it, and got the idea of, “How does a wizard become a wizard? Does he go to wizard school?” Wouldn’t that be fun? So, there I went, and then I thought, “Okay, where? Oh, it’s somewhere. It’s those islands that those other stories are. But I need to know more about them.”

So, I did literally at that point, sit down, and draw a big map with lots of islands, about which I knew nothing at that point. But I named them happily. And then all through the rest of the six books, I could just travel around and find out what they were like.


JP: They’re wonderful names. All the names were there at the first then?


UKL: Names come first with me. I can’t write about a character if he or she doesn’t have a name, the right name. Yeah, so I had to name all the islands right away. Isn’t that weird? I have no understanding what the process there is.


JP: No, wait a second. It just occurred to me. So, characters in the Earthsea books have use names, and then they have true names. Are the islands’ names true names?


UKL: They’re true names.


JP: They’re true names.


UKL: Yeah.


JP: So, you can do magic with them because—


UKL: Oh, yeah.


JP: Right. But it doesn’t give you power over an island to know its true name.


UKL: Island’s a pretty big thing.


JP: Yeah, it’s big. I see. Okay. They have power.


UKL: Yes. But a big wizard could probably do something awful or wonderful temporarily to an island by using its name.

EF: One of the central ideas of the Earthsea world that I find so cool and compelling is this whole idea of magic as a form of linguistics: a large part of the study of it is about finding things’ true names, as well as getting your name being a crucial rite of passage.

I just think that’s such a brilliant little mechanism at the heart of the world there.

One of the things I love about the way that names work in the world (and this is what Marcel Mauss would call a total social fact) is that it has these political uses, it has ritual uses. There’s also a whole etiquette around when you use someone’s name. Or how do you indicate that you know someone’s true name, but you’re not going to use it.


JP: Le Guin admits having a soft spot for science, and the people who collect knowledge. She likes lore-masters. But I get that you’re talking about something deeper too, because you’re talking about the way the world is literally made up out of words, and that’s a point about a fantasy novel.

JP: I mentioned those three science-fiction novels that she was writing at the same time as the first Earthsea book. Maybe we could listen to a clip discussing how she thinks about science fiction and fantasy in relation to each other. Here, she is talking about the gender-experimental quality of Left Hand of Darkness, which is really a novel for 2023.

UKL: So, I wrote Earthsea and Left Hand of Darkness, and those are clearly [distinct] … And from then on, I was following two paths.

I began to be able to use science fiction.

In Left Hand of Darkness, I was using science fiction not to solve, but to come at a problem that I realized was very deep in me and everybody else, is, “What is gender? What gender am I?” A question we just hadn’t been asking. Look at all the answers that are coming out now.

We have really deconstructed it.


JP: I agree. At that moment, when Left Hand of Darkness came out, you described feminism then as waking up from a very long nap at that moment. I guess it’s really woken up now.


UKL: There’s a lot of people trying to put us back to sleep.


JP: That’s so wonderful to think about Left Hand of Darkness in terms of the deconstructions of gender that we have now in 2015.


UKL: We really didn’t even have the word gender.


JP: As opposed to sex, right?


UKL: Yeah. It was, “So what sex are you?” In some respects, we really have come all along, and in a good direction.


JP: At another point, when you were talking about Left Hand of Darkness, you said that, for long times, you would forget what gender your characters were. Does that fit with that idea, or was that a different idea?


UKL: Well, I was trying to get inside the Gethenian body and viewpoint, in which gender happens once a month, and is an event. And then you just go back to being human. And I was trying to think that way. And I don’t know whether I succeeded. If I said I did, I may have just been boasting.

JP: Given that The Left Hand of Darkness is about a world of literally nonbinary people, who once a month temporarily take on either male or female sexual characteristics, that phrase, “gender as event,” is really evocative. It is almost like a Judith Butler idea of performing gender. In Left Hand of Darkness, what sex you temporarily become depends on who you’re around

So, it really is eventual in that sense. It’s just a thing that happens. It’s literally a switch: a turn-on or a turn-off. What turns you on, and in which direction are you turned on? But I do think Le Guin thinks beyond that too. This probably relates to your anthropological point, Elizabeth, which is that she thinks of people relationally, and they bring out different aspects of one another.

Science, rightly done, is so beautiful. Geology, for instance, it’s all poetry.

EF: Yes, there’s certain moments where you become more stabilized in a certain gender, or stabilized in a certain sexuality, but there’s no prior script for how that’s going to go.


JP: That really gets at something in The Dispossessed, and The Lathe of Heaven as well, which is that there’s a commitment to fundamental openness in Le Guin, things might go another way. I’m obsessed with her line from the National Book Award speech near the end of her life: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable, so did the divine right of kings.” All sorts of things that seem inevitable are contingent and totally mutable.

What she always wants to say is, “Well, wait a minute. It could be.” And The Lathe of Heaven is amazing that way: its central figure, Orr, has the power to dream the world different. When he wakes up, whatever he dreamed has become reality.

On one level that is a reflection on what it is to be a fantasy writer. But it’s also a deeper point for Le Guin: we all have this imaginative capacity to see ourselves in various ways. For example, before Darwin, humans were the antithesis of “the animals.” Then Darwin made a simple point: “Wait, we are all animals.” With a notion like that, reality changes around us; suddenly humans are able to recognize that peacocks, and baboons, and humans are working with the same problems, although with a different set of tools.

EF: Le Guin is the daughter of a very famous founding figure within US anthropology, Alfred Kroeber. So, her books are deeply and self-consciously anthropological, and I would consider her an anthropologist.


JP: An imaginary anthropologist.


EF: Right, a speculative anthropologist.


JP: With that in mind, should we go back to that interview and consider what Le Guin had to say about scientists?


EF: Go for it.

JP: You have a soft spot in your writing for scholars and scientists.


UKL: Oh, yeah. I knew them. I grew up amongst them. And I love science as a human undertaking just as much as I love art. Science, rightly done, is so beautiful. Geology, for instance, my lord, it’s all poetry. It’s amazing. And I lived through that great revolution in geology where we discovered about plate tectonic, and that was so exciting to watch it happening. And the new article would come out, “My God, look at it. Oh my God, it’s right under Oregon.”


JP: A new map under our feet.


UKL: Yeah.


JP: There have been moments in progressive thinking in which science or even scholarship in the academy in general can look like the enemy. Because it aids the exploiters of technology.


UKL: The fact is the Academy is largely a wholly-owned subsidiary of various corporations now, and so is science. And so, they do become the enemy. If the corporation is the enemy, I’m afraid, to me, it pretty much is, at this point.


JP: But you can so easily imagine in your Earthsea, that the Wizard School could become a site of evil, but it never really feels that way. It feels—


UKL: There was definitely that potential … how come no women?


JP: How come no women? Right!


UKL: Yeah. And how come no sex for the men? Something has gone wrong here. It ain’t natural.


JP: But you’re gentle on them, aren’t you?


UKL: Well, people make mistakes for heaven’s sake. You can’t get my age without realizing that people make mistakes. And blaming them for it gets … What good does that do?

JP: In what Le Guin has to say, there is the question of science and the accumulation of knowledge. And then the question of the ways that knowledge gets instrumentalized, and becomes a wholly owned subsidiary.

Elizabeth, you and I are recording this the week that Oppenheimer came out. So, forget being a corporate sellout, you can also think about science and technology as going all the way down the road to the atom bomb, giving us the tools to do the worst things that we could do to one another.


EF: Her answers have both sides in them. You’re trying to draw her, and she’s refusing to be drawn, which I find interesting.


JP: Yeah.


EF: The Wizard’s School on Roke is a great analogy for the university in that way.


JP: Absolutely.


EF: That Wizard’s School knows some real things and some important and good things. However, there’s kinds of knowledge and kinds of magic that it not only doesn’t know, but it refuses to know. And that it denigrates.

JP: There’s this phrase, “Weak as women’s magic, wicked as women’s magic,” which you hear as a mantra throughout the Earthsea books. In the second trilogy, you begin to understand the misogynist origins of that, and the falsity of the claim as well.


EF: Yeah. There’s a whole masculinist theme … it’s a wizard staff you get on Roke, for goodness’s sake. There’s an economy of prestige that’s related to it. These are marvelous wizards who are deeply humane, and full of love and generosity—like the Master Patterner, Nemmerle, but the system itself has these blind spots, and hubrises, and so on.


JP: Yeah. The other thing that I loved in that passage from Le Guin is her description of plate tectonics, I thought that was so fabulous. Because, that to me, gets at the point about the imaginative art of science. Literally, the ground is shifting beneath our feet because of what geology has discovered. And what Le Guin was saying there is that rather than thinking of creative arts and sciences as “two cultures,” we should realize the parallel tracks they’re running. Because both of them are not claiming to make up something new. They’re claiming to show you something that’s already always there. You just hadn’t been thinking about it the right way.

JP: I’ve had to write a couple of short things about dragons recently, and especially dragons in Le Guin. The dragon side of things in Le Guin is really interesting because she needs dragons to represent something that is available inside human culture. It’s our own wildness. It’s our taste for fantasy. In the second set of the Earthsea books, she actually (I am going to tread carefully around spoilers here!) shows you an underlying unity. For example, a painted image in which a dragon is looking out with what might be human eyes. Then you turn over the image, and instead you see a human looking with dragon eyes. So in other words, she wants you to understand there’s an interwovenness: the things we think of as farthest away from us, actually, the thought patterns, we have to understand they are the same thought patterns. We have to understand what’s familiar.

But on the other hand, dragons remain inhuman in some ways. They’re like the octopuses that Peter Godfrey-Smith discusses in Other Minds. They are wild and other, like that “other wind.” We have to remember that there are things beyond our own ken.

The notion is, there’s nothing that is truly alien to us. Still, some things can still be beyond our comprehension for now. You have to think both those things.


EF: I love her sense of the need to hold things that are contradictory. Contradictory things can also both be true, many of them.


JP: I really admire these people who just don’t die, who have a very long career. But you could have a 60-year writing career and remain in one rut. That is really not true of Le Guin. She translated the Tao Te Ching, she translated Angélica Gorodischer, who is this wonderful Argentinian fantasy novelist I never would’ve known about if it hadn’t been for Le Guin translating her. She wrote a lot of poetry. She continued to diversify the channels of investigation. And that means that when she claims that she has discerned a common thread, it’s not because she’s only looking at the thing that she already likes. I worry about myself (all the time!) that I’m basically cherry-picking my own examples by staying within one space.


EF: Yeah, I worry about that too.


JP: It’s really to Le Guin’s credit that she doesn’t do that. She sets herself very hard tasks, and then she tries to figure out where the resonances are.

EF: Maybe this is a moment where we shift to our Recallable Ursulas—meaning the relatively forgotten works by her that we want to single out for praise.


JP: That sounds great, yeah.


EF: The bit of her work that I want to enthuse about and tell people to run, don’t walk to read, is a story that’s in Tales from Earthsea, “The Bones of the Earth.” I hadn’t really thought about it this way, until I heard her talking. But it is basically the artistic rendition of plate tectonic theory. It’s told from the perspective of a wizard on Gont, which is a rocky island that has a Gontish magic, which is rocky. I’m totally obsessed with rocks, and their unknowability, as well as the ways in which we attempt to know them through things like geology and plate tectonics.

The wizard and his student are faced with an earthquake, and trying to mobilize this, discredited, or marginalized, also female knowledge that’s rooted in the rocks (I say female because the wizard’s teacher was a woman, which is revealed later on). What an example of Le Guin’s way thinking: “I’m going to take tectonic theory, and I’m going to consider it philosophically, as what kinds of ritual would be associated with it?”

The other thing about that story that I just adore, and there are moments of it throughout with Le Guin, but it’s just the relationship between these two wizards is so funny, and poignant, and sweet.

The older wizard is irritable. He thinks of himself as irritable, and he is irritable. And there’s one part where he’s trying to find out an old word. It’s been taking him weeks, a true name. And his assistant, who’s a young man at this point, who he calls Silence because he never says anything. Suddenly, he says, “You might keep some goats.” He’s been working on this for weeks, and suddenly you’re like, “You should get some goats.”

A few paragraphs later, she writes that in later years, he thought about how he didn’t lose his temper when Silence had said this. “Each time the memory gave him a quiet satisfaction, like that of finishing the last bite of a perfectly ripe pear.” It has everything in this story. It’s got science, it’s got art, it’s got goats, it’s got fruit, it’s got chickens.


JP: That’s awesome. I’m really interested in the goats of Earthsea. I talk a lot about them in the book, actually. They represent a different animal counterpart to human beings.


EF: Yeah, I appreciated the extensive attention in your index to goats too.


JP: The book I chose is A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, or the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu: Le Guin’s English version. There’s one particular poem called “The Uses of Not,” which was incredibly important to me. So, I’m just going to read that poem really quickly. And it’s about negative space, I guess you could say. But it’s also about how art is more about creating an emptiness for the reader, than it is about creating something positive. The image is of a pot.

Hollowed out,

clay makes a pot.

Where the pot’s not

is where it’s useful.

Cut doors and windows

to make a room.

Where the room isn’t,

there’s room for you.

Both pot and room aren’t a thing: they’re actually the space left by the walls around them.

That just rings true to me for what Le Guin is trying to do. The truth is that many artists are doing just that: throwing a pot or building an empty room and inviting the reader in. But I love that Le Guin is explicit about it. She knows just what it is that she’s setting out to do. icon

This article was commissioned by John Plotz.

Featured photograph of Ursula K. Le Guin copyright © Marian Wood Kolisch

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