Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2082
It is an integral part of our culture. Home is where we feel secure, safe—where we belong. Home is also the place where we go if we are frightened, tired, or lonely because we know that there we will always find peace and love. Ursula Le Guin's novel Always Coming Home works on many levels, but the most interesting one is the theme of return or coming home. Le Guin could have named her book anything, but she chose Always Coming Home. The idea of the return to home is the central theme to all of the discordant parts of the novel. Many critics have commented on the odd narrative style, Utopian aspects, and lack of character development, but few seem to deal with this issue. The return to "home" and spiritual renewal brings a narrative cohesion to the novel as all the various parts work together to explore humanity's need for home.
Pandora, or the Editor, plays a vital role in the novel. She is the scientist who presents the Kesh to the reader. She begins the novel by musing on the difficulty of doing "future archeology." But Pandora presents the reader with a double-edged problem. The Kesh are a people who might be going to live in Northern California several thousand years from now. All at once we become aware that the Kesh are fiction, but in order to make sense of the novel, we must accept that the Kesh are real and that Pandora has spent many months collecting the data which she presents as Always Coming Home. Even though she is a scientist exploring a new culture, Pandora is trapped in her own culture, viewing everything from her home. She originally has a problem locating the archaeological remains of the Kesh because she is thinking in terms of a modern American scholar. The contours of the map have to mean that a particular structure lies here, because that is how we would do it. So, a gate turns out to be a wall and Pandora initially sees the Kesh as a primitive, walled community too scared to leave home.
She realizes her mistake as she begins to explore the literature and culture of these primitive people. Pandora seems fascinated with the social structure and environmental ideology of the Kesh. The value they place on giving away to the community is particularly difficult for her to grasp. This idea, which is so alien to both the reader and the editor, forms the basis of Pandora's search for home. The Kesh believe that only when one gives away everything is one truly rich. Our society does not work that way, but neither does Pandora. She wants to know how the real people lived. She is a scientist unconcerned with the big, overall, simplified view of the Kesh. She wants the broken bowl, the little bits of daily life that will explain how the Kesh acted at home. Le Guin uses Pandora to expose the hypocrisy of scientific objectivity. Pandora cannot escape her own culture and so we see the Kesh and their neighbors, not as they really are, but as Pandora sees them. This becomes obvious when Pandora explains the Condor people and confronts her own scientific prejudices.
The Condor people are the enemy of the Kesh. They are the evil force threatening the Utopia Le Guin has created. However, they hardly seem to be worth the fuss. Their society is on the brink of collapse and all they think about is war and domination. The way Le Guin presents the Condors is directly tied to what she wants to do with Pandora and scientific objectivity. The Condors are introduced only after we have met the Kesh. We do not learn any stories, jokes, or customs of the Condors like we do the Kesh. So, of course we do not feel any connection to them. Although they are more like contemporary American culture, they lack a humanness that the Kesh possess. They dress like a buzzard bird that lives off the dead flesh of other animals. The Condors do not seem to notice the contradictions in their appearance and their attitude about themselves. Pandora, too, has problems being objective about the Condors. They are presented as a warrior society that is doomed to destruction under the weight of their hierarchical culture. But it is because we do not see them at home, being themselves, that they seem like monsters. Le Guin seems to be suggesting that our own desire for peace and prosperity masks a deeper ugliness, based on greed and the desire for destruction.
Pandora's scientific objectivity receives another blow when she tries to understand the Kesh and their lack of history. Unlike other societies, the Kesh have either always been or do not care where they came from. This attitude puzzles Pandora and she tries to unlock the idea of having no history, no beginning. She finds the Keshian creation stories unfulfilling and pushes the Archivist at Wak-wah-na for clarity. The Archivist, a fellow scientist, whom Pandora greets as family, explains that most of the books are thrown away after a few years. The loss of information horrifies Pandora, who cannot see the practicalities of the Keshian system. She insists that data storage and retrieval systems could keep all of the valuable information that is now being lost. The Archivist counters that the City of the Mind already does that, and besides books are like people, mortal beings. She pushes Pandora further by questioning why Pandora insists on storing all information. What is the point? Does it create a system of power? A way to control others in the culture? Le Guin forces her readers to examine what we consider to be knowledge. Through her use of Pandora and her unfailing loyalty to her own culture, Le Guin suggests that we too use knowledge as a weapon to beat on each other. Pandora, even as she explores and explains the Kesh, is stuck in her own culture and cannot, or does not want to, see a way out. She is comfortable at home.
This comfort level with familiar things is a common human emotion. It is also the goal in most of the non-narrative text in Always Coming Home. The poems, short stories, dramas, and dances involve a journey away from home and celebrate the return. As Dick Allen says, the poetry is not profound, but it does speak to the peace and desire for community. The first section deals with stories "told aloud." Their very title suggests a need for community, for home, for others. Each story tells of someone who felt outside the order. These characters did not belong in the situations they were in and the stories revolve around getting the individuals back home. This first section deals with physical separations, followed by poems lamenting the nature of separation, and ending with a section on death customs among the Kesh. This structure follows the flow of Stone Telling's first narrative. She feels cutoff from her people, a part of them, but not fully whole. Her mother lives in a romantic fairy tale and dies, spiritually, when Abhao, her husband, leaves for the second time.
The next grouping of Keshian literature deals with romance, sacrifice for love, and "real" histories. The romances are not romantic as our culture would define romance. Instead they deal with the harsh realities of sexuality and taboo. The stories end unhappily because the characters want something they are not culturally allowed to have. This sense of loss and foreboding continues in the histories section. These histories show the Kesh at their ugliest. The Kesh are not happy-go-lucky, empty-minded Utopians. They are real people who love, hate, fear, and desire just like us. However, the Kesh seem more able than the societies around them to handle these pressures without imploding. But even here, the constant theme is one of community, belonging, fitting in. This again matches the narrative of Stone Telling.
In the second part of her story, Stone Telling dwells on her adolescence after her parents' divorce. She focuses on describing her actions, feelings, and fears as she grows into womanhood. She falls in love, not with a Condor like her mother did, but with a Kesh warrior, a young man named Spear. He is beautiful and soon becomes forbidden to her. He is a member of the Warrior Lodge, an outcast group within Keshian society, and he cannot associate with Stone Telling, since she is not a part of his world. Much like the lovers in the preceding romances, Stone Telling feels cut off from the object of her desire and lashes out at those who try to make her conform. She fights with her grandmother, who does not care for the warriors and leaves the house in tears. Here, Stone Telling is like every single teenager throughout time—confused, in between childhood and adulthood, but belonging to neither. She wants a community, a place to belong, and a place to call home. All of this confusion and desire push Stone Telling toward leaving the Valley. If she does not belong with her mother's people then she must belong with her father's kin.
In many ways, Stone Telling's leaving the Na Valley is both the best and the worst thing that could happen to her. She discovers that she is the product of opposites. Not only are her parents opposite genders, but their belief systems, ideologies, and life concepts are totally different. Abhao desires Willow as a Condor man wants any woman, as a possession or property. Willow wants Abhao to be a Kesh man and stay with her. Stone Telling is caught between these two systems. She is intelligent and keenly aware of her surroundings, but her father makes her feel stupid because she cannot learn his language and writing, as it is forbidden to her because she is a woman. We have to stop and wonder why Abhao takes Stone Telling with him to the Condor. She is female and half-animal (according to Condor theology) and will bring him nothing but shame. Yet Abhao wants to bring her to his home and make her part of his culture. He wants to show his culture that he is normal and can produce children. He wants to give his daughter a community, a place to belong, a home. Unfortunately, neither Stone Telling nor her father realize the dangers in trying to force square pegs into round holes.
The Keshian literature separating the second and final parts of Stone Telling's narrative illustrates these dangers. The dramas that immediately follow the second part of Stone Telling's story all deal with reality and deception. The first, "The Wedding Night at Chukulmas," tells the story of a long-dead groom who invades a real wedding looking for his long-lost bride. The live characters fear the bad luck that will come if the dead characters are not fulfilled. This fear continues in the other plays as characters who do not belong in the situations with which they are confronted react in increasing desperation and irrationality. The dances and the poems following the dramas add to the growing sense of dread. The excerpt from Dangerous People provides a foreshadowing of how Stone Telling's life will fall apart before she can find true happiness. We know that Stone Telling's life in the Condor City of Sai is not happy and the tales of loss, madness, and hysteria that proceed in the third section prepare the reader for the devastating reality of Condor life.
The third section of her narrative shows Stone Telling coming full circle. She experiences everything that we traditionally believe makes for happiness and belonging: family, marriage, and motherhood. However, Stone Telling's experiences with these factors only lead to her mental and physical collapse. It is only the birth of her daughter that forces her to take action. Stone Telling escapes from Sai and returns to the Valley. She has come home. She now knows where she belongs.
All of the elements, characters, and voices in this novel are always coming home. The journey is one full of danger and risk, but the rewards make up for them. Returning to a sense of community and belonging is the ultimate human goal. Le Guin suggests that this goal can only be achieved by first leaving, finding out who we are, and then finally coming home.
Source: Michael Rex, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 2000.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4942
Ursula K. Le Guin is a pacifist, a fact she has made clear on numerous occasions, both in her writings and her political activities. Throughout her writings, she has dealt with war, or armed conflict, in various ways, examining it from a different angle in each work in which such conflict appeared. She examined the psychology of war to a large extent in The Word for World is Forest (1972), especially through the character of Captain Davidson. She looked at what happened to pacifists who could or would not fight back in The Dispossessed (1974), while she considered what happened to pacifists who did fight back in The Eye of the Heron (1978).
In her latest novel, Always Coming Home, Le Guin examines both the psychology and anatomy of war by examining an entire culture given over to war and conquering. She examines this culture from within the society itself, but through the eyes of an outsider who, initially willingly, becomes part of the society. The outsider, Stone Telling, daughter of a woman of the pacifistic Valley people and an important warrior of the constantly warring Condor people, is initially drawn to the power and excitement of her father's world. However, soon she discovers that the power of domination is not exciting when one is the dominated, and that a life based on power and violence is an extremely limited one, even for the powerful. These insights are gained by a free mind within an oppressed and oppressive society. Thus Stone Telling presents both societies, with their faults and strengths, with a clarity of vision that neither side, separated as they are physically and ideologically, is completely capable of achieving. Consequently, Le Guin is able to present a convincing portrait of the war machine and its necessary structure and operation through the eyes of an innocent, but objective observer. This novel, therefore, adds a completely new dimension to Le Guin's study and presentation of war, as found in the rest of her science fiction.
Unlike most of Le Guin's writings in which she examines the issue of war, there is no direct conflict between the two major groups being presented. However, through their contact with one another, there is a dialectical opposition set up between them. Both societies contrast with each other almost totally. This opposition is set up in every area except one (both societies are based on the extended family), and is an effective technique of analysis. Unlike most of Le Guin's works structured along dialectical principles, however, there is no synthesis of the two societies. Not only is their opposition extreme, but the total intractibility of the Condor mentality will allow for no possibilities but its own realities which the Valley people, flexible as they are, find repugnant and completely unacceptable. These feelings are evident in the people's dislike and eventual dissolution of the Warrior and Lamb lodges in the Valley, lodges concerned with the activities and attitudes of war, established during the influence of the Condor on the spiritually weak and the young. These lodges are allowed to exist for some time until the larger body of the people, aware of the danger of such an aggressive and unbalanced mentality amongst them, ask the Warrior and Lamb lodge members to either leave the community or to dissolve their lodges. A few choose the former, going off to the City to join the Condors. Most choose the latter. Thus a negative synthesis is refused by the Valley people, while a positive synthesis remains impossible.
The opposition is set up, then, between an essentially pacifist society and a militarist society. Not only is one side pacifistic, it is also anarchic according to Le Guin's definition of anarchy, as it appears in her introduction to the story "The Day Before the Revolution" in which she established the Odonian anarchy explored to such depth in "The Dispossessed":
Odonianism is anarchism. Not the bomb-in-the-pocket stuff, which is terrorism, whatever name it tries to dignify itself with, not the social-Darwinist economic 'libertarianism' of the far right; but anarchism, as prefigured in early Taoist thought, and expounded by Shelley and Kropotkin, Goldman and Goodman. Anarchism's principal target is the authoritarian State (capitalist or socialist); its principal moral-practical theme is cooperation (solidarity, mutual aid). It is the most idealistic, and to me the most interesting, of all political theories.
(The Wind's Twelve Quarters)
The Valley people, around whom Home is centered, inhabit the most fully realized anarchic state presented in Le Guin's writings to date. An anarchical society is community-based with no central government. All decisions are made by the members of the community who wish to participate in each decision-making meeting which, in the valley towns, seems to occur quite rarely. Life in the society is based on a system of freedom and mutual responsibility, each person walking his own path, yet aware of and concerned for his fellows as he does so. Thus the community is based on equality, each person being an equally important part of the whole. Each one is free to choose his own career, relationships, and the like, advice being offered when requested or when others feel it is necessary, but no control being enforced by any one person or group of people upon any other individual or group. This basic harmony and unity is maintained within the society, although the types of individual conflict which may arise whenever human beings live together is, naturally, present.
Thus the anarchical states in Le Guin's works generally create a natural, unified, free, and intrinsically peaceful way of life. The Valley people have an interesting set of ethical values, which are probably not foreign to the reader in type, but may be in application. For example, giving is central to the idea of mutual aid. Consequently, a wealthy family in the Valley is one which gives constantly into the town storehouses and to individuals. Each family gives what it can, whether it be in foodstuffs grown, wool, woven cloth, pottery, or more technical skills. Lodges are established in which certain professions such as medicine are centralized, and where all learning regarding that profession takes place. Thus wealth is counted not only in goods given, but also in skills or learning used for the community. When Stone Telling returns to her hometown of Sinshan, after spending seven years in the City of the Condors, she decides it is time her family were wealthy. With the help of her daughter and a friend from the City, she builds up her sheep flock, begins a herd of goats, plants crops in the family garden plot and helps with the orchard harvesting. She also begins to weave. Within three years, she is able to give freely, and counts herself rich, but for her poverty of education in the history, poetry, and other intellectual pursuits of her people. She then begins to catch up, as much as she can, on these intellectual matters, eventually becoming the singer of one of the great poems of her people. Thus she becomes wealthy in all things, as she is able to give in every major area.
In a system where wealth is counted by how much one gives, and where personal possessions, position, and status mean nothing in themselves, there is little opportunity for a power structure to arise. A power structure, however, is absolutely essential for a primarily military society, as no true army can be run without a strict hierarchy of power and command. Thus the mighty Condors, the warrior-people of Home, live in a highly structured, hierachical society in which power, position, and possessions mean everything.
Power is, initially, appealing and exciting. Stone Telling is first drawn to power when her father, a commander of the Condor forces, lets her give instructions to his men who are building a bridge. Her own unhappy and disrupted home, her love for her father and her minor attraction to power, cause her to ask to go with him to the Condor City of Man. Once there, however, she begins to truly understand the power structure, because there she is amongst the lowest in the hierarchy: she is a woman. In the Valley, women are considered equal to the men in all things, and the family line is continued through the mother into whose house a man marries and children are born; in the City, women are considered utterly inferior to the men. They are kept within walls, usually a very negative symbol in Le Guin's works, living in women's quarters which are always on the lowest level of the underground houses. They rarely, if ever, go outside. They are not allowed to be educated in any way, and they are considered to have no souls. Their chief function is to bear children for the strength of their husbands' houses and for the glory of their god. However, Condor women, daughters of the powerful elite of the City, are not considered the lowest forms of life. Male farmers or workers (tyon) seem to be lower still, while hontik are at the bottom. Hontik seems to translate as animal or dirt, and includes all non-Condor women, all foreigners of either sex, and animals themselves. Thus the hierarchy is an extreme one, which recognizes nothing outside its ranks, and defines clearly what lies within those ranks.
Stone Telling makes it quite clear that the power-based society of the Condors is engaged in constant struggle and war. Even the lower orders, such as women, desire power because of their constant humiliation and dehumanization, and will exercise it whenever possible, while the powerful within the structure seek to maintain their power. Thus the strife is based on fear, envy, hatred, and suspicion, and yet the power structure breeds a desire for power. The internal, covert, mental, and emotional conflict of this society fuels the war machine and maintains the structure of the militarist society. A society based on such conflict must go to war to keep the structure from decaying or destroying itself. Hence, towards the end of the novel, when the Condors lose their grip on the people they have subjected, they turn within and begin to destroy their own people: buzzards tearing out and devouring their own entrails, as Stone Telling describes it.
Violence is, therefore, central to this society. When the Condors go to war, the killing is excessive and gratuitous—frequently all the men and children are killed, and the women kept for the pleasure of the soldiers. Within the society itself, life is uncertain. Everyone has a place in the hierarchy, but only for the lowest is that place permanent and secure. It is a society whose members' control over each other is both implicitly and, occasionally, explicitly violent. Stone Telling describes this violence with horror:
It sounds strange when I say that disgrace could put a person in danger of his life; disgrace and shame are quite bad enough by themselves, among us in the Valley, but there, where every relationship was a battle, they were deadly. Punishment was violent. I have said that I was told that a hontik could be blinded for writing or reading, a woman killed for having sex, I did not see such things happen, but every day I did see or hear about violent punishments, striking children, beating slaves, locking up disobedient hontik or tyon, and later on, as I shall tell, it grew worse. It was frightening to live in this kind of continuous war. The Dayao [Condors] seemed never to decide things together, never discussing and arguing and yielding and agreeing to do something before they did it. Everything was done because there was a law to do it or not to do it. And if something went wrong it seemed never to be the orders, but the people who obeyed them, that got blamed; and blame was usually physical punishment I learned caution daily. I learned, whether I wanted to or not, how to be a warrior. Where life has been made into a battle, one has to fight.
When rebellion breaks out amongst the slaves and tyon, Condor reprisals are immediate and harsh. The rebellion escalates, however, and, as the Condors' frustration grows, so does their desire to control and kill. Their society is a machine that, set going, cannot stop. Those who start the machine become part of the machine, until, finally, they become the machine and no longer control it. Thus, at some point in the development of the militaristic state, the war machine takes over, and human beings simply become its tolls. However, the war machine here is breaking down, collapsing under its own weight of greed and power. The society begins to destroy itself from within because of the potency of its own disease, which is overwhelming it. Le Guin is saying here that it is a society that not only promotes the most negative facets of the human personality, but that it is in a state of continuous suspicion and unrest in itself and therefore it feeds upon itself in its disease. Thus the society based on destructive traits and activities eventually destroys not only those in its immediate vicinity, but itself as well. The society that lives primarily in peace with others and within itself, like that of the Valley people, however, maintains itself and its values, and it grows and expands, within, as well as without.
Stone Telling, a daughter of the Valley people for fifteen years, with her people's ideas of freedom, responsibility, and equality, finds herself powerless in a highly stratified society, the daughter of a Condor and dirt. It is through her eyes that the reader sees the Condor people, and through her account of their society that the reader comes to see something of his own society from a fresh viewpoint, through new eyes. For Le Guin makes it quite clear in places that the Condor society is an analogy of our own militaristic western society. Indeed, at times the account almost seems an allegory. But there are many external differences between the two societies, even if the fundamental structures are rather similar, and thus Le Guin avoids the essentially didactic nature of the allegory.
Le Guin exposes and criticizes the militaristic society in Home through her direct comparison between it and the pacifistic, anarchical Valley community. Early in the novel, when the child North Owl (Stone Telling's "first" name) first sees the Condor soldiers of her father, she says:
...I was not sure that the men there were human beings. They all dressed alike and looked alike, like a herd of some kind of animal, and they did not speak any word I knew. Whenever they came near my father they would slap their forehead, or sometimes kneel down in front of him as if they were looking at his toes. I thought they were crazy men, very stupid, and that my father was the only real person among them.
The language used in this passage is important. Stone Telling's first impression of these men is that they are like animals. They dress alike and do not act or look like human beings in the Valley do. It is her first experience with the conformity necessary in a military hierarchy. Furthermore, the reference to animals has far-reaching reverberations, for it is six years later that she learns that Condors consider all non-elite Condors or farmers, "animals". Her perception in this passage is the reverse of that of the Condors; but whereas for her this observation remains only an observation, the Condors push their perception of non-Condors to a practical and frightening extreme. In their perception of others as only animals, they are freed of any human responsibility towards them and need not treat them as anything other than the lowliest of animals.
The term "animal," applied to humans, takes on further implications when Le Guin makes it clear that for the Valley people many animals, including the herd animals like sheep and goats to which Stone Telling compares the soldiers, are considered "people," and a distinction is made between human and other people when necessary. A Valley family is frequently numbered according to all its people, so that when Stone Telling returns from the City, she says her family includes her mother and five sheep. Thus, in the holistic Valley perception of life, all creatures are an integral part of the greater whole, which is life, or being. Humans are a part of this whole, but only one part, and must share the world with all others, in harmony with them, killing out of necessity, never pleasure. This attitude is completely alien, of course, to the hierarchical and exclusivist Condors, who believe that all the world exists only for their use and profit, life in general having no intrinsic value in itself. The Condors feel that they have no relationship to the rest of the world except that of their domination over it: "The Condor people seem to have been unusually self-isolated; their form of communication with other peoples was through aggression, domination, exploitation, and enforced acculturation." Consequently, the word "hontik" suggests both "animal" and "dirt," meaning that the hontik are as non-human and unimportant as animals or dirt to the elite. Of course, even dirt and rocks are part of the whole as perceived by the Valley people, and both are treated as sacredly as any other part of the people's teeming, living, holy world. These fundamentally spiritual perceptions of the world indicate the deep differences between the two peoples, their perceptions of each other and their relationships with the world about them.
The other word that is significant in the passage quoted earlier is "crazy." The Valley people view the Condors as "crazy" or "sick" or men "with their heads on backwards." In Valley society, only children play at games of war and hunting. Full-grown men who are hunters are considered adolescent, refusing to don the maturity of adulthood. Most of the meat-hunting for the towns is done by male adolescents, who usually take on some respectable trade when they become men. Thus the Valley people dismiss the Condors as children playing games, albeit dangerous ones, as they do the men who, under the Condor influence, form the short-lived Warrior Lodge. However, it is principally in terms of sickness or insanity that the Valley people view the Condor: "The people of the Condor, those men who have come here from that people, are sick. Their heads are turned backwards. We have let people with the plague come into our house." Le Guin herself, in a direct address to the reader, points out the difference between the Valley view of the power structure and its mate, war, and our own (which, she argues, is primarily the same as the Condors'): "To this I think the people of the Valley might have an answer, along the lines of 'Very sick people tend to die of their sickness,' or 'Destruction destroys itself.' This answer however, involves a reversal of our point of view What we call strength it calls sickness, what we call success it calls death."
It is clear that the Valley people would have joined with other free peoples in their area to fight against the Condor if they had had to, to stop the spreading of the disease which breeds only more war and death. However, the overall desire was to cure or "quarantine," rather than to fight. The natural and non-violent method is always preferred. However, if there had been no choice, they were prepared to fight. Fortunately, the Condors destroy themselves before such a battle ever engages; Le Guin has worked through the results of an armed confrontation between pacifistic peoples and trained military groups elsewhere in her writings, and obviously, she is still not completely comfortable with a such a confrontation and its seemingly inevitable result. Consequently, in Home, she concentrates on revealing the differences between the two groups through simple juxtaposition, thus avoiding the necessity of an armed conflict.
However, fighting in general and a society based on conflict are considered essentially weak by the Valley people: "The weak follow weakness, and I was a child; I followed my father;...," Stone Telling says early in the story. Those who seek or exercise power are considered fundamentally weak because such external and imposed power is unbalanced, and does not draw from the power inherent in the harmonious participation in being, as Stone Telling says: "So I first felt the great energy of the power that originates in unbalance,..."
A power that does not proceed from balance cannot lead to wholeness of being, either for the individual or the society. This power, therefore, derives from "outside the world," as Stone Telling says repeatedly throughout the novel. Thus their pursuit of power places the Condor people as a group outside the world of being, wholeness, and harmony. Those who participate largely in being have their own kind of power, an internal power that seeks not to dominate but to be given in guidance, truth, or whatever is needed: "...but Obsidian of Ounmalin stood forward to speak. She was the only person in the nine towns at that time called by the name of her House, the best-known of all dancers of the Moon and Blood, unmarried, single-sexed, a person of great power."
Because a power structure cannot admit of true freedom, one of the major differences between the two groups is that of freedom. A society based on power must move away from freedom, to stratification, intolerance, and inflexibility. Thus Terter Abhao, Stone Telling's father, refuses to help in the family garden plot when he stays in the village, because he is not a tyon, he is a Condor commander. He is unable to let go his position and status, even in a place where they are meaningless. He is not flexible within, nor is he flexible or free outside of himself. He leaves the Valley when he gets his orders. He has no choice. He must do what he is told, so unlike the Valley people, who come and go as they please, doing what they desire whenever they desire it, although these desires are schooled to consider, to some extent, the community and individuals around them. In the City, Stone Telling finds that the women are penned indoors like animals and have no real freedom of movement, being unable to go outside except with permission from the men. But the men, the elite, the Condors themselves, are in truth no freer And they, like the women, servants, and slaves, live in fear and distrust, never knowing from day to day where blame or disfavor might fall, ending power, position, or even life.
Just as there is no freedom in the Condor society, there is also no participation in the decision-making process. All decisions are dictated by the One Condor, headman of the people. His advisors may suggest certain paths to take, but the ultimate decision rests with him. Furthermore, each advisor is in or out of favor with the One Condor according to the One Condor's feelings or desires at any time. Of course, no woman, tyon, or hontik ever has any input into what is decided. Le Guin sets up this situation in opposition to the Valley system, where all people have a right to participate in a meeting, and full agreement is always sought before any decision is carried through.
The idea of wealth is another part of the differences between the two groups. As mentioned earlier, wealth in the Valley is equated with the amount given. A family may feel shame if it must take more than it can give, although there seems to be no stigma attached to taking. There is, however, praise given for giving. In the Condor society, on the other hand, possessions indicate wealth. As Stone Telling traveled to the City with her father, she was amazed that the soldiers always took but never gave. Condor taking extended in every direction—they "increase[d] their wealth and power by taking land, life, and service from other people." In the City, Stone Telling found that the same pattern continued. The wealthy were those who had, not those who gave. And amongst the many possessions a rich man might have, women, slaves, and children would be included. Thus a wife or a male child, like a servant or slave, belonged to the man. Le Guin seems to be suggesting here that possession is part of the military mentality, for it is in desiring to possess that one begins to take that which belongs to others. From an uncontrolled desire for wealth first arises theft and then, if condoned on a large scale, war.
One of the first things to be jealously possessed in a possessive society is knowledge. None but the True Condor men are allowed to learn to read. Women, tyon, or hontik caught reading are blinded or lose a hand. Consequently, knowledge and its distribution become tools of power in the hierarchy and help ensure the maintenance of that structure, for knowledge is an important part of power. If all have knowledge, all share, to some extent, in power. Hence, education and knowledge are highly valued amongst the Valley people, and those without an adequate education in culture, spiritual knowledge, and a trade are considered poor, as Stone Telling herself is when she first returns from the City. Thus, in the Valley, all share knowledge and all share power. In the City, only a few hold power, and therefore only a few are allowed knowledge.
It is interesting that writing is considered sacred in both cultures. However, the definition of the word "sacred" varies. In the Valley society, where most natural beings and certain other things are considered sacred, and where all participate in and celebrate that sanctity, writing is learned by all. In the City culture, where only power and things of power are considered sacred, only a powerful few have access to writing. Le Guin states explicitly in the chapter "Pandora Converses with the Archivist of the Library of the Madrone Lodge at Wakwaha-Na", that there is a relationship between this withholding of information in the Condor society and that of our own world:
ARC: Who controls the storage and the retrieval? To what extent is the material there for anyone who wants and needs it, and to what extent is it "there" only for those who have the information that it is there, the education to obtain that information, and the power to get that education? How many people in your society are literate? How many are computer-competent? How many of them have the competence to use libraries and electronic information storage systems? How much real information is available to ordinary, non-government, non-military, non-specialist, non-rich people? What does "classified" mean? What do shredders shred? What does money buy? In a State, even a democracy, where power is hierarchic, how can you prevent the storage of information from becoming yet another source of power to the powerful—another piston in the great machine?...How do you keep information yet keep it from being the property of the powerful?
PAN: Through not having censorship. Having free public libraries. Teaching people to read. And to use computers, to plug into the sources. Press, radio, television not fundamentally dependent on government or advertisers. I don't know It keeps getting harder.
Through her juxtaposition of the two societies in Always Coming Home, Le Guin presents a powerful and timely anti-war statement. By her technique of examining the internal workings of the war machine through someone intelligent and thoughtful, yet largely innocent of any knowledge of power structures or war, Le Guin reveals the whole idea of the stratified power structure in a new way. For as the reader watches Stone Telling grow up, he becomes used to the Valley perception, strange though it may initially seem. Thus it may be something of a shock when the Condor are introduced and the reader recognizes many of the Condor views as ones with which he is culturally more conversant. So Le Guin acquaints us with the Valley people first, then presents the Condors through the eyes of the Valley people, which makes the Condors initially as alien to the reader as they are to Valley dwellers. Thus Le Guin can effectively present the evils of the militaristic and possessive society while the reader is still sharing Stone Telling's cultural disorientation. The emotional and intellectual effect of such a method is powerful and jolting, causing the very distance Le Guin desires the reader to have from a society all too like his own, so that he can dispassionately and objectively examine the principles and values upon which his own ideas of existence and social structures are based.
Le Guin occasionally sets up a specific correlation between the Condor society and our own, asking the reader to think about the direction of his own society, without setting up a constant one-to-one correlation that might antagonize the reader. And as always in her writings, Le Guin shows the reader what is wrong or unhealthy in his world only to suggest a way out—an alternative society, based on peace and freedom, and yet firmly grounded on possibility, requiring no fundamental changing of the human personality, only a shifting of perspective. Always Coming Home is a novel about challenges. It is a novel about possibilities. In a dark time, it is a novel about hope.
Source: J. R. Wytenbroek, "Always Coming Home. Pacificism and Anarchy in Le Guin's Latest Utopia," in Extrapolation, Winter, 1987, pp. 330-39.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 996
With high invention and deep intelligence, Always Coming Home presents, in alternating narratives, poems and expositions, Ursula K. Le Guin's most consistently lyric and luminous book in a career adorned with some of the most precise and passionate prose in the service of a major imaginative vision.
Mrs. Le Guin has created an entire ethnography of the far future in her book. It's called a novel. But even to glance at it is to suspect it's more than, or other than, that the oversize trade paperback is boxed with a tape cassette of delicate songs, poems and haunting dance pieces, purportedly recorded on site. Liner notes are included. Are they by the composer, Todd Barton, or by Ursula Le Guin? It's not indicated. I would like to know, since each entry, with its song or poem, is a small story in itself. Margaret Chodos's fine line drawings portray animals, birds, sacred implements and symbols, tools, mountains, and houses (but no people); and we have charts, maps, alphabets, and a glossary. The book contains a short novel, "Stone Telling," spaced out in three parts, narrated by a woman called Stone Telling; and "Chapter Two" from another novel, Dangerous People, by Wordnver. Along with Marsh, Cowardly Dog, and Mote, Wordnver is among the great novelists of the Kesh, the people of the Valley, the subjects of Mrs. Le Guin's pastoral vision. In addition there are poems, children's stories, adult folk tales, verse dramas, recipes, essays, and a host of Kesh documents. Though the word "Indian" does not appear from one end of the book to the other, the reader is likely to feel after only a few pages that much Native Amencan culture has become a part of this dark, wise, stocky people's way of life. Mrs. Le Guin has given us the imaginary companion volume of "Readings" that might accompany a formal anthropological study.
When did the Kesh live? They haven't, yet.
The Kesh have access to a daunting computer system. But they live 500 years or more in our future, on the northwestern coast of what's left of a United States gone low-tech and depopulated by toxic waste and radioactive contamination. The Kesh are an attractive people. One noun serves them for both gift and wealth. To be rich and to give are, for them, one verb. They do not share the West's present passion for origins and outcomes: their pivotal cultural concept is the hinge, the connecting principle that allows things both to hold together and to move in relation to each other. Their year is marked off by elaborate seasonal dances. Their lives and work are organized in a complicated system of Houses, Lodges, Arts, and Societies.
A minor tribal war occurs between some 30-odd young men of Sinshan, the Kesh village, and a few of the neighboring Pig People. There is a much larger and longer one between the Condor Men and the Valley people that occupies the periphery of "Stone Telling." In the end both wars are shown to share the same small-scale tribal form, for all their real deaths, real suffering, and real shame. But they are very different from the technological megawars of our century.
The emotional high point, for me, was the transcription of a Kesh play, "Chandi," a retelling of the biblical tale of Job. A society in which such a tale is important cannot be a simple Utopian construct: a Job, (or a Chandi)—that most anti-utopian of myths—reminds us too strongly that as long as culture is fitted against nature, along whatever complex curve, the best of us may slip into the crack to be crushed by unhappy chance. The Chandi play is followed by a luminous meditation on a scrub-oak ridge by Mrs. Le Guin's ironic alter ego, Pandora—giver of all gifts, mother of all afflictions, guardian of hope—who, throughout the book, "worries about what she is doing," to the reader's delight and enlightenment.
Mrs. Le Guin has put some expository pieces in a 100-plus-page section called "The Back of the Book." These are among the most interesting, the most beautiful. I suggest going straight to them and reading "What They Wore," "What They Ate," and "The World Dance" before beginning the book proper. They will enhance Stone Telling's tale of her childhood considerably. (By the same token, don't read "The Train"—or you will spoil a pleasant narrative surprise earlier on.)
Grouped between the prose pieces, the 70-odd poems slow up a straight-through reading. Not particularly difficult or particularly bad. But a contemporary reader, for whom poetry is still a high art, and for whom the poet is at once on the margins of society while oriented toward the center of culture, simply finds it hard going through the Kesh's overwhelming poetic saturation. And while we understand the poems as simple surface utterances, at a deeper level, where we expect poems to be meaningful, they don't make much sense. I only wish Mrs. Le Guin had written more prose about the practice of poetry in the Valley with, say, the same energy and vividness she employed to write about the cosmogenic Dance of the World or the Saturnalian Dance of the Moon—two of the book's most spectacular set pieces.
Mrs. Le Guin is among the half-dozen most respected American writers who regularly set their narrative in the future to force a dialogue with the here and now, a dialogue generally called science fiction. She is also a much loved writer. And Always Coming Home is a slow, rich read, full of what one loves most in her work: a liberal Utopian vision, rendered far more complex than the term "utopian" usually allows for by a sense of human suffering. This is her most satisfying text among a set of texts that have provided much imaginative pleasure in her 23 years as an author.
Source: Samuel R. Delany, "The Kesh in Song and Story," in The New York Times Book Review, September 29, 1985, pp. 31, 56.
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