The Beginning Place by Ursula K. Le Guin

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(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

The Beginning Place was published after the huge successes of the Earthsea trilogy (1968, 1970, 1972; collected as Earthsea, 1977), The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), and The Dispossessed (1974), the last of which won both Hugo and Nebula awards. Following publication of those works, Ursula Le Guin reassessed her career. From 1975 until 1985, when another major work (Always Coming Home) appeared, she published criticism and some short stories and novels that are generally outside the realm of science fiction or fantasy.

Although well received at the time of publication, The Beginning Place has since received little attention from scholars, possibly because, unlike the Earthsea trilogy, it is not pure fantasy. It is instead an ironic thinking through of the necessity of fantasy and of the dangers of overdependence upon it. In critic Brian Attebery’s words, it is a “metafantasy,” a fantasy about fantasy.

The Beginning Place continues the major themes of Le Guin’s fantasy writings, particularly her interest in the theories of psychoanalyst Carl Jung and in the Taoist belief in the need for balance between good and evil, or dark and light elements. Jung’s interest in the unconscious mind is reflected in the characters’ crossing over from the real, daylight world into a twilight, magical world in which they learn skills to help them cope with life.

Like much fantasy, The Beginning Place is essentially a story of the characters’ journey to adulthood. In the twilight world, Hugh and Irene initially find security and belonging; the ain country is the only place they can feel sure of themselves. They are able to begin to awaken romantically and sexually, nurturing fantasies of love with the characters they most resemble. The fair, clumsy, and ineffectual Hugh loves the blond, passive Allia; dark, scowling Irene worships dark, cruel Sark.

Part of the journey of these characters is the turning away from these mirror images of themselves and toward each other. The screaming,...

(The entire section is 497 words.)