The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. LeGuin
[fan art of Ged by devilevn]
EARTHSEA. Oh, Earthsea. First of all, if you’re a fan of speculative fiction of any kind and you have not read the Earthsea books, you probably should fix that immediately.
I was lucky enough to come across A Wizard of Earthsea in my formative years, and had read the original trilogy by the time I was 11 or so. I know that for a lot of fellow Fantasy fans of color, these books were the first we’d come across that had people who actually looked like us in main character and central roles.
And it’s good. So very, very good. The magic system is fascinating and deep in style and function, the mysteries are fascinating, the writing style manages to be expansive and claustrophobic at the same time, the dangers are many and the horrors are positively existential. You want dragons? Check. You want wizards? Check. You want adventures, magical artifacts, ancient legends and prophecies, magical cities that can only be found by those who need it? All the checks!!! It’s everything you want it to be because it’s one of the most influential works of Fantasy fiction in existence.
And all the characters are people of color, except the Kargish, of which only Tenar is a main character. This has created nigh-endless problems with cover art, film adaptations, and various other visual representation of the characters. Le Guin herself has railed, sometimes impotently, at the misrepresentations of her books and the characters therein, notably in the heavily whitewashed Sci-Fi Channel miniseries adaption.
LeGuin also wrote this piece, Frankenstein’s Earthsea, for Locus, with more details about how exactly such a travesty ended up getting made in the first place. I remember tuning in for that miniseries when it originally aired in 2001, and completely disillusioned, turning it off about 15 minutes (if that) into the first episode. I mean:
On top of that horror, the book covers. Ohhhhh, the book covers. As an extremely popular series, there have been many editions printed, and ugh. Le Guin has written:
But I had endless trouble with cover art. Not on the great cover of the first edition—a strong, red-brown profile of Ged—or with Margaret Chodos Irvine’s four fine paintings on the Atheneum hardcover set, but all too often. The first British Wizard was this pallid, droopy, lily-like guy—I screamed at sight of him.
Gradually I got a little more clout, a little more say-so about covers. And very, very, very gradually publishers may be beginning to lose their blind fear of putting a nonwhite face on the cover of a book. “Hurts sales, hurts sales” is the mantra. Yeah, so? On my books, Ged with a white face is a lie, a betrayal—a betrayal of the book, and of the potential reader.
These are the kind of covers she is talking about:
And so on.
This is the cover of the First Edition that she’s talking about:
Many reprints of the books in the 90’s just circumvented this “issue” by just not putting any people on the covers of the books. I don’t know about others, but I tend to be much more drawn towards books that feature images of people on the covers, rather than random landscapes or fantastic creatures. You might notice that the “Random landscape” theme repeats itself on many covers of LeGuin’s books, including some of her most famous novels like The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, and the Lathe of Heaven.
So, in summation, I recommend all of LeGuin’s books if you in any way enjoy speculative fiction.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a fervent admirer of Ursula LeGuin, especially after meeting her in person, and the unrivaled highlight of my career thus far was when — in her delightfully punchy way — she complimented the illustration I did of Ged.
(Me, to famous author: “This is a chance for an author I really admire to hate my art!” Famous author, very snappily: “Well. You failed.” :D)
I made the painting because the library I work for does a ‘one book, one community’ program in which we try to get people reading and talking about the same work, an that year, it was Wizard of Earthsea. I looked at all of these covers, and read LeGuin’s essays on whitewashing, and decided that we couldn’t use a book cover to advertise the month-long event. There are a plethora, and none of them speak to the book. Like medievalpoc says, they’re either ’random landscapes’ or whitewashed wizards. I did a bit of cajoling, and got permission to spend a truly ridiculous amount of time making original art, instead. (I’m a graphic designer, not a professional illustrator; I don’t get enough practice and I work slowly).
(My boss, if asked, says ‘we couldn’t get rights to use the book covers.’ That’s not quite true. He’d started to ask various publishing houses, and I got him to stop trying).
I cringe whenever I look at the art — hazard of five year old illustrations (Oh god, the lack of gesture in that torso; what is going on with his pelvis? Lighting could’ve been so much more dynamic, argggggh), but it’s still one of the most important of the, let’s face it, really not-at-all-important things I’ve done at my job. :P