Does Le Guin’s Earthsea Belong in Appendix N?

Friday , 22, January 2016 24 Comments

Berin Kinsman of Dancing Lights Press has written an extensive post that is relevant to one of the perennial debates of Appendix N discussion: does the Earthsea Trilogy belong on the list or not…? He points out that the setting “does not neatly map to any real-world places of history” and that though it “borrows Tolkien’s tone”, the series does not “tap into the same mythologies and analogies”. While that has been the dominant approach to fantasy since the late seventies, I doubt too many fans of pulp fantasy could get too excited about that approach. Those factors are exactly what typifies the watered down mass market fantasy that has flooded the market in the wake of successful novels like Sword of Shannara. And though balrogs and goblinoids might have been lifted wholesale from Tolkien’s works, very little of his tone was extant in early D&D.

Le Guin’s oeuvre contrasts greatly with pulp writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs, A. Merritt, and Leigh Brackett. Earthsea’s “magic is often small in scale”, good and evil there are defined in terms of an Taoist sense of “balance”, and “the action in the books in minimal”, but Beren nevertheless sees something that can help game masters running tabletop fantasy role-playing games:

Le Guin’s fantasy is far more philosophical, driven by story and character. If you want to read the Earthsea books as inspiration for a game, it cannot be on a “game mechanics” or “encounter design” level. You should approach it by considering that character actions have ramifications within the setting, for better or for worse, and the additional story thread that get generated not only by whether they succeed or fail but in the manner in which they attain those successes or suffer those failures. You need to be able to think in terms of balance, of ecosystems, of politics and economics and culture. You need to think beyond the encounter, beyond the adventure, and consider the impact that the characters have on the people they meet and the places they journey through. Thinking on that scale, I believe, has made me a better gamemaster over time.

In other words, with the exception of a few pulpy scenes that are not representative of the series as a whole, Earthsea is primarily going to be a resource for developing the high level world-building aspects of your campaign. Of course, as any seasoned game master can tell you, that sort of thing is not particularly relevant to getting an old style D&D game off the ground.

Perhaps D&D was destined to evolve far beyond the possibilities of an off-kilter fusion of Vance and Leiber and Moorcock turned loose in a strange blend of science fantasy and the Medieval. But going by Berin Kinsman’s analysis here, I think it’s pretty clear that very little of Earthsea’s approach to fantasy is in evidence in the earliest editions of D&D. Even if the compilers of 5th edition saw to it to amend the venerable book list by incorporating it into their iteration of Appendix N, it’s clear that its omission from the original was neither an accident nor an oversight.

24 Comments
  • Alex says:

    It doesn’t even really have any good monsters or magic items off the top of my head that I could whip up B/X stats for!

    I mean, at least you could make the Black Cauldron, Cauldron Born, Gwythaints, and Huntsmen of Annuvin elements that would fit nicely into your game.

  • Alex says:

    The simple answer, however, is, if Gary didn’t put it there, of course it doesn’t belong.

    • Jeffro says:

      Right… but it’s also an entirely different type of fantasy from the stuff that Gygax liked and “borrowed” from for his game design.

      But if enough people act like being excluded from Appendix N is the same thing as being read out from the sff canon, then I will assume that Ursula Le Guin do not in fact qualify to be incorporated into the canon.

      • Alex says:

        I mean, it’s kind of like if people were having a discussion about the Real-Robot genre, and someone barges in and says “Yeah, I’m sure Gundam and Macross were great, but have you guys seen Transformers? Now THERE was a robot show!”

    • Gaiseric says:

      Too simple, though. Later in life, on ENWorld Q&A threads, he did admit that he inadvertently left a few things off, or would indeed add a few things to the list. To quote from 2007: “The fact is that I wouldn’t change the list much other than to add a couple of novels such as Lanier’s second Hiero yarn, Piers Anthony’s Split Infinity series, and the Disc World books. I would never add other media forms to a reading list. If someone is interested in comic books and or graphic novels, they’re on their own.”

      And later in another post: “Frankly, I find very few new fantasy books in the general S&S vein worth reading. I do enjoy the “Diskworld” series, and Glen Cook’s “Black Company” novels are appearling to me. Those are about all that spring to mind. The fiction I have been reading these days is mostly murder mystery (I loved the “Judge Dee” series), historical (such as Cornwall’s various series), alternate history, and some re-reading of old fantasy & SF books.”

      • Alex says:

        Gary saying about a specific title that he’d either left it off by mistake or would add it now makes a great case for that specific title.

        The difficulty is the quantum state of Appendix N as “Just Gary’s List of Books He Liked”, “Books that shaped D&D” and “Important Snapshot of the SFF Canon in the late 70s”. The same people who would dismiss it as “Gary’s List” still have the understanding of its importance as a cultural artifact and would still try to sneak other stuff on there. But because it IS Gary’s list, saying “He should’ve included this” is tantamount to telling someone that their list of “movies from 2015 I liked” is missing something because THEY REALLY SHOULD HAVE LIKED THIS AND EITHER OBVIOUSLY FORGOT THAT THEY LIKED IT OR THEIR LIST ISN’T WORTH ANYTHING ANYWAY!

        One thing that’s come up a few times has been Thomas Burnett Swann. For me, I love Swann. I’ve even seen blog posts mistakenly listing him as an Appendix N author, and if there were one author I’d say was “missing” it would be him. But sure enough, in a QA thread several years back, someone asked Gary about Swann and Gary admitted he’d just never read him. Just because Swann wrote some great fantasy and had stuff that a DM could get tons of inspirations for (his heroes fought stirges!) doesn’t mean he gets an Appendix N pass, because he nor his books directly shaped Gygax or his work developing D&D. Even if he did get the copies that the commenters wanted to send him, it still wouldn’t make Swann Appendix N, because he did not shape the game.

        • Gaiseric says:

          Yeah, I know… but I’m just pointing out that Gygax himself, when asked, did admit he’d add a few titles to the list. That’s not the same thing at all as ME saying that such and such author or title should be on the list, no matter what reason I think it should be. This is what Gary Gygax himself said, admittedly nearly 30 years later, that he’d add to the list at that point in time.

          • Alex says:

            Oh, yeah, no worries, I know. I’m just saying that Gary is the best authority on what should and shouldn’t be on his list of stuff that influenced him. And when Gary says “I missed this and should’ve included it”, “I’d include this new thing on a list today” or “It wasn’t even on my radar”, I think we should take his word for it.

            As for 5e’s new list, I’ve thought about it, and I’m okay with it. There’s a lot on there that may not make sense or that I don’t think would be useful as inspiration for a DM, but the list is supposedly made up of editor/contributor recommendations and influences. Now, I won’t say that I don’t think that 5e is garbage and that those influences may be part of why it is garbage, but it’s their list. And if they want to put their own branded fiction in their list of influences to let us all know how creatively incestuous and self-referential the game has become, so be it!

          • nathan says:

            @Alex,

            I’d argue that Appendix E, along with the other 5e appendices, has more to do with filling the pipeline with more fantasy product. Mechanically, World of Warcraft has a more visible influence on the game design than most of the Appendix E additions. But the fantasy genre has reached a point where it is flooded by authors who recycle campaigns and characters into novels, to various degrees of success. Appendix E is designed to fan the world building bug as Ahmed, Lynch, Rothfuss, and Sanderson earn their places via their settings and not by their contributions to fantasy gaming tropes. (The first three are rather generic in character and ‘class’, while Sanderson’s magic systems are so strange that no correspondence to D&D caster classes is possible.) By promoting world building, Appendix E hopes to inspire the Next Great Fantasy Saga, or at least the next Lodoss War or Slayers.

          • Gaiseric says:

            @nathan. I think part of the problem too is the consistent false impression that many fans have that the Appendix N is supposed to be just a list of good fantasy books, as opposed to a list of works that specifically influenced D&D.

            My own personal Appendix N has to include all kinds of esoteric (for a fantasy fan, anyway) stuff, like spaghetti westerns, Ludlum style thrillers, and maybe even t.v. shows like the first couple of seasons or so of Supernatural.

  • Rigel Kent says:

    Am I the only one that thinks Earthsea is overrated? I read them almost 20 years ago, and I liked them, I just didn’t see what all of the fuss was about.

    • Alex says:

      I used to be a huge Ursula K. LeGuin fan. Then I read Appendix N!

    • Gaiseric says:

      No, I had the exact same reaction. I do kinda like the island archipelago setting, though. But the books themselves? Blah.

    • pdwalker says:

      I found it interesting, but not exceptional. I did like the setting, but I never thought it as high fantasy, like Three Hearts and Three Lions, for example.

      No, it did not belong in list N.

  • VD says:

    I read The Left Hand of Darkness and thought it was very good. Then I tried to read Earthsea, not once, but three times, before finally concluding that it sucked.

    • Blue SFF Reader says:

      VD, any possibility for Castalia House re-publishing an Appendix N Omnibus or Series (at least for the titles available in public domain)?

  • tweell says:

    The Earthsea trilogy is pretentious and over-rated IMHO. As a teen I read Wizard of Earthsea, and found it… ok. I tried to re-read it recently and didn’t manage to finish.

  • VD says:

    Sure, if Jeffro wants to curate and write the intros. I’m not going to do it, but we’d certainly publish that.

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