Virginia Harger-Grinling and Tony Chadwick (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: Harger-Grinling, Virginia, and Tony Chadwick. “Djinn by Alain Robbe-Grillet: Or the Architecture of the Fantastic.” In Reflections on the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Fourth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, edited by Michael R. Collings, pp. 25-31. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986.

[In the following essay, Harger-Grinling and Chadwick address the ways in which Robbe-Grillet uses the image of the traditional Arabian genie to guide readers through fantastical elements in Djinn while setting large parts of the book in a realistic world.]

For the first decade or so of the nouveau roman in France, critics focused on the excessively realistic aspect of works as diverse as Les Gommes of Robbe-Grillet, Le Planétarium of Nathalie Sarraute, and La Route des Flandres of Claude Simon. Critics tried various labels in an attempt to pin the specimens to the display board. Having with difficulty accommodated their thinking to existentialism, they now wrestled to measure the distance from the text to world by applying the rules of Euclidean geometry to novels that refused either to submit to traditional collecting methods or to lie quietly ensnared by the lilliputian strands of traditional literary concepts. Gradually, however, criticism based on the naive relationship of text to world, itself a reflection of saussurian linguistic theory, was replaced by the recognition that the text of the new novel does not bear the same relationship to the world as does the prose of the journalist or the historian. For the latter, a text is transparent, allowing the gaze of the reader to pass through to reality with as little deformation as possible; for the novelist reality is the text: there is no beyond, no elsewhere.

For the reader, nevertheless, old habits die hard; each fictional text that he begins offers a pathway from the real world to another world. In Djinn Robbe-Grillet provides for his reader and for his protagonist, Simon Lecoeur, numerous points of entry to, and exit from, fantasy.1 The first is the title Djinn, which is, in the surrealistic sense, metaphysically ambiguous; it leads to speculation, confusion. And of course fantasy is, as Bruce Morrissette suggests, talking of the word “Djinn” in an earlier Robbe-Grillet novel, “the ‘mise en abyme’ par excellence.”2 Explanations phonetic or otherwise result in further confusion, deliberately instigated by the author. If the benevolent genie of the magic lamp is suggested, so are the Djinns of the nineteenth-century French author Victor Hugo. Contrary to the Djinn of the Arabian nights, these are creatures of darkness who inspire fear as they descend like a crowd of furies to destroy a powerless population. Hugo's exotic fantasy and the source of his poetic inspiration for Les Orientales was the East. Robbe-Grillet chooses the West; his Djinn is an androgynous young American woman, who speaks French with a light accent, and who appears to the protagonist not as a wraith draped in mist, but as a still-life, window dresser's mannequin.

The first architectural feature to provide the plaque tournante of the fantasy is the subtitle “Un trou rouge entre les pavés disjoints,” which appears exclusively in the French edition published by the Editions de Minuit. At a conference in New York held at New York University in October 1982, Robbe-Grillet said he regretted that the American edition of his novel had omitted this subtitle. As the author indicated, it is a gateway to the mystery beneath the surface of Western civilization and of modern life and is, therefore essential to the direction the novel will take. It is also, as Robbe-Grillet reminded his New York audience, an indirect reference to the famous slogan of the May 1968 students' rebellion: “Sous les pavés, la plage.” As they ripped up the paving stones to hurl at police, the students discovered the liberating power of the imagination when it is not hemmed in by regulations. These pavés or paving stones of a bygone era, not only provided the impromptu instruments of student revolt in the Paris of 1968, but because of their unevenness and lack of uniformity, became textual generators, as Jean Ricardou would put it. In Djinn the paving stones provoke a new departure in the text, a transposition of the protagonist from the “reality” of the fiction to its fantasy.

Le sol est inégal, revêtu de pavés à l'ancienne mode en très mauvais état, gardant des flaques d'eau sale dans les parties creuses.

(p. 25)

[The ground is uneven, covered with old-fashioned paving stones in a very bad state of repair, holding in their hollows puddles of dirty water.]

As Simon walks down this lane, a young boy rushes out from one of the houses, to stumble over one of the paving stones, fall down, and lie there without a sound. When Simon examines the boy for injuries, he discovers that the boy is dressed strangely: his costume resembles that of a child from the nineteenth century. Nothing except the boy's old-fashioned dress and the “pavés a l'ancienne mode” [old-fashioned paving stones] indicates that Simon has passed into the fantasy world. The scene remains the same; there is no rushing wind, no puff of smoke, no clap of thunder. But he is nonetheless ailleurs [elsewhere]—in another world. The fantastic aspect of this scene is confirmed only later when, as Simon awakes from a drugged sleep, a succession of images comes to him:

Une nouvelle image, venue il ne savait d'où, surgit à l'improviste dans sa mémoire détraquée: une longue ruelle rectiligne, mal pavée, faiblement éclairée par de vieux réverbères, entre des palissades croulantes, des murs aveugles et des maisonnettes à demi en ruines. …

(p. 86)

[A new image, from he knew not where, suddenly loomed in his deranged memory; a long rectilinear alley, badly paved, feebly lit by old street lights, between broken-down palings, blinds walls and little houses falling down.]

He is doubtful whether this is indeed a memory.

Simon ne savait pas s'il fallait qu'il leur accordât le statut de souvenirs, comme à des événements de sa vie réelle; ou bien s'il ne s'agissait pas plutôt de ces figures forméees dans les rêves, qui défilent dans notre tête au moment du réveil, et généralement selon un ordre chronologique inverse.

(p. 85)

[Simon did not know whether he should go so far as to call these memories, as he would happenings in his real life; or whether it were not more a question of those shapes formed in dreams which parade through our head as we awake, and generally follow inverse chronological order.]

Indeed, when Simon works through the scene again, he does not directly question the status of its reality; reality, dream, or fantasy—the sequence has now become obsessional and impossible to escape from.

In this final elaboration of the alley sequence, the pavés are clearly the point of transition into the fantasy world, although where the fantasy world lies is not explained. There is no marked change in place nor, except for the dress of the young boy, is a different time suggested. But it is nonetheless clear that the world into which Simon strays does not obey the laws of our everyday world. It is, for example, governed by the laws of the children's imagination. Simon does what the children want—he inexpertly recounts stories of fantasy; the boy “dies” frequently; he falls but he makes no sound and shows no sign of injury. The laws of fantasy in Djinn are indeed not so far removed from those of our “normal” world, for Robbe-Grillet does not want to transport his reader or his protagonist to a place so markedly different from the real that anguish is stifled. Instead he forces the protagonist and the reader into a schizophrenic state where night and day, benevolence and evil, are alternating poles as they are in the word “Djinn.” Nor, on the other hand, does he want to create a humanist depth to his text. In fact he pointedly makes reference to one of the greatest transporting texts of the twentieth century, Proust's A la Recherche du temps perdu, to show by contrast how different his work is. Proust's involuntary memory is provoked by external stimuli—the madeleine, a starched napkin—but the narrator's pleasure stems not from the recovery of something lost, but from the aesthetic image created by drawing together two distant realities. The power of involuntary memory is strongest when the distance between the current reality and the memory is greatest. As Pierre Reverdy defines it:

Plus les rapports des deux realities rapprochées seront lointaines et justes, plus l'image sera forte, plus elle aura de puissance émotive et de réalité poétique.3

[The more remote and precise the relationship between the two realities, the more striking is the image, and the more emotive power and poetic reality it has.]

In Proust's world the physical distance between Paris and Venice, for example, is great enough to cause a shock when the narrator, as the result of treading on an uneven dalle in the Guermantes's courtyard in Paris, suddenly remembers the square in front of St. Mark's in Venice. The imaginative voyage takes the reader from the present to another time and place. Fantasy in Proust lies not in the difference between the present and the remembered world, but in the mind of the narrator, which holds in one moment two separate worlds.

Robbe-Grillet's use of the pavé implicitly criticizes Proust's technique with its insistence on flight away from the present and away from the text. When Simon treads on the pavé, he does not enter a new world, distant from the real one. Rather, he discovers a world whose status is never clearly established as imaginary or real. The absence of depth or perspective, the impossibility of distinguishing the boundaries between the fictional real and the fictional fantastic disturbs protagonist and reader alike. The real world is not comfortable, and man does not find a natural place in it. Nor does man find his place in a comforting ailleurs. Indeed, the narrator's attempts to move to another world—his romantic reverie about Djinn/Jane Frank—is thwarted as figures show themselves to be tailor's dummies and vice versa. This miroitement, where the text seems to reveal an ailleurs that is not there, continues the process of demystification of the metaphors of humanism, which Robbe-Grillet so cogently analyzed in a series of essays written at the beginning of his career and which he gathered in Pour un nouveau roman.

The image that best expresses surface without depth is the mirror. In the mirror we seem to see depth; objects appear to be at the same distance behind the mirror as they are in front of it. This “depth” that does not exist has been seized by writers such as Lewis Carroll to represent the locus of a fantasy world, which can be used to comment critically on the “real” world of the reader. From the textual point of view, the surface of the mirror, the text, is transparent, pointing to the fantasy beyond. When Alice climbs into the mantelpiece, the textual mirror responds to her words, allowing her to move through the looking glass into the world beyond. Robbe-Grillet, on the other hand, uses mirrors and other reflecting surfaces frequently to remind the reader that there is nothing beyond the text and that it is pointless to attempt to understand the secret lying beneath the surface of the text. As Simon listens to Djinn's address on the purpose of the organization, he tries to understand what she is saying. He manages to raise the right corner of his dark glasses to observe his “neighbor,” who is in turn observing Simon. This mirror image of Simon continues to mimic the movements of Simon, who seems not to notice the illusion. The reader, too, may be deceived until Simon's neighbor tries to communicate by writing on the ground with his cane. Simon's attempt to understand is thwarted because it is his own mirror writing he is observing. The text seems to point elsewhere to a signifié (for example, a foreign language, a code known by the confréres) in much the same way that Carroll's text indicates the looking-glass world. But because Robbe-Grillet's text reflects Simon's (and the reader's) world, Simon's and our attempts to inscribe a signifié on Djinn results in incomprehension. We are left with a signifiant, a text which like poetry indicates only itself.

Other transparent/opaque surfaces are windows. At the opening of the text the reader's attention is drawn to the “larges fenêtres aux vitres crasseuses, en parties brisées” [Wide windows with dirty panes, partly broken] through which a dim light penetrates to reveal the debris of an industrial society. Light also filters into the room where Simon carries the unconscious young boy Jean, for at this early stage in the elaboration of the text the traditional saussurian structure of language has not been disturbed: signifiers still indicate signified. However, in the repetition of the scene of the boy's fall, the nature of the windows has changed. Though outside it is to all intents and purposes broad daylight, inside the room the curtains obscure the daylight. When Simon draws back the curtains to observe the street outside, he discovers that night has fallen, recreating the motif of Projet pour une révolution à New York, where photographs of sadistic violence were placed behind the keyholes of locked doors en trompe-l'oeil.

The text of Djinn is at the same time signifier (the text created by Robbe-Grillet) and signified (the action of reading the text as a jeu d'esprit, a puzzle, or anything that does not move beyond the text). By the end of Djinn the reader may not even leave the text, which has now become a board game (or something similar), since he is, in the figure of the policeman, “ramené de nouveau, à la case de départ” (p. 146) [Brought back again to square one].

The loop that constitutes the closed form of Djinn is repeated architecturally in the logic of the fantasy space, whose principal feature is the impasse. The figure is found repeatedly in Robbe-Grillet's fiction but seems to be more prominent in his later works. In Djinn, Simon is told to climb to the second floor (p. 15), only to discover that the stairs stop at the “premier étage.” Simon explains the impasse by the cultural and linguistic differences between the United States and France, but it is clear that his explanation is in fact a rationalization to reassure him in a space that does not conform to his expectations. The room on the “premier étage” [first floor] is a replica of the one on the “rez-de-chaussée” [ground floor], including the details of the dress and position of the human figure. Yet nothing suggests that Simon has crossed to the fantasy world. Such comforting markers for the gateway to fantasy are deliberately avoided, since the rational division of real from fantastic has no place in Robbe-Grillet's vision of the world. By blurring the boundaries, the protagonist moves from one world to another without effort and introduces the possibility of mirror duplications. Faced with an uncertain entity—reality or fantasy, the actual or the remembered—the protagonist and the reader lose confidence in their perceptions and become more readily entangled in the text.

The central figure of the impasse is found in the “rue Vercingétorix III,” the alley which is supposed to lead to the Gare du Nord. Simon first enters it hesitantly. In the half light he sees a hall at the other end, seemingly making it a dead-end street. Then, reassured by the plaque bearing the street name which indicates that the road is not a dead end, he moves quickly down the alley, but never reaches the other end. In practice the “rue Vercingétorix III” is an impasse, for Simon never reaches the Gare du Nord (reality) via that route. Indeed, the only manner in which Simon is able to make progress is by shutting off the prime organ of reason—the eyes. Ironically, when he cannot rationally see where he is going, he can imaginatively and sensually explore a fantasy that now lacks depth and perspective. It is as a blind man that Simon establishes personal security and comfort. Limited to the surfaces of objects, he focuses on touch and taste, which operate immediately at the point of contact; sight and sound operate at a distance. (Smell works both at a distance and as an immediate presence.) Thus, when he is being rushed to the meeting at which Djinn is to address the members of the organization, the different senses are highlighted. The logic of the space no longer disturbs Simon because by wearing dark glasses, he has removed the source of his concern. Instead of three dimensions he now has only two, and this allows him to focus on the texture of the surfaces. When Simon's progression toward the meeting is interrupted by a flight of stairs, the change in the plane of his movement provokes anxiety on Simon's part; calm returns as soon as the flight of stairs has been negotiated and he once again has only to deal with two dimensions.

The fantasy world of Djinn does not have a strong visual support. Its architecture, taken in the broadest sense as the organization of space, is for the most part two-dimensional. The café-brasserie, for example, is reduced to a purely functional space whose interior is separated from the exterior by a glass wall. The hangar where Simon meets Djinn is shadowy, lacking the comfort, or even the traditional logic, of three-dimensional space. The one house that Simon enters and sees has a similar lack of logic, being at one time a little taller than its derelict neighbors and at another une maison à deux étages whose staircase goes up only one floor.

Two interpretations may be advanced to account for the organization of the fictional space in Djinn. The first would make of the text the verbal equivalent of a video-game screen. In this Pac-man world, Simon pursued a goal—the individual he is supposed to meet at the Gare du Nord—while caught up in an intrigue involving the androgynous Djinn (a feminist version of Pac-man does exist). Charging through the maze, he passes and repasses the same point, repeating in game after game a similar scenario. At least two points in the text seem to support this interpretation. During the first rendezvous with Djinn, Simon discovers that what he took for a human figure is in fact a mannequin:

Ainsi, je suis surveillé par quelqu'un d'invisible. C'est très désagréable. J'ai la sensation d'être maladroit, menacé, fautif. La fille qui me parle est, aussi bien, assise à plusieurs kilomètres: et elle me regarde, comme un insecte dans un piège, sur son écran de télévision.

(p. 15)

[Thus I am watched by someone invisible. It is very unpleasant. I may feel clumsy, threatened, at fault. The girl speaking to me may, just as well, be seated several kilometers away, and she is looking at me, as if I were a trapped insect, on her television screen.]

The second point concerns Simon's discovery that at the meeting of recruits to the organization addressed by Djinn, the latter's speech has been prerecorded. The organization is working to free men from the tyranny of machines and yet ironically what is addressing them is nothing other than a machine—a loudspeaker (p. 79). The video-game analogy lacks conviction, unfortunately, because it is an analogy. It reflects the structure of the saussurian world of language and reintroduces the comforting metaphor that tames Robbe-Grillet's text.

A second interpretation seems more appealing, since it draws together more elements of the text than the video-game interpretation. Robbe-Grillet is at pains to emphasize that the fantasy is not ailleurs. There is no other world hidden behind the everyday one we experience. Rather, he wishes to show that the comfortable boundaries established by reason and codified by stereotypical behavior and habits of thoughts have been eroded to be replaced by new models of thought, new orderings or priorities, new patterns of behavior. In particular, the real and the imagined are no longer radically separated. The medium of television in particular has influenced thinking to the extent that the young do not believe that anything has happened unless they have seen it on television. What for the pretelevision generation is a simulacrum of reality has now become reality. Narcotic experiences are real and powerful and cannot easily be confined to the interior of the mind. Hallucinations do not carry recognizable markers to reassure the victim. The experience of reading Djinn, then, disturbs the reader because it is such an accurate homology of the disturbing world we live in.


  1. Alain Robbe-Grillet, Djinn: un trou rouge entre les pavés disjoints (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1981).

  2. Bruce Morissette, Intertextual Assemblage in Robbe-Grillet: From “Topology” to the “Golden Triangle” (Fredericton, N.B.: York Press, 1979), 2.

  3. Quoted in Emma Stojkovic, L'Oeuvre poétique de Pierre Reverdy (Padova: Cedam, 1951), 27.

Lance Olsen (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5484

SOURCE: Olsen, Lance. “Misfires in Eden: García Márquez and Narrative Frustration.” In Ellipse of Uncertainty: An Introduction to Postmodern Fantasy, pp. 85-100. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Olsen focuses on the narrative frustration commented upon by many critics of García Márquez's work, noting that the uncertainty and nebulous nature of the writer's work is intentional, and very much in line with many other works of postmodern fantasy which resist the idea of closure or completeness.]

These are not the times to go around thinking about weddings.

García Márquez (One Hundred Years, 98)

Gabriel García Márquez' projects approach the conventionally improbable and impossible as though they were mimetic, as though they were just “everyday” happenings, so that José Arcadio commits suicide and a trickle of blood from his wounds winds its way across town, down steps and over curbs, around corners and under closed doors, hugging walls so as not to damage the rugs, all the way to Úrsula's feet, as she stands in the kitchen preparing to crack thirty-six eggs to make bread. And his projects approach the conventionally mimetic and “everyday” as though they were sparkling with mystery and magic, to the point where ice is not ice, but the “enormous, transparent block with infinite internal needles in which the light of the sunset was broken up into colored stars” (One Hundred Years, 18). That is, García Márquez confounds the marvelous with the mimetic modes of discourse, wrenches conventional perception, and charges his texts with an absurd humor, so that in his universe an angel can plunge out of the sky and thwack face down in the mud, mumbling in what may be Norwegian, toothless, bald, lousy, even unable to get a simple miracle right: blind men grow teeth, a paralytic almost wins a lottery, a leper sprouts sunflowers out of his sores.

The subtexts of these hyperbolic narratives display despair and frustration. Colonel Aureliano Buendía, for instance, leaves off making his little gold fish at ten after four one afternoon because he hears a parade; he walks out of his room and strolls to the street door, mingling with the bystanders that have gathered there. He watches the parade pass, and then “once more he saw the face of the miserable solitude when everything had passed by and there was nothing but the bright expanse of the street and the air full of flying ants with a few onlookers peering into the precipice of uncertainty” (272-73). He wanders over to the chestnut tree and leans against it, and when his family finds him the next morning he is dead.

The colonel searches for distraction from his solitude in a parade of laughter, and at first the universe seems full with events, with things, and with life. But at its center beats an absence registered by the plod of the language—the redundancy of sentence structure, the announcement of void in the string of conjunctions without complexity or vitality—where the very syntax bespeaks a vacuum, a “miserable solitude” that floats back into place just under the frolic. All that remains for the colonel in this passage, which could serve as an emblem for the whole of García Márquez' fictional complex, is a vacant expanse of street, flying ants, uncertainty, and withdrawal. The passage begins with life and ends with death; begins with action and ends with entropy; begins with noise and ends with silence. It announces the inability to create supraworlds, wonderlands, Edens of compensation and redemption that shine forth in the universe of marvelous discourse.

A number of critics have faulted García Márquez for his tendency toward this kind of narrative frustration. Often they have confused narrative failure with failure of narrative. Luis Harss and Barbara Dohmann, for instance, say that the result of the “interwoven plots and subplots, overlappings and backtrackings, [and] involuted time play” in Leaf Storm, comprised of monologues of a woman, her son, and her father attending a wake for a reclusive doctor, “is not density but monotony.” And Harss and Dohmann go on to complain that “there are cryptic references, suppressions, blanks, blind spots. We often seem to be on the verge of a revelation that never comes” (323). Even a good deal more rigorous critic like George McMurray finds problems with a story such as “One Day After Saturday”—a tale about how hundreds of birds begin flying through screens in Macando one day—because “the result is … an overall impression of needless obscurity” (59). Regina Janes trips up “The Night of the Curlews”—a story about three nameless men blinded by curlews, who sit in a courtyard and talk about nothing special—because it “reverts to deliberate uncertainties” (22).

Once again, then, we come across a cluster of critics who judge one set of conventions by another. What they imply is that all narrative should be limpid, compensatory, certain, complete, easy-to-follow, stable, and simply understood. Their comments also point to the frustration, and hence serve as a springboard for my own discussion of what García Márquez calls the “lost chord” (Harss and Dohmann, 337), in his writing—that nameless thing that drifts up continually, causing the narrative to decenter and jam.

García Márquez was born on March 6, 1928, with an umbilical cord around his neck, in Aracataca, a small town near the Atlantic coast of Colombia. He was the oldest of sixteen children, the son of a telegraph operator and a well-to-do woman whose family opposed the match. His maternal grandparents raised him for his first eight years. His grandfather, whom he has called the most important figure in his life, used to tell him stories about Colombia's civil wars (there were sixty-five to eighty of them between 1820 and 1903) and of nearby towns, one of which was named Macando, a banana plantation whose heyday occurred from 1915 to 1918. His grandmother told him stories of supernatural worlds in a perfectly natural way—of the ghosts who inhabited their house, of an aunt who wove her own funeral shroud, of a neighbor who claimed her daughter had not eloped but ascended to heaven.

When nineteen, García Márquez began studying law at the National University of Colombia in Bogotá, and the same year (1947) he published his first short stories in a local newspaper. A year after that he began a career in journalism, writing film criticism and editorials. In 1955, at twenty-seven, he published his first novel, Leaf Storm, and the idea originally surfaced of writing a chronicle about a town named Macando and a colonel named Aureliano Buendía. As a correspondent he traveled widely in Europe, and in 1958 married his Colombian sweetheart. In the early 1960's he settled in Mexico, had two sons, began working as a journalist, public-relations agent, and movie-script writer, while writing a number of novels on the side. In 1982 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

García Márquez, like Pynchon, despises ceremony and public speaking, and has said that he became a writer “out of timidity. My real inclination is to be a conjuror, but I get so confused when I try to perform a trick that I've had to take refuge in the solitude of literature.” His intelligence is antiabstract and antiacademic. “It's as though,” he has said, “they gave the Nobel Prize to a bullfighter” (Guibert, 320 and 336).

In his 1973 study of Latin American literature, D. P. Gallagher comments: “Most contemporary Latin American writing is indeed about failure of some kind or another, failure to materialize a glimpsed idea” (90). He does not go on to explore this idea fully, but it seems another way of saying it is that the primary concern of the Latin American novel is frustration.

To a certain extent, of course, the same could be said about any kind of novel, and narrative, since every narrative to some degree challenges reader-expectations, continually decenters its possibilities, keeps the reader guessing, and keeps on thwarting those guesses. That is how a text generates narrative tension and interest. Only the least complex narrative forms deliver exactly what they say they will deliver. Most narratives employ conventions to subvert them in some way or another. For many, the narrative that lacks all frustration—the Harlequin Romance, for instance—lacks all interest. In this way, Gallagher's statement is accurate but obvious.

But there is a second way to take his claim. When he mentions contemporary Latin American writing, he has in mind the fictions of Borges, Vargas Llosa, García Márquez and Cabrera Infante—four postmodern fantasts by my definition. Seen in this light, Gallagher's comment becomes more interesting, for while almost any narrative carries with it a charge of frustration on some stratum, postmodern fantasy carries with it a terrific charge of frustration on every stratum. In the fantastic mode, and particularly the mode as it functions in postmodern texts, anything can happen. And if that is the case, then everything can happen. And consequently every sentence contains so many possibilities that the reader's expectations are necessarily blocked. Hence, the fantastic text forces her to float in a freeplay of potentialities, unable to imagine a consistent narrative future.

Frustration arises for a number of reasons. It results from an inability to bounce back after a number of setbacks in narrative expectations, from a sense that one can no longer master one's fictional environment, no longer clearly decode the system of conventions the writer is employing. It results from the disjunction between the narrative goal the reader imagines and the narrative goal the text produces. And the intensity of that frustration is a function of how much the reader wants the goal he has imagined, to what extent the narrative delegitimizes the goal, and how many times the reader's imagination has been devalued by the textual imagination. It results at moments when the reader experiences unrelieved defeat, the inability to believe he can do anything to improve incomprehensible conditions, the inability to imagine a compensatory and stable narrative future.

Consequently, the reader finds herself befuddled before a narrative like The Unnamable or Gravity's Rainbow. But compared to these difficult texts, the projects of García Márquez at first glance seem exceptions to the rule—particularly with a work like One Hundred Years of Solitude. Yet on closer examination, one finds this is not the case. Alongside apparently “easy” texts like One Hundred Years, García Márquez has also produced such “hard” ones as Leaf Storm, The Autumn of the Patriarch, and “Nabo” (1951), the last of which is a Faulknerian tale that employs temporal involutions and unstable points-of-view to explore the relationship between a delirious man and a mute girl. And even One Hundred Years, as we shall see, breeds frustration at various textual strata.

My students delight in García Márquez' imagination, in the wild events he conjures, in his dazzling disruption of logic, and in his hilariously playful plots. They delight, that is, until pressed for specifics, for exactly what has happened and when and to whom. Then the idea of narrative frustration surfaces, discomfort announces itself, and it soon becomes apparent that García Márquez' projects dismantle Balzacian conventions concerning storytelling. His plots may appear linear—after all, One Hundred Years has a beginning, middle, and end, and The Autumn of the Patriarch clearly describes the youth, rise to power, middle-age, slip in power, and old age of a Caribbean dictator—but on closer inspection they reveal themselves as spirals of digressions, digressions within digressions, clarifications and reclarifications to the point where nothing is clear, data upon data until one can hardly remember a thing.

One Hundred Years, for instance, begins with the now-famous line: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” And so, it would appear, a narrative has begun. A tale is being told. What a reader used to the Balzacian mode should expect is a recounting of that distant afternoon, a description of the father perhaps, a memory about the discovery of ice. Or perhaps already she is slightly shaken, placed slightly off balance, as she senses the sentence's dislocation of time in the phrase “many years later” (many years later than what? when is all this happening?), or the destabilization of the mimetic in the last words of the sentence (the discovery of ice? since when is ice treated as a scientific discovery?).

With the second sentence (“At that time”—again, when?—“Macando was a village of twenty adobe houses …”) the spiral begins turning, and the narrative digresses into the first days of Macando; into the arrival of the gypsies in March; into a description of Melquíades, José Arcadio Buendía, Úrsula Iguarán; into an account of José Arcadio's romp with magnets, telescopes, and magnifying glasses, and his eventual setting out along the northern route into the jungles; and into the discovery (and the center of the first chapter are the ideas of discovery and unveiling) of the galleon. This continues for fifteen pages, until the digressions within digressions finally end for a brief moment, and the initial narrative resurfaces: “Those hallucinating sessions remained printed on the memories of the boys in such a way that many years later, a second before the regular army officer gave the firing squad the command to fire …” (16). Then, for two short pages, the discovery of ice is recounted. Afterwards, it sinks back into the text, not to rise again for another sixty-five pages (83). In other fictions, such as “Nabo,” Leaf Storm, or The Autumn of the Patriarch (which García Márquez calls “really an extremely long poem” [Guibert, 328]), he abandons any sense of conventional plot altogether, and forces narrative from a horizontal to a vertical plane, thereby creating a lyrical parody of the Balzacian mode.

A much less obvious way by which García Márquez generates narrative frustration is his frequent use of doubles. This device signals a literal split in personality, psychological misdevelopment, self-fragmentation, and the blurring and decomposition of the ego; a dislocation in personhood that is antithetical to conventional notions of character. In Leaf Storm, for instance, when the priest walks into the room where the old doctor who will soon hang himself is lying, he notices “the extraordinary resemblance between the two men. They weren't exact, but they looked like brothers. … there was a community of features between them that exists between two brothers” (121). In the story “Blacaman the Good, Vendor of Miracles” (1968), about a picaro who recounts his bizarre adventures with his cruel charlatan of a boss, Blacaman the Good and Blacaman the Bad are mirror images of each other. An earlier tale, “The Other Side of Death” (1948), in which a dead man describes his old body, a linguistic split in pronouns between “he” and “I” signals a doubling of personality, a questioning of subject-object relations. In One Hundred Years, sets of characters represent the matter and antimatter of being: the José Arcadios are impulsive, enterprising, and often scientists, while the Aurelianos are lucid, withdrawn, and often poets. Melquíades is the perfect writer, while Aureliano the perfect reader. Úrsula holds the Latin American house of Atreus together, while Amaranta finally destroys it. Patricío Aragonés doubles the despot in The Autumn of the Patriarch, and the despot's sadistic right-hand man, José Ignacio Saenz de la Barra, creates “a secret empire within his own private empire, an invisible service of repression and extermination” (195), a double of the original one. The dictator himself recognizes the “very ancient certainty that the most feared enemy is within oneself in the confidence of the heart” (109)—that the other is the dark double of the self.

Doubling questions ontology and epistemology. It produces textual schizophrenia. This frustration of the Balzacian character arises appropriately in Leaf Storm, where there is a gap reminiscent of Sutpen's in Absalom, Absalom!:

I've never been able to find out whether his papers were really in order or not. I couldn't find out if he was French, as we supposed, or if he had any remembrance of a family, which he must have had but about which he never said a word. … That day—after five years of living in the same house—I suddenly realized that we didn't even know his name.


Early in The Autumn of the Patriarch, the townspeople enter the presidential palace and find the body of the solitary despot: “Only when we turned him over to look at his face did we realize that it was impossible to recognize him, even though his face had not been pecked away by vultures, because none of us had ever seen him” (10).

A passage that could serve as an emblem of the problem appears in One Hundred Years, when the narrator discusses the characters of José Arcadio Segundo and Aureliano Segundo:

They were so much alike and so mischievous during childhood that not even Santa Sofía de la Piedad could tell them apart. On the day of the christening Amaranta put bracelets on them with their respective names and dressed them in different colored clothing marked with each one's initials, but when they began to go to school they decided to exchange clothing and bracelets and call each other by opposite names. The teacher, Melchor Excalona, used to knowing José Arcadio Segundo by his green shirt, went out of his mind when he discovered that the latter was wearing Aureliano Segundo's bracelet. … From then on he was never sure who was who. Even when they grew up and life made them different, Úrsula still wondered if they themselves might not have made a mistake in some moment of their intricate game of confusion and had become changed forever.


This registers the relationship between reader and character in the text. Here, Santa Sofía de la Piedad, Melchor Excalona, and Úrsula function as befuddled students of literature, struggling to find out some core identity, “never sure who [is] who,” blocked at every moment by the characters themselves. Because of the elfish repetition of names in the text, the book is accompanied by a diagram carefully plotting out the family line. What soon becomes apparent is that the diagram hinders far more than it helps. It announces the complexity and inevitable frustration of the book. It transforms text into test, reading into a problematics of mnemonics, and love of the text into desire. Character becomes opaque, and human actions become incomprehensible.

In his Labyrinth of Solitude—a phrase that could serve as an alternate title to many of García Márquez' works—Octavio Paz argues that “self-discovery is above all the realization that we are alone: it is the opening of an impalpable, transparent wall—that of our consciousness—between the world and ourselves” (9). More, “man is nostalgia and a search for communion. Therefore, when he is aware of himself he is aware of his lack of another, that is, of his solitude” (195). This poetics of isolation throbs at the center of all that García Márquez has produced. “It's the only subject I've written about” (Guibert, 314), he says. His texts are writings of radical separation.

Monologic structures, indications of this labyrinth of solitude, abound in García Márquez' work. In his first novel, three consciousnesses are isolated from each other and from the rest of the community in a hot, oppressive, bad-smelling room, the center of which is filled by a coffin (a register of the absence at the center of the text, a reminder of the final and complete isolation of death) of the doctor who has committed suicide after living alone in the house for years. In “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” (1968), the tale of the angel who falls from the sky, the protagonist is locked away in a chicken coop in the same way Kafka's Hunger Artist is locked away in his cage. The couple keeping him there, Pelayo and Elisenda, come out of their house one morning to find “the whole neighborhood in front of the chicken coop having fun with the angel, without the slightest reverence, tossing him things to eat through the openings in the wire as if he weren't a supernatural creature but a circus animal” (Leaf Storm, 159). The angel is not only isolated physically from the community, but also linguistically. He is shut off in a “hermetic language” (Leaf Storm, 162), and sometimes falls delirious “with the tongue twisters of an old Norwegian” (Leaf Storm, 166). “The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship” (1968) consists of one sentence that stretches for eight pages, a monologue by a boy whose tone oscillates between self-assertion and self-repudiation as he dreams of a large ocean liner which continually veers toward invisible shoals, runs aground, and sinks. García Márquez carries the same linguistic structure into The Autumn of the Patriarch, a structure that echoes the life of “the most solitary man on earth” (30). The whole of the text is a kind of running monologue, or system of intersecting monologues by voices unaware of each other. It is divided into six circular configurations, each of which begins with the dictator's death, then digresses, and finally ends up with a major event in his life.

Very few characters actually speak to each other in García Márquez' narratives. Little dialogue—the sign of communication and communion—occurs. No one breaks through his Samsalike “hard shell of … solitude” (One Hundred Years, 174). In fact, often no one speaks but the narrator, who does so from the seemingly omniscient point-of-view of God. But this deity-narrator is an absurd divinity, like that angel who falls from the sky, since all he really knows about are actions, not thoughts. Nor is he omnipotent. All he can do is stand back and watch the world decompose, unable to reverse the entropic movement of the cosmos, and unable to free himself from his own isolation.

Perhaps the most well-known monologic structure in García Márquez' output is the image of incest in One Hundred Years. It is an image of solitude, of exclusion from community, of the impossibility of diversity and change, of autistic single-mindedness, of the limited capacity for love and the infinite capacity for desire, of egocentricity, of introspection decayed into a disease of consciousness. Paz writes:

In archaic societies, a complex and rigid system of prohibitions, rules and rituals protects the individual from solitude. The group is the only source of health. The solitary man is the invalid, a dead branch that must be lopped off and burned, for society as a whole is endangered if one of its components becomes ill.


Consequently, societies place rigid restrictions on incest and extreme solitude. In Macando, the original sin appears in the form of a boy with a pig's tail born to Úrsula's aunt and José Arcadio Buendía's uncle. For seven generations the family lives in terror of a recurrence of the pig's tail, a recurrence that inevitably occurs when the last of the Buendías—Aureliano Babilonia and his aunt Amaranta Úrsula—perform incest.

The result of incest, the pig's tail, has a number of psychological implications. Bettelheim tells the story of “Hans, My Hedgehog,” wherein a man frustrated by his wife's inability to produce children comments one day: “I want a child, even if it should be a hedgehog.” Soon thereafter his wish is granted—in full. His wife gives birth to a child whose upper torso is that of a hedgehog, and whose lower is that of a boy. Bettelheim goes on to interpret: “The psychological wisdom of these tales is remarkable: lack of control over emotions on the part of the parent creates a child who is a misfit. In fairy tales and dream, physical malformation often stands for psychological misdevelopment” (70). And physical malformation is everywhere in García Márquez' texts: women turned into spiders or cats, men who become snakes or jelly or suddenly blossom the wings of bats. Such miscreations point to emotional malfunctioning, perverted desire, and frustrated procreation.

Another source of misfires has to do with the notion of time in García Márquez' projects. In the Balzacian mode, time is chronology, sequence, order, progression, unfolding, revealing, continuity, and a change of state. In the projects of García Márquez, on the other hand, time is stalled, decreated, made to repeat itself again and again, the highlight of a failed hope for past or future. Among the moderns such as Yeats, Proust, or Eliot, the artist through art can transcend time into a beatific realm of timeless perfection. Among the postmoderns such as Kafka, Beckett, or Pynchon, time goes nowhere but in circles, or does nothing but run down. Transcendence becomes unimaginable. In the texts of García Márquez, postmodern time has affinities with that of Nietzsche. For him, if the universe is finite and the structure of matter discrete, then there are only a finite number of possible successive configurations to the universe. Given enough time, then, all the atoms of the universe will eventually return to the configuration they had at a previous time, and the universe will live again exactly as it had before. For García Márquez, of course, the situation is not so technical. Perhaps the universe will not repeat itself again and again exactly the way it has done before, but the same patterns will emerge, the same hoped-for futures and the same failed futures, the same kinds of characters and the same kinds of frustrations.

In his projects, there exist cyclical recurrences, archetypal patterns, Borgesian structures that give the lie to compensatory time and to hope for learning from the past. “The notion of time” in his work “disappeared completely” (Leaf Storm, 205). The mayor in In Evil Hour is struck by “the impression that time had stopped” (142), and at the end of that text the reader realizes she is really back to where she began. Úrsula “confirmed her impression that time was going in a circle” (226). In The Autumn of the Patriarch a pattern of infinite circularity emerges. A continual swinging back to the death of the despot takes place so that there is never a sense of forward progress. The same holds true with Chronicle of a Death Foretold, the story of an innocent dandy who is murdered for deflowering a macho's bride and of the town who allows the murder to happen, where the narrative continually circles back to the moment of the death, a few minutes one morning.

Narrative frustration also arises from the reader's inability to know, to locate the center of meaning in a text, or to perceive the textual universe clearly. Even in terms of categorizing a given text, of plugging it into a larger grid, it is difficult to stabilize García Márquez' projects. While one can talk about affinities between Kafka's work and Expressionism, Borges' and Conceptual Art, Robbe-Grillet's and New Realism, Beckett's and Minimalism, Fuentes' and Op Art, Pynchon's and Pop Art, the very act of categorization of text like One Hundred Years causes frustration. It continually floats and remains unfastened.

García Márquez' works register this sense of uncertainty in another way as well. In his universe, man is scientist, a detective of ontology, who, like José Arcadio with his magnets, ice, sextant, and so forth, searches for understanding. Yet he is forever thwarted by its absence. In Evil Hour, for instance, is a detective story about an unnamed town in the midst of The Violence, a brutal civil war between conservatives and liberals in Colombia that lasted from the late forties into the sixties, causing the death of several hundred thousand people, where suddenly one day anonymous notes revealing personal secrets and accusing various townspeople of wrongdoing appear tacked on doors and walls. The characters search for some sort of clue that will point to the perpetrator or perpetrators who are originating this “terrorism in the moral order” (115). In pursuit of answers, the town mayor goes to a fortune teller, Casandra—whose predictions in Greek myth were never believed—to ask her who the culprit or culprits are. After studying her cards for quite a while, she announces her conclusion: “It's the whole town and it's nobody” (133). The Other is everywhere. Even though the guards walk the streets at night, and a host of people are questioned, the town slips into mass paranoia, and the mystery is never solved. A scapegoat is finally killed, but the reader is not sure whether that has in fact changed anything or not.

“An atmosphere of uncertainty” (41)—and the word “uncertainty” appears often in the text—pervades One Hundred Years. Characters are difficult to tell apart, the geography remains vague, the time frame is confused. In Autumn of the Patriarch indeterminacy even slips into the linguistic level of the book. A “tremor of uncertainty” (105) flickers in the language. Every sentence is unsure of itself, entropic, apocalyptic, its syntax collapsing and drifting toward the void. Every sentence is jammed with catalogs, sense impressions, plot details, to the point where it becomes unwieldy, tumbling in on itself, becoming a parody of Balzacian faith in language, always announcing, like the despot's government, that “there was always another truth behind the truth” (45). And the same notion of a decentered truth arises in Chronicle, where the townspeople cannot even be sure of the weather (“Many people coincided in recalling that it was a radiant morning with a sea breeze coming in through the banana groves. … But most agreed that the weather was funereal, with a cloudy, low sky and the thick smell of still waters” [4]), let alone who deflowered Angela:

she would recount [the story] in all its details to anyone who wanted to hear it, except for one item that would never be cleared up: who was the real cause of her damage, and how and why, because no one believed that it had really been Santiago Nasar.


Last, I should like to approach narrative frustration in García Márquez' projects from the angle of endings: the emblem of closure, completion, wholeness, symmetry, conclusion, final understanding, harmony, and order. Every piece of art must end in some way. Music finishes—Cage's begins—in silence. Every painting ends in the frame or the blankness that comes after it. Every piece of writing ends in the lack that appears after the covers are closed. Ending in the Balzacian and marvelous modes is an impulse toward enclosure, pattern, and fulfillment. As Frank Kermode suggests, there exists a deep need in bourgeois consciousness to believe it belongs to things around it, that it is related to a “world” that forms a narrative with a beginning and end. It needs to believe in an aesthetic of an end, The End, the ultimate gathering together, and hence throughout history it has been marking off Ends (chapter one).

Postmodern fantasy, however, resists the idea of closure and wholeness. It subverts the notion of endings, casts it into a state of peripeteia, denies its redemption. Although their texts must physically end, postmodern fantasts strive against conclusion. Kafka will not finish his larger projects. Robbe-Grillet's fantasies spin around and around, repeating themselves forever. Beckett's run down, move toward entropy, but will not conclude. Pynchon's promise closure but deliver deferredness.

García Márquez works against Balzacian closure in another way. His texts, as Allen Thiher argues, are

the defeat of the Hegelian logos, the fall of logos, with an unsurpassed rage. The fall into silence at the end of [One Hundred Years], the coming of exile from the memory of men, is an anti-eschatology that undoes Western historiography from its biblical sources through Marx. … there is no sign of redemption. History is reduced to the paradoxical record of its own fall.


The Autumn of the Patriarch and Chronicle end so many times that finally the idea is placed in brackets. Always his texts end in some sort of failure—in storms, decompositions, in running downs—that serves as an emblem for the failure of the text to attain compensation and progress. The result is what Thiher calls “texticide”—a notion that “is at one with the anti-theological gestures that characterize postmodern thought and fiction” (209). The transcendental signified is decomposed. Consequently, Leaf Storm ends in stasis, with an eleven-year-old boy following a coffin out of a house, thinking about curlews, waiting for something to happen. In Evil Hour ends with a malicious government taking the place of a malicious government, as the mayor has a young man tortured to death, hence launching an authoritarian regime. The Autumn of the Patriarch ends with the despot in a state of entropy, where nothing has been learned, nothing has been fulfilled, nothing has been made whole except for absence—that which lies at the core of J. M. Coetzee's project.

Lance Olsen (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4351

SOURCE: Olsen, Lance. “The Presence of Absence: Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians.” In Ellipse of Uncertainty: An Introduction to Postmodern Fantasy, pp. 101-13. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Olsen analyzes Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians as a groundbreaking work of postmodern fantasy, one that “recharts, interrogates, challenges, and dismantles dominant cultural myths.”]

There is only a blankness, and desolation that there has to be such blankness.

Coetzee (Waiting for the Barbarians, 73)

John M. Coetzee was born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1940. He grew up in the midst of an unwieldy and corrupt system of apartheid—a system capable of destroying opposition before it has had a chance to get its message out, before it can articulate its cause. Coetzee attended school in South Africa and America, studying computer science and linguistics, then returned to teach at the University of Cape Town, lecturing on linguistics, American and English literature, and producing criticism on, among others, Defoe, Gibbon, Swift, and Kafka. He has often acknowledged the presence in his projects of Kafka's absurdity, unintelligibility before the Law, paranoia, and textual terrorism; Faulkner's concern with isolation, decadence, and the language of consciousness; Beckett's sense of being-there and his existential horror; and Robbe-Grillet's attempt at primary language, a style of absence.

When thirty-four, Coetzee published his first novel, Dusklands (1974), the double-tale of Eugene Dawn who, in the process of making out a report on the propaganda techniques used in Vietnam for the U.S. government, slowly loses his mind; and Jacobus Coetzee, a Christian who in precolonial times pushes deep into the heart of Africa, into the land of the Namaqua Hottentots, who brutalize and degrade him and send him back to civilization where he organizes a small army and returns on a punitive raid. Three years later, Coetzee published In the Heart of the Country (1977), a novel that comes in the form of some unidentifiable kind of writing, perhaps a diary, of a young woman who is isolated with her father and several servants on a farm in a no-man's land. Three years after that Coetzee published Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), which, after being held under embargo by the South African government for several months before being released in Coetzee's country, won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Geoffry Faber Award, and the South African CNA Literary Prize.

The novel opens on a frontier settlement, where a rumor is circulating that the barbarians in the hills are regrouping in preparation for a massive invasion. The desert settlement, the first line of defense for the Empire, is placed on alert and its magistrate is brought out of his complacency when Colonel Joll, representative from the Empire, appears with two barbarian prisoners, a father and son, whom Joll tortures until told what he wants to hear. Then he sets out for more prisoners, and soon returns with a host of them, whom he tortures and places in a makeshift jail until they end up making such a mess that they are set free. The magistrate comes upon a barbarian girl who is left behind. Joll has gotten to her too: she has been partially blinded and her feet have been broken. The magistrate takes her in and makes her a scullery maid, oscillating between desiring her and feeling indifferent to her presence. After several months, he decides to take her back to her people, and, with a handful of men, sets out on a brutal three-week journey across marshland and desert. A small group of barbarians play cat-and-mouse with the men until they pause just long enough to meet and take the girl back. When the magistrate returns to the settlement, he is arrested by Joll for consorting with the enemy, jailed, and humiliated until he is broken, at which point he is set free. Rumors of the ever-present barbarian invasion mount, people begin abandoning the settlement in convoys, and soldiers are withdrawn in large numbers. The magistrate returns to his old apartment and, while waiting for the barbarian attack, sets about writing a record of his last year.

Whereas some works of art, Coetzee has said, “reinforce the myths of our culture, others dissect these myths. In our time and place, it is the latter kind of work that seems to me more urgent” (Wood, 14). His is a writing that recharts, interrogates, challenges, and dismantles dominant cultural myths like “civilization,” “humanism,” and “authority” by revealing their opposite. On the other side of these myths of presence lies the realization of the woman who narrates Coetzee's second novel: “instead of being a womanly warmth at the heart of this house I have been a zero, a null, a vacuum towards which all collapses inward” (2).

Perhaps for this reason, early reviews of Waiting for the Barbarians were not as positive as one might expect, given the number of literary awards it received. Several reviews, like that by Jean Marquard, faulted the book on ethical grounds. He trips up South African novels in general because “the effectiveness … depends on the measure of disgust they can arouse in the reader,” the action occurring “inside the mind of a character from whom the reader is alienated” (Contrast, 45). Others, like Leon Whiteson, fault it on aesthetic grounds:

The geography is garbled: there is desert and snow, lizards and bears. The story is told in that most awkward tense: the historic present. The dialogue is stiff, the writing has the air of a translation. … Coetzee's bad dreams have not been earned by any truth. … The heart of this novel is not darkness but mush.


Irving Howe, in his generally favorable review that appeared on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, argues that “one possible loss is bite and pain, the urgency that a specified historical place and time may provide.” These are nostalgic readings. Under the rhetoric, Marquard believes novels should be compensatory; Whiteson believes they should be Balzacian in setting, logic, tense, and style; and Howe believes they should be mimetic.

But a number of reviews attempted understanding rather than prescribing. Howe himself, for instance, elsewhere in his discussion of the book argues that it is a political tale about South Africa. “Mr. Coetzee,” he writes, “tells the story of an imaginary Empire, set in an unspecified place and time, yet recognizable as a ‘universalized’ version of South Africa. … The result is a realistic fable.” The heart of the text for Howe is a “clash of moral styles, a drama of representative ways of governing”—a field of tension among the magistrate's faded humanism, Joll's neofascism, and barbarian anarchy.

George Steiner reads the book as a Hegelian parable about the interdependence of the master and the slave. For Hegel, those who risk least in the struggle for power become the slaves of those who risk the most. The slave submits to the master who uses him as a means to his own ends. The master's consumption depends on the slave's work and the slave's work depends upon the master's consumption and will to power. In Coetzee's text, the Empire cannot exist without the presence of its opposite, and Joll cannot exist without the presence of the magistrate. As we have seen with Kafka (K. and the Law), Borges (the dreamer and the dreamed), Robbe-Grillet (the jealous husband-lover and A …), Beckett (the narrator of How It Is and Pim), Fuentes (Aura and Felipe), Pynchon (Oedipa and Tristero) and García Márquez (the patriarch and his countrymen), we all need our scapegoats, and our scapegoats need us.

I should like to emphasize the absence at the center of fantasy's language, the gaps at the center of its projects, the revelations of nothing that make themselves felt throughout Coetzee's third novel. This concern, as well as the other related ones I shall deal with in this chapter, brings my essay full circle, from the omega back to the alpha, from a great-grandson back to the primogenitor of contemporary fantasy: Kafka.

His name has drifted to the surface in each chapter as an emblem of autism, language-in-crisis, unstable metamorphosis, ontological and epistemological uncertainty, unfulfilled desire, postcultural anarchy, postmodern madness and despair, anti-logic, failed gaming, acidic irony, dehumanization, the literary equivalent of silence, the contemporary detective, and the blaster of space and time. Using Borges' comment in his essay “Kafka and His Precursors”—that “the fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future” (Labyrinths, 201)—as a springboard, Allen Thiher notes:

We read Kafka through the lens of intertextuality, in the sense that our contemporary fictions have taught us to read what Kafka's immediate contemporaries could not see. To reverse what Borges said about Kafka … we must read in turn most of our contemporary writers by making of the Czech writer their precursor, perhaps the most important precursor for what many now call postmodern fiction.

(“Kafka's Legacy,” 543)

Just at the moment of modernism's apex, when Joyce and Proust and Rilke and the rest were achieving their most famous texts, Kafka entered and ruptured modernism's security and sense of power by generating a mode of discourse that “puts constantly into question its own quest for representation, revelation, and meaning” (546).

Coetzee's debt to Kafka in Waiting for the Barbarians is clear. While there are many, perhaps the strongest Kafkaesque echo comes from “An Old Manuscript,” which begins: “It looks as if much had been neglected in our country's system of defense. We have not concerned ourselves with it until now and have gone about our daily work; but things that have been happening recently begin to trouble us” (The Penal Colony, 145-47). The “manuscript” is by a cobbler whose workshop sits across from the Emperor's palace. One day the cobbler realizes the barbarians from the north have infiltrated the town. No one seems to notice them as they busy themselves sharpening swords, whittling arrows, and practicing horsemanship. They are filthy, and communication with them is impossible: “They do not know our language, indeed they hardly have a language of their own. … Our way of living and our institutions they neither understand nor care to understand” (146). Even their horses are carnivorous and malicious; and at one point the barbarians themselves devour a live ox. The “manuscript” concludes with the narrator asking: “What is going to happen?” The guards have abandoned their posts. No one knows how long it will be before the barbarians turn on the townspeople. And, somehow, all this “is a misunderstanding of some kind; and it will be the ruin of us” (147).

Like Coetzee's text, Kafka's takes the form of an old manuscript written by a man knowing the end is near, that a new barbarian age is upon the town, that all that is left is waiting. Both texts are fragments, remainders of a lost age, manuscripts of despair and frustration. The center of both Coetzee's and Kafka's universes is the Emperor's palace. This is implied in Coetzee's text, made explicit in Kafka's. But in both cases the palace is a lack, a hidden center. The Emperor, like meaning, has withdrawn to the innermost garden, or stands watching from a window, removed. Both are stories of slow terrorism, about neglecting a country's system of defense, about the failure to break through a sense of everydayness until it is too late, about the slow giving oneself over to the Other, the manifestation of entropy, the breakdown of the old beliefs of civilization and the rise of dehumanism, and about dying races. Both texts end in hesitation, uncertainty, just at the edge of postcultural anarchy. Kafka's concludes wondering what will happen next, and realizing that all has been a communication fizzle, something beyond comprehension. And the same could be said about Coetzee's. At the heart of each stands the barbarian, a void that has no language of its own, that neither understands nor cares to understand.

Another notion the texts share is that of waiting, an idea that appears frequently in postmodern fantasy. Elsewhere, K. waits for the Law to judge him. Borges' narrator in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” waits for the invasion of reality by dream. Didi and Gogo wait for Godot. García Márquez' cantankerous colonel walks down to the mailboat every Friday to wait for his pension that never arrives. Such waiting points to the lack of something that will not show itself, the inability to know fully, and impossibility.

Most of all, waiting points to what is not there—absence. Clearly all texts present absences at their core in one way or another, but not all believe they do. With respect to this, Jacques Derrida discusses what he calls a metaphysics of presence, a metaphysics that longs for the truth behind every sign, the belief that the reader of a text can pass from signifier to the signified which is a stable meaning. In the model of presence, writing is a process whereby an author sends his message to the world and the reader retrieves that message and tries to find out what the writer had in mind. But however appropriate this model may appear with regard to speech, Derrida argues, such a model with respect to the written word is at best the confession of a yearning for an edenic world where no system of mediation called language or writing exists between form and meaning. But the very act of writing severs the word from the writers, and without the presence of the writer, the word's “meaning” and “truth” become absent. Hence, to write is to produce gaps that must be supplemented, to produce signs which provoke the reader to a kind of rewriting. To this extent, writing is cut off from any absolute responsibility, from any ultimate authority. It becomes orphaned from its father, open to alternate parents. It becomes an absence which must be filled.

Texts of mimetic discourse believe that the word represents the world, that writing re-presents “reality.” But texts of fantastic discourse not only believe in the absent center; they revel in its possibilities and drift in the freeplay of its potential. In the postlapsarian universe of postmodern fantasy, there lives only a schism between word and world.

Even the title of Coetzee's text points to this absence—and words like “blank,” “blind,” “space,” and “empty” appear frequently throughout the text. And absence announces the presence of a detective story. The reader, the magistrate, and others try to piece together clues about who the barbarians are, what they are like, and what they want. But, as we have often seen, the end never comes. The nomads never overrun the settlement. “Meaning” once again is deferred. By the end, the magistrate feels “like a man who lost his way long ago but presses on along a road that may lead nowhere” (156). “To the last,” he says, “we will have learned nothing” (143). The people in the settlement have learned nothing about humanity, about civilization, or about themselves. And both the people in the settlement and the reader have learned nothing about the barbarians. And everyone has learned about Nothing, about how absence unfolds.

By pointing to the lack of “a specified historical place and time” and to the fact that “the geography is garbled,” Howe and Whiteson indicate other absences in the text—those of clear topography. On first reading, the text may appear more mimetic than many of those I have discussed earlier, but on closer inspection strangeness concerning time and space intrude. When could we be, and where, for instance, that would help us account for the fact that the magistrate does not know what sunglasses are? How can there be snow in a desert? Where do the bearskins that the people wear come from, since there are no bears in the desert? How can there be both sunglasses and the lack of advanced military weapons or motors? Perhaps the geography of this entropic settlement signals the hypnagogic state, but it could also signal the postnuclear terrain of science fiction—the terrain of civilization after The End, as in Beckett's Endgame or All Strange Away—where sunglasses are throwbacks to an earlier age; where no bodies are found in the ruins; where the unlucky, the barbarians, wander aimlessly. Here we are in a “haze of desert” (14) where “time has broken” (43), in a “dead country” (98) where there is only a “dead season” (49), in a nightmarish universe where “dust rather than air becomes the medium in which we live. We swim through dust like fish through water” (6).

Each of the characters in this universe is a kind of reader, decoder, and interpreter. The magistrate is not just a “country magistrate … serving out [his] days on this lazy frontier,” who has “not asked for more than a quiet life in quiet times” (8). He is also an archeologist, an anthropologist, a digger for “meaning,” searching those ruins that lie under the dunes around the settlement—ruins that date back before the western provinces were annexed, before the settlement was founded, before, perhaps, even the barbarians. Below the floors there are buried bags that contain wood slips, on which are painted unintelligible characters that are almost illegible because of the sand's action across them. Hoping to decipher this failed language, the magistrate collects all the slips he can, two hundred and fifty-six of them, and wonders:

Is it by chance that the number is perfect?. … I cleared the floor of my office and laid them out, first in one great square, then in sixteen smaller squares, then in other combinations, thinking that what I had hitherto taken to be characters in a syllabary might in fact be elements of a picture whose outline would leap at me if I struck on the right arrangement.


In his attempt to decipher them, he finds himself “reading the slips in a mirror, or tracing one on top of another, or conflating half of one with half of another” (16).

In other words, the magistrate is a decoder. “I search for secrets and answers, no matter how bizarre,” he writes, “like an old woman reading tea leaves” (44). But in the end he realizes that his slips do not hold a single meaning. It is impossible to tell just what the author(s) had in mind. Rather, he discovers that the slips

can be read in many orders. Further, each single slip can be read in many ways. Together they can be read as a domestic journal, or they can be read as a plan of war, or they can be turned on their sides and read as a history of the last years of the Empire.

He concludes that “there is no agreement among the scholars about how to interpret these relics” (112). Here is a new version of Kafka's parable “Before the Law,” a parable that exhibits only the commentators' despair before the multiplicity of meaning. As Derrida would have it, the wood slips form an absence which may be supplemented in an endless number of ways, nothing more than a productive mechanism.

Joll, on the other hand, is a misreader, a false reader, a believer in the metaphysics of presence: “in his quest for truth he is tireless” (22), says the magistrate. And this is just Joll's problem. He still cryptofascistically reads for “truth,” for “answer.” He still believes in interpretation and the absolute. For him, behind every signifier there is one and only one signified, so when he comes across the magistrate's slips his response is immediate, and incorrect: “A reasonable inference is that the wooden slips contain messages passed between yourself and other parties, we do not know when. It remains for you to explain what the messages say and who the other parties are” (110). He tries to fix the language of the slips, to decode into compensation. He will kill for the “truth”—and in fact has done so with the barbarian son and father he captured. But the magistrate thinks to himself: “I do not even know whether to read from right to left or from left to right. … I have no idea what they stand for” (110). The magistrate believes in the metaphysics of absence, in the idea that “meaning” and “truth” must be allowed to float free, even at the risk of casting the commentators into despair. While Joll believes that there is no system of mediation called language (and hence becomes a proponent of the mimetic mode of discourse), the magistrate believes in decentering “truth” (and hence becomes a proponent of fantastic discourse).

Not only on the stratum of character does absence pervade the text. Images suggesting blankness abound in Waiting for the Barbarians. Joll's “two little discs of glass suspended in front of his eyes in loops of wire,” for instance, imply his absence of humanism, his spiritual blindness, the lack behind the “mystery of dark shields hiding healthy eyes” (4). Eyes, particularly disfigured eyes, permeate the novel. Not only are there Joll's “blind” (1) eyes, but also those of the boy whose father Joll murders—his “face is puffy and bruised, one eye is swollen shut” (3). The magistrate notices in the corner of the barbarian girl's eye “a greyish puckering as though a caterpillar lay there with its head under the eyelid, grazing” (31). After his beatings by Joll's men, even the magistrate, who cannot see what sense the wood slips make, finds that his “left eye is a mere slit” (115). All these images of eyes indicate partial sight, partial blindness, distorted vision, and the fact that in every act of perception exists a gap that cannot be filled. So that even if the reader may feel the need to identify with a moral center in the text—with the magistrate, for instance—such images emphasize the impossibility of such an act.

In addition to images of eyes that signal absence, there appears the image of the magistrate's quest into those buried ruins, where he locates Nothing: “There are no human remains among the ruins. If there is a cemetery we have not found it. The houses contain no furniture” (15). All the barbarian girl can see with her almost blind eye is a lack: “Am I to believe that gazing back at me she sees nothing—my feet perhaps, parts of the room, a hazy circle of light, but at the centre, where I am, only a blur, a blank?” (31), the magistrate asks. The face of the prostitute the magistrate sometimes visits also turns into void: “It occurs to me that I cannot even recall the other one's face. … Blank, like a fist beneath a black wig, the face grows out of the throat and out of the blank body beneath it, without aperture, without entry” (42). Even the face that appears again and again in the magistrate's recurring dream reveals Nothing: “The face I see is blank, featureless; it is the face of an embryo or a tiny whale; it is not a face at all but another part of the body that bulges under the skin; it is white; it is the snow itself” (37). It is that which accommodates different readings, that which may be supplemented almost infinitely. The archeologist digs to the center only to find he has been reading through to a void.

Whiteson's comment releases another approach to my discussion of the presence of absence: “The story is told in that most awkward tense: the historic present,” he writes. “The dialogue is stiff, the writing has the air of a translation” (8). He comes to the brink of insight only to slip back into prescription. Coetzee's use of the present tense may be seen as a mockery of presence. It is a tense that registers the absence of past and future, and, by drawing attention to itself, forces awareness that it is a fictional tense, that it serves to represent what is not there. In other words, it announces what the magistrate already knows, that “whatever can be articulated is falsely put” (64). To write is to acknowledge a metaphysics of absence.

Consequently, Coetzee's text has the “air of a translation”—and what better tone to generate than that of a translation for this text, which is supposed to be a recovered manuscript, the ancient record of a dead culture? At first the reader may suspect that only Joll's language has been dehumanized, neutralized, and deflated, as in the report he makes to the magistrate after killing the barbarian father: “During the course of the interrogation contradictions become apparent in the prisoner's testimony. Confronted with these contradictions, the prisoner became enraged and attacked the investigating officer. A scuffle ensued during which the prisoner fell heavily against the wall” (6). But the same kind of brutal flatness worms its way into the magistrate's universe as well. As he comes upon the corpse of the barbarian father, he notes: “The grey beard is caked with blood. The lips are crushed and drawn back, the teeth are broken. One eye is rolled back, the other eye-socket is a bloody hole. ‘Close it up,’ I say. The guard bunches the opening together” (7). Both discourses share short declarative sentences, an emphasis on dead state-of-being verbs, a paucity of adjectives, a journalistic efficiency, a cruel precision, a limited vocabulary pool, a tone of understatement, a tone of legal notices.

If that is so, then they are speaking the same language. They are speaking out of the same universe of discourse. In that case, everyone's means of expression, humanity, and individuality has been deactivated. And so once more we are back to Kafka, in whose texts everyone speaks the same way. And we are back to Barthes, who announces the advent of writing degree zero, a negative mood. And we are back to Derrida, where writing is an orphan in search of a father. And we are back to the monologic postmodern fantasies of Borges, Robbe-Grillet, Beckett, Fuentes, Pynchon, and García Márquez, texts that disintegrate before anyone has heard, texts filled with play and freeplay, but also with nostalgia, desire and despair, a recognition that there are fields of blankness, and a desolation that there has to be such blankness.

Elizabeth Cummins (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10492

SOURCE: Cummins, Elizabeth. “Earthsea.” In Understanding Ursula K. Le Guin, pp. 22-64. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Cummins provides a detailed analysis of Le Guin's “Earthsea” trilogy as a coming-of-age journey set in the realm of the fantastic, where fantastical elements resonate with “ethical, emotional, and aesthetic meaning.”]

The impetus for the Earthsea series was Le Guin's invitation in 1967 from Herbert Schein, publisher of Parnassus Press, to write a book for an adolescent audience. That audience, Le Guin explains in her essay “Dreams Must Explain Themselves” (1973), led to her choosing the main theme of coming of age and the genre of fantasy. “Coming of age,” she writes, “is a process that took me many years; I finished it, so far as I ever will, at about age thirty-one; and so I feel rather deeply about it. So do most adolescents. It's their main occupation, in fact.”1 In the trilogy Le Guin narrates the coming-of-age process as a journey into the self. In the same essay she says, “Fantasy is the medium best suited to a description of that journey, its perils and rewards. The events of a voyage into the unconscious are not describable in the language of rational daily life: only the symbolic language of the deeper psyche will fit them without trivializing them.”2 (Le Guin's comments and the discussion in this chapter refer to the trilogy; the fourth novel, Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea, is scheduled for release in 1990.)

Fantasy, in other words, like myth and dream, assumes the existence of a world of being beyond or underneath perceived, empirical reality; and it reproduces that other world by means of symbol and literary archetype. Wizards, shadows, dragons, a labyrinth, ring, dragon, and sword are some of the symbols and archetypes that reverberate with ethical, emotional, and aesthetic meaning in Le Guin's fantasy trilogy.

These archetypes and symbols can carry such meaning because, as she relates in her essay “The Child and the Shadow” (1975), “we all have the same general tendencies and configurations in our psyche.”3 The idea of shared psychic roots is based on Carl Gustav Jung's psychology. Jung argued that beyond the conscious mind there lay two other mental activities—the individual unconscious, which is unique to each person, and the collective unconscious, which is shared by all people. The symbols and archetypes that are common to myths throughout the world are the manifestations of the collective unconscious. The myths were stories that connected the unconscious and the conscious, stories that used symbols and images to connect the desires and fears and hopes and creativity of the unconscious to the conscious mind.

Such a connection is made during that journey into the unconscious which is part of the adolescent's coming of age. Le Guin believes that a primary characteristic of such a journey is that it is “not only a psychic one, but a moral one,” one that “contain[s] a very strong, striking moral dialectic”4 between the potential for good and for evil within the self. The goal of this psychic and moral journey is, in Le Guin's words, the hope that the journeyer “will be less inclined, perhaps, either to give up in despair or to deny what he sees, when he must face the evil that is done in the world, and the injustices and grief and suffering that we all must bear.”5

This kind of fantasy exemplifies what Francis J. Molson calls “ethical fantasy.” It is a fiction that both delights and instructs its audience. Specifically, Molson asserts, it

dramatizes several interrelated propositions whose continuing validity is taken for granted: making ethical choices, whether deliberate or not, is central in the lives of young people; actions do bear consequences not only for oneself but for society … ; maturity involves accepting responsibility for one's actions; and character bespeaks destiny. Ethical fantasy, moreover, is a symbolization of these propositions which does not usually endorse or reflect explicitly any particular religion, sect, or ideology.6

A Wizard of Earthsea was written as a single novel; apart from J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, trilogies were not common in fantasy and science fiction. The loose ends of the first novel, Le Guin records, led her to write The Tombs of Atuan. Another year, more thought, and she published a third novel, The Farthest Shore.7 The coming-of-age story was so central to her use of fantasy that each of the other two novels also features a young protagonist who crosses the threshold into adulthood. But as her imagination kept returning to Earthsea, two additional subjects emerged. One was the complete life story of Ged, the only character who appears in all three novels. Embedded in his story was the other subject, artistry, “the creative experience, the creative process.”8

Le Guin first used Earthsea as a fictional setting in two short stories published in 1964, “The Word of Unbinding” and “The Rule of Names,” and in an unpublished story written in 1965 or 1966.9 Earthsea is an archipelago populated by people, wizards, and dragons; it is a place where magic works. Although Earthsea is a kingdom, its islands are separated and different enough in resources and climate that each has a sense of independence and an awareness that some independence must be sacrificed to make a unified kingdom. Beyond this dynamic relationship between individual island and aggregate kingdom is the dynamism of natural forces suggested in the archipelago's name, Earthsea. The balance of the powers of the physical landscape is a manifestation of still another level of balanced forces, a cosmic balance which the people of Earthsea call the Equilibrium. They speak of the world as being “in balance”; the act of creation is described as a “balancing of the dark and the light”; and they look to the Archmage, the highest ranking wizard to “watch the Equilibrium.”10

A world, then, is not just the tangible elements of place, nature, humankind, culture; it is also a process, a creative relationship among all things that exist—physical and spiritual, natural and human. Le Guin's concept of a world exhibits ideas compatible with those of both twentieth-century anthropologists and twentieth-century physicists. Much of her father's early field work among Native Americans in California revealed stories that stress an intimate relationship between nature and human society. This relationship has also been expressed by Werner Heisenberg, who asserted that in modern physics “there appears above all the network of relationships between men and nature, of the connections through which we as physical beings are dependent parts of nature and at the same time, as human beings, make them the object of our thought and actions.”11 This “network of relationships” is a metaphor Le Guin suggests in her choice of earth and sea as the world of her fantasy trilogy.

The principle of balanced powers, the recognition that every act affects self, society, world, and cosmos, is both a physical and a moral principle of Le Guin's fantasy world. The people of Earthsea honor the Equilibrium in their dances, songs, and rituals performed at the winter and summer solstices when the sun appears to change direction. They believe that their participation assists the movements of the cosmos and ensures the sun's return. The people with magic powers, from archmage to village witch, can directly influence the Equilibrium if they know the “true” name of that which they wish to change. Naming is the key to magic; to know the true name of anything is to know its essence and thus be able to control it. Humans honor the acquisition of names. When each girl or boy reaches puberty, part of the passage ceremony is being given a true name, which is told only to the most trusted friends. The creative power of naming in wizardry is analogous to the creative power of word use in the art of fiction.

A wizard like Earthsea's protagonist Ged spends his life learning the words and spells, which can affect the balance, and learning the consequences of acting. As Ged explains to the young prince Arren:

Do you see, Arren, how an act is not, as young men think, like a rock that one picks up and throws, and it hits or misses, and that's the end of it. When that rock is lifted, the earth is lighter; the hand that bears it heavier. When it is thrown, the circuits of the stars respond, and where it strikes or falls the universe is changed. On every act the balance of the whole depends.12

During the thirty or forty years covered by the trilogy Earthsea is a world which is out of balance. The kingdom has not had a king for some eight hundred years; disrespect for the mages, for the principle of balanced powers, and for the kingdom itself has grown on certain islands. The new king, it has been prophesied, will be he “who has crossed the dark land living and come to the far shores of the day.”13

The world Le Guin discovered in her imagination is appropriate for the three subjects she wished to explore. This is not to suggest that she methodically worked out the details of the world to fit the themes she wanted to discuss. Given her insistence that in order to create fiction the writer also journeys into the unconscious, one can say only that the world, characters, and themes are all interwoven. The concept of the Equilibrium dramatizes the significance of the individual's coming of age, for knowledge of the self and of the potential to do good or evil is essential for protecting the delicate balance of cosmos, kingdom, and community—hence three coming-of-age stories. To restore balance to the kingdom requires a lengthy tale of a great hero—hence Ged's story from youth to old age. The power by which magicians can affect the world is activated by words—hence the magician doubles as the creative and transforming artist.


Readers have documented the parallels between Earthsea's coming-of-age process and myths, fairy tales, and Jungian psychology. Margaret P. Esmonde, for example, argued that the “master pattern” for the trilogy is the psychological journey to selfhood as discussed by Jung. The adolescent has a frightening confrontation with the dark side of the self (imaged as the shadow), followed by experiences which culminate in a recognition scene that signals the achievement of an integrated personality.14 Richard F. Patteson delineates the parallels between the plot structure of the trilogy and fairy tales (testing of the hero, conflict, and victory) and argues, following Bruno Bettelheim, that “fairy tales help children work out feelings of helplessness and insecurity; they aid them in discovering their identity and developing their character; they teach them that life's inevitable conflicts can be overcome.”15 In her essays Le Guin explained the similarities among myths and fairy tales on the basis of their common source, the collective unconscious. Many of the best-known students of myth and archetype have relied on the same body of myths and tales; therefore a critic must be careful to offer substantial evidence when privileging one over the others in interpreting Le Guin's work. All are helpful to some degree: Carl Jung, Bruno Bettelheim, Joseph Campbell, Northrop Frye, Mircea Eliade, Sir James Frazer.

Although Le Guin used Jung to help explain the power of fantasy, she has asserted on several occasions that she had not read Jung until after she had published the Earthsea trilogy.16 Readers who are interested in the stories Le Guin read should look at fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm and myths told in Lady Frazer's Leaves from the Golden Bough, Padraic Colum's The Children of Odin, and Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough.17

Each of the three novels presents the process of coming of age for a different character, in a different context, and with different results. In A Wizard of Earthsea Ged must learn to discipline his innate power of magic and understand the need for discipline. His psychological journey is mirrored in his physical journey from the heart of Earthsea out to its western and eastern edges. In The Tombs of Atuan the young priestess Tenar must break free of the role imposed on her by her society and join the larger human community of Earthsea. Her trapped self is mirrored in the walled-in religious center where she lives. In The Farthest Shore the young prince Arren must achieve the courage, self-reliance, and self-knowledge to become the first king of Earthsea in eight hundred years. Arren's psychological journey is also a physical journey; he sails from the heart of Earthsea west into the uncharted sea and then enters the land of the dead.

A Wizard of Earthsea is, of the three novels, the most complete account of coming of age as a journey into the self; its protagonist is one of the kingdom's greatest wizards. So private is this journey it is not included in the public celebration of his life, the Deed of Ged. In his journey from adolescence to adulthood Ged acquires psychological and moral knowledge about his innate power of wizardry. The journey is intensified when, motivated by pride, he uses his powers to call up a spirit from the dead; the resulting crisis affects Ged and the safety of those who associate with him. For the straight-forward narrative of Ged's life, from about age seven to nineteen, Le Guin uses an omniscient point of view. This allows her to use the opening and closing paragraphs of the novel to establish a context for Ged's maturation. The reader learns not only that Ged's quest is successful, but that he eventually achieves the highest mage's rank, Archmage of Earthsea. A Wizard of Earthsea is in the tradition of the apprenticeship novel (Bildungsroman), which traces the development of a young person's awareness of self, society, and nature. Particularly the novel is a male Bildungsroman, for Ged achieves a socially sanctioned and acclaimed role.

Like the early life of the mythic hero Ged's childhood includes revelations of his extraordinary power. Ged learns that he has the potential to control both himself and the external world. All he needs to learn, he believes, is the how—the words, runes, spells, and gestures. After successfully weaving a fog which hides and protects his village from the warriors of Kargad, however, Ged is unable to resume his daily life. Ogion restores Ged and names him: he identifies him as a “mageborn,” and at the ceremony of passage he gives Ged his true name.

As he begins his apprenticeship with Ogion, Ged exhibits the universal desire of the adolescent to control self and environment for self-gratification:

Ged had thought that as the prentice of a great mage he would enter at once into the mystery and mastery of power. He would understand the language of the beasts and the speech of the leaves of the forest, he thought, and sway the winds with his word, and learn to change himself into any shape he wished. Maybe he and his master would run together as stags, or fly to Re Albi over the mountain on the wings of eagles.18

Self-transformation means an external shape change; and Ged imagines that if he could change his shape, he would thereby be part of a world in which he is freer or more powerful or more admired. As his actions under Ogion's tutelage bear out, Ged has not recognized that the most significant self-development will come from knowing his internal self—his desires, his capability for evil and for good, his pride.

At the School for Wizards on Roke, Ged learns of the nature and ethics of power. He is warned by Master Hand:

But you must not change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow on that act. The world is in balance, in Equilibrium. A wizard's power of Changing and of Summoning can shake the balance of the world. It is dangerous, that power. It is most perilous. It must follow knowledge, and serve need. To light a candle is to cast a shadow.


Such warnings do not speak as loudly to Ged as his own inner voice of pride does; he thinks, “But surely a wizard … was powerful enough to do what he pleased, and balance the world as seemed best to him, and drive back darkness with his own light” (44).

“To light a candle is to cast a shadow” is a metaphor for the idea that opposites are actually complementary. To explain fantasy's frequent use of light and darkness as symbols of good and evil, Le Guin uses the yang-yin symbol, an ancient Chinese pictograph of the integration of opposites […]:

Evil, then, appears in the fairy tale not as something diametrically opposed to good, but as inextricably involved with it, as in the yang-yin symbol. Neither is greater than the other, nor can human reason and virtue separate one from the other and choose between them. The hero or heroine is the one who sees what is appropriate to be done, because he or she sees the whole, which is greater than either evil or good. Their heroism is, in fact, their certainty. They do not act by rules; they simply know the way to go.19

The yang-yin symbol is common to Taoism (the only religion Le Guin has admitted to) and other ancient Chinese philosophies. Yin and yang are the primal forces out of whose interaction arises the world of being. The symbol expresses the operations of Tao, the inexhaustible, self-creating principle of the universe. As the two halves appear to be in unstable balance, the symbol expresses the Taoist belief that all existence is in a state of change, flux, and transformation. But the symbol also suggests unity because both are held within the circle's boundary and in each is contained the germ of the other. All existence, from the cosmic to the personal, is seen as consisting of complementary opposites, such as being and becoming, duration and creation, essence and change, male and female.

In Western thought light and dark are often regarded as symbols of the dualistic, warring powers of good and evil. Such dualism suggests that the world consists of hierarchical relationships and that self and other (defined as that which is different; e.g., in culture, race, sex, religion) is always a relationship of competition and power.

Ged misuses his power in the duel with Jasper because he is more interested in demonstrating his personal power than he is in respecting the interrelationship of light and darkness. Not fully understanding what he sought nor the effect of his powers, Ged allowed his conscious mind to call up Elfarren while his unconscious mind simultaneously attracted the shadow. The shadow, a common image in fairy tales, is a literary archetype for that integral part of the self which the immature individual tries to deny. So important is one's confrontation with the shadow to the process of growing up that Jung, Le Guin notes in “The Child and the Shadow,” identified it as the guide for the journey into the self. The shadow is “all the qualities and tendencies within us which have been repressed, denied, or not used.”20 The shadow symbolizes Ged's unrecognized pride, desire for power and control, and fear of his own death.

Although the shadow is Ged's personal adversary, its emergence and disappearance have far-reaching consequences. The remaining two-thirds of the novel tells the story of Ged's quest to avoid the shadow and then to find and name it. The episodes test his wizardry and initiate him into his socially approved role as one of Earthsea's greatest mages. Specifically, Ged's initiation includes knowledge of the trust and betrayal in human society; of evil and death; of the wisdom and power of nature; and of his own arrogance, denial, fear, and despair.

At Low Torning, for example, Ged's reentry into Earthsea society is fortunately eased by the boatmaker Pechvarry, who offers Ged friendship; Ged weaves some protective spells for Pechvarry's boats and Pechvarry gives Ged sailing lessons. The exchange of gifts is a manifestation of the trust that makes human community possible; Ged's participation in the act testifies to his growing awareness of his social role. Conversely, Ged witnesses the betrayal in human society when he finds the old couple on the desert island; he sees the consequences, this time in the political sphere, of misused power.

Ged learns of the reality of death and of evil in the world. When he gives in to the temptation to bring Pechvarry's son back from the land of the dead and when he faces the temptation of the Terrenon, Ged learns that neither death nor evil can be eliminated, but that he is free to choose how he deals with each. He chooses to stop denying death and chooses not to serve evil.

In rejecting the power and information which Terrenon and the dragon Yevaud offer Ged, he is choosing to protect the human community and the Equilibrium rather than enhance his own power. Le Guin's dragon, more Oriental than Occidental, seems to be an archetype for the forces of nature which are powerful and wise, yet neither malevolent nor benevolent toward humankind. Ged earns the title “dragonlord” not because he slays the dragon but because he converses with it; he accepts its coexistence with humankind. Likewise, he accepts the wisdom of the silent, less obtrusive elements of nature, such as the otak.

In his schooling with Ogion and on Roke, Ged's arrogance kept him from hearing the truth in his mentors' lessons. However, after experiencing despair, death, the temptations for increased power, Ged can finally listen to advice. Seeking home and Ogion, his mentor-father who named him, Ged is counseled to “turn clear round, and seek the very source, and that which lies before the source. There lies your hope of strength” (128). Ged learns that the most important knowledge is of one's being (“the source”) and one's beginning (“that which lies before the source”), the realities of his own psyche. The shadow acts out of the very power that Ged has refused to recognize in himself, primarily the desire to control.

In the recognition scene which is also the climax of the novel, Ged meets the shadow for the last time. They lay hold of each other and speak the same name, “Ged.” Light and shadow mingle, and there are no longer two beings but only one. Ged has acknowledged the dark side of his self, such characteristics as arrogance, ignorance, fear of death, the desire to control and to master. His friend and fellow sorcerer, Vetch, understands the significance of the act:

that Ged had neither lost nor won but, naming the shadow of his death with his own name, had made himself whole: a man: who, knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself, and whose life therefore is lived for life's sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark.


Ged has acknowledged the presence of good and evil in himself and transformed himself psychologically to fit into the world. He has learned through experience what his mages and masters sought to teach him at Roke, that a wizard's power “must follow knowledge, and serve need” (44). He must act out of knowledge of the myriad powers and must act only when there is a clear need to assist the Equilibrium or the human community. To participate, not to change; to act appropriately, not to master—these become Ged's ethical principles.

“To light a candle is to cast a shadow” brings together the imagery of the novel and the lessons Ged has learned. He must proceed with caution, for uncertainty is perhaps the one certain thing he knows about the world; an increase in knowledge (light) is accompanied by the realization of further ignorance. Furthermore, every act (“to light”) has consequences for which the actor is responsible; all existence is interconnected; therefore, the individual must exercise freedom carefully. Apparent opposites such as light and dark are actually complementarities; knowledge of one leads to knowledge of the other, and one must learn to cope with their presence—life and death, good and evil, pleasure and pain. The central imagery is used in the five-line poem which begins the novel:

Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying life:
bright the hawk's flight
on the empty sky.

Life is accompanied by mortality (“empty sky”); knowledge of one's vulnerability and brevity gives one the opportunity to act meaningfully.

The novel ends with the successful completion of Ged's journey into himself and his attainment of adulthood. Ged's journey, which can be traced on Le Guin's map of Earthsea in the novel, is in the pattern of an unclosed circle or spiral. The pattern, seen in other Le Guin novels, suggests that a journey into the self does not end with the return to the beginning place. The successful completion of the journey means the hero has been changed. Further, the unfinished circle, coming at the end of the novel, suggests that one's life is a series of changes or transformations. Thus, although the novel began as a single volume and has a sense of an ending, its image of the open circle suggests the possibility of further narratives.

In The Tombs of Atuan Le Guin examines the coming-of-age story under different circumstances. The protagonist is a young woman, Tenar, and she lives on the margin rather than at the center of Earthsea. Second, unlike Ged, whose development was a result of his own choices, Tenar has had an identity forced upon her just as surely as her black clothing has been woven and put upon her. Further, Tenar's acts and eventual quest are more public than Ged's. Ged's quest was private, a confrontation with the realities of his psyche. Tenar's decisions, however, have immediate sociopolitical consequences. A Wizard of Earthsea focused on the journey inward to knowledge of the self; The Tombs of Atuan focuses on the journey outward to knowledge of the relationship between self and human community.

Le Guin again uses the omniscient point of view for the narrative, but she lets A Wizard of Earthsea establish the context for the second novel. Ged appears as a character midway in the novel; the crisis is caused by the threat to the Equilibrium's balance by the Dark Powers and the threat to Earthsea's political harmony by the Kargad Empire.

Both of these powers are preventing Tenar's normal psychological development into selfhood and womanhood. This active opposition to Tenar's coming of age places Le Guin's novel in the tradition of the female Bildungsroman. Annis Pratt, in her study Archetypal Patterns in Women's Fiction, writes of this tradition:

The novel of development portrays a world in which the young woman hero is destined for disappointment. The vitality and hopefulness characterizing the adolescent hero's attitude toward her future here meet and conflict with the expectations and dictates of the surrounding society. Every element of her desired world—freedom to come and go, allegiance to nature, meaningful work, exercise of the intellect, and use of her own erotic capabilities—inevitably clashes with patriarchal norms.21

What the adolescent needs for her development into an adult is not what society needs her to have. The adolescent woman experiences, Pratt writes, a “collision between the hero's evolving self and society's imposed identity.”22The Tombs of Atuan and other similar stories use images of suffocation, entrapment, and madness to portray the woman's plight. By contrast, the male Bildungsroman usually shows the adolescent achieving the characteristics of an adult which are those society needs him to have, as illustrated in A Wizard of Earthsea. By setting Tenar's struggle in the Kargad Empire, Le Guin can portray Tenar's rebellion against the patriarchal empire and then have her escape into a different society where she will have the freedom to define herself and to learn to choose and act responsibly.

The Kargad Empire (the four islands of Atuan, Karego-At, Atnini, and Hur-at-Hur) is a theocracy; its divine monarch, the Godking, claims to be the human representative of the Nameless Ones, sometimes called the Dark Powers. Older than the human race, they are the “powers of the dark, of ruin, of madness”;23 their greatest stronghold is in the desert on the island of Atuan, where they dwell in a below-ground labyrinth. On this site are ancient Kargish temples to the Godkings and to the Dark Powers. Rejecting the concept of the Equilibrium, the Godkings' primary interests are keeping the empire together and keeping themselves in power; their society is militant and patriarchal. It is doubtful whether the kings and aristocracy even believe in the Dark Powers any longer; but the leaders need a symbol of their power base, particularly they need the One Priestess as a figurehead. The child chosen to become the Priestess is, then, their ultimate human sacrifice, symbolic of their devotion to destruction.

The Tombs of Atuan tells the story of this titular head of the Kargish religion. As part of her initiation she is given a new name (Arha, which means “the Eaten One”) and, as her special domain, a man-made underground labyrinth which has “no beginning, and no end … no center” (68). Tenar is trapped. Psychologically her development is arrested between being a child and becoming a woman. Politically she is trapped into carrying out the bidding of the monarch and his religious representative at Atuan, although ostensibly she holds the position of supreme power. Socially she is trapped in the identity of the One Priestess; she is “the new body of the Priestess who died” (10). Tenar's knowledge is as narrow as the dark labyrinth which she paces and memorizes. Like Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea she must “turn clear round,” see into herself, and so be forever changed. It is a mistake to say that Ged “saves” Tenar; she saves herself, but Ged functions as the mid-wife in her rebirth.

Le Guin once wrote that the subject of The Tombs of Atuan was sex, by which she apparently meant not only the physical maturity but also the recognition of and potential for intimate interaction with that which is different. Rollo May identified such maturation as eros; his definition is helpful in describing what Tenar must learn:

a desiring, longing, a forever reaching out, seeking to expand … the drive toward union with significant other persons in our world in relation to whom we discover our own self-fulfillment. Eros is the yearning in man which leads him to dedicate himself to seeking arête, the noble and good life.24

The Place mirrors female experience in Kargish society. Ostensibly protected by its walls and guards and eunuchs, the women are actually imprisoned. Ostensibly honored by their society, they are actually punished by being isolated, perhaps a reflection of the male fear of the female principle. Ostensibly powerful in their roles as religious leaders, they are actually functionaries who have internalized male standards and enforce them. The women have become their own prison guards, figuratively speaking. Kossil is the epitome of the woman who is imprisoned and imprisoning; she is cruel, hateful, unable to nurture anyone, obsessed with the desire for power.

The labyrinth symbolizes the women's imprisonment. Deep underground, changeless and dark, it is a closed circle; one door leads in but not out, and the other door leads in and then out into the Temple of the Nameless Ones. It is a tomb for the meaningful lives these women might have led and for the kind of society Kargad could have become. The labyrinth also symbolizes Arha, the dark side of Tenar's self; her passage into adulthood must involve a confrontation with the light just as traumatic as was Ged's confrontation with the dark. The extent of her darkness is evident in her thinking of the labyrinth as a “safe” place (57) and in her choosing to spend hours exploring it. She becomes a good priestess by choosing to repress rather than to explore her self. Although there are many hints that Arha is not completely satisfied with her life at the Place, it is not until she must deal with her first political prisoners that she begins the self-struggle toward rebirth.

When Tenar kills the three political prisoners, she has become like Kossil. However, her illness and nightmares suggest that her entire self was not “eaten” when she was consecrated as the One Priestess. Her respect for life finds expression through her unconscious. During her recovery a conversation with Penthe makes Tenar conscious of different knowledge of the world. Penthe rejects the divinity of the Atuan monarch, and although Arha is initially shocked by this “unfaith,” she begins to see the world differently: “she felt as if she had looked up and suddenly seen a whole new planet hanging huge and populous right outside the window, an entirely strange world, one in which the gods did not matter” (41).

The stimulus which leads to Arha's new sense of self, however, is Ged, who comes into the labyrinth searching for the missing half of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe. Ged's presence and his knowledge contradict what Arha knows about herself, the empire, other Earthsea people, and the powers of darkness. Ged is wholly different from her in sex, skin color, place of origin, religion. The symbol of his otherness is light; his wizardly staff lights the Undertomb and she sees, for the first time in her life, its beauty. To suddenly find light in the place of darkness, life instead of death, beauty instead of blackness, shocks her.

But her own actions also begin to shock her. To continue to keep Ged alive in the labyrinth is to defy all her religious teachings and to defy the evil powers she serves. To sacrifice him is to defy her respect for life and her need to know more about the world, about the other. This dilemma is a classic battle between the social persona and the real self. All that she needs and desires to become an adult woman clashes with what the god-kings need her to be—obedient and dependent.

Nearly one-third of the novel details Arha's dilemma as she painfully tries to turn clear around to encounter her repressed self or, just as painfully, tries to deny the new knowledge that Ged has brought to light. After Ged calls her by the name her parents gave her, she confronts her dual selves, and she dreams of struggling in a grave in which she has been buried alive. Such an image of suffocation is common in the female Bildungsroman, as is her approach to madness when she cries out alternately, “I am Tenar” (96), “Who am I?” (99), “I am not Tenar. I am not Arha” (104). At this turning point of her life Ged clarifies her choices: she must either sacrifice him and resume her identity as Arha, or she must “unlock the door” and become Tenar in the larger world of Earthsea.

At their last meeting in the Treasure Room they exchange gifts, a manifestation of the bond between them, that which makes possible human community. Its essential elements are nurturance, trust, cooperation, respect for the other. The symbol of the bond is the rejoined ring; it reveals the Bond-Rune needed by a king to bring unity to Earthsea. Tenar's rune, then, symbolizes unity; the ring, Tenar's self, the islands of Earthsea are all joined.

Together, with Ged's magery to hold off the Dark Powers and with Tenar's knowledge of the labyrinth, they escape Ged's physical grave and Tenar's psychological one. Tenar's release is imaged as a birth, and Ged assists her like a midwife, appealing to her sense of commitment and responsibility and to her true being to perform the act that is a natural step in her maturation. Wearing the bond-ring, she steps out. As they flee, the Nameless Ones level the Place in an earthquake; their anger destroys themselves, the same fate that had awaited Arha.

Tenar now begins the physical journey that represents her coming of age, and the novel ends with that journey barely started. She is so scarred by her belief in the powers of destruction and has so little knowledge of the outside world that she contemplates extreme acts of murder and martyrdom. That she would think of these as solutions indicates how strongly the powers of darkness hold her. Her desire to kill Ged is a desire to destroy the other which she momentarily blames for her own pain. Her desire for martyrdom is equally destructive. What she must accept, as Ged helps her to realize, is her guilt. She has done evil; she did not choose to serve the evil, but she can now choose not to. She learns that: “freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not easy. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one. The road goes upward towards the light; but the laden traveler may never reach the end of it” (141).

Just as Ged will always have the physical scars of his battle with his shadow, so Tenar will always have the psychological scars of her battle with external and internal evil. Ged's image of her vulnerability, consistent with the novel's light-and-dark imagery, is of a newly lit lamp which needs to “burn out of the wind awhile” (145). From Ged's suggestions at the end of this novel and brief references in The Farthest Shore the reader knows that Tenar went to Gont, to continue her healing under the care of Ogion, and that she became known and honored throughout Earthsea as the White Lady of Gont, Tenar of the Ring. Le Guin has thus provided a glimpse of a life which continues to be heroic. Having given birth to herself, destroyed the power base of the Kargad Empire and its official religion, and restored the ring of unity to Earthsea, Tenar chooses the independent life which will allow her the freedom to continue to define herself and to learn about the world.

Tenar is actually more of a revolutionist than either Ged or Arren. She has had to rebel against and break free of the society that nurtured her; Ged and Arren mature so as to fit into their home societies. Thus, “coming home,” the image on both the first and last pages of the novel, is problematic for her. Although the people of Havnor welcome her, she chooses a less populated place—the mountains of Gont with Ogion. She will have one of the most celebrated mages in Earthsea as her teacher, the only man who could cure Ged when he stayed too long in the shape of a hawk. Tenar, at fifteen, has been trapped too long in the shape of the One Priestess of the Nameless Ones. Further, she will be connected to the world of nature on Gont, to the cycles of death and rebirth in the seasons of the year.

Tenar's new knowledge that brings her across the threshold of adulthood is, like Ged's, knowledge of power. On the broadest level she has learned that the cosmos is not under the sole influence of the power of darkness but of the power of light, too. Ged's lesson on the nature of these balanced powers is clear: The Dark Powers

should not be denied nor forgotten, but neither should they be worshiped. The Earth is beautiful, and bright, and kindly, but that is not all. The Earth is also terrible, and dark, and cruel. The rabbit shrieks dying in the green meadows. The mountains clench their great hands full of hidden fire. There are sharks in the sea, and there is cruelty in men's eyes. And where men worship these things and abase themselves before them, there evil breeds.


She also begins to put the power of the empire into perspective. In contrast to Earthsea, Kargad is small and destructive. On the personal level she learns that her own power is not that which she was given as the reincarnated priestess, but that which she acquired in choosing to leave the labyrinth. It is the power of dealing with the other, making choices for herself, and accepting the consequences of her choices. Power on all these levels, Tenar learns, is not only force, mastery, authority, and enslavement; power is also cooperation, trust, creating new relationships, acting within the network of the human and cosmic community. Because acknowledgment of the other is so crucial to Tenar's successful transition from adolescent to adult, she can be thought of as the spirit of human community; she has achieved bonding through both love and pain, gain and loss.

The coming-of-age story which Le Guin tells in The Farthest Shore is more like Ged's than Tenar's. Not only is the adolescent again a male, but the process is symbolized by a spiral journey out to distant islands, across open sea, and back to the Inner Lands. Furthermore, Arren is not trapped in an identity as Tenar was. However, like Tenar he has no wizardly powers; his power, he must discover, is the ability to lead and to govern.

The novel presents yet a third variation of the coming-of-age narrative; it is the story of the hero who is tested before he becomes king. The adolescent hero, Arren, born into the oldest royal house, has the potential to become the king for which the people of Earthsea have been waiting eight hundred years. The sequence of events is close to the paradigm of the testing of the mythic hero. For example, using the Greek stories Northrop Frye lists seven features of the paradigm: “Mysterious birth, oracular prophecies about the future contortions of the plot, foster parents, adventures which involve capture by pirates, narrow escapes from death, recognition of the true identity of the hero and his eventual marriage with the heroine.”25 Le Guin includes all but the first and the last in her account of several months in Arren's life.

Of greater importance, however, are two other differences between this novel and the previous two. First, the consequences of the characters' actions are shown in the largest political context. In the novel the Dark Mage has broken the Equilibrium, is turning all of Earthsea into a wasteland, and has challenged the authority of both Roke and Havnor. Second, the success of this quest depends on the bond relationship of Ged and Arren. Arren and Ged begin and end a long journey together; and Arren moves from a naïve, unquestioned fealty to Ged, through despair and alienation from him, to a mature acceptance of himself and Ged. The final act of fealty is that which Ged swears to Arren, the long-awaited King of Earthsea.

Although Le Guin shows Arren's courage and heroism, as one would expect in a traditional account of the testing of the hero-king, she examines in detail the process by which these traits are acquired. To discuss the stages of Arren's transformation the language of anthropology is especially helpful. Noting analogues in literature and myth and history, Victor Turner has projected the three stages of the initiation rites in African tribes into all social situations of transition. These three stages are “separation, margin (or limen, signifying ‘threshold’ in Latin), and aggregation.” He briefly defines them as follows:

The first phase (of separation) comprises symbolic behavior signifying the detachment of the individual or group either from an earlier fixed point in the social structure, from a set of cultural conditions (a “state”), or from both. During the intervening “liminal” period, the characteristics of the ritual subject (the “passenger”) are ambiguous; he passes through a cultural realm that has few or none of the attributes of the past or coming state. In the third phase (reaggregation or reincorporation), the passage is consummated. The ritual subject, individual or corporate, is in a relatively stable state once more and, by virtue of this … he is expected to behave in accordance with certain customary norms and ethical standards binding on incumbents of social position in a system of such positions.26

In the opening three chapters Le Guin shows that Arren and Ged are aware that they are considering a significant separation from homeland, known associates, and social roles. Arren offers to accompany Ged, and Ged chooses him as a “fit companion,” acknowledging that he “never needed help before.”27 Arren's initial concern is that he will fail Ged. Upon leaving Roke in Ged's sailboat Lookfar, they begin “an unsafe journey to an unknown end” (28) by entering liminality, the second phase of the physical and psychological journey.

On their journey, cut off from associates and the need to function in their customary roles, Arren has only Ged as a representative of human community. The social bond, the most elemental feature which makes human society possible, is what Turner calls communitas, a “communion of equal individuals,”28 a bonding outside of the structured sociopolitical system. Arren's coming of age is a journey toward both understanding the bond of trust and fealty with the other and understanding himself, for unless he “turns clear round” and looks at the very desires he tries to repress, he cannot have a mature, honest relationship with the other.

Arren tries to repress his desire for immortality. Like Tenar, however, his dreams and nightmares pressure him toward self-awareness. Just as Tenar dreamed of suffocating when she felt the pressure to be Arha, so Arren dreams of being chained or being wrapped in cobwebs when he feels the pressure to deny the dark side of himself. That Arren is tempted by the desire for immortality is first revealed in Hort Town. While Ged tries to stay with Hare in his trance, Arren suddenly breaks through to that which Hare seeks: “There, in the vast, dry darkness, there one stood beckoning. Come, he said, the tall lord of shadows. In his hand he held a tiny flame no larger than a pearl, held it out to Arren, offering life. Slowly Arren took one step toward him, following” (54-55).

This step is as much a step into adulthood as was the step Arren took to get into Ged's boat and begin the journey. No longer functioning as the dependent child to father-Ged, he steps out toward something he wants. It is a step toward that which he must admit and confront, the dark side of himself, his potential for evil—in this case his desire for something which violates nature.

When Arren represses thoughts of his desires, his dreams are affected. Although the dreams foreshadow his experience in the land of death, they also suggest Arren's powerlessness as long as he continues to deny his own potential for evil. The fear and repression are intensified by Sopli's presence; his fears of death and desire for immortality echo Arren's inmost thoughts. When Ged is wounded, Arren is so overcome with the presence and fear of death that he cannot think or act. Unwilling to examine himself, he blames Ged for all that has happened; despairing, he sees Ged with “no power left in him, no wizardry, no strength, not even youth, nothing” (108). Having denied his own potential for evil, he has essentially been fostering and believing in a false self; when it crumbles, there is nothing for Arren to get hold of to help him solve the problems. He is without hope.

Rescued from near death by the raft people, Arren recovers as he reestablishes the bond of trust and love with Ged and as he thinks critically about the social bond of the raft people. Arren confronts his dishonesty about himself and about his bond with the other when he courageously confesses to Ged the depths of his despair. The ensuing conversation is similar to those between Ogion and Ged when Ogion told Ged he must look into himself, and between Ged and Tenar when Ged told her what her name was. In all three psychological healing begins when the problem and solution can be named, when the admission of weakness becomes strength. The society of the raft people challenges the idea of a commitment to the larger society of Earthsea. In contrast to the chief's refusal to accept any responsibility for that larger society, Arren includes the raft people in his commitment, as indicated when he sings in the dawn and celebrates the creation of all of Earthsea.

In addition to this new knowledge about himself and society Arren also learns more about his participation in the Equilibrium. This interdependence of nature and humans is represented in the reciprocal relationship of dragon and man. In Earthsea, instead of suggesting the destructiveness of nature, Le Guin's dragon suggests the ancient, wise, enigmatic aspect of nature which will always be different from human life but affected by it.

Arren's experiences in the land of the dead strengthen his commitments. He encounters the dead who have lost themselves and the communitas bond with others. Void of reason, feeling, and the art of making anything, they are the shells of people once living; Arren has thus come to knowledge of the death he feared, and it no longer frightens him. Arren also discerns that Cob has lost his selfhood and communitas. Unable to experience love, he exists in isolation and alienation; existence has been reduced to the struggle for power. Symbolically, Cob's eye sockets are empty; he has sacrificed his self (“I”), his ability to see the power of light, his ability to see the natural environment and human community. Rejecting Cob's offer of immortality, Arren leads Ged to Cob so that Ged can restore the wholeness of the world.

Arren continues to be the leader as he chooses their way out to the shores of light. Crossing the mountains of pain symbolizes Arren's acceptance of pain and mortality as elements of the personal, social, and cosmic life he has come to understand. Their return to Roke on the back of the oldest dragon is dramatic, partly because this cooperation between human and nonhuman symbolizes the balance of apparent opposites that Ged and Arren have restored to Earthsea which makes possible the Equilibrium, the kingdom of Earthsea, and the integrated self. Ged kneels to Arren, acknowledging his acceptance of him as the next king of Earthsea and symbolizing the irrevocable changes which occurred for both of them in liminality.


Each volume of the Earthsea trilogy tells a different story about the coming-of-age process. When viewed together, the completed trilogy provides Ged's life history, which is both a story of the epic hero who successfully deals with the forces that threaten the Equilibrium and the kingdom and a story of the epic hero as creative artist.

Each of the novels recounts a quest at a different stage in Ged's life. As a youth he hunted down the shadow which he released into the world; as a mature wizard he searched for the missing half of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe whose Bond-Rune ensures the king's successful reign; and as an old man he tracked Cob, who opened a hole in the world and returned from the dead. Scholars have applied a number of different structures to his life story. Following Joseph Campbell's analysis of the archetypal journey in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Virginia White sees a “pattern of departure, initiation, and return” in the three quests. Following Jung's analysis of the psychological journey, Margaret P. Esmonde identifies the story as “a progression of an ego from uncertainty and self-doubt to assurance and fulfillment.” Charlotte Spivack summarizes the life as being the “paradigmatic career of the mythic hero … ; the divine signs of talent … [in] childhood, … trial and quest, periods of meditation and withdrawal, symbolic death and journey to the underworld, and, finally, rebirth and apotheosis.”29

Le Guin has emphasized the psychological qualities of the story in her selection of the key events of Ged's life to narrate. The reader learns, for example, that Ged's most famous deeds are not featured in the three novels. Instead of focusing on the public deeds, the deeds that ensured his sociopolitical role in external society, Le Guin examines the deeds which show Ged's inner struggles and psychological growth. After all, as Ged tells Arren in The Farthest Shore, heroes are “the ones who seek to be themselves” (135).

As the life story of a wizard, the trilogy is also a story of the efficacy of art. In “Dreams Must Explain Themselves,” Le Guin discusses this meaning:

I said that to know the true name is to know the thing, for me, and for the wizards. This implies a good deal about the “meaning” of the trilogy, and about me. The trilogy is, in one aspect, about the artist. The artist as magician. The Trickster. Prospero. That is the only truly allegorical aspect it has of which I am conscious. … Wizardry is artistry. The trilogy is then, in this sense, about art, the creative experience, the creative process. There is always this circularity in fantasy. The snake devours its tail. Dreams must explain themselves.30

Ged should not be regarded as a disguised Le Guin; he is more like a muse for her, a model for the artist to aspire to. Le Guin has called him her guide in Earthsea. The magic of Earthsea, sometimes called “artmagic,” depends, as does fiction, on the user's genius and knowledge of language. Like the work of art, the magic transforms reality. Patricia Dooley summarized the correspondences among magic, art, and the world: “Magic becomes a sophisticated metaphor for the ability of art to influence the experiential world through the insubstantial medium of the imagination.”31 The magician, trickster, and Prospero are all creator-destroyers who shock and delight and edify.

Just as the life of the epic hero is developed in stages from youth to old age, so the trilogy also depicts the life of the artist-wizard progressively from youth to maturity. In A Wizard of Earthsea Ged becomes aware of his innate power and learns from his masters, as an artist learns from mentors, how to discipline it. Discipline of the imagination, Le Guin has written, “does not mean to repress it, but to train it—to encourage it to grow, and act, and be fruitful.”32 Like Ged, the artist must have a fully developed knowledge of the self and will, in fact, find the journey into the self a creative connection between the conscious and the collective unconscious. Le Guin writes: “To reach the others, the artist goes into himself. Using reason, he deliberately enters the irrational. The farther he goes into himself, the closer he comes to the other.”33 Ged learns to resist the easy roads to knowledge and power, the route of a Faustus or a formula novelist who barters away power or talent.

The artist-wizard, once sure of his talent, begins a lifelong search for names, the “right words,” by which he exercises his power. “For me,” Le Guin wrote, “as for the wizards, to know the name of an island or a character is to know the island or the person. Usually the name comes of itself, but sometimes one must be very careful: as I was with the protagonist, whose true name is Ged.”34 In general, the power of language for the writer comes from the idea that if a thing can be named (be it an object, a theory, a tool, a psychological trait), then its existence can be dealt with, can be made a part of the reader's experience. The threat of the dragons of Pendor is solved when Ged can call Yevaud by its name; the threat of the shadow, of all that Ged fears and represses, is absolved into an acknowledged part of himself when he can name it, Ged. More specifically, in Le Guin's philosophy of life, the power of naming also lies in its ability to honor the thing which is being named. As T. A. Shippey has argued, Le Guin's emphasis on the word “is bound up with an attitude of respect for all parts of creation (even rocks), and a wary reluctance to operate on any of them without a total awareness of their distinct and individual nature.”35 Shippey asserts that Le Guin thus critiques the modern attitudes of materialism and industrialization, which are anthropocentric. Shippey states that Le Guin puts the word above the thing, but it is more accurate to say that Le Guin regards them as equal.

A Wizard of Earthsea can be regarded as depicting the artist in apprenticeship, and The Tombs of Atuan depicts the mature artist confronting a hostile audience and gradually transforming that person's perception of reality. What Ged tells Tenar about the world outside the Place and the Kargad Empire is, to her, fiction in the sense that it is a very different world and one which she has never experienced. Her hostility toward his art is based on her false education and on fear. She is a disbeliever and sneers at his art as mere illusion. Le Guin wrote of such a hostile audience in “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” where she identified the “hardworking, over-thirty American male” in business as one who dismisses fiction, especially fantasy, because he has learned to repress his imagination.36 Ged assists Tenar by showing her beauty, joy, and light; he assists her by the words which reveal a larger, more humane world and by the word for her other self, Tenar.

The Farthest Shore depicts the artist toward the end of his life, assisting an entire country in dealing with a crisis of language. His action for the prince, the king-born, is the same as that for Tenar; he gives assistance, offers stories of another kind of existence and a different system of values, and then allows the young prince to choose. All of Earthsea is threatened by the disbelief in artmagic; wizards are forgetting the true names of things and are losing their own true names, dragons lose the power of speech. The artist in his old age is the only one who can reestablish balance because, as Ged says of himself, “I desire nothing beyond my art” (133). He is not vulnerable to temptation.

Ged's belief that there is no escape from death is carried to its logical extension when he retires at the end of The Farthest Shore. Powerful as artistry is, it cannot provide a permanent escape to another world. Artist and reader alike must also deal with the consensus reality which surrounds them and with the limits of time and power. No artist's power is permanent, and one who is tempted to believe that it is goes the way of Cob or Faustus. No artist's role as aesthetic and moral guide for the people is permanent. An artist, Le Guin suggests in this novel, may uphold the standards when the ruling powers are deficient, but such is not the permanent role of the artist. Le Guin is conscious of her own lapses into didacticism, i.e., when the message overpowers the story, when the artist begins “to preach” rather than allowing people the freedom they need to be transformed.37 So the trilogy ends with news of the coronation of Arren as King of Earthsea, and the reader's attention is focused on the social realm. Ged retires, satisfied and fulfilled. Given the difficulty with which he has learned the lesson of turning clear around, of always seeking to connect with his roots in his actions, the ending is—like all of his quest journeys—an open circle. He returns to his beginning, to Roke and to the life of contemplation which he had rejected as a young man. But he returns as a changed man. The creative process has also transformed the artist.


  1. Le Guin, “Dreams Must Explain Themselves,” The Language of the Night, ed. Susan Wood (New York: Putnam's, 1979) 55.

  2. Le Guin, “The Child and the Shadow,” Language of the Night 65.

  3. “The Child and the Shadow” 63.

  4. “The Child and the Shadow” 65.

  5. “The Child and the Shadow” 70.

  6. Francis J. Molson, “The Earthsea Trilogy: Ethical Fantasy for Children,” Ursula K. Le Guin: Voyager to Inner Lands and to Outer Space, ed. Joe De Bolt (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat, 1979), 130.

  7. Nicholas O'Connell, “Ursula K. Le Guin,” At the Field's End: Interviews with Twenty Pacific Northwest Writers (Seattle: Madrona, 1987) 28.

  8. “Dreams Must Explain Themselves” 53.

  9. “Dreams Must Explain Themselves” 50.

  10. Le Guin, The Farthest Shore (New York: Bantam, 1975) 128, 15.

  11. Werner Heisenberg, “The Representation of Nature in Contemporary Physics,” The Discontinuous Universe, ed. Sallie Sears and Georgianna W. Lord (New York: Basic Books, 1972) 134.

  12. The Farthest Shore 66.

  13. The Farthest Shore 17.

  14. Margaret P. Esmonde, “The Master Pattern: The Psychological Journey in the Earthsea Trilogy,” Ursula K. Le Guin, ed. Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg (New York: Taplinger, 1979) 15-35, 225.

  15. Richard F. Patteson, “Le Guin's Earthsea Trilogy: The Psychology of Fantasy,” The Scope of the Fantastic, ed. Robert A. Collins and Howard D. Pearce (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1985) 240.

  16. Le Guin, “A Response to the Le Guin Issue,” Science-Fiction Studies 3 (1976): 45. See also Thomas J. Remington and Robert Galbreath, “Lagniappe: An Informal Dialogue with Ursula K. Le Guin,” Selected Proceedings of the 1978 Science Fiction Research Association National Conference (Cedar Falls: University of Northern Iowa, 1979) 270-71.

  17. Le Guin, “A Citizen of Mondath,” Language of the Night 25; Remington and Galbreath 271.

  18. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea (New York: Bantam, 1975) 16. Subsequent references will be noted in parentheses.

  19. “The Child and the Shadow” 66-67. Two of Le Guin's own sources on Taoism are Holmes Welch, Taoism: The Parting of the Way (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966), and Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962).

  20. “The Child and the Shadow” 64.

  21. Annis Pratt, Archetypal Patterns in Women's Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981) 29.

  22. Pratt 29.

  23. Le Guin, The Tombs of Atuan (New York: Bantam, 1975) 107. Subsequent references will be noted in parentheses.

  24. Rollo May, Love and Will (New York: Norton, 1969) 73-74; quoted Pratt 74.

  25. Northrop Frye, The Secular Scripture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976) 4.

  26. Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969) 94-95.

  27. The Farthest Shore 25. Subsequent references will be noted in parentheses.

  28. Turner 96.

  29. Virginia White, “Bright the Hawk's Flight: The Journey of the Hero in Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea Trilogy,” Ball State University Forum 20 (1979) 34; Esmonde 16; Charlotte Spivack, Ursula K. Le Guin (Boston: Twayne, 1984) 42.

  30. “Dreams Must Explain Themselves” 53.

  31. Patricia Dooley, “Magic and Art in Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea Trilogy,” Children's Literature (New Haven: Yale University Press) 8: 103.

  32. Le Guin, “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons,” Language of the Night 41.

  33. Le Guin, “Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction,” Language of the Night 78.

  34. “Dreams Must Explain Themselves” 52.

  35. T. A. Shippey, “The Magic Art and the Evolution of Words: Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea Trilogy,” Mosaic 10 (1977): 152.

  36. “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” 40.

  37. “Introduction to The Word for World Is Forest,Language of the Night 151.

Jennifer Smith (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Smith, Jennifer. “Supernatural Genres: Horror, Gothic, and Fantasy.” In Anne Rice: A Critical Companion, pp. 9-18. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Smith traces various literary influences on the writing of Anne Rice, including the Romantics, the Victorians, and writers of Gothic fiction.]

To analyze Anne Rice's work by genre or kind of fiction, it's necessary to go all the way back to the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was then that writers developed a fascination with the modern ideas of the supernatural. These writers, the Romantics, rejected the idea that everything could be explained by science and instead insisted that there were many things unexplained and unexplainable, including the individual human spirit. Romantic literature emphasizes strong ties to nature as both wild and true, an acceptance of the supernatural as a real force in life, an appreciation for passion over logic, and a rejection of conventional rules or rituals. The Romantics' fascination with both the importance of the individual and the supernatural led them to explore new areas in the two genres that Anne Rice most often draws on: horror and gothic fiction. But Rice's similarities to the Romantics go beyond the genres they both write, for Rice is a twentieth-century Romantic writer, a throwback to dreamers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, and Mary Shelley.

Coleridge created one of literature's most famous characters in his poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and there are many echoes of this tale in Rice's work. The old sailor who is the central character in this poem has committed a terrible sin against nature by shooting an albatross, and as the poem opens, he has grabbed the arm of a wedding guest to tell him his tale, even though the guest wants to go in to the wedding reception. The guest tries to pull away, but the Ancient Mariner stares into his eyes and the guest can't move. Rice used much the same setup in Interview with the Vampire: just as the Mariner must tell his tale and the guest must bear witness, so Louis the vampire must tell his tale of how he denied his human nature to become a vampire as the disbelieving interviewer bears witness. At the end of both tales, both listeners are won over by the enormity of the sins their storytellers have committed and the enormity of the price they've paid for transgressing nature. Both Rice and Coleridge end with the same theme—acceptance of the beauty of nature and of life is the only possible redemption—but Rice takes the idea further by returning to it in all of her vampire books. Both Louis and Lestat must recognize their place in nature before they can end their stories.

Other echoes of Coleridge show up in Rice's witch stories. Coleridge wrote another long story poem called “Christabel” about a young woman named Christabel who meets a witch, Geraldine, in the woods. Coleridge's poem is unfinished, but he makes it clear that although Geraldine is powerful, she is unhappy, and that the terrible things she does all reflect her need for love and belonging. In the same way, Rice's Mayfair witches are, for the most part, desperately unhappy, longing for love and acceptance but thwarted at every turn by the evil spirit Lasher that controls them. Lasher himself has strong parallels in Geraldine; the reason he commits such atrocities is that he wants the love and acceptance of the human race. He is, in short, trying to belong. When Rowan Mayfair invites him into her life at the end of The Witching Hour, she is doing exactly what Christabel does at the beginning of Coleridge's poem: she is inviting evil into her life in hopes of finding love.

This terrible sadness linked closely with supernatural power, especially female supernatural power, occurs often in Romantic poetry. Keats wrote two poems with the same theme. One, “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” tells the story of a faerie woman or sorceress who seduces knights who travel by the forest where she lives. Although she keeps them all under a spell, she weeps for them and for herself, more caught in the spell than the knights, just as the Mayfair witches are more caught by Lasher's supernatural powers than they are made powerful by them. Keats also wrote the poem “Lamia,” the story of a supernatural being whose natural form is that of a snake. When she falls in love with a human man, Lamia calls on the help of the gods to become a human female, but she knows that she is not human and lives in fear that she will be betrayed and exposed, which of course is exactly what happens. In the same way, the Mayfair Witches often lose the human men they love because they are not what they seem and they are helpless to prevent the source of their power from overwhelming them. Claudia, the child vampire of Interview with the Vampire, is another of these powerful/helpless women. As Nina Auerbach has pointed out in Our Vampires, Ourselves, Claudia's powerful existence as a vampire is actually a degradation because she is forced to remain a child forever, helpless in a tiny body while her mind becomes adult (158). Rice's work often reflects this Romantic idea of the seemingly powerful sorceress who is, in fact, helplessly and tragically caught in a greater magic.

But possibly the greatest influence of all the Romantic writers on Rice was Mary Shelley. Rice's feeling of kinship with Shelley may in part be due to the parallels in their personal lives—both married men who became famous poets (Mary married Percy Bysshe Shelley) and both lost young children—but the similarity in their work is also evident. In Frankenstein Shelley wrote of a man who created a monster from the parts of corpses because he wanted to create life; Rice writes of a man who became a vampire and who then makes monsters of others when he gives them the Dark Gift of vampirism. Both writers are concerned with the morality of their central characters' actions. Shelley's scientist Frankenstein first rejects his monster heartlessly, endures great loss, and finally comes to recognize his responsibility to his creation. Rice's vampire Lestat first rejects any sense of community among vampires, and then after great loss, recognizes his responsibility and his need for others.

But Rice wrote another book that is even closer to Shelley's Frankenstein. In The Mummy, Rice's hero, Ramses, is the mummy of the title, come back from the not-exactly-dead, prepared to be not only a hero but also a man of reason in the unreasonable twentieth century; Ramses is the parallel of Frankenstein and his scientific mind. Ramses also acts like Frankenstein when, midway through the book, he sees the corpse of his lover Cleopatra and reanimates her. Cleopatra returns to life as Frankenstein's monster is born, a horrible mass of decomposed flesh, and Ramses has the same reaction as Frankenstein: revulsion. Ramses runs from his creation just as Frankenstein rejects his, and both are then tormented by the vengeful actions of the creations they disowned. Thus both Rice and Shelley use the creation of monsters to illustrate the great ideas of Romantic literature, especially the idea that emotion and in particular love is the most important act of life.

Romantic literature was not all literary poems and stories, however. It also included popular genres, written not as art but as entertainment. In fact, the Romantic fascination with the supernatural influenced the development of two of the most famous forms of modern popular fiction: the horror story and the Gothic tale.


Rice recognized the relationship between horror and her Romantic ideals and drew on the chilling effect of the ghosts, demons, black magic, witches, possessions, vampires, werewolves, and monsters around which Victorian horror masters such as Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft built their stories. The cornerstone of this genre is the creepy atmosphere that Poe made famous in stories such as “The Fall of the House of Usher” in which a man goes to visit an old school friend in his crumbling ancestral mansion just in time to help him entomb his sister in the family crypt in the basement. Later that night, the sister, not quite dead yet, claws her way out of the tomb to come after her brother, fulfilling the central character's (and the reader's) overwhelming suspicions that there's something terribly, horribly, wrong going on. Lovecraft, on the other hand, perfected the Thing story and wrote about horrendous monsters that reached up from the pit and dragged their screaming victims to vicious fates. Both Poe and Lovecraft could scare a reader into sleepless nights, but their horror stories also serve a purpose that Rice capitalized on in her fiction: they make readers reevaluate their ideas of evil.

Flesh-creeping horror such as Poe and Lovecraft wrote is not designed to appeal to the intellect, but it does help to remind the reader of the presence of evil in a world that is so overrun with real horrors that most readers are desensitized to the terrible things around them. As critic David Hartwell puts it, horror fiction “jumpstart[s] the readers' deadened emotional sensitivities” (8). Modern horror novelist and critic Stephen King argues the same idea: “We make up horrors to help cope with the real ones” (13). King argues that, whether or not it appeals to the intellect, horror fiction at its greatest truly is art because it is looking for what he calls phobic pressure points: “The good horror tale will dance its way to the center of your life and find the secret door to the room you believed no one but you knew of—as both Albert Camus and Billy Joel have pointed out, The Stranger makes us nervous … but we love to try on his face in secret” (4). Rice takes the horror story to this higher level, and instead of saying “I want to scare you to death,” she says, “I want to scare you to think,” pushing the horror genre by giving her readers The Stranger in the form of vampires and witches who ponder not only the evil in the world but also the evil in themselves and everyone else. Rice raised the traditional vampire story far above the usual “I want to bite your neck” nightmare by playing with the concept of free will, something that Bram Stoker, the author of the most famous of all vampire stories, Dracula (1897), had done a hundred years before.

Although vampire stories reach back into antiquity, the first great vampire novel was Stoker's. Dracula was told as a series of journal entries by a variety of Dracula's victims and opponents, and since much of what they write reinforces conventional vampire lore, many critics have seen the book as simply the extension of earlier vampire novels such as Thomas Presket Prest's Varney the Vampyre (1847) and John Polidori's The Vampyre (1819). But as Nina Auerbach points out, Stoker's Dracula actually refutes the themes of the older books which insisted that vampires were only looking for human connection. Dracula chooses to make his only connection to his long dead “race,” the noble family that has since died out, not to the humans who surround him. He lives to prey on others, seducing them into his grasp, but if those others get close to him and know him, as Dr. Van Helsing does, he becomes vulnerable and dies. Rice's Lestat shares this aversion to closeness with living; those that Lestat feels attracted to he inevitably makes vampires like himself. Dracula is not a sad and isolated figure; he is a being who freely chooses evil, just as Rice's Louis and Lestat freely choose.

This choice is what gives the stories of these three vampires their power. Stephen King has noted that horror stories which draw strongly on the psychological almost always deal with “inside evil,” the choice of evil by a being that has free will. King argued that Bram Stoker's Dracula is a remarkable achievement because “it humanizes the outside evil concept: we grasp it in a familiar way … and we can feel its texture” (62-63). Rice's vampires do the same thing for the twentieth century. We hear the stories of Louis and Lestat, and we know why they do the evil that they do because we can understand it in terms of our own lives. The texture is familiar, and in many ways, they are like us.

But in many ways, of course, vampires are different, and therein lies the appeal of the vampire horror story. Vampires have supernatural powers, they live without rules, and above all they represent what King calls “sex without responsibility” (66). Rice recognizes these light elements of the vampire novel, but concentrates instead on deeper meanings of the vampire figure, the loneliness and “Otherness” of the outsider, and the meaning of evil in the twentieth century (Ramsland, “Interview,” 34). And she does this, ironically, by making the vampires human—that is, by giving them human regrets and guilt and pain, so that we can relate to them as outsiders in a world that is so fast moving and cold that we are all virtually outsiders.

This is an aspect she shares with Robert Louis Stevenson, author of another great nineteenth-century horror story, The Strange Adventure of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the story of a scientist who experiments with a secret potion that separates his evil self (Mr. Hyde) from the good, civilized self he shows himself to be in his everyday affairs. It sounds like a good idea, but Dr. Jekyll soon finds that he can't separate the evil from the good forever because they are both a part of him. Rice shares with Stevenson a fascination with this idea of the evil inside us all. Her vampires anguish over their inability to control their dark desires just as the good Dr. Jekyll agonizes over his inability to refrain from turning himself into Hyde. The success of their stories rests on something Stephen King has theorized about horror fiction: “Horror does not horrify unless the reader … has been personally touched” (12). Rice's vampires and Stevenson's doctor personally touch their readers and leave them pondering the real meaning of evil in the world and wondering what their own choices would be if they were offered the Dark Gifts that the vampires and Jekyll are offered.

Rice draws on this combination again when she turns to another classic horror character, the witch, the most powerful supernatural female in the group. In her Witches Chronicles, Rice explores what Stephen King calls the basis of horror fiction: “secrets best left untold and things best left unsaid” (50). King goes on to say that all the greatest horror writers promise to tell us the secret and follow through with varying degrees of success. Rice, however, successfully reveals all the secrets in her Witches Chronicles, and while they are intellectually stimulating and have no easy explanations, they are also more horrifying and enthralling than any reader could possibly guess. Rice's doomed and tortured witch women call into question the power of the family and relationships between men and women while scaring her readers into fits, and in this she has another nineteenth-century forerunner, Henry James and his novel of women and evil, The Turn of the Screw. Rice has said that she wrote The Witching Hour in response to her reading of James's novel, and the influences are clear.

James's novel is about a governess who comes to a lonely house to care for two orphaned children. Once there, the governess becomes convinced that the children are in danger of possession from two ghosts, and she fights bitterly for their souls, destroying them in the process. James leaves open the question of whether there actually are ghosts, but he leaves no doubt as to the existence of evil. The governess is as determined to possess the children as the ghosts are, and this struggle for possession and power foreshadows the struggle of the Mayfair witches for the possession of their own souls and for the power they crave. Just as it is difficult to determine whether James's governess is evil or misguided, so it is difficult to determine whether many of Rice's witches are actively malevolent or simply caught up in the forces of the demon that drives them. Like James, Rice isn't as concerned with assigning guilt as she is with exploring the idea of evil and morality.

Rice has said, “Horror strikes deep moral chords in us,” and The Witching Hour and her vampire stories, like The Turn of the Screw, are an almost perfect combination of moral questioning and full-out horror (Matousek, 112). Even in a book like The Mummy, intended as pure escapist horror fiction, Rice cannot resist making her point about evil and power and the lure of immortality, and this is part of Rice's genius as a novelist: she can combine mainstream moral philosophy and flesh-creeping horror in the same novel and make the reader enjoy both.


Rice also draws heavily on another popular genre, the Gothic novel, a combination of horror and romance fiction. The term Gothic once applied to anything that was medieval, but the nineteenth century took it as a description for a very popular kind of story that featured supernatural threats in big, dark, old castles and houses that reeked of death and decay. Rice has drawn on this tradition so strongly that critic David Gates has described her as “America's classiest Gothic novelist” (“Queen,” 76).

The earliest Gothic tales of Horace Walpole (The Castle of Otranto 1764) and Anne Radcliffe (The Mysteries of Udolpho 1794) featured mad uncles and monks who imprisoned innocents in gloomy mansions and monasteries filled with secret passages and underground rooms. These early settings became a hallmark of the Gothic story, one that Rice draws on constantly. In Interview with the Vampire, Louis de Pointe du Lac is an innocent when he wanders into the clutches of the vampire Lestat. Once bitten by Lestat, Louis's life becomes a Gothic novel full of underground crypts and coffins and sinister houses like the Theatre of Vampires in Paris. In the same way, the vampire Lestat in The Vampire Lestat is taken from his bedroom and spirited off to a great Gothic castle by the master vampire Magnus and there made a vampire against his will. Other great houses in Rice's work include a new Gothic castle of redwood in southern California in Queen of the Damned, but even though the house is new, the inside is old, cut into the side of the mountain, full of secrets, crypts, and coffins. But the greatest of all Rice's Gothic settings is the Mayfair Mansion in the Witches Chronicles. In this lavish New Orleans house, generations of women are dominated by an evil male spirit who destroys them again and again, the ultimate Gothic nightmare.

Another aspect of those Gothic tales featuring men, particularly those Gothic tales featuring vampires, is something critic Eve Sedgwick has called “paranoid Gothic.” Sedgwick uses this term to describe a situation in which “one or more males [is] not only … persecuted by but considers himself transparent to and often under the compulsion of another male” (Auerbach, 14). Sedgwick applies this to the vampire story written by the great Romantic poet Byron, but it certainly also applies to Louis in Interview with the Vampire, the first of Rice's novels. Louis feels he is completely under the control of Lestat, the vampire who made him. Only when their vampire “daughter” Claudia destroys Lestat can Louis escape. Lestat's return from the undead reinforces the Gothic tone of the novel; Louis, in fact, can never escape Lestat.

Rice also echoes Victorian novelists who drew on the same Gothic aspects for inspiration, most notably Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre and Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights with their dark heroes who exercise almost supernatural control over the others in their stories. Charlotte Brontë's hero, Mr. Rochester, keeps his insane wife in the attic; Emily Brontë's hero, Heathcliff, becomes a monster in his grief over the loss of his great love and tortures everyone who comes within his reach. Either of these dark, brooding heroes would feel right at home in a Rice novel, where the matriarch of the Mayfair family keeps a long-dead body rolled up in a carpet in the attic and the vampire Lestat becomes a monster in his grief and despair. That both Rochester and Heathcliff inhabit gloomy Gothic mansions just as Rice's vampires and witches only strengthens the comparison. Just as Rice elevates ordinary horror fiction, so does she elevate the Gothic, in much the same way that Henry James (The Turn of the Screw is often considered a Gothic work) and the Brontës elevated it, to make the reader question the idea of evil.


There is one other kind of supernatural literature to which Rice's work can be compared: the fantasy genre. Rice often combines the supernatural aspects of the Gothic setting and mood and the archetypal characters of the horror genre and roots them both in the rich tradition of epic fantasy that veers close to created mythology in the tradition of C. S. Lewis's Narnia books or J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Although fantasy may seem too lighthearted a word for Rice's work, the definition of this genre is simply a literary work that breaks from reality, often to make a serious point. And in the twentieth century, fantasy may be the only way to make a serious universal point. As writer and critic Ursula K. Le Guin has noted, our society is now “global, multi-lingual, and enormously irrational.” Le Guin suggests that only global, intuitional fantasy can fully describe the aspects of this world, and she uses Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy as an example. The Lord of the Rings is a series of three books about the quest of a creature named Frodo to restore peace to his land. Le Guin says of this work that “It may be that the central ethical dilemma of our age, the use or non-use of annihilating power, was posed most cogently in fiction terms by [Tolkien, who] began The Lord of the Rings in 1937 and finished it about ten years later. During those years, Frodo withheld his hand from the Ring of Power, but the nations did not” (Introduction, 12). In the same way, Anne Rice tackles issues such as AIDS, free will in a technological society, women's growing power, and the hazards of genetic research, all within fantastic story worlds that allow the reader to see them more clearly.

Rice's creation of these story worlds is impeccable. As critic Betty Rosenburg has noted, “Fantasy strictly follows a set of laws formulated by each author for an imaginary world, rules which need have no congruence with the laws of nature as we know them but which must conform to their own logic” (210). So Rice constructs elaborate mythologies and genealogies for her vampires and witches, giving them supernatural powers with limits and supernatural freedom with boundaries. Each of her supernatural worlds has an internal logic that she never breaks, and because of her careful use of fantasy, her stories rise above simple genre tales of the supernatural to epics of particular worlds where magic makes sense and immortality is just one more thing to deal with.

The creatures in Rice's books are characters from horror, Gothic, and fantasy fiction, not reality, but they move through a real world, and the contrast between their cynical immortality and the innocent and fragile mortality of the humans they encounter gives Rice great scope in arguing her philosophical questions about life, death, evil, and the meaning of existence. As she said in an interview in 1990, “what's important is that you write what's really, really intense, and what gives you the greatest thrill … the supernatural gives me that intensity whether I'm reading it or writing it” (Ferraro, 75). Drawing on this intensity, Rice has taken the classic tales of vampires, mummies, and witches and changed them into modern myths, fairy tales, and nightmares in the language of the twentieth century, more fantastic and frightening because the supernatural stories she tells are about us, our own dreams and fears and feelings. Anne Rice's debt to the Romantics and the genres inspired by them is great, but she has repaid that debt by expanding the ideas and forms and deepening their themes.

Works Cited

Ferraro, Susan. “Novels You Can Sink Your Teeth Into.” New York Times Magazine, 14 October 1990: 27-28, 67, 74-77.

Gates, David. “Queen of the Spellbinders.” Newsweek, 5 November 1990: 76-77.

Auerbach, Nina. Our Vampires, Ourselves. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Hartwell, David G. The Dark Descent: The Evolution of Horror. New York: Tor, 1987.

Rosenburg, Betty. Genreflecting: A Guide to Reading Interests in Genre Fiction. Englewood, Colo.: Libraries, Unlimited, 1982.

David Gooderham (essay date 2003)

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SOURCE: Gooderham, David. “Fantasizing It As It Is: Religious Language in Philip Pullman's Trilogy, His Dark Materials.Children's Literature 31 (2003): 155-75.

[In the following essay, Gooderham places the trilogy His Dark Materials in the context of modern works of fantasy literature, noting that although the work has been enthusiastically received by critics and readers, the resistance it has inspired in religious groups can be largely attributed to Pullman's language usage.]

Philip Pullman's trilogy, His Dark Materials,1 has received enthusiastic reviews during the years of its publication; there have, however, been quite other responses from some religious groups. The problem has not been, as in protests about the Harry Potter books, with magic, but with “the Church,” unmistakable in the text with its priests, cardinals, Consistorial Court and Magisterium. It is represented as a powerful and ruthlessly repressive organization, determined to root out sin and to control weak human beings for their own good at any cost. When this policy is put into practice by a kind of lobotomizing of the child population, these are just the texts which Roman Catholic churchmen, already troubled with charges of actual child abuse, could do without. More generally, Christian beliefs in God, the fall and the afterlife are all radically called into question, so that even those who effortlessly shrugged off fundamentalist fears about Harry Potter have found this case less easy to handle.

The offense is a surprising one, insofar as the trilogy belongs to a fantasy tradition which has characteristically been sympathetic to the spiritual dimension of human experience and activity. It is replete with wonders like flying mountain fortresses, oracular truth-meters, an Ancient of Days in a crystal casket and a colony of latter-day Houyhnhnms. In its representation of other worlds inhabited by an exotic variety of human and other beings, and the development of their experiences and histories in an extended sequence of texts, it invites comparison with the “high fantasy” works of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and Ursula K. Le Guin.2 In these fantasies metaphysical, religious and moral issues are of central importance, and are realized, accessibly for young readers, through the construction of elaborate “secondary worlds” (in this instance, of multiple parallel worlds) within which great forces clash and the young or socially modest protagonists assume heroic proportions.

In one important particular, however, Pullman breaks with the tradition: in the use of religious language. In his texts there is a much more explicit and extensive use of religious terminology and of specific allusion to Christian institutions and concepts than is usual in high fantasy. Just occasionally in Victorian fantasy for children there are references to saying prayers or “knowing” God, but explicit reference to religious institutions, practices and beliefs disappears almost completely in the works of the fantasists of the 1860s and '70s, Charles Kingsley and George MacDonald. The absence of religious terminology in these texts derives not, however, from the excision of religious themes, but rather from their metaphorical transposition into the landscape, beings and activities of the secondary worlds of the fantasies. So powerful and effective was this innovation in their work that it has continued significantly to shape the genre; there may be thinly-veiled allegory, most obviously in C. S. Lewis's Narnia books, but in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings there is no overt allusion to his committed Roman Catholicism, nor indeed in Le Guin's Earthsea to the Taoist beliefs which underpin her texts. Thus, explicit metaphysical, religious or ideological language characteristically does not appear in high fantasy texts—until, by sharp contrast, in Pullman's narrative Christian terminology and particularly the important institutions and theological concepts of church, God, and fall receive explicit and frequent reference.

What he is about is not far to seek. His bête noire is C. S. Lewis: “I hate the Narnia books, and I hate them with a deep and bitter passion …” (qtd. in Vulliamy 18). The hatred is directed against Lewis partly as an idealization-of-childhood writer, but the vehement attack can be attributable primarily to the fact that in Lewis's narratives allegorization of the Christian story is at its most evidently and cleverly contrived. In The Amber Spyglass, Mary, the children's mentor, is bidden: “‘Tell them stories … But they need the truth. That's what nourishes them. You must tell them true stories, and everything will be well, everything’” (455). Lewis draws Pullman's fire not only because he regards Lewis's beliefs to be mistaken, but because he disapproves of his “sneaky,” untruthful indoctrination. Although Pullman is to write deliciously entertaining fantasy, he is nevertheless also determined to call a religious entity or idea by a religious name. In his narratives there is no golden “Aslan,” no “deeper magic than Deep Magic,” but rather a set of unvarnished Christian institutions and concepts: church, God, fall and afterlife. His purpose is radically to reinterpret or demythologize—if not exorcise—them, but, above all, he is going to do this honestly in the overt language of religion. He may be writing fantasy, but he will tell it as it is.

The project is an intriguing one in the history of children's literature. Pullman is a secular humanist: an unsurprising ideological stance amongst modern writers. But he is also an advocate of this stance in intentionally emancipatory writing for children. The content and ambition of his message go quite beyond, for example, allusions to the shortcomings of adults or problems in teenage sexual relationships, now commonplace in realistic fictions for young people. They appear to comprise no less than the deconstruction of the traditional complex of Christian beliefs, values and practices and the construction of an alternative system. Disturbing though some readers may find this, the idea is not altogether new in writing for children. Both content and ambition are not dissimilar to those of the early fantasists, Kingsley and MacDonald. They used the genre to rewrite Christian doctrine for the rising generation: in Kingsley's case, a Christian/Lamarckian evolutionism; in MacDonald's a Christian universalism—interestingly enough, thematically related to the “dust” and “world of the dead” which form two central preoccupations in Pullman's texts.

Just where, then, is His Dark Materials located in relation to the high fantasy tradition in children's literature? While Pullman deploys to the full the conventions of the genre, in respect of its fundamental metaphysical, religious and perhaps even moral underpinning and of the religious language uses which signal this, his writing is markedly different from what has gone before. We need to ask, therefore, about his project and its rationale, its realization in the genre and its deviance from the genre. What are the mutual effects of genre conventions on project and project innovation on genre? I propose to address these questions through attention to the use of religious language in the texts. It confronts the reader, as has been explained, first in the form of vocabulary conventionally foreign to the genre; such surface manifestations, however, only hint at the radical rewriting which is underway. To explore this, three main language uses will be distinguished: the social, the doctrinal and the mythic.3 The first is language about religious organizations and their practices, in this instance what may be described as “church-talk,” ecclesiastical discourse; the second is the language of doctrine, “God-talk,” theological discourse; the third rather differently denotes the archaic metaphorical narrative, myth, in which fundamental beliefs about God/the gods and the world are characteristically encoded. There is an intimate relationship between doctrine and myth, the concepts of the former being developed out of the rich and dramatic narratives of the latter: “Doctrines are an attempt to give system, clarity and intellectual power to what is revealed through the mythological and symbolic language of religious faith …” (Smart 19). I shall, therefore, after considering ecclesiastical language, go on to consider Pullman's fundamental enterprise of rewriting traditional religious narratives through the doctrinal and mythic language uses involved—without, however, necessarily drawing a sharp distinction between the two.


The first item of explicitly religious terminology that the reader encounters in Pullman's narrative is “the Church.” The organization thus designated reads inevitably as Roman Catholic on account both of the actual institutional terminology (priest, cardinal, etc.) and of that constructed on that model (“Consistorial Court of Discipline,” “Oblation Board,” “pre-emptive absolution”). Through Pullman's quaint imagining of “Pope John Calvin” (NL 31) and the location of the Consistorial Court of Discipline in Geneva (AS 355), however, the Protestant churches are also subsumed into this single organization. Occasional glimpses into the organization disclose college chapels, quasiscientific theology, monastic houses and a disciplined hierarchy; of routine worship, community activities, parish ministers and the appurtenances of the gospel of Christian salvation there is no trace. Pullman thus constructs under the comprehensive term “church” a lean, keen, Talibanlike institution—focused ruthlessly on a single end. Indeed, in a declaration which breaches the division between primary and secondary worlds, “the church” is represented as distillation and summation of all churches, denominations and sects: “‘For all (the church's) history …’” declares a leading witch, “‘it's tried to suppress and control every natural impulse. And when it can't control them it cuts them out … That is what the church does, and every church is the same, control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling’” (SK 52).

Neither such explicit reference to a religious institution nor such negative and absolute judgement has been seen before in children's fantasy literature, and, were this extreme statement not protected by quotation marks, the text would be open to the charge of gross propaganda. There are a number of assertions in Pullman's texts about Christian institutions and beliefs quite uncompromising in their finality: “‘The Christian religion is just a very powerful and convincing mistake. That's all’” (AS 464). All are attributed to the characters in the narrative, none to the narrator, but the cumulative effect, in the mouths of approved characters like the witches and the scientific researcher, Dr. Malone, is determinative in shaping the ideology of the text.

A further narrative strategy contributes to this negative evaluation of Christianity. Ecclesiastical language, familiar to anyone reared in the Christian West, allows “the church” of the fantasy to be related, with deceptive ease, to the actual church organizations of our world—when this must rather be a problematic and sharply contested matter. Pullman's fantasy deploys the device of multiple parallel worlds, one of which is our own (in a realist fiction, this would be protagonist Will's world) but his “church” is located primarily not in this, but in another, slightly different one (protagonist Lyra's). The effect is to constitute “the church,” named and constructed largely out of the ecclesiastical terminology of our world, nevertheless as a fantasy creation, requiring of readers a suspension of disbelief so that it can function as a grotesque antagonist in the plot structure. Away from such a suspension, readers have to return and confront the actual institutions of our contemporary world—of which “the church” represented in the fantasy, if mistaken for these actual ones, can only be regarded as a caricature. In writing for an adult audience no objection can be raised to this; the case, however, is different where the implied audience includes children. The careful reader must recognize and may be intrigued by Pullman's sleight of hand; such narrative tactics must, however, be called into question as liable to lead the young (and naïve of all ages) into a confusion of fantasy with actual organizations—with the effect of unproductive posturing on both sides of the ideological divide.

Of even greater moment for the effect of such language use is the way in which the deployment of ecclesiastical discourse inhibits a fundamental function in the genre. In realistic fictions for children there have long been texts like Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War, which deals with a pupil destroyed by the corrupt regime of a Roman Catholic school. Such a damning representation was initially regarded as inappropriate to children's literature, but it was quickly acknowledged that the type of school represented could be readily accepted as an ironic intensification; everyone knows that this is just the place where this kind of abuse should not happen. Fantasy literature, however, speaks to readers in quite other ways from those of realist fiction. It is not merely that, since the foundational works of Kingsley and MacDonald, explicit ecclesiastical and theological discourse has been foreign to fantasy; rather, that the metaphoric mode, governed by other criteria than those of realistic representation, is characteristic of the genre—and arguably criterial to high fantasy. To represent the oppression of a free spirit, Jan Mark's fantasy fiction, Divide and Rule, uses a manifestly invented archaic institution, “the Temple,” which requires the service of a youth to fulfil the year-long ritual role of “shepherd,” as vehicle to represent the oppression and to open up questions about freedom and abuse. Mark's has a good deal in common with both Cormier's and Pullman's critiques, but the treatment differs insofar it avoids reference to an immediately recognizable institution of our world and thus makes it possible for the abuse of the hero to be read, rather than as a specific attack on religion or on some particular type of organization, in a variety of ways that can make it both meaningful and provoking to all readers. A metaphorical representation, such as Mark's, suggestively opens up a whole range of possible readings, and thus frees readers, whatever their stance and preference, for a more flexible and uninhibitedly critical response. By contrast, the use of an ecclesiastical discourse which ties the reader too closely to the conventions of realism both raises ideological hackles (or provokes unquestioning triumphalism!), and inhibits a free range of imaginative response. It thus undermines one of the most important artistic and intellectual values of the genre.


The dimensions of Pullman's narrative are not limited to a struggle between the Church and its opponents; the conflict is rather the grander one that takes place, in the Pauline phrases, “against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness …”. Of the first, grand antagonist in this struggle, his retainer explains: “‘Lord Asriel never found hisself at ease in the doctrines of the church … I think he's waging a higher war than that. I think he's aiming at a rebellion against the highest power of all. He's gone a-searching for the dwelling place of the Authority himself’” (SK 47-48). The Church is merely God's agent on earth, so Pullman enlists Judaeo-Christian myth, in some of its most highly-wrought forms, to amplify the dimensions of his narrative to epic proportions. He focuses in fact on what critical Christian orthodoxy would see as the more bizarre, sectarian and populist forms and aspects of the religion. He makes only oblique reference to the creation myth, but emphatic reference to the fall; there is no attention given to prophetic writing, but an evident appetite for apocalyptic; there is no allusion to the death and resurrection of Christ, central to Christian tradition, but unmistakably to “the harrowing of hell”. I shall examine the use of myth and theological discourse in each of these three aspects, but in reverse order as they present problems of increasing complexity in their language use.

The last of these three aspects of religion refers to the considerable narrative episode in The Amber Spyglass dealing with a visit to the world of the dead which Lyra, the female protagonist, makes to rescue a friend. In the process she finds herself at the head of a grand enterprise to set the myriads of dead free, assuming the Christ-role in an unmistakable “harrowing of hell.” The narrative of the liberation constitutes one of the “mighty works” of Lyra as new Eve. It is also framed as an answer to a fundamental question about the nature of the world of death, “‘even the churches don't know’”; avers one of the angel characters, “‘they tell their believers that they'll live in heaven, but that's a lie’” (AS 35). So Pullman's task is to replace the old myths with a new, more honest story, written to replace the delusion of an afterlife. The father of the male protagonist, Will, explains to him at his dissolution: “‘… we have to build the republic of heaven where we are, because for us there is no elsewhere’” (AS 382).

The story about human life without an afterlife, though it may have a contemporary gloss, is constructed extensively out of the imagery and logic of archaic myth. Pullman draws heavily on both the Greek underworld of “Hades” and the Hebrew “Sheol,” the rubbish dump to which, after lives lived in the presence of God, the dead are consigned to decompose away from that presence. In the world of the dead there is a ferryman to row the dead across the river, there are Harpies in attendance, and the place itself is a huge and desolate remoteness in which wraithlike ghostpeople drift and mill about to all eternity. These elements are far from merely decorative: they furnish Pullman with an imagery and a logic important in the construction of a convincing secular liberation narrative. Indeed, Pullman achieves a powerful and coherent narrative precisely by jettisoning popular notions of the soul living on in a happy afterlife and by returning to older fears of the horror and finality of death—from which only a raising from the dead, a resurrection, can be a sufficient remedy. He describes the world of the dead in graphic contemporary terms as a prison camp—perhaps better, with its grim hopelessness, a concentration camp—suffused, however, with archaic elements which speak to deeply-rooted human fears. From such a ghastly place release, any release, on any terms is infinitely to be desired. So, although the liberation he effects does not take the form of Christian resurrection, these captives do rise up from the underworld, to gain a final breath of the night air, “fresh and clean and cool,” and a sight of the open heavens, as they turn with relief and joy “into the night, the starlight and the air …” (AS 382). The use of this archaic imagery and logic, together with Romantic landscape imagery and the oriental conception of absorption into “the All,” creates a compelling new story—indeed, new myth.

Theological discourse is in the main absent from this construction; certainly, central and contentious concepts like resurrection, immortality, soul, afterlife are neither articulated nor explicated. Only the reference to and assertions about “heaven” constitute an explicit theological use. It forms part of a conceptual rejigging of conventional theological discourse where Pullman turns the Matthean “kingdom of heaven” into “republic of heaven.” The ground for such a use was prepared by nineteenth-century liberal theologians who developed the idea of “building” the Kingdom of God “on earth”—which is, kingship and God apart, just what Will's father advocates! By comparison with the rewritten myth, this manipulation of theological discourse is weak. Apart from the fact that the liberal reading of he basileia tou Theou is now critically discredited, the matching of new-speak “republic” with oldspeak “heaven” is clumsy, if not (by reason of its Semitic provenance) a near oxymoron.

Thus far, what may be observed in these language uses is a contrast between the imaginative reconfiguration of old myth into a new story about life and death and the pressing into use of an outdated version of a theological concept. The mythic use constitutes an effective deployment of the metaphoric mode of the genre in encoding important religious and metaphysical ideas. And the new story, rather than merely captivating readers by its intriguing inventions, encourages the more powerful reading experience of imaginative and speculative response. The case, however, is far different with the theological concept. Here the explicit terminology invites at best a rational and critical consideration—from which it must, in this instance, come off rather badly—and at worst a partisan response, depending on the reader's religious or ideological stance, rather than one which is open and imaginative.


Bizarre though the three aspects of religion on which Pullman focuses may seem from the point of view of biblical and systematic theology, their provenance and rationale are clear from the quotation which prefaces the first book of the trilogy and the epigraphs of the chapters of the last book. This array of literary references, drawn mainly from seventeenth- to nineteenth-century English verse, is at its most prolific and significant in quotations from Milton and Blake, and in particular from Paradise Lost. It is from these recensions of the “great code” (see Frye), that the interests, emphases and treatments of theology and biblical myth in the trilogy most importantly derive.

In their development, elaboration and transformation of biblical myth the verse of these two poets provides Pullman with a quarry of materials and ideas for the construction of his vast cosmic landscape, with modes and furnishing in the style of apocalyptic myth. Of particular usefulness are the parallel spheres of heaven/hell, with their angelic inhabitants, and of the earth, with our first parents, in which the two actions, of cosmic war and of human catastrophe, can take place. Pullman's attraction to Milton and Blake derives, however, not primarily from the imageries of Paradise Lost and the prophetic books, but from an ideological affinity with the two visionaries. Although both naturally count, in cultural context, as Christian poets, both produced radical and subversive texts, and it is these which endear them to Pullman: “Blake once wrote of Milton that he was ‘A true poet of the devil's party, without knowing it.’ I am of the devil's party, and I know it” (qtd. in Vulliamy 18).

Pullman's purpose for his young—and doubtless also adult—readers is to dismantle the grand narrative of the Christian religion and to replace it with an emancipatory and “natural” humanism. The demolition and clearing of the ground, cluttered by the Gormenghastly apparatus of religion, is not a task for the humble and meek—to them belongs the subsequent inheriting of the earth—but must be undertaken by agents on a much grander scale. For this the huge cosmoi of Milton and Blake, with their angelic hosts, rebellion and warfare, furnish ideal materials, indeed template, for the construction of an apocalyptic action and for its once-for-all cataclysmic and final destruction. Rebellious and intellectually charismatic Lord Asriel, proud in the imagination of his heart, belongs to the outdated world of theological argument and conflict, just as surely as does Mrs. Coulter to that of the outdated and fanatical church, and Metraton to the bizarre fantasies of outdated apocalyptic imaginings. So, as in the end they clash spectacularly, the whole religious job-lot collapses down into the abyss, pit, final black hole, and the world is cleared, secularized, ready for its new human-scale regeneration.

This is the Grand Narrative to end all grand narratives, the High Fantasy to end all high fantasies, the Eschaton to end all kingdoms of heaven! After this there are just plain human dimensions, human tasks and human stories. Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings the new evangel is declared: “‘And then what? … Build what?’” “‘The Republic of Heaven’” (AS 548). “‘If we live our lives properly and think about them as we do there'll be something to tell …’” (AS 521). The apocalyptic drama provides a rich and deep-rooted metaphor, indeed, virtually a new myth, to substantialize the model under construction in the trilogy: that of the radical change from a religious to a secular era. There is no conceptual pointing up of the model in theological discourse; rather the story speaks directly and dramatically as large-scale metaphor, with its religious and metaphysical ideas effectively thus encoded and no need for further conceptual explication or clarification.

This large-scale metaphor does not, however, stand alone. Complementing it is Pullman's bald and uncompromising handling of the concept central to theological discourse: “God.” As in the case of “the Church” and despite the conventions of the genre, frequent and explicit reference is made in the texts to God. Usually this term is used, but the alternative “the Authority” is also widespread. The term is clearly intended to subsume all conceptions of the divine: an angel, commenting on the usurpation of Metraton, declares: “‘The Authority, God, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty—these are the names he gave himself’” (AS33). Comprehensive though the list may appear, these names are pretty well all of Semitic provenance, so that—by accident or intent—oriental names for the divine are not included and the very different conceptions in Hinduism and Buddhism thus excluded. Indeed, the figure, God, in the narrative is finally reduced to a mere walk-on part in the apocalyptic drama—and not even that, since he has become so old and decrepit that he has to be carried in—a figure pitiably reminiscent of Hardy's “Godhead dying downwards, brain and eye now gone.”4 Finally, he simply dissolves into thin air as he is exposed to the fresh winds of the world.

There have been earlier reconceptualizations of the divine in the high fantasy tradition. This one is evidently very different—apart, however, from one important respect: the rejection of patriarchal and authoritarian attributes, which require of the believer primarily submission or obedience to a prescribed law. In both Kingsley and MacDonald—in the final epiphany of the Water-Babies and the beautiful old grandmother of the Curdie books—patriarchal and legalistic attributes are modified as their conceptualizations take up new feminine attributes and forms. Pullman, however, has no interest in reconstructing a more comprehensively-conceived deity; the whole thrust of his narrative is to reduce this figure to a footnote in the apocalyptic scenario. Uncompromisingly he finally disposes of God by a witty device: a literal enactment of the “death of God.” Nietzsche's graphic parable of the madman who searches for God with his lantern in the daylight, and the considerable theological debate which stems from the idea that “God is dead,” are thus deftly enlisted to endorse the model of the change from a religious to a secular era.

The large-scale apocalyptic metaphor of the narrative is a potent one; such a finale for the deity, however, must inevitably invite the indignant attention of the Catholic Herald and the evangelical pulpit, and responses on the part of readers from the horrified, to the troubled, to the gleeful. It is just these stock and inhibited responses that it has been the virtue of children's fantasy literature largely to avoid. Although occasional crude didacticism and thinly-veiled allegory may still be found, since the innovations of Kingsley and MacDonald, matters of belief, ideology and scientific speculation have, as has been observed, been uncontentiously encoded in metaphorical mode. Indeed, beginning with Kingsley's quaint Lamarckian newts who grow into water-babies, and water-babies who grow into … (or vice-versa!), children's fantasy texts have not infrequently been an important means for the undogmatic mediation of new ideas about the world and human life to the next generation in their early and formative years. In the playspace opened up by the metaphorical mode, such ideas have been protected from being prematurely gunned down by indignant critics and from the unthinking accolades of supporters.

In an important respect, Pullman's texts take advantage of this opportunity. Central to the conceptual structure of the narrative, indeed, encrypted in its title, is the metaphorical concept, “Dust.” In characteristic Pullman style the concept is comprehended in a number of terms: “shadows,” “dark matter,” “Rusakov Particles,” “sraf” (SK 259-60). Although in name it doubtless derives from “the dust of the earth” in the Genesis myth, and certainly from Paradise Lost, Book II, the development of this rich and complex metaphor goes far beyond these origins. It profoundly modifies the ontology implied by the polemical handling of “God” in the texts, functioning as a “connecting” metaphor for “the plethora of seemingly incompatible elements that make up the universe” (Bird 113). Although it appears to comprehend the physical and metaphysical without reference to a supernatural, its metaphorical form means that it can easily be read as close to the ideas of realist thinkers like Bergson, Teilhard de Chardin, and especially of process theologians. Norman Pittinger describes

modern man … (as) right in seeing himself as part of a changing, moving, living, active world, in which we have to do not with inert substances but dynamic processes, not so much with things as with events … Whitehead's view that the cosmos is “alive” is basic to the whole enterprise of process thought.”


The ease with which this central metaphor, in a text written by a secular humanist, can thus be read speculatively in Christian theological terms is an index both of its imaginative power and of the genre's facility for stimulating interest and engagement with ideas rather than acrimony.

By contrast, the specific references to God in the texts and the clever representation of his demise serve only to produce a distracting buzz of partisanship and contention. Maybe the theologically literate can appreciate and profit from the different nuances available in the text, since it opens up issues familiar in theological enquiry and debate; the general reader, however, and even more—since the target audience is a mixed one—the young person who is just beginning to ask large questions about God, the universe and whatever, are not so well served. Metaphorical adumbrations which promote thought, sensibility and the exercise of the imagination are fine, but the use of specific terminology and other accoutrements of theological discourse lay themselves open to the charges of confusion, offense and the indoctrination which Pullman so disapproves of in other children's writers.


After the vaunting ambitions of Asriel, Coulter and Metatron have come crashing down, human life can continue lighter and brighter for the banishing of an oppressive supernaturalism. Characters and readers alike must live in a world where eschatology has been realized and democratized within the plain confines of the secular. Theologically and philosophically, after the death of God, humankind—in the form of two young persons—is left free but alone with the questions: what truth, what morality, what way of life now? Will has received the message: “‘We have to build the republic of heaven where we are, because for us there is no elsewhere’” (AS 382) and, as he now comes into his own, he makes his response: “‘I can't choose my nature, but I can choose what I do. And I will choose because now I'm free’” (AS 440).

Thematically, the last six or seven chapters of the text must thus be devoted to a fleshing out of this new secular condition. Narratologically, we expect this to be done as the epic hero returns from his adventures and conquest and is involved in a last challenge before he is finally recognized and established. Educationally, since in these books for children an Entwicklungsthema (theme of education) has been characteristically spliced into the action, we expect this to be evident also in the conclusion. None of this, however, quite prepares the reader for Pullman's decision to construct an ending by taking up and rewriting yet another major religious myth, but this he does. The strategy is intelligible if ambitious.6 He is about establishing the humanistic values of a new, secular world; what more telling material to deploy than the archaic and fundamental myth of the fall of man, with the condition reversed, so that the fall is no longer an indelible mark of human imperfection and incapacity, but becomes a felix culpa marking the essential goodness of our natural capacities?

The myth of the fall, functioning originally as an etiology of the difficulties and pains of the human condition, has been read and deployed in different contexts in different ways. Even in the rationalized and controlled context of theological discourse the focus has varied considerably: the fall as ritual and moral disobedience, the fall as human ambition to play God, the fall as epitome of human tragedy, the fall as sexual, a “weakness of the flesh” … It is this last reading which Pullman takes up for his rewriting, obviously from conviction, but also because it serves a central purpose in his writing these books for children. He has declared his antipathy to C. S. Lewis, et al. “with their view of childhood as a golden age from which sexuality and adulthood are a falling away” (Vulliamy 18). He will rather assure his young readers that “the coming of experience and sexuality and self-consciousness is a thing to be welcomed, because it is the beginning of true understanding, of wisdom. My book tells children that you are going to grow up and that it's going to be painful, but it's going to be good too” (Costa 6).

Whereas in his other uses of myth, Pullman has characteristically deployed a variety of mythical elements freely to construct his new stories, in this instance he tracks the biblical narrative with allegorical closeness, each particular element undergoing a humanistic sea-change. Early in his narrative the principal figures in the story begin to assume their roles. There are intimations and prophecies of a Child who is to come. Not, however, a second Adam for a Christian recapitulation, but a female figure, the girl, Lyra, confessed as: “‘Eve! Mother of all! Eve again! Mother Eve!’” (SK 328). In the new secular economy the boy Will obviously fulfills the role of Adam, but by implication rather than by prophetic or narrative affirmation. The third actor in the drama, the tempter, is in fact a temptress, Dr. Mary Malone. Mary turns out to be a former nun who has relinquished not only her habit but also her faith, and replaced it by becoming a scientist. Giving up her religion has gone alongside the relinquishing of her emotional virginity and the development of her sexuality. The resulting combination of intense, virginal commitment, together with adult sexual experience and high-status knowledge, constitute her a powerful figure as temptress/mentor for the child-Adam and Eve. As the climactic moment approaches the biblical palimpsest is elaborately reinscribed. The context is no longer a God-given paradise, but a creaturely-constructed utopian community. The temptation takes the form of Mary telling the children the story of her awakening from the dream of religion to engagement in adult sexual relationship. The fall event itself is enacted in a sensuous, tasting moment which consummates the children's developing relationship: “‘Lyra took one of those little red fruits … And she lifted the fruit gently to his mouth …’” (AS 491-92). So important is this event that Pullman deploys his central metaphor to valorize it: “The Dust pouring down from the stars had found a living home again, and those children-no-longer-children, saturated with love, were the cause of it all” (AS 497). The myth rewritten thus marks out the intimate personal relationship and sexual fulfillment of romantic love as the acme of relationships in the new secular era.

This last episode is a startling one for readers of high fantasy and of children's books alike. There is clearly a case for the inclusion in fantasy texts with a teenage readership of reference to sexual relationships and other dimensions of human experience that were previously omitted from children's books. These are now very much the stuff of realistic fiction for the young, and have also begun to appear in high fantasy. Ursula K. Le Guin, in her first addition to the Earthsea trilogy, Tehanu, does just this. She includes as protagonist an abused and disfigured child and bulks out the previously and characteristically asexual protagonists of the original trilogy by representing them in a mature sexual relationship. This unforced and convincing representation of adult love contrasts markedly, however, with Pullman's emphatic focus on a first adolescent sexual experience as climax to his narrative. Such a relationship can, of course, be represented simply and effectively; witness Laurie Lee's unpretentious yet felicitous couple of lines in Cider with Rosie: “Rosie was close-up … And it seemed as if the wagon under which we lay went floating away like a barge, out over the valley where we rocked unseen, swinging on motionless tides” (209). Pullman, by contrast, is determined to bring in the heavy machinery of a reconceptualized fall to constitute the event as the defining moment of the text. The effect of this strategy is to require a first, tentative venture into sexual experience to bear enormous, indeed improper, pressure as type of emancipated sexuality.

After the fall section of the text, with its central felix culpa, the plot becomes complex. The children find that the precious dust of the universe is leaking away through openings cut for access between its multiple worlds. To prevent this disaster all openings must be shut up, except one, available either for themselves to continue to have access to each other, or for the dead, who will otherwise have no way of escape from the underworld. If the children choose the latter, they will be separated absolutely and irrevocably. This final section of the text thus rewrites, after the fall, the expulsion from paradise. The new felix culpa must come as a shock to readers, but this further reinscription of the biblical palimpsest must come as an equally if not more disturbing one. At the moment the protagonists move from childhood to puberty in their initial adolescent sexual encounter, there is imposed (not morally and causally, as in the Genesis narrative, but with the force of narrative sequence) an immediate interdict against their developing sexual relationship. For a moment of dreaming innocence they are together; then, thrown into an environmental disaster which shatters their Liebestraum, they are wrenched apart in a permanent alienation.

This is not quite the case, for the children are, in fact, confronted by a choice. Young Will is given the opportunity to exercise the will he so recently discovered as the old order collapsed (paralleling Lyra's earlier choice to go to free the dead). In this context for moral beings there is no choice; the averting of universal disaster and the more intimate compassion for the sad shades of the world of the dead constitute an absolute moral imperative. As Will, now assuming fully the role of second Adam to Lyra's second Eve, bitterly but nobly acknowledges: “there was no arguing with fate …” (AS 522). In this situation it is no longer the third chapter of the Book of Genesis that is being reinscribed, but rather the larger Christian mediation of the myth that is being rewritten. As in that more comprehensive worldview “a second Adam to the fight and to the rescue came” (Newman 354), so here the children are confirmed in their larger roles of redeemer and redemptrix.

This may seem to offer a more comfortable turn of events for the reader. After the awkward break with high fantasy conventions in the felix culpa section, these conventions reassert themselves as the actions of the protagonists conform again to the requirements of the heroic epic. The intimate and sexual may have intruded, but are now comprehended within the heroic7; it is not, however, quite so straightforward as this. The intensities built into the narrative by the conjunction, on the one hand, of Pullman's use of child—or, more specifically, newly pubescent—protagonists and, on the other, of the sudden, absolute and emotionally crucifying end to their brief encounter with which he contrives to advance the plot, cannot leave any reader comfortable. Why does he deploy such an excessive device?

Perhaps it is a case of Pullman's determination to bend the old myth to his new secular purposes—and the old myth biting back! Pullman takes unusual care and ingenuity to recapitulate all the elements in the action of the myth: so much so that concepts like allegory and palimpsest are required to give a sense of how closely he works with his material. In the logic of the myth the fall-section is followed, causally, by an expulsion-section and, in Pullman's plotting of the new story, the one again follows the other, although the link is simply that of narrative sequence. The effect of thus retaining the sequence of the elements while, however, transforming their content destabilizes the narrative. In the old myth the glory of an unfallen world is eclipsed by a dark, disobedient deed, followed by the grey dawn of a fallen world. In Pullman's rewriting, however, the glory of creation is subsumed in his reconceptualization of the culpa as a felix culpa, the “natural” consummation of romantic love: the new bright dawn of humanity. The effect on the expulsion which follows, then, is to cast this section of the story into darker shadow—and grim occasions arise where the shadows lie. In simple binary terms, the headier the felicitas, the more awful the alienation.

This binary intensification in the rewriting exposes a deep strain of personal alienation in the text as a whole: Will's parents have for years lived solitary lives, separated by accident; Lyra's have been likewise separated, but in their cases by commitment or, rather, vaunting ambition. Most significantly, Mary Malone, the children's mentor, set up to provide a model for the inexperienced children in their garden of Eden, just made for two, turns out to be very much the contemporary single person! For four years she lived with a partner, “‘But then we decided that we'd be happier not living together … And I've got my work … So I'm solitary but happy if you know what I mean’” (AS 470)! What then happens to the children in their expulsion is entirely in keeping with this strain of alienation in the text—as it is cruelly recapitulated on them. After their finding each other and the momentary consummation of their love, with the immediacy of an extreme moral interdict, they are wrenched apart and consigned, irretrievably, to separate homes and separate futures. The effect of the felix culpa as the tenderest but briefest of encounters is thus, ironically, to expose and foreground the general absence of satisfying intimate relations in the new as in the old era.

More searching in its exposure and expression of the feeling-world that Pullman evokes than the miscellaneous epigraphs of the last chapters of the text are lines from one of Arnold's Marguerite poems:

Yes: in the sea of life enisl'd … / We mortals live
alone …
But when the moon their hollows lights
And they are swept by balms of spring,
And in their glens, on starry nights,
The nightingales divinely sing …
Oh then a longing like despair
Is to their farthest caverns sent;
For surely once, they feel, we were
Parts of a single continent.
… A God, a God their severance ruled,
And bade betwixt their shores to be
The unplumbed, salt, estranging sea.(8)

Rather than the brave new secular world, tempered by a touch of realism, that Pullman proposes for his young readers, it is the longing and anguish of an alienated humanity which reverberates in the ideology of his text.

Attention in the coda of the narrative focuses on the reentry of the protagonists into the conventionalities of their separate homes and futures. Lyra, who has been transformed from “the coarse and greedy little savage” we encountered at the beginning of the narrative, is to have a place at a good girls' school in North Oxford as the first step toward becoming a great academic alethiometrist—a composite of Susan Greenfield, Iris Murdoch, et al. Will, since he began as a fine upstanding young British lad, dealing competently with his incompetent mother, always paying his dues and keeping himself clean, continues so to the end—and we assume, from his now confirmed association with Dr. Mary Malone, that he will become first her research assistant … Despite the “many rules and regulations in (our) world” which may temporarily cause them trouble, Will and Dr. Malone exit to the robust British sentiment, “‘Come on, let's go and put the kettle on’” (AS 539-41). The two young people thus embark on conventionally responsible and useful careers in their respective worlds, and “custom” begins to lie upon them “with a weight, / Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life.”9

This settling of the protagonists into the custom of their worlds constitutes a further instance of alienation, not in the sense that their work is uncongenial or uncreative—indeed it is likely to be quite the reverse—but insofar as the focus on the individual career and a life lived in the protection of leafy suburbs so easily constitute marks of social alienation in the contemporary world. Their situations are certainly very far from the promise of libidinal social transformation implied by the felix culpa as type and model for all personal relationships—indeed, since the transforming event takes place in a utopian cradle, for all social relations. In ideological terms such closure endorses a Freudian rather than a Marcusan position with regard to the broader issues of sexual liberation: no “libidinous civilization”10 here; rather, following Civilization and its Discontents, one powered by young people who, after the first blush of sexual experience, settle for the realism of their mentor's single, sublimated, socially responsible and hardworking way of life.

It is for these reasons that the reference to “republic of heaven” in the last sentence of the text rings hollow. The biblical concept which Pullman takes up early in the text is deployed here, after the principal features and values of the new secular humanistic age have been set out, as a rallying call to those who are to build the new society. In the world of heroic adventure mighty victories have been won; the old Authority has been destroyed and the utopian cradle of the new age—indeed, the whole universe of multiple worlds—has been rescued, as the golden dust streams once again in the firmament. Back home, however, little has changed. The Church has waxed and waned (AS 541), and it is not clear whether this constitutes a continuing cycle or a now-terminal process. Any link, however, of such an institution with social regeneration has been severed as its theological underpinning in the Kingdom of God has had to give place to the secular humanist republic of heaven. Its agenda is set out for young readers: “‘No one could (build it) if they put themselves first. We have to be all those difficult things like cheerful and kind and curious and brave and patient, and we've got to study and think, and work hard … and then we'll build …’” (AS 548). The list is so entirely uncontentious that no doubt secular humanists, liberal humanists and Christian humanists can all be comfortable with it. Indeed it might well, half a century ago, have appeared unquestioned on one of the pages of a Narnia book!11 This still life of the last page of the text thus hardly supports “the republic of heaven” as a rallying call.


Up to the last chapters of Pullman's text, the rewritten myths, large-scale metaphors and new stories constructed out of elements of old myth have been congruous with other fantasy elements and effective in their metaphorical function. They signal dramatically and powerfully the end of an old era. The conceptual pointing up of these archaic materials in doctrinal language, as well as the use of ecclesiastical discourse, has, however, usually served, less successfully, to restrict rather than extend the range of possible readings, and worse, to expose the texts to contention rather than the free exploration of ideas.

The last intricate rewriting of the myth of the fall, for all its particular felicities, does not prove as effective as the earlier rewritings of myth. It fails to mark a convincing dawn for the new era. It is not so much that its allegorizing threatens to turn it into a looking-glass image of C. S. Lewis's books, but that here the text speaks with two voices. At the end of the story Lyra sits alone, while “somewhere in the garden a nightingale was singing.” It comforts her to think that in Will's parallel Botanic Garden also the bird will be singing. But this touching item of the final tableau also belongs to the archaic world of myth on which Pullman continually draws, incontrovertibly Arnold's Philomela, with her “wild, unquench'd, deep-sunken, old-world pain” (H. S. M. 219). In the tenderly-written and hopeful surface of the narrative, for his young readers, Pullman thus tells it as he is sure it is; in the deeper ideology of the text, however, the longing and anguish of alienated relationships, heard in the inarticulate groans of the old myths and language of religion, still echo clearly—and less assuringly.


  1. The three volumes of the trilogy—Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass—are hereafter abbreviated NL, SK and AS. Northern Lights was published in the U.S. as The Golden Compass.

  2. For “High Fantasy,” see “Children's Fantasy,” in the Encyclopaedia of Fantasy, especially Mike Ashley's section on “Otherworlds.” For discussion of the writers named, see Ann Swinfen, In Defence of Fantasy.

  3. These categories are drawn from the model of Six Types of Religious Experience of Ninian Smart (19).

  4. Thomas Hardy, “Nature's Questioning,” quoted in Gibson 43. This conception of God also owes much to Blake's “Ancient of Days.”

  5. More recent relevant discussions may be found in Holistic Revolution, the Essential New Age Reader, in the extracts from Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe, and Danah Zohar.

  6. Other treatments of the fall myth worked out in novel-length texts provide interesting comparisons: C. S. Lewis's The Voyage to Venus (Perelandra) (1943), and James Blish's A Case of Conscience (1958).

  7. The relationship of heroic action and sexual fulfillment is interestingly established early in fantasy texts: “You may take him home now, on Sundays, Ellie. He has won his spurs in the great battle, and is fit to go with you and be a man …” (Kingsley 326).

  8. Matthew Arnold, “To Marguerite, on returning a volume of the letters of Ortis” (H. S. M. 135).

  9. William Wordsworth, “Ode,” Stanza viii (Gill 300).

  10. For a comparison of Freudian and Marcusan views on sexual repression and emancipation, see Leszek Kolakowsky, Main Currents in Marxism: 3 The Breakdown (402-07).

  11. For a critique of this type of closure see the suggestive comparison in Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy, the Literature of Subversion (154f).

Works Cited

Bird, Anne-Marie. “Dust as an All-Inclusive Multiple Metaphor in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials.Children's Literature in Education 32:2 (Jun. 2001): 113.

Bloom, William, ed. Holistic Revolution, the Essential New Age Reader. London: Penguin, 2000.

Clute, J., and J. Grant. Encyclopaedia of Fantasy. London: Orbit, 1997.

Cormier, Robert. The Chocolate War. London: Gollancz, 1975.

Costa, Maddy. “Kid's Stuff.” The Guardian 22 Aug. 2001. 6.

Frye, Northrup. The Great Code. London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1982.

Gibson, James, ed. Thomas Hardy, the Complete Poems. London: MacMillan, 1976.

Gill, Stephen, ed. William Wordsworth: The Major Works. London: Oxford UP, 1984.

Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy, the Literature of Subversion. London: Methuen, 1981. 154f.

Kingsley, Charles. The Water-Babies. London: Macmillan, 1889.

Kolakowsky, Leszek. Main Currents in Marxism: 3 The Breakdown. London: Oxford UP, 1978. 402-07.

Lee, Laurie. Cider with Rosie. London: Penguin, 1962.

Le Guin, Ursula K. Tehanu. New York: Atheneum, 1990.

Lewis, C. S. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1950.

H. S. M., ed. The Poems of Matthew Arnold. London: Oxford UP, 1930.

MacDonald, George. At the Back of the North Wind, The Princess and the Goblin, The Princess and Curdie. London: Octopus Books, 1979.

Mark, Jan. Divide and Rule. London: Kestrel Books, 1979.

Newman, John Henry. “The Dream of Gerontius.” Verses on Various Occasions. London: Burnes, Oates & Co., 1868. 354.

Pittinger, Norman. God in Process. London: SCM P, 1967.

Pullman, Philip. The Amber Spyglass. London: Scholastic Children's Books, 2000.

———. Northern Lights. London: Scholastic Children's Books, 1995.

———. The Subtle Knife. London: Scholastic Children's Books, 1997.

Smart, Ninian. The Religious Experience of Mankind. London: Collins, 1971.

Swinfen, Ann. In Defence of Fantasy. London: RKP, 1984.

Vulliamy, Edward. “Author Angers the Bible Belt.” The Observer 26 Aug. 2001. 18.


Criticism: Language, Form, And Theory


Criticism: Women Writers And Fantasy