May 21, 2018

Ursula Le Guin wrote a character with “red-brown” skin; fifty years later, he’s finally being depicted as a person of color


Representation in fantasy literature is a problem. The heroes tend to be white, relegating people of color to roles as sidekicks, villains, and the soon-to-be-killed-to-allow-for-another-plot-point.

The problem is exacerbated when adaptations of fantasy works portray characters of color with white actors. This may partly be a result of who’s writing those adaptations: a report last year from Color of Change found only thirty-five percent of writers’ rooms had even one non-white staff member.

With numbers like that, it’s not hard to imagine how adaptations get whitewashed. But it’s wrong — it diminishes the creative vision of the original work, and distorts the message an author means to convey. In case I’m not being clear: whitewashing is a fuck-fucking travesty. (Extra “fuck” added for good measure.)

Perhaps one of the most glorious failures of television history is the Sci-Fi Channel’s 2004 miniseries adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea saga. Spread across two awful episodes that make no attempt at fidelity to the original, also cast Shawn Ashmore, white actor perhaps best known for playing Iceman in the X-Men movies, as Ged, the wizard-to-be at the center of Earthsea, whose skin is described as “red-brown.” Le Guin published a characteristically eloquent response at Slate, decrying what she called “a generic McMagic movie with a meaningless plot based on sex and violence.” She explained:

My color scheme was conscious and deliberate from the start. I didn’t see why everybody in science fiction had to be a honky named Bob or Joe or Bill. I didn’t see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white (and why all the leading women had “violet eyes”). It didn’t even make sense. Whites are a minority on Earth now — why wouldn’t they still be either a minority, or just swallowed up in the larger colored gene pool, in the future?

But as Andrew Liptak reports for The Verge, there may yet be Earthsea redemption in the offing! In a new, illustrated, omnibus edition of the series, Saga Press (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) will attempt to restore Le Guin’s vision for Ged.

In a collaboration that took four years, Le Guin and artist Charles Vess extensively considered the world—and the feel—of Earthsea. Eschewing Eurocentric portrayals of medieval castles and stone chambers, Vess worked to create an atmosphere dominated by gardens and a middle-class lifestyle.

“She definitely wanted more showing that the people lived on the land, that they were farmers, peasants, and common people tilling their gardens,” Vess says. “She wanted very little of the Great Golden Hall of Wizardry, [with] princes and kings. So there’s quite a few drawings that are inside of a garden, or tending goats or whatever.”

The illustrations sound great, depicting scenes like the Island of Roke, where young wizards are sent to study, and the dragon Orm Embar confronting Ged at sea. Importantly, they may be the first visualizations of the work made with Le Guin’s approval.

The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition will be published in October to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the series. If you can’t wait until then, take a peek at Vess’s Facebook page. He’s posted early pencil sketches that’ll make your heart glub-glub with joy.

Peter Clark is a former Melville House sales manager.