Saturday 18 April 2015

Earthsea? Magic!

It has been a pleasant conceit of The Blob to slag off the cult of Harry Potter, mostly on the grounds that it cannot be that good.  No matter how much you have enjoyed the books; no matter what dreams you have had about quidditch triumphs or pulling a rabbit out of an owl's hat - Potter doesn't deserve its winner-takes-all success. Somebody needs to whisper in your ear that there are other books out there that should be read before you set off on your second Harry Potter.  The great god BBC has recorded two of Ursula le Guin's best books and The Wizard of Earthsea will be available to hear in just under two weeks time on Monday 27th April 2015.  Neil Gaiman has described it as simply the best book about Wizard School.

Meanwhile you can hear Le Guin's [L hand] gender-bender novel The Left Hand of Darkness now.  You can, if you prefer, go off and read the books because they are still in print despite being published decades ago. LeGuin is now 85 and looks it; and is content to look like an old woman, comfortable in her own genuine, crinkly, skin as she explains in a wonderful interview recorded to launch the recordings.  These stories might be fantasy or science fiction but they are also stories for adults which inform us about today's issues perhaps more than they informed people about the times when they were published.  'Darkness' addressed the issue of gender and sexuality and ponders the consequences of there being a spectrum rather everyone fitting into one box or the other.  This is much more widely accepted now and therefore many people are happier in their own unstraight-forward skin.  Consultant endocrinologist Donal O'Shea was on the wireless a week ago suggesting that 1:10,000 or 1:20,000 people might feel that they just aren't whom their external genitalia determined them to be at birth.  That's a tiny minority, far less than the number of people who are blind or Down's syndrome or have cystic fibrosis but it's still half a million people across the planet who need accommodation for their sense of gender.

Another persistent theme in Le Guin's works is the magic power of knowing something's true name and how we must be circumspect in sharing this information with others.  This a common theme in many cultures and would have been absorbed by the child Ursula as she was raised by Alfred and Theodora Kroeber, ground-breaking academic anthropologists from Berkeley California.  From the beginning Ursula was introduced to The Other: whether that was Ishi the last of the Yahi people or the foreign academics who came to visit with the Kroebers. The effect on the young writer was for her to embrace difference as the complement to herself rather than seeking to become more like girls of her age and class in a comfortable bath of sameness.  I first read the Wizard of Earthsea about ten years ago and wondered how I had missed it when I was a teenager and how much of a difference it would have made to my sense of self when that was still plastic.  It's never too late, though.  If you read it now you'll benefit from it, if you have a child to read it with, so much the better.

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