Ursula K(roeber) Le Guin 1929–
American science fiction and fantasy novelist, short story writer poet, and author of children's books.
Noted for its clearly delineated portraits of alien worlds, Le Guin's work reflects her interest in Taoism and an Oriental view of history. Le Guin is the recipient of several Hugo and Nebula awards and is best known for her Earthsea trilogy.
(See also CLC, Vols. 8, 13, Children's Literature Review, Vol. 3, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed., and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 8: Twentieth Century American Science Fiction Writers.)
The five stories by Ursula K. Le Guin with which this essay is directly concerned—Rocannon's World (1966), Planet of Exile (1966), City of Illusions (1967), The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), and "The Word for World is Forest" (1972)—are all set in what may be called the Hainish universe, for it was the people of the planet Hain who originally "seeded" all the habitable worlds of this part of the galaxy and thus produced a humanoid universe that is single, expanding, and historically continuous, but at the same time marvelous in its variety, for each planetary environment caused specific local mutations in its humanoids as they adapted and developed. The result is a universe full of "humans" who display enough variety to provide for any number of alien encounters, and since any possible stage of civilization can be found on some particular planet, new definitions of "civilization" can be made in a narrative rather than a discursive mode….
Besides the continuous time-space history, these narratives are bound together by a consistent imagery that both extends and informs meaning. Although Le Guin has used particular images which emerge naturally from the cultural and ecological context of her imagined worlds as linking devices within each work, she has also consistently used light/dark imagery as a linking device for the whole series. Again and again, good emerges from ambiguous darkness, evil from blinding light. Thus there is a specific local imagery in each novel, and a pervasive light/dark imagery in all of them. (p. 164)
From the very beginning [of Rocannon's World] the interdependence of light and darkness are made clear. Take Kyo's explanation of the difference between his people and the Gdmiar: the Fiia chose to live only in the light, the Clayfolk chose "night and caves and swords" …, and both lost something by their choice. The image of the Fiia dance, "a play of light and dark in the glow of the fire" …, reflects a pattern which Rocannon realizes had existed between Kyo and himself. This dance of shadows and light is the proper image for their interplay in all Le Guin's work: both the light and the dark are necessary if any pattern is to emerge from chaos….
The title of the first chapter in Planet of Exile, "A Handful of Darkness," refers to Agat's dark hand against Rolery's white one. The alliance of farborns and hilfs, of black and white, is touched on throughout the novel: Agat's and Rolery's growing love is imaged in these terms….
"Imagine darkness. In the darkness that faces outward from the sun a mute spirit woke. Wholly involved in chaos, he knew no pattern." Thus begins City of Illusion, and thus begins Falk's book-long search for the correct pattern, one made up of light and darkness as all good patterns must be. Naturally enough, in a story of lie and paradox, light and dark seldom carry ordinary meanings. Falk begins and ends in darkness, yet the two darknesses are opposed: the first a mental chaos, the last an important part of the whole pattern he has...
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[Ursula K. Le Guin] has been compared to C. S. Lewis, with some appropriateness, especially as concerns her juvenile trilogy, but that comparison fails ultimately because she is a better writer than Lewis: her fictions, both juvenile and adult, are richer, deeper, and more beautiful than his. She is probably the best writer of speculative fabulation working in this country today, and she deserves a place among our major contemporary writers of fiction. For some writers, the SF ghetto serves a useful protective function, preserving them from comparison with their best contemporaries. For Ursula Le Guin, as for others, this protection, and the sense of a responsive, relatively uncritical audience that goes with it, may have been helpful during her early development as a writer. But with The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) she displayed powers so remarkable that only full and serious critical scrutiny can begin to reveal her value as a writer. (p. 2)
The Earthsea trilogy consists of A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs of Atuan (1971), and The Farthest Shore (1972)—the order of book publication not quite coinciding with the narrative chronology of the texts. These books have been compared to C. S. Lewis's chronicles of Narnia, especially by English reviewers, for whom this constitutes considerable praise. But the comparison is misleading. Lewis's books are allegories in the narrow sense of that much abused word—his Lion is Christ, and the whole structure of the chronicles is a reenactment of Christian legend…. Ursula Le Guin, in the Earthsea trilogy, relies on the mythic patterns of sin and redemption, quest and discovery, too, but she places them in the service of a metaphysic which is entirely responsible to modern conditions of being because its perspective is broader than the Christian perspective—because finally it takes the world more seriously than the Judeo-Christian tradition has ever allowed it to be taken.
What Earthsea represents, through its world of islands and waterways, is the universe as a dynamic, balanced system, not subject to the capricious miracles of any deity, but only to the natural laws of its own working, which include a role for magic and for powers other than human, but only as aspects of the great Balance or Equilibrium, which is the order of this cosmos. Where C. S. Lewis worked out of a specifically Christian set of values, Ursula Le Guin works not with a theology but with an ecology, a cosmology, a reverence for the universe as a self-regulating structure. This seems to me more relevant to our needs than Lewis, but not simply because it is a more modern view—rather because it is a deeper view, closer to the great pre-Christian mythologies of this world and also closer to what three centuries of science have been able to discover about the nature of the universe. No one, in fact, has ever made magic seem to function so much like science as...
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[The Left Hand of Darkness] functions as a science-fiction novel about the writing of a science-fiction novel and is particularly informative for that reason. Since the various fictional genres can be meaningfully defined in relation to basic myths or to segments of myth, the mythic concern of LeGuin's novel, in spite of its attendant deleterious effects on the narrative, does have its point. (p. 77)
Making sense of the novel, and this is its essential weakness, depends upon an act of dislocation on the part of the reader and seeing what should be implicit as explicit, seeing the way in which the mythic structure rigorously, almost mechanically, determines the various turns of the plot….
It is proposed that, as a result of their ambisexuality, Gethenians are much less prone to the dualistic perception that conceivably is related to the permanent male/female split that characterizes most other forms of humanity: "There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive"…. (p. 80)
This Gethenian peculiarity is epitomized by the book's title, which is extracted from "Tormer's Lay":
Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light.
Here is capsulized the destruction of unity and the re-emergence of unity out of a disparate duality, a movement implicit in the thesis-antithesis-synthesis structural arrangement of the book and a movement basic to my theoretical definition of science fiction. From the Gethenian point of view, a unified Gethenian reality is destroyed by the knowledge of the much larger reality of the Ekumen confederation prior to being incorporated in that larger unity. Likewise, the reader's terrestrial vision is destroyed and then reintegrated to the extent that, during the reading process, he accepts the world of Gethen with its aberrant sexuality and...
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The typical Le Guin hero is a visitor to a world other than his own; sometimes he is a professional anthropologist; sometimes the role is forced on him; in all cases he is a creature of divided allegiance. As a student of an alien society, he has responsibilities to his own culture and to the culture he visits; he must sympathize with and participate deeply in both, for it is by the experience and analysis of their differences that he hopes to arrive at a deeper understanding of the nature and possibilities of mind and of social organization. In his role of scientist, the anthropologist expects cultural division and has been trained to explore it; but as an individual, he finds that his personal attachments exist to...
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It is part of the [attractiveness of The Language of the Night] that Le Guin does not presume to present herself as critic; instead she has allowed Susan Wood (whose editing is devoted and very intelligent) to assemble the book from addresses, reviews, introductions and essays written over the past decade. Partly because of this variety and unpretentiousness, partly because of the candor, seriousness and penetration with which Le Guin speaks of her own work, but mainly because of the pleasure of seeing a first-rate mind at work on these matters, I should say that this is the most attractive introduction to science fiction yet to appear….
Although Le Guin is suspicious of definitions and...
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Le Guin employs the same pervasive light-and-shadow imagery in both her science fiction and her fantasy; the significance of true names, the touching of hands, and the circle journey are important in both. The nature of evil and the preservation of the Equilibrium are her concern in Earthsea as well as in the Hainish novels. Specific images are repeated almost exactly…. Taoism is a major philosophical influence in both, and both reflect her interest in dreams and deep understanding of anthropology.
But more important than any of these analogies—and basic to the achievement of her primary purpose in both the Earthsea trilogy and the Hainish novels—is Le Guin's use of the psychological journey...
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The differences in narrative setting which separate Le Guin's fantasy and her science fiction are tangential. Happy endings are unrealistic and produce comedy like "April in Paris" and fantasy like the Earthsea trilogy. The exile or death of the hero, which is realistic, is the basis of tragedy and of the pressure toward verisimilitude that makes science fiction like "The Masters" or [The Left Hand of Darkness] seem realistic even though the narratives are governed by far-fetched assumptions. What is essential to Le Guin's work is not detail of setting or the type of action, comic or tragic, which she imitates. What is essential is the argument which runs through most of her major pieces, the way in which...
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Authors like LeGuin are perpetually being asked to "talk about their work," and since that is tantamount to recounting the cute things your cat did last week, authors respond—as LeGuin largely does [in The Language of the Night]—with criticism. Of these intelligent and novelistically graceful essays, the weakest seem to me those in which the author tiredly repeats the obvious, usually at the prodding of a publisher, and the best of the pieces written spontaneously and affectionately for fan magazines. At times LeGuin's teacherly generosity keeps her at too elementary a level; "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie," for example, is a model of how to do this sort of thing well, but it's also something a fine mind...
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[In The Beginning Place] Ursula K. Le Guin has returned to the intrapsychic landscape of her earlier fantasies … and has had her characters reject it as a permanent habitation. Two modern young people, Hugh and Irena, discover a strange, fantastic realm, which Irena calls "the ain countree," and which they enter, are changed by and finally leave behind as they return to the real world.
In the essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie" … included in The Language of the Night Le Guin distinguished the genuine, risky Inner Lands ("Elfland") from the banal imitation which is really the outside world in disguise ("Poughkeepsie"). In The Beginning Place she brings Elfland into violent...
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Ursula Le Guin's Malafrena is set in an era familiar from novels such as Le Rouge et le Noir. The background is nineteenth-century Europe under the yoke of the Austrian Empire; the ideas are those of liberty and nationalism; and the hero, Itale Sorde, is the son of a provincial landowner—pro-Napoleon, romantic and full of idealism….
Malafrena is a remarkable feat of imagination. Background, characters and dialogue all have a fully autonomous life: there is a minimum of "period" writing and of intrusive passages of historical information to distract the reader from the plot. Despite the unspecified location—the names of places are given but we are not told where in Europe...
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[Malafrena] is Le Guin exercising her considerable talent in a work whose chief idiosyncracy may be that it owes more to Tolstoy than to Tolkien…. [Like] Tolstoyan dramatis personae they introspectively mull their relationships with both one another and the state, seeking either happiness or justice, if not both, in a society immemorially dedicated to the status quo….
What is new here, apart from the historical setting, is our apprehension that Le Guin has taken an important additional step, for at novel's end Sorde is poised for a further foray into the world outside his beloved Val Malafrena. The vita nova is not a will-o'-the-wisp.
At the risk of incurring the...
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The social sciences inform [Ursula K. Le Guin's] fantasies with far more earthy substance than the usual imaginary space-flight, and her hypothetical futures have a strong flavor of familiar history…. ["The Beginning Place"] describes with plenty of moral and psychological complexity the mating of two modern young people; its fantastic terrain … belongs not to any conjecturable future but to that vast, vaguely medieval never-never land whose place in our shared nostalgia was sealed by Malory's telling of the Arthurian legends, revived by Tennyson and William Morris, and given phenomenal modern currency by Tolkien's saga of Middle-earth. (p. 94)
The adventure that Irene and Hugh come to share in...
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Ursula K. Le Guin's Threshold [published in the United States as The Beginning Place] makes its effect by a firm presentation of the world from which fantasy is an escape….
The appeal of Threshold is that the suburban world and its two characters are well realized, more convincingly realized in fact than the world on the other side. The time-warp enables them to make several visits to both, and Hugh and Irena take their characteristics with them into the magical. Hugh retains his plodding sincerity, Irena her jealousy and anger that her world has been discovered by this stranger. The people of the other side, it transpires, are in some kind of danger, and the story becomes a...
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