Article – “As Weak as Women’s Magic” by Athena Andreadis

“As Weak as Women’s Magic”
— common saying in the Earthsea Archipelago

A few days ago, I read an opinion piece by Ursula K. Le Guin that sprang as a reaction to Julie Taymor’s version of The Tempest, in which Helen Mirren plays the role of Prospero. I was frankly stunned to read this:

“My husband was not bothered by Prospero being “Prospera.” I was bothered by it. This bothers me. The botheration has nothing to do with the quality of Helen Mirren’s performance. She is a very fine actor, her heart is in her part, and she knows how to speak the poetry. Once or twice she looked so dishevelled and harried that the word “menopausal” came into my mind.”

That was bad enough. But then Le Guin went on to argue that Shakespeare’s gender arrangements should not be tampered with:

“I find the idea of Queen Lear intensely silly. Though for all I know she’s blundering half-naked across a blasted Hollywood heath towards me at this very moment, bellowing “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!”

Dishevelled, menopausal, silly, blundering, bellowing. Excessively contemptuous and harsh terms for women who violate traditional gender conventions. To a middle-aged woman who is a research scientist (as close to a sorcerer as you can get), they sound venomous. Yet these are the words of someone whose fiction and essays I’ve read with pleasure and admiration across genres and years, someone who I thought had an intellect of infinite capacity – the creator of androgynous Gethenians, anarchist Odonians and sedoretu four-partner marriages.

Le Guin’s essay contained two kernels. One, Shakespeare is sacrosanct because he was a genius. Two, gender confers intrinsic, immutable attributes. Thus, women who try to play “male” authority roles can only appear hysterical or silly. Sort of like girls trying to wield lightsabers. Or, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson and Le Guin’s own Roke wizards, “Sir, a woman wielding a magic rod is like a dog walking on its hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

Let me briefly deal with Shakespeare first. Coming from a culture whose mythology and history has been endlessly – and most often horribly – toyed with, I don’t see why Shakespeare should be uniquely untouchable. He’s admittedly a languagesmith and some of his protagonists have become archetypes to Anglophone readers. But there’s nothing particularly original or inspired about his plots and character scaffoldings, which he plundered from all kinds of sources — from pagan myths to work of his contemporaries, since copyright didn’t exist back then.

For all we know, Prospero may have been originally female before she got shoehorned into the Elizabethan mould of what a powerful sorcerer should be. There is also the long shadow of off-stage Sycorax, the original owner of Prospero’s island and a sorceress in her own right along the lines of such powerful primeval goddesses as Tiamat. On the other side of the theater curtain, Shakespeare has been adapted in every way imaginable – from a MacBeth in Stalinist Russia to a totally race-reversed Othello, to a sympathetic Shylock, to West Side Story. Many of these retellings were hailed as imaginative takes that made the aging material newly relevant.

Having read almost all of Le Guin’s work, however, I suspect her dislike of Mirren as Prospero has two sources beyond the antagonism of one powerful, successful woman towards another. One is Le Guin’s own experience of the “bleaching” of Earthsea in its horrific Sci-Fi miniseries treatment. But in that case, the casting of white actors to play characters clearly depicted as non-white allowed viewers to retain blinkered, comfortable default assumptions. In contrast, having a female Prospero challenges such assumptions. Which brings us to the second source: Le Guin’s own assumptions.

As I said earlier, I think Le Guin believes that women and men are fundamentally different and their magic should obey the demarcation lines. For good and ill, men are creators and destroyers; women must be content to take the leftover preservation slot. Having Prospero be a woman blurs these boundaries. In Le Guin’s view, this is an error that endangers balance. Hence her use of coded, loaded words like “menopausal” and “blundering” that aim to conjure the stereotypical Baba Yaga image. And hence the insurmountable problems I have with Le Guin’s Earthsea and its magic.

I’ve read all the Earthsea works. The universe is original, beguiling, carefully and lovingly constructed, from the pelagic geography to the cultures (many-hued and non-Anglo, though still quasi-feudal and with a romanticized view of iron-age subsistence technology) to the vivid characters to the magic woven into the very bones of the world. Le Guin can be a subtle and imaginative storyteller and is willing to tackle complexity. Like Shakespeare, she did her share of plundering, transmuting the loans “into something rich and strange”: Hellenic myths, Kabbalism, Catholicism, Jung, Daoism. From the latter come the separate-but-equal domains of power.

This last dichotomy effectively exiles me from Earthsea. There’s no way I could be myself there. The magic I like and do well is defined by Le Guin as men’s magic. By her logic, this makes me a gender traitor and a “silly” pretender (a menopausal one, at that) who can only be second-rate at my chosen magic, since I have the wrong equipment. It makes me a bitch staggering on her hind legs.

The first three Earthsea novels (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore) are frankly reactionary in their depiction of women. That is not because magic-gifted women are banned from the Roke Academy and denied training. This attitude can be assigned to the fictional culture. What reveals the creator’s mindset is that the rare women in the trilogy have no independent agency. They exist solely as props to make Ged’s life comfortable or pleasant.

The greatest betrayal is that of Tenar in the second book (there’s no major female presence in the other two). Tenar is a trained sorceress but her magic is the wrong kind, by the judgment of both Ged and Le Guin. So Tenar’s magic is taken from her, and she’s turned into… a housewife. It’s like a tiger being made to pull a plow. Le Guin has argued that what Tenar does in her hut is as important as what Ged does in his tower. Except she doesn’t choose to show us Tenar mending socks and raising children. She shows us Ged wielding his rod and compelling dragons and ghosts.

I had such a strong reaction to this aspect of the first three Earthsea books that I haven’t been able to reread them, despite the many other pleasures and resonances I found in that world. Someone could say that the first three Earthsea novels reflect the era in which they were written – but this is the same era in which Joanna Russ wrote The Female Man. Also, when the first Earthsea novel appeared Andre Norton had already written several Witch World stories with female protagonists.

After the trilogy and two standalone stories there was a twenty-year hiatus in Earthsea: Ged had completed his arc. Le Guin could have stopped there and most readers would have continued to adore a universe that left the status quo undisturbed. Yet she apparently was as dissatisfied as I. Not only did she revisit Earthsea; she also subjected it to heavy-duty retrofitting.

Women fare differently, though not necessarily better, in the two later novels (Tehanu, The Other Wind). In them, Tenar and Ged at long last become the lovers they were meant to be, except Ged is spent by then. Tenar is more caretaker than partner – and she might as well be called Griselda, given the humiliating trials she’s made to undergo. Young Tehanu plays an equally stereotypical victim role, despite her stated power. And the queen provided to Roke’s king verges on caricature.

Women finally and belatedly become important in the five-story cycle Tales from Earthsea which is considered ancillary and optional by most Earthsea aficionados. For me, though, these are the best stories of that universe. In them, we discover that women created the Roke Academy; we glimpse Ogion in his youth and Ged in his zenith; and we get to see Roke Academy opened to non-males, of which more anon. In these seemingly effortless, deft, compelling stories Le Guin re-evaluated her assumptions and arrived at deeper, richer, more nuanced takes except on one issue: gendered magic.

Le Guin posits that magic which rends the fabric of the world is wrong. I couldn’t agree more. This is a real, concrete issue for me, a scientist who is researching the molecular regulation of brain function, a monist who’s intensely aware and wary of sunderings. But in the second half of Earthsea, Le Guin still only allows women the role of preserver. Even Roke is founded to ensure that magical practices, banned at the time, are not forgotten. And Le Guin still insists that women can legitimately wield transformative magic in that universe only if they’re non-human.

In Dragonfly, the story that closes Tales from Earthsea, young farmer Irian is inexplicably drawn to Roke even though she has no magic abilities that she or we can detect. Once there, she meanders around the Immanent Grove, the omphalos of Earthsea, while the mages bicker over the girl cooties she’s shedding all over the Academy. But when the moment of crisis arrives, she duels with the dominant mage – and kills him (for real, as he’s already dead but powerful enough to maintain his spirit in his body). So much for Le Guin’s ideals of wu wei and satyagraha.

Of course, Irian can kill a fully trained Roke wizard because she’s in fact a dragon (giving new meaning to the term “dragon lady”). An untrained woman, even if gifted, would have ended up as a dark stain on the ground. But it’s all right for Irian to kill because killing is part of dragons’ true nature – plus it conveniently restores balance. Tenar, on the other hand, must submit to violations because that’s what “real” women do: endure and keep mending others and the world. This is essentially a variation of the Victorian Angel in the House. It’s also reminiscent of Lucas initially making all the Jedi male. When reminded that girls could also buy lunch boxes, he started turning out female Jedi in the cartoons and tie-ins – except none was human.

Le Guin’s insistence that men’s and women’s magic must be different verges on the reactionary. It’s the other side of the coin tendered by fundamentalists independent of religion or philosophy. The fact that all other separate-but-equal divisions have served humanity very badly (women in particular) does not seem to faze her, because women’s magic as she defines it is morally superior. She defines women’s magic as holistic, non-hierarchical, egalitarian, context-sensitive and lacking the “will to power” that disturbs balance and harmony in nature and society.

These are all admirable (indeed, crucial) attributes, but they are not confined to women. If we truly believe – and act on the belief – that men have no innate capacity for such behavior, we might as well revoke women’s hard-won rights right now, and save ourselves wear and tear. Conversely, women have the inherent capacity to be as combative and competitive as men. Nor should they let such abilities atrophy, given the fates meted out to the passive and the powerless. As another woman dissatisfied with her allotted role of wing-clipped hearthkeeper said, “The women of this country learned long ago that those without swords can still die upon them.” In point of fact, one characteristic that distinguishes humans from their ape cousins is that women’s natural hierarchies and alliances have been largely obliterated through millennia of punitive patriarchal cultural practices, artificially suppressing and masking women’s will to power.

Because of the quality and versatility of her work, Le Guin has attained a deservedly high stature among writers and feminists. It is incredibly disheartening to see that she seems to have embraced the “different spheres” concept. She turns Mirren’s brave choice not to smooth out her wrinkles against her. And by stating that a female Prospero is illegitimate and “silly,” she tells every woman who has the ability and desire to wield a staff of power that women can have babies but cannot represent the clan to the ancestors, nor form a minyan – and that’s that.

In my opinion, the best hope for humanity to thrive in the long run is to forge ourselves into a species that does not separate the genders in any way. We may heal our home and perhaps even gain the stars if we manage to turn ourselves into cultural Gethenians, if not biological ones. Otherwise we’re unlikely to survive at all, let alone live well.


About the Author

Athena Andreadis was born in Greece and lured to the US at age 18 by a full scholarship to Harvard, then MIT. She does basic research in molecular neurobiology, focusing on mental retardation and dementia. She is an avid reader in four languages across genres, the author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek and writes speculative fiction and non-fiction on a wide swath of topics. Her work can be found in Harvard Review, Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Stone Telling, Cabinet des Fées, Science in My Fiction, H+ Magazine, io9, The Huffington Post, and her own site, Starship Reckless.

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  1. Athena, what a wonderfully provocative essay! I am NOT as big a Le Guin as you obviously are. Let me say that up front. I admire Le Guin, but I know I haven’t read even half of her works. I’m going to have to rectify that. But onwards to your essay.

    I don’t necessarily agree with your general argument. Firstly, I got the impression that Le Guin stayed with Shakespeare, not because she thinks The Bard is sacrosanct, but because her musings began with The Tempest, so she thought to keep the rest of her argument within the same canon, if you will. If she were an Arthur Miller fan, I’m sure she’d also argue against a woman playing Willy Loman. Also, you’ll note she says herself:

    “Do I believe a woman can’t be a great mage? … No, that’s not it. Making the mage a woman didn’t bother me because I think a woman isn’t up to the job. Far from it.”

    It takes a while to get to the nub of her argument, which is best illustrated when, near the end, she says:

    “The relationships in Lear’s highly dysfunctional family have a lot to do with gender, since gender has a lot to do with power, and power, again, is what the play is about. The exercise of it, the sharing of it, the lust for it, the loss of it. And the renunciation of it. Lear handles and mishandles his power as a man, having been taught certain ideas of what it is to be a man, as all men are taught. His daughters seek power as women, who’ve learned what it is to be a woman — as all women learn — and how a woman can get power through manipulating men.”

    That’s it. The gender-swapping doesn’t work, not because of the person’s sex but because of what the surrounding culture brings to a person’s sex, forces onto it even, with the pressure of societal norms and expectations.

    Stratford Billy boy off to one side, if I’m watching a 60+ woman deal with the murder of her grandchild in a movie or play, I’m going to have a different view of her character than if it was a 60+ man. I can assume, for example, that the woman has most probably gone through menopause and has had to come to grips with the fact that she’ll never bear another life again. Her grief will be of a different character to the grandfather’s grief. No matter his age, he still CAN father a child, even if he won’t have the visceral feel of another human growing beneath his heart. Then there are the social sacrifices. Both people may have made them, but they’ll be of a different tenor and thus, the characters will be different people, by virtue of nothing more than their sex. And, thirdly, the outward nature of their grief will be different, honed by decades of living in a particular society.

    To me, that was the nub of Le Guin’s thinking. That cultural environment cannot be divorced from gender and thus, when you swap gender roles (especially in a known historical or contemporary setting), the very fabric of that setting becomes warped.

    As for the Earthsea books, I wouldn’t have a clue!

    But thanks for the article. It was very interesting and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

    Disclaimer: I’m an ENTJ. We love arguments! 🙂

  2. KS, I’m glad you found the essay provocative! As you can tell, most of it centers on other issues than Shakespeare’s sanctity. And even within the framework you discuss, we can have discussions about gender-specific cultural conditioning (definitely a major, valid issue) without saying that female Prosperos/Lears are “dishevelled, menopausal, silly, blundering, bellowing.”

  3. Athena, thank you for the wonderful essay. I also was unhappy about Tenar, whom I loved very much until she “grows up.” Le Guin wrote many strong women (and men seeking balance), just not in the Earthsea /fantasy setting, I think. Rakam in “Four Ways to Forgiveness” is one such woman.

    KS, you said,
    if I’m watching a 60+ woman deal with the murder of her grandchild in a movie or play, I’m going to have a different view of her character than if it was a 60+ man. I can assume, for example, that the woman has most probably gone through menopause and has had to come to grips with the fact that she’ll never bear another life again. Her grief will be of a different character to the grandfather’s grief

    Since you said you enjoy arguments, here goes.
    I don’t think the comparison works. A story in which a child is murdered places an emphasis on the familial. The grown-ups dealing with the murder of the child will react to it in terms of their own fertility and generational continuity. I do not see though how a woman’s grief necessarily will turn to processing that she will never bear another life again. I also assert that most men in their 60s would not immediately think, “oh, I lost a grandchild, I must run out and immediately procreate again.” Chances are that a 60 year old man will grieve for a grandchild in a way much similar to that of a 60 year old woman, i.e. they would revisit the happy memories of having the child in their lives, and then there will be pain. Beyond that, you cannot know ho individuals will deal with grief. Grief is a complex thing. I don’t think it is right to reduce it to +/- womb, +/-procreation.

    Prospero’s gender change is not about the familial at its core, so the emphasis on +/- womb and the vocabulary is especially surprising. It is not at all the same as grieving for a child. So often we associate magic not with childbirth, but with the power of the intellect. Wizards are scholars. Wizards are geeks. That’s why I think Athena’s comparison to academia is very valid. Prospero’s power, as Athena alludes, is all about a profession- a power to change the world through action and the work of one’s genius, broadly construed. Depending on the period and culture, women would have more or less access to power, but I do not believe that genders are fundamentally, that is to say cognitively different in how they may aspire to wield this power. Societies might not give women a chance to wield much power, or may socialize women to think that intellectual power is an inappropriate desire for them, but I do not believe there is a fundamental difference in brain structure. For example, I don’t think anyone can tell Athena’s gender from her research, or mine from mine. I assure you that your gender matters not at all during the blind peer-review process. It doesn’t matter if scientists are socialized differently according to gender. They often are, and in many fields women are still mistreated, and it affects women scientists and scholars on many levels. But women academics battle adversity and lack of privilege; NOT their inability to do the exact same work as men, and aspire for accomplishment in the same exact way they do. At the end of the day, privilege issues aside, important and pervasive as they are, both women and men can produce quality work, and both women and men can produce rubbish.

    I can give you any number of stories from Jewish history about powerful, learned women who were ultimately taken down because they lived in a patriarchal, restricted society that allowed that they could be smart and ambitious, but refused to give them an outlet for that ambition that was the same as that of a man. Women were supposed to channel their brains and brawn into secular pursuits, rather than a study of Torah. I give you one example: Rayna Batya Berlin, a woman of extremely keen intellect who was, like many others, oppressed just because of her gender:
    Those Jewish women were painfully restricted by the patriarchy, and yet their society recognized that they could be as smart and capable as men. Those women were socialized for argument ,and also socialized to believe that great learning (rather than balance, happiness, etc) was the ultimate prize. Many of these women possessing great intellectual abilities and drive, and had later joined the Revolution, or fled to America, etc to carve for themselves a piece of that pie they had been denied for so long. When history turned even a little in their favor they aspired, and succeeded; or failed; but their society, restricted as it was, ultimately gave them an advantage in not socializing them to believe that women were stupid or powerless. While women could not find opportunities for powerful learning within the Jewish Orthodoxy, when they could find it elsewhere, many did – and gleefully, and yes, ambitiously.

    And while the ability to have children is important for many people’s identities, and women must often face their procreative issues, a woman’s intellectual power is not about menopause or childbirth, just as a man’s intellectual power is not expected to dwindle after a vasectomy. I know any number of high-placed, brilliant women scientists and scholars who are outspoken and bold and driven, and will never see themselves as a walking, talking womb – or indeed strive for balance when there’s brilliance to be had.

    I am an academic and I am a mother, so I intimately know how it feels to fight your foggy pregnant brain to produce an article, or to sit down and do my work after a grueling day with my child with autism. Am I less capable to produce high-level of research because I am a woman? Rubbish. Am I less capable of producing it because I am a mother? Yes, because I am tired and cranky and don’t have enough time, but it is not because my brain chemistry is somehow different. I can be a wizard, and I can too be a menopausal wizard when the time comes.

    Within the context of Shakespeare, one can argue that gender-change for Prospero would not be appropriate during his lifetime (I am not getting into that argument). But changing Prospero’s gender these days ties into current issues of women wielding power, and so yes, a gender change is relevant. It might not need a direct translation, but something more sophisticated; yet I fail to understand what is wrong with introducing gender change into this play. In fact, gender changes in narratives are nothing new, by the way. I can give you any number of examples from the world’s folklore in which one version of a tale has a male, and the other a female character for the same role.

  4. Rose, thank you for the passion, eloquence and incisiveness of your arguments!

    You made several bull’s-eye observations: academic excellence (after all, Roke wizards are essentially Kabbalists), the larger point about brilliance versus balance, the plasticity of myths. Like you, I get tired of the ol’ “female brain is tied to the womb” sloppy logic (and sloppier science). It’s reductionist, insulting and corrosive.

    As I said in my other recent entry at the Apex blog, we can be/do everything — as long as we have enough time and support, something men receive far more easily and amply than women. Which in the end, makes the difference, far more so than any (largely fictional) differences in brain chemistry.

  5. I’ll confess that I’ve not read the Earthsea books, which is something I need to correct. In the piece by Ursula, though, she specifically makes the point of saying the quote, ‘as weak as women’s magic’, is a view of her character’s, not hers. But is she wrong about that? Am I right in thinking that the world and stories of Earthsea, at least to a point, reinforce that idea? Well, right in thinking that’s part of what you’re getting at in this article…

    The actual arguments that Le Guin makes in her piece seem a little flawed to me. I don’t think she’s saying that Shakespeare is sacrosanct and must not be tampered with. What I took her to be saying was that you can not divorce an individual from their gender, which is a pretty fair thing to say. You can’t swap men and women around willy-nilly because that assumes a man’s experiences of life and society are the same as a woman’s. The trouble with applying that logic to one of Shakespeare’s plays is that we’re not talking about individuals. A character in a play is half-finished at best when they’re on the page. Unlike the Venus de Milo, Prospero isn’t a finished piece. It needs an actor, a set, a director, a cast and an audience to be finished–plays, after all, are meant to be performed. And as the gender binary is inherently BS a female playing a man’s role can bring a new interpretation to it, while still remaining true to the half-finished character Shakespeare wrote. King Lear, for example, can be described as vulnerable and over-emotional just as accurately as he can be described as arrogant and power-hungry. And a female actor can play all four attributes just as well as a male actor could.

    Then, of course, there’s the fact that the plays are over four-hundred years old so we really have no chance of experiencing them as the Bard intended. To insist we experience them through the lens of Elizabethan England is a bit silly as we’re so far away in time it’s a different country, one we can read about but never experience.

    Le Guin did seem to like Helen Mirren’s performance, just not as a part of The Tempest. One wonders if you simply changed the title of the film she’d be happy to enjoy it. I didn’t quite see the vitriol you did when reading her article, Athena, but then I have a comfortable blanket of male privilege to protect me.

    Also, these rods of power… I mean, I’ve not read the novels, as I said, but they do sound rather phallic…

  6. Dylan, as I said here and elsewhere, there is a lot to unpack in these issues. I used Shakespeare only as the starting springboard for what I discussed in the essay. Also, the way I wrote the essay takes for granted that people have read the Earthsea cycle.

    To enlarge on the point you made about Lear: The familial dynamics explored in Lear also happen in patrilocal extended families; specifically, the fight for power between mother- and daughter-in-laws. You may argue that these occur in a context of patriarchal dominance, but they are large-scale, consuming and consequential all the same. One sign of this is that they show up routinely in folk tales and ballads — and when they do, they’re couched in epic terms. Given that Lear is in fact a local chieftain, the equation is closer than you think.

    Incidentally, at least one man considered the terms used by Le Guin in her essay corrosive — so perceptions vary depending on vantage point and past experience.

  7. Great essay, Athena. Thought-provoking and raises several important points.

    I read Ursula’s opinion piece as saying that she’d expected one thing and got another. She was expecting a male Prospero but got Mirrin. I think this only indicates that the play failed to be persuasive. Admittedly, Ursula seems to be opposed to the very idea of a female Prospero, but such oppositions can often transform to an intense surprise and then delight. In other words, I see it as a soft prejudice rather than a hard one. And as for her fictional depictions, it’d be a great mistake to identify her character’s choices and statements with her personal views. As she indicates in her article, it’s not true that “my fiction exists to deliver my opinions and that what my characters say is my opinion.”

    But more importantly, I think it points to the need for a “topological theory” of fiction. What sort of transformations are permissible for a work of fiction? How many changes can we make to a character and continue to claim a family resemblance? Writers have all had the experience of a story feeling completely different upon changing the gender, a name, a location, profession, etc. We do not have a good theory– at least, so it seems to me– of how such transformations affect perceptions. We have a lot of normative beliefs (for example, we’d frown upon people who frowned on a gay interpretation of Romeo and Juliet), but little understanding of when a story becomes another. In Ursula’s case, a female Prospero results in a fundamentally different story from Shakespeare’s Tempest. I’m sympathetic to her claim– not to its content, but the principle of boundaries– because I’ve had similar reactions to other stories. It embarrasses me that I have these boundaries (some of them quite prejudicial, I’m afraid), but perhaps it also refers to an intrinsic aspect of how we fall in love with stories. Can we tell Romeo: “look, never mind this is not exactly the girl you fell in love with; please make do with Rosaline.” So too for us, I think.

    Incidentally, an article that explores this question in connection with Ramayana’s heroine, Sita:

    V. N Rao. When Does Sita Cease To Be Sita? Notes Towards a Cultural Grammar of Indian Narratives

  8. I think you read too much in my example, Rose. I just picked one example that, I thought, illustrated the different life-histories of people, based on gender. The point to be made does not have to rely on close family. It’s just that men and women, especially within the historical context given, project their power differently. This is because they had/have different societal expectations on them. As do the Jewish women you cite. They were culturally pressured NOT to study the Torah, but everything else was okay. Consider how you’d feel if a traditional male role in Judaism was played by a woman within the context of an historical drama. I think you’d feel the same dissonance as Le Guin did. It doesn’t have to be familial.

    As for science…my husband and I have spent a total of half a century in or around scientific institutions. Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that science is objective and gender-blind. It’s only that when forced to be.

    Kaz Augustin

  9. Anil, Le Guin is one of the rare people who think things through. She has been known to change her mind — after all, she retooled Earthsea radically — so she may surprise us by thinking this through as well.

    I am not conflating her personal and fictional opinions. I made a point of distinguishing them in the essay, including what her characters say versus what she says implicitly as the author. However, Le Guin has a habit of indicating strongly and unambiguously what she likes and dislikes, what she approves and disapproves. The undercurrent of disapproval in her blog post was clear and not that deep.

    Romeo, if you recall, was in love with someone else until he saw Juliet. And given their ages, he might have loved someone else once the storm of his feeling for Juliet abated. But that wouldn’t have made for a dramatic play, although it would have (and has) been the kernel of many novels.

    Also, for me reading Shakespeare was not the quasi-mystical epiphany it seems to be for most English speakers. Most of the plots were familiar: they’re retreads of Greek, Latin and medieval texts and tales that I had already read in many variations. Of course, his language is beautiful, the quirks of his characters are fascinating. So as far as I’m concerned, he’s another stone in a time-necklace, though a particularly large and lovely one. This applies to your point about Sita — which is why I enjoyed Sita Sings the Blues tremendously.

  10. Kaz, as a working non-Anglosaxon female scientist I agree that science aspires to objectivity but scientists are all too human and invariably embedded in their various contexts. This becomes very visible when you leave your natal culture, and see what your adopted culture takes for granted. It’s literally an eye-opener. If it were up to me, teenagers would spend a couple of years in another culture. The exact identity doesn’t matter — the shift is the crucial issue. I wrote more about one aspect of this issue here:

    The Double Helix Double Helix.pdf

    What makes science different from other systems is that it’s always in a state of flux, a quest never finished, an exploration never at rest. It’s not perfect — but it’s the best instrument we have.

  11. I do rail a bit at this type of dialogue occurring via text snapshots like this. So much nuance gets lost. This would be so much better in person!

    Kaz Augustin

  12. I agree. The Internet works best in soundbite mode. But the responses here have been essays in themselves, and each has explored a different aspect of the starting essay. Which makes me hopeful for Internet discussions!

  13. Consider how you’d feel if a traditional male role in Judaism was played by a woman within the context of an historical drama.
    This would be a great point if the Tempest were a historical drama. Surely, if Reb Levi Itzik would be cast as a woman without any changes in context, I would be flipping out. But there were, in fact, women rabbis who led their own Hassidic courts. It is not a direct translation, but it is certainly possible to envision a woman in that role, because it is historically attested. However, The Tempest is not a historical drama, and a more valid comparison would be, say, gender change in a biblical story. What would happen if Moses were cast as a woman in a play about the Exodus? That would be awesome actually, because there already is the issue of Miriam the prophetess. Replace Moses with Miriam, what happens then? A thought-provoking Exodus play which, some people would say, more accurately reflects the Exodus story than the patriarchal version.

    We’ll have to agree to disagree on scientific objectivity. I am only a junior professor, and I have not seen the entirety of life or academia; moreover, I am not a hard scientist. However, I do have some experience. Gender discrimination is very real, sure. I was an undergrad in a department that would never hire me because I was a woman, no matter how good my work was (this was not in the US; I did graduate-level work as an undergrad). But when I got out of there and into Berkeley, I received support and published some of my discoveries. People can be biased, contexts can be stifling or supportive. I have no argument with that, that is pretty clear. But I do not think that my ability to analyze data would be different if I were a man. That’s all I was saying.

  14. Rose, your point about Miriam (and Anil’s, earlier, about Sita) directly pertains to the role of myths that have become underpinnings to national or religious self-definitions. Myths are almost infinitely malleable and appear in dizzying variations, including gender reversals. Alcestis: the female Orpheus, who asked Pluto for her bedmate’s life; Aoife and Scathach: the female Chirons, trainers of the greatest warriors, including Cuchulainn. And so on to infinity.

    If Shakespeare’s exegetes and hagiographers wish to elevate him to mythmaker status, his material is equally malleable. Even his historical plays are completely personal interpretations: MacBeth (MacBethad macFinlach) was actually an excellent and beloved king that kept Scotland calm and prosperous for the unprecedented length of two decades, and Richard III was not the monster Shakespeare painted in his attempt to curry favor with the Tudors. So some of “the Bard is sacrosanct” attitude comes from the fact that he is considered a national poet and his texts are read as quasi-history.

    Compare that with the latest Hollywood remake of Troy. It conflated Paris and Aeneas, made Polyxene Achilles’ lover (not one of the people he sacrificed to officially mark the sacking of the city), elided the Amazons and turned Patroklos from Achilles’ lover to (groan) his cousin. I didn’t mind. The story was already a palimpsest when it entered collective memory. Homer himself (if he existed) cheerfully mixed the customs and stories of six centuries. In the Troy film, the kernel of Bronze Age warrior aristocrats chewing the scenery and each other somehow made it through. So did Achilles’ bisexual charisma and his single-minded preoccupation with his glory. The columns and god statues were ghastly, but the story itself as a meditation of vainglorious, touchy honor is there. The words, of course, are not. But they would be lost in any translation, including from Homeric to contemporary Hellenic.

    So this is me speaking about my own national epic versus non-British Ursula Le Guin’s reaction to The Tempest which, tellingly enough, she herself ascribes to “something deeper than gender”. Here I have to disagree with Anil, who said that she expected Prospero but got Mirren: the gender reversal of Taymor’s film was not a secret, it was actually the major thing about it. But I agree with him, and say so in the essay, that what got pushed were Le Guin’s own boundaries and unquestioned assumptions: the age and specifics of Prospero are not hard-coded for gender, unless you consider wielding of magic rods a no-no for women. And in my view, these boundaries and their associated assumptions are what made Earthsea (which is not history, but myth) become a much lesser achievement than it could have been.

  15. Athena:

    I agree that making Prospero a dude doesn’t seem like a major transformation of the work. At least, not on the same scale as, say, excising Caliban from the story. I was trying, however, to change the topic. Specifically, I was trying to move the discussion from Ursula’s article and what it implies/suggests to the issue of how we decide what transformations are permissible for a given work.

    My main concern is that these decisions, if unchecked or taken for granted, will censor interesting worlds because they have politically incorrect elements. If every fantasy out there assumed, say, the rightness of the caste system, then certainly we’d have an impoverished literature. Indeed, Sanskrit literature is impoverished in exactly this manner. But a particular work or an author shouldn’t be judged because their world admitted the rightness of the caste system as a feature. Admittedly, it’s a tricky line. How can we analyze a trend or pattern without picking on a particular author? Perhaps Darwin’s example of “population thinking” for evolutionary trends offers a solution. In dealing with the treatment of issues like racism, gender, color, etc. in fiction, the idea would be to focus on groups of authors, rather than a specific one. For example, we might conclude that there’s gender prejudice when it comes to magic. But the critical thing is this: such statements makes sense only at a population level, not at the level of any particular author. This would seem to let the author off the hook. Why, the bastards, might imagine anything. Exactly. They are free to be responsible, not constrained to be so.

  16. Anil, the question of how much we can change something before we lose the central kernel is interesting. For myth (which includes Homer, the Ramayana and Shakespeare), my answer is: everything can change, because that was the case with myths from the moment they came into existence. Of course, this “everything” will be judged by several criteria: boldness of imagination, originality of concept, depth of worldbuilding, quality of writing — and the verdict will partly depend on individual and collective tastes and standards (which will vary).

    Your population model also works vertically, so to speak. If all the works of an author show a specific pattern, it’s justified to name the author as a representative of X or a practitioner of Y. Otherwise, we would never be able to do classifications… and humans deprived of their classifications grow confused and grumpy.

  17. Athena:

    Otherwise, we would never be able to do classifications…

    Yes, and another problem is the lack of independence. Evolutionary theories about cheetahs cuts no ice with cheetahs, but writers are strongly influenced by criticism, vertical or otherwise.

  18. Social pressure is a powerful instrument, and we humans are far more culturally hardwired than we like to think.

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