South Island Photo Album part II

In this newsletter:
*** The Painting of Earthsea
*** European Trip Itinerary
*** Website Updates & Current Projects
*** South Island Photo Album part II

The Painting of Earthsea

There seems to be a common mispercection that fantasy as a genre is by definition unpolitical. In fact it has often been called "escapist". That, I think, is absolutely not true. There is no such thing as unpolitical art. And even escapism is a political choice.

Some expressions of the fantasy genre - though by no means all of them - seem to me to be something worse than escapist: Under the guise and fair shine of a supposedly "unpolitical" art, they all too often promote a very particular world view. I won't even go into the ubiquity of unlikely-shaped representations of the female (I won't call these images women) in unlikely attire doing very unlikely things. "Fantasy" is a fitting name for those - fantasy as in "teenage wet dream". At least they are so blatantly sexist that hopefully no thinking person will mistake them for the real thing.

But some of the blunt, knee-jerk assumptions that are made in much fantasy art, illustration, literature and movies, are less obvious, and therefore more insidious. These are often assumptions about gender roles, and ethnicity. This was brought home to me sharply when I was looking up some of the illustration work that has been done for Ursula Le Guin"s "Earthsea" series - themselves books that make no secret of being deeply rooted in the author's world view and political convictions.

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 native Americans. 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 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. 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 origininal 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 gratitute that the author of the article feels for Ursula Le Guin - I've felt the same gratitude when I picked up "Tehanu", the story of a middle aged woman nursing a middle aged man through his midlife crisis, and taking care of a disabled child (and one of the most passionate and moving love stories I have ever read).

Now let's have a look at some of the cover illustrations for the various published editions of the "Earthsea" books:

Cover images for the Bantam books 1975 paperback editions, art by Pauline Ellison (thanks to Aaron Fuegi for digging up the following cover images and doing the bibliographical research):

I see: a fair-skinned boy (presumably Ged?), a fair skinned woman (Tenar, she's allowed to be that, but where is everyone else?), a falcon and a dragon and no people in the third cover.

Puffin Books paperback edition 1971/1974, cover art by David Smee:

A guy with a falcon head and some English public school boys in Roke, a very fair skinned Ged in the labyrinth in Atuan, and what the heck has Ben Hur got to do in Earthsea? Well at least he isn't blonde...

But the one that tops them all is this Dutch edition, cover illustrations 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.

Mind you, all this mis-representation may not be entirely the illustrator's fault, who may have been given 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. 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 a bit in the meanwhile?

This is a widely published publicity shot for the "Earthsea" tv mini-series produced for the Sci-Fi channel in 2004 (and a ream of new book covers is based on those faces, as they tend to be when a book is turned movie). That blonde, blue eyed dude in the middle there? That, errr - is supposed to be Ged. Who that black fellow behind him is I have no clue, he's too tall and slim to be Ged's friend Vetch, and he can't possibly be Ogion, or can he?

Oh, the author has actually described her main characters quite carefully? Aww, bah, who cares. "People" want to see blonde blue eyed Siegfrieds/Luke Skywalkers with tall, muscular, black sidekicks, and besides, we can't find no actors who look like the author describes the Archipelagans. Right? Well, I suppose, if you're not blond and blue eyed (or at the very least Caucasian and good looking), or else an African American resigned to forever doing the oh so politically correct sidekick thing, or happy to be restricted to minor or comical roles, bad guys/gals, and the odd art house movie, it is somewhat naive to try and be a professional actor in Hollywood. More on THAT topic here: Avatar: The Last Airbender casting campaign. Earthsea was by no means the only fantasy world that got butchered by studio executives who have suddenly turned "colorblind". And it doesn't go just for fantasy movies, either.

I don't suppose an argument about politics or diversity or responsibility or morality would impress those people, but does it not occur to them that they are alienating their own fan base? The "Earthsea" tv series, I am quite happy to report, seems to have been an outright flop. The author, who was shunted aside when the production decisions were made, has made it quite clear that she in no way wishes to be held responsible for what the tv producers have made from her books. Read here, in her own words on her own website.

My own series of Earthsea illustrations has been making good progress - I still haven't finished that tricky illustration for the "Courtyard of the Fountain" but hope that it will benefit from spending a few weeks among European architecture. I have started two new images - one for "A Wizard of Earthsea" and another for "The Farthest Shore", and have finished my second illustration for "The Tombs of Atuan": It's for the part of the book that describes Tenar's childhood and youth growing up as "The One Priestess" of the Place of the Tombs. Tenar and her friend Penthe have slipped away from their priestly duties, and spend and afternoon sitting on top of the high and decrepit wall around the Place, looking out over the desert and dreaming, while an anxious Manan is looking for his young charge.

I haven't really got much to show to prove it, at this stage, but I assure you that I am doing my best to get the character's looks to conform with how Ursula Le Guin has described them. :D

European Travel Iterary

I will be travelling to Europe from 22 March to 19 April - mainly to see family and friends, but I plan to do some videoing, hope very much to do some sketching, and would be very pleased to meet some new people. So if you would like to meet, and haven't been in touch already, now is the time to contact me. Here is the itinerary as far as it's been fixed:

  • 23 March - arrive in Berlin. Sleep for a day.
  • 25 March - meet some people about a harp.
  • 26 March - 1 April - trip to Estonia: (Riga) - Pärnu (26-27 March) - Tallinn (28-29 March)- Tartu (30 March)- Riga (31 March)
  • 1 April - back in Berlin by late morning.
  • 2 April - fly to Basel, sightsee and sketch, and spend the night.
  • 3 - 4 April - visit the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar, do some sketching.
  • 4 April, travel to Bern, visit the museum, see the sights.
  • 5 April - meet some friends in Bern, Switzerland (this is now Bern, not Neuchâtel!).
  • 6 April - take the train to Bremen, arrive in late evening.
  • 7-8 April - see friends in Bremen.
  • 9 April - travel back to Berlin, attend opera performance in Rheinsberg.
  • Easter week - spend time in Bavaria with the family.
  • 17 April - leave from Berlin.

Current projects

Thank you all who have sent in feedback about my newsletter! Of course I still want to hear from you - please go here to take the poll. The fololwing people are the lucky winners of a copy of my "Travels in Middle-earth" CD: Debra Kronenberg, Ketchum, Idaho, USA; Bevan Newton, Wellington, New Zealand; Dianne Ensign, Portland, Oregon, USA. I will be sending the CDs out before I leave for Europe. For the rest of you who didn't win a CD, I've got another little thank-you in mind, but may not get round to it before I board the plane - please bear with me, I will contact you by email. If you weren't lucky this time, there will be more polls in the future, with more CDs to be won. All your feedback is extremely valuable to me, and I appreciate the time everyone has taken to fill in the poll - especially given the confusion with the links! :D

New illustration and pencil sketches galleries are now online! Please keep an eye on the main galleries index, I will be adding pages gradually. Meanwhile, please have a look at my other online galleries. My artwork, illustration, design and 3D work is here: Asni's Deviantart gallery, and photography, greeting cards, mouse pads, photo prints and a calendar can be found (and bought) here: Asni Prints.

I have now created an index for the past editions of this newsletter, I hope some of you may find it handy! (I certainly do). Setting up the login system for the site, on the other hand, has been quite a bit more time consuming than I expected - and besides, at the moment there isn't really anything that I could do with a login system. This will be the one of the next things I will be working on when I am back in Wellington, so stay tuned.

I love my new Myspace page! Why did I not join the party sooner? I am now "friends" with half the roots & blues musicians in Mali, and with Mahatma Gandhi, who uses the site to speak from the grave. How cool is that!

Even better, I have just set up a Facebook account, and it turns out that that's where all the early music people from my previous life hang out. In the space of some 24 hours, I've managed to locate several dear long-lost friends whom I had entirely lost touch with. The timing couldnt' be better - maybe I can even catch up with a few of them while I'm in Europe.

The people at Hutt Radio have been caught up in the economic maelstrom of the last months, and have had their funding put on hold. Since they also have to meet some deadlines, they are now looking rather intensely for any sort of funding or help - be it gear and equipment, time, or good old cash. Read all about it on their Myspace page (administrated by yours truly). You might even find an interesting podcast there one of those days...

A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a media agency in Dubai regarding one of my photos, which they had a mind to use for a feature about famous filming locations in the inflight magazine of a national airline. I looked up their website, it looked rather flash ... I'm sure some money went into that one ... and the client didn't strike me as your typical charity either ... so I was a bit surprized that they were asking if I could provide the image for free. They did promise to "credit me". How generous is that?

Well, anyhow, I decided to do without the "international exposure" in that shiny magazine. Some people have a nerve. :O

South Island Photo Album part II

This is the last instalment of the full account of my epic trip to the South Island – about time I finished it, next newsletter it will be time to post the photos from Europe!

Stage 7: Mavora Lakes

I had been very much looking forward to a few relaxing days at another very favourite spot of mine, the Mavora Lakes, and after coming off the Kepler track I could definitely do with a couple of day’s rest. So after spending another night at Manapouri, getting my laundry done and generally readjusting to civilization, I drove the short way up to the DOC campsite at the tip of North Mavora lake, and pitched my tent behind a screen of southern beach, for it was shaping up to be a windy night. Not just windy, as it turned out – during the night the rain started pouring, and since I was in a lazy mood, I spent the entire next day happily cuddled up in my tent reading “The Left Hand of Darkness”, which was sufficiently engrossing to keep me occupied until about five in the afternoon, when I finished the book and finally crawled out of my tent. It was still pouring with unabated vigour. I don’t think I ever had breakfast that day, but I eventually decided, with a bit of a heavy heart, to skip the videoing and sketching I had planned to do at Mavora, and find a spot that was a bit dryer for the night. So, no photos there either – but you can always look at the ones I took on my three previous visits.

Stage 8: Glenorchy and the Paradise road

When I got to Glenorchy, it was dark and still raining – I slept that night in the car, but the next morning the sun was shining, so I had a really luxurious and long drawn breakfast by the lakeside- I fryed myself some pancakes and started re-reading “A Wizard of Earthsea”. Then I drove out to Paradise and the “Lorien” filming location – and realized that I had been selling people on the wrong spot all along. They did shoot parts of “Prince Caspian” there though, as I was able to witness with mine own eyes, two years ago.

The real “Lord of the Rings” film locations are quite a bit further down the road than I had always thought, all the way to the road end. It’s a bit of a rough drive, fording several little rivers, so it pays to have a trusty four wheel drive, but the spot is truly worth the trip. I shot some video, but ran out of light, so I decided to find the DOC campsite on the other side of the Dart river valley – quite a bit of a drive, with these roads – and come back the next day. The next morning, I went on a short but very beautiful hike through some truly Elvish forest up to a lake, and found a little river to have a morning splash in, and strangely, there weren’t even any sandflies who ate me on that occasion! The little buggers are the scourge of Fjordland, but perhaps it was early enough in the year so they had not had a chance to multiply in great numbers just yet.

After my sketching efforts had been cut short by a rising gale which kept knocking my sketchpad out of my hands, I headed back towards Queenstown and spent the night at Twelve Mile Delta, another filming location – parts of the “Ithilien” sequence in “The Two Towers” where shot there. The choice is not surprising – the little sheltered river estuary on the shores of Lake Wakatipu has a distinctly Ithilian flair, and I spent the night amidst a patch of wild oregano between rose bushes and gorse. There even were some rabbits hopping around! The proximity of Mordor made itself felt in an abundance of sand flies, though.

Stage 9: Skipper's Canyon and Arrowtown

Back when they were shooting “Lord of the Rings” on the South Island, Queenstown offered a convenient base for the cast and crew, and the film locations in the area are strewn thick. My next destination was Skipper’s Canyon – not a far drive, but quite a scary one! Skipper’s Road is one of the handful of roads in New Zealand that car hire companies warn their customers not to go on, because they won’t be insured for damage if they do… it is very steep, very windy, very narrow, and of course entirely unsealed, so unless you have a four wheel drive and lots of experience driving New Zealand backcountry roads, please don’t do what I did, take a guided tour instead! I had been down there once before, but somehow the drive seemed far scarier this time round. The location (the shots of Arwen defying the Black Riders at the Ford of Bruinen in “Fellowship of the Ring”) is not publicly accessible anyway – some jet boating and/or bungy jumping enterprise is sitting squarely across it – but it is a very spectacular drive indeed. Personally, I was quite glad when I got back up to the pass again!

From there it was less than half an hour to lovely Arrowtown. The former gold mining town sits snugly in the most sheltered corner of the Central Otago high plateau that stretches off the knee of Lake Wakatipu, and at this time of year it was all awash in blue and pink from an abundance of lupins blossoming along the River Arrow, right where the other half of the “Ford of Bruinen” sequence was shot. The little park along the river has been done up nicely since the last time I came through. I only had a couple of hours to spare, but I shot a good amount of video and photos in that very short time. Then it was on up the Crown Range, to enjoy a last view of Lake Wakatipu and the back of the Remarkables from the height of the pass.

Stage 10: Wanaka

What I like about Queenstown is that it doesn’t pretend to be anything else than a tourist trap, and it’s got a certain proud tradition being that, which, to me, invests it with a certain amount of class. Wanaka on the other hand, is every bit as much the tourist trap but keeps trying to pretend it is something else, and for that reason I have never really taken to the spot. I revised my harsh judgement somewhat after spending the night out at the (very pretty, very neat and quite decently priced) Glendhu Bay campsite. My time was now beginning to run out, and I was eager to get on to the West Coast, but I decided that I did have a few hours to spare to explore the area, and took the road towards Mt Aspiring the next morning. You’d think that after driving (or walking) up a few of these river valleys into the thick of the Southern Alps you’d have seen them all – but when New Zealand was fished up from the sea someone must have intended it to be a geological theme park, for every fold of those mountains is different. The Wanaka area sports some of the most interesting mountain shapes I have ever seen, and yes, some of them feature in “Lord of the Rings” as backdrop for the Fellowship’s journey along the Misty Mountains, so I got to play another fun game of “spot the movie location”.

Stage 11: Down the Haast road and up the West Coast

By early afternoon, I was on my way down the Haast pass road, which has got to be one of the most spectacular drives on the planet. It was a bright sunny day, which added greatly to the beauty of the drive. I was planning to stay the night at the DOC campsite at Lake Paringa, some way up the coast. But when I got there, a couple of hours before sunset, I found that it was nothing but a gravel parking space, and a rather tiny and rather muddy spot of grass, which had already been divided up by a couple of other tenters. Besides, the sandflies were out in full force bent on eating humans, down here on the coast. So I just went for a swim – very refreshing! I always wonder how it is that these little lakes can sit in the sun all day long in summer and never properly warm up. Then I headed on, past the glaciers to Lake Mapourika, where another campsite was marked on my map. By now it was decidedly past sunset, and that campsite took a long time showing up … eventually, assuming that I must have missed it, I pulled up on a little piece of mud track right by the side of the road, cooked myself a very hasty dinner and crawled into the back of my car. Fortunately there is not a lot of traffic on that highway during the night!

photo: West coast: rimu forest photo: West coast: trees and glaciers photo: West coast: evening light

Next morning I had an early start to find myself a more congenial place for breakfast. Sure enough, five minutes up the road I spotted the campsite I had just failed to reach the night before. On a whim, I turned off the main coast road to a place called Okarito – I had been in a rush by the time I reached the West Coast on each of my previous trips to the South Island, and not seen much of it at all besides the main highway, and the two glaciers. I drove down to the beach and had a royal breakfast, then circled back a little and went for a short bush walk up a little hill through some ancient rimu forest – the kind of forest that only exists on this stretch of the lower West Coast . Reaching the top, I found myself looking out over, well, the word that popped into my mind was “Dragon Country”. There are many remote and uninhabited areas in New Zealand, but they tend to be somewhere up in the mountains. Here was a generous and fertile stretch of flat coast, giving out to the western sea, that did not show any obvious traces of human habitation. And those rimu forests they have down there don’t just look like they go back all the way to the times when dinosaurs walked the earth – they actually are the last remnants of those prehistoric forests.

I could easily have sat up on that little hill for several hours, just looking, but it was time to move on. I needed to get to Greymouth before the shops closed, to get my next batch of photos backed up on CD, and stock up on a few things. Then I pressed on, with only a short stop at Punakaiki, to shoot a few hasty photos of the famed pancake rocks. Fortunately, the light was in my favour – that incomparable West Coast evening light.

photo: Pancake rocks at Punakaiki photo: Pancake rocks at Punakaiki photo: Pancake rocks at Punakaiki

Stage 12: Chasing Mt Owen

Having failed to locate a campsite down on the coast that appealed to me, I turned off the coast just before Westport, up the Buller Gorge road, and spent the night on a little campsite near Lyell. The whole area is old gold digger country, and the particular attraction this place has to offer is the opportunity to do your own gold panning, down by the river. If anyone ever actually finds any, I don’t know – the river bed must be pretty well sifted by now! I was content with just shooting a few photos, then I headed on north.

The plan for the day was to track down one of the few “Lord the Rings” film locations I hadn’t been to before, Mt Owen – that impressive karst field the Fellowship bursts out on from the Mines of Moria, just after loosing Gandalf. It isn’t exactly marked on the road map, but I deduced the approximate location from the names of roads in the area, and when I got there it was indeed quite recognizable. I even managed to find beginning of the hiking track to the mountain top – but quickly gave up on any notion of trying the hike for myself. It seems to be an unmarked track, the kind that requires a compass, map, and some considerable bush knowledge, and besides, some dog from a nearby farm was trying to bite my tyres, so I turned the car around and went on my way. The sooner I got to Golden Bay, the more time I’d have to spend there!

Stage 13: Golden Bay

After a long and hot day’s drive I eventually made it to my final destination, Golden Bay. I had good memories of staying on a campsite near Collingwood on a previous occasion, and since the weather was shaping up to be rainy again, and since I was heartily sick of sandflies, and since I had been managing my budget well and refrained from eating fish and chips, except once, I decided I could afford to book myself a cabin for my last three nights. It was an excellent decision – the rain started pouring again in the evening, and continued for most of the next day, which put a bit of a damper on my plans to explore Golden Bay. But as a matter of fact, I was quite happy to have an excuse to spend the day indoors reading, and sketching. I was re-reading the “Earthsea” series, and some fairly fully formed images had been crowding into my head all along, so in the space of some three hours, I jotted down a complete series of thumbnails for “Wizard of Earthsea”, and half of “Tombs of Atuan”. There was work laid out for me for the next couple of years! I’d call that a productive afternoon.

Later in the day it cleared up a bit, and I went for a tour of some of the local galleries. I chatted up the various owners – nearly all of them elderly hippies – to see how they had managed to set themselves up (and how long it had taken them) and even managed to pimp my budding web business a couple of times. I also bought myself a new set of very beautiful (and very inexpensive) pottery from a grumpy old man in gumboots who seemed rather reluctant to sell any of his ware. And to my great delight, I found that the artist-owner of the Earthsea gallery just out of Takaka is a fabulous self-taught landscape painter who is evidently making a bit of money from his art, but that he and his partner had not been thinking of Ursula Le Guin at all when they named their gallery – the word had just seemed like an apt description of the local surroundings.

I then paid my obligatory visit to Pupu spring – a wahi tapu (sacred place) for the Maori people, and the largest and purest fresh water spring in New Zealand. The place is magic – there’s nothing unconvincing in the concept of its sacredness. But with shock and dismay, I saw the signs displayed that entreat people not to get in contact with the water, because Didymo –an invasive alga that has been spreading through New Zealand’s waterways at a scary speed over the last several years , and which is aptly dubbed “rock snot” – has now been found in Takaka river, and how long can they keep it out of Pupu spring? It used to be possible to go snorkeling and diving in the spring, but now it had to be shut down completely. It’s a measure of the seriousness of the situation that there actually is a warden now who hands out information and makes sure that the warnings are being respected. You don’t see that sort of thing in New Zealand, usually. But what can a warden do about the ducks? The thought of seeing that glorious, truly spiritual place choked in a mass of disgusting rock snot puts a lump in my throat, but I am very afraid that it is now only a matter of time. The cathedral of Chartres covered in green slime? Oh the glories of progress and civilization.

Stage 14: Takaka Hill

The last film location on the agenda I had left for my very last day - Canaan Downs on the top fo Takaka Hill. They are only a few shots of the forest around Bree in "Fellowship of the Ring", but Takaka Hill is worth a visit in any case. It is also the venue of New Zealand's originial great New Year outdoor music, dance and pot smoking festival, The Gathering. Happy memories, I suspect, for many who worked on the movies!

I didn't waste much time ticking off the location on my list. Since I did my first trip chasing film locations, the spots have become a lot more easy to identify. The traces of actual filming activity - heavy gear dragged into unlikely places - which were still very visible six years ago, have all but vanished, but now there are the traces of many many curious feet. Not necessarily an improvement!

I then checked my watch - I had to make sure to catch the boat in Picton that same evening - but fortunately there was just enough time left to do the hike to Harwood's Hole, a spectacular sinkhole, the northern end of a chain of marble rock formations that stretch between Takaka Hill and Mt Owen. It was a lazy sunny midsommer afternoon, and the walk led me through some of that elvish Southern Beach forest that covers so much of the South Island. Little yellow leaves were drifting down on the wind, the light between the twigs and branches made eye-bewildering patterns on the tree stems, a forest lake reflecting the surrounding trees added another layer of visual complexity, and eventually the path dived down into a rock cleft that came out on the bright white marble around the sinkhole, blinding in the sudden sunlight. I could not imagine a more perfect last day for a more perfect three and a half weeks.

Arohanui, from Asni

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