The Outsider Who Wrote for Outsiders

by Nur Nasreen Ibrahim

I discovered Ursula Le Guin just as my body and my heart started a rebellion against propriety. At eleven, I was parsing out heartbreak, letting unrequited love settle like a stone into my belly, experiencing my first period, the harsh pang of adulthood that ushers in previously unheard of emotions, wondering at all the ugliness that age brings. I grew up in Pakistan, in a privileged section of society that was grappling with its unique advantages, while unable to discern the role of women in that presumably hallowed space. I was learning the limits that come with being a woman.

These were the first of many pains that most of us carry into our lives, the end of many versions of innocence. I was lucky that at this crucial phase of my life, I found Ged, Tenar, and Therru.

To read Ursula Le Guin as a child meant opening a door you could never close, through which raced an unknown breeze that made you shiver with recognition. All those unspoken aspects of my womanhood, so alien in most fantasy fiction, suddenly appeared with sharp relief. As much as I loved concrete happily ever afters by Tolkien, Lewis, and even Rowling, Le Guin helped me face fundamental truths about life while still firmly entrenching me in a world that was as fantastic as it was unforgiving and cruel. A world where even after overcoming extreme odds, the protagonist cannot find an easy resolution. A world where freedom, love, joy, and relief come with immense struggle and messy truths, and where a conclusive ending is impossible.

The first book in the series, A Wizard of Earthsea, is as much about Ged, a headstrong boy learning to be a man, as it is about the limits of power, about failing, and facing the consequences of your actions, about using power wisely and turning away from exceptionalism to embrace the ordinary. Le Guin envisioned Ged with dark skin, a groundbreaking detail in a genre with lily-white heroes. Even with such a fully-fleshed character of color, revolutionary for a woman of color like me, Le Guin admitted that she was writing "like a man." But for Le Guin, and for me, the character of Tenar, introduced to us in the second book of the Earthsea quartet, opened up new possibilities about heroism in fantasy. She actively turned away from magic, searching for peace instead, and she showed me how in the ordinary, we find our own power.

Earthsea introduced me to a world where heroines have a dual burden: facing the external evil and contending with the internal struggle of womanhood. Of Tenar, Le Guin said: “She couldn’t be a hero in the hero-tale sense . . . Because to me, fantasy isn’t wishful thinking, but a way of reflecting, and reflecting on reality.” Tenar was more than just a woman in this world. A priestess destined to serve a cruel religion in The Tombs of Atuan, she struggled against loneliness and self-doubt, eventually escaping with Ged and seeking comfort in others, all while avoiding the trappings of magic and power. After her life as a priestess, she sought comfort in being a farmer’s wife, and then a mother, and a guardian, but even by taking on these traditional roles, she searched for a deeper peace that eluded her. She wasn’t simply a hero, she was human.

Le Guin treated magic as a force of nature not to be toyed with. Ged’s schooling in magic taught me first about the ethics of unfettered power, about consent, about invading the deepest essence of another’s body and spirit. This power belonged to men. Magic, in Earthsea, was masculine, and part of an almost priestly order. Mages were celibate and studied under a strict hierarchy. In Le Guin’s world, characters lived with their given names and their true names. To know another’s true name meant knowing their essence, their spirit, and mages used the true names of things to wield power over them. One could not give away their true name to any stranger lightly. In this world, only dragons spoke the language of truth, and used their true names openly.

Language held power in Earthsea, and stripping away language meant stripping away power.

J.K. Rowling addressed the ethical limits of magic when she first introduced the three Unforgivable Curses in the fourth installment of the Harry Potter series: the Imperius curse, which took away the victim’s free will; the Cruciatus curse, which inflicted extreme pain; and Avada Kedavra, the Killing Curse, which snatches away life. Legions of Harry Potter fans were introduced to a darker side of this magical world. We could imagine all the horrific possibilities of unfettered dark magic; as women, we could see the true consequences of losing your free will. But Ursula Le Guin had introduced me to this possibility first.

I fully understood the meaning of power in Tehanu, the fourth book of the series. Middle-aged Ged and Tenar travel with Therru, an abused child brought to Tenar’s care at the beginning of the novel, whose face is scarred from a fire, when they meet the evil mage Aspen, who casts a spell on them. I had read about villainous monsters and wizards in previous books, I knew all about corrupted power and control of another’s body. I had never considered using magic to snatch away one’s language, and thus, one’s consent.

For the first time in a fantasy novel, I had to look away. Never had evil forced me to confront my own powerlessness. Unwanted advances, scrutiny, abusive words, grasping hands reaching out, men ignoring me, men noticing me too much, all of it crystallized into a clear pattern, an expression of everything I had felt as I began my teenage years, what many other girls had experienced, probably under worse circumstances.

Tenar cannot speak, she is forced to crawl on her hands and knees, and has to do what she is told: "See how well trained she is? Roll over, Bitch!" She rolled over, and the men laughed. Ged is powerless to help her; Tenar is kicked, abused and forced against her will. As Therru described:

The one called Aspen, whose name was Erisen, and whom she saw as a forked and writhing darkness, had bound her mother and father, with a thong through her tongue and a thong through his heart.

Here, Le Guin was willing to write into those forms of power that most fantasy writers had not touched; she was talking about toxic masculinity.

Le Guin said: “There are always areas of vast silence in any culture, and part of an artist’s job is to go into those areas and come back from the silence with something to say.” When reading fantasy about the fight between good and evil, I willingly accepted the narrative of evil, without considering the evil that was ignored. I knew the narrative of war, violence, and conquest, but until reading Le Guin, I had not seen the implication of evil that took over a woman’s body. Le Guin had found a gaping void of silence, she dared to step into it, and she brought me into that silence with her.

I began to see just how much of Tenar’s struggle as a heroine, the snatching away of her voice, reflected the pain of women who had struggled in silence.

“What is a woman’s power then?” Tenar often wondered. Aunt Moss, her friend described it thus:

Who knows where a woman begins and ends? Listen mistress, I have roots, I have roots deeper than this island. Deeper than the sea, older than the raising of the lands. I go back into the dark . . . a woman's power, deeper than the roots of trees, deeper than the roots of islands, older than the Making, older than the moon. Who dares ask questions of the dark? Who'll ask the dark its name?

If knowledge of one’s true name was power, then the place of women, in the darkness, in the unspoken unknown, in the parts of our culture that we dare not go, was where power lay. In Tenar’s timidity and later her strength, her rejection of magic, I saw a resistance to the old ideas of power. In Therru, her adopted, normally shy, daughter, who rescued Tenar and Ged from the mages by calling upon dragons, who was able to speak the true language of dragons, I saw Le Guin’s idea of feminine power rising from silence and darkness.

“It is very hard for evil to take control of the unconsenting soul,” Le Guin writes in A Wizard of Earthsea. The women of Earthsea start out with less power, less ability to wield magic, but I read this as part of their strength. Magic was corruptible, masculine. Even Ged had failed to use it correctly and unwittingly inflicted evil on the world. The “unconsenting soul” was also the incorruptible soul; the soul of women like Tenar who shied away from masculine forms of power.

Their power was in a way, genre-defying. Tenar and Therru’s rise from suffering into freedom was in part helped by the strength of their self-love, not magic and how they wielded it. Tenar, after escaping her old life in the second book, is overwhelmed by the prospect of freedom:

She cried for the waste of her years in bondage to a useless evil. She wept in pain, because she was free… Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not easy. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one. The road goes upward towards the light; but the laden traveler may never reach the end of it.

Tenar’s suffering, the suffering of all who have been abused, taught me that even after a battle is won, the scars will still exist. As she chooses a life where she finds happiness, she takes charge of Therru, who lives with scars on her face and memories of violence. Therru, who finds her power through her connection with the dragons, is still plagued with self-doubt. But Tenar reminds her:

You have scars, ugly scars, because an ugly, evil thing was done to you. People see the scars. But they see you, too, and you aren't the scars. You aren't ugly. You aren't evil. You are Therru, and beautiful. You are Therru who can work, and walk, and run, and dance, beautifully, in a red dress.

Le Guin emphasized a woman’s ability to endure, to rise and understand more than her male characters were capable of. In these women exist the capacity for pain and joy, the ability to experience all the ups and downs of adventure and come away from the adventure with a greater sense of self-worth.

I no longer expected to escape into fantasy, I expected to find people who could teach me empathy, how to love better, how to feel more, how to make my way through my womanhood and bear my experiences with pride. But also, to not expect all the answers at the end.

The “great and strange burden” of freedom, the ability to climb that upward road is a gift, and a hard-fought right, and Le Guin described the battle beautifully and truthfully. A battle that is ongoing, fought by the marginalized, who are still carving out their own spaces in humanity. As Tenar said: “I made myself a vessel. I know its shape. But not the clay. Life danced me. I know the dances. But I don't know who the dancer is.”

Nur Nasreen Ibrahim is a television producer by day and a writer by night. Originally from Pakistan, she is currently based in the United States. She was a finalist for the inaugural Salam Award for Imaginative Fiction. Her fiction has appeared in Specter Magazine and is forthcoming in Salmagundi Magazine and Platypus Press. She has written essays and reviews for Catapult, The Millions, and other publications.