Final Proposal

Franco Porras

Professor Vander Zee

English 299

28 March 2016

Dismantling Whiteness in the Collective Imagination:

Lessons for Diverse Fantasy Literature in Ursula K. Leguin’s “Earthsea”

 In 1968, Ursula K. LeGuin published one of the most seminal works of children’s fantasy literature, “A Wizard of Earthsea”, the story of a young wizard named Ged and his journey towards understanding his world (the titular archipelago of Earthsea) and the magical forces that he struggles to adhere to the mysterious “Balance”. But as notable as it is that LeGuin popularized the concept of a “wizard school” as a convention of the genre, it is more vital that we acknowledge the aspect of this novel that seems so different from today’s field of fantasy novels – Ged is not white. As LeGuin herself has stated time and time again, Ged’s skin is red-brown in color, and the inhabitants of Earthsea are similar in tone; no people that could be reasonably recognized as “white” exists within the world of Earthsea. Here LeGuin’s Ged as a normatively non-white protagonist set an extraordinary precedent  among its contemporaries that continues to be felt today in discussions on the portrayal of people of color in fantasy literature, both for adults and children. Yet even in modern adaptations of LeGuin’s work, there are systematic attempts to whitewash and otherwise downplay the non-Western essence of Earthsea, with the author herself struggling to maintain her legacy’s integrity.

Among postcolonial critics, there is frequent criticism about conventions of Anglophone fantasy for utilizing whiteness as a default for the hero’s journey. British fiction about other worlds immersed in mythology and “fairy stories” set the tone for the United States, and they usually reflected their colonial progenitors in terms of race and theoretical foundation. LeGuin defied this norm set by titans such as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and their heirs all the way back in the ’60s, and offers hope for decolonizing the high fantasy genre by presenting non-whiteness as a norm, and not the Other. Children of the new, globalist 21st century grow up with predominately Western, ethnocentric literature, and often are unable to recognize themselves if they do not fit within the cishetero white male stereotype within so-called “fantasy” worlds, even with decades of world-building on the part of authors in the tradition. Thus, the genre has come to confront its original sin of the early 1900s – how do we dismantle the monopoly Whiteness as a construct has on the collective imagination?

Although many scholars have recognized the value of LeGuin’s contributions to both the science fiction and fantasy genres in a purely literary sense, this paper seeks to analyze the first novel in the Earthsea trilogy, “A Wizard of Earthsea”, focusing on its anthropological and environmental origins through a postcolonial lens in order to determine steps towards challenging the white male as default status within fantasy literature. By examining Ged’s racial normativity within Earthsea and the text’s relation to other ongoing attempts to revolutionize the genre of fantasy literature, we can identify the most problematic aspects of high fantasy genre conventions and speculate on how to continue to rectify them in the future.

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