Rant About #coverfail in Earthsea

A thousand words (and some pictures) about depictions of Earthsea and the importance of cover art that better reflects diverse fantasy novels.

I was planning to cover this topic as part of my forthcoming review of A Wizard of Earthsea, the first book in the Earthsea Cycle (formerly trilogy) but could not cut it down to any reasonable length, and the same topic applies to many other books, including the rest of that series.
Ruth Robbins Wizard of Earthsea first cover
The first cover of A Wizard of Earthsea was illustrated by Ruth Robbins.
The first Earthsea book was published in 1968 and in the intervening 50 years, they’ve come to be seen as something of a classic of fantasy literature, frequently compared to Tolkien or the Chronicles of Narnia.  They are not without failings (which I’ll try to address in my reviews), but the Earthsea books do have one major difference to many commonly known “classic” works of fantasy – the vast majority of LeGuin’s Earthsea characters are NOT white. Let’s consider A Wizard of Earthsea.  There are many, many covers.  I’ve read this repeatedly from various libraries, and have seen other copies.  Most get it wrong.  Main character Ged is described as having red-brown skin with dark eyes and hair, and he’s not exotic.  In fact, most people on Gont, the island he’s from, look like him.
Rebecca Guay The Farthest Shore cover image
Rebecca Guay’s cover art for The Farthest Shore depicts Ged and young prince Arren.
As Ged moves about in his world, he encounters a variety of skin tones.  Most are similar to him or black-brown like his friend Vetch and family, who are from a different island.  There are a few light-skinned people, some of whom are presumably mixed.  The rest are mostly Kargs, who come off as a Viking-ish group mainly known for raiding and seen by Ged’s people as barbaric.  Some individuals and groups in the islands who are Kargish descendants have lighter skin or “white” features.  Most notably in the first book are the Osskilians.
David Lupton Wizard of Earthsea image from Folio Society edition cropped and resized
David Lupton’s artwork for A Wizard of Earthsea feels closer to the text than other visuals in many ways, but I was still disappointed in the character’s skin tones.
In this particular novel, Ged is clearly identified as non-white.  With the exception of one biracial character, ALL of the main characters are dark skinned.  We know this because Ged mentions the few white people he sees.  They stand out even more than his friend Vetch. Decades of covers understandably include much variation, but the vast majority either: 1) Don’t show a character at all, instead focusing on an island, dragon, or some other generic fantasy element less appropriate for this character-focused novel. OR 2) Make Ged white, give him white hair/facial features, or tint his skin so lightly the skin color can be mistaken for an error in printing. The edition I picked up for my review went so far as to put Ged, our star, on the back of the book, while a dragon Ged encounters (who is only in one chapter and a relatively minor character) takes up the front cover.  The tiny Ged on the back is certainly not easily recognizable as a person of color.
Studio Ghibli Ged and Arren resized
This illustration of Ged and prince Arren is a still from the Studio Ghibli movie version of Earthsea.
This is an ongoing problem for readers of fantasy and other genre literature.  Even if a book happens to have a diverse author or main character, they might be represented only by silhouettes or left off the cover entirely.  Certainly, one cannot rely on the cover to know whether a book is truly diverse.  Picture book illustrator Donald Crews is African-American, but few of his books include a photograph, especially those about modes of transport.  While most school librarians would probably recognize his books, they aren’t likely to know his ethnicity. For the next few books I’ve tried to get editions that are better representations of the characters in this series.  In the second book, a white major character is introduced, and from then on there are occasional white characters in each book.  I mention this because they’re then prominently featured in the art.
Rebecca Guay Tombs of Atuan cover image
Rebecca Guay’s cover art for Tombs of Atuan maintains a clear distinction between light skinned Tenar and dark skinned Ged.
This problem is common in children’s literature.  When books feature a dark-skinned protagonist, the cover is either whitewashed or avoids depicting the character.  Modern fantasy author Rick Riordan has battled that issue with foreign editions of his Kane Chronicles. Amanda Strick puts the issue very well in the article linked above:
“There is a very strong sense that black characters have been – and continue to be – left off book covers. The problem is widespread,” she said. “There have been many high-profile cases of characters actually changing colour completely, so described in the story as black but then appearing Caucasian on the cover. However, very often it’s more subtle than that, with the cover of a book about a non-white character often avoiding featuring a human face at all, or with the character featured in silhouette or even with their face turned away. Sometimes it’s a case of publishers asking that a character is ‘less dark’ almost as though mixed race is acceptable but somehow black skin isn’t.”
In the case of any one book, this problem might seem minor.  After all, there are some books that legitimately might be better served by having a cover that doesn’t include a person, or one where the protagonist is obscured.  But when you look at 50 years worth of Earthsea covers, it’s frustrating to note that few could be interpreted as showing a person of color, even with very generous parameters.
Studio Ghibli Ged and Tenar resized
Here we see the Studio Ghibli versions of Ged and Tenar (as adults). It’s possible that hair color was used as a marker of race rather than using more significant skin tone differences in this film.
Outside of illustrations and cover art, Earthsea has been adapted visually twice.  The first was the 2004 television miniseries, which got it wrong so badly that LeGuin herself published a takedown of the film’s problems with race subtitled “How the Sci Fi Channel Wrecked My Books“. LeGuin clarifies the intended race of main characters compared to the mostly-white adaptation:
In the two fantasy novels the miniseries is “based on,” everybody is brown or copper-red or black, except the Kargish people in the East and their descendants in the Archipelago, who are white, with fair or dark hair. The central character Tenar, a Karg, is a white brunette. Ged, an Archipelagan, is red-brown. His friend, Vetch, is black. In the miniseries, Tenar is played by Smallville’s Kristin Kreuk, the only person in the miniseries who looks at all Asian. Ged and Vetch are white.
This article also tells us a bit more about the books, and in particular the covers.  LeGuin points out:
I had endless trouble with cover art. Not on the great cover of the first edition—a strong, red-brown profile of Ged—or with Margaret Chodos Irvine’s four fine paintings on the Atheneum hardcover set, but all too often. The first British Wizard was this pallid, droopy, lily-like guy—I screamed at sight of him.
Earthsea Quartet cover art by Margaret Chodos Irvine
LeGuin considered Margaret Chodos Irvine’s artwork for the Earthsea Quartet among the better cover options.
Parts of the Earthsea story were also adapted into a movie by Studio Ghibli.  Unfortunately to many fans this also falls short.  LeGuin seemed to like this version better, but still was concerned by the portrayal.  In her response she states:

I cannot address the issue of race in Japan because I know too little about it. But I know that an anime film runs smack into the almost immutable conventions of its genre. Most of the people in anime films look — to the American/European eye — white. I am told that the Japanese audience perceives them differently. I am told that they may perceive this Ged as darker than my eye does. I hope so. Most of the characters look white to me, but there is at least a nice variation of tans and beiges.

So it’s better than the other, but still definitely not portraying the characters as the author intended.  You can view a gallery of images from the film, although I’d suggest reading the books first.
The Books of Earthsea Complete Illustrated Edition resized
The Complete Illustrated Edition of The Books of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin and Charles Vess has significantly better dragons, but still missed the mark on human representation.
Ultimately, every official visual representation of Earthsea has been disappointing in some way, including the version which LeGuin herself closely collaborated with Charles Vess with on shortly before her death.  I’ve found the Rebecca Guay covers closest to how I personally picture the characters, and after unsuccessfully searching for her out-of-print version of A Wizard of Earthsea, a thrift store copy was my begruding second choice. Ironically, as I searched on the publisher’s website to see what the current Earthsea covers look like, this series in which characters of color were not depicted on the cover was on the same page as an advertisement for Simon and Schuster’s promotion of diverse voices.
LeGuin Simon Schuster book covers Fall 2020
Searching for LeGuin on the Simon and Schuster website in 2020 brings up an advertisement for diversity – and images of her books without dark skinned human characters on the cover.
We all need to hold publishers accountable for including more diverse voices not only as authors, but also as editors, illustrators, cover designers, publishers, and so on.  Could there be a valid reason for the current set of Earthsea covers?  Certainly.  They each depict something important to that volume of the series.  They are objectively better than the blatantly whitewashed versions or the slap-a-dragon-on-it covers. But as a whole, the collective covers of Earthsea, and other prominent fantasy series, send a message that the genre is white.  Riordan Presents and several other publishers are working to get more diverse ownvoice SFF out into the world.  Vivienne To  and other illustrators are making covers that better reflect these multicultural stories.  And while we wait for a new cover, Sara Hagstrom has created a fanart version – so your Ged doesn’t have to be white.
Sara Hagstrom Wizard of Earthsea mock cover image resized
Mock fan art cover of A Wizard of Earthsea by Sara Hagstrom.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

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