Asni’s Art Blog: The Painting of Earthsea (part 1)

A Wizard of Earthsea, first edition, Parnassus Books 1968. Cover art by Ruth Robbins

My heartfelt congratulations to Ursula K Le Guin for being awarded the 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters! This award to recognize a writer’s lifetime achievement is given each year by the National Book Foundation – previous recipients include John Ashbery, Joan Didion, E.L. Doctorow, Maxine Hong Kingston, Elmore Leonard, Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison, and Tom Wolfe. It is of course more than well deserved – and it’s great to see a distinguished writer of speculative fiction on that list.

I thought I should take the opportunity to look at some illustrations of Ursula K Le Guin’s work – in particular, her “Earthsea” books, which continue to be her best known writings, along with science fiction classics like The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, and The Lathe of Heaven.

The first thing to note is that there don’t appear to be a lot of pictorial representations of  Earthsea: Google comes up mainly with the covers of the various editions of the books, as well as some stills from the Studio Ghibli animation and the live action TV version (more about those in the next installment of this mini-series).

The second thing to note is that artists seem to have a very hard time visualizing the characters of the book the way they have been described by the author.

The people who populate most of Earthsea – the Gontish people, including the main character, the wizard Ged, and most of the other Archipelagans – are described as being of a dark, reddish brown skin colour with black hair – in looks much like American First Nation people. Some of the Archipelagans are black skinned, like Ged’s friend Vetch and his sister Yarrow. There are white skinned and fair haired people in Earthsea also – the Kargs, including Tenar, the main female character. But they do not mix with the Archipelagans, and they do not go to the wizard school on Roke. For the main duration of the trilogy, they are at war with the Archipelagans. The only part of the original trilogy that takes place mainly among Kargish people is Tombs of Atuan.

At the time of the writing of the first trilogy – in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s – it was a strong statement for a fantasy author to choose dark skinned people for the heroes of her books. It was a very conscious break with the tradition of blonde, blue eyed Young Siegfrieds who otherwise dominate the genre. The author was of course conscious of this, and she deliberately does not describe her main character’s looks until somewhere a few chapters down – the reader is thus given time to identify with young Ged before we are told how he looks.

I suppose in a day and age when Barack Obama is rightfully elected president of the United States, it may have worn off some of its original political edge, but I would encourage you to read this very interesting article by Pam Nolan about their original impact on an African-American fan of fantasy literature. For me, it was an eye-opener and then some. Moreover, I can relate to the gratitude that the author of this blog post feels for Ursula Le Guin. I don’t know why it took me until I was in my 40s to discover her work, but I’ve felt the same gratitude when I picked up “Tehanu”, the story of a middle aged women looking after a disabled child, and trying to re-establish a relationship with the man she loved 25 years ago. Middle aged women doing domestic things – let alone being protagonists in a romantic plot! – are not generally the fare of most fantasy tales either.

So much for the impact of the writing. Now, let’s have a look at some of the cover illustrations for the various published editions of the “Earthsea” books.

It all comes off to a pretty good start with the beautiful stylized cover art by Ruth Robbins for the first edition of The Wizard of Earthsea (Parnassus Books, 1968), which opens this blog post. Although the work is too stylized to make any definite pronouncements on the ethnicity of the person depicted, Ged definitely has reddish skin, and he does not look in any way particularly Caucasian. Unfortunately, this illustrator seems to only ever have done illustrations for the first book in the series. Shame – because things quickly spiral downward from here!

A Wizard of Earthsea, Puffin Books, 1971. Cover art by David Smee.
The Tombs of Atuan, Puffin Books, 1974. Cover art by David Smee.
The Farthest Shore, Puffin Books, 1974.  Cover art by David Smee.

This is the Puffin Books paperback edition 1971/1974, cover art by David Smee: I see a male person with a falcon head and some pale skinned English public school boy types in Roke, a very fair skinned Ged in the labyrinth in Atuan, and what has Ben Hur got to do in Earthsea? Well at least he isn’t blonde…

The Wizard of Earthsea, Bantam Books, 1975. Cover art by Pauline Ellison.
The Tombs of Atuan, Bantam Books, 1975. Cover art by Pauline Ellison.
The Farthest Shore, Bantam Books, 1975. Cover art by Pauline Ellison.

These are the cover images for the Bantam books 1975 paperback editions, art by Pauline Ellison (thanks to Aaron Fuegi for digging up these and the following cover images and doing the bibliographical research): a boy of somewhat indistinct features and skin colour – presumably Ged – in a boat, approaching a European-medieval-style castle and town on an island. A fair skinned woman (Tenar, she’s allowed to be that, but where is everyone else?) in a harbour with  ships which are modeled after various European ship types. A falcon and a dragon and another island with European-Middle-Ages style buildings, but no people, in the third cover.

The Wizard of Earthsea, Dutch edition, Utrecht: Het Spectrum, 1974. Cover art by Bart van Erkel.
The Tombs of Atuan, Dutch edition, Utrecht: Het Spectrum, 1974. Cover art by Bart van Erkel.
The Farthest Shore, Dutch edition, Utrecht: Het Spectrum, 1974. Cover art by Bart van Erkel.

The topper, however, is this Dutch edition with cover art by Bart van Erkel: Not only is Ged a red haired blue eyed Viking, Tenar – the shy and demure young priestess from Atuan, clad in a ragged black robe – now appears to have acquired several years of maturity, and a green dress and stockings, and a habit of suggestively baring her thigh. By the third cover someone seems to have given the illustrator a hint regarding Ged’s looks (no matter, he’s an old man now anyway) but Lebannen remains firmly pale skinned.

Earthsea Trilogy, Penguin Books, 1979. Cover art by Jonathan Field.

Finally, the cover for the Penguin one-volume paperback edition of the trilogy from 1975 depicts Ged in a way that leaves his ethnicity open to some interpretation, but he certainly does not look particularly American First Nation, and his hair colour seems to be a dark blonde. This cover illustration is by Jonathan Field.

Mind you, all this mis-representation may not be entirely the illustrator’s fault, who may have been given a particular brief, and the sketchiest idea of what the books are about. But it is nonetheless to be noted that a person will look pale skinned and fair haired unless described otherwise – or even despite being described otherwise. Also, I don’t think there is anything that condones Tenar’s green stockings and bared thigh on the Dutch cover of Tombs of Atuan. Most of all I wonder, what was the editor thinking???

But, you may argue, these are all ancient editions from the 1970’s. Surely things have changed in the meanwhile? Let’s have a look at that in my next blog post in two week’s time.

This article is based on an article first published on my blog at in March 2009.

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