Building Earthsea: How Le Guin Laid a Shaky Foundation for Her World

A map of the Earthsea archipelago.

Set your sails by a mage wind and gather round the werelight: it’s time for this worldbuilding series to take a look at the prolific and influential Ursula K. Le Guin, an author who penned everything from high fantasy to children’s stories about cats with wings.* It’s the former category we’re interested in today, which also happens to be Le Guin’s debut series, the Earthsea books. These tales have it all: wizards, boats, and wizards in boats. But how good is the worldbuilding, and what can storytellers learn from it? We find out by dissecting the first three books and seeing how they hold up. That’s A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore, for those keeping track at home. The other Earthsea books were written much later, so we’ll save them for another day.

The Good

Cover art from A Wizard of Earthsea

I won’t sugarcoat it: Earthsea’s worldbuilding is more than a little thin. That’s why I call it a shaky foundation. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing worthwhile to be found among this windswept archipelago.

Cool Islands

Speaking of archipelagos, Earthsea is entirely constructed of islands and ocean. If there are any larger landmasses, they lie beyond the explorations of humankind. This emphasizes sailing and shipbuilding skills; when the characters travel, they do so by boat. The focus on sea travel sets the series apart from other foundational works of high fantasy, where everyone walks everywhere, maybe riding if they’re lucky.

And this isn’t just my weird love of boats talking! Le Guin clearly either had a passion for sailing or did a lot of research, because the books are full of cool details on the subject. We learn about tacking into the wind, what different lines do on a boat, and, of course, how to patch leaks. For the most part, this is all integrated into the plot, so it doesn’t feel like we’re pausing the story to learn nautical trivia. When heroes set out on journeys in Earthsea, knowing how to handle a boat is far more important than sword fighting.

Then there are the islands themselves. While Le Guin isn’t as devoted to describing locations as she is boats,* each island the characters visit gets at least a few defining details, usually in terms of the local economy. Gont is a rural island where great flocks of sheep and goats are raised in the highlands. Lorbanery is wealthy and cosmopolitan, rich off the coin from a vibrant silk trade. Havnor is known as the archipelago’s urban center, a cultural hub that influences other islands through fashion trends as much as edicts and decrees.

Islands provide a lot of potential for worldbuilding because they have clear boundaries. It’s easy to explain how one island is like this while another is like that. You can still do this on larger landmasses, of course, but it takes more effort to create boundaries between one area and another. This does create the danger that your islands will invoke the planet of hats trope, in which each location has exactly one trait, but Le Guin easily avoids that. Her islands are distinct from one another while still feeling like part of a larger, interconnected culture.

Cultures of Color

Even today, fantasy worlds have a problem with diversity. All too often, these wondrous settings are filled with wall-to-wall white people, and when Le Guin first put pen to paper, the problem was even worse. Fortunately, Earthsea bucked the trend back then, and even now it stands out. Our protagonist, Ged, is dark skinned, as are most of the characters we meet in the archipelago. Le Guin is explicit about this, so there’s little chance of readers being confused about what people look like, but she doesn’t make a big deal about it. It’s just a world populated mostly by people of color.

In addition to avoiding any explicitly negative stereotypes, Le Guin doesn’t fall for the trap of making her dark-skinned cultures into a perfect utopia where nothing bad ever happens. While the average islander is generally a good person, the archipelago has its problems just like anywhere else. Some islanders turn to piracy, out of either greed or desperation, and while some rulers do a good job, others are negligent at best. It feels like a real world with real problems.

The major exception is the Kargad Empire, populated by blond-haired, blue-eyed Norse analogues. The empire is warmongering, slave trading, and aggressive, always sending out raiders to loot and pillage. When Le Guin wants human antagonists for her heroes to fight, she usually reaches for the Kargish. The only significant storyline that takes place in the Kargad Lands focuses on how their religion revolves around human sacrifice and worshiping literal demons.

I’m not a huge fan of inherently evil empires in any setting, as they tend to come across as somewhat cartoonish. But if a setting is going to have one, I’d much rather it be based around Vikings than Arabs, Mongols, Sub-Saharan Africans, and so on. The reason is simple: in the real world, there are still lots of harmful stereotypes about how Asians, Muslims, and anyone with even slightly dark skin is dangerous and out to destroy us. The “us” being white Westerners, of course. Any story that reinforces these stereotypes does real harm. Le Guin avoids that.

Focusing on Commoners

Alongside an overabundance of white people, fantasy stories routinely feature another problem: an obsession with the ruling class. To a certain extent, this is understandable. Rulers have the most power to act, and protagonists need agency to be compelling, so it’s not hard to see why so many authors immediately reach for princes and dukes. Even so, spending too much time in the royal court can make it feel like the other 99% either don’t matter or don’t exist at all.

Fortunately, Earthsea is a setting based around the common folk. From shepherds and farmers to shipwrights and fisherfolk, the world is all about those who don’t walk the halls of power. Some of this is down to plot and character, of course. Even with his prodigious magical talent, protagonist Ged has humble roots on the island of Gont. The first book sees him acting as resident wizard to a remote chain of islands, where their concerns become his concerns. Later entries give us an even broader view of the archipelago, as our heroes travel far and wide on important quests.

But as important as plot and character are, worldbuilding is vital too. Le Guin envisioned how Earthsea functioned from the bottom up rather than the top down. That allows the series to have plots about poor villagers trying desperately to protect their lands from raiders while the lords are off enriching themselves, or about how whole islands suffer when the weather turns foul and destroys local industries. Never in the first three books do we even set foot in a castle or palace, which is a welcome change of pace.

A Safe Magic School

The main center of magic in the archipelago is Roke, the Isle of the Wise. While non-magic folk do live on Roke, the island’s main claim to fame is hosting a school for wizardry.* Just about every mage in the archipelago learns their craft on Roke, including Ged, who eventually becomes archmage of the place. Roke has nearly everything you’d expect from a magic school; a council of master wizards, obtuse entrance exams, even forbidden knowledge that the students aren’t meant to learn.

So what is it that makes Roke worth mentioning, you ask? I’ll tell you: it’s safe. There are no monsters wandering the halls, no tests where students have to put their soul through a spectral cheese grater. Nor are the kids left unsupervised to bully each other with dark magic. It appears that the masters of Roke actually care about the pupils under their care and work to provide a healthy learning environment. The one time something does go wrong, with Ged accidentally summoning a demon, the teachers intervene immediately. The current archmage even gives up his life to send the demon packing, rather than conjure a contrived reason Ged has to do it himself.

This might not seem noteworthy in a vacuum, but it’s probably the most trope-breaking aspect of Earthsea’s worldbuilding. In most stories, magic schools are so dangerous that no loving parent would send their child there if they had a choice. On the rare occasion when a magic school isn’t a nightmare zone of dead children, it’s terribly run, forcing our spunky protagonist to sneak around their stodgy teachers to where the real magic is. Roke is neither of those. It’s a well-run school where faculty and staff alike take their responsibilities seriously.

Of course, the downside is that Roke isn’t conducive to a compelling plot, which is probably why the books spend so little time there. The most conflict Roke ever sees is Ged’s rivalry with some jerkass noble kid, and that serves mostly as a way to drive Ged into the dangerous magic that accidentally summons a demon. The choice to make Roke such a healthy learning environment forced Le Guin to look elsewhere for her story’s conflict. Even so, it is such a refreshing change of pace, and I’m glad she did it.

The Bad

Cover art from The Tombs of Atuan

When I started my reread for this article, something that constantly surprised me is how much of what I remembered as Earthsea’s worldbuilding is actually due to Le Guin’s wordcraft. I had strong memories of a world where even low-level magic is rare and treasured, but that’s not the case at all. Instead, Le Guin gives that impression at the beginning when she describes a goat-charming spell with such evocative detail that it lets the reader imagine a world where even these tiny acts of sorcery are stupendous. Once we look beyond the wordcraft, the picture isn’t so rosy.

Vague and Overpowered Magic

The magic of Earthsea is an absolute nightmare, which is an issue when the main character is a wizard. At first, I thought it was like having Gandalf as the main character, but then I realized it’s so much worse. At least Gandalf’s powers seem to tire him out, and we can imagine that he’s saving them for a critical moment. Ged, and seemingly most wizards in Earthsea, can do things Gandalf would only dream of.

As an example of how amazingly overpowered Ged is, in book one he defeats a group of several dragons attacking him at once, mostly without breaking a sweat. He just knocks them out of the air one by one, until he turns himself into a dragon to finish off the last two. Admittedly, these aren’t full-grown dragons, but they’re still huge, and Ged takes them out no problem.

But it’s not just combat magic, oh no. Wizards can also craft incredibly detailed illusions, control the weather, and create permanent enchantments that can do just about anything. Sometimes, these enchantments take concentration to maintain, like when Ged conjures a boat from nothing. Other times, they just last forever, like when he turns a brackish spring fresh or gives his friend’s net +1 Fish Catching. Then there are true names, which do… something. Mostly they let you order a person around if you know their true name, but objects also have true names and I still don’t understand what effect that has.

Magic in Earthsea is more powerful than just about any other fantasy series I’ve ever read, even high magic settings like The Wheel of Time or The Name of the Wind, and I still haven’t covered everything Le Guin’s wizards can do. They can also heal, though that might just be herbalism rather than actual magic. Then there are the fields of Chanting, Patterning, and Summoning, which I have even less idea about. Each of them has a master wizard at the magic school on Roke, so they must be important, but that’s all I know. Ged never seems to do any chanting in his magic, and the only kind of summoning we’re told about is explicitly evil, so it seems unlikely they’d have a special class for it.

Just about the only limit in Earthsea’s vague magic is an even vaguer fear of upsetting “the balance.” What the balance is, how using magic upsets it, or what the consequences would be are left entirely up to our imagination. Honestly, it seems more like an excuse Ged made up to explain why he doesn’t use magic more often without having to admit he’s lazy.

Sexist Magic

Lest you think the magic of Earthsea is all fun and games, it also has some important gender politics to share with you: namely that girls have gross cooties and need to get out of the magic clubhouse. The books let you know this right away by sharing a common Earthsea saying, “weak as a woman’s magic, wicked as a woman’s magic.” Uh oh. Naturally, there are no girls on Roke, and the only women we see who use magic are explicitly weaker than their male peers. Most of them are also sinister, but never particularly competent about it.

This is all left just vague enough that if you really want to, you can claim it’s social prejudice, but that’s a lackluster defense. The Earthsea books use an omniscient narrator, meaning it’s super easy to give us information about the world. If Le Guin wanted us to think that women in her world weren’t inherently inferior at magic, she’d have said so. Or maybe just shown us some women who are good at magic.

In a bizarre twist, this is a social justice area where Earthsea is significantly weaker than many of its contemporaries. Even Lord of the Rings doesn’t come right out and say that women are worse at magic than men. It’s still heavily implied of course, but by not actually saying the words, Tolkien at least left us more room to imagine a version of the story where Galadriel kicks as much ass as Gandalf.

It’s bad enough to have sexist plots where women are sidelined, stereotyped, or worse. It’s a step further to bake that sexism directly into the physics of your world. It poisons the story’s well, and any narratives crafted from it will carry the stink of misogyny. Breaking the timeline a bit, Le Guin eventually wrote a fourth Earthsea book to address this, but the best she could manage was gender essentialism. Man magic is one way, woman magic is another way. Pro tip: if you’re having problems with sexism, the solution is not to crib notes from The Wheel of Time.*

A Static World

Another unfortunate wrinkle of Earthsea’s magic is how little impact it seems to have on the rest of the setting. Other than having a lot more boats, the people of Earthsea live the same way people in every other medieval fantasy setting do. Subsistence fishing and agriculture are the norm, work is done by hand, and only those of at least the urban middle class have any spare coin to throw around.

That’s fine for a low-magic setting, but Earthsea is the exact opposite. Magic is everywhere, and as we’ve seen, permanent enchantments are child’s play. Wizards can control the weather, a power that would revolutionize agriculture all on its own. Earthsea should be wealthy beyond imagining, with even the common folk having plenty of leisure time thanks to the incredible efficiency of their magical tools.

We see no sign of this. In fact, most of the islands seem to go on as if magic didn’t exist. And yet we’re also told that most towns have at least one mage in residence, even if most of them aren’t as powerful as Ged or the other masters. What do these wizards and sorcerers do all day? We get occasional references to stopping earthquakes and warding off dragon raids, but that can’t possibly be the norm. Maybe the ruling class* is meant to be hoarding the wealth of this extra productivity for themselves, but if so, the book gives no sign of it.

The closest we get to an explanation is in book three, when magic starts to disappear and everything immediately goes to heck. Crops fail, industries falter, and villages starve. So maybe the idea is that the archipelago is so harsh that only the intervention of magic makes it livable at all. That’s certainly not the impression given by the rest of the books, so if it’s supposed to be the case, then some serious rewrites are called for.

The Evil Empire Rejects Magic and Worships Demons

Remember the Kargad Lands we talked about earlier? The evil Viking people who menace the rest of the archipelago? Well, it turns out that these blond boys have something strange going on: they hate magic. There are no Kargish wizards, as they were all killed a long time ago. This raises an obvious question: How is the empire a threat to the rest of the archipelago, which is full of wizards?

At first, I assumed that the Kargad Lands were a vast continent and they just outnumbered the islanders, but one look at the map disproves that idea. It’s simply not feasible for the empire to be a major threat when they have no magic of their own, especially in a setting with magic as powerful as Earthsea’s. Kargish longships would be smashed to pieces by sorcerous storms or blown off course by mage winds long before they could get any raiding done.

Then we get to the Kargish religion, which could have solved the problem, but doesn’t. While most of the archipelago worships a creator figure called Segoy, the empire has its own beliefs, which include the Nameless Ones. These are basically shadow demons, and Ged actually spends most of the first book fighting one, so we know they mean business.

The obvious next step is for the Nameless Ones to grant their followers evil magic powers as a counterweight to the wizards. They do not do this. While there are stories of Kargish priests having magical powers, the ones we actually see have no such abilities. The best they can manage is that wizard magic doesn’t work very well inside the Nameless Ones’ holy spaces, which isn’t useful for raiding. So much for that explanation.

This raises yet another question: Why do the Kargish worship these shadow demons at all? The most obvious reason would be appeasement, but in book two we see that this worship is fading without any kind of retribution, so that doesn’t hold up. The best explanation I can think of is that the Nameless Ones were more powerful in the old days, and the worship we see in the books is just a leftover tradition. But there isn’t any direct evidence for this idea that I can see, so at best it’s papering over a massive hole in Earthsea’s worldbuilding.

Monarchist Propaganda

If you’re surprised to see this section after I specifically praised Earthsea for presenting life from the common people’s perspective, you’re not the only one. For most of books one and two, the archipelago’s governing structure is left somewhat nebulous, but we do know one thing: there is no king of all the islands, nor does there seem to be any need for one.

But then toward the end of book two and for much of book three, Ged talks about how not only does the archipelago need a king, but it’s apparently been waiting for one since days long past. Why doesn’t it have a king? Because there’s a special magic rune for kingship that got lost a long time ago. Without it, no one can be a good king. Once Ged retrieves the rune, a rightful king should be along shortly. That part happens in book three, when a young prince demonstrates that he’s totally ready to be king because he’s personally brave, as opposed to understanding economic policy or being able to delegate.

You might recognize this as not how anything works. Why does there need to be a special rune in order for the islands to have a single leader? If there’s a magic rune of kingship, does it even matter who the king is? But beyond the practical questions, there’s a more disturbing implication: the issue with monarchy in Earthsea isn’t its inherently authoritarian nature, but that it doesn’t have the correct supernatural blessing. A divine right, if you will. Once you take care of that, monarchy is great!

It’s not even clear why the archipelago needs a king. There’s occasional talk of pirates, but they’re so absent from the narrative that it’s hard to see them as a real problem. In book three, we do see islands and villages going to war with each other, but that’s because they’ve been corrupted by evil magic. Maybe a king would make dealing with the Kargad Lands easier, but that’s already something a few wizards could do without breaking a sweat. Instead of real justification, we’re left with a vague idea that having a king is better than not having one, for reasons.

What We Can Learn

Cover art from The Farthest Shore

Earthsea is beloved for many reasons, few of which have to do with its worldbuilding. Other than a really cool map, there just isn’t much here, and what’s there rarely stands up to scrutiny. That means most of the lessons are cautionary ones, and some are hopefully self-evident by now. I don’t know how many ways I can say “don’t make your magic sexist” at this point. Fortunately, it’s not 100% bad, so let’s start with something positive.

You Don’t Need Appropriation for Novelty

As a content editor, I work with a lot of authors who’ve been told over and over again that their setting will be boring if they don’t incorporate non-Western cultural elements. While this advice often means well, it’s also a direct route to cultural appropriation town, which isn’t a fun destination for aspiring storytellers. As we’re fond of saying on Mythcreants, non-Western cultures should usually be left to authors who are from those cultures. White authors should focus on diversity through their characters instead.

Earthsea is a great example of how you can up your setting’s novelty without appropriating anything. All Le Guin had to do was set her story in an archipelago, and she had a series that still feels fresh when compared against much of the high fantasy genre. She doesn’t exotify or distort anything; she merely lets the world’s geography dictate its form. If that sounds simple, it is. Unusual terrain types are a great way to make your world feel new and different without reinventing the wheel.

That’s what readers actually want when it comes to setting novelty: something they haven’t seen before. There are a lot of ways to provide that feeling, but reaching for someone else’s culture is almost always going to cause problems. Instead, take your cue from Le Guin and alter your setting’s physical characteristics, then let the culture follow from those choices.

Only Include the Magic You’re Prepared For

Earthsea’s biggest worldbuilding problem is definitely its magic. Sorcery seems to have no limits, but at the same time, Le Guin isn’t at all interested in the implications of that choice. You can see this in the setting itself, which barely seems affected by all the wizards running around. But this problem also shows up in the plot, where Le Guin is constantly inventing excuses why Ged can’t use magic to solve his problems.

In book one, the shadow Ged is chasing knows his true name, which completely shuts down Ged’s magic. In book two, he is constantly waging an unseen battle with the Nameless Ones that just so happens to take almost all of his magical power. In book three, Le Guin seemingly gives up, and Ged just stops using his magic for unknown reasons. Ironically, that’s the book where magic is disappearing, so there’s an easy explanation, but Ged is actually the only wizard who isn’t losing his power.

When building your world, you can either use a lot of magic with a lot of planning, or you can use a little magic with a little planning. If you try to put in a lot of magic with only a little planning, you’re heading for disaster. Magic isn’t something you can just throw haphazardly into the story, as it is changing the basic rules by which the world operates.

The good news is that most stories don’t actually need the long list of magic powers seen in books like Earthsea. In fact, Earthsea itself probably doesn’t need half of the magical elements that Le Guin included. Wizards barely use their illusion magic, even though it’s incredibly powerful, and Ged doesn’t need the power to create freshwater springs at will. A smaller list of supernatural abilities would have gotten the job done just as well and also created far fewer inconsistencies in the story.

Not Everything Has to Connect

Another odd quirk of the Earthsea books is that several story elements are connected in ways that create problems where none would otherwise exist. For example, in book two, the Nameless Ones are established to be the same type of creature as the shadow Ged fights in book one. This creates some serious problems. The shadow demon had powerful abilities at its disposal, along with a very specific objective: kill Ged and take his place. Meanwhile, the Nameless Ones don’t demonstrate anything like that level of power, nor do they seem interested in absorbing identities.

Another example comes in book three. In that book, magic is disappearing from Earthsea, so Ged and his princely companion set out to find the cause and repair it. That’s a perfectly serviceable premise, but then later on, it turns out that magic is disappearing because an evil sorcerer has been summoning the dead, just like Ged once did in the first book. It’s never clear what summoning the dead has to do with the disappearance of magic. It feels like the book started with one plot, then jarringly swerved into another.

To a certain extent, this is a plotting problem, but it also has worldbuilding considerations. It’s cool when different elements of your world connect, but all the benefits will disappear if you have to force it. Your best options are either to plan these connections ahead, or only go with the ones that crop up organically if you’re more into the discovery writer life. If there’s no natural connection between two different setting elements, just leave them unconnected.

Make Your Setting’s Prejudices Clear

For this last entry, we consider the possibility that Le Guin really did mean for women’s magical inferiority to be a social prejudice rather than an objective fact. If that were the case, then she needed to be explicit about it. For Earthsea, she could simply have the narrator explain that the derogatory saying about women’s magic is untrue, and that would have done the trick. Of course, some readers would still be turned off by a setting with such prevalent sexism, but the ambiguity would be gone.

Remember that in fiction, readers have only what they’re told to go on when trying to understand the world. If a character says, in this setting people with dark hair are the dangerous creations of evil sorcerers, that could very well be true, for all the reader knows. When it comes to real-world prejudices, readers are even more likely to assume that this is just true in the world because a lot of them already believe it in their daily lives.

If you don’t have an omniscient narrator to explain things, the best bet is for either your POV character or a respected mentor figure to step in and do the job. In most cases, this should happen as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the more chance there is that readers will get the wrong idea stuck so deep in their heads that you won’t be able to dislodge it.

Of course, this requires you to know whether a particular setting element is due to social prejudice or not. For that, you need to plan ahead, which is probably the most important lesson to take from Earthsea. Much of the worldbuilding feels like it was invented on the fly and then never revised, which leaves the whole world feeling like a thin facade, unable to withstand even mild scrutiny. Problems are papered over with clever wordcraft, or just left unattended. It’s a poor construction job, and we can all aim to do better.

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  1. Bryn

    “Tolkien at least left us more room to imagine a version of the story where Galadriel kicks as much ass as Gandalf.”

    We don’t actually need to imagine it – it’s in the Tolkien lore. Galadriel singlehandedly holds back the forces of Dol Guldur not once but three times, by means of the sheer power of her Ring, Nenya. Even more epic, on March 28, TA 3019, she and Thranduil lead an assault on Dol Guldur; Galadriel is described as herself “throwing down its walls and laying bare its pits”, until nothing of the fortress is left.

    Galadriel absolutely kicks as much ass as Gandalf . . . arguably more, considering she literally decimates a fortress and several small armies.

  2. GeniusLemur

    “I work with a lot of authors who’ve been told over and over again that their setting will be boring if they don’t incorporate non-Western cultural elements.”
    I can’t say I’ve ever run across that. What I have seen is authors being told (often by me) that their setting will be boring if it’s yet another iteration of “generic approximation of medieval England generated solely by pop-culture osmosis.”

  3. Dave L

    >Our protagonist, Ged, is dark skinned, as are most of the characters we meet in the archipelago. Le Guin is explicit about this, so there’s little chance of readers being confused about what people look like, but she doesn’t make a big deal about it.

    When the Sci Fi Channel (as it was known back then) did an adaptation, Ged and the other characters were white

    Le Guin was NOT consulted about this change, and had no say whatsoever. Needless to say, she wasn’t thrilled

  4. LeeEsq

    Tolkien was unique it creating a detailed and consistent world because of his particular intellectual interests in constructing entire languages and a story for them. Many other authors don’t have the patience or time, I’m guessing Tolkien’s day job as an Oxford don gave him a lot more free time than many other people then and now, to create a universe as consistent as Tolkien’s. So even extraordinary good authors like Le Guin are going to have some rather big wholes in the world the created.

    The monarchist propaganda part of Earthsea or really the focus on the upper classes might just be part of the baggage of fantasy. A big part of the attraction of fantasy or science fiction is to read about places that aren’t like the real world. People want enchantment and small r republic or small d democratic politics just seems really ordinary. “Our country is facing an existential threat, let’s have teenagers with special problems solve the issue” said no democracy ever.

    Another issue might be the monopoly of force problem. Nearly all forms of government try to maintain a monopoly on the use of force when they can. Democratic and republican governments seem especially keen on maintaining a monopoly on the use of force. Feudal monarchies seem to be one of the few exceptions. So how can you have a functioning democracy when you have wizards as powerful as Ged walking around? Ordinary people are going to have no way to bring them under state control. This really hurts democratic legitimacy.

    • SunlessNick

      An interesting hypothesis I saw for the popularity of kings and emperors in fiction linked it to the animist impulse. The same drive that makes us put faces on the mysterious – whether spirits or priests – draws us to the idea of government being a person.

      • Cay Reet

        Another reason may be that it makes for ‘easy’ administration/government. We all know how many different places you have to go to in modern administration, if you have a simple thing to take care of. All those forms, all those different departments you need to make appointments with etc. I think one reason why there’s so many monarchies is that they are a simple form of government and the author doesn’t need to come up with a complete administration for their setting. If there’s a problem, you go to the king, the king waves a hand, and things are taken care of (not that it’s historically correct, there was always an administration hidden behind the throne).

        • LeeEsq

          I think the easy/administration government argument makes sense. The governments of actual medieval monarchies had more representative elements that the governments of fantasy monarchies. Having the King give out a quest is a lot easier than having heroes deal with a Parliament that might be worried about property damage among other things.

      • LeeEsq

        This goes into Weber’s thesis about the disenchantment of modernity. People read fantasy for the sense of entrapment or as LeGuin put it, since this is about Earthsea, elf land is not supposed to be Poughkeepsie. For people in the developed world, democracy, military dictatorships, and even theocracies just seem like Poughkeepsie because we have them in the real world right now. Feudal or absolutist monarchies seem more magical because nobody living today has any experience of them. When you combine this with their long association with fantasy literature and Cay Reet’s point about not having to deal with how democracy can hinder adventures and quests you get a lot of monarchy in fantasy and science fiction.

    • Prince Infidel

      Being “part of the baggage of fantasy” isn’t really a good argument here. As the creators can simply change or omit parts of “the baggage of fantasy” whenever they make fiction. While there may be tropes that are common in certain genres, there’s nothing stopping writers from bucking those tropes. In fact, they’re often given special attention or even praise if they do well.

      Also, monarchies of the past & present, absolutely maintained & maintain monopolies on force. How that works can be somewhat different, but the people with money/weapons/valuable training were the people that were part of the system of power. Yeah, a modern democracy would have something to say about people with magic running around, but so would any government including a feudal one.

    • Rose Embolism

      I regard that level of worldbuilding as not just a matter of time, but of training: I honestly know of only two authors who did equal levels of deep history and mythology: JRR Tolkien and MAR Barker, in his Tekumel works. One was a Professor of English Language and Literature, the other was a professor of Urdu and South Asian Studies. In other words, this is a job for professionals- don’t try it at home kids, because you’ll probably end up with the Forgotten Realms. ;’)

      I would say one of the reasons that Democracies are so rare in fantasy is that they are associated in our minds with modernity. Democracies are associated with steam engines, and railways, and aircraft, not fae and dragons and magic. Which is why when we DO see democracies in fantasies (outside of science fiction), they almost always are alternate versions of the 19th or 20th century. We expect democracy from something like the Chrestomancy series and “Operation Chaos”, not something in the “long ago and far away”.

      The distancing element of fantasy encourages monarchies, because we are as distant from them as we are from knights in armor. With democracies on the other hand, we see the warts and failures of them all the time. We look at the news, we hear the litany of past and continuing injustices, and can believe in a fantasy story of a monarch that is inherently good and pure; trying the same with a democracy would violate suspension of disbelief.

      • LeeEsq

        I also think that democracies are going to be incredibly unfriendly to adventurers or as we would call them in modern life mercenaries. It’s why most adventure/thriller stories featuring democracies, especially if the government is being seen as basically good, is going to have the heroes work for the government as civil servants, soldiers, or police in some capacity. Very few democracies are going to like a bunch of random people going about doing random acts of violence.

        An enlightened democratic fantasy government might even seen goblins, orcs, etc. as citizens to be protected rather than monsters to be slain. I’ve had an idea for a story where a bunch of people do violence on a goblin settlement but end up being prosecuting for mass murder by the government where the settlement is located.

  5. Angelo Pardi

    In the Lord of the Rings, Galadriel looks at least as strong a magician as Gandalf. And in the Silmarillon the two Melian and Luthien are the two strongest (non-Valar) magicians as far as I’m aware.

  6. Rose Embolism

    From my point of view, the number one lesson of Earth sea is this: You don’t need extensive and deep world building to come up with a compelling and interesting settings.

    Put away that history of wars and rulers going back 10,000 years (and yet with no major changes in technologies). Reduce the detail of your map (or don’t have one at all). Toss out the intricately described politics between people who won’t show up in the story. Save all that for a D&D Forgettable Realms campaign. Focusing on the here and now in a limited time and space works well enough for a setting.

    Consider George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, vs Laurie J Mark’s Elemental Logic series. Martin has a much longer and broader sweep of invented history and geography in his series, but can you really argue that his world building is better than the tighter focus in Mark’s work? And I would say that the plotting, character development and emotional intensity of the Elemental Logic series is superior, because it isn’t hampered by a hugely detailed background.

    The number two lesson (and this goes against a contention of Mythcreants) is: if a magic system works in the moment of the story, it doesn’t need extensive Sanderson-style detailing of it’s powers and limitations. It doesn’t even need to be logical; it can even be contradictory. The magic in Earthsea may not have an rpg-style manual full of charts and explanations, but in the moment of the story, it works. Good writing can get away with a lot of things that Mythcreants considers flaws.

    • Cay Reet

      I think it pays to have an idea why your world is the way it is, but that doesn’t mean having a twenty-page list of dates when important things happened in that world. Of course, the more your series grows (if you are writing a series in that word), the more you need to go into details about things like where places are and what kind of people live where, because you’ll add new places and new characters from new cultures over time.

      Same, I think, goes for magic. When I started out with Theoretical Necromancy, I had little plans for my magic (the necromancy, of course). In the first story, I just tried to keep it working. Now it has developed some internal logic of what a necromancer can and can’t do, but I can say I have lists of spells and rituals and suchlike. Most of it is still made up as I go along, but I try to fit it in with what is already in the stories. Definitely a soft magic system, which is fine for me.

      • Seio

        Personally I’d like to contest your assertion that a system that doesn’t have exact measurements or explicit boundaries stated and/or thought out beforehand is automatically soft.

        Soft magic systems are generally characterized by a lack of limits or consistency (basically it’s a fancy way of handwaving things) which is why it is usually a bad idea to use it to directly solve the plot and is generally more flavour, restricted to the villains or only used rarely to preserve tension, but a lack of explicit and spelled out boundaries doesn’t equal a complete lack thereof.

        If the limits of magic are heavily implied in-story so that we generally have a decent idea of why character X can’t just do Z (or why he did Y) and this remains fairly consistent* you have a magic system that’s more based towards the hard end, simply because both reader and author has a clear idea of what it can or can’t do.

        *see also: The Dresden files, where as far as I’ve read magic doesn’t have many hard and explicit limits, aside from certain fairly specific things often relating to magical creatures, yet the way it’s presented gives the readers a fairly good idea of what the characters can or can’t do.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          For the record, the definition of soft vs hard magic systems we use is based on how much of the magic is explained to the audience. LotR has a soft magic system because readers don’t have much idea how it works, other than the effects of the one ring. In contrast, Dresden Files has a fairly hard magic system because most of its workings are explained to the reader over time.

  7. Thomas Henry

    This kind of carelessness makes me impatient. The text refutes every single one of your points. Furthermore, your comments about sexism show that you haven’t read the rest of the series; Le Guin accused herself of sexism, and spent the last half of the series re-imagining Earthsea to be more inclusive of women. If you are going to hang your ass out in public like this, you should be far more careful not to make a fool of yourself.

  8. Jarosch

    If I recall the connection between magic and ‘the balance’ ties into some of the low-key but present environmentalist themes in the series (and the high-key ones in Le Guins work overall). Changing the rain to sunshine because you don’t like it is fine enough, but if you make a habit of it, you may create a drought my accident.

    I also think that the otherwise overpowered system actually ties back to the thing about ‘the balance’ nicely. Just because you CAN does not mean that you SHOULD. every action someone takes has unintended secondary effects, which may have tertiary effects of their own. And since a wizard in this setting can do almost anything with no immediate repercussions, the unforeseen consequences could be quite severe indeed.

    Think of it as a tempered, secularized version of Tolkien’s parable about the One Ring. Rather than rejecting power altogether because of some vaguely defined supernatural evil, you should use your power sparingly, because cause and effect can spiral out of control quickly id you allow them to.

    • Cay Reet

      That’s actually a pretty good way to limit power – magic doesn’t make you evil, but you can create more troubles than you solve when you’re not careful. Makes it a good thing for a mage to think twice before they summon up their magic and do big deeds.

      I can also see how that would play into an environmental theme – everything we do has consequences and magic can change the environment more severely than most things a single person (like a mage) can normally do.

  9. Oscar

    ” White authors should focus on diversity through their characters instead.”

    So, authors should be restricted to depicting people of their own skin colour? I’m presuming you’re American. That’s the only reason I can find why you would have such an absurd focus on skin color.

    What’s the use of writing Fantasy if you’re not allowed to experiment with the cultures in your worlds? It’s ok to create a world of magic, dwarves, elves and dragons but not one populated by humans with a different skin colour or culture than the author?

    Maybe American authors shouldn’t be allowed to depict Medieval European-type worlds?

    • A Perspiring Writer

      That’s…. literally the exact opposite of what the quote says.

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