When Ursula K. Le Guin has Genly Ai state in The Left Hand of Darkness that “truth is a matter of the imagination,” she is indirectly summarizing the essential focus of her fiction: explorations of the ambiguous nature of truth through imaginative means. Few other contemporary authors have described this process with the force and clarity of Le Guin. Her subject is always humankind and, by extension, the human environment, since humanity cannot survive in a vacuum; her technique is descriptive, and her mode is metaphoric. The worlds Le Guin creates are authentic in a profoundly moral sense as her characters come to experience truth in falsehood, return in separation, unity in variety.
Frequently using a journey motif, Le Guin sends her characters in search of shadows, rings, theories, or new worlds—all of which are metaphors for undiscovered elements of the self. Along the way, Le Guin demands that they learn the paradoxes inherent in life, the ambiguous nature of creation, and the interrelatedness of all that seems to be opposed. Once made, these discoveries allow her characters to be integrated into themselves and their worlds. In the end, her characters stand for no one, no concrete meaning; they simply are. Le Guin offers her readers characters who are motivated by intellectual curiosity, humanism, and self-determination, a nonviolent, nonexploitative philosophy capable of encompassing the unknown and complex cultures in relation to one another.
Unity is what Le Guin’s characters seek: not a simple sense of belonging but a complex sense of wholeness. Much of her outlook is derived from the Daoist philosopher Laozi (also known as Lao-tzu), who maintained that scientific, ethical, and aesthetic laws, instead of being imposed by any authority, “exist in things and are to be discovered.” Le Guin’s characters thus must learn to recognize the true natures (or true names) of people or objects—none of which yield easily to theprotagonists—before apprehending their essences and roles in the world. Dao is the ultimate unity of the universe, encompassing all and nothing. Built upon paradox, Daoist philosophy proposes that apparently opposing forces actually complete each other. Discovering this in a world enamored of dualist thought, however, requires attaining an attitude of actionless activity, an emptying of the self and at the same time the fullest self-awareness. This compassionate attitude establishes a state of attraction, not compulsion: a state of being, not doing. Indeed, because the cycle of cause and effect is so strong, the Daoist sage never tries to do good at all, for a good action implies an evil action. Discovering the correlation of life/death, good/evil, light/dark, male/female, and self/other requires a relativist judgment. The Native American lore that Le Guin absorbed as a child also contributed to her sense of unity. In her writing, she draws upon her rich knowledge of myths and the work of Carl Jung as well as her own fertile imagination to create intricate metaphors for psychic realities. In her own words, “Outer Space, and the Inner Lands, are still, and will always be, my country.”
Le Guin has described Rocannon’s World , her first published novel, as “definitely purple,” an odd mixture of space age and Bronze Age, the product of an author unsure of her direction and materials. Drawing heavily on Norse mythology, the novel originated from a short story, “Dowry of the Angyar,” published in 1964. The story begins when a woman named Semley leaves her husband and child to claim her dowry, a gold and sapphire necklace. During her search, Semley time-travels to another planet, where Rocannon, an ethnologist, struck by Semley’s beauty and bearing, gives her the necklace, a museum piece on his planet. Semley returns home, believing that she has...
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- Critical Essays