Charlotte Spivack (essay date Summer 1984)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5923

SOURCE: “‘Only in Dying, Life’: The Dynamics of Old Age in the Fiction of Ursula Le Guin,1” in Modern Language Studies, Vol. XIV, No. 3, Summer, 1984, pp. 43-53.

[In the following essay, Spivack examines the unconventional portrayal of elderly characters and old age in Planet of...

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SOURCE: “‘Only in Dying, Life’: The Dynamics of Old Age in the Fiction of Ursula Le Guin,1” in Modern Language Studies, Vol. XIV, No. 3, Summer, 1984, pp. 43-53.

[In the following essay, Spivack examines the unconventional portrayal of elderly characters and old age in Planet of Exile, “The Day Before the Revolution,” and the Earthsea trilogy. According to Spivack, Le Guin challenges common stereotypes of the elderly as feeble-minded, inert, and weak.]

Falstaff and the Wife of Bath meet at the local pub. Their conversation over ale turns to reminiscence. “Whan it remembreth me upon my youthe and on my jollitee, it tickleth me about mine herte rote,” remarks the “gode Wyf,” winking at her companion. “Ah, yes,” replies Falstaff, his voice husky with nostalgia, “We have heard the chimes at midnight.” Although this aging pair are among the great individual characters in English literature, their conversation is stereotypical. The aged are typically given to reminiscing. They are also typically garrulous, forgetful, irascible, stoop-shouldered, and hard of hearing. Or are they? Are literary stereotypes of the aged based on actual observation of typical traits, or are they the more arbitrary products of social and literary conventions? Are vigorous and clear-headed elderly people as characters in literature relegated to the same unconvincing category as lovable mothers-in-law, generous landlords, and professors with presence of mind?

In most modern fiction elderly characters tend to have relatively minor roles which encourage stereotyping. As in the lament of the ancient servant Adam in As You Like It about “unregarded age in corners thrown” all too often literary portraits of the elderly remain in the corners in their books, not so much delineated as outlined; hence the few usual brushstrokes—garrulous, forgetful, irascible, stoop-shouldered, and hard of hearing. But there are notable exceptions. One such exception is the science fiction of Ursula Le Guin.

Since science fiction has not been traditionally considered strong on characterization, one might not expect to find outstanding portrayals of the elderly within its speculative covers. In recent years, however, much SF has become issue-oriented, with many major writers expressing significant social themes in that genre. Ursula Le Guin, one of the most important contemporary writers of SF and one of the most gifted in character portrayal, has been especially concerned in her work with the need for breaking down both social and sexual stereotypes. Twice winner of the top Hugo and Nebula awards for her novels,2 Le Guin has brought to science fiction the viewpoint of the anthropologist toward other and alien cultures. Daughter of famous anthropologists Alfred and Theodora Kroeber, Le Guin was brought up in a milieu where cultural anthropology was a way of life, and this remarkable background has enabled her to make her own writing a medium for exploring various non-traditional attitudes toward human nature and human society. In addition, her own father, who lived to be 85, was for her a living model of non-stereotypical old age, a man of tremendous vitality to the end. “A gray man, / All my lifetime, with a short gray beard.”3

In her science fiction, then, Ursula Le Guin explores several kinds of social structure as well as several kinds of human beings, including a few memorable examples of aged characters: three particularly vivid and touching types. These figures are not even garrulous, forgetful, or stoop-shouldered.

One male and one female, two of these characters are dynamic portraits of old age. Both Wold, the patriarch in Planet of Exile, and Odo, the anarchist in “The Day Before the Revolution,” are distinguished by a dynamic ambivalence. At the heart of each characterization is a dramatic tension of opposites, giving depth and resonance to their portrayals and conferring on both Wold and Odo an unforgettable individuality. This tension of opposites is manifested both outwardly and inwardly. It is demonstrated both in the relationship between the individual and his or her society and in the relationship of the individual to his or her own sense of self. In respect to their relationship with society, Le Guin reveals the tension between participation and antagonism, and between leadership and rebellion. Both Wold and Odo are at once leaders and outcasts, surrounded and alone. In respect to the inner relationship with self, tension exists between vitality and decrepitude, between anticipation and recollection, and between involvement and detachment.

Most important of all, perhaps, from the viewpoint of society, there is tension between what the aged are and what they can do. The elderly can initiate change even when they are personally unable to change. They can act as an effective force in significant social achievement, as both Wold and Odo do, although both are unable psychologically to participate in the results of that achievement. Both Odo and Wold bring about dynamic developments in their society, but both are at the same time limited by those forces in the past which controlled their youthful development. Odo and Wold make crucial decisions which change the future of their respective worlds, but both die on the eve of that new dawn. Each story ends with the death of the aged protagonist. At the approach of death, each character is at one and the same time full of life and ready to die. The tension of opposites marks their moment of death as it had their period of age.

The short novel Planet of Exile is the earlier of the two Le Guin works under consideration.4 Written in 1966, it is the middle volume of a SF trilogy set in outer space on other planets. This story is set on the harsh planet of Eltanin, where winter lasts for fifteen years. The events of the novel grow out of the cultural antipathy between a native primitive tribe and their more technologically advanced neighbors, “farborn” descendants of settlers from another world. Caught in the crossfire of the opposed races are two young lovers, Rolery and Jakob Agat, who act out their Romeo and Juliet roles to an ultimately happy ending. An important figure in their destiny is the aged man, Wold. He is both Rolery’s father and, as the eldest, the leader of their nomadic tribe. Rolery’s love for the alien Jakob is in direct defiance of his authority in both cases.

Although Wold, as the eldest, still functions as the acknowledged leader of his people, his leadership is strained by the fact of his advanced age as well as by the imminent threat of invasion. Not only is the long strenuous winter about to begin, but also barbarian hordes from the north are about to attack. Wold is well aware of his ambivalent role in the tribe at this time. He has long prided himself on his complete and unchallenged control, but he realizes that his young warrior son will soon become the new leader. In this moment of personal and tribal crisis, Wold makes a decisive and heroic choice, namely to join the “farborns” in fighting off the barbarian attackers, but he knows that this decision will inevitably deprive him of his ruling position.

He knew also that it was the last decision he would ever make. He could send them to war: but Umaksuman would come back, the leader of the warriors, and thereby the strongest leader among the Men of Askatevar. Wold’s action was his own abdication, Umaksuman would be the young chief. He would close the circle of the Stone-Pounding, he would lead the hunters in Winter, the forays in Spring, the great wanderings of the long days of Summer. His Year was just beginning …

(p. 40)

When the attack comes, this proud old man finds himself relegated to the ignominious position of escaping to a safe place with the women of his tribe. Once again, however, it is not a clear-cut alternative for him, whether to go or to stay behind and fight, but rather a tension of opposites. Wold does indeed agree to join the women who are fleeing in the battle, but before he leaves, he proves himself a real warrior one more time. He feels the shame of not being able to fight: “He knew he was no longer chief; but was he no longer a man? Must he stay with the babies and women by the fire, in a hole in the ground?” (p. 61)

In rebellion against his sense of shame, he seeks out a favorite weapon, the spear with which he long ago single-handedly killed a snow-ghoul, and holds it in readiness. His recollection of this heroic deed in the past stands between him and his anticipation of future retirement from the field of battle. An opportunity to recapture that past glory appears, however, and this old man, left behind and ignored by the young warriors, drives his six-foot iron-headed spear into the body of one of the invaders. This heroic action helps to salvage his self-respect, and he consents, albeit a bit reluctantly, to accompany the women to a safe location. His sense of shame in regard to his image of himself is mitigated by this final heroic action. Ultimately his shame and his glory prove inseparable.

In both his physical movements and his mental attitudes, Wold also embodies the dialectic of opposition. This aged man displays at times tremendous vitality and at others total decrepitude. As he gives orders for his warriors to pursue the invading Gaal, his voice is “loud and deep, free for a while from the huskiness of old age” (p. 39). Yet right after this, when his men leave and he sits alone by the fire, the picture is one of aged weakness: “He sat crouched on his stiff hams by his fire, staring into the yellow flames as if into the heart of a lost brightness, summer’s irrecoverable warmth” (p. 49). Similarly, although his movements tend for the most part to be slow and bent—he walks with a “stiff, ponderous shuffle” (p. 60)—he can walk erect for the sake of impressing his wife. (“She was a cross old woman, he was a foolish old man, but pride remained.”)

Wold’s character is effectively internalized, for as he displays all of these contradictory traits, he is also fully aware of them. He knows that physically he acts old. “When he saw how his feet shuffled on the stones he knew that he should obey Agat and go with the women to the black island, for he would only be in the way.” (p. 85). But in the depths of this grim awareness, he also feels a surge of optimism. It is an optimism tinged with irony, however, and evokes from the old man a wry laugh:

Wold suddenly cackled out loud, and turned from the darkening window. He had out-lived his chiefdom, his sons, his use, and had to die here on a rock in the sea; but he had great allies, and great warriors served him—greater than Agat, or any man. Storm and Winter fought for him, and he would outlive his enemies

(p. 88).

With his sense of perspective restored by this realization of his powerful natural allies, storm and winter, Wold turns on the women with a bellowing voice of authority: “Well, women! Is the slop ready?” (p. 88) No longer leader of his tribe, he is at least leader of its womenfolk. No more the active warrior, he can at least resist being passive about his meals. And although his glorious achievements are now all behind him, he can even look forward to a future “elder statesman” status.

Even in death the dramatic tension in the portrayal of Wold persists. His body on the funeral pyre is described as “age-deformed and powerful.” The “and” is significant, for in this depiction of an aged figure, the static and stereotypical are avoided through rejecting “either-or” in favor of “both- and.” In death as in life, Wold is strong and weak, a victim of age and a tribute to an old man’s irrepressibly youthful spirit. And finally, although Wold does not live to see the results of it, his heroic and self-effacing decision to join the farborn race will alter the whole future of his planet.

For the portrayal of Laia Asieo Odo, we come back to earth. Odo’s story in “The Day Before the Revolution” is actually the prologue to the novel The Dispossessed, although the story was written after the novel.5 Like her creator, Odo founded a world. The anarchist settlement of Anarres (the moon) described in The Dispossessed is the outgrowth of the revolutionary ideology of Odo, expressed both in her influential writings and in her own politically active life. At the time of the story, the revolution which will produce the moon colony is about to take place, and Odo, its spiritual mentor, is now a woman of 72.

The old woman is introduced to the reader as a young woman in her dream. Odo dreams of her former lover and “partner” (in Odonian revolutionary parlance marriage gives way to partnership) only to waken and rediscover her aged body as if it were a deteriorating possession. “Disgusting. Sad, depressing. Mean. Pitiful” (p. 262). Her waking thoughts are spasms of contradiction, as she vacillates between past memories and present observations. As the woman whose theories have given her name to a revolutionary movement, she sees herself as both a part of and apart from that movement. As a good Odonian, for example, she should say “partner” not “husband” as she recalls him in a dream, but she asks, “Why the hell did she have to be a good Odonian?” (p. 264) Her attitude toward her own radical political system is at once one of participation and antagonism.

Odo is similarly ambivalent toward her activities. On the one hand, she wants to dictate letters to her secretary, Noi, in order to show that she is still in full control, but at the same time she repeatedly leaves the decisions concerning exact wording to him. When Noi reminds her of a scheduled meeting with a group of foreign students, she is at once pleased and dismayed.

She liked the young, and there was always something to learn from a foreigner, but she was tired of new faces, and tired of being on view. She learned from them, but they didn’t learn from her; they had learnt all she had to teach long ago, from her books, from the Movement. They must come to look, as if she were the Great Tower in Roderrad, or the Canyon of the Tulaevea. A phenomenon, a monument

(p. 271).

She resents being a monument, yet not without a certain satisfaction in this passive new role. The revolutionary has become a “dear old lady” (p. 272).

Throughout the story the use of graphic physical detail vivifies the fact of old age. When Odo gets out of bed in the morning, she looks down at her feet with loathing:

The toes, compressed by a lifetime of cheap shoes, were almost square where they touched each other, and bulged out above the corns; the nails were discolored and shapeless. Between the knob-like anklebones ran fine, dry wrinkles

(p. 262).

But even this description of aged skin is marked by ambivalence:

The brief little plain at the base of the toes had kept its delicacy, but the skin was the color of mud, and knitted veins crossed the instep

(p. 262).

Similarly, the effects of a stroke are clinically delineated to show the ways in which Odo’s body has deteriorated and the ways in which it has not. Only the right side is afflicted:

Her right hand tingled. She scratched it, and then shook it in the air, spitefully. It had never quite got over the stroke. Neither had her right leg, or right eye, or the right corner of her mouth. They were sluggish, inept, they tingled. They made her feel like a robot with a short circuit


Most of all, however, the dynamic ambivalence of Odo’s characterization is reflected in her relationship to her own role in the impending revolution. Odo has been the center of political activity all of her adult life and now fears becoming peripheral to it. “It’s not easy,” she said to herself in justification, laboriously climbing the stairs, “to accept being out of it when you’ve been in it, the center of it, for fifty years” (p. 265). To her devoted followers she is still in the center of it, at least as a symbol, or a model, but for her the laborious stairs pose a threat to that centrality. Her own self- image is strained in opposite directions by self-pity and self-esteem.

The tension of opposites within Odo is focused on her role in the precise moment of time referred to in the title. She has worked her whole life to bring about a world revolution. She has worked and fought and written books. She has spent years in jail and has become the guiding spirit of the revolution which is just now about to take place on a large scale. Tomorrow. But her opposed feelings concern her own part to play on the eve of that crucial event. She feels both involved and detached. She surrenders to a deep but irrational desire to walk out into the streets although she knows that she is physically too weak to do so. Her recent stroke has debilitated her to the point where her own body seems to flop about her like a ragged garment. When she takes the walk, her fatigue forces her to sit on a doorstep in the slum, too weak to go on. As she sits there, inert, she wonders at her own identity. Who am I? she asks.

She was the little girl with scabby knees, sitting on the doorstep staring down through the dirty golden haze of River Street in the heat of late summer, the six-year-old, the sixteen-year-old, the fierce, cross, dream-ridden girl, untouched, untouchable. She was herself. Indeed she had been the tireless worker and thinker, but a blood clot in a vein had taken that woman away from her. Indeed she had been the lover, the swimmer, in the midst of life, but Taviri, dying, had taken that woman away with him. There was nothing left, really, but the foundation. She had come home. She had never left home. “True voyage is return.” Dust and mud and a doorstep in the slums

(pp. 275-6).

With the help of an acquaintance who happens to walk by, Odo is able to go home, but there her attitude toward her companions seems suddenly aloof, and her response to their questions cryptic. She is asked by them to speak on the morning of the revolution, but she asserts simply that she will not be there. The remark has a deeper meaning than they realize. As she sardonically puts it to herself, with a grim private joke, the “general strike” must yield to the “private stroke.” Her laborious climb upstairs to her own room is in reality an ascent to her own death. “She was dizzy, but she was no longer afraid to fall.” (p. 277).

Odo will not see the revolution she brought about. But the irony without reflects the tension of opposites within. Capable both of self-pity and self-praise, she has vacillated between action and surrender, between aggressive involvement and passive detachment. She is not as many people see her, merely a dead monument, nor is she altogether as people have known her to be in the past, a hard, fighting rebel. She is neither because she is both, at one and the same time, her stroke-ridden body declines, yet mounts the stairs; and her rebellious spirit soars, yet savors rest. The irony of this double vision of herself does not escape her own mordant awareness: “a drooling old woman who had started a world revolution” (p. 265).

Odo will not see the revolution she brought about, nor will Wold, the eldest, see the coexistence and intermarriage of his native tribe with the farborns, a new era which he has made possible. The achievements of these elderly figures are essentially spiritual, and their aging flesh cannot partake of them. As Odo remarks of the young people who have put her ideas into practice, “they had grown up in the principle of freedom of dress and sex and all the rest, and she hadn’t. All she had done was invent it. It’s not the same” (p. 263). For the elderly their lifetime habituation to the old ways has in a sense become as stiff with age as have their limbs. But as Le Guin’s sensitive characterization makes clear, this is not the whole story. Odo and Wold, even on the edge of death, are creative and dynamic thinkers, strong individuals who can change the future of their worlds. In their last moments of life they are not reminiscing about the past by looking ahead to the morrow. For them old age is a dynamic interplay of opposites, and their deaths herald new beginnings.

Whereas both Wold and Odo are introduced as already aged characters in their respective stories, a third example of Le Guin’s dynamic portrayal of age involves a character whom the reader sees develop from boyhood through early manhood to advanced age. This character is Ged, archmage of Earthsea and protagonist of a fantasy trilogy: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore.6 The first volume is focused on Ged’s adolescence and coming of age; the second finds him on a quest for a magic talisman; the last, however, concentrates on an aging Ged, not only visibly gray but very preoccupied with what it means to be old. Once again the focus is on the dynamism of opposites, but in this case, the portrayal is more symbolic, more “mythologized,” hence less dependent on the immediate social situation. As a result, this fantasy figure of an aging wizard offers a universalized rather than a particularized portrayal of old age.

The plot of The Farthest Shore is a variation on the quest narrative. Ged is accompanied on his quest by the young prince Arren, a lad of about seventeen. Their object is to find the source of the evil which currently afflicts the world of Earthsea with a devastating spiritual plague of joylessness, with a corresponding failure of magic, blurring of distinctions, and loss of meaning. “There is a hole in the world, and the sea is running out of it. The light is running out” (p. 154). The evil seems to be associated with a widespread rejection of mortality, and there are ominous whispers and mutterings about the opportunity to live forever. Ged sees in this apparently unmeasured desire for life on the part of human beings a threat to the balance of nature. As he sees it, death is the price we pay for life, and he sets out with Arren on the journey westward in an effort to restore the balance of nature by reestablishing mortality.

As they move westward, the direction of the setting sun as well as the direction traditionally associated with death, the old man and the boy reflect on the differences between age and youth. As Ged explains to his young companion, “When I was young, I had to choose between the life of being and the life of doing. And I leapt at the latter like a trout to a fly. But each deed you do, each act, binds you to itself, and to its consequences, and makes you act again and yet again. Then very seldom do you come upon a space, a time like this, between act and act, when you may stop and simply be. Or wonder who, after all, you are” (p. 34-35). Arren is impatient for action, but Ged compares himself to the ancient dragons, who are both the oldest and the wisest of all beings, who have stopped acting in favor of simple being. “They do not do; they are” (p. 37).

Although Ged may in theory ally himself with existence as opposed to action, in fact he is at once both active and contemplative, both involved and detached. He acts many times in the course of their adventurous journey westward. He acts decisively, he acts courageously, and he acts imaginatively. He dons a disguise in order to go about asking questions undetected; he risks ambush in a lonely room on a dark night in a dangerous part of a drug-ridden town; he daringly rescues his young companion who is captured by brutal slave-traders. Such activities are scarcely those of a person who has entirely given up on activity. Ged thus demonstrates that dialectical tension between participation and withdrawal that we noted in Odo and Wold. On the one hand, he clearly prefers being to action and offers as advice to the future king: “do only that which you must do and which you cannot do in any other way” (p. 67). On the other hand, however, he obviously can and does act forcefully when he determines what action is required.

The climactic events of the book occur when Ged and Arren complete their journey westward in the “dry land” of the dead. At the very edge of that grim, gray landscape they meet their enemy, the source of the evil which has brought Earthsea into a state of despair. There, before the stone wall which separates the living from the dead, they meet the former sorcerer, Cob, who has surrendered his humanity to his overpowering urge to cling to fleshly existence. It is Cob’s magic which has opened the door between life and death, turning the living world into a world of living death, where the sun is dimmed and life lacks joy. Cob’s body is killed in an attack by a self-sacrificial dragon, but Cob’s spirit climbs over the wall into the land of the shadows, where Ged and Arren must follow. It is a dismal journey through that land where stars shine but do not twinkle, where shadows meet but do not speak, and where there is only dust to drink. But the old man and the boy persist until they come to the fatal door that Cob’s misguided magic has opened between that world and ours. Ged then uses all the magic he can muster, asserting a superhuman strength in the weakness of his age, to close that door. Shaky yet strong, he sways a little, then stands erect. He commands in a clear voice: “Be thou made whole!…And with his staff he drew in lines of fire across the gate or rocks a figure: the rune Agnen, the Rune of Ending, which closes roads and is drawn on coffin lids. And there was then no gap or void place among the boulders. The door was shut” (p. 184).

In the difficult journey back to the world of the living, age and youth need each other. The old wizard is able to act as guide, but his physical strength is unequal to the challenge. The young prince, however, musters an endurance even beyond hope, and he carries his mentor safely over the edge of darkness and back to the light. But that is by no means the whole story. It is not simply a matter of youthful vigor supporting the weak limbs of age, for the young boy vitally needs the wisdom that comes only with age. Although Arren carries Ged to safety over the wall, both men are at that point totally stranded on a deserted beach far west of the nearest human habitation. By themselves, they would perish. But there on the beach they encounter a superbly ancient and wise dragon, Kalessin, and through Ged’s own wisdom they are able to communicate with him in the Old Speech. Ged learns that Kalessin is offering to fly them back to civilization, and both men are able to escape, riding on the rough-mailed neck of the great creature.

One particular detail in this escape scene graphically illustrates the dialectic of age in the portrayal of Ged. As the companions mount the dragon, Arren suddenly sees the wizard’s staff of yew lying on the beach, half-buried in the sand, and reaches down to get it. The wizard stops him, however, explaining that he has spent all of his powers in the dry land of the dead. The staff can no longer help him: “I am no mage now” (p. 193). But the loss is also a gain. Although Ged as mage has lost the ability to perform feats with his staff, he is actually wiser than before. The staff served as a medium between the wizard and the things of the earth, but now Ged is more closely related to the airborn dragons. In his eyes there is now “something like that laughter in the eyes of Kalessin …” (p. 196). This is not to say that Ged has lost all contact with human responsibility. Indeed Ged is yet to undertake the very important duty of establishing Arren on his rightful throne. But in his somewhat transcendental nature, he influences human endeavor without actually being part of it. Like Odo and Wold, who were able to bring about actions although they could not participate in them, Ged is able to restore the prince Arren to his throne although he will not stay to watch him rule. Ged’s spiritual guidance has made possible the fulfillment of an old prophecy: “He shall inherit my throne who has crossed the dark land living and come to the far shores of the day” (p. 17).

The final scene, showing Ged’s solitary departure on the dragon Kalessin, also illustrates the tension between anticipation and recollection on the part of this aged wizard. Throughout the long dangerous quest Ged has been concerned with both the need for a king to unite Earthsea and with preparing Arren to become that king. From his first meeting with the young prince, he has felt that Arren inherited the kingly spirit of his ancestors. In their first interview he reminds the young man of his royal destiny and throughout the story he addresses him with the respect due to a king. From the viewpoint of both Arren’s coming rule and the need to close the door between living and dead, Ged is totally concerned with the future. At the same time, however, he is also full of memories of his won past, and at several points in the narrative he expresses a nostalgia for those individuals who were important in the earlier stages of his own development. In a meditative mood on their westward drifting boat, he had reminisced about Tenar, the young woman who figures centrally in The Tombs of Atuan, and about his early mentor, Ogion. Now memory and anticipation meet and mingle in this final scene. Ged kneels to the future king, wishing him a long and successful rule, but his own urge to return to the haunts of his youth leads him elsewhere.

The novel ends with Ged’s flight on the dragon, which is at once a death and a new life. His physical energies are spent, and he has passed beyond doing, but his mythic flight is both forward and upward. Although his staff lies abandoned in the sand, his spirit soars in the air. As the young king Arren perceptively describes the difference between himself and the elderly mage: “He rules a greater kingdom than I do” (p. 197).

Since Ged is a symbolic figure, a fantasy wizard, his implied death is also an apotheosis. But at the same time it is the death of an old man, a universal experience. And just as Ged the living is neither garrulous nor irascible, so Ged the dying is neither pathetic nor distraught. Like Wold welcoming the winter and Odo climbing the stairs, Ged in the moment of impending death looks forward. For him as for them, age has been a dynamic period and death is a positive experience.

In all three of Le Guin’s portrayals of old age there is thus a tension of opposites that remains until the moment of death. Wold, God, and Ged are all at once leaders and outcasts, gregarious and solitary individuals who are both openly involved in social action and passively withdrawn in reflective silence. They are also on the physical level at once healthy and declining in health, lively and listless, towers of strength and figures of frailty. Even as they move from recollection of their past to anticipation of their future, they move almost imperceptibly from dying in life to living in death. In each case their respective societies learn that even in their final stages of life these aged people are able to make important contributions, to initiate change, to establish new meanings. As they leave doing in favor of being, their very being makes doing impossible for others. In the fantasy and science fiction worlds of Le Guin there is no concept of retirement, mandatory or voluntary.

Science fiction as a genre has always been concerned with creating new worlds and offering alternative futures. As a result of this speculative projection outward in space and forward in time, it is uniquely qualified for detached commentary on our own spatially and temporally limited life here on earth. For a science fiction writer who is also knowledgeable in cultural anthropology, the genre offers an opportunity for thoughtful speculation about social attitudes in general and for refuting social stereotypes in particular. Ursula Le Guin is an anthropologically oriented writer of science fiction, and her experimental worlds offer socially unconventional portrayals of human nature. Three of her characters under consideration here exemplify an attitude toward old age that is challenging in its total rejection of a popular stereotype.

All too often in fiction the elderly person is depicted as wandering in mind and weak in body, living in the past and neglectful of the present. Too often also elderly characters are relegated to the corners of their fictional worlds where they repose in stereotypical neglect. In contrast Le Guin’s portrayals of an aged wizard in Earthsea and of two elderly social leaders in their respective communities on Earth and on the planet Eltanin introduce a new image of the elderly. Old age in the fiction of Le Guin is both dynamic and ambivalent. The dynamics of old age are as vital as those of youth, both to the aged themselves and to their societies. Furthermore, the dynamics of age are unique and irreplaceable, not a mere extension of those of youth. Arren needs Ged just as the young revolutionaries need Odo and the young warriors need Wold. The deaths of Wold, Odo, and Ged are not the mere culmination of aging years spent dozing in the sun. A crescendo heralds the silence. “Only in dying, life.”


  1. The quoted phrase is from A Wizard of Earthsea. I have added a comma for the sake of clarification out of context.

  2. Both The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed won both awards.

  3. From the poem “Coming of Age” in “Wild Angels,” The Capra Chapbook Anthology (Santa Barbara, CA, 1979).

  4. Planet of Exile (New York, 1966).

  5. “The Day Before the Revolution” in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (New York, 1976).

  6. A Wizard of Earthsea (New York, 1968); The Tombs of Atuan (New York, 1971); The Farthest Shore (New York, 1972).

The material concerning the character of Odo on pages 46-49 is quoted from my book Ursula K. Le Guin with the permission of G.K. Hall and Co.

Peter Kobel (review date 6 October 1985)

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SOURCE: “Le Guin's Novel Depicts Tribal ‘Utopia,’” in Chicago Tribune Books, October 6, 1985, p. 40.

[In the following review, Kobel offers a tempered assessment of Always Coming Home, which he describes as “an ambitious, imaginative work” that “is not entirely successful.”]

One approaches Ursula Le Guin’s novel, Always Coming Home, with a measure of skepticism. A collaboration that includes 100 drawings by Margaret Chodos and a cassette of music by Todd Barton, this work of “future archeology” seems at first “gimmicky.” But if it is not entirely successful, it is an ambitious, imaginative work.

Le Guin has always been largely indifferent to the technological trapping of science fiction. Instead, she has focused on ecological and feminist themes, on psychology, on characters.

The anthropological thrust of her new novel reveals something of her roots: She is the daughter of the noted anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber and author Theodora Kroeber, who wrote a biography of the last “wild” Indian in America.

Always Coming Home describes a pastoral people living in northern California in the distant future after a nuclear war. The Kesh, as they are called, are much like American Indians, and the book is a collection of their traditional stories, poems, songs, fragments of novels, and dramas. The only parts that resemble a conventional novel, scattered through the long book, concern a woman who leaves the peace-loving Kesh to join her father among the aggressive, warlike Dayao—(a contrast often seen in Le Guin’s work).

These parts, told by Stone Telling, are the most interesting and tie the book together. Le Guin intended for the Kesh collectively to be the novel’s protagonist. It doesn’t quite work, and the reader would have preferred more of Stone Telling’s story.

The Kesh have something close to utopia in this liberal, humanistic book. They live simply in small villages, very close to nature, though they have the resources of high technology—they are plugged into a worldwide computer network. There are ironic touches that make the utopia ambiguous (unambiguous utopias are boring). The Kesh, for instance, are matriarchal, and men are discriminated against. They have no god, or gods, but do have a strong sense of the sacredness of nature that our culture has all but lost.

The drawings by Margaret Chodos, either realistic drawings of the kind seen in natural history books or stylized Indian-influenced works, are quite good. The cassette features chanting in the invented Kesh language and Barton’s music, a sort of mystical minimalism.

Altogether, this is an intriguing work, one that breaks the genre barriers. It is, however, so lacking in conventional science fiction baggage, one wonders if Le Guin’s readers will follow her on this trip.

M. Teresa Tavormina (essay date Winter 1988)

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SOURCE: “A Gate of Horn and Ivory: Dreaming True and False in Earthsea,1” in Extrapolation, Vol. 29, No. 4, Winter, 1988, pp. 338-48.

[In the following essay, Tavormina examines classical Western motifs in Le Guin's work. In particular, Tavormina links the symbolism of truth and discovery in the Earthsea trilogy to similar imagery in Virgil's Aeneid.]

Many critics have explored the Taoist elements of Ursula Le Guin’s fiction (Bain, Barbour, Cogell, and Galbreath, inter alia), rightly following her express avowals of sympathy with Eastern philosophy and cosmology (see, for instance, Language of the Night 49, 141, 143, 169). Similarly, Jungian archetypes in her work have proved a rich field for interpretation, as have (to a lesser degree) the Northern European myths which underlie some of her stories (cf. Bailey, Gunew, Pfeiffer, Thompson).2 Much rarer are critical comments on her borrowings from the Western classical tradition, archetypal patterns aside, no doubt partly because of the transformations these materials undergo when brought into contact with Le Guin’s essentially un-Western world-view.

However, the relative infrequency with which Le Guin draws directly on the classical tradition cannot be taken as a sign of indifference to that tradition or ignorance of its details. As she herself has hinted, somewhat but not entirely tongue-in-cheek, it behooves the interpreter of her work to remember her training in French and Italian Renaissance literature at Radcliffe and Columbia (“Response” 43-44). That training would necessarily have involved a certain studied contact with the literary legacy of Greece and Rome—and not merely with their myths and archetypes in general, but also with their particular literary monuments. Although direct traces of this contact—e.g., overt allusions to classical authors or motifs—are sparse in Le Guin’s oeuvre, they are neither nonexistent nor insignificant. For instance, the Theseus and Ariadne myth is seen as an important source for The Tombs of Atuan by Esmonde (21-22) and by Spivack, who also suggests connections with the Persephone story (37-38). A more explicitly literary or textual echo of the classics has been proposed by T. A. Shippey, who argues that

at the heart of Earthsea lies the myth of Aeneid Book VI, the descent into the Shadowland—except that Ged is not given a “golden bough.” … [He follows] his friend’s little son Ioeth, deep into the gloomy, passionless imitation of life that is Earthsea’s Erebus … only to have a last glimpse of him running uncatchably downhill into the dark—a striking and pathetic image, lonelier, less cruel, but more fearful than Virgil’s Styx.

(“Archmage and Antimage” 863)

Elsewhere, Shippey notes that Ged’s “return from the land of the dead [is] reminiscent of the Aeneid in its difficulty—hoc opus, hic labor est, as the Sybil says” (“The Magic Art” 154).

My goal in this essay is to add further support to Shippey’s connection of the Earthsea trilogy with Virgil, and to examine the ways in which Le Guin transmutes a specific passage from the Aeneid into an image whose meaning is unmistakably her own. The passage I have in mind occurs at the end of Aeneid 6, when Aeneas leaves Hell by its back door, the Gates of Sleep:

There are two gates of Sleep: the one is said / to be of horn, through it an easy exit / is given to true Shades; the other is made / of polished ivory, perfect, glittering, / but through that way the Spirits send false dreams / into the world above. And here Anchises, / when he is done with words, accompanies / the Sibyl and his son together; and / he sends them through the gate of ivory.

(Aen. 6.893-98)

In linking true and false dreams with twin gates of horn and ivory respectively, Virgil follows a long-standing classical tradition which can be traced back to the Odyssey, where Penelope describes the “double … portals of flickering dreams” in similar terms (Odys. 19.562). Classical, medieval, and Renaissance commentators on the Aeneid regularly explained the truthfulness of the gate of horn in terms of the translucence of horn and of its etymological connection with the eye (cornu, cornea); the falsity of dreams from the ivory gate was explicated in terms of ivory’s opacity and its connection with teeth, the mouth, and thus with lying words. What can be seen is true; what is reported may be false.3

The question of why Aeneas returns to the upper world through the gate of false dreams has exercised Virgilians since the fourth-century commentary of Servius, if not earlier. The most interesting, and also most controversial, interpretations take Aeneas’s passage through the ivory gate as some sort of comment on the reality or literality of the preceding descent into Hell or vision of the future glories of Rome. Servius himself asserted that the passage was Virgil’s way of indicating that “everything he had said was false.” Less extreme, but not unrelated, are more recent readings of the passage as a sign that the preceding book or vision is in some sense not literally true, a more fictive than factual experience. The critical debate among classicists over such readings versus more naturalistic explications is still unresolved, and perhaps unresolvable. In the words of a recent annotator. “the matter remains a Virgilian enigma (and none the worse for that).”4

Like Virgil and Homer in their epics of journey and self-discovery, Le Guin erects a gateway of horn and ivory at a crucial threshold in the Earthsea trilogy. When the young would- be-mage Ged first arrives at the School of Magery on Roke Island, he must pass through what appears to be “a mean little door of wood”—though only after telling his true name to the Master Doorkeeper. Once inside, he looks back at the doorway, and sees that it is “not plain wood as he had thought, but ivory without joint or seam: it was cut, as he knew later, from a tooth of the Great Dragon. The door that the old man closed behind him was of polished horn, through which the daylight shone dimly, and on its inner face was carved the Thousand-Leaved Tree” (Wizard 46-47). We learn later that this “door of horn and ivory” is “the back door of the Great House” (Wizard 89) and yet again, in The Farthest Shore, that it is the “eastern door, carven of horn and dragon’s tooth” (31).

Like Virgil, and in this respect unlike Homer, Le Guin has her protagonist pass through this liminal structure, though it must be noted that Le Guin’s protagonist, as a mage-to-be rather than a future king, is more analogous to the Sybil than to Aeneas. If the Earthsea trilogy has an Aeneas, it is young Prince Arren, who will “[cross] the dark land living,” and eventually unite all Earthsea under his rule; nonetheless, the trilogy is primarily Ged’s story, and it is Ged’s passages through the horn and ivory door that we see as challenging tests. Arren gives his name and passes through the door easily enough, not only when he first arrives on Roke but also on the equinoctial morning when he runs down to the harbor to begin the journey that will take him through death to the “far shores of the day” (Farthest Shore 17, 20, 31). Facilis descensus AuernoAen. 6, 126).

But Le Guin’s doorway is no longer a twin gate of horn and ivory, nor does it open directly onto or out of the kingdom of the dead. Instead, she gives us a single gate, its frame cut from the One of a single dragon’s tooth, its door made of dimly translucent horn on which is depicted the living Many of the World-Tree. Since dragons are the only creatures in Earthsea who can lie in the Old Speech, it seems possible that the ivory of Le Guin’s doorframe owes something to the traditional association of the classical ivory gate with teeth, mouth, and lies. Likewise, the fact that light shines dimly through the door proper suggests that Le Guin is fully aware of the traditional explanation for true dreams leaving the underworld by way of the gate of horn.

It bears repeating: Le Guin’s gate of horn and ivory is one, not two. If we allow, as I shall argue below, that the back door of the Great House is still in some sense a gate of dreams, then it must be acknowledged that those dreams cannot be readily dichotomized as true or false—at least not by the simple expedient of seeing which door they enter our consciousness by. Fortunately, such an acknowledgment will be relatively easy for readers of Le Guin, thanks to her clear commitment to the integration rather than the separation of complements. If “Light is the left hand of darkness / and darkness the right hand of light,” then “true” dreams and “false” dreams may also be inseparable, like

life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way.

Left Hand of Darkness 222)

As Genly Ai says at the beginning of Left Hand,

Truth is a matter of the imagination.… [The story] is all one, and if at moments the facts seem to alter with an altered voice, why then you can choose the fact you like best; yet none of them are false, and it is all one story.


Indeed, the notion of an external criterion for deciding on a positivistic truth or falsity of dreams would be alien to Le Guin’s understanding of both dreams and stories, as we can see in the memorable title of her essay “Dreams Must Explain Themselves,” an essay which ends by calling The Farthest Shore “the dream I have not stopped dreaming” (Language of the Night 56).

In Earthsea, true and false dreams are inextricably interwoven with true and false language. Dragons—who “do not dream [but] are dreams” (Farthest Shore 37)—can lie in the Old Speech which constrains humans to truth. They can twist “true words to false ends, catching the unwary hearer in a maze of mirror-words each of which reflects the truth and none of which leads anywhere” (Wizard 105-06). Even when they intend the truth, “it is hard for a dragon to speak plainly. They do not have plain minds” (Farthest Shore 153). The complement of dragons using truth to lie, of course, is the yarn-spinning of storytellers, who “twist lies” in order to tell truths. Weavers, singers, dyers, makers of the meaningful and beautiful: in Earthsea, as in many of Le Guin’s worlds, they create the dreams and patterns by which we clothe and shape our lives.5 Yet dreams can also be snares of illusion or despair, nothing more than flashing mirrors and ragged dusty cobwebs, as they are for those who seize at the false immortality promised by Cob, the death- and life- denying spider-mage in The Farthest Shore. In A Wizard of Earthsea, we read that Ged’s Shadow at first “take[s] visible shape only in dream and darkness” (115). That Shadow is of course a form of truth, representing Ged’s mortality, but it is a dark truth which seeks to lead the young mage into the cruel and inhuman power of the ancient Terrenon. It hardly surprises us when Ged (and Le Guin) evades Arren’s (and our) questions, “Do wizards make much account of dreams? … [Is there] ever truth in them [?] … Do they foretell truly?” (Farthest Shore 70).

One door, then, of horn and ivory, because truth and falsehood are not so easily disentangled as Virgil’s twin gates of Sleep might lead us to hope. But let us examine this door more closely still: I would pose four questions, the answers to which should deepen our understanding of the metamorphosis wrought by Le Guin on the Virgilian gates. First, why does her door of horn and ivory lead into and out of the School of Magery, allowing magicians rather than dreams to come and go? Second, why is its ivory dragon-ivory? Third, why is passage through that door granted only in exchange for a name—one’s own in order to enter, the Doorkeeper’s in order to leave as a mage? And last, why does the door bear upon its face the form of the Thousand-Leaved Tree?

To answer the first of these questions, we must keep in mind Le Guin’s own comment on the “meaning” of the Earthsea trilogy:

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.

Language of the Night 53)

The last sentence in this excerpt may seem elliptical at first, especially in its abrupt reference to dreams (abrupt in the original as well), but the ellipsis is not a very large one. Dreaming, story telling, and world-naming are closely related for Le Guin;6 if dreams do not pass through Le Guin’s one door, dreamer-artists most surely do. In the Great House, young sorcerers learn an artistry at whose core is the naming of things, in the True Speech by which the world was created. Only by naming things in that tongue can one exercise power over the world, whether for good or ill (Myers 95-98). So too novelists name their worlds, and in so doing, name ours as well; yet their True Speech grows out of “sleep and dreaming” and proceeds by “telling lies.” In Le Guin’s view, what novelists try to do

is tell you what they’re like, and what you’re like—what’s going on—what the weather is now, today, this moment, the rain, the sunlight, look! Open your eyes; listen, listen. That is what the novelists say. But they don’t tell you what you will see and hear. All they can tell you is what they have seen and heard, in their time in this world, a third of it spent in sleep and dreaming, another third of it spent in telling lies.

“The truth against the world!”—Yes. Certainly. Fiction writers, at least in their braver moments, do desire the truth: to know it, speak it, serve it. But they go about it in a peculiar and devious way, which consists in inventing persons, places, and events which never did and never will exist or occur, and telling about these fictions in detail and at length and with a great deal of emotion, and then when they are done writing down this pack of lies, they say, There! That’s the truth!

Language of the Night 156-57; emphasis added)

In The Farthest Shore, we find dreams and magic still more closely linked, indeed almost identified—and not just with each other and with an art of words, but also with the very being of dragons. Here, in the last volume of the trilogy, we come to see why the door into the School of Magery should be framed with seamless ivory from a tooth of the Great Dragon. Here we learn that in the language of dragons, as in dreams and fiction, truth and illusion become one, not in the life-denying manner of Cob’s illusory truths about death, but in an affirmative and creative speech-act which comprehends both life and death. By implication, we learn that the dragons of Earthsea are finally not images of evil or falsehood, but rather like the one door itself—images of a profound unity.

Thus, answering Arren’s question about the evil or innocence of dragons, Ged asks in turn:

“Who am I, to judge the acts of dragons? … They are wiser than men are. It is with them as with dreams, Arren. We men dream dreams, we work magic, we do good, we do evil. The dragons do not dream. They are dreams. They do not work magic: it is their substance, their being. They do not do, they are.”


The “lies” that dragons tell in the Old Speech may in fact be truths that we are not wise enough to understand; to be a dragon-lord, we should remember, is not to conquer dragons but to be able to talk with them. It is the master-artist and the archmage who can mediate the language of dragons for us, the language by which the world is named, the language of creation and mystery, of dreams both dark and light. And the wild, untamed, draconic dreams and stories they bring us must be attended to, whether they tell of grief or glory. “Those who refuse to listen to dragons,” Le Guin believes, are likely to end up being ensnared by the banal and meaningless “nightmares of politicians,” much as Cob’s victims give away their names in hopes of escaping death, only to be lost in “fields of dream” that are neither death nor life (Language of the Night 11; Farthest Shore 72).7

Yet those who best understand the language of naming and making also see most clearly the unmaking, the nameless Abyss above which Creation dances, and are thus particularly subject to the terror and despair which can arise from that vision. It is no accident that the people most vulnerable to Cob’s promises of deathlessness are “those who know how to listen”: the mages and makers, the sorcerers, singers, heroes, seekers; women and men of power like Akaren of Lorbanery or young Arren (Farthest Shore 135, 137). Because they “know how to listen,” and thus have power to speak and make, they have the most to lose in death—knowledge, power, name, self. But if they do listen to Cob, if they allow his desperate denial of mortality to enter their hearts, then they will end by surrendering both their name and their knowledge of True Speech, thereby losing the very root of their power in the living world. Cob himself has lost his true name and his truth (179), failing to see that by giving up his name/self to gain life, he has lost the form around which life must be shaped. He perverts magery by embracing namelessness and formlessness—counter to all the precepts we learn in scenes set on Roke—and the horror of his unnatural, truenameless presence can even steal the “speech and ancient wisdom,” “grace of reason,” and “fierce, willed concord” from dragons (147).

In utter contrast to this theft of name and self and speech are the name-tests at the back door of the School of Roke, where one shares names with the Master Doorkeeper—freely speaking one’s own true name to enter, asking and being freely told the Doorkeeper’s true name to leave. Neither name is taken from its holder. To pass the door of the Great House, one tells but does not surrender one’s name, the key to the door to one’s self; when a young mage first leaves the Great House, he can only do so by being granted knowledge of the Doorkeeper’s name and self. It is essential for mages to know that not all names are to be learned by study or force—that there are names which one can not or would not learn against the will of their possessor, but which are all the more valuable when they are freely entrusted to someone worthy of trust. Whereas Cob’s loss of his own name and theft of others’ names is based on fear and despair, the sharing of names at the horn and ivory door betokens the trust and wise openness to the world which give the greatest mages their deepest power. Perhaps it is because the ageless, ivory-skinned Doorkeeper knows the true names of all the mages, and because he has learned those names and granted his own in a mutual act of trust, that he alone of all the Masters remains tranquil at the apparent collapse of magic in the world (Farthest Shore 8, 145). As Keeper of doors—and names—he watches over all the comings and goings at the heart of art-magery; he seems also to know the comings and goings at all doors in Earthsea, and thus somehow knows or trusts that Ged will shut the door between life and death once more.

Inside the Great House, of course, the One language which names all things truly is learned. The novice-mages learn when to speak and when to be silent, when to open and when to shut doors. They gradually acquire mastery of names, magic, reality and appearance. And to judge from Ged’s near-identification of dreams, magic, and the essence of dragonhood, they also acquire mastery over the dreams which are magic, and art, and primal reality. They gain, with various degrees of power, the capacity to act effectively within the many-isled, many-named world brought forth by Segoy’s utterance of the First Word. More importantly, they gain, in varying degrees, the power to see and preserve, by action or stillness, the Equilibrium between word and silence, life and death, which makes the word comprehensible and life meaningful. And with this power—whether the power of magery in Earthsea, or of art in our own Earth—comes the responsibility to affirm the creative force underlying magery, artistry, and life itself.

The multiplicity and life-affirming quality of the mages’ responsibilities are well- figured by the Thousand-Leaved Tree represented in the translucent horn of the back door to the Great House. Like all trees, even the trees of Roke’s Immanent Grove, the Thousand- Leaved Tree itself must be part of the mortal, organic world, subject to death as well as growth. Its importance to the mages is signified by its being carved upon this critical entryway to the Great House. It is also carved across the walls and ceiling of a “mighty gallery” which appears to be the refectory of the House, near its “huge stone kitchens” (Farthest Shore 14-15). The narrative thus juxtaposes the Tree with nourishment for body and spirit as well as with doorways. The image of the Tree arches above the daily sharing of food and speech together, the commensality of a household—what in other contexts Le Guin calls an ekumen. Though we learn little else about the Thousand-Leaved Tree, it seems reasonable to take it at least as an avatar of Earthsea’s World-Tree; I believe that it actually is that World-Tree, the axis mundi which must stand at the center of the Immanent Grove.8 The rest of the world moves around the Grove; the Master Patterner always dwells within it; “its roots are the roots of being.”9 The path toward it leads “always straight and direct no matter how time and the world ben[d] awry about it” (Farthest Shore 9-10).

Thus, the small, eastern door of the Great House is not a back door into or out of the underworld of death, as in the Aeneid, but rather a door into and out of the very heart and root of the living Balance in which Earthsea is born and grows and dies.10 Through it come bearers of dreams and art and magic, gifts which remain as difficult of interpretation as one would expect, knowing its dragon’s-tooth frame; yet through it also the morning sun illuminates the veritable, manifold Tree of Creation. And Le Guin subtly reminds us of that same door as Ged returns from the open reaches of the eastern sea, where he has finally confronted and reintegrated himself with his Shadow, his life and his death, his darkness and light. After Ged’s friend Vetch pulls himself and Ged back into their boat Lookfar, he steers straight west, toward the “remote bright crescent” of the newly waxing moon; “spent and soaked and shaking” from his battle, Ged sees nothing of the world around him “until, straight ahead of their course, in the sky that darkened where the sun had set, between long clouds in a bay of clear blue light, the new moon shone: a ring of ivory, a rim of horn, reflected sunlight shining across the ocean of the dark” (Wizard 202). After facing the dry lands of death that had risen from the Open Sea, after speaking his own and his Shadow’s single name, Ged reenters the living Inner Lands by way of gleaming horn and ivory, through the gates of dream and magic. Only in the gathering darkness is the thin rim and reflected earthlight of the new moon visible; only in dreams and fictions can certain truths shine clearly forth.


  1. An earlier version of this essay was given at the R. Glenn Wright Memorial Symposium at Michigan State University, in December 1987. I would like to thank Peter Lowentrout for his very helpful suggestions as to the structure and style of the essay.

  2. Le Guin notes, “[I] go a very long way with Jung and the I Ching (“Response” 46); see also her essay “The Child and the Shadow” and, on Nordic myths, her Introduction to the 1977 printing of Rocannon’s WorldLanguage of the Night 59-71, 135-36). For a stimulating complement to and partial critique of the Jungian approach to Le Guin’s fiction, see Selinger’s recent study, Le Guin and Identity, a work which came to my attention shortly before this essay went to press. Selinger’s analysis has particular relevance for the discussion of self and name which appears below, and provides new and quite interesting ways to conceptualize Le Guin’s treatment of those issues (see esp. 11-14, 33-35).

  3. For the remarks of some of these pre-modern Virgilian commentators, see Kaske 124-26. Modern commentators have found this symbolic explanation somewhat strained, however.

  4. R. G. Austin, comm., Aeneidos Liber Sextys 276; Austin gives numerous bibliographic references to other modern analyses of the passage (274-77).

  5. Compare the title and integrating function of Faxe, the Weaver of the Handdarata Foretellers in The Left Hand of Darkness (esp. 66-67), and Le Guin’s more recent fable Leese Webster, in which the weaver- spider-artist metaphor is both explicit and positive.

  6. The centrality and active power of dreams in Le Guin’s thinking can be seen in her other works as well, notably The Lathe of Heaven and The Word for World is Forest.

  7. On Le Guin’s presentation of the “terrible necessity for dragons” in the Earthsea trilogy, see Dunn.

  8. For the Immanent Grove as World-Tree, see Spivack 42. There is a Tree of Dreams in Aeneid 6.282-84, but it is a much grimmer and literally darker image than Le Guin’s Thousand-Leaved Tree; the dreams which “cling … to every leaf” are vana, ‘empty,’ and it is surrounded by all manner of monsters. If the Thousand-Leaved Tree harks back to Virgil’s oneiric elm at all, which seems to me unlikely, it only does so by way of truly radical revaluation.

  9. It is worth noting that in the Athshean language of The World for World is Forest, the word for “dream” is the same as the word for “root,” and that to understand this is to receive “the key of the kingdom of the forest people” (100).

  10. The “back door” to Le Guin’s underworld is no horn or ivory gate of dreams, but rather the mountains of Pain, forbidden to the dead, by which Arren and Ged come finally to the “farthest shore.” Aeneas had it a good deal easier.

Works Cited

Bailey, Edgar C., Jr. “Shadows in Earthsea: Le Guin’s Use of a Jungian Archetype.” Extrapolation 21 (1980): 254-61.

Bain, Dena C. “The Tao Te Ching as Background to the Novels of Ursula K. Le Guin.” Extrapolation 21 (1980): 209-22.

Barbour, Douglas. “The Lathe of Heaven: Taoist Dream.” Algol 21 (Nov. 1973): 22-24.

Cogell, Elizabeth Cummins. “Taoist Configurations: The Dispossessed.” De Bolt 153-79, 207-209.

De Bolt, Joe, ed. Ursula K. Le Guin: Voyager to Inner Lands and to Outer Space. Port Washington: Kennikat Press, 1979.

Dunn, Margaret M. “The Dragon Is Not Dead: Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy.Forms of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Third International Conference on the Fantastic in Literature and Film. Ed. Jan Hokenson and Howard Pearce. New York: Greenwood, 1986. 175-80.

Esmonde, Margaret P. “The Master Pattern: The Psychological Journey in the Earthsea Trilogy.” Olander and Greenberg 15-35, 225.

Galbreath, Robert. “Taoist Magic in the Earthsea Trilogy.” Extrapolation 21 (1980): 262-68.

Gunew, Sneja. “Mythic Reversals: The Evolution of the Shadow Motif.” Olander and Greenberg 178-99, 236.

Homer. The Odyssey: A New Verse Translation. Trans. Albert Cook. New York: Norton, 1967.

Kaske, R. E. “Horn and Ivory in the Summoner’s Tale.Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 73 (1972): 122-26.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Farthest Shore. 1972. Rpt. New York: Bantam, 1975.

———. The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Ed. Susan Wood. New York: Putnam, 1979.

———. Leese Webster. New York: Atheneum, 1979.

———. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Ace, 1969.

———. “A Response to the Le Guin Issue.” Science-Fiction Studies 3 (1976): 43-46.

———. The Tombs of Atuan. 1971. Rpt. New York: Bantam, 1975.

———. A Wizard of Earthsea. New York: Ace, 1968.

———. The Word for World is Forest. 1972. Rpt. New York: Berkley, 1976.

Myers, Doris T. “‘True Speech’ in the Fantasies of Tolkien and Le Guin.” Forum Linguisticum 7 (1982): 95-106.

Olander, Joseph D., and Martin Harry Greenberg, eds. Ursula K. Le Guin. New York: Taplinger, 1979.

Pfeiffer, John R. “‘But Dragons Have Keen Ears’: On Hearing ‘Earthsea’ with Recollections of ‘Beowulf.’” De Bolt 115-27, 206-207.

Selinger, Bernard. Le Guin and Identity in Contemporary Fiction. Studies in Speculative Fiction 16. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1988.

Shippey, T. A. “Archmage and Antimage.” Rev. of the Earthsea Trilogy, TLS 15 July 1977: 863.

———. “The Magic Art and the Evolution of Words: Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy.Mosaic 10 (1977): 147-63.

Spivack, Charlotte. Ursula K. Le Guin. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

Thompson, Raymond H. “Jungian Patterns in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore.Aspects of Fantasy: Selected Essays from the Second International Conference on the Fantastic in Literature and Film. Ed. William Coyle. Westport: Greenwood, 1986. 189-95.

Virgil. P. Vergili Maronis Aeneidos Liber Sextys. With comm. by R. G. Austin. Oxford: Clarendon, 1977.

———. The Aeneid of Virgil. Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. 1971. Rpt. New York: Bantam, 1972.

Carol P. Hovanec (essay date Spring 1989)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3845

SOURCE: “Visions of Nature in The Word for World Is Forest: A Mirror of the American Consciousness,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 30, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 84-92.

[In the following essay, Hovanec examines Le Guin's symbolic portrayal of American environmental consciousness and opposing attitudes toward the natural world in The Word for World Is Forest.]

In a chapter entitled “Nature: Dynamism and Change” in Lois and Stephen Rose’s study The Shattered Ring: Science Fiction and the Quest for Meaning, the authors point out that “space travel in science fiction provides the most obvious avenue to an expanded perception of nature, both in terms of distance and of the visions of very different natural environments” because it “plays on the theme of transferability of energy and matter, the possibilities of other dimensions, other space- time complexes.” However, these critics admit that they will not attempt to resolve what they call the “riddle of nature” whether the term means matter, energy, space—is subjective or objective, friend or enemy (72-73). Indeed, science fiction, which Ursula Le Guin calls “the mythology of the modern world,”1 does not attempt to define nature as much as to warn of ecological catastrophe, often using other planets in other galaxies to offer theoretical case studies of what might happen in the future if humanity continues to exploit the environment. This is certainly one of Le Guin’s purposes in a brief, yet stunning, work which she wrote in 1972, The Word for World is Forest; for she says in the introduction:

It was becoming clear that the ethic which approved of the defoliation of forests and grainlands and the murder of non-combatants in the name of “peace” was only a corollary of the ethic which permits the despoliation of natural resources for private profit or the GNP and the murder of the creatures of the earth in the name of “man.” The victory of the ethic of exploitation, in all societies, seemed as inevitable as it was disastrous. It was from such pressures, internalized, that this story resulted.2

She also states that this work was an outlet for her feelings about the American involvement in Vietnam and that it “must stand or fall on whatever elements it preserved of the yearning that underlies all specific outrage and protest, whatever tentative outreaching it made, amidst anger and despair, toward justice, or wit, or grace, or liberty” (152). Not only is the novel political, but Le Guin admits elsewhere that it is also Taoist and implies it may be Jungian.3 Its particular distinction, however, lies in the complex vision of nature which appears; for with great succinctness and consistency, this author presents a future world in which the collective consciousness of the protagonists and antagonists contains the major American attitudes towards the environment, from the early explorers to the present. Le Guin’s ability to integrate these philosophies into a swift-moving narrative with a shifting point of view, a completely detailed setting, and a pervasive theme of illusion versus reality is a major achievement.

Set sometime in the future, The Word for World is Forest tells the story of New Tahiti, a planet which “might have been Idaho in 1950.… Or Kentucky in 1830. Or Gaul, in 50 B.C.” (16). It has been invaded by “Yumens” seeking lumber for Earth (Terran) which has been denuded of plants and animals (even hunters must now track “robodeer”). Most of the loggers and officials sent to this new world have no understanding of the local inhabitants, the Athsheans, small, green-furred, peace-loving forest dwellers who have perfected conscious dreaming to an art. Because the Yumens enslave and kill them, these natives are driven finally to rebel and destroy their captors. The principals in the action are the brutal, amoral Captain Davidson, the sensitive, concerned anthropologist Lyubov, and the intelligent, resourceful Athshean, Selver. Their composite reactions to New Tahiti mirror the American ecological experience which has ranged from rapture to fear to coexistence.

The first explorers to the Western Hemisphere described what they found in idyllic terms. Columbus called Hispaniola “marvelous.… most beautiful” with inhabitants who were “guileless and so generous,” displaying “much love” (Jones 14-16). Similarly, Verrazzano said the place was delightful with air “salubrious, pure, and temperate” (Jones 50). One hundred years later, an Englishman, Arthur Barlowe, spoke of being in “the midst of some delicate garden” with “incredible abundance” and “handsome and goodly [natives] … as mannerly and civill as any of Europe.… such as live after the maner of the golden age” (Hakluyt 287-93). This image of the golden age was a popular one, for Michael Drayton in his “Ode to the Virginia Voyage” spoke of “Earth’s only paradise … to whose the golden age / Still nature’s laws doth give” (220). These comments confirmed the European tradition that an earthly paradise lay somewhere to the west. But, “anticipations of a second Eden quickly shattered against the reality of North America” (Nash 25) where the Puritans found “a hideous and desolute wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men” (Bradford 62), a “howling desart” (Miller 156) where the Indians acted “like wolves” (Demos 313).

The Puritans quickly moved to subdue this hostile environment, which was one of their strongest symbols of evil and displacement; for they felt “by the command of God man had been made master of the whole visible creation” (Morgan 13). As Roderick Nash notes in Wilderness and the American Mind, “if paradise was early man’s greatest good, wilderness, as its antipode, was his greatest evil” (9), a place which the Judeo-Christian tradition4 had for centuries regarded as the abode of demons and spirits, where “the limbs of trees became grotesque, leaping figures” (Nash 10), a representation of “the Christian conception of the situation man faced on earth.… a compound of his natural inclination to sin” (Nash 17).5 Later, Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown encapsulates this concept when he speaks of the “lonely” and “gloomy” forest with “a devilish Indian behind every tree” (90).

This enmity towards wilderness remained dominant in the centuries that followed, and accounted for the obsession to clear and cultivate the land; for Leo Marx says in The Machine in the Garden that the pastoral ideal was “used to define the meaning of America ever since the age of discovery” (3). A few intellectuals did begin to associate nature with religion (in Deism and later transcendentalism), and when romanticism and the sublime became popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, many writers and explorers seemed to appreciate those qualities which had formerly been vilified. Bartram and Jefferson spoke in awe of mountains and vast landscapes. Bryant praised nature’s solace in his “Forest Hymn” “let me often to these solitudes / Retire, and in thy presence reassure / My feeble virtue” (24), and Emerson speculated in Nature that “in the woods, we return to reason and faith.… an occult relation between man and the vegetable” (10-11). However, Nash notes that these feelings were often ambivalent, for “while appreciation of wild country existed, it was seldom unqualified” (66) and much fear remained locked in the subconscious of even the most avid lovers of natural scenery.

This fear was unleashed again as the industrial revolution swept over America, manifesting itself in severe environmental damage when plants and animals became valued only for what they could contribute to the wealth of nations. Melville’s leviathans were reduced to oil for factories, the latter changing the forest into numerous consumable products (such as the envelopes in “The Tartarus of Maids”). Nature became an indifferent, deterministic antagonist, perhaps best represented in symbols such as the ocean in Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” and the prairie in “The Blue Hotel.” A few decades later in the 1920s and 1930s “landscapes of ruin” were expressed by images of devastation—the “dead trees” and “dry stones” in Eliot’s The Wasteland and the “ashheaps” of Queens in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, for example. However, the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s reversed this trend to some extent, and Conron says we have arrived at a period of coexistence, even celebration of nature (xx) which Leopold in A Sand County Almanac calls “the salvation of the world” (133) and which has Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek going “in and out of Shadow Creek, upstream and down, exultant, in a daze, dancing, to the twin silver trumpets of praise” (279).

It is important to remember that these various impressions of the landscape always contrasted with the harmonious animism of the American Indians whom Stewart Udall has said were “bound together by the ties of kinship and nature.… with an emotional attachment for his woods, valleys, and prairies [which] was the very essence of life” (29). Tecumseh is often quoted as replying to the demands to sell land with these words: “Sell the country? … Why not sell the air, the clouds, the great sea?”, and a line from a Navaho chant beautifully summarizes this philosophy by describing the horizon as a “house made of evening twilight” (Cronyn 94).

In The Word for World is Forest, the three main characters are symbolic representations of these major ideologies. When Davidson, the captain of the security forces, speaks of New Tahiti, the reader is reminded of the explorers and the Puritans; for he constantly broods about the former, “You mooched along thinking about conquistadors, and destiny and stuff” (16). “It’s Man that wins, every time. The old Conquistador” (12). He and his men are frightened by the omnipresent forest which they call “dark,” “meaningless,” and “endless.” Like the Plymouth colonists who felt themselves soldiers of God, Davidson says that when they had come here “there had been nothing … but men were here now to end the darkness” (13) to tame the planet: “For this world, New Tahiti, was literally made for men. Cleaned up and cleaned out, the dark forests cut down for open fields of grain, the primeval murk and savagery and ignorance wiped out, it would be a paradise, a real Eden. A better world than worn-out Earth” (10). Ironically, the new world already has the qualities of a paradise, but Davidson cannot comprehend what he sees: “There was something about this damned planet, its gold sunlight and hazy sky, its mild winds smelling of leafmold and pollen, something that made you daydream” (15). To him, destiny is conquest and destruction, and his words seem to be a crude restatement of the centuries-old Judeo-Christian policy of the domination of nature: “When I say Earth, Kees, I mean people. Men. You worry about deer and trees and fibreweed, fine, that’s your thing. But I like to see things in perspective, from the top down, and the top, so far, is humans” (11-12). Davidson regards the natives as animals, calling them “beetles,” “fish,” “rats,” and using them not only as slaves but for hideous “recreational” raids during which he and his men incinerate their villages. His philosophy might be summed up in these lines: “Primitive races always have to give way to civilized ones. Or be assimilated. But we sure as hell can’t assimilate a lot of green monkeys” (19). In his desire to destroy the forest and convert it to products useful for Terran, he also resembles the deterministic industrialists who saw the environment as an expendable commodity. Davidson is the antagonist, the enemy of nature, like all those who have sought to subdue it in the name of God and mammon.

In stark contrast to Davidson, but with an equally extreme position, is the anthropologist Lyubov, who sees the natives as “noble savages” with no capacity for evil “a static, stable, uniform society, perfectly integrated, and wholly unprogressive. You might say that like the forest they live in, they’ve attained a climax state” (72). His inability to view the Athsheans objectively renders him unable to accept actions which do not fit his initial characterization: “Nearly five E-years here, and he had believed the Athsheans to be incapable of killing men, his kind or their kind. He had written long papers to explain how and why they couldn’t kill men. All wrong. Dead wrong” (62). Also, his feelings about the new wilderness are ambivalent:

At first on Athshe he had felt oppressed and uneasy in the forest, stifled by its endless crowd and incoherence of trunks, branches, leaves in the perpetual greenish or brownish twilight. The mass and jumble of various competitive lives all pushing and swelling outwards and upwards towards light, the silence made up of many little meaningless noises, the total vegetable indifference to the presence of mind, all this had troubled him, and like the others he had kept to clearings and to the beach. But little by little he had begun to like it.


Clearly, he has never completely understood what he has been observing on the planet, either its people or its surroundings. In addition, his friendship with Selver and the other Athsheans has been superficial, and he cannot bring himself to take a meaningful stand:

It was not in Raj Lyubov’s nature to think, “what can I do?” Character and training disposed him not to interfere in other men’s business. His job was to find out what they did, and his inclination was to let them go on doing it. He preferred to be enlightened, rather than to enlighten; to seek facts rather than the Truth. But even the most unmissionary soul, unless he pretend he has no emotions, is sometimes faced with a choice between commission and omission. “What are they doing?” abruptly becomes “What are we doing?” and then, “What must I do?” That he had reached such a point of choice now, he knew, and yet did not know clearly why, nor what alternatives were offered him.


In a conference investigating an attack on a Yumen camp, he is humiliated when his theories are shown to have been erroneous—and he cannot defend himself or the natives. As a result, he is closed out of both societies and dies in a subsequent raid. His reactions to the new world have been idealized; and his actions, like those of the romantics, have had no lasting effect.

The natives to whom both men have such different responses live in perfect harmony with their environment, considering themselves simply an extension of nature not a separate entity: “The substance of their world was not earth, but forest. Terran man was clay, red dust. Athshean man was branch and root. They did not carve figures of themselves in stone, only in wood” (103). They live in houses built beneath the roots of trees, from which they take their family names: “Selver is my name. Of the Ash” (35). So attuned are they to their surroundings that they consider it to have the same animate qualities they do; for when he sees trees cut down, Selver envisions that “a little blood ran out of the broken end” (46). All of their images relate to this vast forest world, an old man saying, “I have had my whole life. Days like the leaves of the forest. I’m an old hollow tree, only the roots live” (57). They practice conscious, controlled dreaming, which again Lyubov does not completely comprehend; for Selver says that he “understood me when I showed him how to dream, and yet even so he called the world-time ‘real’ and the dream-time ‘unreal’, as if that were the difference between them” (43). At the end of the novel, Selver has managed to conquer the Yumens, and the officials who have read Lyubov’s reports and conducted inquiries decide to ban further colonization, saying they’re “not coming back. Your world has been placed under the League Ban” (185). Although Selver has, in effect, won, the Athsheans have learned to kill, and his final words are a grim reminder that that lesson will have permanent repercussions on their society: “Maybe after I die people will be as they were before I was born, and before you came. But I do not think they will” (189).

The limited omniscient point of view in the novel shifts back and forth between Davidson, Lyubov, and Selver with three chapters each for the Captain and the Athshean, and two for the anthropologist, arranged in this pattern: Davidson / Selver / Lyubov / Davidson / Lyubov / Selver / Davidson /Selver. The action begins in Davidson’s consciousness when he is in a position of power—and ends with a reversal when Selver has taken the dominant role, Lyubov having died and Davidson having been exiled to an island he has defoliated. Le Guin’s device of changing her viewpoint in this manner not only enables her to retell the American experience in the new world and to present a more comprehensive view of New Tahiti, but also it underscores her theme of illusion versus reality.

This underlying message is developed with particular clarity by her detailing of the Athshean dream control. They feel that they can change what they perceive by concentration, an ability Selver says that the Yumens do not have: “none of them are trained, or have skill in dreaming …” (43).

A realist is a man who knows both the world and his own dreams. You’re not sane: there’s not one man in a thousand of you who knows how to dream. Not even Lyubov and he was the best among you. You sleep, you wake and forget your dreams, you sleep again and wake again, and so you spend your whole lives, and you think that is being, life, reality! You are not children, you are grown men, but insane.


After Lyubov is killed, Selver dreams him alive: “Lyubov came out of the shadows of Selver’s mind and said, “I shall be here’” (189). Thus, he has trained himself to alter experience to his own liking.

This merging of the conscious and unconscious, the concrete and the illusory, adds considerable psychological and mythic complexity to the novel. Symbolically, Selver is nature, both plant and animal, resembling the forest in his color and name, representing many evolutionary stages and all primitive tribesmen.6 Davidson is the warrior and merchant, city dweller and even farmer, who through the centuries has felt that his mission was to use the environment for his own self-interest. Lyubov is the intellectual, the poet and dreamer who idealizes nature but never has a realistic or in-depth understanding of its relationship to his world. Their conflict on New Tahiti condenses in a few years several centuries of struggle on the American continent, as natives with an instinctive harmony with nature encounter settlers with a conditioned fear or a romantic idealism. At the end of the story only Selver and Davidson remain: “We’re both gods, you and I” (180). Even though Selver seems to have won the war and banished Davidson to Dump Island, the Yumen is not dead. Throughout American history it has been the Davidsons who have had staying power and consistently returned to pose a significant threat to the environment. Perhaps Ursula Le Guin’s meaning in this novel is that the current “coexistence” with nature may also be ephemeral and like Lyubov die off, leaving the enemies of nature again in the supremacy.

Thus, Le Guin’s accomplishment in less than two hundred pages has been more than to present an interesting adventure story or a disguised Vietnam war novel or even a warning of ecological catastrophe. In addition to all these, she has been able to define nature as an essence which is both physical and mental, a vital element, not only in the American experience, but in the consciousness of all humankind. If we are going to discover new Edens, then we must come to realize that preservation is essential to self-knowledge and to survival. As she says in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, “Obviously my intent is in what goes on inside.… We all have forests in our minds. Forests unexplored, unending” (149).


  1. Ursula K. Le Guin, “Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction.” The Language of the Night: Essays in Science Fiction and Fantasy, ed. Susan Wood. (New York: Berkley, 1985) 73. All subsequent references to Le Guin’s non-fiction are from this recent anthology of her essays and lectures.

  2. The Introduction is not included in reprints or subsequent editions; therefore, the best source is The Language of the Night.

  3. Douglas Barbour in his article “Wholeness and Balance in the Hainish Novels of Ursula K. Le Guin.” Science Fiction Studies 1 (1974): 164-173 interprets the novel as Taoist. Elizabeth Cummins Cogell in “Setting as Analogue to Characterization in Ursula Le Guin.” Extrapolation 18 (May 1977): 131-141 and Ian Watson in “The Forest as Metaphor for Mind: ‘the Word for World is Forest’ and ‘Vaster Than Empires and More Slow’,” Science Fiction Studies 2 (Nov. 1975): 231-237 present psychological interpretations. Le Guin herself in “The Child and the Shadow” (The Language of the Night 59-71) discusses Jung as an inspiration for many of her themes.

  4. Lynn White Jr. has an excellent survey of the Judeo-Christian philosophy of dominance over nature in his article “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” in Science 155 (March 10, 1967), and for more detailed studies there are Clarence Glacken’s Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the Present (Berkeley: U. of Cal. Press, 1967) and William Leiss, The Domination of Nature (Boston: Beacon, 1972).

  5. One of Conron’s designations in The American Landscape.

  6. Carl Yoke in his article “Precious Metal in White Clay,” Extrapolation 21 (Fall 1980): 200 has noted the similarity of his name to “sylvan.”

Works Cited

Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation. Ed. Samuel Eliot Morrison. New York: Knopf, 1970.

Bryant, William Cullen. “A Forest Hymn.” American Poetry. Ed. Karl Shapiro. New York: Thomas Crowell, 1970.

Conron, John, ed. The American Landscape. New York: Oxford, 1974.

Cronyn, George W., ed. American Indian Poetry. New York: Liveright, 1962.

Demos, John. ed. Remarkable Providences: 1600-1760. New York: George Braziller, 1972.

Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Bantam, 1975.

Drayton, Michael. “To the Virginia Voyage.” English Renaissance Poetry. Ed. John Williams. New York: Doubleday, 1963.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature, Addresses and Lectures. Ed. Edward Waldo Emerson, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903.

Hakluyt, Richard. The Principal Navigations Voyages Traffiques & Discoveries of the English Nation. Ed. Irvin R. Blacker. New York: Viking, 1965.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” Mosses From An Old Manse. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1854.

Jones, Howard Mumford. O Strange New World. New York: Viking, 1964.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Ed. Susan Wood. New York: Berkley, 1985.

———. The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.

———. The Word for World is Forest. New York: Berkley, 1972.

Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. New York: Oxford, 1966.

Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden. New York: Oxford, 1964.

Miller, Perry and Thomas H. Johnson. The Puritans, Vol. 1 Revised Edition. New York: Harper & Row, 1963.

Morgan, Edmund S. The Puritan Family. New York: Harper & Row, 1966.

Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind. 3rd Ed. New Haven: Yale UP, 1967.

Rose, Lois and Stephen. The Shattered Ring: Science Fiction and the Quest for Meaning. Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press, 1970.

Udall, Stewart L. “The Land Wisdom of the Indians.” Environmental Decay in Its Historical Context. Eds. Robert Detweiler, Jon N. Sutherland and Michael S. Werthman. Glenview, Illinois: Scott Foresman, 1973. 28-33.

Nancy Mairs (review date 5 March 1989)

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SOURCE: “A Medicine Bundle of a Book,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 5, 1989, pp. 1, 8.

[In the following review of Dancing at the Edge of the World, Mairs concludes that the volume lacks unity but serves as “a fine companion” to Le Guin's fiction.]

All writers want to preserve the words they’ve labored hour upon hour to squeeze out onto the page—even, or perhaps especially, the ones composed for specific occasions, ephemeral words, which threaten to dissolve in the May sunshine gracing a college commencement or fade along with the snapshots of a cross-country journey or vanish with the magazine gone belly-up after two promising issues. I’m not sure all writers will admit to such an urge, but I’m convinced we all feel it.

Out of it arises a work like Ursula K. Le Guin’s Dancing at the Edge of the World, which draws together between durable covers miscellaneous essays, travel journals, commencement addresses, lectures, informal talks, and reviews spanning 12 years. The product is not a thematically or rhetorically coherent text, not a “book” in that sense at all. Really, it’s more of a jumble.

But then … what’s wrong with that? This is what the British call a jumble sale, the chancy source of some of life’s treasures: the cracked mug on which a woman, diaphanously clad, rides a butterfly-drawn chariot under the title ECSTASY; five out of six tulip- shaped wine glasses; or, for 10 cents, Sammy Snake, 6 feet of chartreuse plush, who will spend a decade entwined in the bedclothes of one child or another.

Dancing at the Edge of the World holds this sort of plenty, unpredictable and uneven but, for those very reasons, a trove of delights: insightful, impassioned, sometimes lyrical, often funny.

No matter how various its components, a compilation like this one must shove them into some sort of linear order. Le Guin has chosen, to good effect, a chronological arrangement rather than some more subtle logical principle. This system, in its plainness, doesn’t draw attention to itself. And it does, as she points out in the introduction, “provide a sort of mental biography, a record of responses to ethical and political climates, of the transforming effect of certain literary ideas, and of the changes of a mind.” In one instance. “Is Gender Necessary? Redux,” she makes the matter of writerly development explicit by printing her reconsiderations after a decade in the margins of the original text.

The only exception to the book’s straight chronological order is the collection in a separate section of 17 reviews, also arranged chronologically, at the end. This position is unfortunate, since it makes the reviews seem tacked on and prevents the book from ending on its strongest note. “The Fisherwoman’s Daughter,” a persuasive critique of the “books-or-babies myth” promulgated by misogynists and feminists alike.

But the reviews, of subjects as various as Star Wars, the “maverick genius” of Mervyn Peake, and May Sarton’s poetry, reveal pleasurable insights into Le Guin’s literary and cinematic tastes. “How many novelists are there writing now,” she asks in a review of Doris Lessing’s The Sentimental Agents, “who can make you really angry?” It’s as good a criterion for choosing to read a book by Lessing as I’ve seen. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss these reviews, and I couldn’t have figured out a better place to stick them, either.

Not surprisingly, however, she is at her best in the pieces that offer more scope for invention and reflection. Using increasingly sophisticated, though never pretentious, feminist theoretical insights, she virtually revises the world, that is, sees it anew, in terms that subvert “Euclidean, European, or masculinist” values that have led to social injustices and the threat of global destruction.

Less skilled writers have wrought out of these themes some pretty heavy-handed and flatfooted polemics. But Le Guin’s prose, true to the title of this collection, dances. Here she is, for instance, illustrating for Bryn Mawr’s graduates their “mother tongue” as differentiated from “the language of the fathers”:

“John have you got your umbrella I think it’s going to rain Can you come play with me? If I told you once I told you a hundred times. Things here just aren’t the same without Mother, I will now sign your affectionate brother James. Oh what am I going to do? So I said to her I said if he thinks she’s going to stand for that but then there’s his arthritis poor thing and no work. I love you. I hate you. I hate liver. Joan dear did you feed the sheep, don’t just stand around mooning. Tell me what they said, tell me what you did. Oh now my feet do hurt. My heart is breaking Touch me here, touch me again.”

The whole jumble of human experience heaped up in these few lovingly chosen phrases.

Those who appreciate Le Guin’s novels will find the pieces in Dancing at the Edge of the World no substitute for their intricacies of vision and language. But this volume makes a fine companion, and on occasion a guide, to her fiction, offering insight into the writer at work. She differs for instance, from the Hero who “has decreed through his mouthpieces the Lawgivers, first that the proper shape of the narrative is that of the arrow or spear starting here and going straight there and THOK! hitting its mark (which drops dead); second, that the central concern of the narrative, including the novel, is conflict and third that the story isn’t any good if he isn’t in it.” Her narrative model is, rather, a “carrier bag/belly/box/house/medicine bundle.” Like these containers. Dancing at the Edge of the World is full to bursting.

Paul Baumann (review date 11 August 1989)

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SOURCE: “Beckoned by the Mother Tongue,” in Commonweal, August 11, 1989, pp. 438-41.

[In the following excerpt, Baumann offers a positive appraisal of Dancing at the Edge of the World.]

Ursula K. Le Guin’s collection of essays, talks, and reviews, Dancing at the Edge of the World, takes us, both figuratively and physically, to another part of the world. Le Guin, a science-fiction novelist, lives in Oregon and considers California her spiritual home. Her writing exhibits a wonderfully open and unpretentious western American sensibility. She has an interest in this continent’s natural history and prehistoric past that is, in part, a family tradition. Her father was a noted anthropologist, and her mother, Theodora Kroeber, a novelist and the author of Ishi. Le Guin, now turning sixty, has written fifteen novels as well as poetry and children’s books. Her criticism in Dancing is sharp. She rejects, accurately I think, the “hollow sound,” the “Inside Club”-tone of C. S. Lewis. She is admiring and sympathetic, but unpersuaded by Doris Lessing’s science fiction. With mild reservations, Italo Calvino impresses her. These judgments carry weight.

Le Guin possesses impeccable feminist credentials. But she is a feminist with an eccentric regard for “housework.” Other traditional expressions of womanliness are also praised. A certain apocalyptic shading does creep in, however, and Le Guin is not above using terms like “psychopathic social system,” “masculinist,” or “machoman.” Her utopianism, with its airy brief for a noncoercive exercise of authority, is unconvincing. She can be cranky—one of her best qualities, actually—and her remarks on writing are occasionally marred by some cheap shots at Hemingway, Joyce, and others. Toward the academic priesthood and questions of literary theory, she is polite, informed, and unmoved. After all, this is a writer who has used Mom de Plume as a pseudonym.

But while she may wear her politics, both feminist and environmental, on her permissive sleeve, Le Guin is no propagandist. Many of the pieces in the book, a compilation of material stretching back to 1976, are much more than occasional remarks. “The Fisherman’s Daughter,” which touches on her mother’s writing as well as the general predicament of women writers, is polemical and invigorating. So is “A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be.” “The Space Crone,” an iconoclastic exploration of the meaning of menopause, is bold and allusive. Like [John] Updike, Le Guin makes room for the sacred.

Her commencement addresses at Bryn Mawr and Mills College are funny and smart and say many necessary things. “Instead of talking power,” she tells Mills’s graduates, “what if I talked like a woman right here in public. It won’t sound right. It’s going to sound terrible.”

At Bryn Mawr she elaborates on her theory of language. She calls the language of rational thought and objectivity the “father tongue.” It has its uses, she admits. But they are circumscribed. “Reason is a faculty far larger than mere objective thought,” she cautions. Speaking of the most important things in life in the language of success and power is poisonous. “The language of the fathers, of Man Ascending, Man the Conqueror, Civilized Man, is not your native tongue. It isn’t anybody’s native tongue.” No, we first learn the mother tongue, the language of “women’s work; earthbound, housebound.” Le Guin, in her utopian passion, wants the dignity of that language restored. “The mother tongue, spoken or written, expects an answer. It is conversation, a word the root of which means ‘turning together.’”

Le Guin has a tongue sharp enough to illuminate such welcome and elemental realities as hearth and home. That mother tongue is spoken by Updike [in Self- Consciousness] and [Eva] Hoffman [in Lost in Translation] as well.

Amanda Mitchison (review date 11 August 1989)

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SOURCE: “Little Green Men,” in New Statesman and Society, August 11, 1989, pp. 27, 29.

[In the following review, Mitchison gives approbative evaluations of The Language of the Night and Dancing at the Edge of the World.]

In the light of George Bush’s new space programme, it is perhaps appropriate that science fiction is slowly being subsumed into the canon of English literature. Ursula K Le Guin, one of America’s most talented fantasy writers, claims that in the United States the professors have set up camp on Aldebaran. Gloobian Slime Monsters and Antipastomater Denudifiers are becoming acceptable objective correlatives. She points to “that face looking out of the fifth-storey window of the Ivory Tower, that’s the Little Green Man”.

Many of the essays in these two anthologies started life as university lectures and so are a direct result of science fiction’s new-found and still uncertain respectability. Like Le Guin’s novels, her essays and reviews reveal the workings of an erudite, elegant, fantastical mind. And as befits a creator of strange and wonderful worlds, even her non-fictional writing shares something of the Little Green Man’s fifth-floor view down on earth. These essays are not whimsical but they approach subjects with vast, surprising sidesteps.

Le Guin begins a lecture to a family planning conference by recounting a fairy tale. She can make a drive down the A34 seem quite otherworldy: “great, long, pale Wiltshire distances…a bare-armed boy in a black singlet, herding calves by a haystack, his red-gold hair, white skin—the white is strange… Brown and yellow ploughlands paling into chalk streaks…” Even the Le Guin subject cataloguing system—small arrows beside the title of the essay means “travel”, squares are for “literature”, circles indicate “social responsibility”—demonstrates a certain idiosyncracy.

The Language of the Night is aimed largely at fantasy and science fiction writers. Though the collection is sprawling and clumsily edited, it includes some fine critical appraisals of the grand old masters: Lord Dunsany, E R Eddison, J R R Tolkein and Zamyatin. Fantasy, Le Guin claims, is “the language of the inner self… it tries to hint at an order and clarity underlying existence… it must be totally artificial but never fake”. However, the genre is under threat from modern writers producing pot boilers with an overlay of funny names, phoney archaic English and “Ichors”. “You know Ichor. It oozes out of several tentacles, and beslimes tessellated pavements, and bespatters bejeweled courtiers, and bores the bejesus out of everybody.”

Many of the most interesting and incisive pieces in Dancing at the Edge of the World are marked with a small feminist symbol. Some essays take up Virginia Woolf’s concerns over the aesthetic and practical problems facing women writers. Le Guin also re-examines the sexual politics of her own fiction and of her own “thought experiments”—such as the invention of “kemmer”. In The Left Hand of Darkness the planet Gethen is inhabited by androgynes who, most of the time, are sexually inactive and impotent. But they also undergo periods of kemmer when the sexual impulse becomes enormously strong and takes over the personality. They find a partner, assume a male or female role (no Gethenian is predisposed either way) and disappear into the kemmerhouse.

Kemmer turns out to have drastic consequences for Gethenian society, which Le Guin says that she is now not so sure that she interpreted and worked out correctly. But the very idea is typical of Le Guin at her best: genial, subversive and oddly probable. And of course it provided the opportunity to include the inestimable line: “The King was pregnant.”

Joan Gordon (review date March 1990)

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SOURCE: “Dancing Gracefully but Cautiously: Ursula LeGuin's Criticism,” Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 17, Part 1, March, 1990, pp. 117-19.

[In the following review, Gordon notes that “Le Guin's harmless, charming persona” may dilute the subversive power of her feminist message in Dancing at the Edge of the World.]

Ursula Le Guin’s second collection of non-fiction is, to use her image, a carrier bag of critical essays, reviews, and poetry. With reviews in a separate section, the work is organized chronologically. Oddly, the pieces are keyed according to content: feminism, social responsibility, literature, and travel. This system is meant to further the goal Le Guin announces in her introduction: “to subvert as much as possible without hurting anybody’s feelings” (p. vii).

When Joanna Russ was given the Pilgrim Award by the Science Fiction Research Association in 1988, there was great indignation among the (male) membership of SFRA over the blatant politicism of the award committee’s decision. When Le Guin won the same award in 1989, the award committee’s decision met with universal approval. Isn’t Le Guin as politically committed a feminist as Joanna Russ? Yes; but as her concern with hurt feelings shows, she is not so aggressive a feminist. When Russ received the award, she wrote no acceptance speech; when Le Guin received it, she wrote hers in the persona of the organization’s “Mad Great-Aunt Ursula in Oregon.” By taking on the role she describes in “The Space Crone” (collected in this book of essays), Le Guin makes herself simultaneously independent of men and seemingly harmless to them. This stance illustrates both the strength and weakness of her criticism.

Let me look at the independence first. In such superbly insightful and useful essays as “Is Gender Necessary? Redux” (a revised version of an essay from her first critical volume, The Language of the Night [1978]), “Some Thoughts on Narrative,” “A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be,” and “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” Le Guin lets us see SF in new ways. In “A Non-Euclidean View,” for instance, she asks us to rethink Utopia. “It seems,” she says, “that the utopian imagination is trapped, like capitalism and industrialism and the human population, in a one-way future consisting only of growth” (p. 85). She suggests that we “go backward. Turn and return” (p. 85) instead, find a “non-European, non-euclidean, non-masculinist” utopia (p. 90). Where Utopia has been traditionally yang, she says, let us imagine an inward, “yinward,” ideal: “dark, wet, obscure, weak, yielding, passive, participatory, circular, cyclical, peaceful, nurturant, retreating, contracting, and cold” (p. 90). This 1982 essay anticipates, as we would expect, her own Always Coming Home, as well as forming an exegesis for feminist utopian works from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915) to Joan Slonczewski’s A Door Into Ocean (1986).

Le Guin continues yinward in her “Carrier Bag Theory” (1986): “if…one avoids the linear, progressive…mode of the Techno-Heroic, and redefines technology and science as primarily cultural carrier bag rather than weapon of domination,…science fiction can be seen as a far less rigid, narrow field” (p. 170). Here she has us re-evaluate both heroism and the novel. Why must the hero be aggressive, combative, and conquering and the novel defined by action and conflict? “I differ with all of this,” she says. “The natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things,” and “the Hero does not look well in this bag. He needs a stage” (p. 169). To imagine the novel as a vessel and its plot and characters suitably contained within that vessel is to imagine a kind of SF far from the SF of great men, great deeds, cataclysm, and war, where actions are right or wrong, people good or evil. Her rejection of binary, either/or, thinking frees Le Guin’s criticism from predictability while offering us new and convincing ways to see the potentiality of SF. Just as modern historians examine the quotidian past, Le Guin offers the quotidian future.

Le Guin’s harmless persona at first seems another strength of her writing. It is her kind reasonableness, after all, that allows her to regret, in her revision of “Is Gender Necessary?,” the decision to use the masculine pronoun in Left Hand of Darkness: “if I had realized how the pronouns I used shaped, directed, controlled my thinking, I might have been ‘cleverer’” (p. 15). Her gentleness suits the “peaceful, nurturant” yin of her literary theory. And it is her benign aura that allows the male bastions of SF to admit not only her but her feminist principles as well.

Feminists in SF, however—and this includes men who believe they are sympathetic with the movement—need to remember the difference between the reaction to Le Guin’s Pilgrim Award and Russ’s. Russ is certainly as perceptive a critic as Le Guin, with as great a body of criticism, but she doesn’t pretend that her ideas are harmless. The subversion of Western notions of progress, heroism, either/or thinking, conflict, and conquest threatens the Western world’s status quo: it is far from harmless. Infiltration rather than conquest may be the preferred non-Euclidean mode for change but it deserves the same respect for power as the Euclidean mode does. Gandhi and Thoreau didn’t belittle the strength of their commitment. In adopting the role of our “mad Great-Aunt,” Le Guin may weaken her case through self-deprecation. While Le Guin’s harmless, charming persona better enables her ideas to infiltrate the consciousness of many, it may also make her easier to dismiss. In Le Guin’s case, the SFRA could congratulate itself on its commitment to feminism; in Russ’s, they showed how tenuous that commitment is.

Dancing At the Edge of the World contains beautiful, wise, moving, criticism which teaches both lay readers and scholars new ways to understand SF. But it does so cautiously. Le Guin does not dance as near the edge as she might; in skirting the danger of disapproval, she might sacrifice her grace, but she might gain power. Hurting feelings is not always a bad thing, and our great aunt might consider being a bit more stern with her nieces and nephews in SF.

Rebecca O'Rourke (review date 16 March 1990)

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SOURCE: “Beauty of the Beasts,” in New Statesman and Society, March 16, 1990, p. 39.

[In the following review, O'Rourke appraises positively Le Guin's Buffalo Gals.]

All too often, collections of shorter pieces by novelists turn out to be a great mistake. Like children’s pastry shapes baked alongside the apple pie, they draw praise for the effort rather than the achievement. How was Buffalo Gals—worryingly subtitled animal presences—going to turn out? Trick or Treat?

Definitely more treat than trick, although there were moments when it threatened otherwise. Those animal presences sometimes pull the writing off into sentimental thinking expressed in writing too solemn for its theme. This happens rarely though, and it’s more than compensated for by the abundance of writing that explores the fit and fumble of animal/human interaction in original, moving and sometimes funny ways.

In “Mazes” a caged creature, infinitely more gracious and intelligent than its captor, contemplates imminent death filled with puzzled pity for the creature on the other side of the mesh. Required reading for all psychology students, and for all of us who hold up hoops for others to jump through. Here, as elsewhere in the collection, the animal presences work most powerfully when they speak to and challenge our behaviour within human society. Le Guin’s characteristic themes of ecological balance and the sentience of the universe, and her abiding interest in how humanity deals with difference, are well represented here.

“Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” plays a wonderful trick on its protagonists, and readers, when a hostile animal presence is picked up during the exploration of a planet assumed to be inhabited only by trees and plants. The explorers’ fear grows, becomes tangible and damaging until they can identify its source. All it takes is that small shift in perception to see themselves as more than observers of the world.

This same willingness to be a part, rather than apart, makes “May’s Lion” the most moving story in the collection. It is described as a stage on the way to that epic anthropology of a science fiction novel, Always Coming Home. There Ursula Le Guin invented language, history and culture for her new world in scholarly detail and then set herself the task of both creating and discovering it. Doing so, she re-arranges the usual relationship between fiction and imagination, which conceals the connections and borrowings. Instead, she makes them absolutely explicit, working up fiction’s ability to heal through its power of making things different while still retaining the integrity of the original situation.

A sick mountain lion comes down into an old woman’s yard. Cautiously, she gives it water and sits within sight of it as it lies blocking her path to the field. When milking time comes, May calls her friend for advice. Nobody knows what to do and eventually the police come and shoot it. Ursula Le Guin writes this story first but then adds another version, in which the possibility of someone shooting the lion is anticipated and therefore avoided.

The rolling introduction offers an innovative approach to the organisation of the various pieces. Each of the 11 sections, nearly half of them poetry, are introduced as they would be were the work read aloud. It works well, sometimes making things clearer, as with “Mazes” and “The Wife’s Story”; at other times, as with “Schrodinger’s Cat”, demonstrating that in the end the story counts. The introduction is barely comprehensible, but the story a delight: a real cat appears to startling effect in the realms of hypothetical quantum physics.

Susan Bassnett (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “Remaking the Old World: Ursula Le Guin and the American Tradition,” in Where No Man Has Gone Before, edited by Lucie Armitt, Routledge, 1991, pp. 50-66.

[In the following essay, Bassnett examines Le Guin's fiction in the literary and cultural context of postwar American history, feminism, and liberal political activism, noting thematic shifts and continuities in Le Guin's work over the course of her career.]

In a much-quoted passage from her essay, ‘A Citizen of Mondath’, Ursula Le Guin notes that there is ‘little real criticism’ for a science fiction writer, and that despite enthusiastic responses from fans serious comment on the quality of a writer’s work is hard to find. She makes this point in a general polemic on the particular problems facing a writer of science fiction who wants to write well and yet has no clear measure of how her work is judged in aesthetic terms. Although written in the early 1970s, Le Guin’s remarks are still valid; science fiction remains a marginalised literary activity, outside the mainstream, and although critical appraisals have increased in the postmodernist climate of the 1980s, there is still not very much criticism around that a writer might constructively use.

Although an extremely popular and successful writer for adults and for children, whose work has won a number of major literary awards, Ursula Le Guin has not always been treated very kindly by those critics who have actually considered her work. Colin Manlove, for example, who is hardly left of centre, describes her as essentially conservative. In an essay discussing the trilogy of novels A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore (1968-72), he argues that Le Guin’s ‘reverence for the past’ is essentially conservative and that the workings of magic in the trilogy also express ‘the conservative nature of the fantasy’. The novels, like ‘most fantasies’,

seek to conserve those things in which they take delight: indeed it is one of their weaknesses that they are tempted not to admit loss. Their frequent looking to the past is conservative in itself: and the order to which they look and seek to re-create is usually a medieval and a hierarchic one, founded on the continuance of the status quo.1

Three years previously, at the Palermo conference on science fiction in 1980, John Fekete accused Le Guin of creating an inadequate utopian vision in The Dispossessed, while Nadia Khouri argued that the contradictions in Le Guin’s writing ‘become aesthetic defects’.2 In 1988 Sarah Lefanu also complained about contradictions in Le Guin, this time with specific reference to her portrayal of gender roles:

There is a simple anomaly, or contradiction, at the heart of Le Guin’s work. It features very few women; these are restricted either by biology … (Planet of Exile) or by stereotype … (The Dispossessed). This is not unusual in science fiction; what is odd is that despite it, Ursula Le Guin should have such a feminist following.3

What these and other critical opinions reveal is that it is not easy to assess Ursula Le Guin’s work, nor can it be neatly categorised, either in terms of ideology or in terms of genre. In the conclusion to ‘A Citizen of Mondath’ Le Guin appears to be revelling in the fact that her writing defies classification, stating with a rhetorical flourish that ‘Outer Space, and the Inner Lands, are still, and always will be, my country’.4

In making a distinction between Outer Space and the Inner Lands, Le Guin also deals fairly dismissively with the vexed question of describing a work as science fiction or fantasy. She says simply:

Along in 1967-68 I finally got my pure fantasy vein separated off from my science fiction vein, by writing A Wizard of Earthsea and then Left Hand of Darkness, and the separation marked a very large advance in both skill and content. Since then I have gone on writing, as it were, with both the left and the right hands; and it has been a matter of keeping on pushing out towards the limits—my own and those of the medium.5

The claim Le Guin is making here is anything but conservative; as a writer, she argues, she has found two modes that both work for her, one described metaphorically as a journey outwards into space, the other as an inner journey, but both seeking to enter new unexplored areas within her own psyche and within her chosen medium. In short, she presents herself in this essay as a radical writer with a social conscience and a sense of artistic integrity, and what this self-definition reveals can, I believe, help to explain the anomalies and contradictions that have perplexed some of her most articulate readers.

All writers are a product of a particular culture at a particular moment in time; the values they bring to their writing, the conventions they espouse, the critical statements they seek to make have a context. Ursula Le Guin is a North American writer, born in California in 1929 into a middle-class home (her father was an anthropologist, her mother a writer), educated at Radcliffe and Columbia, and mother of three children, whose first science fiction novel, Rocannan’s World, appeared in 1966. Her life spans the period during which the United States has developed into a major world power, the first nation to develop and use the nuclear bomb, while her writing career coincides with the period of United States colonial expansion—into Vietnam, into Central America, into space, and out to the moon.

In 1982 Le Guin gave a talk on science fiction and nuclear war, noting that the post- Holocaust story ‘seems to be enjoying a revival’. She attributes this to the world mood of which the Reagan presidency is a symptom6 and notes that the greater part of this writing seems to come from the North American and British writers. Eastern European writers, despite their well- developed tradition of science fiction, tend not to write about the Third World War, nor do writers from Latin America. Le Guin notes this fact in passing, and does not attempt any explanation of why the southern half of the American continent should have kept away from the post-Holocaust story.

The strength of the North American novel and the Latin American novel in the later decades of the twentieth century needs no rehearsing here. But it is interesting to note the different ways in which the novel has developed in the two Americas. The Latin American novel is essentially concerned with its own history, and the much-used term ‘magical realism’ is an attempt to describe the blending of fantasy, history and contemporary reality that is so skilfully developed by a wide range of writers. Magical realism may well have its origins in the early travellers’ tales, in the exotic accounts of the New World written by the conquistadores, in the surviving oral myths of native Indian peoples. For Latin America has, in marked contrast to North America, eschewed the idea of the melting pot. Difference, not sameness, has been a goal and an ideal, unlike the sentiments expressed in verse on the Statue of Liberty which assume that in seeking the embrace of Mother America all differences can be erased. This ideal of forging the New Citizen in the melting pot has a moral and religious dimension also, a legacy of the Puritan tradition of the founding fathers and daughters of the revolution (not, one notes, of wives!).

After the bombing of Japan, after the Cold War years of the 1950s, the purge of leftwing intellectuals and artists, the execution of the Rosenbergs, all of which seriously eroded the ideal of the New Citizen, came the massive campaigns of the 1960s that changed the face of the United States forever. The civil rights movement raised the question of the meaning of Americanness at its most basic level and served as a reminder to everyone that the New Citizen had achieved his wealth and maintained his dignity on the backs of slaves and the underprivileged descendants of slaves. Moreover, following Black civil rights demonstrations, other groups began to organise—Mexican Americans, the much despised Chicanos and American Indians, now known proudly as Native Americans, the original occupiers of the land. The emergence into the public eye of these groups had a great many repercussions, chief among which has been a rediscovery of a neglected history. By the early 1970s North Americans were becoming aware of an archaeological heritage, of the presence of languages other than English (the millions of Spanish speakers had previously been completely marginalised). Suddenly, the fake gothic buildings of the midwest built in emulation of a European past were perceived as far less significant than the ancient Indian settlements in the south-west. In her long poem ‘Places, Names’ (1981) Ursula Le Guin writes about that vanished heritage:

The people whom the White invaders dispossessed had been
living here for several hundred years; they called the
ones who build these mounds the Old Ones. Walk in the
silence of the vast sacred enclosure among the green
mounds built above the bones and ashes of the illustrious
laid between levels of mica, sheets of mica
transparent and glittering as eyes, as souls.
.. …
So back to the New World, the thin, sick skin we laid
on this land,
the white skin.(7)

Reviewing John Bierhorst’s The Mythology of North America in 1985, Le Guin sings the praises of Native American culture as a model for the present:

The oral literature of the American Indians, transcribed and translated, is a treasurehouse for all American readers and writers—the only literature entirely rooted in this ground, the only words that, like corn and sequoias, begin here.8

Le Guin’s interest in Native American mythology can be seen as a developing line through her novels, culminating in her most recent work, Always Coming Home. In her early works she relies, like Tolkien and so many European alternative world writers, on Norse and Celtic mythology, but then gradually shifts continents, thereby developing a greater sense of her own rootedness in America, which also has its political dimension.

In her preface to The Word for World is Forest, published in 1972, Le Guin describes her mood at the time of writing, four years earlier at the height of the Vietnam war in 1968:

I wrote The Little Green Men (retitled) in the winter of 1968 during a year’s stay in London. All through the sixties, in my home city in the States, I had been helping organize and participating in nonviolent demonstrations, first against atomic bomb testing, then against the pursuance of the war in Viet Nam.

… 1968 was a bitter year for those who opposed the war. The lies and hypocrisy redoubled; so did the killing. Moreover, it was becoming clear that the ethic which approved the defoliation of forests and grainlands and the murder of noncombatants in the name of ‘peace’ was only a corollary of the ethic which permits the despoliation of natural resources for private profit … and the murder of the creatures of the Earth in the name of ‘man’. The victory of the ethic of exploitation in all societies, seemed as inevitable as it was disastrous.9

In the same piece, Le Guin admits that in writing The Word for World is Forest she had given in to a great temptation to science fiction writers and ‘succumbed to the lure of the pulpit’. She noted this tendency in the genre elsewhere, commenting however that generally the preaching was from the opposite ideological position (‘most SF has been incredibly regressive and unimaginative’) and the galactic empires were derived from the British Empire of the 1880s.10 Her concern in The Word for World is Forest was primarily with what she perceived as the neglected question in SF—the cultural and racial Other—and she returns to this theme again and again in her later works. The creatures that are so brutally treated by the yumens, the military invaders from Earth, are gentle peaceloving beings. Their forest is systematically destroyed, they are raped, butchered and treated as slaves. Worst of the exploiters is the yumen Captain Davidson, but significantly when the creechies resist and win the struggle, they refuse to kill Davidson and send him instead to a desolate, uninhabited island, where he will either learn to dream or sink deeper into his homicidal madness. The novel is a barely disguised parable of the Vietnam war, and one of the most horrific sections is clearly based on the Mai Lai massacre. The narrative voice intensifies the effect, since it is largely written from Davidson’s viewpoint, as the following passage demonstrates:

Hard up as the men were, they didn’t leave even one of the females alive to rape. They had agreed with Davidson beforehand that it was too damn near perversity.… These things might be built like human women but they weren’t human, and it was better to get your kicks from killing them and stay clean.11

Despite the atrocities perpetrated by the yumens, the novel ends on a note of hopefulness, with the killing over and reparation beginning to be made as the creechies take back their own planet.

The ending of The Word for World is Forest touches on a theme that is central to the other novel written in 1967-8, The Wizard of Earthsea—the theme of the darkness within the self. Le Guin’s own distinction between her left and right hands, between fantasy and SF can be clearly seen in these two novels. In the one, what is placed centrally is the effect on a society of the power of darkness whilst, in the other, what is examined is one man’s struggle to overcome that darkness. Ged, the would-be mage, overreaches himself and looses an evil power into the world. The entry of the shadow is described in language that figuratively reminds us of rape: ‘Then the sallow oval between Ged’s arms grew bright. It widened and spread, a rent in the darkness of the earth and night, a ripping open of the fabric of the world.’12 Ged can only be redeemed by acknowledging the shadow as part of himself, by speaking its name which is also his own name. In the second novel of the trilogy, The Tombs of Atuan, Tenar is redeemed with the help of Ged, now a mature man, and she also comes out of the darkness and learns to speak her own name.

The three novels that make up the Earthsea sequence draw on archetypal images; Le Guin sets up a series of dichotomies—light and darkness, the open sea and the closed tomb, the mage and the priestess, life and death, and she also uses the device of the quest or journey as a frame in each book. She has been criticised for the marginal role of women overall, but clearly the question of sex roles is not her main consideration here. By returning to cultural archetypes, Le Guin inevitably uncovers the patriarchal structuring of the society that produced them, and her principal concern is to look at the way in which the individual of whatever sex faces the darkness and desolation within; failure to face it can result in the creation of a Captain Davidson or a Kossil, the evil priestess who tries to destroy Tenar and teaches her how to kill.

In 1987 Le Guin revised her essay of 1976, ‘Is Gender Necessary?’. The original essay is an account of her own involvement with feminism and her attempt in The Left Hand of Darkness to create a society in which sexuality is constructed completely differently and where androgyny is the norm. People exist in a state of non-gender until they come into ‘kemmer’ when they develop sexually for a brief period randomly either as males or females, and consequently the absence of sexuality is ‘a continuous social factor’ for most of the time. Le Guin’s essay is effectively an attempt to justify herself against some of the criticisms of her alternative sexuality, principle among which was the claim that when not in ‘kemmer’ her characters are all men and not men-women. She expresses her support for feminism (‘I didn’t see how you could be a thinking woman and not be a feminist’) but stands firmly against the idea of inventing a new non- genderised pronoun and defends her decision to call all Gethenians ‘he’.13

But in the 1987 version, she has changed her position on the question of pronouns, pointing out that she had indeed invented a new pronoun for the 1985 screenplay of the novel. She also recognises that she had ‘quite unnecessarily locked the Gethenians into heterosexuality’:

I now see it thus: Men were inclined to be satisfied with the book, which allowed them a safe trip into androgyny and back, from a conventionally male viewpoint. But many women wanted it to go further, to dare more, to explore androgyny from a woman’s point of view as well as a man’s. In fact, it does so, in that it was written by a woman. But this is admitted directly only in the chapter ‘The Question of Sex’, the only voice of a woman in the book. I think women were justified in asking more courage of me and a more rigorous thinking-through of implications.14

At the start of both versions of the essay, Le Guin refers to the gathering momentum of the women’s movement in the mid-1960s after ‘a fifty year halt’. In her introduction to Planet of Exile she refers to the ‘thirty-year paralysis’ of feminism15 and what both these quotations show is that she perceives feminism as having a tradition and a history, in which she herself has a place. Ursula Le Guin can therefore be placed very firmly in the tradition of United States Liberal feminism that stretches right back into the nineteenth century, and which was from its very beginnings always linked to some specific cause. In the 1987 version of ‘Is Gender Necessary?’ Le Guin says: ‘At the very inception of the whole book, I was interested in writing a novel about people in a society that had never had a war. That came first. The androgyny came second. (Cause and effect? Effect and cause?).’16

The links between nineteenth century liberal feminism in the United States and political campaigns constructed around specific issues such as the abolition of slavery or universal suffrage have been well-documented, as have the links between that liberal feminist line and visions of utopias, of which Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915) is one of the best known examples. In her edition of feminist documents, Alice Rossi defines the nineteenth-century feminists in terms of two groups—the Enlightenment feminists who she describes as sophisticated, intellectual, urban writers, and the moral-crusader feminists who she sees as native-born Americans from the rural or small-town middle classes.17 Ursula Le Guin, as a twentieth-century writer, derives her brand of feminism from both lines and the campaigns upon which she focused her energies were concerned with civil rights and anti-militarism for, as I have argued elsewhere, the feminism of the 1960s in the United States was very definitely a resurgence of a social force that had its origins more than a century earlier and continued to be goal-directed.18 The difference was, of course, that feminism in the 1960s splintered into different factions, with the liberal feminists often viewed as reactionary and elitist and with a whole new dimension being added by Black feminists who questioned the white, middle-class bias of the liberal tradition. It is therefore not to be wondered at that Le Guin could, on the one hand, describe herself as a feminist and believe in that definition wholeheartedly, whilst on the other she could be attacked by other, more radical feminists for the contradictions that many perceived in her writing.

An important strand of the 1960s feminism in the United States was the spiritual dimension. The spiritual has always occupied an important position in the United States’ cultural tradition, doubtless a legacy of the early Puritan colonies. Writers such as Mary Daly have posited a feminist metaphysics, and the spiritual has manifested itself in a variety of ways, from campaigns for the ordination of women in organised religions to alternative cultural groupings that celebrate matriarchy and the healing powers of women. Many of these alternative groups set up in the late 1960s and early 1970s drew upon Native American folklore and medicine, and Le Guin appears to be comfortable with this tendency. In a talk given in 1986 called ‘Woman/Wilderness’ she describes the voice of women in lyrical terms:

The women are speaking. Those who were identified as having nothing to say, as sweet silence or monkey-chatterers, those who were identified with Nature, which listens, as against Man, who speaks—those people are speaking. They speak for themselves and for the other people, the animals, the trees, the rivers, the rocks. And what they say is: We are sacred.19

In a paper given in several different versions and finally published under the title of ‘The Fisherwoman’s Daughter’, Le Guin appears to be thinking through her feelings about feminism, patriarchy and spirituality. The essay is full of quotations from a wide variety of other women writers, and its awkward rather shapeless feel reflects the way in which Le Guin seems to be struggling to articulate complex thoughts. In a central passage she argues for the reclaiming of the idea of woman as mother and writer both, rejecting the ‘books versus babies’ doctrine in both its patriarchal and its feminist dimension:

White writing, Cixous calls it, writing in milk, in mother’s milk. I like that image, because even among feminists, the woman writer has been more often considered in her sexuality as a lover than in her sexuality as pregnant—bearing—nursing—childcaring. Mother still tends to get disappeared. And in losing the artist-mother we lose where there’s a lot to gain.… My book Always Coming Home was a rash attempt to imagine a world where the Hero and the Warrior are a stage adolescents go through on their way to becoming responsible human beings, where the parent—child relationship is not forever viewed through the child’s eyes but includes the reality of the mother’s experience.20

Through her novels, Ursula Le Guin develops her own brand of feminist philosophy, moving from the moral-crusading sentiments of the late 1960s to the more reflective views of the late 1980s, and that shift reflects a wider process of change going on in American society around her. She began by seeing feminism as common sense, as a mode of perception that had a tradition behind it and consequently did not need to be foregrounded. Only later, as the revised version of ‘Is Gender Necessary?’ indicates, did she come to question some of her earlier assumptions and to acknowledge that the new feminism both derived from, but also broke with, the earlier version.

Her principle concern in the 1960s was therefore not feminism but the anti-war movement, and the earlier novels reflect that position. The Word for World is Forest, though written with passion and commitment, is a dated piece in many respects; stylistically it is still very much in the tradition of tersely written popular SF novels, and its ideology derives from the strong anti-war feelings of so many American leftist intellectuals. Likewise, her most recent novel, Always Coming Home, is a work of its time, a vast novel that creates another world not simply by a few invented terms and descriptions of alien beings, but by painstakingly constructing a new society.

The war in Vietnam ended in bitter disillusionment. The United States had suffered a blow to its international prestige, and feelings at home ran high. Through the 1970s and into the 1980s that sense of disillusionment manifested itself in a steady move to the right, in the rise of religious fundamentalism as opposed to spirituality, in a new sense of harshness as notions of a caring society were increasingly dismissed as utopian and costly. Alternative cultures, now more marginalised than ever, retreated out from the decaying cities. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) upon which feminist groups had pinned their hopes was defeated. The scandal of Watergate came and went, and Richard Nixon was elevated to the status of elder statesman in the years of Ronald Reagan’s triumphal residency in the White House. Perhaps most significantly of all, the ideology of peace and universal harmony that had been a genuine belief of a great many people from all classes in the late 1960s now came to be perceived as illusory. The more cynical generation of the 1980s showed at best mild amusement, at worst contempt for the people dismissively described as the flower children of twenty years earlier. Ursula Le Guin has noted the way in which fantasy writers have catered for that sense of cynicism and disillusionment. In her essay ‘Facing It’ (1982) she notes that:

much current fantasy and science fiction (is) in full retreat from real human needs. Where a Tolkien prophetically faced the central fact of our time, our capacity to destroy ourselves, the present spate of so-called heroic fantasy, in which Good defeats Evil by killing it with a sword or staff or something phallic, seems to have nothing in mind beyond instant gratification, the avoidance of discomfort, in a fake-medievel past where technology is replaced by magic and wishful thinking works. But the science-fiction books about endless wars in space, where technology is magic and the killing proceeds without moral or psychological justification of any kind, probably are written from the same unadmitted despair. The future has become uninhabitable.21

She explains this sense of hopelessness as deriving from ‘an inability to face the present’ and to take responsibility for living in the present in what she terms ‘this sacred world’.

Throughout Ursula Le Guin’s writing the question of the moral responsibility of the individual is of central importance. Time and again her novels revolve around this issue, regardless of whether they are written in the left-hand or right-hand mode. The Left Hand of Darkness is, at bottom, a novel about the love that develops between two individuals and about the way in which each of them confronts their responsibility to the other, to themselves and to the larger communities from which they come. The question of gender difference is, I believe, less important in this novel (even though it has attracted the most attention) than the question of what commitment—to a cause, to a nation, to a person, to one’s self—actually means in real terms. Seen in this light, The Left Hand of Darkness can be placed in context, and its affinities both with the Earthsea trilogy and The Word for World is Forest become clearer.

Le Guin has discussed on many occasions the way in which she views developments in fantasy and in science fiction, the place of these genres in literature as a whole, the response of readers, the hostility and uneasiness they can arouse. The term ‘utopia’, however, causes her more difficulty and in an important essay entitled ‘A Non- Euclidean View of California’ she wrestles with that term and tries in the process to discuss what a genuine utopia might mean for her. She has this to say about the tradition of utopian writing in the west:

My intent is not reactionary, nor even conservative, but simply subversive. It seems that the utopian imagination is trapped, like capitalism and industrialism and the human population, in a one-way future consisting only of growth.22

Utopia, she goes on to argue, has been ‘euclidean, European and masculine’. But she is perplexed as to what a non-euclidean, non-European, non- masculine utopia might be. It might, she suggests, possibly be only imaginable by women, though would surely not only be inhabited by women. Using the terminology of yin and yang, she contrasts two versions of utopia:

from Plato on, utopia has been the big yang motorcycle trip. Bright, dry, clear, strong, firm, active, aggressive, lineal, progressive, creative, expanding, advancing, and hot.… What would a yin utopia be? It would be dark, wet, obscure, weak, yielding, passive, participatory, circular, cyclical, nurturant, retreating, contracting, and cold.23

The conclusion that she comes to in this essay leads her to the title of her collected essays, Dancing at the Edge of the World. Rejecting the two alternatives proposed to utopian writers, either to expose the brutality of the present world or to write escapist, consolatory fiction about an alternative, she states simply that she has no idea what utopia might be. The image she uses is a metaphysical one, that of descending into the abyss, the darkness, and ultimately emerging into the unknown; a form of spiritual death and resurrection:

I have no idea who we will be or what it may be like on the other side, though I believe there are people there. They have always lived there. It’s home. There are songs they sing there; one of the songs is called ‘Dancing at the edge of the world.’24

Always Coming Home is one version of that other side. It is a huge, carefully crafted novel that is set in an imaginary California of the future, but a future that could also be viewed simultaneously as a past and a present. The title is symbolic; Le Guin herself has come home, from the far galaxies and the Inner Lands, and set her novel in the place where she has her own roots. Her utopia, therefore, is not a European one, nor is it a masculine one, for the Condor people, representatives of a militaristic order live in a dystopic society, where violence, war and social hierarchies create a superclass and a mass of oppressed peoples. It is also a non-euclidean utopia, for in shaping it Le Guin has gone back into North American Indian culture, returning to the Native Americans for an idealised vision of a society where a genuine sense of community exists.

The book is divided into a number of sections. The story line is carried by Stone Telling, the woman who is daughter of a Valley mother and a Condor father and whose journey out of the Valley and ultimately back to it provides the reader with a vision of both the utopian and the dystopian communities. The greatest part of the book is an encyclopaedic account of Valley life, virtually an anthropological study. We read about how they lived: their food, their medical practices, their writing, their pottery, their codexes, their sacred texts, their mythology, their poetry and song, their language, their games and dances, dying and burial practices. There are illustrations of their art, their alphabet, a glossary of their language, drawings of their animals, plants and houses, tracings of their maps, charts of their lodges, societies and arts. Stone Telling’s story moves in a linear path, but the construction of the whole society builds up gradually, so that the reader can take the book up and leave off reading it wherever they choose. Translator’s notes and authorial comments add to the construction of a sense of authenticity: the map of the town of Sinshan, for example, has a caption saying that it was ‘drawn by the Editor with the help of Thorn of Sinshan’.

In ‘A Non-Euclidean View of California’, Le Guin points out that her 1974 novel, The Dispossessed, contained utopian elements, of which the major one ‘is a variety of pacificist anarchism, which is about as yin as a political ideology can get’.25Always Coming Home takes that pacifist anarchism much further, and contrasts the way of life in the Valley with the ‘civilised’ life of the militaristic, capitalist Condor culture. Stone Telling admits that she does not understand the meaning of the terms ‘barbaric’ and ‘civilised’, and in the section entitled ‘Time and the city’ the anthropologist I-speaker runs into problems with the same terms:

‘They came across a land bridge,’ I say doggedly, ‘from the other continent—’

‘From the west,’ Gather says, nodding. But is he talking about the same people I’m talking about?

The ones that were met by Coyote?…

…It is very hard for me to keep in mind that ‘people’ in this language includes animals, plants, dreams, rocks, etc.

‘What human people lived here before your people?’

‘Just our people—like you—’…

… It’s hopeless. He doesn’t perceive time as a direction, let alone a progress, but as a landscape in which one may go any number of directions or nowhere. He spatialises time; it is not an arrow, nor a river, but a house, the house he lives in. One may go from room to room, and come back; to go outside, all you have to do is open the door.26

Le Guin’s model for the new culture derives from ancient Indian cultures, and so the imaginary past creates the imaginary future. The reader can share Stone Telling’s shock at the cruelty of the Condor world and recognise its affinities to our own world, but the power of the Valley draws her and us back into its embrace, and the value-judgemental terminology of civilisation and barbarism shift their meaning.

In this, too, Le Guin reveals herself to be writing out of a tradition; the clash between civilisation and barbarism has been a central theme for American (North and South) novelists since the eighteenth century. James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels, showing the gradual progression of the white settlers into Indian lands and the ambiguities of that ‘civilisation’ process, are an early example of a form that has continued right up to the present day. Always Coming Home is a very American novel in this respect and once again the question of gender is subordinated to the question of pacificism.

Through Always Coming Home there is another strand—a series of short sections either about, or narrated by, someone named Pandora. In a section entitled ‘Pandora worrying about what she is doing: she addresses the reader with agitation’ Pandora is directly equated with the figure from Greek mythology whose curiosity led her to open a box containing all the evil in the world. Pandora here claims to have known what she was doing:

I knew what would come out of it! I know all about the Greeks bearing gifts! I know about war and plague and famine and holocaust, indeed I do. Am I not a daughter of the people who enslaved and extirpated the peoples of three continents? Am I not a sister of Adolf Hitler and Anne Frank? Am I not a citizen of the State that fought the first nuclear war? Have I not eaten, drunk, and breathed poison all my life, like the maggot that lives and breeds in shit?27

Despite this, Pandora claims that at the bottom of the box there may be Hope, and that even if it is empty, there will be room and time—‘time to look forward, surely; time to look back; and room, room enough to look around.’

In the twenty years that separate Rocannan’s World from Always Coming Home, Ursula Le Guin’s writing has changed a great deal stylistically. It has matured and developed and she has moved towards a more lyrical mode that owes a great deal to the oral tradition of Native American song and story-telling. The society in which she lives has changed a great deal too, and the anger felt by many Americans in the 1960s has been transformed in all kinds of ways. The growth of the right, the drug crisis, the sense of cynical helplessness felt by many has been countered by a rediscovery of the past, a past that does not owe anything to Europe but rather owes everything to the very peoples once the target of white genocidal policies. The monstrous Captain Davidson in one of his manifestations may have succumbed to madness out in the wasteland of exile, but in another manifestation he did indeed learn how to dream.

What has not changed is Ursula Le Guin’s profound antagonism to violence and her belief in social equality. Her commitment to feminism likewise remains constant, though by her own admission she has deepened and extended her understanding of what feminism means. For her, feminism must have its political context—in her Bryn Mawr Commencement Address of 1986, for example, she attacks Margaret Thatcher as being the role model for women who want to be female men, and when we recall the enthusiasm for Margaret Thatcher shown by many US feminists at the time of her first election victory in 1979, Le Guin’s hostility is a clear sign of where she stands ideologically.

Always Coming Home is, therefore, a work that both breaks new ground and grows out of North American soil. Le Guin shows herself to be part of a literary and cultural tradition and shows also that she has changed the direction of her search for models, looking closer to home than ever before. The alternative world that she has created in such detail is an image of the lost golden age, the pre-conquest world of North America as it might have been. And in creating that tantalising vision of the almost-possible, she raises hopes in her readers of the almost-probable. The last text of Always Coming Home is a song ‘From the Library at Wakwaha’ that serves as a summary of Le Guin’s attempt at a utopia:

I have a different way, I have a different will,
I have a different word to say,
I am coming back by the road around the side,
by the outside way, from the other direction.


  1. Colin Manlove, The Impulse of Fantasy Literature, London, Macmillan, 1983, 31.

  2. John Fekete, ‘Vettori di cambiamento: razionalità, cultura e società amministrata’ and Nadia Khouri, ‘Potere, impotenza, utopia: la fantascienza di Ursula K. Le Guin, Michel Jeury e Marge Piercy’, both in Luigi Russo (ed.), La fantascienza e la critica, Milan, Feltrinelli, 1980.

  3. Sarah Lefanu, In the Chinks of the World Machine, London, Women’s Press, 1988, 132.

  4. Le Guin, ‘A Citizen of Mondath’, in The Language of the Night, New York, Perigee Books, 1979, 30.

  5. ibid., 29-30.

  6. Le Guin, ‘Facing It’, in Dancing at the Edge of the World, London, Gollancz, 1989, 102.

  7. Le Guin, ‘Places, Names’, in ibid., 64.

  8. Le Guin, review of John Bierhorst, The Mythology of North America, in ibid., 287.

  9. Le Guin, introduction to The Word for World is Forest, in The Language of the Night, 151.

  10. ibid., 151.

  11. Le Guin, The Word for World is Forest, New York, Berkeley Books, 1972, 86.

  12. Le Guin, The Wizard of Earthsea, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1979, 63.

  13. Le Guin, ‘Is Gender Necessary?’, in The Language of the Night, 140.

  14. Le Guin, ‘Is Gender Necessary?’, Redux, in Dancing at the Edge of the World, 16.

  15. Le Guin, introduction to Planet of Exile, in The Language of the Night, 140.

  16. Le Guin, ‘Is Gender Necessary?’, Redux, in Dancing at the Edge of the World, 11.

  17. Alice Rossi, The Feminist Papers, New York, Bantam, 1973.

  18. Susan Bassnett, Feminist Experiences: The Women’s Movement in Four Cultures, London, Allen & Unwin, 1986.

  19. Le Guin, ‘Woman/Wilderness’, in Dancing at the Edge of the World, 162.

  20. Le Guin, ‘The Fisherwoman’s Daughter’, in ibid., 228.

  21. Le Guin, ‘Facing It’, in ibid., 103.

  22. Le Guin, ‘A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be’, in ibid., 85.

  23. ibid., 90.

  24. ibid., 98-9.

  25. ibid., 93.

  26. Le Guin, Always Coming Home, London, Grafton Books, 1988, 171.

  27. ibid., 147-8.

Jim Jose (essay date July 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9024

SOURCE: “Reflections on the Politics of Le Guin's Narrative Shifts,1” in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 18, Part 2, July, 1991, pp. 180-97.

[In the following essay, Jose examines Le Guin's effort to develop narrative structures that resist and redefine conventional “masculine” notions of utopia, particularly in her The Dispossessed and Always Coming Home.]

Throughout her writings Ursula Le Guin has been concerned with exploring alternative social formations and relations. Even when the articulation of an alternative society is not the primary focus of a story, aspects of her political world-view underpin her approach. Informing her works has been a consistent vision of the contours (but note, not a detailed map) of what an inhabitable, ideal society might look like. At a minimum, such a society would be non-sexist and non-racist, essentially egalitarian, “with a modest standard of living, conservative of natural resources, with a low constant fertility rate and a political life based upon consent; a society that has made a successful adaptation to its environment and has learned to live without destroying itself or the people next door” (Dancing 96; see also Campbell). In addition, in her novels and short stories the question of communication (broadly understood to refer to how humans—indeed, any sentient beings—might relate to each other) has been a constant feature.

It is relatively uncontroversial to suggest that Le Guin has always placed a high premium on exploring the problem of communication. The social context in which it occurs can never be ignored. In Le Guin’s writings each implies the other. As Susan Wood has suggested, “a central and recurrent image is that of life as a pattern or web, with individual points of life joined by lines of communication” (155-56).

However, the issue of communication within Le Guin’s fiction is not limited just to the complex interplay of contradictory social forces with individual life histories (i.e., an interplay between the general and particular). It extends to the very way she presents her stories. Both their content and their manner of presentation combine in the envisioning of alternative social arrangements to produce what Wood describes as “fictions [that] themselves are webs” (156). This echoes a point put much more strongly by Rafail Nudelman:

it is characteristic of Le Guin’s SF that its structure becomes a sign of its message. Moreover this structure is an iconic sign, i.e., the properties of the structure are similar or equivalent to the content of the message translated into the language of the peculiar features of the structure. The essence of what is expressed is indicated by the nature of the means of expression; the form of the sign is the meaning.


While Nudelman may have overstated the case here (at least in claiming such a strong isomorphic identity between structure and content), he has nevertheless identified a key dimension of Le Guin’s writing. Specifically, there is a congruence, if not quite the identity suggested by Nudelman, between the narrative structure(s)—i.e., the means of representation—and the narrative content—i.e., what is represented. For Le Guin, the narrative structure has to reinforce the content. This dimension of Le Guin’s work is as much political as it is literary.

1. Le Guin sees her task as that of giving her readers “experiments in imagination” designed to provide “reversals of a habitual way of thinking” (Dancing 9) in which hope is articulated and alternative possibilities are explored. However, this exploration is not the solitary undertaking of the visionary writer. For Le Guin, it is necessarily a joint process between writer and reader. In her words, the writer “is trying to get all the patterns of sounds, syntax, imagery, ideas, emotions, working together in one process, in which the reader will be drawn to participate.…[I]t comes down to collaboration, or sharing the gift: the writer tries to get the reader working with the text in an effort to keep the whole story going along in one piece in the right direction” (Dancing 199). She points out that it is the reader who completes the story, who “makes it live,” in the sense that an “unread story is not a story,” is nothing more than “little black marks on wood pulp” (Dancing 198). But while the process is one of collaboration, it remains the author’s responsibility to create the fictive world2 because when “the writer fails to imagine, to image, the world of the narrative, the work fails” (Dancing 197). Le Guin does not spell out what she means by “fails,” but presumably she is referring to a story’s lack of success in engaging its readership. The collaboration between the author and the reader is crucial to a story’s success.

Yet even when a work “fails” (in the above sense), it is not necessarily the case that the author has failed to “image,” to create a fictive world through which the author challenges “habitual way[s] of thinking.” The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is a case in point. There Le Guin pursues a thought- experiment in which she explores the dimensions of a world in which sex distinctions are irrelevant to social activity. What would such a world look like? More importantly, how would someone from a world in which sex distinctions were a major mode of social definition communicate with, and indeed be able to understand, those for whom such distinctions were irrelevant? This is the significant point of Left Hand. That is, if sex distinctions are a major cue in currently prevailing communication processes between human beings, what form would communication and understanding take in their absence? The novel’s “success” lies in Le Guin’s willingness to explore this in as direct a manner as possible. Yet how would an author represent this? While the novel was generally well-received, it seemed to “succeed” more for men than for women. As Le Guin put it, “Men were inclined to be satisfied with the book, which allowed them a safe trip into androgyny and back, from a conventionally male viewpoint. But many women wanted it to go further, to dare more, to explore androgyny from a woman’s point of view as well as a man’s” (Dancing 16). While the novel succeeded in creating a world in which “reversals of habitual way[s] of thinking” occurred, it was less successful in generating a reversal of thinking in its readership, especially in male readers. The problem was not so much one of the author’s ability to “image,” but rather one of representation.

This is where the concern about narrative structure becomes important. It is through the narrative structure that the author shapes the creative products of the imagination. However, the narrative structure is not itself a pregiven form. It too is a part of the process of imagining undertaken by the author. Moreover, it is also the product of an act of authorial choice. The author has to choose which voice, which viewpoint, which reality will be empowered to situate, to habituate, and to speak to the reader. Le Guin spells this out most explicitly in her essay “Where Do You Get Your Ideas From”: “The choice then would seem to be between collusion and subversion: but there’s no use pretending that you can get away without making the choice. Not to choose, these days, is a choice made. All fiction has ethical, political and social weight” (Dancing 199). Such choices will contribute to the specific way in which the author shapes the narrative structure. In large part, they will not just determine the nature of the fictive world into which the reader is to be drawn; they will also have a significant bearing on the degree to which the reader accepts as convincing, on the one hand, the content, ideas and images of what is being narrated and, on the other, the attempt to engage the reader in “reversals of habitual way[s] of thinking.” In particular, such choices will determine the extent to which the narrative structure encourages the collaboration or participation of readers.

The issue of collaboration needs to be stressed because one of the major political problems with utopian writing has been its exclusivity. That is, as Thomas Simon has argued, each utopia “remains a manufactured version of a single individual’s vision” (144). The utopia is presented to the readers as a ready-made entity. It is not the product or outcome of people’s joint efforts. Simon’s solution is to “democratize utopia,” which he claims would be “an ongoing community process of each of us constructing a eutopian vision in political dialogue with others” (ibid.). While he does not discount enabling every individual to create their own self-contained utopian vision, his emphasis is on the collaboration of many individuals to envision a better future. Yet he does not really address the question of the means through which these hoped-for diverse visions come to be articulated. The narrative structures may well undermine their content despite the democratic intent of their authors.

Le Guin’s concern with narrative structure can be interpreted as an attempt to address this political problem. Prior to the 1980s, the shape of the narrative structure characteristic of nearly all her novels can be summarized as follows. There is a central character, usually (though not always) a man,3 who is generally an outsider and through whom the story is told. This central character generally serves as the dominant narrative voice of the story. Not only does he tell the story; it is through him that the reader comes to know the world in question. This central character chooses or is obliged to go on a quest or journey into unfamiliar surroundings in which some form of conflict (either within the central character’s own psyche or between that character and others or a bit of both) constitutes the fulcrum around which the narrative is built. However, Le Guin gives this “journey” metaphor her own twist in that it is not the destination but “the act of travelling, the act of seeking, the act of renewing a stagnating self or society through contact with an inimical reality” (Jacobs 38)4 which provides the answers or truths which the traveller seeks. Ultimately there is a resolution of the conflict in that the central character overcomes the difficulty that prompted the journey in the first place. The reason and will of the central character usually triumph over unthinking and blind social forces.5

In many respects, this format is remarkably conventional. Even Le Guin’s best- known utopian novel, The Dispossessed (1974), despite its structure of alternating chapters to emphasize “balance-in-motion and rhythmic recurrence” (Dancing 93), remains cast in the same narrative frame (a point I will subsequently demonstrate). As Le Guin herself has pointed out, even “though the utopia was (both in fact and fiction) founded by a woman [i.e., Odo], the protagonist is a man; and he dominates it in…a very masculine fashion” (ibid.). And for Le Guin this was the nub of the problem. She came to the conclusion that the representation of utopias, almost without exception, could be characterized as euclidean, European, and masculine; that pace Robert Pirsig, “In one way or another, from Plato on, utopia has been the big yang motorcycle trip” (Dancing 90). Specifically, her criticisms refer not just to the visions of possible futures but to the way or ways in which they are presented to the reader. This is crucial in understanding the politics of Le Guin’s narrative shifts. After outlining the key aspects of her critique, I will chart the contours of these shifts by contrasting her previous approach, exemplified in The Dispossessed, with that developed in Always Coming Home (1985).

2. Le Guin’s characterization of utopian thought as “euclidean” parallels in some ways the criticisms of the likes of Karl Popper and F. A. Hayek.6 Her reference is drawn from a discussion of Robert Elliott’s in which he invokes Dostoevsky’s phrase, “the euclidean mind,” to describe the form of reason characteristic of the utopian imagination. That is, the euclidean form of reason, with its seeming ability to arrive at conclusions that remain true no matter what the particularities, has exercised a powerful appeal as the basis upon which reasoning in other contexts should be built. The problem with this form of reason is that it takes as the real—indeed, the ultimate reality—that which does not exist except as a product of the human mind itself.

Clearly, we do not have to look very far to find numerous examples within the utopian tradition to confirm Le Guin’s view. The dominant feature in utopian writings has been an unbridled faith in reason, particularly the euclidean variety, as the key for solving human problems. Plato’s Republic provides what is perhaps the best-known example.7 Le Guin accepts the need for reasoning to help guide human conduct, but she also suggests that it has to be tempered and tested against human experience (by people themselves) rather than serving as a pre-formed model to straight-jacket that experience.

Le Guin’s criticism of utopia as “European” refers primarily to its assumption that the non-European world—indeed, the very universe itself—exists to be defined and exploited by its European “discoverers,” that new frontiers can and should be conquered without regard for those who might happen to be already living there. This intersects with another criticism pursued by Le Guin: of the way in which the future is treated by utopian and SF writers alike. Far too often, the “future” is regarded as a “new world” waiting to be discovered or a new frontier waiting to be conquered. The “future” comes to be defined as “a place we are going to get to” (Dancing 143). Le Guin attributes this seemingly unending push towards the future to a “macho fear of ever being inactive” (ibid.). While such a fear may not be, of itself, particularly masculine, the language of power which assumes that the future can be created in our imaginations is a language of conquest and control, a language that has been spoken and understood by men for centuries. The fact that it might be decked out in philosophical or literary garb does not mitigate its lopsided vision of the world. Indeed, as I will show, the very language which represents that sort of social vision contributes to the problem.

What is important for Le Guin is to challenge the presumption of utopian writers that the “future” (or other places) can be theorized as if it were a clean slate. It is not something that we in the present own. Someone else is already living there. That is, the future (barring global nuclear disaster, etc.) will always be inhabited. And whether or not we in the present go on to see it, today will always become tomorrow. In that sense, the future will always exist. But when the future is theorized by utopian (and other) writers as something to be owned by those in the present, then the European mind is in full swing. Those who might be inhabiting the future are written out of the “discovery.” For the “new world” is to be new only for the inhabitants of the old world. In imagining the shift from the old to the new, it is the inhabitants of the old for whom utopian theorists write.

In addition, a belief in the power and superiority of Western technology is characteristic of what Le Guin sees as the European imagination. At least since the advent of industrialization, “Westernization” has come to be seen as identical with “progress” and both with ever-expanding technology and its sciences. The utopian visions which emerged with, and in the wake of, industrialization tended to equate mechanical progress with the possibility of a free, ideal society. Put rather simplistically, European thinking has assumed that there is no problem that ever-increasing technological know-how cannot fix (given time and effort). In utopian writings of the industrial era, the tendency has been to portray societies in which machines do the work and humans do the living.8

Finally, there is Le Guin’s criticism of the concept of utopia as a masculine one. Here Le Guin is echoing the insights of many feminist scholars who have demonstrated that the diverse strands of Western philosophy have exhibited a pronounced “male-stream” bias (and still continue to do so). That is, “man,” as male, remains the measure of all things, as Protagoras put it. The centrality of men’s experience has been assumed by many philosophers as the norm to which women should aspire. And when this has not been accepted as self-evident, much energy has been expended in trying to demonstrate the inherent superiority of men’s experiences and theorizings. Euclidean reason, for example—deemed by many philosophers to be the highest form of reason—remained defined as beyond the ken of all but the most exceptional women. Even the philosopher most hostile to euclidean reason advised his readers not to forget the whip when dealing with women.9 Almost every category or concept in Western philosophical thought remains problematic on the issues of sex and gender. It is not surprising, then, that utopian theorizing should bear at least some of the male-stream biases of the tradition from which it emerged.

Yet one of the oft-noted features of utopian writings has been their emphasis on the equality of the sexes. They envisage social arrangements that allow women to be free in just the same way as men. But this is in large part the nub of the problem. The solutions, based on an understanding of what men see as freedom and equality and arrived at on an a priori basis, are to be implemented when the time comes. Moreover, those who have had the least experience in what might be required nevertheless propose the solutions. The experiences and knowledge of those for whom liberation is to be achieved are rarely taken into account. For example, the institution of the family, including privatized child- rearing, is usually defined as a problem for women and the solution is to abolish the family and make child-rearing a communal process. But who will actually undertake the child-rearing is rarely specified—particularly the day-to-day responsibilities and decisions that may be called for. Other questions relating to personal politics are either conveniently ignored or assumed to be resolved by collapsing the division of “public” and “private” in favor of the already male-defined “public.”

Le Guin’s critique is not just concerned with these sorts of particular utopian possibilities, however. She is also concerned about the means through which such utopian visions are articulated. That is, the adequacy of the language of utopian discourse is itself a part of the problem. This problem is not primarily one of “the acts of reading and writing” in the strictly literary sense, as implied in Robin Roberts’s analysis of Always Coming Home. Roberts is quite right to point out that in this novel the problem of “how to represent another culture, about how to convey information” (148) is an ever-present theme. But to interpret this as merely an exemplar of postmodern technique is to miss the profoundly political project with which Le Guin is engaged.10 Such an interpretation obscures the fact that Le Guin has worried the bone of “representing cultures” in novels other than Coming Home. Moreover, her preoccupation and fascination with the power of language has been long-standing. Still, her concern with the adequacy of the language of representation, of the language of utopian discourse, remains a political issue: namely, how to render utopia inhabitable.

This language is drawn from and imbedded in a wider philosophical discourse: the language with which we are taught to comprehend and theorize (and indeed write) the multifaceted natures of our worlds, past, present, and future. This language is what she calls “the father tongue,” the “language of power” (Dancing 147). In making this distinction between “father tongue” and “mother tongue,” Le Guin is parallelling a similar distinction made by Walter Ong. While Ong noted that “there are no father tongues” in the same sense as “mother tongues” (36), he did draw a distinction between the language of power, patrius sermo, and the mother tongue, lingua materna: “In sum, patrius sermo means the national speech bequeathed by ancestors who held it as a kind of property, whereas lingua materna means quite simply ‘mother tongue,’ the tongue you interiorized as it came to you from your mother (or a mother figure). The contrast is between legally inherited speech and ‘natural’ speech” (Ong 37n2).

This is precisely the distinction to which Le Guin is drawing attention in her critique of utopian discourses. The overwhelming majority of these are written in the language of power, the patrius sermo, regardless of the particular “mother tongue” of the author. For Le Guin, they are written in a language which privileges some and excludes others:

It is the language of thought that seeks objectivity. I do not say it is the language of rational thought. Reason is a faculty far larger than mere objective thought. When either the political or the scientific discourse announces itself as the voice of reason, it is playing God, and should be spanked and stood in the corner. The essential gesture of the father tongue is not reasoning but distancing—making a gap, a space, between the subject or self and the object or other.…[I]n its everyday uses in the service of justice and clarity, what I call the father tongue is immensely noble and indispensably useful. When it claims a privileged relationship to reality, it becomes dangerous and potentially destructive. … The father tongue is spoken from above. It goes one way. No answer is expected, or heard.

Dancing 148-49)

For Le Guin, this “language of power” privileges particular ways of theorizing and understanding the world. It is gender-biased at its core. When this language is used as the vehicle for utopian discourses, its masculinist biases cannot but help to shape the utopias in problematic ways. The problems of euclidean reason and European experience also get much of their shape from the same source.

But in saying that a more adequate approach would have to be non-masculinist, Le Guin is not suggesting that this should mean that utopia “could only be imagined by women” or “only inhabited by women” (Dancing 90). Nor is she advocating that utopias can or should only be represented via the “mother tongue,” as Roberts has suggested (144-45). Although Le Guin notes that this sort of language is more suited to the telling of stories insofar as it “is language not as mere communication but as relation, relationship” (Dancing 150-51), it is clear from her discussion that such an either/or choice remains trapped within the very assumptions from which she is trying to break free. Rather, the sort of approach she favors is one where the appropriate language of discourse would be a “welding back together of the alienated consciousness that I’ve been calling the father tongue and the undifferentiated engagement that I’ve been calling the mother tongue” (Dancing 152). This would be a language of discourse that unites and relates rather than divides or distances.

In effect, this would be something like the reunification of public discourse and private experience. But it would not be just the sort of “private experience” which men philosophers have taken to be the basis for their thought—namely, their own experience. It would also have to include those experiences which have been discounted and excluded. At the very least it would involve a substantially revalued epistemological basis for the discourse used to theorize and philosophize.11 The full contours of such an epistemology have yet to emerge in clear detail, but they would at least have to include ways of knowing beyond the allegedly pure rationality of euclidean reason.12 The nature of the language of discourse based on revalued and more comprehensively inclusive ways of knowing would thereby be changed in significant ways. For Le Guin it would enable a non-euclidean, non- European, and non-masculinist view of utopia, of “experiments in imagination,” to emerge.

3. Yet what would such a utopia look like? “Who,” Le Guin observes, “will even recognize it as utopia? It won’t look the way it ought to. It may look very like some kind of place Coyote made after having a conversation with his own dung” (Dancing 89).

Some three years after making those comments, Le Guin completed her major utopian work of the 1980s, Always Coming Home. As a utopian novel it certainly did not “look the way it ought to”; but then again, Le Guin was no longer working with utopian discourse in the expected, or at least the usual, way. By comparing Coming Home with the utopian novel for which she is probably most well-known, The Dispossessed, it will be possible to get a sharper focus on why she has pursued a different narrative strategy.

The story of The Dispossessed takes place on two planets, Anarres and Urras, each of which is the other’s moon.13 Urras parallels 20th-century Earth through three societies: A-lo, a wealthy, lush capitalist democracy; Thu, an authoritarian socialist society; and Benbili, a military dictatorship disguised as a democracy and approximating the post-colonial nations we currently term “the Third World.” Anarres is a barren planet with little or no naturally occurring resources. Anarresti society was founded when Urras expelled its anarchists, followers of a revolutionary female philosopher named Odo. The two planets are not to communicate with each other except for occasional trading purposes. They are separated by time and space, and, ultimately, by differing social visions and practices. Over a period of about 160 years, the Anarresti have established a thriving but precariously balanced anarchist society organized around the principles of mutual aid and cooperation.14 It should also be noted that, despite their lack of natural resources, the Anarresti have developed and maintained a sophisticated technology.

The primary narrative voice of the novel is that of the Anarresti theoretical physicist, Shevek. His dream is to produce a unified field theory, thereby providing the basis for the creation of a communication device capable of instantaneous communication across space. However, for various reasons Shevek finds his efforts on Anarres stifled. He decides to travel to Urras to meet with other physicists to complete his work. Even though Anarresti society claims to practice freedom and cherish individual choice, all but a handful of Anarresti oppose his choice and Shevek leaves his home planet in disgrace. Part of the impetus for his decision to leave is his sense that within Anarresti society the spirit of Odonianism is withering under the pressure of ongoing hardship. He comes to the realization that the Anarresti have become conformist and narrow in their outlook. Rather than living Odonian philosophy, the Anarresti appear to be merely mouthing its precepts. Shevek suspects that, in remaining isolated from Urras (and the rest of the known worlds), Anarres has also closed itself off from its revolutionary roots. More importantly, the lack of communication with non-Anarresti has meant that Anarres has cut itself off from sources of renewal. On Urras Shevek eventually completes his theory, but he also comes to see Urrasti society as ultimately a dead end. He gives his theory to all the known worlds via the Terran ambassador, thereby preventing the Urrasti (especially A-lo and Thu) from possessing it for their own exclusive use (not to say, exploitative purposes). He returns to Anarres to continue his work of trying to reinvigorate it in the spirit of Odo’s philosophy.

The above does not even begin to do justice to the multiple complexities with which Le Guin grapples in Dispossessed.15 However, it does give some indication of what the novel is about. In many respects, Le Guin has produced a warts-and-all thought-experiment in representing an anarchist future. The structure of the novel presents the two worlds in successive but alternating chapters. This provides a physical parallel to the story of Shevek’s search for a unified field theory. The book’s final chapter symbolizes that unity by depicting his return from Urras to Anarres with his “chronosophical” task largely complete.

The alternation of the chapters, as I have already noted, represents the “balance in motion and rhythmic recurrence” of an anarchist vision. The result is the representation of an ambiguous utopia within which the argument for anarchism is posed. Yet the way in which the narrative voices come to be arranged and the way in which the reader comes to know the issues (i.e., through the narrative structure) tend to undermine the utopian vision. This involves more than just the realization that Le Guin herself acknowledges: that the central character is a man.

Shevek is not just a man but a physicist, a great man of science. He is cast very much in the mould of euclidean reason; as Simon points out, he is the personification of just those qualities which are held up as characteristic of the scientific endeavor.16 Early in the novel, a young Shevek reflects on the relation between reason and the world:

If a book were written all in numbers it would be true. It would be just. Nothing said in words ever came out quite even. Things said in words got twisted and ran together, instead of staying straight and fitting together. But underneath the words, at the center of the Square, it all came out even. Everything would change, yet nothing would be lost. If you saw the numbers you could see that, the balance, the pattern. You saw the foundations of the world. And they were solid.

TD §2:25)

This is the form of reason that Shevek pursues, seeing it as the means to enable him to reconnect Anarres both to the rest of humanity and to its revolutionary roots. On completing his theory, Shevek notes with some exhilaration that now “[t]here were no more abysses, no more walls. There was no more exile. He had seen the foundations of the universe, and they were solid” (TD §9:226). And although the work is not finished, “not written out yet,” Shevek feels that he has the essential structure. He has “the equations and the reasoning. It is done” (TD §9:227).

The abyss of time can be abolished. Communication across space can be instantaneous, rendering past, present, and future irrelevant in the act of communication. This breakthrough in technology as the means to overcome the impasse of the human problems experienced by Shevek (and his fellow Anarresti) in living Odonian anarchism reflects the European experience that I discussed earlier.17 Furthermore, within Anarresti society the separation of work and living remains that of the industrialized form of that experience. The Dispossessed retains the juxtaposition of mechanical progress and biological rhythm in which the latter remains cut off from the former. Process remains a function of structure rather than the other way around.

All of this contributes to the masculine dominance of the story-telling. This is further emphasized by the fact that it is through Shevek’s voice and his experiences that we find out what is significant. The story remains that of the lone individual succeeding against the odds. The promotional blurb on the back of the Avon edition describes The Dispossessed as “the spell-binding story of Shevek, a brilliant physicist who single-handedly attempts to reunite two planets cut off from each other. … [A]nd in the profound conflict which ensues, Shevek must re-examine his philosophy of life.” Granted, this description distorts much of what the novel is really about. However, it does highlight the fact that the narrative is dominated by Shevek, a man imbued with euclidean reason and a European bias towards the promise of technology and science. Clearly, in terms of both its discourse and utopian vision, The Dispossessed is very much in the euclidean, European, and masculine mould.

4. In Coming Home a different approach is evident. The narrative structure is somewhat amorphous in that a dominant narrative voice is lacking. It is also amorphous in the sense that the novel, as a whole, cannot be reduced to simply a story about a journey or a resolution of conflict.18 There is certainly a story of a journey within the novel in which conflict occurs. But such a story does not provide the definitive shape for the novel. Indeed, there are many stories within the novel. There is also something that could be construed as a beginning and ending, inasmuch as the novel has a first and last page. For the most part, however, there is a series of beginnings, some of which end and some of which simply stop or do not appear to lead anywhere in particular. As Cummins has pointed out, Le Guin focuses “on the middle, the living, the changing,” shifting the emphasis from a formal beginning or end (162; also see Roberts 140).

In a preliminary note to the reader, Le Guin explains that “[t]he people in this book might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California. The main part of the book is their voices speaking for themselves in stories and life-stories, plays, poems, and songs” (ACH n.p.). If, for the moment, one puts aside the fact that the book itself is someone’s creation, then there is no singular voice internal to the text to take the reader from a beginning to an end. Within the text there are many narrative voices. Much of the task of shaping them is left largely to the reader. That is, the choice as to which narrative voice to listen to, in what order to hear them, and so on remains largely with the reader. There is no a priori requirement for readers to engage with this fictive world in just one way. They must make choices, whereby they “are made aware that every reading involves choices” (Roberts 147, 149). And so does living, something which is equally important for Le Guin. In addition, the poems, songs, and plays which appear throughout the text are designed to be read aloud (Dancing 186-87). In this way, the reader is not just a passive “observer” of the various texts but a participant, one of the voices within the novel. This enables the reader to contribute actively to the shape of the novel. It also enables her or him to engage this fictive world in an experiential way through its “multi-vocality and non-linearity” (Roberts 147), its “multiple voices and in its radial structure” (Cummins 162).

The novel presents a multi-dimensional picture of the Kesh people who inhabit a region known as the Valley. The Kesh live in village clusters, with households and family groupings organized primarily on a matrifocal basis. Like the Anarresti, the Kesh have developed an anarchist society founded on mutual aid, consent, cooperation, and tolerance. But in contrast to the Anarresti, education is not institutionalized or separated from daily tasks; instead it is a continuous process integrated into everyday life. Specialized learning is achieved by individuals seeking out and working with those whom the Kesh regard as having wisdom and experience in those areas.

The Kesh live more or less harmoniously with their environment. The tools and technology they develop are meant to maintain an ongoing sense of balance (both human and ecological). Access to a wide range of technologies is possible because the Kesh are in contact with other societies and peoples. This contact occurs through trade and through a network of computer-based information exchanges present in all of the various societies. The data flowing through these exchanges is freely given and offered, not actually owned by anyone, and “the nature and quantity of the information was up to the human end of the partnership” (ACH 151). As far as the Kesh are concerned, property relations are not part of their social structure. Wealth is defined by how much one gives to others and the community, in terms of ideas, services, and goods. While the opinion of others—i.e., public opinion—is important, the right of individuals to pursue their own aims remains respected and is generally upheld.

Other societies are mentioned in the novel, but the one that receives the most attention apart from the Kesh is that of the Dayao or Condor people. In stark contrast with the Kesh, Condor society is rigidly hierarchic, patriarchal, and organized for war and conquest. At the top of the social pyramid is the Condor, known as the One, who rules with absolute authority. Everyone has a place and remains there unless elevated (or demoted) by the Condor. Women are considered next to worthless except for breeding purposes. Knowledge is the domain of men, as is government. Only the Condor has access to the Information Exchanges linking the Dayao with other societies. Women are not allowed to read and write; nor are they permitted to communicate with those outside their household except through their fathers or husbands. Public and private life are kept rigidly separated. Non-Condor peoples are deemed to be hontik (i.e., non-human), often of less worth than animals. The Kesh regard the Dayao as people with their heads on backwards.

The juxtaposition of Kesh and Condor society is achieved through the story told by Stone Telling, a Kesh woman. Stone Telling is the child of a Valley woman and a Condor commander. He did not remain in the Valley but returned to his duties in Condor City. When Stone Telling is approaching womanhood, her father returns. Known at this stage of her life as North Owl, she persuades her father to take her home to his City. There she experiences Condor life and its social organization. For the first time in her life she experiences oppression and systematized hatred. As a woman and as a child of a non-Condor woman, she is regarded as a hontik. But as the child of a Condor Commander, she enjoys some degree of protection. She cannot leave of her own accord, however, because Condor mores keep her isolated. She adjusts to the new situation, and in order to survive, she marries and has a child. By this time, the Condor society, having overextended itself with its constant expansion and conquests, begins to collapse under the weight of its imperial ambitions. Its conquered territories begin to break away, depriving it of food and other essential supplies. What resources there are in the City are more and more used to prop up the empire while the Dayao themselves begin to starve and die. With the aid of her father, North Owl manages to escape with her child and return to the Valley. On the way back, she takes a new name: Woman Coming Home. In old age she becomes Stone Telling.

Stone Telling’s story is told in three parts. In the novel these parts are separated by other stories, songs, poems, sayings, and information about Kesh life. In fact, Stone Telling’s story occupies only about 20٪ of the space in the novel. Within that space, Stone Telling provides an account of her experiences which contains a substantial critique of the kind of society which predicates its existence on the war machine. The logic of such a society is unfolded in stark contrast to that underpinning Kesh society. The two societies are fundamentally incompatible. Through Stone Telling’s voice, the reader is taken on the journey from the Valley to Condor City and back again. But what is important here is that by the time readers get to Condor City, the novel itself has been unfolding for 198 pages. Valley society, constructed out of the voices of those who live there in addition to Stone Telling’s,19 becomes something of a norm against which Condor society is judged. And after Stone Telling’s story has concluded, other voices remain to be heard. Some of these amplify the context of Stone Telling’s story. Others add to the reader’s knowledge of the details of Valley life.

When Coming Home is judged by the same criteria used for The Dispossessed, a number of differences stand out. In Coming Home, the narrative voice of the novel is neither singular nor masculine; there are many voices, both male and female. The picture of Valley society is constructed from the voices of those who inhabit it. Le Guin, as author, has made a conscious effort to allow the inhabitants to speak for themselves, thereby enabling process to emerge to shape the narrative voice of the novel as a whole. Furthermore, within the novel there is an absence of an unbridled faith in euclidean reason as the basis for Valley society. Rather, what the people themselves think and feel, how they relate to each other, and their propensity to pursue multiple and divergent paths characterize the Valley people’s approach to guiding themselves and their society. There are many truths in Valley society and, for the Kesh, innumerable, even contradictory ways, of arriving at them. Only in Condor society is euclidean order a major structural feature: “The Dayao way was…without turning, straight, single” (ACH 201); “Everything was done because there was a law to do it or not to do it” (ACH 348). Moreover, the utopian vision presented in the novel is not European in the various senses discussed earlier, except in the Condor society.

But perhaps the most significant difference is that the relationship between the matter and manner of presentation in Coming Home is strikingly consistent. That is, the utopian vision of a future possibility posited within the novel is not undermined by the narrative structure used to represent it. While the novel, considered as a totality, may exhibit a more or less singular narrative voice, this voice is a composite of many divergent voices, each with its own life-story or part-story to tell. There is really no central character on whom the success or failure of the narrative hinges. Even Stone Telling’s story cannot be put forward as the major focus, because her story represents such a limited space within the totality of the novel. To identify the utopian vision with Stone Telling and her story would yield a one-dimensional perspective.20 It would not be the voice of Kesh society. It is the multiplicity of voices and the variety of perspectives which they offer on Kesh society that creates the utopian picture. The shape of the narrative as a whole thus emerges largely through these voices in collaboration with the efforts of the reader. Rather than being foreclosed by its mode of discourse, the narrative remains an open-ended process in which we are “always coming home.”

This does not mean that Le Guin, as author, is completely absent from the text. On the contrary, the very fact that the text has been created or structured in this particular manner (and no other) means that some sort of authorial control has been exercised. Indeed, the narrative voice of the author emerges from time to time in the persona of Pandora,21 who provides the reader with some reflections on how utopia should (or could) be represented. It is primarily Pandora’s voice that encourages the reader to think of utopia as a collaborative rather than a private vision. Le Guin thus facilitates the genuinely collaborative effort between author and reader on which—in her view—the successful creation of a fictive world depends: she encourages (but doesn’t coerce) the reader to enter into a dialogue with the many voices in Coming Home.

5. Le Guin has produced a novel which does not really look like a novel to represent a utopia which does not really “look the way it ought to.” The narrative strategy evident in Always Coming Home is strikingly different from that of her previous novels. But this is not to say that this narrative shift is something which has occurred overnight. Cummins (157) has suggested that Le Guin’s 1977 collection of short stories, Orsinian Tales, might mark the start of her attempts to subvert the dominant narrative frame. To that same category belongs another of Le Guin’s short stories: the moving postscript to The Dispossessed published in 1975 as “The Day Before the Revolution.” In its few pages Le Guin tells Odo’s story. But, despite the fact that Odo is the anarchist philosopher whose ideas underpin Anarresti society in The Dispossessed, Le Guin does not give a traditional exposition of Odo’s philosophy. Nor does she provide an historical account of the events on the eve of the revolution. What she portrays instead, with acumen and sensitivity, are Odo’s thoughts and feelings. “The Day Before the Revolution” provides an account of an intersection of the personal and the political in which the centrality of the personal, of being a human acting in and on one’s world, is re-emphasized. This would suggest that even as The Dispossessed was receiving its well-deserved accolades, Le Guin was a little uneasy with what it represented.

During the subsequent decade, Le Guin worked towards the narrative structure that emerged in Coming Home. The rationale underlying this narrative shift emerges with some clarity in the light of the above discussion of Le Guin’s criticisms of utopian discourse. Her aim has been to bring the narrative structure of her novel into a much closer, more supportive, alignment with its narrative content to produce a vision of an inhabitable utopia. In creating Coming Home, Le Guin has produced a narrative structure, a configuration of voices, consistent with her politics, both feminist and anarchist, befitting her vision of an ideal society. In form and content, Coming Home represents an inhabitable utopia.


  1. This article draws on some of the themes developed in an earlier paper of mine, “Utopian Will: Lessons from Le Guin,” presented at The Political Will Conference, University of Adelaide, July 7-9, 1990.

  2. Such a view clearly places her at odds with the postmodernist perspectives in, for example, Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” and Michel Foucault’s “What is an Author?”

  3. “The Eye of the Heron” (1980) is something of an exception in that the man (Lev) who initially provides the main narrative voice is eventually replaced by a woman (Luz Maria). Short stories such as “The Day Before the Revolution” and “The New Atlantis” (both 1975) might also constitute exceptions insofar as their central characters are women.

  4. Here it might be noted that the primary point of the metaphor of “journeying” is aptly encapsulated in the title Always Coming Home.

  5. See Cummins 158. A possible exception here might be that of the anthropologist Lubyov in The Word for World Is Forest. His is generally the central narrative voice. He is the colonizer who is supposed to have a conscience and his moral conflict over the fate of the Athsheans is an important dimension of the novel. However, Le Guin directs the readers’ sympathies not to his difficulties but to those facing the colonized Athsheans. In an unapologetic allegory of the situation facing the Vietnamese in their struggles against the technologically superior forces of the US, Le Guin encourages her readers to empathize with the plight of the colonized (i.e., the Vietnamese). But not only are the colonized treated with sympathy and respect; they are depicted as eventually victorious over the colonizers. In addition, the colonizers are depicted as gaining their self- definition through the exercise of arbitrary power, particularly through sex and homicide. Accordingly, Le Guin has Captain Davidson, the archetypical colonist, exclaim that “the only time a man is really and entirely a man is when he’s just had a woman or just killed another man” (WWF 81). Perhaps it is for these reasons that the critics, mostly men, in the US have declared that this novel is overly didactic and somewhat wooden in its approach—a political judgment if ever there was one.

  6. See F. A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (London, 1962), and Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies: The Spell of Plato (London, 1969). While these are not the only critiques of utopian thought, they are nevertheless among the best-known. For overviews of arguments about utopian thought, see Barbara Goodwin & Keith Taylor, The Politics of Utopia: A Study of Theory and Practice (London, 1982), and Utopias, ed. Peter Alexander & Roger Gill (London, 1984).

  7. See also the examples given in Elliott; Goodwin & Taylor; and Alexander & Gill.

  8. For example, the future society envisaged by the libertarian William Godwin was one in which robots and machines did the work, leaving people free to play. Marx and Engels’ vision of the liberated society was one which presupposed extensive machine-based production. In their vision, administration would be concerned with things, not people. The contemporary emphasis on computers and cybernetics as a new road to utopian possibilities is a variation on the same basic technological theme.

  9. Friedrich Nietzsche, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Harmondsworth, UK: 1964), 93.

  10. There is no doubt from Robert’s argument that she regards Le Guin’s project in the novel as a paradigm of postmodernism. In her words, “Coming Home epitomizes a strategy…typical of post-modernist fiction” (144); in fact, she goes so far as to suggest that it is “the post-modern qualities which make the text subversive” (145).

  11. Note, however, that this substantially revalued epistemological basis should not simply claim female experience as its touchstone. That would simply invert the prevailing biases rather than eliminate the grounds for them. For a succinct argument against the tendency of some theorists to claim more for female experience than may be warranted, see Judith Grant’s “I Feel Therefore I Am.”

  12. See, for example, the works cited below edited by Alison Jaggar & Susan R. Bordo; Barbara Caine, Elizabeth Grosz, & Marie de Lepervanche; and Sandra Harding & Merrill Hintikka.

  13. For a perceptive unpacking of these names, see Robert M. Philmus, 125-26nn2-4.

  14. In a prefatory comment to “The Day Before the Revolution,” Le Guin points out that the anarchist theories of Kropotkin, Goodman, and Goldman were the basis for Anarresti society.

  15. See Philmus for an further analysis of the issues underlying Shevek’s theoretical physics and the relation of “chronosophy” to The Dispossessed’s structure.

  16. See Simon 130, where he notes that “Shevek personifies the traits we have learned to associate falsely with the scientist.”

  17. This perhaps overstates the emphasis on technology and hence oversimplifies narrative content (in which case, Philmus’s discussion of Shevek’s breakthrough may serve as a corrective to mine). The fact remains, however, that it is still the power of euclidean ratioality (albeit tempered by something of Taoist insight on Le Guin’s part) that forms the basis for Shevek’s success.

  18. In a number of her essays in Dancing (and especially in “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” “Conflict,” and to a lesser extent, “Heroes”), Le Guin expands on the tendency for novels to be stories centered on or constructed around conflict.

  19. It is worth pointing out that the voice of the woman who becomes Stone Telling is not singular, but rather a succession: of North Owl (a young child), Woman Coming Home (a child-bearing woman), and finally Stone Telling (an old woman, or “crone” [see Dancing §1]). These voices roughly correspond to the different but sequential experiences of age and aging; and hence they cannot be regarded as identical even though they belong to a single biographical entity. In this way, Le Guin draws attention to an aspect of life and community that receives very little attention in utopian literature.

  20. Yet this is precisely what some commentators (e.g., J. R. Wytenbroek and Bernard Selinger) have done: they have presented or interpreted Coming Home as being more or less reducible to Stone Telling’s story. But the politics of Le Guin’s narrative shifts thereby disappear—as, indeed, does the political vision she aims to represent.

  21. See Jacobs, 42-43, who notes there is some ambiguity as to whether Le Guin’s voice emerges via Pandora or the “Editor.”

Works Cited

Alexander, Peter & Roger Gill, eds. Utopias. London, 1984.

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Image Music Text. Selected & trans. by S. Heath. NY, 1977. 142-48.

Caine, Barbara & Elizabeth Grosz & Marie de Lepervanche, eds. Crossing Boundaries: Feminisms and the Critiques of Knowledges. Sydney, Australia: 1988.

Campbell, Beatrix. “Dark Star” [an Interview with Le Guin]. Marxism Today. November 1990. 4-5.

Cummins, Elizabeth. “The Land-Lady’s Homebirth: Revisiting Ursula K. Le Guin’s Worlds.” SFS, 17 (1990): 153-64.

Elliott, Robert C. The Shape of Utopia: Studies in a Literary Genre. Chicago, 1970.

Foucault, Michel. “What is an author?” Screen, 20.1 (1979): 13-29.

Goodwin, Barbara & Keith Taylor. The Politics of Utopia: A Study in Theory and Practice. London, 1982.

Grant, Judith. “I Feel Therefore I Am: A Critique of Female Experience as the Basis for a Feminist Epistemology.” Women and Politics 7.3 (1987): 99-114.

Harding, Sandra & Merrill Hintikka, eds. Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science. Dordrecht, Holland: 1983.

Jacobs, Naomi. “Beyond Stasis and Symmetry: Lessing, Le Guin and the Remodelling of Utopia.” Extrapolation 29.1 (Spring 1988): 34-45.

Jaggar, Alison & Susan R. Bordo, eds. Gender/Body/Knowledge: Feminist Reconstructions of Being and Knowing. New Brunswick, NJ: 1989.

Le Guin, Ursula. Always Coming Home. London: Grafton Books, 1986.

———. Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places. London: Victor Gollancz, 1989.

———. The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia. 1974. NY: Avon Books, 1975.

———. The Word for World Is Forest. NY: Berkley Books, 1976.

Nudelman, Rafail. “An Approach to the Structure of Le Guin’s SF.” SFS, 2 (1975): 210-20.

Ong, Walter. Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness. Ithaca, NY: 1981.

Philmus, Robert M. “Ursula Le Guin and Time’s Dispossession.” Science Fiction Roots and Branches. Ed. R. J. Ellis & Rhys Garnett. NY & London, 1990. 125-50.

Porter, David L. “The Politics of Le Guin’s Opus.” SFS, 2 (1975): 243-48.

Richter, Peynton E., ed. Utopias: Social Ideals and Communal Experiments. Boston, 1971.

Roberts, Robin. “Post-Modernism and Feminist Science Fiction.” SFS, 17 (1990): 136-52.

Selinger, Bernard. Le Guin and Identity in Contemporary Fiction. Ann Arbor, MI: 1989.

Simon, Thomas W. “Democratizing Eutopia: Environmentalism, Anarchism, Feminism.” Our Generation 17.1 (Fall-Winter 1985-86): 123-49.

Wood, Susan. “Discovering Worlds: The Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin.” Voices for the Future: Essays on Major Science Fiction Writers, Vol. 2. Ed. Thomas D. Clareson. Bowling Green, OH: 1979.

Wytenbroek, J. R. “Always Coming Home: Pacificism and Anarchy in Le Guin’s Latest Utopia.” Extrapolation 28.4 (Winter 1987): 330-39.

Frances Taliaferro (review date 8 December 1991)

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SOURCE: “The Sisters of Rain and Foam,” in Washington Post Book World, December 8, 1991, p. 11.

[In the following review, Taliaferro calls Searoad a pleasure, comparing its structure to that of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.]

Searoad is Ursula K. Le Guin’s “first completely mainstream book of fiction,” according to her publishers. This is good news for those of us who got hives when we first tried science fiction. Friends who were devout sci-fi readers urged us to start with novels of acknowledged merit like Dune or Stranger in a Strange Land or Le Guin’s own The Left Hand of Darkness. We’d have liked to make them part of our literary diet, but after a few chapters it was clear that our systems just wouldn’t accept the alien substance.

Searoad provides a reassuringly earth-bound way to make the acquaintance of this widely admired writer. As one who knows nothing about science fiction, I cannot comment on Searoad’s connections (if any) with that genre. But earthlings like me can read it with pleasure as a collection of related short stories that take place in Klatsand, a small town on the Oregon coast—a kind of Winesburg, Ohio of the Pacific Northwest.

There’s some social history obliquely recorded here; you can infer the class structure of Klatsand from Le Guin’s portrayal of locals and summer people, solid citizens and marginal ones, intellectuals and motel chambermaids, the misfit potter and the hippie entrepreneur who sells his ceramics. You can even trace the progress of real estate development. The same surnames recur and the interwoven family histories are the social fabric of Klatsand, but what’s interesting about Searoad is inner lives, private visions and thoughts unspoken.

“I looked at Lorena. Placid as a goldfish. But there are countries in her. She is a mystery. You live your whole life around the corner from someone, talk to her, and never know her. You catch a glimpse, like a shooting star, a flicker in the darkness, the last spark of the fireworks, then it’s dark again. But the spark was there, the soul, whatever it is, lighting that country for one moment. Shining on the breakers in the dark.” So one Klatsander sees another. Every so often, such a spark animates the numb familiarity of the everyday town.

The men in Searoad tend to be bullies or misfits or slightly ineffectual nice guys, like the middle aged one in “Geezers” who goes to the White Gull Motel for a restful weekend and is annoyed because people keep thinking he belongs to the jolly senior citizens’ group that’s also staying there. “Hernes,” the longest story in the collection, traces the lives of four generations of Klatsand women, from the 1890s to the present. Their men die off or philander or commit acts of male chauvinism that use up all the oxygen in the marriage. One of them, a feckless seducer, leaves this bright image behind him: “Out the window he goes, scrambling, because he thought he heard Mother coming, and the last I see of him forever is one leg, one foot, the sole of his shoe.”

“Men did seem to be so fragile,” muses an older woman pondering the imbalances of marriage. The real weight and complexity of these stories are borne by women, and the center of gravity is in the relations between mothers and daughters. Le Guin captures them in concentrated sketches that are very much of our time. Ailie, of “Crosswords,” works the graveyard shift at places like the Hiway House of Waffles, but she’s not a simple soul; the puzzle that endlessly vexes her is whether her mother acquiesced years ago in a stepfather’s sexual abuse of Ailie. Ailie can’t make her peace with her own daughter until she solves the riddle of her mother’s loyalties. In “Quoits,” Shirley achieves a kind of friendship with Jen, a fierce and uncompromising young woman who is the daughter of Shirley’s recently deceased lover, Barbara.

In stories like these, the circumstances have a topical, even a political interest, but the appeal of Searoad is in Le Guin’s power to move from the circumstantial plane to the meditative or even the archetypal. She matches images of women with kindred images of the natural world, presenting the landscape itself as a major character. The real-life mothers and daughters of Klatsand are the sisters of rain and foam, or of Demeter and Persephone, crying in their kitchens the elemental sorrows of the world.

Isobel Armstrong (review date 13 March 1992)

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SOURCE: “Stories of Small-Town Struggles,” in Times Literary Supplement, March 13, 1992, p. 23.

[In the following review, Armstrong admires Searoad for being a work which “refuses an easy distinction between fantasy and realism.”]

A visionary with the knack of being self-critical, ironic and funny about her visions, Ursula Le Guin is always trying something new. Searoad is another experiment. After nearly twenty novels and volumes of short stories exploring the genres of fantasy and science fiction for children and adults, not to speak of poems and essays, she has turned to another mode, a chronicle of contemporary American small-town life. Klatsand, Oregon, is a fictional beach town. All that seems to relate this new work with the old is its fascination with maps, which meticulously chart the spaces of imaginary lands and mythical communities.

Have the speculative models of science fiction and the archetypes of fantasy been superseded by the specificity and psychological detail of realism? Klatsand is now a transit post off the Coast Highway, the location of temporary holiday homes and run-down motels, where people can use the facilities “like crazy monkeys wrecking their cage”. The mythical agrarian society, with its hierarchies of mage and sorceror, and the arcane magic of Le Guin’s Earthsea saga, whose last volume appeared in 1990, seems remote from Klatsand’s transient population and its middle-class holiday- makers and migrants—waitresses, cleaners, and violent men in pick-up trucks. But this novel refuses an easy distinction between fantasy and realism.

Searoad attempts to be “all middle”, as Ursula Le Guin once put it, at a famous conference on narrative in 1979. It has the “radial” structure, anti-realist and atemporal, which she admired in early Welsh epic. The first part of the novel is a series of brief episodes in contemporary Klatsand, glimpses into the comedy or suffering of people’s lives. A motel owner’s wife runs the place single-handed, and is too exhausted to help the mysteriously weeping young man who stays alone in his cabin. A lesbian mourns her dead partner. A middle- aged man attempts in vain to dissociate himself from a raucously cheerful party of geriatric day trippers. A waitress remembers how her husband shot their teenage daughter. Only a few of the characters appear glancingly in each other’s stories, true to this dispersed community.

A pattern begins to emerge when the narrative shifts from the horizontal present to the vertical past, from visitors to locals. A heroic, four-generation chain of mother-daughter relationships reaches back into the town’s nineteenth-century settlement and forward into the present. Klatsand does not, after all, have shallow roots in history. But this women’s history is scrambled. Dead and living voices speak together. Historic memories of a Native American woman trader and ballroom dances in the late 1920s are recorded almost simultaneously. Different years are juxtaposed—1914, 1971, 1929—defying conventional temporal sequence and avoiding that smooth transition from narrative past to present which Le Guin says she has found to be one of the irksome constraints of narrative writing.

In just the same way, the women, all lone parents, defy orthodox social and marital patterns. Together they define a new and impassioned feminine identity, expressed in a language which moves from rhapsody to common sense, from elegy to analysis. Le Guin believes that men have stolen language from women by leaving them with an impoverished speech which can only be redeemed through imaginative writing. Only in imaginative writings is there a chance that men and women can share language as equals.

The whole of the last part of the novel is shaped by the Persephone myth, however, and this can work against such reciprocity. Winter, male violence and death; spring, feminine creativity and life: these become an uncompromising antithesis as the mythical pattern emerges. The first part of the novel falls into place retrospectively as a series of variations on women’s struggle with masculine betrayal, abuse and sterility.

Ursula Le Guin’s feminism is urgent. At a Bryn Mawr Commencement address in 1986, she challenged women to find a new identity which would not collude with men’s account of women. Characteristically, she was one of the first novelists to respond to the Native American women writers and used their stories to show her audience how women have their own narratives. Lily, in Searoad, repeatedly imagining her pastel bridesmaids, only to end up an unmarried mother, becomes an admonitory story. But mostly, Le Guin believes, we tell stories in order not to dissolve into our surroundings. Her commitment to women’s stories is so deep that the final volume of the Earthsea saga nearly overturns its predecessors by exposing them as so much mystified male power and Jungian mumbo-jumbo. Searoad’s heroic femininity belongs to her revisionary enterprise. This is sometimes as remorseless as it is vigorous. But it is a remorselessness just softened by a mysteriously weeping and helpless young man in a motel cabin. He, too, is not allowed to dissolve into his surroundings, even though these might well be the landscape of Hades.

Mario Klarer (essay date Spring 1992)

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SOURCE: “Gender and the ‘Simultaneity Principle’: Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed,” in Mosaic, Vol. 25, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 107-21.

[In the following essay, Klarer examines the narrative structure, symbolism, and metafictional techniques employed in The Dispossessed in light of new feminist theory and literary criticism. According to Klarer, Le Guin's subversion of conventional gender divisions anticipated many later developments in contemporary feminist theory.]

For the last several decades, Ursula K. Le Guin has been acclaimed as a leading “female” writer of science fiction. The term “female” seems more appropriate than “feminist” because her work, very much as in the case of Doris Lessing, is usually not regarded as an integral part of the liberationist movement. Indeed, her novels have been accepted into the canon of male/mainstream science fiction, probably because her recourse to the concept of androgyny and concerns with simultaneity in her vision of an integration of the sexes has made her seem more amenable to dialogue than other feminist writers in the genre.

In keeping with her apparent neutral and muted stance, until recently much scholarship of Le Guin’s fiction has tended to touch only on surface issues, and to take one of two forms. On the one hand, there are studies which analyze the structural features of Le Guin’s fiction but with little attention to the fact that she is a female author or without linking her narrative innovations to contemporary feminist debates. On the other hand, there are gender-specific approaches, but which have been taking their bearings from a critique of the perceived limitations of her female characters and her inclination toward an overall “maleness” in her portrayal of androgynes in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969).

Although Le Guin took such accusations seriously—and in her 1976 essay “Is Gender Necessary? Redux” apologized for not having explored “androgyny from a woman’s point of view as well as a man’s” (16)—it could also be said that she had fallen victim to an early brand of feminist criticism, one which was concerned mainly with “realism” in regard to the depiction of female characters and which focused on overt political content. Since the mid-seventies, however, the primary focus of feminists has been on “écriture féminine” as a more far-ranging and valid basis for evaluation. Specific analyses of this dimension of feminist science fiction have mainly converged in discussions of the work of Monique Wittig, where the emphasis is on syntax, language and structure and their relationship to sociocultural, physio-sexual, or genetic issues.

My purpose in the following essay is to examine Le Guin’s 1974 novel The Dispossessed in the light of this new feminist poetics and related recent feminist literary criticism. In doing so, I hope to demonstrate not only that The Dispossessed provides a striking example of what could be called a gender- conscious structure but also that the metatheoretical credo which Le Guin encodes in this novel predates the very core of much current feminist thought and practice.

The narrative of The Dispossessed is situated on two planets: Anarres and Urras. The fertile Urras very much resembles our Western world where a “capitalist organization” results in striking oppositions between rich and poor social strata. About 150 years before the action of the book, a large group of Odonians, named after the woman anarchist Odo, left the oppressive Urras to found a communist settlement on the moon Anarres. The community has refrained from any contact with the proprietarian planet, apart from some trading of vital goods in exchange for Anarresti ore. Despite the barren soil and adverse nature of the planet, the Anarresti population has been able to maintain political and economical independence from Urras.

The novel focuses on Shevek, a male Anarresti physicist, whose theoretical works on simultaneity and Sequency are supposed to revolutionize traditional physics just as Relativity reshaped Newtonian mechanics. Conventional physics, described as Sequency, very much parallels our Western notions of linear temporality. Shevek’s interest in alternative models of time and space had been triggered by an encounter with a marginalized woman professor who is exploring theories of simultaneity. He soon outdoes her by finishing a “manuscript of the Physics of Simultaneity” (199). Shevek’s study, however, is rejected by a very influential male physicist, who delays the work’s publication until he is able to edit the manuscript to conform to traditional Sequency standards and impose himself as co-author. As he argues. “Sequency Physics is the highroad of chronosophical thought in the Odonian Society [and] has been a mutually agreed principle since the Settlement of Anarres. Egoistic divagations from this solidarity principle can result only in sterile spinning of impractical hypotheses without social organic utility, or repetition of the superstitious-religious speculations” (200). Shevek is thus faced with a form of “patriarchal suppression” which opposes everything that challenges linear sequentiality. Finally he submits and the book is published under the guise of a work on traditional physics.

Shevek’s study is therefore comparable to the twofold structure of women’s discourse described by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. On the one hand, female writing expresses women’s very own Weltanschauung; on the other, women have had to be conversant with the male tongue before being able to express female issues sufficiently. Accordingly, women’s writing has been “in some sense palimpsestic, works whose surface designs conceal or obscure deeper, less accessible (and less socially acceptable) levels of meaning”: such texts accomplish “the difficult task of achieving true female literary authority by simultaneously conforming to and subverting patriarchal literary standards” (73; emphasis mine).

In “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness,” Elaine Showalter makes the same point: “women’s fiction can be read as a double- voiced discourse, containing a ‘dominant’ and a ‘muted’ story…in which we must keep two alternative oscillating texts simultaneously in view” (265-66; emphasis mine). Luce Irigaray also uses the term when she observes of women that “simultaneity would be her ‘property’” (24). Derrida, too, relies on a similar metaphor several times, though without linking it to gender issues. In Margins of Philosophy he argues that there are in any text at least “two texts, two hands, two visions, two ways of listening. Together simultaneously and separately” (65; emphasis mine); in Positions, he observes that “we must proceed using a double gesture…a double writing…which brings low what was high…a concept…that is, simultaneously either or…” (41-43).

The double dealing that characterizes Shevek’s strategy for dealing with patriarchal oppression also parallels Le Guin’s publishing tactics. As James W. Bittner notes, the state of science fiction in the early 70s suggests certain parallels between Shevek and Le Guin; in a time in which the utopian novel was generally regarded as “dormant if not dying” (245), the response of one character to Shevek’s work can easily be seen as the response of a 1972 publishing house to Le Guin: “You are like somebody from our own past, the old idealists, the visionaries of freedom” (289). Le Guin’s strategy for rejuvenating the traditional utopian genre is to make it the vehicle for addressing (almost disguising) female issues. Her novels simultaneously accord with the traditional male conventions of science fiction and the utopian novel but at the same time subvert and revive these conventions through the “female voice.”

In the case of The Dispossessed, almost a decade after the publication of his book, Shevek the Anarresti is awarded the most prestigious Urrasti prize in physics for this work. After several years of extreme hardship, oppression and the final expulsion from the research institute, he accepts an invitation to the biggest university on the planet Urras. He is the first Anarresti to return to Urras in more than 150 years and is therefore regarded as a traitor by his own people. Shevek soon realizes that his new sheltered life on Urras is only a bribe in exchange for the equations of his revolutionary theory. As he is about to finish his calculations, he becomes cognizant of Urras’s military plans to abuse his results. In order to get his equations publicly announced, thus making them useless for the Urrasti plans, he takes refuge in the embassy of an alien people on Urras who finally bring him back to his home planet.

The overall structure of the novel directly reflects the protagonist’s philosophical ponderings over time and space. The narrative jumps back and forth in space, starting out with a chapter about Shevek’s departure from Anarres and his arrival on Urras, followed by an account of his earlier life on Anarres, then a chapter situated on Urras, etc. Equally jumbled is its handling of time: all narrative dealing with Anarres takes place before Shevek’s experiences as a visitor of Urras. The 13 chapters of the book are simply titled after either planet and follow a consistent pattern. All even-numbered chapters take place on Anarres; the uneven ones on Urras. The only exceptions are the first and the last chapters, which encompass both Anarres and Urras. Chapter 1 begins with Shevek’s departure from Anarres and ends with his arrival on Urras. Chapter 13 starts with Shevek leaving Urras and ends with his return home: “To go was not enough for him, only half enough; he must come back” (52). All uneven chapters (including 1 and 13) move from what the reader perceives as the present into the future. All even chapters narrate what has happened in the past up to the present, the point at which the novel begins.

To support this pattern “inside” the overall structure of the narrative, Le Guin introduces a number of motifs such as mobiles, planetary imagery, sexual intercourse, bisexuality, and music. These metatheoretical devices parallel her narrative practice, as well as the utopian poetics that stands behind it. The most striking and central metaphor of the book’s structure are the mobiles made by Takver, Shevek’s wife.

Complex concentric shapes made of wire, which moved and changed slowly and inwardly when suspended from the ceiling. She had made these with scrap wire…and called them Occupations of Uninhabited Space.… The single mobile hanging in this room oscillated slightly. It was a large piece made of wires pounded flat, so that edge-on they all but disappeared, making the ovals into which they were fashioned flicker at intervals, vanishing, as did, in certain lights, the two thin clear bubbles of glass that moved with the oval wires in complexly interwoven ellipsoid orbits about the common center, never quite meeting, never entirely parting. Takver called it the Inhabitation of Time.

(156, 303; emphasis mine)

The pieces of wire, like the narratives in each chapter, connect the two glass bubbles, or planets respectively. The book is structured in concentric circles that oscillate between Urras and Anarres, i.e., time and space, which are also the two structural parameters of Takver’s mobiles. Inside each circular string of narrative, Le Guin follows a linear, sequential structure that starts in the past and leads into the future. The description of the mobile thus functions as a graphic rendering of the concentric format of the novel itself.

Shevek’s life-work, the co-ordination of linearity and simultaneity, which is also the metatheory behind Le Guin’s structural undertaking, is illustrated best in the metaphor Le Guin uses to describe eternal simultaneous presence: “It would be a little like reading a book, you see. The book is all there, all at once, between its covers. But if you want to read the story and understand it, you must begin with the first page, and go forward, always in order. So the universe would be a very great book, and we would be very small readers” (187). In the central chapter the protagonist expounds his philosophy of science which at the same time is Le Guin’s theory of science fiction and of the science of fiction: the necessary fusion of sequentiality with a circular structural pattern.

Shevek’s or Le Guin’s notion of a non-objective time is rooted in a number of ethno-linguistic and comparative-anthropological studies which link various conceptions of time to specific linguistic prerequisites. Since Le Guin’s father was a well-known anthropologist, it is very likely that she was exposed to this line of thought and had it in mind when writing The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. One of the earliest and best known attempts, the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, tries to show how language systems can determine temporal perception. The illuminating, though severely criticized, investigations that Sapir and Whorf conducted on the Hopi Indians suggested on the grounds of linguistic and syntactical data that the perception of time and space is a result of language patterns rather than any objectifiable parameters (82-88). In this particular case, Sapir and Whorf set Western Indo-European linear temporality against the cyclic temporality of the Hopi Indians. In our linearistic terms, time seems to move like an arrow from the past via the present to the future, as Shevek explains: “Well, we think that time ‘passes,’ flows past us; but what if it is we who move forward, from past to future, always discovering the new?” (187). Cyclic time, which is probably a more primitive (in the sense of older and original) form, stresses the recurrence of the same phenomena such as days, seasons, and years in a continuous present.

In her essay “Is Gender Necessary? Redux,” Le Guin explains the cyclic time concepts found in The Left Hand of Darkness, placing them in a highly gendered context. As she states, the androgynes “have no myth of progress at all. Their calendar calls the current year always the Year One, and they count backward and forward from that. In this, it seems that what I was after again was a balance: the driving linearity of the ‘male’, the pushing forward to the limit…and the circularity of the ‘female’” (12). In The Dispossessed, Le Guin elaborates on the inclusiveness of the linear and the cyclic and how these principles determine each other: “So then time has two aspects. There is the arrow, the running river, without which there is no change, no progress, or direction, or creation. And there is the circle or the cycle, without which there is chaos.” Shevek is, of course, attacked since traditional logic does not permit “two contradictory statements about the same thing” and argues instead that “one of these aspects is real, the other’s simply an illusion” (188). As proofs for her simultaneity hypothesis and questioning of Western notions of temporal perception, Le Guin presents dreams and early childhood as states of an inversion of time in which sequence and simultaneity fuse and blend into each other. “‘But we don’t experience the universe only successively,’ Shevek said. ‘Do you never dream…?…A little baby has no time; he can’t distance himself from the past and understand how it relates to his present, or plan how his present might relate to his future. He does not know time passes; he does not understand death. The unconscious mind of the adult is like that still. In a dream there is no time, succession is all changed about, and cause and effect are all mixed together” (187). Le Guin also sees myth as a further example for the collapse of linear time: “In myth and legend there is no time. What past is it the tale means when it says ‘Once upon a time?’ And so, when the mystic makes the reconstruction of his reason and his unconscious, he sees all becoming as one being, and understands the eternal return” (187).

Le Guin’s mysticism very much parallels Derrida’s concept of the “mythogram” in Of Grammatology:

We have seen that the traditional concept of time, an entire organization of the world and of language, was bound up with it [the linearity of the symbol]. Writing…is rooted in a past of nonlinear writing. It had to be defeated.…A war was declared, and a suppression of all that resisted linearization was installed. And first of what Leroi-Gourhan calls the “mythogram,” a writing that spells its symbols pluri-dimensionally; there the meaning is not subjected to successivity, to the order of logical time, or to the irreversible temporality of sound. This pluri-dimensionality does not paralyze history within simultaneity, it corresponds to another level of historical experience, and one may just as well consider, conversely, linear thought as a reduction of history.


To Derrida, simultaneity provides the utopian possibility of non-linear narrative spaces and thus offers an alternative to traditional discourse. He also associates the “poetics” of a classical utopian mode with a mythological “past of non- linear writing.”

The most famous example of “simultaneity” as a metafictional device in American literature is probably Kurt Vonnegut’s “science (of) fiction” in Slaughterhouse-Five. In his novel, Vonnegut envisions an alien people on the faraway planet Tralfamadore, who use simultaneity as a basis of literary production and reception.

Tralfamadorian…books were laid out—in brief clumps of symbols separated by stars…each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message—describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end.…What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen at one time.


Vonnegut’s post-modernist metatheoretical elaboration on simultaneity is a paracriticism of his own novel, which adopts a structure quite similar to that of these Tralfamadorian novels. Slaughterhouse-Five, with its multiperspectival narration as well as its jumbled order of narrative time and space, appears like an attempt to put Derrida’s utopian poetics into literary practice.

Shevek’s “Theory of Simultaneity” in The Dispossessed is very much the result of mystic ecstasy in which he experiences the fusion of linearity and circularity that leads to his revolutionary mathematical equations: “He dreamed vividly, and the dreams were part of his work. He saw time turn back upon itself, a river flowing upward to the spring. He held the contemporaneity of two moments in his left and right hands: as he moved them apart he smiled to see the moment separate like dividing soap bubbles” (99). The Dispossessed is built on an intrinsic network of symbols that reflect the simultaneity of line and circle. A major device in this interdependent structure is the use of planetary imagery. Like the two glass bubbles of the mobile, Urras and Anarres circle around a common center, each planet simultaneously representing the other planet’s moon: “‘Our Earth is their Moon, our Moon is their Earth’” (41). The fusion of sequence and simultaneity in a cosmological imagery reappears throughout the novel in various forms. For example, when Shevek leaves Urras on the Anarresti space ship the flat surface of his home planet undergoes a mysterious metamorphosis from line to sphere.

For on the screen now a strange sight, a pallid plain of stone. It was the desert seen from the mountains above Grand Valley.…The stone plain was no longer plane but hollow, like a huge bowl full of sunlight.…All at once a line broke across it, abstract, geometric, the perfect section of a circle. Beyond the arc was blackness. This blackness reversed the whole picture, made it negative. The real, the stone part of it was no longer concave and full of light, but convex, reflecting light. It was not a plain or a bowl but a sphere, a ball of white stone.…


In her description of sexual intercourse, Le Guin again takes up the prior mobile metaphor, this time cloaked in an orgasmic cosmography: “they both liked making love … they were both half asleep, and circled about the center of infinite pleasure, about each other’s being, like planets circling blindly, in the flood of sunlight, about the common center of gravity, swinging, circling endlessly” (266). The orgasmic unity of Shevek and his partner, combining what could be called “phallic linearity” and “vaginal circularity,” might be wishful thinking in regard to the jouissance or pleasure of the text, namely that the reader can re-enact that synthesis of linearity and circular narrative structure. It presents a utopian reception esthetics based on an orgasmic fusion of the book’s very structural principles. The implications of this simultaneity in regard to the sexes are even further elaborated in the bisexual inclinations of the Anarresti. Most of them are apparently heterosexual, although homosexual experimentation and bisexuality are quite common: “Like all children of Anarres he [Shevek] had sexual experience freely with boys and girls” (49-50; cf. 147). In The Left Hand of Darkness this simultaneity of gender/sex reaches an ultimate extreme.

The metaphors that writers have employed to describe bisexuality and androgyny are manifold, and its myths are reflected not only in fantasy, utopia and science fiction but also in the premises of twentieth-century clinical psychology and physiology. In her analysis of Freud’s and Jones’s sexual psychology, for example, Michèle Montrelay’s strategy is to argue for simultaneous validity of both apparently contradictory theories. As she notes: “For Freud, libido is identical in the two sexes. Moreover it is always male in essence. For it is the clitoris, an external and erectile part of the body, homologous with the penis, which is the erotic organ of the little girl” (227). In this respect female sexuality for Freud is always based on phallic references. Jones, on the other hand, together with the English school (Klein, Horney, Muller) regards female libido as something independent and specifically distinct from phallic analogies. As Montrelay observes, “From the start, the girl privileges the interior of the body and the vagina.…It is therefore not enough to give an account of feminine sexuality from a ‘phallocentric’ point of view” (227). The Viennese school spoke of one libido, whereas Jones was eager to differentiate between two types of libidinal organization: male and female.

To support her reevaluation of the Freud/Jones positions, Montrelay refers to a specific study on female sexuality which was conducted by Janine Chassguet-Smirgel with a team of analysts. Montrelay concludes from their results that the two theoretical positions which had been considered incompatible are thus simultaneously present in feminine sexuality. Female sexuality, according to Montrelay, incorporates a “concentric character and at the same time the phallus”:

To simultaneously affirm the ‘concentric’ and the phallic character of feminine sexuality, is to declare both Freud and Jones are right…the verification of two incompatible propositions does not do away with the contradiction that links them. The fact that phallocentrism and concentricity may be equally constitutive of feminine sexuality does not prove that they make a harmonious unit…they coexist as incompatible and that it is this incompatibility which is specific to the feminine unconscious.… Phallocentrism and concentricity, both simultaneously constitutive of [female] unconscious.…


Irigaray too, according to Toril Moi, “posits femininity as plural and multiple: woman’s economy is not specular in the sense that it does not work on an either/or model. Her sexuality is inclusive: she doesn’t after all have to choose between clitoral and vaginal pleasures, as Freud assumed, but can have it both ways” (Politics 144). Montrelay’s results, as well as the entire question about sexual pleasure, lead directly to literary issues, specifically to the question of how simultaneity operates as a gendered principle in the production of texts and pleasure respectively.

In The Dispossessed sexuality and procreation in particular stand for literary production, as Le Guin points out when Shevek and his wife Takver talk about the publication of his book. Shevek’s Theory of Simultaneity was held back from publication by Sabul, who wants to participate in Shevek’s fame by signing as co-author. “I’d as soon share you with him as that book,” Shevek says to his wife. In response, she explains: “It’s the book that’s important—the ideas. Listen. We want to keep this child to be born with us as a baby, we want to love it.…But if for some reason it would die if we kept it, it could only live in a nursery…if we had that choice, which would we choose? To keep the stillborn? or to give life?’…The Truth is the book” (201-02). Procreation and literary production are paralleled as analogous acts. The fusion of the two principles of line and circle as well as the structure of the book itself engenders, so to speak, literary offspring. For Le Guin the procreational process incorporates two contradictory concepts; on the one hand, the renewal of life in the form of circular regeneration, on the other, death through teleological linearity. When Shevek’s first child is born, this coincidence of line and cycle is expressed in a striking image of life and death. “And she took the slimy but recognizably human creature that had appeared. A gush of blood followed, and an amorphous mass of something not human, not alive…it was death he saw” (204).

Among the various metaphors of simultaneity that Le Guin employs, music is the most obvious symbol of her revolutionary poetics/physics. Her use of this motif parallels ancient cosmological visions such as the so-called Somnium Scipionis in which dream, planetary and musical imagery fuse into a description of the universe. A friend of Shevek and Takver, for example, is ostracized because of his simultaneous, cyclic compositions, which do not fit into the esthetic norm of “linear jouissance”: “I am writing a piece of chamber music. Though I might call it The Simultaneity Principle. Five instruments each playing an independent cyclic theme; no melodic causality; the forward process entirely in the relationships of the parts. It makes a lovely harmony. But they don’t hear it. They can’t” (150). The Ptolemaic cosmology also used musical harmony to sustain its physical theory. Le Guin’s fiction of an alternative Weltbild is supported by a poetics that also seeks its proofs in polyphonic harmony.

French feminists perform an analogous movement into a utopian female perception and reception theory that is directly linked to a supposedly female physis and thus based on simultaneity. Woman’s pancorporal sexuality is seen to contrast with male, focused, “phallocentric” desire, both resembling opposite Weltanschauungen based on physiological assumptions. According to Hélène Cixous, for example, woman is “body without end, without appendage, without principle ‘parts.’ If she is a whole, it’s a whole composed of parts that are wholes, not simply partial objects but a moving limitlessly changing ensemble, a cosmos tirelessly traversed by Eros, an immense astral space not organized around any one sun that’s more a star than the others”; female sexuality is polymorphous, decentered, regional, whereas “Masculine sexuality gravitates around the penis, engendering that centralized body (in political anatomy) under the dictatorship of its parts” (889). Thus to Cixous and other French feminists, the female body is installed as an inversion of patriarchal sexuality and discourse respectively. To Toril Moi, a “woman’s sex and pleasure is not one: her sexual organs are composed of many different elements (lips, vagina, clitoris, cervix, uterus, breasts) and her jouissance is therefore multiple, non-unified, endless” (Politics 43). This alternative esthetics is based on simultaneity—in the case of French feminism on the simultaneity of erogenous zones—that exceeds linear or punctual concepts. In an interview Irigaray, too, compares female orgasmic poetics with polyphony: “Her polyphony, her harmony…her lust has nothing to do with this punctual lust.…[Women] can remain long…in time and space of their lust” (24).

The Dispossessed can easily be read along these lines. Through its innovative structure Le Guin’s novel almost invites a “French feminist reading.” When taking a closer look at certain other topoi in The Dispossessed, however, it is much harder to adhere to a strictly feminist interpretation. Traditional concerns of feminist science fiction such as alternative female language, the treatment and position of women in society and education, are handled ambivalently and are by no means entirely “eu- topian,” i.e., positive. The settlement on Anarres is, of course, the utopian vision, contrasting the “earthly” Urras, which shares most negative features of our world. Anarres, however, is an inverted, regressive kind of Arcadia, bearing hardly any resemblance to the classical idylls. It is an ideological utopia incorporating a number of stereotypes that until recently had been ascribed to East European communist countries. Anarres deliberately blocks any exchange with Urras under the pretence of keeping up an unspoiled Odonian ideology.

The constant references to walls, metaphorical and concrete ones, underline these analogies to former “East European conditions.” The airport on Anarres, for example, which is the only way in and out, is encircled: “There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared; an adult could look right over it and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real” (9). The wall symbolism reappears in Shevek’s dreams, where it suggests not only political or intellectual confinement but also the inability to escape one’s own cultural patterns of thought: “He dreamed he was on a road through a bare land. Far ahead across the road he saw a line. As he approached it across the plain he saw that it was a wall. It went from horizon to horizon across the barren land. It was dense, dark, and very high. The road ran up to it and was stopped.…He had to go on or he could never come home again. A stone lay there…there was a number—…the primal number, that was both unity and plurality” (34). By extending the wall symbolism in this way, Le Guin creates poly-dimensional layers of meaning. She is very cautious about idealizing this visionary community, and the reader is left with the sense of a utopian undertaking that includes corruption, hatred and proprietarian attitudes. Such a depiction is rather unusual in utopian fiction in general and even more rare in female works in this genre. Most women authors draw very distinct lines between good and bad, male and female. Le Guin’s novel does not reflect such clear cut demarcations, and for this reason it is even more challenging.

Le Guin’s ambivalence becomes most obvious in the description of Anarres. Although the life-style of this planet features a number of stereotypically “feminine” traits, these are never overtly praised by Le Guin, who remains quite critical. The Odonian movement, for example, derives its ideology from the writings of Odo, a woman anarchist on Urras. This female ideological basis engenders such features of Anarresti society as general peacefulness and a non-competitive attitude, and herein lie its limitations according to an Odonian scientist: “The trouble with Odonianism, you know, my dear fellow, is that it’s womanish. It simply doesn’t include the virile side of life. ‘Blood and steel’” (238). To a certain extent, however, it does include this violent side, for Shevek is physically attacked by Odonians when he is preparing to leave his home planet.

Urras, in any case, is decidedly competitive and hierarchically organized. In Shevek’s encounter with Urrasti social stratification this difference from Anarres is emphasized in highly gendered metaphors: “Each took for granted certain relationships which the other could not even see. For instance, this curious matter of superiority, of relative height, was important to the Urrasti; they often used the word ‘higher’ as a synonym for ‘better’ in their writings, where an Anarresti would use ‘more central’” (20). Anarres is an overtly egalitarian community in which women are regarded as equals in political and private matters, such as in the labor force or in partnerships, whereas on Urras, women are confined to their traditional roles as mothers and sexual objects. In particular they are barred from work as scientists on the grounds that women “can’t do the maths, no head for abstract thought…what women call thinking is done with the uterus! Of course, there’s always a few exceptions, God—awful brainy women with vaginal atrophy” (67). On bisexual Anarres, in contrast, occupations are not gender confined, just as partnership is less restrictive because marriage as an institution does not exist at all (205). Not only partnership but sexuality in general is handled more liberally, so that “molestation was extremely rare in a society where complete fulfillment was the norm from puberty on” (188).

All these descriptors of the utopian community have certain affinities with the feminine, but Le Guin’s novel by no means accords with the feminism of older works (e.g., Gilman, Herland 1915), or other contemporary science fiction (e.g., Gearhart, The Wanderground 1979). Le Guin’s characters and protagonists, although mostly men, incorporate feminine traits, and therefore escape stereotypical gender distinctions.

Le Guin’s rejection of black and white oppositions leads us back to the overall issue of simultaneity in The Dispossessed. The characters of this novel are no longer like the androgynes in The Left Hand of Darkness who encompassed the male and female simultaneously; The Dispossessed features distinctly gendered personae in whom traditional gender patterns are somehow blurred. Shevek as a man breaks with patriarchal concepts of linear physics traditionally ascribed to male authorities. Such rigid gender clichés are introduced, but also inverted; Takver, the woman, adheres to traditional sequentiality—which is commonly allied with the male—while Shevek embodies supposedly feminine concepts. As Shevek observes of his wife: “She saw time naively as a road laid out. You could walk ahead, and you got somewhere. If you were lucky you got somewhere worth getting to” (156). As he also observes, however, Takver evidences “ecofeminism,” or the close association of the feminine and nature: “Her concern with landscapes and living creatures was passionate. This concern feebly called ‘love of nature’ seemed to Shevek to be something much broader than love.…It was strange to see Takver take a leaf into her hand, or even a rock. She became an extension of it: it of her” (158). By alluding to these feminist topoi, Le Guin utilizes commonplace themes of the genre, but she subverts and relativizes them in the course of the narrative.

Another topos that brings us back to the metatheoretical aspect is Le Guin’s use of an invented utopian language. Pravic, the Anarresti language, is a “rationally invented language that has become the tongue of a great people” (280). Basically Le Guin’s use of this artificial language is charged ethically and morally, but also shows strong gendered features. Later women utopists, such as Suzette Haden Elgin in Native Tongue, exploit linguistics as a powerful means of creating a counter-language to patriarchal discourse and for the purpose of demonstrating that social patterns need to be changed at the very roots of human understanding. Again, such thinking derives from a recourse to philosophers of language like Wittgenstein, Heidegger and ethnolinguists such as Wilhelm v. Humboldt, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, who—although very distinct in their goals—subscribe to a relativity theory of language. According to this approach language is not only a means of describing an objective reality, but rather the very determinant of perception per se, and is thus responsible for the constitution of a particular Weltbild. Although Le Guin touches upon this possibility for feminist utopias, she never exploits it in the extreme.

In her preoccupation with time and her subtle use of simultaneity to avoid black and white distinctions, Le Guin has much in common with Julia Kristeva. Indeed, Kristeva also plays with simultaneity as a structural device in her essay “Stabat Mater” (160-86), in which two different narratives are printed in two columns on one page, each telling a different story although being related to one common topic. Similarly, Kristeva is highly conscious of female and feminist issues, but like Le Guin she never overgeneralizes them in a manner that one group could abuse them for essentialist purposes. For example, in “Women’s Time,” Kristeva notes the association of linear time and the patriarchal: “In its beginning, the women’s movement, as a struggle of suffragists and existential feminists, aspired to gain a place in linear time as the time of project and history” (Reader 193). According to Kristeva this phase of early feminism was replaced by “a second phase, linked…to the younger women who came to feminism after May 1968…in which linear temporality has been almost totally refused.… This feminism situates itself outside of the linear time.…Such feminism rejoins, on the one hand, the archaic (mythical) memory and, on the other, the cyclical or monumental temporality of the marginal movement” (Reader 194-95). Kristeva then goes on to envision a third step in which these two concepts of temporality and attitudes are fused: “insertion into history and the radical refusal of the subjective limitations imposed by history’s time…” (Reader 195). In this third step, Kristeva posits a “mixture” of time concepts which obviously resembles Le Guin’s notions of simultaneity.

Le Guin’s fiction, especially The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, in many ways, therefore, predates recent theoretical developments in feminist scholarship, especially gender studies that counter traditional essentialist positions and argue for a literary criticism that leaves behind conventional boundaries of the male and the female. These new developments try to establish a general understanding of the importance of both genders for literary production and reception. Although most of these new studies are initiated by women, they look for a dialogue with male colleagues. As Elaine Showalter explains: “Gender theory began to develop during the early 1980s in feminist thought in the fields of history, anthropology, philosophy, psychology, and natural science, marking a shift from the women-centered investigations of the 1970s, such as women’s history, gynocriticism, and psychology of women, to the study of gender relations involving both men and women” (10). This recent dialogic trend, in turn, can be found not only in Showalter’s anthology Speaking of Gender, but also in the collection of essays edited by Linda Kaufman, Gender & Theory, as well as in the journal Genders.

In arguing for Le Guin as a precursor of the new feminism, I am of course aware of the dangers of possibly superimposing on her work theories that were developed in a different and later historical context. Yet, a hesitancy about seeing the contemporaneity of an earlier writer’s concerns may also reflect a fixed linear view of time, as well as a progressivist condescension about the knowledge of the past. Le Guin, moreover, is also very much a writer of our time, and however one accounts for her insights, it is clear that The Dispossessed anticipates and evokes in its structure, symbolism and concern with simultaneity the thinking that informs a variety of schools in the late 70s and 80s, such as deconstruction, postmodernist metafiction, feminist literary theory and French feminist psychology. By reason of Le Guin’s ambivalent and ambiguous stance, furthermore, The Dispossessed may be described not only as a precursor but also as a reminder of the importance of keeping an open mind and of being continually self- critical.

Works Cited

Bittner, James W. “Chronosophy, Aesthetics, and Ethics in Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia.” No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction. Ed. Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg and Joseph D. Olander. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1983, 244-70.

Chasseguet-Smirgel, Janine, ed. Female Sexuality. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1970.

Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Signs 1.4 (1976): 875-93.

Derrida, Jacques. Margins of Philosophy. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983.

———. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatari Chakaravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1974.

———. Positions. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981.

Elgin, Suzette Haden. Native Tongue. 1984. London: Women’s P, 1985.

Gearhart, Sally Miller. The Wanderground. 1979. London: Women’s P, 1985.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland. 1915. London: Women’s P, 1986.

Irigaray, Luce. Zur Geschlechterdifferenz: Interviews und Vorträge. Trans. Xenia Rajewesky. Wien: Wiener Frauenverlag, 1987.

Kaufman, Linda. ed. Gender & Theory: Dialogues on Feminist Criticism. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.

Kristeva, Julia. “Stabat Mater.” Tel Quel 74 (Winter 1977): 33-49. Rpt. in The Kristeva Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986. 160-86.

———. “Women’s Time.” Signs 7.1 (1981): 13-35. Rpt. in The Kristeva Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986. 187-213.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed. 1974. London: Grafton, 1986.

———. The Left Hand of Darkness. London: Macdonald, 1969.

———. “Is Gender Necessary? Redux.” 1976. Rev. 1987. Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places. New York: Grove, 1989. 7-16.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics. London: Methuen, 1985.

Montrelay, Michèle. “Inquiry into Femininity.” French Feminist Thought: A Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. New York: Blackwell, 1987. 227-49.

Showalter, Elaine. “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness.” The New Feminist Criticism. Ed. Elaine Showalter. London: Virago, 1985: 243-70.

———, ed. Speaking of Gender. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. 1969. London: Cape, 1970.

Whorf, Benjamin Lee. Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Ed. John B. Carroll. Cambridge: M.I.T., 1964.

Wittig, Monique. Les Guérillères. 1969. New York: Viking, 1971.

Nora Barry and Mary Prescott (essay date Summer 1992)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5839

SOURCE: “Beyond Words: The Impact of Rhythm as Narrative Technique in The Left Hand of Darkness,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 33, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 154-65.

[In the following essay, Barry and Prescott discuss the function of narrative rhythm in The Left Hand of Darkness as a method of juxtaposing, and ultimately transcending, opposing preconceptions about gender and sexuality.]

In her extraordinary introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin sets for herself an apparently impossible task, claiming that “the novelist says in words what cannot be said in words” (vi). Like all paradoxes this one seems unresolvable until readers are willing to leave behind their comfortable ways of thinking and allow their minds to transcend conventional, rational patterns. Writing about God, Joseph Campbell discusses that which transcends thought and words, providing some insight into Le Guin’s aim: “The best things can’t be told because they transcend thought. The second best are misunderstood, because those are the thoughts that are supposed to refer to that which can’t be thought about. The third best are what we talk about” (The Power of Myth 49). Perhaps the realistic novel belongs on a fourth level, for it refers to what we can talk about. Campbell would undoubtedly place The Left Hand of Darkness on the second level, because he would recognize Le Guin’s attempt to introduce readers to a mystery by referring in her novel to truths that are misunderstood when they are anchored to everyday logic. In his survey of Le Guin criticism, James W. Bittner recognizes that Le Guin’s critics often confine themselves to the task of measuring her vision against a reality that is mundane and familiar:

From the beginning, debate about the artistic quality of LHD has centered on whether the plot, variously construed by different critics, is integrated with the most striking thing in the novel—Gethenian androgyny and ambisexuality—and whether Le Guin succeeded in creating really androgynous aliens or just thinly disguised males.


Bittner’s conclusion and the debate inspired by the novel suggest that Le Guin’s critics read the novel measuring it against some standard of realism and emphasizing what they can “talk about.” Perceptive critics have discussed, for instance, the novel’s intriguing focus on complementarity which emerges through Le Guin’s specific reference to light and darkness and the yin-yang. The novel has also generated comments about Le Guin’s skill with narration and the mechanics of structure and its relationship to her central ideas.1 Such critical insights are essential to an appreciation of Le Guin’s mastery of her art, but her own remark about saying in words what cannot be said in words is a hint that she is working in a realm beyond rational standards of what is orderly, mechanical, and even speakable.

Ursula Le Guin’s introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness generalizes about the functions and strategies of novels, as if she believed that they all worked the same way and promoted the same interest in the knowable. At the same time she makes obvious her preference for an unknowable reality that cannot be “described” in conventional ways. When she claims that describing reality is the business of novelists, she appears to be referring to a knowable set of details and circumstances. “All they’re trying to do is tell you what they’re like, and what you’re like—what’s going on—what the weather is now, today, this moment, the rain, the sunlight, look! Open your eyes; listen, listen” (ii). Continuing, however, she undercuts this knowable reality. “This is what the novelists say. But they don’t tell you what you will see and hear. All they can tell you is what they have seen and heard, in their time in this world, a third of it spent in sleep and dreaming, another third of it spent in telling lies” (ii-iii). The Left Hand of Darkness is itself evidence that Le Guin in fact chooses the second reality as her subject—a reality that is deeply individual and universal and as mysterious as dreams and lies. Her preference distinguishes her from those she calls extrapolative science fiction writers and also from conventionally realistic novelists. Le Guin seeks to achieve ignorance in the sense that the Handdara use the term—an awareness of and awe before mystery. Her reliance upon paradox in her introduction takes readers beyond the rational and the knowable, and her reliance upon rhythm in her novel is perfectly expressive of the mystery she explores. E. K. Brown writes in Rhythm in the Novel that “to express what is both an order and a mystery rhythmic processes, repetitions with intricate variations, are the most appropriate of idioms. Repetition is the strongest assurance an author can give of order; the extraordinary complexity of the variations is the reminder that the order is so involute that it must remain a mystery” (115). The introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness communicates Le Guin’s preference for a strategy that, by its rhythmic emphasis upon perceptions of sexuality and shadow, reveals a truth understood through imagination, empathy, and intuition.2 Rhythm allows her to be indirect and implicit in what Le Guin would call “a peculiar and devious way” (iii) and raises the novel to what Campbell refers to as the level of second-best things.

E. M. Forster, considering rhythm in Aspects of the Novel, poses a question that Le Guin tries to answer in The Left Hand of Darkness. “Is there any effect in novels comparable to the effect of the Fifth Symphony as a whole, where, when the orchestra stops, we hear something that has never actually been played” (168)? Simply defined, rhythm is repetition with enough variation to preclude a hardening into symbolism. Its purpose is expansion, not completion, for it resounds with meaning that is liberated from the mechanics of language and conventional thinking.3

Le Guin manipulates readers of The Left Hand of Darkness toward understanding through a contrapuntal technique that allows her to inform them gradually about Gethenian androgyny and at the same time to score the theme of Genly’s bias.4 The opening pages of the novel describe a public ceremony and introduce the counterpoint between fact and personal response. The narrator, Genly Ai, refers to Karhiders as “men” or, conscientiously, as “persons” but never as “women,” supporting the interpretation that this is a ceremony similar to the medieval pageants and parades of guilds, in which women would not necessarily play any significant part. We begin to question our conclusion, however, when we become aware of Genly’s discomfort with his own account. Describing someone we later come to know as Estraven, prime minister of Karhide, Genly refers to him as a man and then interrupts himself, explaining “man I must say, having said he and his” (5). Genly’s comment obscures the sexual distinctions that have figured into our interpretation of this official event and also demonstrates his struggle as reporter to work within logical, dichotomous ways of thinking about sexuality, which even enlightened readers will demand.

Le Guin’s elaboration upon the two contrapuntal patterns forces readers to respond to the narrator’s sexual biases, because at the same time that Genly reveals details of the Gethenians’ sexual nature, he recounts his antipathy toward what he perceives as their feminine characteristics. He scorns the political intrigue of Karhide, calling it “effeminate” (8), and denigrates Estraven’s skills as a dinner host. “Thus as I sipped my smoking sour beer I thought that at table Estraven’s performance had been womanly, all charm and tact and lack of substance, specious and adroit” (12). His description of the superintendent of his residence displays his contempt for women in no uncertain words. “I thought of him as my landlady, for he had fat buttocks that wagged as he walked, and a soft fat face, and a prying, spying, ignoble, kindly nature” (48).

The next phase of Le Guin’s strategy is to conclude the informational theme and at the same time set a trap for readers, who have naturally established their own assumptions about gender in reaction to Genly’s. Le Guin could anticipate a range of responses to Genly’s antifeminine remarks, from agreement to condemnation and feelings of superiority. In chapter 7, “The Question of Sex,” she challenges those assumptions and responses. Ong Tot Oppong, writer of the field notes that comprise this chapter and whose name reveals nothing about gender, is an investigator of the first Ekumenical landing party. The report itself is for the most part impersonal, anthropological, clinical, and quite explicit about Gethenian sexual practices. Conventionally organized, moving as it does from facts to possible conclusions, the chapter stands in stark contrast to the more personal narratives of Genly and Estraven and represents the culmination of the informational theme. Perhaps because the chapter contrasts so strongly with the personal voices of Genly and Estraven, or perhaps because the narrator is so authoritative, clinical, and explicit, readers are likely to assume that the report writer is masculine.5

Le Guin is deliberately playing with the traditional dichotomy of “masculine” objectivity and “feminine” subjectivity to educate her readership in “a peculiar and a devious way.” The report will surprise readers who agree with Genly’s chauvinistic remarks about women, because the report writer of chapter 7 does not appear to conform with the stereotype that Genly proposes in earlier chapters. But readers who consider themselves too enlightened for such sexual biases are nudged toward self-recognition when the narrator of the chapter reveals, “I am a woman of peaceful Chiffewar” (96). Because this revelation is irrelevant to the intended readers of the report, leaders of the Ekumen and the First Mobile, it is surprising that any reference to the writer’s gender appears at all. It is simply not in keeping with the objective tone of the rest of the report. Moreover, the placement of the reference is intriguing. Le Guin appears interested in giving readers ample time to establish a mental image of this unfamiliar narrator. She places the reference to gender only at the end of Ong Tot Oppong’s report where it is likely to have the greatest impact upon the expectations of readers who have unconsciously adopted the assumptions of the masculine/feminine dichotomy and have concluded that the narrator is a man.

“The Question of Sex,” then, satisfies Forster’s definition of rhythm. It is a repetition and a culmination of the novel’s informational theme, but Le Guin emphasizes expansion rather than completion. The chapter expands readers’ awareness of their own preconceptions and liberates Genly from the burden of having to explain the facts of Gethenian sexuality throughout his story. Instead, he can focus upon his growing ability to get beyond questions of sex. In her essay “Is Gender Necessary?” Le Guin writes that in The Left Hand of Darkness she is most concerned with “reversals of an habitual way of thinking, metaphors for what our language has no words for as yet, experiments in imagination” (163). She goes on to say that she fashioned androgynous characters, a fascinating proposition, for a particular, rather ironic purpose—to draw a reader’s attention away from the compelling question of sex. “I eliminated gender, to find out what was left. Whatever was left would be, presumably, simply human. It would define the area that is shared by men and women alike” (163-64). The rhythmic use of the gender theme throughout the entire novel challenges readers to imagine what it might be like to think of others as human rather than sexual beings. Genly spends most of the novel contending with this challenge and reconciles himself to Estraven’s humanity as a result of their common trial on the ice. His attention to what is human becomes apparent when diplomats representing the Ekumen arrive in Karhide. Their obvious—and, in Genly’s eyes, irrelevant—proclamations of their sexuality now offend him.

Out they came, and met the Karhiders with a beautiful courtsey. But they all looked strange to me, men and women, well as I knew them. Their voices sounded strange: too deep, too shrill. They were like a troupe of great, strange animals, of two different species; great apes with intelligent eyes, all of them in rut, in kemmer.… They took my hand, touched me, held me.


The visitors repel Genly; he retreats to his room, where the human company of his Gethenian physician soothes him. “His quiet voice and his face, a young, serious face, not a man’s face and not a woman’s, a human face, these were a relief to me, familiar, right” (296).

Rhythm allows Le Guin to say in words what cannot be said in words. Although she could argue explicitly against the validity of the masculine/feminine dichotomy, she rhythmically elaborates upon her theme so that readers might find their preconceptions about and obsessions with the questions of sex implicitly challenged by Genly’s experience. An appreciation of Le Guin’s skill at saying in words what cannot be said in words will prevent critical readers of The Left Hand of Darkness from dwelling unnecessarily on questions of sex at the expense of human concerns.

Le Guin uses rhythm, then, to lead readers to a certain level of perception where the duality of gender becomes irrelevant. The novel expands beyond even human concerns, however, and toward the transcendent through Le Guin’s use of shadow. Her treatment of shadow challenges the same mode of dualistic thinking that she exposes in her treatment of sexuality. Joseph Campbell claims that we become vulnerable to the dualistic way of perceiving reality once we have fallen out of the realm of the transcendent. He cites the major dualities, including male and female, good and evil, right and wrong, light and dark, past and future, dead and alive, being and nonbeing. He contrasts this dualism with the way of thinking represented by a huge Hindu statue of two heads facing in opposing directions and a central figure, which he calls the mask of God.

The mask represents the middle, and the two represent the two opposites, and they always come in pairs. And put your mind in the middle; most of us put our minds on the side of the good against what we think of as evil. It was Heraclitus, I think, who said, “For God all things are good and right and just, but for man some things are right and others are not.” You’re in the field of time when you’re man, and one of the problems of life is to live in the realization of both terms. That is to say, I know the center and I know that good and evil are simply temporal apparitions.… Here’s a whole mythology based on the insight that transcends duality. Ours is a mythology that’s based on the insight of duality. And so our religion tends to be ethical in its accent—sin and atonement, right and wrong. It started with a sin, you see.

(“The Message of the Myth” 3-4)

Campbell’s insight reveals Le Guin’s purpose, for her consideration of the dualistic world view is not limited to questions of sex: she also confronts an ethical dualism which is such a crucial feature of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Le Guin asks her readers to assume the position of the central mask in the Hindu sculpture, which transcends the limited focus of the dual, opposing figures.

Just as Le Guin prompts readers to respond conventionally to the question of sex early in the novel, her introduction of shadow invites readers to interpret the image in a traditional way. Estraven’s home, formerly the home of Emran the Illfated, lies in shadow, an unhappy reminder of past crimes. “The tragedy is so old that its horror has leached away and only a certain air of faithlessness and melancholy clings to the stones and shadows of the house” (11). The familiar, negative association resurfaces in Genly’s description of King Argaven, whose face, “reddened and cratered by firelight and shadow, was as flat and cruel as the moon” (31). In both of these passages shadow hints at the particular ethical standards being applied to Emran the Illfated and King Argaven. These ethical standards are by their very nature indications of dualistic thinking, which draws clear, socially validated distinctions between right and wrong behavior. But between these two references, Le Guin links shadow with a different meaning, suggesting that individuals are sometimes obliged to transcend their society’s standards of right and wrong behavior. When Estraven challenges Genly’s assumption of the role of the public servant, he establishes himself as one who is willing to transcend the dual concepts of loyalty and treason: “‘I’m not sure I’ve ever served the king,’ said the king’s prime minister. ‘Or ever intended to. I’m not anyone’s servant. A man must cast his own shadow’” (20). At this point it is apparent that Le Guin is contributing another meaning to the conventional negative association, for Estraven uses shadow as a metaphor for substance and integrity. Described frequently as dark and shadowy, Estraven stands in contrast to the insipid, insubstantial citizens of Orgoreyn, described by Genly Ali.

Each of them lacked some quality, some dimension of being; and they failed to convince. They were not quite solid.

It was, I thought, as if they did not cast shadows.


Le Guin implicitly presents Estraven as a person of substance, although Genly still mistrusts him, and in the process she contests our conventional interpretation of darkness.

Rather than simply reversing readers’ expectations about the meaning of shadow, Le Guin uses the image rhythmically, associating it with Estraven, to transcend dualistic notions of right and wrong.6 Writing of Taoistic magic and Ged, the mage of the Earthsea trilogy, Robert Galbreath is aware of that character’s “integrative transformation” (265), through which “Ged accepts, and is completed by, his mortality, his fear, his shadow side” (264). Similarly, Estraven’s stature as a character depends upon his ability to dramatize that transcendence. According to Gethenian conventions and some of ours as well, he is an outlaw, for he apparently betrays his country and Genly breaks the code against vowing kemmering with a sibling, an act analogous to marriage, and is held responsible for his brother’s suicide. Finally he kills himself, the most reprehensible act that a Gethenian can commit. His motives, though, call into question the dualistic distinctions between treason and patriotism, suicide and survival. In his efforts to end the incessant border skirmishes between Karhide and Orgoreyn by discreetly surrendering territory to his supposed enemy, Estraven demonstrates his distaste for rigid, dualistic thinking.

How does one hate a country, or love one? … I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s uncountry?


Estraven’s questions suggest his ability to see beyond dualities and arrive at a sense of larger possibilities exposing the madness of patterns of ethical thinking which require for every good a corresponding evil. To love one’s country, for instance, a person must be able to imagine an enemy and hate it. In his rejection of simple dualities, Estraven avoids the blindness that prevents the Karhiders and the Orgoryens from appreciating the validity of Genly’s proposal. To inform his world of the vision of the Ekumen, Estraven sacrifices power, reputation, and his life, even in the face of his society’s repugnance toward suicide. Although the rationale behind Estraven’s suicide is a mystery, it is possible to interpret it as an act of self-sacrifice, the only means to promote Gethen’s admission into the Ekumen. As a criminal and an exile, after all, Estraven would doom Genly’s mission by his continuing association with it.

Estraven, with Le Guin’s approval, transcends the dualistic, ethical conventions applying to treason and suicide. His early crime of vowing kemmering with his brother, though, and his implicit connection with Arek’s suicide are as heinous as his other offenses and signal his capacity to accept both the unacceptable experience—a powerful love for his brother—and its consequences. Estraven acknowledges the influence and memory of his brother in a statement that suggests he is never free of the implications of their relationship: “My brother’s shadow followed me. I had done ill to speak of him. I had done ill in all things” (75). The horror of his brother’s death and his complicity in the crime do not paralyze Estraven, however. Like Getheren, the surviving brother of “A Place Inside the Blizzard,” he does not submit to death. Le Guin emphasizes Estraven’s achievement implicitly, using the similarity between the two surviving brothers to say in words what cannot be said in words.7 Estraven’s progress from incestuous lover to lover of other worlds is reasonable in Gethenian terms. The Gethenian code demands that a person love what is most like himself or herself only temporarily before submitting to other experiences of love. Estraven in fact meets the demands of the code in the sense that he gives himself for the sake of Genly’s mission. Ironically, it is Estraven’s judges, the other Gethenians, who are most incestuous in their initial fear and mistrust of the other, represented by the Ekumen.

Le Guin also emphasizes the transcendence of dualities by rhythmically referring to the concept of shifgrethor, defined early by Genly Ai as “prestige, face, place, the pride- relationship, the untranslatable and all-important principle of social authority in Karhide and all civilizations of Gethen” (14). As the novel progresses, Genly continuously gathers information about shifgrethor. Although Genly does learn that “shifgrethor” is the ancient word for “shadow,” he stresses the fact that its complexities are untranslatable and unspeakable. Le Guin offers a counterpoint to Genly’s naivete by providing Estraven’s more informed remarks. Estraven, for instance, interprets Orgoreyn’s reluctance to invite Genly’s ship to land as a sign that its leaders fear the resulting diminishing of shifgrethor should they fall victim to a hoax (150). Because Orgoreyn is willing to sacrifice the opportunity to be the first nation on Gethen to communicate with the Ekumen, it appears that Gethenians will guard shifgrethor at any price. Estraven understands that shifgrethor dictates the conduct of nations, confining them to patterns of behavior that guarantee their duality and their alienation from one another and preclude possibilities for change. “Orgoreyn and Karhide both must stop following the road they’re on, in either direction, and break the circle” (153). Shifgrethor acknowledges the substance and integrity of individuals and nations, but Estraven recognizes that it also feeds a fear of the other that solidifies the circle. To break the circle is to surrender one’s essence in an act of acceptance of the other, a painful process of transcending duality that is dramatized during Genly and Estraven’s ordeal in the land of the Unshadow.

Le Guin delicately yet unmistakably predicts this shedding of shifgrethor and its insistence upon individual integrity and duality when she places her two characters in a situation where neither casts a shadow. The harrowing encounter with the Unshadow suggests the enormity of Estraven and Genly’s decision to reveal themselves completely to one another and to love one another despite the risk and the potential for “doing profound hurt” (249). Genly and Estraven’s decision to surrender shifgrethor expands their power and substance even as they relinquish themselves to one another. In a disavowal of shifgrethor, Estraven gives Genly permission to accept advice that will guarantee the success of his mission and enhance his status. In addition, Le Guin’s attention to the myths that inform Gethenian culture and behavior implies a resurrection of Estraven’s shadow. Robert Galbreath recognizes a similar implication when he writes of Ged that “by accepting his shadow as part of himself and part of the pattern (death), he transcends finitude” (264). Estraven’s name will, of course, be forever linked with the story of Genly and the Ekumen, ensuring that his shadow will take on a mythic dimension indicative of his influence over the future of his planet.

Genly Ai is aware of Estraven’s mythic significance, thinking of his friend’s death in terms of the ceremonial laying of the keystone which locks an arch in place. “Therefore for the first time it came plainly to me that, my friend being dead, I must accomplish the thing he died for. I must set the keystone in the arch” (289). Genly’s far-fetching, his intuitive grasp of the meaning of Estraven’s death, recalls the opening scene of the novel, in which Argaven ritualistically mortars a keystone with a pinkish color cement. A person we later come to know as Estraven explains for Genly the significance of the color. “‘Very-long-ago a keystone was always set in with a mortar of ground bones mixed with blood. Human bones, human blood. Without the bloodbond the arch would fall, you see’” (5). Estraven sacrifices himself to cement the relationship between Gethen and the Ekumen, expanding upon the significance of the ancient ceremony in the process. Le Guin’s rhythmic use of the keystone image establishes without question Estraven’s personal, political and mythic power, his shifgrethor.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness challenges the world view that informs the Western World.8 By positing an alternative to the dualism that characterizes Western thinking and behavior, she demonstrates that a reliance upon dualism satisfies the demands of logical thought but leads to political, philosophical, and ethical dead ends. Rhythm enables Le Guin to say in words what cannot be said in words, relying as it does upon the reader’s ability to intuit the significance of repetition and variation. In E. M. Forster’s words, then, “we hear something that has never actually been played” (168). But she moves beyond the unspeakable to the unthinkable as she forces us to perceive the difficulty of relinquishing our dependence upon dualistic thinking. Her decision to place rhythmic emphasis upon the question of sex and the shadow is her way of testing our abilities to break out of our own circles. Perhaps the novel is most compelling in its ability to anticipate the new myth of the future as described by Joseph Campbell:

The only myth that’s going to be worth thinking about in the immediate future is one that’s talking about the planet—not this city, not these people, but the planet and everybody on it. That’s my main thought for what the future myth is going to be. And what it will have to deal with will be exactly what all myths have dealt with: the maturation of the individual, the gradual—the pedagogical way to follow, from dependency through adulthood to maturity, and then to the exit and how to do it. And then how to relate to this society, and how to relate this society to the world of nature and the cosmos. That’s what the myths have all talked about; that’s what this one’s got to talk about. But the society that it’s going to talk about is the society of the planet, and until that gets going, you don’t have anything.

(“The Hero’s Adventure” 11)

The myth of Estraven meets Campbell’s definition and expands Gethenian perceptions of self and other, since in Estraven’s story dualism does not finally reassert itself. Le Guin’s recommendation that we see things—humans, planet, cosmos—whole in defiance of dualistic, rational, logical analysis raises her novel to the level of mystery and into the realm of those “thoughts that are supposed to refer to that which can’t be thought about” (Campbell, The Power of Myth 49).


  1. Dena C. Bain discusses the influence of the Tao Te Ching on Le Guin’s work in “The Tao Te Ching as Background to the Novels of Ursula Le Guin” (209-22). Robert Galbreath interprets Le Guin’s holism in terms of Taoism in “Taoist Magic in the Earthsea Trilogy” (262-68). James W. Bittner also discusses the yin-yang in his preface to Approaches to the Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin. Also see Eric S. Rabkin, “Determinism, Free Will, and Point of View in Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness” (5-19); Karen Sinclair, “Solitary Being: The Hero as Anthropologist” (50-65). The articles by Bain and Rabkin are reprinted in Ursula K. Le Guin, ed. Harold Bloom.

    For discussions of Le Guin’s narrative technique, see Martin Bickman, “Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness: Form and Content” (42-47); James W. Bittner, “A Survey of Le Guin Criticism”; Harold Bloom’s introduction to Ursula K. Le Guin; Rafail Nudelman, “An Approach to the Structure of Le Guin’s Science Fiction” (210-20); Robert Scholes, “The Good Witch of the West,” in Structural Fabulation (77-99), reprinted in Bloom’s Ursula K. Le Guin (35-45).

  2. The recurring references to sexuality and shadow have been documented by nearly every scholar who has written about The Left Hand of Darkness. For this reason we will be selective in our references to these motifs. Our reading detects fifty-eight significant references to gender and forty-six significant references to shadow.

  3. An examination of Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, and City of Illusions, which predate The Left Hand of Darkness, reveals two species of repetition and variation: cyclical plots and the disappearance and reappearance of objects. In Planet of Exile, for instance, the momentous cycle of the seasons turns the plot, as does the recurring motif of the taking of the alien as wife. A lost and found necklace features in Rocannon’s World. City of Illusions offers the cycle of people who leave their world and must return to it. With the help of E. K. Brown’s definition, we distinguish these repetitions from Le Guin’s use of rhythm in The Left Hand of Darkness. Brown refers to the “extraordinary complexity of the variations,” and we do not detect this complexity in the earlier novels. What is more, these novels lack the sense of mystery that the rhythmic strategy promotes, according to Brown.

  4. Rafail Nudelman mentions that “the artistic originality of Le Guin’s science fiction is first and foremost the originality of a strong musically organized form.” He sees the structure of her science fiction as a scoring of vertical and horizontal recurrence through which a theme “expresses itself in variation” from one work to the next (216).

  5. We base our proposition upon our own reactions to the chapter and upon the reactions of hundreds of students who have read the novel in our courses and are surprised to learn that Ong Tot Oppong is a woman.

  6. Sneja Gunew discusses Le Guin’s rehabilitation of the shadow from negative connotations in “Mythic Reversals: The Evolution of the Shadow Motif” (178-99). In her discussion of shadow in fantasy, Ursula K. Le Guin summarizes the concept of shadow as connected to evil within the self that is pertinent to Estraven’s character. See Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Child and the Shadow” in The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction (59-71).

  7. Although we have chosen in this article to focus upon Le Guin’s rhythmic use of sexuality and shadow, other aspects of the novel might be interpreted as further evidence of repetition and variation. The sporadic appearance of myths and legends expands upon the themes of the novel by focusing upon figures and situations which mirror but are not identical with the characters and circumstances of Genly’s story. Le Guin’s inclusion of Estraven’s journals in Genly Ai’s report allows the two writers to comment upon the same events from differing perspectives, thereby contributing to the novel’s rhythmic structure. The predominance of rhythm in various guises distinguishes The Left Hand of Darkness from The Dispossessed but suggests a link between the earlier novel and Always Coming Home.

  8. Barbara Brown reaches the same conclusion in “The Left Hand of Darkness: Androgyny, Future, Present, and Past,” reprinted in Ursula K. Le Guin. “According to Ursula Le Guin, at times we already perceive the androgynous possibilities within us. She suggests we are, nonetheless, unable to explore fully this unified duality. One reason for this limitation is the restrictive way the western mind interprets human experience. … This linear approach, characterizing western thought, focuses on scientifically provable facts. As a result it is narrow and exclusive. It fails to incorporate our peripheral senses which through intuition and mystical awareness, also contribute to knowledge” (230). Brown’s discussion reaches this point after she has analyzed the theme of androgyny.

Works Cited

Bain, Dena C. “The Tao Te Ching as Background to the Novels of Ursula K. Le Guin.” Extrapolation 21 (Fall 1980): 209-22.

Bickman, Martin. “Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness: Form and Content.” Science-Fiction Studies 4 (March 1977): 42-47.

Bittner, James W. Approaches to the Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin. Ann Arbor: UMI Research P, 1984.

———. “A Survey of Le Guin Criticism.” Voyager to Inner Lands and to Outer Space. Ed. Joe De Bolt. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat, 1979. 50-65.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Ursula K. Le Guin. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.

Brown Barbara. “The Left Hand of Darkness: Androgyny, Future, Present, and Past.” Ursula K. Le Guin. Ed. Harold Bloom. New Work: Chelsea House, 1986. 225-33.

Brown, E.K. Rhythm in the Novel. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1950.

Campbell, Joseph. “The Hero’s Adventure.” The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers. Series Prod. Catherine Tatge. PBS. 23 May 1988. Part 1 of 6.

—. “The Message of the Myth.” The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers. Series Prod. Catherine Tatge. PBS. 30 May 1988. Part 2 of 6.

—. The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers. Ed. Betty Sue Flowers. New York: Doubleday, 1988.

Forster, E. M. Aspects of the Novel. New York: Harcourt, 1955.

Galbreath, Robert. “Taoist Magic in the Earthsea Trilogy.” Extrapolation 21 (Fall 1980): 262-68.

Gunew, Sneja. “Mythic Reversals: The Evolution of the Shadow Motif.” Ursula K. Le Guin. Ed. Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg. New York: Taplinger, 1979. 178-99.

Le Guin, Ursula K. Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Ed. Susan Woods. New York: Putnam’s, 1979.

—. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Ace, 1985.

Nudelman, Rafail. “An Approach to the Structure of Le Guin’s Science Fiction.” Trans. Alan G. Myers. Science-Fiction Studies 2 (November 1975): 210-20.

Rabkin, Eric S. “Determinism, Free Will, and Point of View in Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.Extrapolation 20 (Spring 1979): 5-19.

Scholes, Robert. Structural Fabulation. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 1975.

Sinclair, Karen. “Solitary Being: The Hero as Anthropologist.” Ursula K. Le Guin. Ed. Joe De Bolt. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat, 1979. 50-65.

Dean Flower (review date Summer 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 987

SOURCE: “Invasions of Privacy,” in Hudson Review, Vol. XLV, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 331-38.

[In the following excerpt, Flower offers a positive assessment of Searoad.]

Fiction, especially modern fiction, licenses a certain amount of prurience. It invites us into the mind of a character or a narrator, and lets us indulge ourselves there rather freely. We are pleasantly exempt from the risks of any real intimacy. Readers are supposed to be eavesdroppers and spies, of a certain kind at least. Filmgoers have to confront their own voyeurism at some point, morally, but readers of Lambert Strether or Lily Briscoe or Quentin Compson are not likely to have that problem. Just looking, thanks. In the Nausicaa chapter of Ulysses, Leopold Bloom watches Gertie MacDowell on the beach while we hear by means of internal monologue the cliché-ridden contents of her soul come forth. Bloom watches her pruriently, and has an orgasm. We invade Gertie’s privacy too, in a different way, remaining at what seems a safe aesthetic distance, since none of it actually happens—except by means of our looking at words printed on paper. We are supposed to be critically detached, having “participated” in the scene, if at all, only imaginatively and figuratively. No real Gertie MacDowell has been seen in actuality, hence no privacy violated. Still, I think Joyce may be offering a subtle lesson here about the potential for readerly prurience, a lesson usually ignored. Readers like to award him high marks for the relentless intimacy of his narrative, without asking what that intimacy might be for.

Obviously there’s an undercurrent of something unsavory, something collusive, in the way modern fiction makes a commodity of what’s usually kept private. So many novels cater so lavishly to our desire for intimate access to another. Really, of course, it’s only the illusion of such access. But no matter: it creates a dangerous kind of appetite. Those fat books on the best-seller lists pander to it shamelessly. So does Norman Mailer’s latest, fattest novel, purportedly an exposé of Eros and Faust at work in the CIA. Anything for the illusion of privacy and intimacy laid bare. There are a good many better novels around. Not that they eschew intimacy or censor the reader’s investigative curiosity: plot, suspense, narrative drive would be lost without that. But these books are better partly because they make us conscious of our power to invade privacy, conscious of the very prurience and voyeurism latent in fiction itself.

Consider the way Ursula Le Guin for example broaches the problem in her latest book, a sequence of stories centered in a small town on the Oregon coast. In “Sleepwalkers” she portrays the character of Ava, a motel chambermaid, from five different subjective points of view. Most of her observers know nothing about Ava. The only one who sees her past her ordinariness and “niceness” is an older woman—Mrs. McAn—who is curious to understand why Ava walks “like a woman on a high wire. One foot directly in front of the other, and never any sudden movements.” Mrs. McAn’s curiosity represents ours, a desire for empathy masking a more primitive desire to probe the interior truth, to know. But even when we find out that Ava was driven to kill her husband and now seeks guiltily to hide that justified act, Le Guin reminds us that this too is only a version of Ava’s story—a product of the older woman’s educated liberal white feminist point of view. The whole story emphasizes the often careless and indifferent power of others in fixing one’s identity. Even those who presume to know Ava’s “truth,” like Mrs. McAn and the reader, participate in the process.

The best stories in Searoad concern people like Ava and Mrs. McAn, the more isolated and marginal figures of the town, people who are just passing through, or managing a failing business, or hiding from something in the past, holing up emotionally. Most of them are in a sense looking for a good novel to read. The woman who runs the motel in “The Ship Ahoy” likes to keep one unit free so she can doze and daydream there occasionally. She is startled to hear through her thin wall the anguished sobbing of one of her guests—a young man in the throes of suicidal despair. Shocked, she runs outside, unaware that the sobbing expresses her own repressed anguish. Nothing more is explained; Le Guin resists any further invasion of privacy. “True Love” makes a similar point. It’s the wry account of a librarian who knows her books better than anything else, but tries out a summer romance with the new bookseller in town anyway. Her disappointment in him is balanced by a sudden burst of love for the Other Woman in the case—the happiness of having shared something with an otherwise unreachable person.

Le Guin is a scrupulous writer, with a fine sense of the dignity and vulnerability of people—frequently but not exclusively women—whose privacy may all too easily be invaded and abused. Her effort to shape the sequence of stories into something more, a “chronicle” of this coastal village à la Dunnet Landing or Winesburg Ohio, doesn’t quite come off. There are some maps of the place, a wispy-poetical prologue about feminine waves and clouds, and a longish three-generations-of-women narrative, “Hernes,” at the end. Trouble is, Le Guin doesn’t seem to know the Herne family intimately, the way she knows her marginal or itinerant people. So the three generations of Herne women tend to sound alike, to blur into one another, to get lost in a welter of information instead of dramatized acts. Still, Searoad contains a sequence of ten richly interrelated stories, conceived entirely without benefit of science fiction, and the result is impressive if not up to Sarah Orne Jewett’s level.

Holly Littlefield (essay date Fall 1995)

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SOURCE: “Unlearning Patriarchy: Ursula Le Guin's Feminist Consciousness in The Tombs of Atuan and Tehanu,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 36, No. 3, Fall, 1995, pp. 244-58.

[In the following essay, Littlefield discusses Le Guin's evolving feminist perspective and themes.]

The Writer at her work:
I see her walking
on a path through a pathless forest,
or a maze, a labyrinth.
As she walks she spins,
and the fine thread falls behind her
following her way,
where she is going,
where she has gone.
Telling the story.
The line, the thread of voice,
the sentences saying the way.

This stanza from Ursula K. Le Guin’s poem “The Writer on, and at, Her Work” aptly describes Le Guin’s approach to writing. Not only is she a skillful writer who carefully spins and weaves the details of her stories, creating new worlds between the weft and warp of her paper and pen, but she also leaves a path for the reader to follow that traces where she has been in her life and suggests where she is going. Her changing views and deepening social and feminist consciousness are clearly reflected in both her fiction and nonfiction writings. Le Guin has been strongly influenced by both the changing social climate in the United States today and by the growing body of criticism on her work. In the introduction to her latest book of essays, Dancing at the Edge of the World, she says, “I have decided that the trouble with print is, it never changes its mind” (vii). Yet, her changes of mind—particularly her growing feminist perspective—are clearly reflected in both her fiction and nonfiction. This becomes particularly evident in a comparison of The Tombs of Atuan and its companion novel, written over a decade later, Tehanu.

In Feminism and Science Fiction, Sarah Lefanu has pointed out that “there is a simple anomaly, or contradiction, at the heart of Le Guin’s work. It features very few women; these are restricted either by biology or by stereotype … this is not unusual in science fiction; what is odd is that despite it, Ursula Le Guin should have such a feminist following” (132). This contradiction is perhaps best explained by the fact that Le Guin’s work has not remained static. As the American feminist movement has grown and changed, so has Le Guin’s writing. Some critics, when considering her early writings—novels primarily produced in the 1960s—have complained that they represent little more than traditional, male-oriented science fiction written by a woman. But what most of them fail to acknowledge is the fact that although those novels may now be considered to “portray the preservation of the status quo” (Manlove 287) or to be too filled with male heroes who “act as dead weight at the centre of the novels” (Lefanu 137), they were written nearly two decades ago, and they reflect the author’s early feminist leanings rather than the more developed feminism of her later novels. As Lefanu points out, most science fiction up until the 1970s reflected “what could be called masculine concerns, based around the central theme of space exploration and the development of technology: masculine concerns because access to these areas was effectively denied to women in the real world” (3).

Even in the 1960s and 1970s, however, Le Guin’s novels did not fit into a basic science fiction mold. Unlike most of her male contemporaries, who emphasized science, technology, adventure, and space exploration, she generally reflected a more feminist approach to writing by focusing on characters, inner journeys, and human nature. She also has frequently explored themes of liminality, marginalization, and displacement. Her characters are often misfits, caught in between two worlds. Even the genres in which she most frequently chooses to write—science fiction, fantasy, and children’s books—are on the fringes of acceptability, often ignored or not taken seriously by many critics. She explains her attraction to these genres, stating, “I chose to work in such despised, marginal genres as science fiction, fantasy, young adult, precisely because they were excluded from critical, academic, canonical supervision, leaving the artist free” (Dancing 234).

The Earthsea trilogy—A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs of Atuan (1971), and The Farthest Shore (1972)—has been particularly criticized among her early works for not being feminist enough. Lefanu says, “In the Earthsea trilogy women feature first as witches and enchantresses who are either wicked or ignorant—or like Elfarran [a princess from legends] dead.… Or they are absent: not a girl to be seen amongst the hundred or more boys and young men of the wizards’ school” (132). Cummins states that “Earthsea is a hierarchically structured world … only men can advance to positions of power. When writing in the Earthsea world, Le Guin was not questioning some of her culturally-shaped assumptions about the structure of relationships and the roles of women and men” (155). Clearly, Earthsea is a prime example of what Le Guin herself calls the “perfect baboon patriarchy” of science fiction “with rich, ambitious, aggressive males at the top, then a great gap, and then at the bottom the poor, the uneducated, the faceless masses, and all the women” (Language 99). All characters with any real authority or power in Earthsea are men. Two of the three novels do not even have a single significant female character. Women are rarely seen, almost never speak, and none but the most traditional of roles are prescribed for them. In an essay written in 1978 Le Guin retrospectively comments on and agrees with this criticism of her early work: “At the time (1963-4), I could say with a perfectly clear conscience, indeed with self-congratulation, that I simply didn’t care whether my characters were male or female, so long as they were human. Why on earth should a woman have to write about only women? I was unselfconscious, without a sense of obligation: therefore self-confident, unexperimental, contentedly conventional. … I didn’t care whether my protagonist was male or female: well, that carefulness is culpably careless. The men take over” (Language 140-41). Her reasons for this conventionality, however, are easily understood. As one of the few female writers of science fiction, there were few feminist models or precursors for her to draw on. As she points out later in the same essay, “It’s ever so much easier to write about men doing things, because most books about people doing things are about men … as Virginia Woolf pointed out, English prose is unsuited to the description of feminine being and doing, unless one to some extent remakes it from scratch. It is hard to break from tradition; hard to invent; hard to remake one’s mother tongue” (Language 141). Interestingly enough, however, remaking the “mother tongue”—breaking from tradition and reinventing genre—is what Le Guin seems to have been gradually, steadily, doing for the last three decades.

In the creation of Earthsea, Le Guin admittedly did little experimentation with the social order. Although the world she created was vibrant, alive, and unique in many ways, with its own history, traditions, and laws, it essentially mirrored the social structure of the world in which she was raised. Le Guin’s early failure to criticize patriarchal social structure was certainly not unique among science fiction writers. Until recently this genre was seen mainly as a vehicle for intriguing characters and plot-driven novels rather than for social criticism. Lefanu points out that “science fiction has been notably silent on the concomitant subject of social development, particularly as regards the personal and political relationships between women and men” (3), and Amis suggests that although science fiction writers seem to be willing to experiment with nearly all other elements of human experience, male/female relationships always remain the same and “science fiction writers are evidently satisfied with the sexual status quo” (quoted in Lefanu 4). Le Guin, however, despite the conventionality in some of her works, was one of the first writers really willing to explore and experiment with gender and social roles. The Left Hand of Darkness, which depicts an androgynous society, was published in 1969 and is one of the hallmark novels of this kind of experimentation.

Additionally, despite all of their conventionality in the area of social structure, the Earthsea novels reflect a radical departure from the traditional science fiction/fantasy novel in the areas of character, theme, and plot. Although the patriarchal social structure of that world is highly familiar and traditional, the characters are not. In a genre dominated by macho-man heroes and Flash Gordon look-alikes, the main characters of Earthsea are clearly misfits. Ged, Arren, and Tenar (Earthsea’s main characters) are not cut-out, comic-book heroes. They are thoughtful, reflective, and often fallible. Although, like most science fiction works, each novel tells the story of an actual, physical journey or quest, the real focus of the story is on the character’s inner journey, something few science fiction writers have wanted to deal with.

Le Guin’s interest in Jungian theory is clearly reflected in these novels as each character undergoes an inner quest to confront the shadow, “the dark side of his soul, the unadmitted, the inadmissible,” the monster within (Le Guin, Language 60). Bassnett claims that although Le Guin “has been criticized for the marginal role of women overall … the question of sex roles is not her main consideration here … her principal concern is to look at the way in which the individual of whatever sex faces the darkness and desolation within” (56). While her peers were busy creating violent, action-oriented heroes, Le Guin’s characters, male as well as female, avoid violence at all cost, seek to maintain balance and equilibrium in their world, and prefer thought to action. They work hard to form and maintain close friendships, and they live simply with little or no material wealth. Clearly they do not espouse or support the traditional values of patriarchy such as domination, control, and conformity.

Although academic writers frequently discuss and criticize A Wizard of Earthsea and The Farthest Shore, The Tombs of Atuan, even though it received the Newbery Award, is almost completely ignored. It seems striking to me that no full treatment of this novel exists while the other two are discussed repeatedly. Significantly enough, this may be because The Tombs of Atuan features a female protagonist. Is it consequently considered to be less important and less worthy of comment by those writing on Le Guin’s work? Barrow points out that even most feminists have tended to “overlook The Tombs of Atuan [despite] its story of a woman’s coming of age” (20).

At the center of this novel is Tenar, a young, fourteen- or fifteen-year-old priestess whose life has been dedicated to the service of ancient, nameless, frightening gods. She has been raised in the middle of a desert, among a number of ancient tombs and temples built to honor and shelter these gods. A small number of women, chosen specially to serve the gods, live in isolation amid these tombs. Although this novel deals primarily with the importance of character—focusing on Tenar’s inner journey to find her true identity and her outer journey to escape the tombs and the labyrinth in which she lives—Le Guin also is clearly criticizing the patriarchal world in which Tenar lives. Despite the fact that the priestesses in this novel are in positions of power, they have been put in these roles by men to serve male interests and worship male godkings. While they may have some power over each other, none of them seems to have any real power outside of their isolated temples. Their lives are joyless and difficult, filled with empty ritual and endless monotony. Charlotte Spivack points out that the life Tenar leads among these priestesses “has no opportunity for either personal choice or voluntary actions. Her development as a conscious individual is totally stultified” (33). In fact at one point Penthe, a young priestess, says to Tenar, “I’d rather marry a pigherd and live in a ditch. I’d rather anything than stay buried alive in this place with a mess of women in a perishing old desert where no one ever comes” (40). Although they are isolated from men, they are still carefully and thoroughly controlled by them. When Tenar turns away from the gods she serves and flees from the tombs, she is also rebelling against the patriarchal structure that has imprisoned her all her life.

Some critics have disapprovingly claimed that Tenar essentially must be rescued from her fate by the arrival of the wizard Ged, who saves her (Lefanu 132). Yet this is a fairly simplistic interpretation of the events of the novel. Although it is clear that Ged serves as a catalyst for Tenar’s escape, he is not solely responsible for it. When they meet in the underground tombs it is she who is in control, not he. When a fifteen-year-old girl single-handedly manages to outwit, entrap, and control the most powerful wizard in the land, it should be obvious that she is not a simpering, helpless female needing some knight in shining armor to rescue her. In fact, her strength is in many ways equal to or even greater than Ged’s. He says to her, “I was dying of thirst when you gave me water, yet it was not the water alone that saved me. It was the strength of the hands that gave it” (106). In addition, it is not just Ged’s magic that holds back the power of the ancient, nameless gods of the tombs, it is also Tenar’s presence. It is clear that he attributes most of the success of his mission to her. He tells her that he will describe her to the people in Havnor by saying, “In the place of darkness I found the light, her spirit. By her an old evil was brought to nothing. By her I was brought out of the grave. By her the broken was made whole, and where there was hatred there will be peace” (145).

Finally, when she decides to leave the tombs and flee with Ged, she takes a risk like no other character in the trilogy. She tells Ged, “If I leave the service of the Dark Ones they will kill me. If I leave this place I will die.” He replies that in order “to be reborn, one must die” (114). And although she believes that she may well die, she gives up everything she knows, every shred of power and prestige she has, and risks it on the unknown. As Cummins points out, “whereas Ged and Arren [in the other two novels] mature so as to assume socially-approved roles, she has had to rebel against the society which nurtured her” (156). Consequently, her rebellion and independence are much more difficult and come at a greater price than that of the other main characters in Earthsea. In addition, as Slusser observes, although Tenar is “faced with the same ordeal that Ged faced in A Wizard of Earthsea—the coming of age. She has no Ogion to guide her, and no school of wizardry to teach her. Her world is one that has sunk into ignorance and perversion. The proper balance of light and darkness, death and life has been upset” (40). Yet, she must take action against this evil with no training or background to help her.

Together she and Ged form a mutual bond of trust that allows them to escape from the tombs and to rejoin the ancient ring of Erreth-Akbe, and in so doing she is reborn as an independent, free woman. Margaret Esmonde claims that at the end, Tenar’s “journey through the labyrinth of her own mind, filled with darkness and guilt, has ended in freedom and light. Maturation as a woman is complete; now she, too, is whole and free” (27). The price that she must pay for this freedom is very high, however. She tells Ged, “All I know is of no use now” (Atuan 132). Later, on their journey back to Ged’s homeland, she becomes filled with dread as she realizes that “All that lay ahead of her was unknown. She knew nothing but the desert and the Tombs. What good was that? She knew the turnings of a ruined maze, she knew the dances danced before a fallen altar. She knew nothing of forests, or cities, or the hearts of men” (135). Unlike Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea, who can go on to become a mage, or Arren in The Farthest Shore, who becomes a king, there is no future, no acceptable role, for Tenar. Cummins explains Tenar’s dilemma claiming that she “cannot immediately go back and become a peasant wife and mother, nor does she have the credentials to be a princess; she cannot become a wizard or a king.… Le Guin has created a strong woman and then was unable to imagine an appropriate place for her in the hierarchical, male world” (156).

Tenar instinctively seems to know this and asks Ged to leave her on a deserted island, alone, far away from the world that has no place for her. He refuses, trying first to cajole her into living in the big city of Havnor by saying, “They’ll welcome you in Havnor as a princess … they’ll love you the more because you are so young. And because you are beautiful. You’ll have a hundred dresses like the one I showed you” (131). These words have little effect on Tenar; she is not a traditional woman who has learned to be bought and sold for dresses, beauty, and male admiration. In the end Ged realizes this and instead he takes her to Gont, where she can live alone, in isolation, with his former teacher Ogion. He tells her, “it is true that you have no place there [in Havnor]. You are too young and too wise” (145). In reality it seems that Cummins is right—there is no place in “Earthsea for the self-defined woman” (157). While writing in the midst of the feminist revolution that was taking place in the 1960s, Ursula Le Guin was able to create a female character that ran counter to nearly every feminine role model that her genre had produced up until that time. Her consciousness had been raised enough to allow her to create Tenar but not enough to imagine a future for this woman who does not neatly fit into any of the roles that patriarchy has allowed for females. Le Guin has stated that aside from the traditional wife/mother roles allowed to women, the only other “alternative offered by the patriarchal mythology is that of the Failed Woman—old maid, the barren woman, the castrating bitch, the frigid wife, the lezzie, the libber, the Unfeminine” (Dancing 156). Clearly Tenar is none of these things; consequently, her future in a world that only acknowledges these roles for women is uncertain. As Kate Chopin did with The Awakening, Le Guin has created an independent woman who awakens to a world that has no place for her, and although Le Guin at least does not literally kill Tenar—as Chopin seems forced to do with her heroine—she does figuratively kill her off. She is left, isolated on Gont, far away from the center of life and action in Earthsea. Significantly, she does not appear even once in the third novel of the trilogy. It will take almost twenty years for Le Guin to be able to reexamine and reimagine Earthsea in a way that will allow her to find a place for Tenar.

In an essay written in 1988, “The Fisherwoman’s Daughter,” Le Guin tries to explain why the position of women in her early novels is so problematic: “Until the mid-seventies I wrote my fiction about heroic adventure, high-tech futures, men in the halls of power, men—men were the central characters, the women were peripheral, secondary. Why don’t you write about women? my mother asked me. I don’t know how, I said. A stupid answer, but an honest one. I did not know how to write about women—very few of us did—because I thought that what men had written about women was the truth, the true way to write about women. And I couldn’t” (Dancing 234). At the time there were very few models of women writing about women for her to follow, and she had not yet come to actively question the depiction of women in the fiction written by most men. In the twenty-five years that have passed since the publication of the first Earthsea novel, however, our society has changed radically—a change that is clearly reflected in Le Guin’s writings. As Cummins points out, “Reading her fiction world by world allows us to follow a journey in which Le Guin has periodically come home to give birth to a new sense of herself as a writer and as a woman.… Earthsea was a safe haven for the woman who could not yet question the traditional, hierarchical, male world of fantasy literature” (164). Le Guin herself acknowledges this, stating that, in the 1960s, “I considered myself a feminist; I didn’t see how you could be a thinking woman and not be a feminist; but I had never taken a step beyond the ground gained for us by Emmeline Pankhurst and Virginia Woolf” (Dancing 7-8). But now, nearly two decades after the last novel in the Earthsea trilogy was published, Le Guin has returned to the world that she created in the 1960s and has written a fourth Earthsea novel that addresses many of the feminist criticisms and complaints directed at the earlier novels. Feminism, she says, “has enlarged its ground and strengthened its theory and practice immensely and enduringly, in these past twenty years” (Dancing 8), and Le Guin’s increasing understanding and acceptance of this theory is strongly reflected in Tehanu, the final Earthsea novel.

This gradual shift in Le Guin’s sense of herself as a writer and as a woman can be traced throughout nearly all of her writings. A look at the two versions of her essay “Is Gender Necessary?” is particularly revealing. The first version, written in 1976, reflects a growing feminist awareness and some views that would have been considered radical at the time; however, she still makes some claims that would set most modern feminists’ teeth on edge. For example, at one point in her discussion of The Left Hand of Darkness she stated, “I call Genthenians ‘he’ because I utterly refuse to mangle English by inventing a pronoun for ‘he/she.’ ‘He’ is the generic pronoun, damn it, in English.… But I do not consider this really very important” (Language 168). Eleven years later in her revised version of this essay, she strongly criticizes her own earlier statements, claiming, “I still dislike invented pronouns, but I now dislike them less than the so-called generic pronouns he/him/his, which does in fact exclude women from discourse.… If I had realized how the pronouns I used shaped, directed, controlled my own thinking, I might have been ‘cleverer’” (Dancing 15).

In many ways Tehanu seems to be the fictional version of this essay, depicting in prose some of the same changes and issues. Barrow claims that, “In many respects the realism of Tehanu deconstructs the first three volumes of Earthsea, since Le Guin now must feel that she had overemphasized male power through romance and magic” (42). Tehanu is clearly a departure from the other three Earthsea novels. Le Guin cannot now go back and reconstruct the world she created nearly three decades ago; however, what she has chosen to do instead is write a mature response to it that truly reflects women’s experience in that world and offers some harsh criticism of it. As a young girl Tenar was so isolated that her ability to observe, reflect on, and criticize the social structures in place in her world was minimal. As a middle-aged woman, her eyes have been opened, and she finds herself repeatedly questioning and condemning the laws, traditions, and policies that have caused women to be second-class citizens in Earthsea. Le Guin has criticized our society saying, “almost all the rules, laws, codes, and commandments we have—all our ethics—were made by men … women had no voice, no vote. We let the men make all the choices” (Dancing 19). This same criticism can be stated of Tenar’s world. Now both Tenar and Le Guin are over twenty years older; with that experience comes a deeper and more political understanding of their lives. Le Guin explains this, saying, “Feminist ideology … has forced me and every thinking woman of this generation to know ourselves better: to separate, often very painfully, what we really think and believe from all the easy ‘truths’ and ‘facts’ we were (subliminally) taught about being male, being female.… All too often we have found that we had no opinion or belief of our own, but had simply incorporated the dogmas of our society; and so we must discover, invent, make our own truths, our values, ourselves” (Language 142).

Many critics have observed that the main theme and focus of the Earthsea novels is one of balance, of maintaining an equilibrium. In each novel there is an imbalance in the world that must be righted. Remington points out that, at the end of the trilogy, “the circle of life is made complete as the dark forces of death are recognized as the necessary and natural balancing forces to which those of light and life are the left hand” (285), while Manlove states that “balance is at the heart of the fantastic world of Earthsea” (287). In the first three novels, however, Le Guin focuses solely on the importance of balancing concepts or ideas such as good and evil, action and inaction, or life and death. The fundamental imbalances of power and gender are never addressed. Consequently, in Tehanu we see that things are not as in balance in Earthsea as we were led to believe they were at the end of The Farthest Shore. Ged and Arren may have righted one imbalance in their world by shutting the opened door between life and death, but that is not the only imbalance in their society. According to the wizards and mages, once the ring of Erreth-Akbe was reunited and a king sat on the throne in Havnor, all would be right again in Earthsea—an era of peace and prosperity should now be upon them. It is made clear right away in the beginning of Tehanu, however, that this is not the case.

There are many things profoundly wrong and out of balance in Earthsea. The book opens with death, the rape of a child, a mutilation, and widespread fear. A new king may be ruling, but all is not well. He has trouble keeping control over the pirates that roam the open seas, and most importantly we discover that there is no archmage in Roke. No wizard has been found to fill the void that Ged left when he lost his powers. Although the wizards are told in a prophecy that they must look for a woman, they rigidly refuse to accept this message. Their fear and mistrust of women is so deeply ingrained that they can only interpret this prophecy to mean that some woman will help them to find the needed male mage. Windkey, a master at Roke says, “Evidently this woman is to guide us, show us the way to our archmage” (157). Yet when Tenar suggests that this prophecy might mean something else, that it might be suggesting the need for a more profound and fundamental kind of social change, he ignores her. She realizes then that he could not truly hear her. “How could he who had never listened to a woman since his mother sang him his last cradle song?” (160).

Tenar’s growing independence and self-awareness cause her to recognize this profound imbalance in the wizards, and she refuses to share with them the knowledge she has regarding the prophecy. The wizards cut themselves off from all that is female. Although they constantly espouse balance and moderation, their own lives do not embody this. They live unnatural lives shut away in their male-only world. They do not marry or father children; they understand politics and magic but nothing to do with the simple day-to-day workings of life. The wizards’ inability to acknowledge or respect anything feminine is repeatedly shown in Tehanu. When Ogion, Tenar’s adopted father, dies, two wizards show up and arrogantly argue over which of them gets to have his body for burial. They refuse to believe that Tenar would know his last request until she proves it by telling them Ogion’s true name. Even then one of them says to her, “Take care, woman, how you speak to men of power” (28). It is firmly ingrained in the minds of the wizards that, while women might be witches or petty village healers, they cannot deal in true magic or real power. “No woman was so trained. Wizardry was a man’s work, a man’s skill; magic was made by men. There had never been a woman mage” (36). Ogion, who lives apart from Roke and does not accept their ways, is different. He recognizes the power in the child Therru and on his deathbed says, “Teach her Tenar. Teach her all!—Not Roke. They are afraid” (23). Tenar does not understand this cryptic message, but by the end of the novel its meaning becomes clear. Therru, a female child, holds more power in her than any living male mage. Ogion knew this, but he also realized that she would not be accepted at Roke. The men there would fear her and be too threatened by her.

Many critics have noted that each of the Earthsea novels involves dual journeys, both a physical and an inner quest are accomplished in each. Tehanu is no different; however, its focus on the inner journey is even more profound than that of the other three novels, and in many ways it represents a kind of feminist consciousness raising for the two main characters. Although both Tenar and Ged come to radical new understandings of themselves and the world in which they live, Ged’s change is perhaps the more difficult of the two because he has farther to go in his process of self-education than Tenar does. In an interesting move, Le Guin essentially reverses their roles from the ones they played in The Tombs of Atuan. In the process of shutting the door between life and death at the end of The Farthest Shore, Ged lost all his powers and abilities as a wizard. Like Tenar in The Tombs of Atuan, everything he knows has been taken from him, and he must learn to adapt to a whole new life. He must confront his own powerlessness. To a certain extent he has been symbolically feminized. He lacks his rod, his mage’s staff, which was left broken on Selidor, and is left powerless, impotent. Significantly, it is Tenar who teaches him to regain his sense of self and manhood by returning him to the life he led as a child and forcing him to look at his own remaining inner shadows. He must learn to accept his weakness and vulnerability. It is Tenar who teaches Ged to become a man rather than just a wizard. She restores to him a different kind of potency—both physically, as she teaches him about sexual union, and emotionally, as she teaches him to learn to find happiness and fulfillment outside of wizardry and in connections with other people instead. As Tenar had to be reborn in the earlier novel, Ged must now be reborn in Tehanu.

In “The Fisherwoman’s Daughter” Le Guin criticizes many women writers, including herself: “It seems to me a pity that so many women including myself have accepted [a] denial of their own experience … writing as if their sexuality were limited to copulation, as if they knew nothing about pregnancy, birth, nursing, mothering, puberty, menstruation, menopause, except what men are willing to hear, nothing except what men are willing to hear about housework, childwork, lifework, war, peace, living and dying as experienced in the female body” (Dancing 228). She strongly addresses these concerns in Tehanu. An important theme of this book deals with the importance of female experience and knowledge. As Barrow puts it, “The series begins with the wizardry of men and the power of mages but ends with the wisdom of women” (37). The doors of male privilege and power were opened to young Tenar when Ogion agreed to take her in as an apprentice, to teach her the spells, ways, and language of wizards. Although she has power and could have become a wizard, she realized that that path is not for her. Instead she left Ogion, married a farmer, and raised children. She was seeking something that Ogion could not give her. After Ogion’s death she realizes that he had never “kissed her, or she him. He had called her daughter, and had loved her, but had not touched her; and she, brought up as a solitary, untouched priestess, a holy thing, had not sought touch, or had not known she sought it” (61). He had been gentle and kind to her, but he had always kept a distance from her. She needed more than that kind of love and more than the empty words of the wizards’ cold magic.

In her research on women’s development Nancy Chodorow has found that “in any given society, feminine personality comes to define itself in relation and connection to other people more than masculine personality does” (43-44). Tenar is a perfect example. Although she loves Ogion, she cannot stay cut off from the rest of the world, in isolation with him. She says, “I left him. What did I want with his books? What good were they to me? I wanted to live, I wanted a man, I wanted my children, I wanted my life” (56). And later when Ged asks her how she could have given up the power and knowledge of being a mage, she asks him. “What should I have done with my power, and the knowledge Ogion tried to teach me?” (94). She again realizes that there is no real place for a woman of power in her world, and she goes on to tell him, “I used to think, I could be dressed up as a warrior, with a lance and a sword and a plume and all, but it wouldn’t fit, would it? What would I do with a sword? Would it make me a hero? I’d be myself in clothes that didn’t fit.… So I took it all off and put on my own clothes” (95). She has been enmeshed all her life in male ways and men’s knowledge, and she realizes that she needs to know something about being a woman. Ostriker has stated that “if the woman artist has been trained to believe that the activities of motherhood are trivial, tangential to the main issues of life, irrelevant to the great themes of literature, she should untrain herself. The training is misogynist, it protects and perpetuates systems of thought and feeling which prefer violence and death to love and birth and it is a lie” (quoted in Dancing 228). This applies equally to the women of power in Tehanu, which Tenar clearly realizes. She understands the need to become more deeply connected to her own inner power as a woman.

Moss, the village witch, speaks to Tenar about the difference between male and female power. She tells her that a man’s power comes only from within himself. “His power’s himself, see. That’s how it is with him. And that’s all. When his power goes, he’s gone. Empty” (56). A woman’s knowledge, however, is deeper and more connected to things outside her own body. Tenar is told that “a woman’s power [is] deeper than the roots of trees, deeper than the roots of islands, older than the Making, older than the moon” (57). In Tehanu women seem to be continually linked to dragons, the oldest, most powerful, and strongest creatures on earth. Both Tenar and Therru (her adopted child) are repeatedly described in dragon terminology and linked to fire, burning, and strength. In the end of the novel it is clear that Therru is in fact descended from the dragons, and from that comes much of her strength. Tenar, however, also is connected to this ancient power. The language of dragons comes easily to her in a way that all the spells and wizards’ words did not. When the dragon Kalessin arrives to bring Ged to her, she does not run from it in fear; instead she is intrigued by it, and although “she had been told that men must not look into a dragon’s eyes, that was nothing to her” (41). She stares directly into its eyes—something none of the wizards have ever been able to do—recognizing a kinship with this ancient creature whose power is embedded in the very formation of the earth.

As a mature woman Tenar learns the importance of connectedness and that not all significant knowledge is found in books. Modern feminists like Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule have discussed the importance of women’s ways of knowing and understanding. They point out that often women value connectedness and an understanding that comes from the “conviction that the most trustworthy knowledge comes from personal experience rather than the pronouncements of authorities” (112-13). Like them, Tenar clearly questions authority-based knowledge. When Ged, overwhelmed with self-pity at the loss of his book-based wizard’s knowledge and power, refuses to consider that there may be other things of importance for him to know, she tells him in frustration, “It’s time you learned that you didn’t learn everything on Roke [the island that houses the wizards’ school]” (113). Later she asks, “Is wisdom all words?” (133). And finally, when she and Ged spend their first night together, we learn that “She taught Ged the mystery that the wisest man could not teach him” (211). Interestingly enough, Arbur notes that Tenar is “a character who complements Ged and, in an important sense, reaches his life’s goal—that of being rather than doing—about two decades before he does” (151). It is she who finally helps him reach this goal himself without the aid of magic or books. Le Guin states, “In our society women have lived and have been despised for living the whole side of life that includes and takes responsibility for helplessness, weakness, and illness, for the irrational and the irreparable, for all that is passive, uncontrolled, animal, unclean” (Dancing 117). Yet it is Tenar’s connectedness to this less-sanitized side of life that has taught her compassion. She is willing to take in the burned and mutilated child Therru when no man will have her in his house. Barrow points out that “Therru is reclaimed to life by the constant care of Tenar and develops a female magic through her suffering at the hands of men and through the daily love of women” (41). Tenar has learned to see beyond appearances and into the deeper heart of things. Ultimately it is this compassion for Therru that saves both her life and Ged’s.

In her later writings and speeches Le Guin has been particularly critical of the use of language to perpetuate second-class status for women. She states, “This is a man’s world so it talks a man’s language. The words are all words of power” (Dancing 115). She describes the language used and taught in schools as “the language of power—social power; I shall call it the father tongue … it doesn’t speak itself. It only lectures” (Dancing 147). Both Le Guin and other feminists (Dale Spender, Mary Daly, Cheris Kramarae, and many others) have described at length how language has been used to control and subordinate women. This is a realization that Tenar also comes to in Tehanu. Le Guin has said that “the essential gesture of the father tongue is not reasoning but distancing—making a gap, a space between the subject or self and the object or other” (Dancing 148). This seems to be very true of the wizards’ use of language. Speaking the wizards’ language—the father tongue—is nearly impossible for Tenar. She says, “The lore, the runes of power, the spells, the rules, the raising of forces—that was all dead to me. Somebody else’s language” (Tehanu 95). Countering this kind of language is the mother tongue, “language not as mere communication but as relation, relationship. It connects. It goes two ways, many ways, an exchange, a network. Its power is not in dividing but in binding, not in distancing but in uniting” (Dancing 149). The parallel to this in the Earthsea novels can be seen in the old language, the ancient language of making that the dragons speak. Although the wizards have appropriated some words and phrases from this language to shape their spells, they do not speak it easily or fluently. However, Tenar finds that it comes easily to her “like learning the language I spoke before I was born” (Tehanu 95). This language of creation—essentially of life—comes more readily to her, a woman, than it does to most men who struggle to learn a few words of it. The ancient “mother tongue” of her world comes naturally to her, but when she must force it into a language of control and domination she cannot. The rules of the “father tongue” are too foreign to her.

In a 1986 commencement address to the young women at Bryn Mawr, Le Guin said, “I hope you don’t try to take your strength from men, or from a man. Secondhand experience breaks down.… I hope you’ll take and make your own soul; that you’ll feel your life for yourself pain by pain and joy by joy” (Dancing 158). This struck me as advice that Tenar might well have given to a similar group of young women in her own world. She has learned to rely on herself and her own knowledge and experience. She turned away from a solely male understanding of the world and tried to forge her own new ideas about power and balance in her world. The end of Tehanu suggests that a change is coming over Earthsea; the fundamental social imbalances that had so long been ignored will be addressed by a greater understanding and need for the power of women.

Le Guin has brought an ever-growing and deepening feminist consciousness to her writings, something we can see reflected in the lives of her characters and the intricacy of her plots and themes. In a description of herself she has said, “I am trying to unlearn these lessons … [the] lessons I was taught by my society, particularly lessons concerning the minds, work, works, and being of women. I am a slow unlearner. But I love my unteachers—the feminist thinkers and writers and talkers and poets and artists and singers and critics and friends from Wollstonecraft and Woolf through the furies and glories of the seventies and eighties” (Dancing 151). The growing acceptance and importance of feminist thought in society today, as well as the gradual development of feminism over the last three decades, are clearly mirrored in her work as we watch her unlearning through the years.

Works Cited

Arbur, Rosemarie. “Beyond Feminism, the Self Intact: Woman’s Place in the Work of Ursula K. Le Guin.” Selected Proceedings of the 1978 Science Fiction Research Association National Conference. Ed. Thomas J. Remington. Cedar Falls: U of Northern Iowa P, 1979. 146-63.

Barrow, Craig, and Diana Barrow. “Le Guin’s Earthsea: Voyages in Consciousness.” Extrapolation 32 (Summer 1991): 20-44.

Bassnett, Susan. “Remaking the Old World: Ursula Le Guin and the American Tradition.” Where No Man Has Gone Before. Ed. Lucie Armitt. London: Routledge, 1991. 50-66.

Belenky, Mary Field, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger, and Jill Mattuck Tarule. Women’s Ways of Knowing. New York: Basic Books, 1986.

Chodorow, Nancy. “Family Structure and Feminine Personality.” Woman, Culture and Society. Ed. M. Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1974.

Cummins, Elizabeth. “The Land-Lady’s Homebirth: Revisiting Ursula K. Le Guin’s Worlds.” Science-Fiction Studies 17 (1990): 153-65.

Esmonde, Margaret P. “The Master Pattern: The Psychological Journey in the Earthsea Trilogy.” Ursula K. LeGuin. Ed. Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg. New York: Taplinger, 1979. 15-35.

Lefanu, Sarah. Feminism and Science Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988.

Le Guin, Ursula, K. Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places. New York: Grove Press, 1989.

———. The Farthest Shore. New York: Bantam, 1972.

———. The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Ed. Susan Wood. New York: Putnam’s, 1979.

———. Tehanu. New York: Bantam, 1990.

———. The Tombs of Atuan. New York: Bantam, 1979.

———. A Wizard of Earthsea. New York: Bantam, 1968.

———. “The Writer on, and at, Her Work.” The Writer on her Work. Ed. Janet Sternburg. New York: Norton, 1991.

Manlove, Colin “Conservatism in the Fantasy of Le Guin.” Extrapolation 21 (Fall 1980): 287-97.

Remington, Thomas, J. “A Time to Live and a Time to Die: Cyclical Renewal in the Earthsea Trilogy.” Extrapolation 21 (Fall 1980): 278-85.

Slusser, George Edgar. The Farthest Shores of Ursula K. Le Guin. San Bernardino, CA: Borgo Press, 1976.

Spivack, Charlotte. Ursula K. Le Guin. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

Carol Franko (essay date Winter 1996)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7042

SOURCE: “Acts of Attention at the Borderlands: Le Guin's The Beginning Place Revisited,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 37, No. 4, Winter, 1996, pp. 302-15.

[In the following essay, Franko reexamines the feminist themes and narrative techniques of The Beginning Placein light of Le Guin's later more explicit feminist stance.]

The concept [of] “attentive love” … designates a cognitive capacity—attention—and a virtue love.… Attention lets difference emerge without searching for comforting commonalities, dwells upon the other, and lets otherness be. Acts of attention strengthen a love that does not clutch at or cling to the beloved but lets her grow. To love a child without seizing or using him, to see the child’s reality with the patient loving eye of attention—such loving and attention might well describe the separation of mother and child from the mother’s point of view

—Sara Ruddick, Maternal Thinking

“Why can’t they say [what they mean]—It isn’t fair [said Irena]. For all I know they’re just sending you out as a—I don’t know. A scapegoat. A—” But she could not think of the word she wanted, that meant something given up as an offering.

“They’re stuck,” [Hugh] said. “They can’t do what they have to do.”

—Ursula K. Le Guin, The Beginning Place

“To be powerful,” comments Sara Ruddick in her study of maternal thinking, “is to have the individual strength or the collective resources to pursue one’s pleasure and projects” (37). By this definition mothers are too often powerless to pursue their pleasures and projects—burdened as so many are by poverty and violence, burdened as virtually all are with our “culture’s contempt for [the work of] mothers” (37). Ruddick thus situates her analysis of the “acts of attention” fundamental to maternal thought and practice in a real world where mothers get “stuck” (Le Guin, BP 127) and, lacking the individual strength to overcome the dearth of collective resources, are unable to do what they want to do, or what they need to do.

This “stuckness” describes the dilemma of mothers in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Beginning Place (1980)—an ambitious novel of two worlds, two fictional modes, and two young people that was much admired in reviews and in a few critical essays. These responses also typically present the novel, for all of its beauty, as posing a puzzle, one that remains enigmatic despite illuminating readings of Beginning Place as a commentary both on the proper uses of fantasy (Attebery) and on the struggles of adolescents with psychic and physical incest (McLean; Spivack).1 I suggest that if we revisit the rich foregrounds and backgrounds of meaning in Beginning Place in light of the increasingly feminist turn that Le Guin’s writing has taken in the past fifteen to twenty years, we will better appreciate and understand the “multiplexity” (McLean’s apt term) of this narrative and of the developing feminist ethos of its author. The Beginning Place may not be as explicitly feminist as, for example, Always Coming Home (1985) or Tehanu (1990): yet in its haunting, gnomic way it anticipates their thorough critiques of “patriarchy” and their feminist reshaping of narrative.

Although it details the experiences of adolescents “on their way to becoming responsible human beings,” this young-adult novel is more concerned than critics have noticed with the “reality of the mother’s experience” (Le Guin, “Fisherwoman’s Daughter” 229). Certainly The Beginning Place depicts the dangers and difficulties experienced by adolescents when their mothers cannot separate from them via the attentive love that allows differentiation to be a new stage in relationship.2 Yet Le Guin depicts these problems as tragic for the mother and for the society as well as for the child. Furthermore—and this is the enabling conceit of my reading—Le Guin fashions a narrative where the storyteller has the power to do for her young protagonists what their mothers cannot. I thus read The Beginning Place as a special kind of speech act: at once the storyteller’s act of attentive love for the “other” and her affirmation of the key role such maternal praxis plays in the development of the child/emerging adult. The storyteller acts with attention toward her protagonists Irena Pannis and Hugh Rogers—young adults who need to recognize and value their own subjectivity, their own desires and goals, so that they can “unstick” themselves from a sad, dangerous stasis and risk “the reaching out to the dissimilar Other which is the beginning of mature love” (Attebery 241).

Of course this authorial power to act attentively lies (as Le Guin might pun) in fiction—in this case, especially in the manipulation of point of view and genre. A third- person recorder (an avatar of Ruddick’s attentive maternal thinker whom I call the storyteller) conveys the outer/inner reality of Hugh and Irena, who emerge as the “You” and “I” of a quest for a social-psychic beginning place.3 In the first eight chapters, the angle of vision alternates between Hugh (chapters I, 3, etc.) and Irena (chapters 2,4, etc.). This alternation proves crucial in two ways. Readers first meet Hugh through Hugh’s reality and Irena through Irena’s perspective—thus the storyteller’s respect for the realness of her protagonists’ subjective experience. Once Hugh and Irena have met, readers meet each of them again through the eyes of a subject viewing a stranger-other: we see Hugh through Irena’s eyes and vice versa. Despite the antagonism that characterizes the early stage of their friendship. Irena and Hugh observe one another with an increasingly attentive eye. The “quirky individuality” (McLean 141) that readers have enjoyed thus results from successive acts of attention: the storyteller for each of her protagonists, her two protagonists for each other.4 After Hugh and Irena become allies, friends, and lovers, there is a final permutation of point of view. In the three sections of the ninth and last chapter we get Hugh’s angle, then Irena’s, and then a final section (mostly dialogue) where neither angle is dominant—a quiet yet powerful culmination of the storyteller’s enactment of inter- subjectivity through narrated angles of vision.

Critics have not remarked on this crafting of point of view, focusing their comments on the novel’s striking juxtaposition of realism and fantasy. Attebery and McLean explain their ambivalent responses to this hybridity in reference to Le Guin’s manipulation of the fantasy mode, arguing that fantasy proves powerful for depicting relations between conscious and unconscious, but a bit lacking in other ways—too cryptic in its symbolism or not wholly satisfying in its rendering either of the secondary fantasy world (Attebery 242) or of the characters’ development (McLean 140-41). Yet the hybridity becomes newly intelligible and satisfying when we consider how its mongrel landscape serve a storyteller who, although primarily concerned with her young protagonists, is also sympathetic toward their mothers.

The “borderlands” of my title is implicated in the cultural construction of adolescence as liminal “place,” but it refers specifically to a dialogue of contrasting geographics of being/becoming in Beginning Place. On the one hand, borderlands are a literal and psychic suburbia that trap the protagonists and their mothers into a twisted love based on an economy of silence and fear. Yet borderlands also emerge as places of meetings, of creative (re)crossings: such is the borderland of “intersubjective reality, where subject meets subject” (Benjamin 98), and such is the discursive “space” of Le Guin’s novel. Her storyteller employs a satirical realism that stresses how children and their parents are constructed by socioeconomic and patriarchal-Oedipal relations—relations that tend to be of the buy-and-sell, subject-appropriating-of-object variety. Yet she also exploits the resources of fantasy to validate the agency and the “willingness to love” (129) of her protagonists.5 The resulting hybrid text functions for the emerging selves of Hugh and Irena as a “holding space”—a space for play, for creation, and for affirming one’s own desires while discovering the subjectivity of other selves—a space made safe, risky, and thus free by the paradoxes of attentive love.6

The “real world” is portrayed in Beginning Place as North American suburbia: clock-time- measured island of plastic and concrete, habitat of troubled children and their troubled mothers, women socioeconomically and/or emotionally dependent on men who are gone, dead, or problematically present. This world is juxtaposed with a fantasy realm of slow time, sweet running water, twilit silent forests, a homey mountaintown (harboring contradictions in its family values), and, as in suburbia, a desired, absent city. Irena Pannis and Hugh Rogers (of the “real world”) want to move to the city but are stuck in suburbia, in a powerless “parenting” that is also a delayed childhood. They feel compelled to help their mothers while knowing they can’t; meanwhile, each feels homeless, parentless, and thus powerless to move on with their lives. “She [Irena] had no home … there was no room … anywhere that was hers” (91). “I was born without parents,” thinks Hugh bitterly at a particularly low point, “I haven’t got anything and I’m not anything” (107).

In moments of great need each stumbles on a “gate” from suburbia into the twilit forest where they will eventually meet. Irena finds it several years before the novel opens, running in fear from violence against women (her girlfriend raped, herself nearly raped, and her mother beaten up by Irena’s stepfather). She learns the language of the twilight world, regards it as her “ain [own] country” (110), and at first resents and fears Hugh’s presence there. Hugh finds the gate in the opening chapter when he too is running from fear—fear of stasis, of self-alienation, and of the dishonesty of his relations with his mother, who is a bad mother, a castrating bitch (i.e., this is the misogynist type she resembles). Yet the narrator who conveys Hugh’s reality also contextualizes the awfulness of his mother, who thus emerges pitiable as well as reprehensible—a flawed human unable to transcend a flawed environment.

Through Hugh’s experience as checker in Sam’s Thrift-E-Mart and as pedestrian, suburbia emerges as a site for buying/selling objects, guarding borders, and disguising truths. At work the people Hugh serves become “hands giving money, taking money”—as does Hugh himself (1). After each day of handling “things for sale and the money that bought them,” Hugh feels empty “because his hands never held anything else, and yet kept none of it” (2). Hugh walks home through a landscape of barriers, like the so-called freeway, a most effective barrier for walkers, and of lies—street and neighborhood names falsely promising “heights,” “valleys,” and “oaks.” Twenty years old, with ambitions to move to the city and go to library school, Hugh instead moves with his mother from one suburban wasteland to another. His father left them years ago, and the son has tried with consistent feelings of inadequacy to take his father’s place without becoming his father, the male who runs away. He also lives in a climate of fear. Hugh’s mother is controlled by fear—fear of inner cities, of solitude, of any change that she does not control. Currently, Mrs. Rogers (who lacks a first name) has a “good” job with a loan company (thus like Hugh a cog in the machinery of buying/selling) and has even made a woman friend who shares her interest in the occult. She sometimes spends evenings with her new friend (a daring break in her routine), but she can’t stand to come home to an empty apartment, so Hugh arranges to be there. Mrs. Rogers does not thank him for putting his life on hold to suit her: thanks would require acknowledgment of her fear and of her son’s separate reality. She and Hugh never talk about the fear that structures their lives. And far from “dwelling” appreciatively on Hugh’s “otherness” and “letting [it] be” (Ruddick 122), his mother broadcasts her dislike of his masculine difference from herself. He’s too tall and heavy, takes up too much room in their cramped, expensive apartment: he makes too much noise eating, perhaps even breathing (103-04).

Mrs. Rogers is clearly a bad mother, as all previous readings of Beginning Place point out. Yet Le Guin’s storyteller gives us glimpses of a woman who exceeds the stereotype (of Bad Mother) and whose anger is directed partly, and part consciously, at herself. When Hugh starts to separate from her and their unhappy stasis, she responds by refusing to speak to him and by staying out later at night with her one friend: “She came in at ten-thirty, looking thin, grim, a little disheveled in her cotton print dress.” When Hugh tries to talk about their taboo subjects, addressing her as “Mother,” with “some authority of passion in his voice,” she devastates him by replying. “There’s no use you calling me that” (106). Her statement, made, we’re told, in “a clear, dry tone” (suggesting lucidity and irony as well as heartlessness) is not only an act of cruelty toward Hugh but also an indictment of herself, of her powerlessness, and her only way to effect the needed separation from her son. She can’t separate from Hugh with loving attentiveness so she does so cruelly. Her diction ironically underlines the poverty of her outlook—there’s “no use” in a mothering coopted by use-value and bordered by suburbia’s fear and lies.

Irena seems more independent than Hugh: she owns a car, drives it to her job in the city, and doesn’t live at home, but shares an apartment. Yet although she wants to get a place of her own in the city, like Hugh, she stays in suburbia, convinced that her mother needs her close by. Like Hugh, Irena has grown up fatherless; and, as it is for Hugh, this experience is linked to the social-personal powerlessness of mothers. Nick Pannis died of leukemia about eighteen years ago, leaving his young widow with two children, Irena, and a younger brother. Mary Hanson, Irena’s mother, is now thirty-nine years old, has had four more children and three miscarriages, and is married to the progenitor—a big good-looking man (Irena’s stepfather, Victor Hanson) who sometimes sells illegal drugs, sometimes gets drunk and hits Mary, who remains loyal to him. This loyalty stems not from the emotional and sexual fulfillment that was the “central glory” of Mary and Nick Pannis’s marriage (75) but rather, apparently, from a patriarchal-capitalist ideology—wives belong to their husbands, children to their parents. Yet, unlike Hugh and Mrs. Rogers, Irena and Mary have a loving relationship: the mother recognizes her daughter’s “otherness” by nicknaming her Irena, which becomes the name her daughter associates with her own self, in contrast to the legal name of Irene (71, 85, 140). Further, the daughter is able to help her mother in some significant ways: she persuades Mary to use the birth- control pills that her second husband forbids (71). Despite their mutual love. Irena and Mary’s relations are, like Hugh’s and his mother’s, ruled by silence and fear: “tenderness … replac[es] honesty between them” (74). Irena knows that Mary’s loyalty to husband and children is the glue that holds her life together: she doesn’t want to name the contradictions in this loyalty (73). Thus Irena hasn’t told Mary (or anyone) that Victor tried to rape her when Irena still lived with them. Similarly, Mary doesn’t really want to involve her daughter in her troubles, so she doesn’t call Irena when Victor gets drunk and potentially violent. Instead, she urges Irena to move to the city and thus nearly admits, herself, the contradictions of her outlook: this “dump” of suburbia is “right” for her, the mother, but not for her daughter (75). Irena has decided never to risk intimacy with men—because of the violence against women she has experienced and witnessed—but also because she is afraid of becoming her mother, this loving, sexual woman whose shared “central glory” ended at age twenty-two (when Nick Pannis died) and who now carries out the duties of wife and mother “without desire.” “I am the daughter of a ghost,” thinks Irena—not of her dead father but of the living mother she is fearfully, lovingly contemplating (74).

So Hugh and Irena are both stuck in suburbia, in the realm of disenfranchised mothers, and in adolescence—unable to get to the desired “city,” which represents the place where they can be sexual, loving adults. Critics have tended to focus on a gendered complementarity in Hugh’s and Irena’s “stuckness”; as Spivack puts it, their journey toward the “treasure of their own sexual nature” (123) has been “deeply troubled by their unhappy experiences with their parents of the opposite sex” (119)—Hugh with his mother, Irena with her step-father. McLean names their dilemma more starkly the threat of incest (133). Without wishing to downplay either the threats of rape for Irena or of psychological emasculation for Hugh, I am arguing that Irena and Hugh’s stuckness is also, and importantly, a variation of what Adrienne Rich calls (after the poet Lynn Sukenick) “matrophobia.” Rich defines “matrophobia” as “the fear not of one’s mother or of motherhood but of becoming one’s mother”—a fear stemming from socioeconomic and psychological facts of our culture: “The mother stands for the victim in ourselves, the unfree woman, the martyr” (Rich 237, 238). Irena and Hugh try to help their mothers cope with victimization and/or unfreedom, while fearfully seeing themselves victimized and enthralled like their mothers—Irena by violence against women, Hugh (in trying not to be the man who abandons his mother) by isolation and immobility. Thus in the real world of Beginning Place, an adolescent’s love for her—or his—mother is inseparable from matrophobia, and this fear of becoming one’s mother blocks progress toward becoming one’s “ain” self.

The twilight world provides a landscape, a set of characters, and a quest that together symbolize Irena’s and Hugh’s (un)conscious fears and needs. “The refuge found for them by their unconscious minds”—Attebery’s apt use of a passive construction in his naming of the fantasy realm (238) implies its basic but little-analyzed feature. The twilight world is both coextensive with and more and other than the collective and individual unconscious of its “real world” visitors. Its status in the narrative is unresolvedly ambiguous and irreducibly multiple—its existence at once for Irena and Hugh and for itself. This flexible integrity makes the twilight world a borderland where Irena and Hugh can grow out of matrophobia and related ills. To see this, we have to look at Irena and Hugh’s relation to the landscape, a relationship that predates encounters with other humans there.

The twilight world is more real than suburbia in at least one way: it is “the country” (6), with cool air, tall trees, delicious running water, and loose dirt growing a heterogeneity of pungent life. This rich materiality allows Irena and Hugh a fortunate “regression” to the pleasurable responsiveness of infancy a responsiveness to the world that includes delight in one’s body. The twilight world is where Irena and Hugh enjoy being embodied, an important ground for enjoying their sexuality. Irena has delighted in the movement of her body here for years in “the endless dance” (29), part of a ritual with which she inaugurates each visit. Hugh’s senses have wakened more recently. When he first stumbles into the twilight world, he is as encased as the products he sells—those items whose “shells” both litter and resemble the “crushed white rocks” lining the “patches” of dirt in suburbia’s housing developments (2). Hugh’s first sniff of the twilight world, however, reminds him that “the olfactory part of [his] brain … [is] alive and immense” (6). As he returns for hikes and swims, he enjoys the strength of a body he before only tolerated as a necessary encumbrance.

Irena’s and Hugh’s physical joy in the twilight world is qualitatively different from simplistic praise of the “natural,” including “natural” sexuality. The character linked implicitly to Nature is Victor, Irena’s stepfather, who believes that birth-control pills harmfully “bloc[k]” the male’s “fertile material up in the glands” (73). He loves his body: “Victor was a big, well-made, handsome man, much concerned with his body and its functions and appearance, a central reality of which the rest of the world and other people were mere reflections without substance: the self-concern of the athlete or the invalid, though he was neither, being healthy and inactive” (71). For Victor, the only real, embodied subject is himself: he is a caricature of adulthood as autonomy. Victor’s solipsistic self-love lends itself to casual brutality toward others he doesn’t quite believe in: in contrast, in the twilight world, Irena and Hugh enjoy their bodies in relation to an “other” of materiality that, far from being a “mere reflectio[n] without substance,” is a reality both address as “You.” When we first see Irena enter the twilight world, she “kisse[s] the dirt, pressing her face against it like a suckling baby”: this and her subsequent actions contrast significantly with her step-father’s “self-concern”: “She stood up and reached up at full stretch toward the sky, then went to the water’s edge, knelt, washed her face and hands and arms noisily, drank, answered the water’s loud, continual singing. ‘So you are, so I am, so.’ She sat down crosslegged … shut her eyes to contain her joy.… This was the place where she was herself, her own” (29-30). Irena’s addressing (“answering”) the water as “you” is as crucial to her joy in being her “own” self as is her getting nourishment, “like a suckling baby,” from kissing the dirt. In a comparable passage, Hugh addresses water-earth-rocks-trees as “you”; his declaration of communion with this other—“I am you” (55)—fuses the two gestures in Irena’s scene: the childlike reliance on the other with the mature recognition of the other’s subjectivity.7

Such scenes where they experience the twilight world as both for them and for itself have several ramifications. As though the storyteller is granting them a lost birthright. Irena and Hugh recapitulate an early stage of development: the recognizing of an other (a parent or other caregiver) as a self while being so recognized by that other. Having felt like failed caregivers of their mothers and like children without parents or homes, each here relates to a “maternal” you (the twilight world, the “ain” country) who doesn’t need them but who welcomes them, relishing both their existence and its own. Thus Irena’s answer to the water “So you are, so I am.” Their pleasure in their bodies, and their future relations with “nature” and with other humans, rest on this ground of mutual recognition, of subject-to-subject relationship. And this orientation is not a beginning place for them alone. Irena and Hugh arguably extend their acts of attention into cultural practices—I’m referring to how both enact their recognition that the water of the twilight land is a “You” and thus “holy” by making a ritual of their first drink, each visit (108-09). The I You (or I Thou) relationship Irena and Hugh assume with the twilight world thus implies a cultural ethos better than Victor’s solipsism and suburbia’s insularity.8 But this is also a beginning place in the sense that Irena and Hugh have to “move on” through their overdetermined quest. Their relation to water and dirt is submerged, but not forgotten—the ritual first drink renewing an implied promise between them and any world.

When Hugh and Irena engage its human inhabitants, the tangible, sniffable reality of the twilight world recedes. Foregrounded are its “artificial” qualities. It is silent here except for the rushing water—no birds and no sun or stars—this twilight is unreal because it isn’t a threshold between daylight and darkness—or so Hugh sees it (63), his impressions reflecting his need for a “real” threshold while suggesting that the stasis of suburbia is made visible as this world’s stuck twilight.

Human society on this quiet, half-lit stage in some ways merits Attebery’s description—“insubstantial, conventionalized fairy tale world” (241). Tembreabrezi, or Mountaintown, has become Irena’s second home and is the only town we see, although others punctuate forest and grazing lands, and in the north lies a great city. Their society vaguely feudal and idyllic, people, until recently, have been content and productive. Mountaintown society also resembles fairy tales and medieval romance in the “tasks” that there engross Hugh and Irena: pursuing both monsters and idealized erotic love. Mountaintown is facing extinction—people paralyzed by a fear that fixes them at home, unable to travel and practice the trade vital to their economy. Hugh, and less directly Irena, are called upon as the outsiders who can find and destroy the fear. Meanwhile Hugh has fallen in love with Allia, the daughter of one patriarch (Lord Horn), and Irena is suffering disillusionment in her longstanding love for another, younger patriarch—Dou Sark, the “Master” of Mountaintown.

The narrative space where Irena and Hugh accept a quest they scarcely understand, kill a monster, and find truer love with each other is a borderland of prosaic realism, stylized fairy tale, murky myth,9 and surreal nightmare. This borderland is not only the place where Irena and Hugh meet their individual (Jungian) “shadows,” nor does it only mirror, poignantly and satirically, their real-world dilemmas. Rather, these functions are embedded in a larger, “twilit” context that features cultural shadows and sociohistoric monsters. The border between this background and the foreground of Irena’s and Hugh’s quest is fluid. Nonetheless—and because the reader’s information is more or less limited to Hugh’s and Irena’s perceptions—this embedding context constitutes an excess of half told satiric and utopian meaning. The storyteller is doing for her protagonists what no mother could: creating a scenario where their modestly contemporary and personal “strength and need” (170) can circumvent the habitual configurations (“archetypes”) of a very old and hostile unconscious of patriarchy.

Mothers do not figure as main characters in Mountaintown, but the fear and silence that form the currency of Irena’s and Hugh’s relations with their mothers in suburbia are replayed in the “economic” crisis of this feudal society. Instead of two powerless, stuck, middle-aged women, there are two middle-aged men, unmarried and of ambiguous authority, who, unequally mired in fear and tradition, disagree about the right way to involve Hugh and Irena in their community’s need. The proposed quest is murky with multiple motives and a lack of communication between generations literalized in the language barrier: Hugh knows but a handful of words, while Irena’s considerable knowledge still only allows her to make tentative translations of crucial conversations between Master Sark and herself and between Sark and Lord Horn. Thus emerges, sketchily, a history of sacrificing children (usually females, apparently) to an unnamed menace—a history marked by such gothic artifacts as iron rings that bind the “bait” (149) and family portraits that reveal the “withered” right hands of “scowling” patriarchs who made “the bargain” and paid “the price” with “what they love” (119-20).

Supporting the tradition of sacrifice is the “Master,” saturnine Dou Sark, who argues that the survival of Mountaintown depends on it, scorning critics of either sex as foolish old women (118). Meanwhile Sark seems both excited and angered by the bargain’s sado-masochism, associates the bargain’s reestablishment with a higher status “mastery” for himself (the family portraits hang on his walls) and is ready to serve up Irena and/or Hugh as dinner for a monster (119, 92, 126). Lord Horn’s position is as laconic as Sark’s but more complex. His opposition to Sark seems to be that the bargain is a “delusory option” (Hugh’s phrase for the choices available to him in suburbia [103]), a nonchoice that produces what it supposedly alleviates: a rule of fear that in turn demands more sacrifice. Although Horn does not buy this option, he and everyone in Mountaintown have been sold to it (124). Yet, if Lord Horn cannot end the cycle, he seems to try to subvert it. While Sark angles to make Hugh and Irena useful victims. Lord Horn asks for help from these outsiders whom he apparently associates with intersubjectivity rather than mastery, mentioning to Irena that the visitors from her world come as “One and other, other and one” (87). In his respect and compassion for the young questers Lord Horn shows himself to be a canny “maternal thinker.” He gives Hugh his sword but focuses on Irena (who speaks his language and currently needs more encouragement), addressing her as “daughter,” praising her courage, and comforting her with the suggestion that “There is more than one road to the City” (123), an aphorism repeated as the last line of the novel.

When Irena and Hugh leave Mountaintown to seek the monster (or dragon, its more distinguished posthumous name), they are poised between Lord Horn’s trust in their cooperative agency and Master Sark’s hopes for their destruction. Although they haven’t understood the dispute of the patriarchs, they are drawn to the “delusory options” offered by Mountaintown’s tradition of sacrifice. If Sark, from the perspective of sacrificer, sees the bargain as a necessarily bloody social contract that moreover promises him mastery over life, death, and otherness, Irena and Hugh, from the perspective of potential sacrifice, half-consciously see the bargain as a solution to their conflicting fears and desires, especially their love for their mothers, their matrophobia, and their desires and fears to live their own lives.

Irena and Hugh are tempted to think that self-fulfillment comes through self- sacrifice—a notion that informs (for example) ideologies of motherhood, of childhood, and of the idealized erotic love into which Irena and Hugh recently have been initiated. Critics have not commented on how Irena’s and Hugh’s mostly fantasy relations with their beloveds resemble their relations with their mothers—chiefly in the rule (or “price”) of loving in silence and in the desire to be of service to the beloved/the mother (see, e.g., 74, 82, 90, 92, 102). The quest that could make them food for the dragon arguably symbolizes for Irena and Hugh the merging of their matrophobic love for their mothers with their erotic love for Sark and Allia. What they must resist is the delusion that the role of victim offers a transcendent experience: a fulfillment both sexual and self-affirming with a freedom from matrophobia and its attendant guilt, since by assuming the mother’s place of “victim … martyr” (Rich 238) they would have no “room” for fear or regret.

Fortunately, by keeping each other company on the quest, they are able to choose the pleasures and responsibilities of life and of subject-to-subject relationship over the attractions of an “erotic” or noble death. Irena has already become disillusioned with her submissive, intense, yet nonintimate attachment to Sark. Strengthened by Lord Horn’s encouragement, she is able to urge Hugh from his gentle determination to self-destruct. Together they track the monster to its womb tomb cave and vanquish it—Irena throwing rocks to lure it out, Hugh stabbing it with the sword, Irena pushing its heavy corpse off Hugh (who has a few broken ribs) and subsequently leading him back to the gate, guided by the water. Thus they save Mountaintown, which now may be free to invent new negotiations between children and adults, fear and desire, conscious and unconscious. Their deed also frees their sexuality, enabling them to risk intimacy. They make love a decent distance from the monster’s carcass. Once back in their commonplace reality. Hugh and Irena friends, lovers, “married,” as Hugh puts it (177, 183)—are finally on their way to the city, to an apartment over a garage.

But what did they kill? Seemingly anybody and everything feared or afraid. The creature has a big, heavy, white body—like both Hugh and Victor although twice their size; it is blind and virtually faceless: it gobbles; its trail smells male to Hugh, like semen (151), while Irena views its dead body as female, with “a woman’s arms” and two pairs of “breasts, pointed like a sow’s teats” (156). Yet in addition to its postpubescent traits, the creature is also “wrinkled,” and it howls and sobs with hunger, need, pain—like a baby. Certainly it represents aspects of Hugh, Irena, and the adults in their lives (both worlds) (see, e.g., Spivack 121); certainly it shows fears about sexuality (see McLean 136-37). Moreover, since it suggests father, mother, and baby, the creature arguably is both a collectively unconscious shadow of the patriarchal family and the persistent bogey of a world that does little to help children grow into adults who like living and who embrace response-ability: “Two people are always sort of responsible for each other”—Hugh’s remark that aptly names his and Irena’s actions on the quest (149).

Anything as greedy, needy, and out of control as the monster must be hidden? worshiped? killed? acknowledged? In its blindness, the monster is bound to be Oedipal but as such is also importantly and “desolate[ly]” self-enclosed (145)—lonely and dangerous—“groping” (155) for a connection it can’t make because it lacks awareness of an other, of a “you” in relation to an “I” Further, in its terrifying combination of power and neediness, the monster is the disguised or silenced aspects of Irena’s and Hugh’s erotic dreams of Sark and Allia: it is what Master Sark and his forebears of the grim paintings clamp down under their rigid control and yet worship in their “bargains”: finally, it is a fitting emblem of the mother in patriarchy, who is both powerful parent and second class citizen, “dragon thing” (156) and sacrificed daughter. “All of us are her children,” says Master Sark of the long-ago-devoured daughter of his grandfather (124). Irena extends this insight, referring to herself and/or Hugh as “dragonkiller[s]” and “child[ren] of the dragon” (160, 175). Irena and Hugh have “killed” their matrophobia and the related delusory option of self-sacrifice and thus are able to separate from their mothers while remaining related to them. Yet the dead female dragon that Irena has seen and touched remains ambiguous, suggesting pessimistically that from the point of view of the child/emerging adult within patriarchy, the best available option may be to re-scapegoat the mother.

The spring must rise beneath the floor of the [dragon thing’s] cave [Irena surmised].

In her 1988 essay, “The Fisherwoman’s Daughter,” Le Guin muses on how her 1985 novel Always Coming Home emerged from a “rash attempt to imagine … a world … where the Hero and the Warrior are a stage adolescents go through on their way to becoming responsible human beings, [and] where the parent-child relationship is not forever viewed through the child’s eyes but includes the reality of the mother’s experience” (229). The world of Always Coming Home includes a utopian society where women and mothers are as powerful as men and fathers and where being powerful—“hav[ing] the individual strength or the collective resources to pursue one’s pleasure and projects” (Ruddick 37)—does not necessitate mastery over others whose subjectivity is denied. I have been arguing, in effect, that The Beginning Place prefigures the utopian Always Coming Home by its sympathetic inclusion in a coming-of-age story of “the reality of the mother’s experience” and by its feminist critique of the familial-social ideologies of patriarchy—a critique that targets the unconscious of patriarchy.

Readers of Beginning Place seem to assume that its twilight world presents an ahistoric and universal (while at the same time Freudian/Jungian) unconscious, but three aspects of Le Guin’s hybrid text suggest otherwise. First, the borderland of fantasy and realist discourse that makes up the twilight world suggests that the unconscious plots and players that Irena and Hugh there meet are always-constructed if venerable “fictions”—powerfully linked to needs/desires but still made—or narrated. So perhaps archetypes do not resemble divine acts of special creation but rather are only more permanent variations of psychic narratives, evolving and mutating in relation to social, conscious reality. Secondly, the parodic aspect of the hybridity in which, for example, Master Sark and his grandfathers seem thinly, weirdly conventionalized suggests that Le Guin is satirizing the collective unconscious of patriarchy, making a critical fable of its history of secrets and sacrifices and proposing that its symbolic configurations, while still capable of fostering misery, are wearing out, no longer adequate for humanity’s communal narrations. Thirdly, the hybrid twilight realm harbors a utopian element that exceeds the status quo of the patriarchal unconscious. This excess emerges not only in Hugh’s and Irena’s I-Thou relation to each other and to the materiality of the twilight world, but also in elliptical accounts of “the City,” which include cryptic references to a positive feminine power.

I conclude, then, with speculations on what is perhaps the most enigmatic passage of an often enigmatic novel. The following exchange occurs just before Lord Horn and Master Sark have their dispute, when Horn gnomically is cheering up Irena.10

“Lord Horn … I wish I had gone to the city…”

“There is more than one road to the City,” he said.

“Were you ever there?” …

“.… I am called lord, because I have been there.…”

“Did you see the King?”

“…I saw the bright shadow of the King,” but the word was feminine so that it must mean the Queen or the Mother.…If I reach out my hand and touch him I will see clearly, she thought. The screen will be gone and I will stand both there and here. But in that knowledge I am destroyed.

Horn’s grey eyes said gently. Do not touch me, child.


The passage contains several puzzles, culminating in the indeterminable gender of the monarch and the avoided, apocalyptic shortcut to the city. The “City” and its accompanying metaphors of royalty and aristocracy (“I am called lord, because I have been there”) suggest subject to subject relations, that mutual recognition of You/Hugh and I/Irena into which Le Guin’s storyteller would like to shift unconscious energy. The Jungian sounding “bright shadow” of the King could indicate a positive unconscious aspect to patriarchy (in contrast to the bargaining of Mountaintown, etc.): yet Irena’s subsequent realization that the word for King is feminine (and thus must mean Queen or Mother) overdetermines that reading beyond coherence. If the “bright shadow” of “Mother” lives in the City of desired intersubjective relations, any shadow of the unconscious of patriarchy has been left behind. And The Beginning Place would be another story, perhaps Always Coming Home (which doesn’t hold with big cities or royalty, however). But these speculations push too hard at a “screen” that protects Irena’s and Hugh’s coming-of-age quest, the foreground of the twilight world, from being overwhelmed by the utopian-satiric background where the collective unconscious is narrating itself into alternative configurations.


  1. Attebery, McLean, and Spivack are the only critics (that I’ve found) who treat Beginning Place in depth, and I have learned much from each of them.

  2. I am here paraphrasing Nancy Chodorow: “Differentiation is not distinctness and separateness, but a particular way of being connected to others” (60).

  3. McLean apparently agrees that the sound that Hugh’s and Irena’s names make together evokes You (Hugh) and I (Irena) (138).

  4. For example, it is through Irena’s eyes that we see how Hugh’s clumsiness is part of his dignity (124): it is only in Hugh’s (later) chapters that Irena’s name is spelled Irena rather Irene this because she has decided to share her preferred name with him (140).

  5. Attebery also emphasizes the way fantasy enables agency in Beginning Place, noting how just before Hugh discovers the twilight world, he finds himself involuntarily repeating “I can’t” but then, his “need takes him to a place where he can” (Attebery 237).

  6. I am relating Ruddick’s acts of attentive love to the notion of “holding space” from D. W. Winnicott, as discussed by Benjamin: “This space begins between mother and baby … and expands into … the transitional area … of play, creativity, and fantasy. The transitional space is suffused with the mother’s protection and one’s own freedom to create and imagine and discover” (94).

  7. If Hugh said instead, “You are me” (or, with an unlikely grammatical correctness, “You are I”), his statement arguably would not be recognizing the integrity of the other, would in fact be a logical statement for Victor Hanson to make.

  8. See Murphy for a discussion of the philosophical/political importance of trying to relate to the natural world as a speaking subject.

  9. The best guide to Le Guin’s complex use of myth in Beginning Place is McLean, whose discussion of the labyrinth and the Minotaur are especially illuminating.

  10. In her discussion of Lord Horn’s thematic importance, McLean makes the intriguing point that his name “recalls the gate of horn, in classical mythology, through which the god sent true dreams to mankind” (135).

I am grateful to Alison Wheatley and Naomi Wood for their helpful responses to an earlier version of this essay.

Works Cited

Attebery, Brian. “The Beginning Place: Le Guin’s Metafantasy.” In Ursula K. Le Guin: Modern Critical Views. 1982. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.

Benjamin, Jessica. “A Desire of One’s Own: Psychoanalytic Feminism and Intersubjective Space.” In Feminist Studies/Critical Studies. Ed. Teresa de Lauretis. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986. 78-101.

Chodorow, Nancy. “Feminism and Difference: Gender, Relation, and Difference in Psychoanalytic Perspective.” Socialist Review 9, no. 4 (1979).

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Beginning Place. New York, Harper, 1980.

“The Fisherwoman’s Daughter.” In Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places. New York, Harper, 1989. 212-41.

McLean, Susan. “The Beginning Place: An Interpretation.” Extrapolation 24 (Summer 1983): 130-42.

Murphy, Patrick D. “Prolegomenon for an Ecofeminist Dialogics.” In Feminism, Bakhtin, and the Dialogic. Ed. Dale M. Bauer and S. Jaret McKinstry. Albany: SUNY P. 1991. 39-56.

Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. 1976. New York: Bantam. 1977.

Ruddick, Sara. Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace. New York: Ballantine, 1989.

Spivack, Charlotte. Ursula K. Le Guin. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

Charles Nicol (review date 25 February 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 992

SOURCE: “The Very Different Worlds of Ursula Le Guin,” in Chicago Tribune Books, February 25, 1996, p. 5.

[In the following review, Nicol depicts Le Guin's Unlocking the Air and Other Stories as “the best available introduction to the visionary universe of their author, a dark universe that always strives toward the light.”]

It is hard to imagine someone winning Newbery as well as Hugo and Nebula Awards while writing fiction for the New Yorker, Playboy and Ms. But Ursula Le Guin, who has written children’s literature, experimental fiction, fantasy and science fiction, is a very versatile storyteller. This collection [Unlocking the Air and Other Stories] gathers works in every shading from the realistic to the fanciful. The title story—the title referring to a wonderful gesture of celebration—is the best of this anthology. Here is how Le Guin sets one scene:

“This is a bus. Nothing to do with fairy tales and not romantic; certainly realistic; though in a way, in principle, in fact, it is highly idealistic. A city bus crowded with people in a city street in Central Europe on a November afternoon, and it’s stalled.”

Describing the hard-scrabble lives of people surviving under the communist fist, Le Guin stops to admire public transit, one venue where every country practices socialism. The characters here, a middle-age scientist and his family, have lost so many relatives to failed revolts that they have been trying simply to carry on their lives. But they become secondary to the crowd that they join, the masses of people who honor a new freedom by rushing into the central square of the city of Krasnoy to participate in a historical watershed, the raising of the Iron Curtain.

This takes place not in Czechoslovakia or Hungary but in Orsinia, an imaginary country with a history of its own carved out of Central Europe by Le Guin many years ago. Some of these characters’ rebellious ancestors appeared in her earlier works, and in a sense these fictitious people have earned their freedom.

Le Guin is, like any other good writer, a student of humanity and creator of worlds; it’s just that her worlds sometimes obey different laws than those we take for granted. For instance, in one of these stories a woman is sitting on a beach in front of a campfire at night, but we have to untangle for ourselves the chronology of various seaside events that span her lifetime.

Much of Le Guin’s power comes, I suspect, from her knowledge that her fictional worlds are thoroughly under her control even when they appear to be identical to our own. She knows that fantasy is useless when it is escapist, that its real purpose is to isolate where the real hurt exists.

In “The Professor’s Houses,” a man who has built a lovingly detailed dollhouse while his own roof leaks eventually realizes why he has tried to escape into a world of his own. Without that kind of recognition, fantasy is meaningless; with it, fantasy is a clear version of reality.

Another of Le Guin’s imaginary places, the village of Klatsand on the Oregon coast (where the stories of Searoad took place), may or may not be the setting for several stories here. It is specifically mentioned only once, in a little sketch in which Le Guin remembers a beetle, a sparrow and a gull, each in distress. There are a number of these brief sketches, few adding much other than additional color. One surprise is the shortest, the two-page “Sunday in Summer in Seatown,” apparently an imitation of one modality of Gertrude Stein. There is a four-page sketch presenting the conversation of an old woman who gets the whole bus involved in her description of recent difficulties (“Ruby on the 67”). Is this particular story fiction or found art, Le Guin’s tribute to another storyteller she heard on a real bus?

The first, longest, most demanding story of the collection has four main characters. The divorced wife and husband (he has remarried), the deliberately unmarried pregnant daughter and the retarded younger son are put through eight permutations of a single scene, although not every one of the versions includes all four characters, and sometimes their ages and characteristics change. I remember puzzling over this one in the New Yorker and am still uncertain whether the title, “Half Past Four,” refers to the daughter’s pregnancy as “half” of a fifth character. The subtitles for the eight sections suggest that they were created according to readings of the I Ching—an ancient Chinese divination tool that claims to find meaning in random throws of sticks or dice. The exposition necessary to establish a new background within each short section makes parts of this story seem schematic, but often, as these characters struggle with the burdens of their lives, the wrenching of perspective produces a startling, lovely effect.

Another long story is the amusing “Ether, OR,” about a small town in Oregon that keeps wandering all over the map, causing no end of trouble for its inhabitants, a number of whom participate in telling the story. There is one dark fantasy about a girl who grows to an impossible height and is kept in the house, and another about a remote village where old people turn into trees. There are other fantasies and at least one delicious story, “The Poacher,” that exists on the periphery of a well-known fairy tale but has a vigorous reality of its own.

Instead of gathering her short works according to subject matter, as she has previously done, Le Guin has tossed them together here, as if to say all of these worlds represent the same writer; do you too see a single vision? Whether or not the reader responds to all with equal enthusiasm, they do provide the best available introduction to the visionary universe of their author, a dark universe that always strives toward the light.

W. A. Senior (essay date December 1996)

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SOURCE: “Cultural Anthropology and the Rituals of Exchange in Ursula K. Le Guin's ‘Earthsea,’” in Mosaic, Vol. 29, No. 4, December, 1996, pp. 101-13.

[In the following essay, Senior draws attention to gift-giving, or ritualized exchange, in the Earthsea saga. Senior argues that such exchanges define and reinforce essential aspects of the fictionalized culture's values, social communication, and spiritual order.]

To the extent that literary works are attempts to construct worlds and societies that “model” our own, cultural anthropology offers a vast array of features on which to focus: myths, marriage customs, taboos, kinship structures, linguistic patternings, gender roles. Similarly, the ties that bind literature and anthropology are everywhere evident in the work of those concerned with systems of values and beliefs: Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, to use a traditionalist example, could be described as a quasi-anthropological defense of literature, just as Joseph Campbell provides an almost indistinguishable mix of the two disciplinary orientations in his monumental studies of mythology past and present. Within the last decades, furthermore, it is impossible to ignore the impact of Claude Lévi-Strauss on Structuralist theorizing; nor might it be too extreme to suggest that the current vogue of ethnic literature owes much to the influence of cultural anthropology.

Yet perhaps the most definitive example of the interaction between literature and cultural anthropology is to be found in the writing of Ursula K. Le Guin. Not only was her father, Alfred Kroeber, one of the pioneering cultural anthropologists whose writings and books are still de riguer reading, but her mother, Theodora, wrote the biography of the last “wild” Native American, Ishi in Two Worlds, and compiled a tome of American Indian myths. Given that Le Guin grew up in a household visited by anthropological scholars, Native Americans, and scientists like Robert Oppenheimer, the way that she describes her fictional projects is not surprising: “My father felt very strongly that you can never actually get outside your own culture. All you can do is try. I think that feeling sometimes comes out in my writing. My father studied real cultures and I make them up—in a way it’s the same thing” (qtd. in De Bolt 15-16).

Although this acknowledgment might contain a touch of irony, as Jan Horner has argued in a study of Le Guin’s fiction as a critique of her father’s methods, it is equally true that the credibility of her worlds owes much to her concern with anthropological accuracy and that a primary strength of her fiction is the consistent attention to the way that cultures operate. Although this aspect of Le Guin’s fiction has been generally noted, I wish to look more closely at how Le Guin’s knowledge of anthropological theory is evidenced in her depiction of a ritual that in many ways constitutes the basis of social structure: gift-giving. Specifically I wish to focus on the way that this dynamic is played out with increasing sophistication and sensitivity in Le Guin’s 4-part saga about the customs and lifestyles of the inhabitants of a fictional world called “Earthsea.”

My reason for focusing on this series—and as a series—is twofold: first, if viewed singly and reduced to a plot summary, the “action” of each novel might seem to foreground a single protagonist, whereby fiction would seem to be most at odds with the interactive actualities/politics of “real” life; second, it is only by considering the series as a whole—in which the later novels in the Earthsea saga respond to the earlier ones—that one can appreciate the way that Le Guin translates the sociological theory of “exchange” into a principle for structuring literary works. Bearing in mind, then, this caveat about the dangers of plot summary, but with a view to showing how the respective novels interrelate, let me set the stage for my discussion of “gift-giving” with a brief synopsis of Le Guin’s Earthsea saga.

Overall, the series takes the forms of voyages by the protagonist/hero Ged to various islands of Earthsea, whereby he encounters many different customs and lifestyles. The first of the Earthsea books, A Wizard of Earthsea, traces Ged’s first journeys when, as a goatherd from a poor village on Gont, he discovers the latent magic power within him. He leaves his home for the Isle of Roke and its school for wizards, where his rashness and pride result in a horrific act as he overreaches his power. His subsequent education and long voyage to atone for his error bring him to many different lands in the eastern region of Earthsea. In the second volume of the saga, The Tombs of Atuan, Ged again journeys far on the oceans of his world, this time to find the lost half of the Ring of Erreth- Akbe and its power of binding and renewing. Trapped in a labyrinth on the island of Atuan, he rescues and is rescued by its high priestess, Tenar, whose spirit has been blighted by the dark gods she has served. In the third volume, The Farthest Shore, Ged takes to the sea again, with Arren, the heir to the throne of Havnor, and their journey takes them through strange, almost legendary, lands to the western end of the world and a confrontation with death. Tehanu, the final novel, seems to focus on Ged’s return to his original home after his battle with death, having sacrificed his power, but is actually more concerned with Tenar’s story than his. Tenar, now a widow, has taken Tehanu, a burned, maimed girl-child under her protection—in the same way that Tenar herself was once adopted by Ged’s mentor Ogion. Ged’s return, Tenar’s requital, and the child Tehanu’s apotheosis bring the different strands of Le Guin’s four-part saga to closure.

It is evident that in this tetralogy, Le Guin creates not just one social paradigm, but many, among the various islands, lands and peoples of Earthsea. One of the seminal cultural patterns that she explores is exchange, for in Earthsea, gifts are essential in establishing ties between people and cultures.

Cultural anthropologists and ethno-ethicists have long pointed out the importance in almost every culture of gifts as media for establishing mutual ties. It is in turn this need for reciprocity that makes “free gifts” problematic, according to Mary Douglas: “What is wrong with the so-called free gift is the donor’s intention to be exempt from return gifts coming from the recipient. Refusing requital puts the act of giving outside any mutual ties. Once given, the free gift entails no further claims from the recipient. A gift that does nothing to enhance solidarity is a contradiction” (vii). Fantasy literature similarly depicts the rituals of gift-giving and exchanges in light of their moral and social significance; gifts with their manner of and motives behind exchange are filigreed into the cultural warp and woof of the world and serve to define characteristics of the secondary creation (i.e., fiction) we have entered and to move it closer, through the common element of the gift, to our primary world. Gifts help us to define the ethos of a culture as well as various value systems, for each gift functions as a method of communication to indicate or establish concepts and models of social status and duty, standards of desired objects and their characteristics, the nature of generosity or charity, or even beauty. H. R. Hays points out that even today our exchange of Christmas cards constitutes a status system in which the most original or beautiful cards hold more value than others (302). So all gifts—those given to Sleeping Beauty by the three fairies, Bilbo’s bequest of The One Ring to Frodo in Tolkien’s fantasy, Lear’s addled partition of his kingdom in Shakespeare’s tragedy—tell us something about the giver and receiver and establish a system of relationships.

At the center of fantasy lies the concern for order, for things in their rightful places in a systematic and comprehensible world. In the case of Le Guin’s Earthsea novels, many types of exchanges take place to help us understand the cultural patterning of this cosmos: bargains, barters, deals, sales, thefts (negative exchanges), and trades, but primarily gifts. There is a pervasive pattern of gifts and returns in various forms: from physical objects, to names, to magical spells, to abstractions such as friendship and sacrifice. In all these cases, the gifts given and received comply with Marcel Mauss’s observation that in archaic societies all gifts carry a spiritual import or content and entail the giver offering a piece of himself and that gifts underpin and represent a universal need for reciprocity (see Ch. 1). Gifts play especially enlightening roles in two facets of Earthsea: in encapsulating the macrocosmic system of the Balance that governs and stabilizes Earthsea and in charting Ged’s development, moral growth, and integration into the world about him.

These two facets, however, are also mutually supportive, and in an essay entitled “Gifts” the holistic philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson used a metaphor that is particularly appropriate for Le Guin’s fiction: “The gift, to be true, must be the flowing of the giver unto me, correspondent to my flowing unto him. When the waters are at level, then my goods pass to him, and his to me” (156-57). Captured in this ecological metaphor is the view that gifts have both a metaphysical and a physical dimension, that the gift becomes part of both giver and receiver, just as it maintains a connection to the world as a whole. The exchange of gifts, and the onus that comes with an exchange, reflects and foregrounds the very nature of the Balance, and thus the ontology of Earthsea itself. As Robert Scholes explains, the ontology of Earthsea reflects a view of the universe as “a dynamic balanced system, not subject to capricious miracles of any deity, but only to the natural laws of its own working, which include a role for magic and for powers other than human, but only as aspects of the great Balance or Equilibrium, which is the order of this cosmos” (36-37). Framed in its broadest parameters, Earthsea’s Equilibrium or Balance consists of a system of exchanges, a system which implies obligations and responsibilities for those involved because of the reactions and fluxions that any earlier action generates. A young Ged grumbles at Ogion’s lack of magic as they are being drenched in a downpour, yet later an older Ged explains to Arren that a wizard must understand that causing rain one place might well cause drought in another, a drought for which he would then be responsible.

Gift exchanges are tied to the same exigencies, in keeping with Le Guin’s insistence that “all things—organic and inorganic, material and spiritual, object, and force—shape and are shaped by each other” (Cummins 10). Each “present” and/or “presentation” conforms and responds to a need on both the macrocosmic and the microcosmic scales. As Mary Douglas explains, the dynamic which controls systems is neither serendipitous nor haphazard:

Spelt out it means that each gift is part of a system of reciprocity in which the honour of giver and recipient are engaged. It is a total system in that every item of status or of spiritual or material possession is implicated for everyone in the whole community. The system is quite simple; just the rule that every gift has to be returned in some specified way sets up a perpetual cycle of exchanges within and between generations. The cycling gift system is the society.


Gifts have value and meaning insofar as they occupy their rightful place in the cultural potlatch. Walter Goldschmidt explains that gift-giving is good only within “a patterned…situation” and that both “the good and the true are defined by place in pattern” (101, 102). The magic of Earthsea operates in similar fashion, for each act of magic has consequences on a variety of levels: its literal effect is felt by those close to it; its ontological effect includes all of Earthsea, in keeping with the way that fantasy stresses the importance of the sum of the parts; its spiritual effect resides in the doer in that his (or her) actions are a reflection of his soul or spirit. In the case of gifts, the giving or accepting equally entails consequences for all concerned parties, and great events can result from even small gifts.

Le Guin’s tales of Earthsea are filled with gifts of all sorts. When Ged leaves Ten Alders with Ogion, he takes his only possessions, all gifts: a bronze knife, a cut down old coat, and “an alder-stick his aunt had becharmed for him” (Wizard 15). When he leaves Roke for his assignment as a wizard, he wears “a heavy dark-blue cloak, the gift of the township of Low Torning” (74). After he returns to Ogion and resolves to hunt his shadow, he departs dressed in the “decent Gontish leggings and shirt and vest of leather and linen” that Ogion has given him (131) and sails off with few provisions which he treasures, thinking “gratefully of the silent Gontishwoman who had given him the food” (134). Such utilitarian gifts ground us in the Archipelago and its life, just as they reflect the import of seemingly casual or everyday items. In his study of culture, John Beattie notes that the system of “exchange is not an economic one, [so] what is the point of it?” (198); in Le Guin’s fiction clearly the point lies in the idea of the gift and the motive behind its offer. Each of the gifts represents the good wishes of the givers and corresponds to their ability to give and their understanding of what is proper. The folk of Low Torning wish to honor their new wizard and accordingly present him with something of value to them (a warm cloak against the wind and rain), but the gift also binds Ged to these people and demands reciprocation. Ged’s friendship with the fisherman Pechvarry marks the wizard’s hesitant entry into the island’s society, a friendship that begins with exchange whereby each attempts to overcome his uncertainty about the other. As Elizabeth Cummins explains, “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” (35). In a different vein, Ogion’s present to Ged of Gontish clothes in particular, coming from one who understands him so well, constitutes another link in Ged’s recovery of himself.

Yet there is more. In a short episode that initially seems relatively insignificant among his other ventures—Ged’s shipwreck on the isolated island—he receives, unbeknownst to him, the greatest of all gifts, half of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe. As Ged is repairing his shattered boat, an old woman watches entranced at “his marvelous work” and is moved to bring him “a gift: a handful of mussels she had gathered on the rocks.” She then shows him the treasured dress of her childhood and insists that he accept “a bit of dark metal…the half-circle of a broken ring” and then smiles because “she had made him a present” (142). In this possessionless world on a forgotten island, the spirit behind the gift of the Ring matches its importance and power, for these aged, marooned children have almost nothing to give and were long ago deprived of the world of gifts itself. As George Slusser notes, one of Ged’s earliest revelations is that the spirit in which an act is done is often more important than the act itself (37). And the mage, who cannot thank them in return for their kindness and who “had no present for the woman as he would have liked…set a charm on that salty unreliable spring. The water rose up through the sand as sweet and clear as any mountain spring in the heights of Gont, nor did it ever fail” (143). What greater present could he give these two than fresh water? In this act is the reciprocity that all anthropologists insist upon: “the freedom and obligation inherent in the gift, [and the] generosity and self-interest that are linked in giving” (Mauss 68). In a further sense, the gift binds Ged to these castaways for life, since their story now becomes an integral part of his.

Gifts transcend the mere objects that they often are, especially in fantasy where all beings and things have their own significance and function. Mauss posits that each gift has a power in it and that it “is not inactive. Even when it has been abandoned by the giver, it still possesses something of him”; because the gift is an extension of the giver, in fact often of his soul, “it follows that to make a gift of something to someone is to make a present of some part of oneself” (11-12). Here again we see the connection of gift-giving to the laws of magic, for another form of gift prominent in A Wizard of Earthsea is that of names, forms of power which entail exactly the spiritual nature and the extension of self that Mauss describes. In Earthsea, to give one’s true name is to render oneself completely. Thus, when Ged is at his lowest ebb and Vetch explains that his true name is Estarriol: “it was a great gift Vetch had given him,” for he “had given that gift only a friend can give, the proof of unshaken, unshakable trust” (69). In this case the trust lies in making a present of himself, for Vetch incarnates stability, home, a sense of rootedness and security—in short those virtues that Ged lacked on Gont. Thus, it is consistent and significant that later, sheltered under Vetch’s roof in Ismay, Ged awakes from an exhausted sleep to find himself at peace and secure: “All day long a little of this dream-peace clung to his thoughts, and he took it, not as a good omen, but as a gift” (161). The spirit of the gift, like the spirit behind an act of magic, endows its potency. Because this is one of Ged’s few peaceful moments and a rare moment of domestic comfort among others, it is natural that he should view it as a gift.

Le Guin herself explains that Wizard is about coming of age (Language 50), and various critics of the Earthsea novels have commented that one of the book’s preoccupations is with Ged’s movement from an isolated, self-interested loner to a committed member of a larger community. George Slusser describes the movement as one toward companionship and collaboration (33-34), and Rollin Lasseter draws attention to the sense of completion that Tenar and Ged achieve in the second volume of the trilogy (103ff). Ged’s journey to adulthood involves several stages, and gifts help define each. Upon leaving each place, we should note, Ged has not only changed in attitude and acquired wisdom; he also leaves with different gifts. Although the respective gifts do not exactly match his spiritual and emotional gains, they clearly function as signs of renewal and engagement with others and serve to chart the stages of Ged’s development.

In the second volume of the series, The Tombs of Atuan, the paradigm of exchange and reciprocity is at the outset reversed: in this harsh sterile world there is not only an absence of exchanges but the standard pattern is taking, not giving. Children are taken, lives are taken, light is taken, obedience is extracted, emotion is obliterated, identity is erased, and names themselves are eradicated, but nothing is given in return. Upon becoming the One Priestess, Arha “is eaten,” devoured and deprived of self-hood in a sterile mummery which lacks meaning or significance. The Tombs constitute a prison of both body and spirit where Arha/Tenar is mistress only of “The silence, and the dark” (26). As Charlotte Spivack phrases it, “the tombs represented for Arha an undifferentiated unconsciousness, deep, demanding, and dumb” (35); yet the old, nameless powers of the place return nothing for all their endless demands, and they effectively contrast with the life-affirming powers of gift-giving and its significance. As Ged tells Tenar, “They have nothing to give. They have no power of making. All their power is to darken and destroy” (106).

Tenar can realize her humanity only by leaving and denying these forces, which are personified in Kossil, a lifeless, grasping reaper who wishes to gather all power to herself but has no real use or any actual application for that power. Tenar’s exchange of the halves of the ring with Ged marks her first step to selfhood, while her return of Ged’s staff reflexively ties her to Ogion. Cummins notes that “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” (46). Their journey away from the Tombs is marked with further exchanges, as Tenar begins her re-entry to the world that she was denied as a child. After they beg a meal in a small mountain village and also receive beds for the night, Tenar asks if mages beg often, and Ged responds: “They are received and given food, by most people, gladly. They do make some return” (133). He goes on to explain that he cured their hostess’s goats because “Hospitality…kindness to a stranger, that’s a very large thing” (134). When Ged summons a rabbit for her, he explains the power of names and refers to his own power of calling as “a gift,” insisting that he will not abuse the gift by calling the rabbit only to eat it (129). Obligation matches ability in this instructive parable and reinforces the reciprocality and morality demanded by the gift exchange.

In this second book, Ged’s role also changes from receiver to giver as he repays, through parallel actions, the gifts of the first book, here to reintegrate Tenar into the world as he was reintegrated himself. Yet there are few tangible gifts like those he received in Wizard; in Tombs they are life-giving gifts of the spirit, not knives or clothes or staffs. Ged’s first offering to Tenar is a vision of herself in a beautiful silk dress that reveals her true beauty and self and which is designed to repay her: “You gave me your cloak.…Can I give you nothing?” (88). Later Ged gives Tenar back her name, as Ogion gave him his true name; he also gives her his own true name in trust, as Estarriol did with him. “I have trusted you,” he tells her, “from the first time I saw your face for one moment in the cave beneath the Tombs, beautiful in the darkness. You have proved your trust in me. I have made no return. I will give you what I have to give. My true name is Ged. And this is yours to keep” (114). He then presents her with the other half of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe, just as the old woman gave him his half, giving what she had to give. Thus, through gifts the deeds of his life are brought full circle and given meaning, and they renew the world at the same time.

The Ring itself transcends its status as object and symbolizes the spirit of hope and life which alone can defeat the oppressive masters of the Tombs. Tenar is now freed from the Dark Powers and possessed of a future as she begins a coming of age in the same way that Ged did; further, he reciprocates Vetch’s gift of home and security by offering Tenar what she had lost, a place of her own (on Gont with Ogion), so that she sails into Havnor “like a child returning home.” Ultimately, Tenar’s growth is signaled by her ability to give—and to receive—and Ged tells her that she will be welcomed in Havnor because of “the great gift” she brings its people (131), for it is truly hers to give now. In the chain of events that typically undergirds fantasy, this gift will lead to Arren’s own journey in The Farthest Shore, which recounts his own return to the gift which will enable his future kingship.

In The Farthest Shore, gifts move beyond the individual to the social, and the loyalty that enables order and rule is invoked as the supreme gift, a theme suggested at the beginning of the second chapter.

The nine mages who are the Masters of the School are considered the equals of the great princes of the Archipelago. Their master, the warden of Roke, is held accountable to no man at all, except the King of all the Isles; and that only by an act of fealty, by heart’s gift, for not even a king could constrain so great a mage to serve the common law if his will were otherwise. Yet even in the kingless centuries, the Archmages of Roke all kept fealty and served the common law.

(14; emphasis mine)

Arren’s first reaction to Ged is an offer of fealty to which Ged replies, “The offer of a generous spirit is not one to refuse lightly” (7). The young prince also muses on his father’s gift of a renowned sword, which he had received “solemnly and had worn it, as if it were a duty to wear it.” The sword’s history and nature—that it had been drawn only “in the service of life”—make it a gift whose spirit and implications he must both respect and obey. His last action before leaving Roke is to purchase for his mother a silver brooch, for “The idea of buying a gift for his mother pleased him” (30). His motives, born of filial affection and burgeoning pride in his independence and growing maturity, combine both gratitude and reciprocity, and the gifts form a connection to his parents, despite the vast distances that will separate them. Thus, from the outset the “heart’s gift” inspires the story. Yet Arren worries about his lack of personal gifts or attributes, noting that his father has the gift of magic which he himself lacks (19), and that he has “no great gifts or skills” (27), a clear departure from the realm of the gift as possession. What is left for him to give, then, is himself. His doubts and fears center on his ability to give and then keep this fealty, and his failures—in Hare’s den and in Lookfar after Ged’s wounding—result from these very doubts and fears.

As in Tombs, in The Farthest Shore a blight of the spirit infects the world and inhibits exchange. All transactions in Earthsea are becoming empty, and one directional. Ged muses about the ex-mage Hare who, he says, “traded” his power: “For what? Life for life, he said. Power for power” (49). Yet we discover that those who have offered their power to Cob receive nothing in return. As in the case of the Old Ones in The Tombs of Atuan, there is no exchange, no act or return of spirit that would foster health. Thus, in Hort hazia addicts sit and stare while the once colorful and active stalls of the marketplace have become blanched specters of themselves. In trade, productivity has declined; the dyers of Lorbanery sit and bemoan the passing of the old days because they cannot make their goods anymore, without understanding why. Both Ged and Arren are struck by the disconsolate people and the vacuousness they meet. Men of power have given up their treasure and thus have forfeited identity and joy, a plague that has spread throughout Earthsea. So in response to Ged’s inquiry about what is missing in Lorbanery, “Arren said without hesitation, ‘Joy in life’” (87). As an old folk saying goes, “If a treasure is given to you, you will have joy throughout life” (Daniels & Stevans 453), but because of Cob’s one-sided dealing, the adage becomes as empty and sere as the Dry Lands themselves.

Ged explains the solution to Arren in his comments on the inevitability and rightness of death. The knowledge of death, he says, confers “a great gift: the gift of selfhood” (122). This statement defines the gift in its most reified form, divorced entirely from any possession; the gift of death/selfhood is a functional, rightful aspect of the laws of the universe and as such exacts its own requisite action. In the end, Ged will give something in return for his own gift of magery since a power of that magnitude creates its proper moral demand for an equivalent return. To quote Emerson again: “Necessity does everything well. In our condition of universal dependence it seems heroic to let the petitioner be the judge of his necessity, and to give all that is asked, though at great inconvenience” (154). In this instance, the petitioner is the world and its demands are weighty, yet Ged meets them. To reassert the Balance, Ged commingles the power of magic with the reciprocity of the gift, thereby interlacing all three. He gives all that is asked at great inconvenience and sacrifice, the “heart’s gift” once more.

The fourth book of Earthsea, Tehanu, published some twenty years later than the original trilogy, has a different focus and flavor, as Le Guin herself explains in “Earthsea Revisioned;” in this novel Tenar “has not abnegated power. But her definition of action, decision, and power is not heroic in the masculine sense. Her acts and choices do not involve ascendance, domination, power over others, and seem not to involve great consequences. They are ‘private’ acts and choices, made in terms of immediate, actual relationships” (13). Thus, the monomyth that dominates the first three gives way to more local and limited concerns, and the emphasis on gifts and exchanges is muted. On one level, however, there is a continued observation of the primary functions and meanings of gifts, just as there is a development of the earlier motif in the way that the focus of the gift is elevated from the abstractions of The Farthest Shore into the realm of myth through the child Therru.

The first direct reference to a gift does not come until the fifth chapter, “Bettering,” with Ogion’s death, where it also hints at what will come. First, a significant exchange occurs that brings full circle the giving of names—from Ogion to Ged, Ged to Tenar, and now Ogion to Tenar—when Ogion lays his hand on Tenar’s, “giving her the gift, his name, giving it away” (52) The passage of Ged’s power and Ogion’s passing prepare the way for Therru’s apotheosis; such a paradigm exchange is necessitated by the Balance, and constitutes the means whereby a new world, “All changed” in Ogion’s words, comes about. His prophecy adheres to the falling-world myth and foretells the coming of the avatar who will reverse the pattern of decline. In this way, Le Guin appends to the earlier, shadowy myths of Earthsea the story of the separation of humans from dragons and the gulf of memory between them.

As the narrative progresses, the general references to the gifts established in the earlier novels continue but more sporadically. When Tenar and Moss, the witch, discuss wizardry and power, the older woman tells Tenar that “Some are born with that gift,” echoing Ged’s assessment of his power (54). She later comments that she does not know if she could give up magic to be respectable, because she has “the one gift, maybe, but not the other” (110). As Tenar settles into Ogion’s house, she wonders about how she will survive, since Ogion had existed on the gifts from the area’s inhabitants and being abstemious had given away any “excess of food and raiment and tools and livestock” left at his door (85). When she leaves her own farm to move up on the mountain, she leaves behind the money for her son Spark as her gift to his future wife (236). The finest thing in the village of Re Albi is an old fan, the “gift, so the story went, of a generous sea pirate to his grandfather for some speedy sailmaking in time of need,” perhaps the only comic gift in the four novels (114). These incidents and items all reflect the “immediate, actual relationships” to which Le Guin refers in distinguishing how the novel differs from the previous ones.

In Tehanu, however, a final function of gifts is also introduced, one that builds upon the theme left off in The Farthest Shore where Arren leaves childhood for adulthood—the gift of the child. This last book recalls to us the theme of childhood and its loss in the stories of Ged, Tenar, Arren, and the marooned siblings in Wizard. Le Guin comments that until she had a vision of the maimed child Therru, who becomes Tehanu, she had no story to tell: “Until I saw Therru, until she chose me, there was no book. I couldn’t see the story till I could look through her eye” (“Earthsea Revisioned” 19). For Tenar, Therru was “given to her out of fire, chosen by her soul.” Deprived, beaten, raped, maimed, she is a child to whom so much must be returned, and Tenar, who knows what it is to be deprived of childhood and life, herself fears that she cannot give the girl what was taken away from her. Significantly, she conceives of both Therru and the joy of childhood in terms of a gift: “she knew that the child had been given her and she had failed in her charge, failed in her trust, lost her, lost the one great gift” (118).

When Tenar tells Ged of Therru’s life and Ogion’s injunction to “teach her all,” Ged, who has emptied himself by giving all but who sees the latent power in the child, laments, “I have nothing to give her” (96), signaling the end of the old world. As Tenar has made clear, however, Therru is herself a gift, a response to the gifts of home, protection and love which Tenar has given her, the gift which will return Earthsea itself to the world it should be. Ged has plugged the leak in the world; the Balance has been righted; a new king sits in Havnor. There awaits only the final change. Maimed and yet saved by fire, Tehanu will eventually phoenix-like rise in fire to join the dragons, and her function is defined by Kalessin/Segoy when he says to Ged and Tenar, linking man and dragon, “I give you my child, as you will give me yours” (249). In this apocryphal exchange, as the paradigm insists, the world will be made new—through a child—as the eldest and youngest reunite.

As Kathryn Hume states in her study of fantasy, “Meaning for the individual comes from imitating mythic patterns; meaning for the reader or listener comes from seeing these patterns imitated in the story” (33). Le Guin’s uses of archetypal myths and traditional narrative patterns—the development of the hero, the voyage of discovery, the descent into death, the falling world—have been well documented, but her true genius lies in the specific details of worldbuilding that tie her fictional worlds to ours. Gift-giving, as a result of its relationship to the Equilibrium and because of the way it functions in the everyday life of the characters, achieves mythic status by asserting value as both part of a pattern and as a pattern in its own right. The philosophy of exchange “is total—religious, moral, sentimental” (Hays 392), and in this way the gift itself reveals the heart of the world. Exchange is the dynamic which permits community, individual and corporate prosperity, relations between strangers, stability, and even salvation.

Works Cited

Beattie, John. Other Cultures. New York: Free P, 1964.

Cummins, Elizabeth. Understanding Ursula K. Le Guin. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1990.

Daniels, Cora Lynn, and C. M. Stevans, eds. The Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World. Vol. 1 of 3. Detroit: Gale, 1971.

De Bolt, Joe. “The Voyager: A Le Guin Biography.” Ursula K. LeGuin: Voyager to Inner Lands and to Outer Spaces. Ed. Joe De Bolt. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat, 1979. 13-30.

Douglas, Mary. “Foreword.” The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. By Marcel Mauss. Trans. W. D. Halls. New York: Norton, 1990. vii-xvii.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Gifts.” Emerson’s Essays. Second Series. Boston: Houghton, 1883. 151-59.

Goldschmidt, Walter. Exploring the Ways of Mankind. New York: Holt, 1960.

Hays, H. R. From Ape to Angel: An Informal History of Social Anthropology. New York: Knopf, 1971.

Horner, Jan. “Anthropology and Myth in the Works of Ursula K. Le Guin.” M.A. Thesis. University of Manitoba. 1985.

Hume, Kathryn. Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature. New York: Methuen, 1984.

Lasseter, Rollin A. “Four Letters About Le Guin.” Ursula K. Le Guin: Voyager to Inner Lands and Outer Space. Ed. Joe DeBolt. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat, 1979. 89-114.

Le Guin, Ursula K. A Wizard of Earthsea. New York: Bantam, 1968.

———. The Tombs of Atuan. New York: Bantam, 1970.

———. The Farthest Shore. New York: Bantam, 1972.

———. The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Rev. ed. Ed. Susan Wood. New York: Perigee, 1989.

———. Tehanu. New York: Bantam, 1991.

———. Earthsea Revisioned. Cambridge, MA: Children’s Literature in New England, 1993.

Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Trans. W. D. Halls. New York: Norton. 1990.

Scholes, Robert. “The Good Witch of the West.” Ursula K. Le Guin. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea. 1986. 35-46.

Slusser, George. The Farthest Shores of Ursula K. Le Guin. San Bernardino, CA: Borgo, 1976.

Spivack, Charlotte. Ursula K. Le Guin. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

Peter Brigg (essay date Spring 1997)

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SOURCE: “A ‘Literary Anthropology’ of the Hainish, Derived from the Tracings of the Species Guin,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 38, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 15-24.

[In the following essay, Brigg attempts to reconstruct the origins, character, and history of the Hainish, Le Guin's fictional race of ancient beings, through clues and allusions in the Hainish cycle.]

Before the paper, a mysterious letter left upon my desk, which may be relevant. Its source I cannot be certain of, but there were paw marks in the deep dust of my monkish cell.


We (a royal we) know your type, and we know them to be totally out of step with the structuralismists and deconstructionismalists who understand TRUTH. You literary anthropologists are not to be trusted. Imagine trusting literature for truth and looking in it for meaning. Imagine undertaking anthropology on a body of writing, accepting the fictive whole, and throwing canonical chronology to the winds. Shame! Sir.

We know your ilk. That Borges man, lost in his books at the foot of the world, searching the Library of Babel for the truth of Uqbar, if Uqbar there be. That Horace Miner, twisting in the mysteries of the Body Ritual among the Nacirema. That paradoxical lady, my mistress, with her dark truths about Acacia Seeds and Therolinguistics and her acquaintance with my cousin, Schrödinger’s striped yellow tom. So now you claim you will know the Hainish, my mistress’s shadowy, fascinating creations. Like your literary anthropologist kind you will look only in her pages, and in the pages of the sages who earn wages writing of her pages, for the meaning of the mystery. You have her permission, I know. I was dozing on her desk when she wrote you, in 1986, saying: “Anyhow, I don’t think I have any further plans for them, although my curiosity about them has never died and I do sometimes brood on it. But I really do not think your archaeology would interfere with the faint possibility of my returning to them; it might even encourage me, who knows?” (Letter to the author). And I was lounging in sunbeams on the window sill when she did return to them, in A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, the Werel-Yeowe and Seggri stories. But you literary anthropologists, with only the glyphs to study and the vast gaps in information to speculate upon.

There is more truth, Sir, in a tin of tuna.

Ursula Le Guin has spoken of the creation of “literary cultures,” saying: “My father felt very strongly that you can never actually get outside your own culture. All you can do is try. I think that feeling sometimes comes out in my writing. My father studied real cultures and I make them up—in a way, it’s the same thing” (qtd. in Cummins 2). Much has been written on the varied cultures of Le Guin’s’s Hainish universe, from the mindless winged hominids of Fomalhaut II to the anarchists of Annares, but only a few scholars have ventured to consider the Hainish founders.

There are undoubtedly some very real reasons why not too much has been done on the Hainish. James Bittner effectively sums up the axiomatic status of the Hainish: “But Le Guin’s fictional hypothesis—that all known human cultures in our corner of the galaxy spread out from Hain, one of the “prime worlds of the Ekumen, the hearth-worlds of our race” (LHD 280)—need not be verified or refuted. It is a contract myth that makes the Ekumen possible and accounts for the origin of her future history” (105). The “contract myth” is, by implication, an unexamined one, a given. Moreover, the Hainish are at the center of only three of Le Guin’s fictions.1 They are usually observers, apparently marginal participants.

Yet there is a very important reason for thinking about the Hainish. It is rather like investigating a large hole in the road. The Hainish are not there, yet they are there by their very absence and have a significant effect upon the whole cosmology of the Hainish fictions, Le Guin’s most sustained body of work. The details of their mysterious guilt and millenniums of civilization are hinted at strongly enough to make them an issue.

Here are some of the puzzles posed by the presence of the Hainish in the fictions. What are the Hainish like as a people? What is their personal psychology, including the mysterious guilt, and how does it relate to the inevitable baseline of our considerations, the human personality? What can we know of their history and their technology? What, on a larger scale, is their function in the fiction and is it appropriate to Le Guin’s larger intentions for the Hainish cycle?

What is known for certain is that the Hainish “have been civilized for a thousand millennia. We [They] have histories of hundreds of those millennia” (Le Guin Dispossessed 310). Yet: “No human mind could encompass the history of Hain: three million years of it. The events of the first two million years, the Fore-Eras, like layers of metamorphic rock, were so compressed, so distorted by the weight of the succeeding millennia and their infinite events that one could reconstruct only the most sweeping generalities from the tiny surviving details” (Le Guin “A Man…” 36). Near the end of the first million years2 they developed Nearly as Fast as Light (NAFAL) propulsion systems and went out to colonise the near portion of the galaxy (36-37). Old Atro, speaking somewhat derisively, sums it up: “All of alien origin, offspring of Hainish interstellar colonists, half a million years ago, or a million, or two or three million, yes, I know” (Dispossessed 115).3 Because NAFAL travel took years for transits from star system to star system the central act was to ‘seed’ worlds with settlers and leave then to develop. In the ‘last’ of the Hainish novels (I am considering them in terms of internal chronology, not composition date [Watson 73-744].) Ong Tot Oppong sums up the pattern:

It seems likely that [the Gethenians] were an experiment. The thought is unpleasant. But now that there is evidence to indicate that the Terran Colony was an experiment, the planting of one Hainish Normal group on a world with its own proto-hominid autochthones, the possibility cannot be ignored. Human genetic manipulation was certainly practiced by the Colonizers; nothing else explains the hilfs of S or the degenerate winged hominids of Rokanan; will anything else explain Gethenian sexual physiology?

Left Hand 65)5

The seeds planted, the Hainish must have been slowly tending their colonial empire (by largest count, 88 worlds [Word 54]6) when the invention of the ansible made The League of All Worlds possible. League history may have been made uneasy because of tensions between the Hainish and their colonies: “There were hints of troubles and upheavals in the government of the League of All Worlds, rising perhaps from that prevalence of a form of communication that precluded lying” (City 21). Certainly one world, Faraday, arose from its colonial status and challenged the League. This is the enemy Rocannon must destroy on Fomalhaut II (Rocannon’s 35). Tensions may have been exacerbated by the colonial mentality of the early Hainish empire builders, whose Law of Cultural Embargo (see Planet 69), ostensibly designed to protect the colonized, withheld technology, culture, and mindspeech until “such a planet be ready for Control or for Membership” (italics mine).

Then came the intergalactic enemy, the Shing, who destroyed the League, occupied Terra, caused the Hainish Withdrawal, (Left Hand 65), and brought about a period of disconnection lasting at least one thousand years, and for outermost planets like Ganam, fifty thousand years (Fisherman 113). Finally, the Hainish reappear, assisting in the creation of the Ekumen, in which they are apparently one among equals, offering transportation and quiet participation.

Out of this vague outline emerge the questions. Earth’s Ambassador, Keng, attributes to the Hainish a condition of guilt: “They are a very strange people, the Hainish; older than any of us; infinitely generous. They are altruists. They are moved by a guilt we don’t even understand, despite all our crimes. They are moved in all they do, I think, by the past, their endless past” (Dispossessed 280). This is reinforced by the description of Ketho, the Hainishman who proposes to go down to Annares: “The other man [Ketho] looked at him [Shevek] gravely, as if he was not sure what happiness was, and yet he recognized or perhaps remembered it from afar” (311).

The mystery of this guilt and sadness7 is one of the most profound surrounding the Hainish (“Winter’s King” 110). Several solutions suggest themselves. The most obvious is that the guilt is for the Withdrawal which left the colonized planets at the mercy of the Shing. But why then would Keng speak of “the past, their endless past”? Perhaps, reaching back further into the past, it is guilt for the act of colonizing and ruling an empire,8 which reaches to the “Fore-Eras of Hain” (110). In Rocannon’s World, set admittedly when the League led by Hain is preparing for struggle with the Enemy, there is clear reference to less than subtle colonial methods: “the first coming of the Starlords, how they burnt away hills and made the sea boil with their terrible weapons, and with the threat of those weapons had forced all the Lords of Angien to pledge them fealty and tribute” (28). Colonial guilt could be supported further if one reasons that genetic manipulation was practiced, as Ong Tot Oppong suggests, and the guilt could be for the act of experimenting on the hominid template (their own) as well as isolating groups on far-flung planets.9 Or the guilt and sadness could simply be the nearly endless accumulation of racial experience, a history that contains every possible evil and mistake and that forms a smothering straightjacket of experience, so that every action has been done and its outcomes are predictable. Three million years of history might well generate a profound ennui tinged with guilt. In “Winter’s King” Argaven: “had begun to guess the immensity of this kingdom and the durable pain and monotonous waste of its history” (112). Another suggestion, briefly offered, is that the sadness emerges from the situation of interstellar travel, for Rocannon mourns the fact that time dilation has cost him all friendship (78).10

There is not going to be a simple answer to this dilemma, and, in fact, like much to do with the Hainish, the very indecision prompts readers to impose their own ideology upon the question. If colonization and the profound dislocation of post-colonial peoples are central to one’s thinking, then genetic manipulation becomes symbolic of cultural distortion and the colonial agents, the Hainish, have a clear source of guilt. This can be supported by seeing the Withdrawal as the historical equivalent of World War II, when colonies and protectorates were abandoned in the struggle for major power survival. But if the colonial-historical paradigm is not uppermost in the reader’s mind, then attention turns to the nature of the Hainish to see if their social behavior can reveal the mystery of the sadness and guilt in terms more cultural than political.

If the texts are taken according to internal chronology (Watson 73-74) the first Hainishmen we meet is Ketho of the Davenant. “They were a meditative people, the Hainish among the crew, civil, considerate, rather sober. There was little spontaneity in them. The youngest of them seemed older than any of the Terrans aboard” (Dispossessed 307). But Ketho shows a gentle curious enthusiasm to join Shevek in his descent to Annares.11 The next Hainishman we meet is Lepennon, who, at the time of the formation of the League, finds himself confronting the unpleasant situation of brutalized colonialism on Athshe. To Lyubov, the anthropologist, he seems supremely civilized: “To the Hainish, he thought, civilisation came naturally. They had been at it so long. They lived the social-intellectual life with the grace of a cat hunting in a garden, the certainty of a swallow following summer over the sea. They were experts. They never had to pose, to fake” (Word 68). While Lepennon is obviously distressed he does not seem to heed Lyubov’s desperate plea for help for the persecuted Athsheans. In fact, there seems to be an arrogance in his response: “The Hainishman met his eyes; his gaze was reserved, kindly, and deep as a well. He said nothing” (74). Along with Rocannon, Ketho and Lepennon are the only Hainish the reader meets who predate the Withdrawal. Rocannon is somewhat paradoxical as a Hainishman, for he is driven by a desire for revenge for his lost comrades, by his sense of responsibility for the destiny of Fomalhaut II; and, importantly, while he is Hainish by birth, his adoptive father was Terran. But it could be argued that the Hainish of the period before the Withdrawal are depicted as already beset by the sense of sadness and guilt.

The Hainish seem to have passed religion, for Rocannon remembers: “Long ago, on Davenant, the planet of his birth, he had walked through a museum full of statues, a child looking up into the unmoving faces of the ancient Hainish gods” (Rocannon’s 90). The mystical-philosophical position of the Hainish seems to stress non-interference and the admiration of complexity and paradox. Their language does: “In great Hainish indeed there is one word, ontá, for love and hate” (“Vaster Than” 201). And Osden, attacking Harfex, throws a Hainish maxim at her: “Aren’t you a Hainishman? Isn’t the measure of complexity the measure of the eternal joy?” (212). Lepennon’s intensely excited reaction to the possibility that the Athsheans might be a human species with “an effective war-barrier” (Word 61) demonstrates that Hainish thinking encompasses non-violence, as do the carefully modulated Hainish interventions in the Ekumen period.

The eight12 stories published in 1994-1995 offer more extensive portraits of several of the Hainish but answer none of the pressing questions. The three stories partly set on Hain (“A Man of the People,” “The Shobies’ Story,” “A Fisherman of the Inland Sea”) show a quiet, largely rural and tranquil place, but they of course take place in the mature Ekumen period. There are four portraits of the Hainish: Merriment, Kathad Havzhiva, Esdrdon Aya (Old Music), and Sweet Today. Merriment, the first Mobile on Seggri, simply makes a report; and Old Music is an old wise man personality; politic, capable of action, a good judge of persons and situations. Kathad Havzhiva is the only Hainish ever presented during his childhood on Hain. It is a sophisticated peasant childhood, resembling the situation in Always Coming Home: steady emphasis is placed on rituals and observances while the life of high technology, low density cities, and temples remains in the background until Kathad decides to join the historians and learn about his world and the Ekumen. Le Guin comments that “Hain itself had been for several thousand years in an unexciting period” (“A Man” 36), so it is clear that the planet is not in the same state as it was, say, during the League of All Worlds. There is no hint or explanation of racial guilt in this story that presents a quiet pueblo society from which a few seekers emerge into the larger universe. Kathad is capable of action but only as it arises out of a still center of knowledge and understanding, reminiscent of Ketho or of the best aspects of Rocannon.

Sweet Today, the Hainish member of the Shobies’ experiment, is taciturn yet direct, and it is she who “solves” the desperate dilemma of the churten flight by realizing that a common story will make the events real. Later, Hainish psychologists are arguing about the churten experience in “Dancing To Ganam” (“The Hainish have been talking for a million years and have never got tired of it. But they are also fond of listening,” [108].), but there are no significant revelations about the Hainish in the three stories in which they are present in A Fisherman of the Inland Sea.

Certainly the Hainish and their history remain tantalizing, and Le Guin has never fulfilled Judah Bierman’s hope for a return to “first causes”: “I feel Le Guin must go back to explore that Hainish guilt and past” (255). Perhaps the most fascinating reading of the Hainish is Gérard Klein’s 1977 proposal that the Hainish are part of a “myth of foundation,” which he takes further into a Freudian reading that they, like Le Guin writing the Hainish cycle, are the mothers of the universe with the primal guilt of the “original scene” who struggle with the guilt of differentiating the human type and then struggling to love the variations (288-93). But persuasive as this is, it seems to this writer to be an overreading, an application of a Freudian ideological stance no more finally valid than a post-colonial reading. A more profitable approach is to consider the issue of first causes in relation to teleology, to the ends of the Hainish cycle. In the stories in A Fisherman of the Inland Sea and in The Dispossessed, Le Guin seems to take a special delight in the richness of diversity among races, in the knowledge, pleasure, and even humor of multiple perspectives interacting. And the Ekumen is the sociopolitical tool and symbol of that variety, the community of diversity, loosely structured as a garment to be lightly worn by all. The starting point to get to that vision could have been an evil empire, but this would have been to accept the aged science fiction stereotype of the small group of good rebels defeating malevolent tyrants, a stereotype at whose roots lies the egotism of “rugged individualism,” the certainty that one possesses the only right way of seeing. So the progenitors must be otherwise—good, kind, gentle, infinitely civilized. There must then be some flaw to cause things to come apart so that they can later reassemble; and that flaw of course is that progenitors have power ad nominum, for they make the decision to seed and have the technology to do so. In this context the Shing are intensely symbolic twisted mirrors of the Hainish, for they replicate the need to be two-faced, both nourishers and wielders of sophisticated power. Finally, the Hainish can return, chastened by a full awareness of the unavoidable ambiguity of their former role and seeking only to avoid the power which they once, reluctantly and unawares, had.

The Hainish experience does partake of the colonial stereotype, and it does, probably, partake of the Freudian vision of origins. But above all it partakes of a sophisticated vision of the human type as not naturally evil or a negative force, but as potentially capable of errors that can heap up a vast history of guilt. And the Hainish cycle foresees that reconciliation is possible and that it is possible to go forward, the fog of guilt lifting in the sun of diversity. The happiest Hainish-person in the opus is the last, Sweet Today of “The Shobies’ Story.” She is a “big, tall, heavy woman in her late fifties” who becomes an honorary grand-mother, has “a deep well of congeniality” (76) and “a slow, comfortable voice” (80). She looks eagerly forward to the Churten experiment and fully shares in the experience. She and her people in the later Ekumen stories have come a great distance in the moral space of the Hainish cycle.


  1. Gaveral Rocannon in Rocannon’s World; Kathad Havzhiva in “A Man of the People,” and Solly Agat Terwa in “Forgiveness Day.”

  2. “…colonized by their ancestors a couple of million years ago in the Fore-Eras” (Le Guin, “Man of the People” 36-37).

  3. This is supported in “Winter’s King”: “But the kinship goes back a million years and more, to the Fore-Eras of Hain. The ancient Hainish settled a hundred worlds” (106).

  4. To Watson’s chronology must be added “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow,” which occurs around 2700 A.D. (shortly after Rocannon has reported on mindspeech), and “The Shobies Story,” “Dancing to Ganam,” and “Another Story: A Fisherman of the Inland Sea,” which all occur latest in the Hainish cycle (because Gethen is then part of the Ekumen, but the Churten Drive does not exist in “Winter’s King”). “Dancing to Ganam” occurs after ‘The Shobies’ Story” (humanoids first Churten in “Shobies”), but “Fisherman,” with its paradoxes centred around the discovery of Churten, seems to encircle the two other stories. The recent (1994-95) Werel-Yeowe stories and “The Matter of Seggri” must also be added.

  5. It has always amused this writer that Le Guin inserts the ironic-paradoxical version of Terran Creation Theory here so casually, attributing Adam’s gang to the Hainish rather than God but confirming intervention in Terran evolution.

  6. One could add Rocannon’s world to this list to get eighty-nine. In “Winter’s King” King Argaven studies “the nature and history of a kingdom that was over a million years old and trillions of miles wide.”

  7. The reference to “those mild persons, whose chief quality seemed a cool, profound sadness” may apply to Ekumenicals other than Hainish but probably to them too.

  8. The only “proof” that Hain-Davenant is the centre of the League is the mention of the Great Hall of the League being on Hain in Planet of Exile. See Bittner 98.

  9. The Gethenians may be one example of genetic manipulation. Others may be the Athsheans and the horrifying creatures of Formalhaut II. Ong may be in error about the latter, as there is evidence in Rocannon’s World that evolutionary digression from type may have occurred after the Hainish seeding.

  10. “‘Too many [worlds],’ said the older man [Rocannon]. ‘I’m forty, by your years; but I was born a hundred and forty years ago. A hundred years I’ve lost without living them, between the worlds. If I went back to Davenant or Earth, the men and women I knew would be a hundred years dead.’”

  11. An elderly (well, bald) Ketho (possibly the same man) occurs briefly in “Semele’s Necklace,” where he is curator of the museum on New South Georgia. There he has the galactic bad taste to call the Clayman “trogs” but has the good grace to blush to the top of his bald pate as he praises Semele’s beauty to Rocannon.

  12. “The Shobies’ Story,” “Dancing to Ganam,” “A Fisherman of the Inland Sea.” “The Matter of Seggri,” “Forgiveness Day,” “A Man of the People,” “A Woman’s Liberation,” and “Betrayals.”

Works Cited

Bierman, Judah. “Ambiguity in Utopia: The Dispossessed.Science-Fiction Studies 13 (Nov. 1975): 249-55.

Bittner, James W. Approaches to the Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin. Ann Arbor: UMI Research P, 1984.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Labyrinths. New York: New Dimensions, 1964.

Cummins, Elizabeth. Understanding Ursula K. LeGuin. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1990.

Dunn, Thomas P. “Creation Unfinished: Astronomical Realities in the Hainish Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin.” Patterns of the Fantastic II. Ed. Donald M. Hassler. Mercer Island, WA: Starmont, 1985. 59-67.

Kerman, Judith B. “Anthropological Materials and Issues in Le Guin.” Paper read at International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, Boca Raton, Florida, March 1995.

Klein, Gérard. “Le Guin’s ‘Aberrant’ Opus: Escaping the Trap of Discontent.” Science-Fiction Studies 13 (Nov. 1977): 287-95.

Le Guin, Ursula K. City of Illusions. Frogmore: Panther, 1973.

———. The Dispossessed. New York: Avon, 1975.

———. A Fisherman of the Inland Sea. New York: Harper Prism, 1994.

———. “Forgiveness Day.” Asimov’s Science Fiction 18 (Nov. 1994): 264-304.

———. Four Ways To Forgiveness. New York: Harper Prism, 1995.

———. Letter to author, October, 30, 1986.

———. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Walker, 1983.

———. “A Man of the People.” Asimov’s Science Fiction 19 (Apr. 1995): 22-65.

———. “The Matter of Seggri.” The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twelfth Annual Collection. Ed. Gardner Dosois. New York: St. Martin’s, 1995.

———. Planet of Exile. London: Tandem, 1972.

———. Rocannon’s World. London: Tandem, 1972.

———. “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow.” The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. New York: Harper Row, 1975. 181-217.

———. “Winter’s King.” The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. New York: Harper and Row, 1975. 93-117.

———. “A Woman’s Liberation.” Asimov’s Science Fiction 19 (July 1995): 116-63.

———. The Word for World Is Forest. New York: Berkley, 1972.

Miner, Horace. “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema.” A Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown. Ed. Robert A. Baker. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Doubleday Anchor, 1969.

Watson, Ian. “Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven and the Role of Dick: The False Reality as Mediator.” Science-Fiction Studies 5 (Mar. 1975): 67-75.

Susan McLean (essay date Summer 1997)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4665

SOURCE: “The Power of Women in Ursula K. Le Guin's Tehanu,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 38, No. 2, Summer, 1997, pp. 110-18.

[In the following essay, McLean examines Le Guin's shifting portrayal of female empowerment in Tehanu,focusing on the tension between compassion, acceptance, and justified anger over patriarchal abuses.]

In Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea, published in 1990, Ursula K. Le Guin returned to the fantasy world of Earthsea that she had created in the first three books of the children’s series published between 1968 and 1972. In the years after the first three books were written, her evolving feminism made her uncomfortable with the “unquestioned patriarchal system where only men are wizards, only men have power” that she had unconsciously created in Earthsea (“Ursula K. Le Guin” 5). In Tehanu, she attempts to change the whole system by exposing the dark side of patriarchy—including misogyny, rape, child abuse, and a system that devalues the work and concerns of women, children, and powerless men—and by postulating an alternative “woman’s power” that will eventually lead Earthsea to a new balance and harmony.

The first three books of the Earthsea series are coming-of-age stories with adolescent protagonists. In the first, A Wizard of Earthsea, the teenage protagonist Ged has to learn to use magic and to accept and control his own dark side. In the second book, The Tombs of Atuan, a slightly older Ged helps a teenage girl, Tenar, escape from her role as a priestess of dark powers. In the third book, The Farthest Shore, a teenage boy, Arren, comes of age while helping Ged to fight the threat of Cob, a rival magician who is draining Earthsea of life and magic by holding out the illusory lure of immortality. The theme of the third book is the necessity of accepting death as a part of life, and Ged is able to save his world only by sacrificing his own powers of magic, thus undergoing a symbolic death.

Tehanu does not include an adolescent coming of age. Instead, it follows a different fictional model, concerned with “women developing later in life, after conventional expectations of marriage and motherhood have been fulfilled and found insufficient” (Abel et al. 7). The book focuses not only on a middle-aged Tenar’s search for an identity outside of her familial roles, but also on Ged’s need to find a new identity once he has lost the power that gave meaning to his life. There is a third main character, the eight-year-old girl Therru, who is adopted by Tenar after being raped, beaten, and thrown into a fire by her father. Whether she can recover from that experience, and what her life will offer if she does, is the third central question that Tehanu addresses. Through these three characters Le Guin implies that profound “changes of life” can happen not just at adolescence but at any time. As in her essay on menopause, “The Space Crone” (Dancing 3-6), Le Guin suggests that what looks like a loss—of youth, of power, of beauty—can also be an opportunity for growth.

In Tehanu, Le Guin’s indictment of patriarchy is thorough and effective. The death of patriarchy begins with the death of fathers, both literal and metaphoric. At the beginning of the book, Tenar’s husband, Flint, the father of her two grown children, has died, setting her free from his patriarchal control and from her identity as “wife.” At the same time, Ged’s loss of his role as Archmage leaves the entire society of Earthsea without a central controlling figure. Arren’s succession as King of All the Isles provides a source of social order, but he is too young to be a father figure, and his control is less complete than that of an Archmage. The other wizards search in vain for a new Archmage, rejecting the Master Patterner’s statement that the pattern of the future centers on “A woman on Gont” (157).

Soon after the story begins, Tenar is summoned to the death of her adoptive father Ogion, who has also functioned as Ged’s adoptive father. Of all the fathers portrayed in the series, he is portrayed most favorably. Ogion is a wise old man—in Jungian terms, an image of the Self, which acts as a guide—but in Tehanu Le Guin distances herself from the Jungian theory that she had earlier found congenial. In an essay called “Earthsea Revisioned,” she observes that Jung’s archetypes “are mindforms of the Western European psyche as perceived by a man” (5-6). On the road that Tenar is traveling, no man—no matter how wise—can be her guide. Even a wise old woman, like the witch Moss, can only give her some useful hints. She must find the way herself, and so must Ged—not as children being led, but as adults, side by side.

The bad fathers in Tehanu all display a selfishness and self-centeredness that is thematically linked to Cob’s attempt to achieve personal immortality at the expense of destroying the balance of life for everyone else. Therru’s father—with a man called Handy—beats Therru, rapes her, burns her, and abandons her. He also beats and eventually murders Therru’s pregnant mother, and he tries to break into Tenar’s house to rape her. He is wounded by Ged in that attempt, then handed over to the authorities to be hanged. Another evil father is the old Lord of Re Albi, who hires the wizard Aspen to prolong his own life by feeding it on the life of his grandson. Aspen himself, as a celibate wizard, is not a father, but he is a profound misogynist, who considers himself to be superior to all women, children, and powerless men. He attempts to destroy Tenar, Ged, and Therru but is himself destroyed by the dragon called by Therru. Once Aspen is dead, the old Lord of Re Albi will die too.

Most of the other male characters of Tehanu are neither evil nor wholly good, but many of them—such as Tenar’s son Spark—have been corrupted by a society that gives them “unearned power” (Le Guin, “Earthsea Revisioned” 14). When the teenage Spark takes over the farm that Tenar had been running while he was away at sea, he treats her, Ged, and Therru with insufferable high- handedness. He contrasts unfavorably with the young king Lebannen (formerly called Arren), who knows how to use his power and how to listen to others because “He has been through the fire” (Tehanu 145). Tellingly, when Tenar first sees Lebannen, she mistakes him for her son, and when she first sees Spark after his return, she mistakes him for a neighbor’s child. Lebannen is a child of Tenar’s spirit in a way that Spark is not.1

Some readers have objected that the strengthening of Tenar’s character in Tehanu seems to take place at the cost of the weakening of Ged’s.2 Le Guin has replied that Ged’s apparent weakness is part of her attempt to redefine strength as something “that doesn’t involve contests and conquests and bossing people around” (“Earthsea Revisioned” 18). Ged himself is devastated at first by the loss of his power because, like the other mages, he assumes that the power he has lost is the only kind of power, and that power is the key to his own worth. He slowly relearns the truth of his own earlier statement to Arren, in The Farthest Shore, that “there is only one power that is real and worth the having. And that is the power, not to take, but to accept” (138). This is the kind of power that women are more likely to have. The witch Moss, trying to define the difference between male and female power, tells Tenar: “A man gives out, dearie. A woman takes in” (Tehanu 109). But women’s power is not passive. On the contrary, this power reflects the lesson that Ged first learned about magic, “that true magery lies in doing only what you must do” (216). Tenar, like most women, is constantly doing what must be done, often several things at once and all of them seemingly minor, such as feeding, clothing, and cleaning. Her commitment to the dailiness of life is her inner strength, and it is this strength that Ged must rediscover.

Le Guin takes pains in Tehanu to correct the negative view of women of power expressed in her earlier Earthsea books in the phrases “Weak as woman’s magic” and “Wicked as woman’s magic” (A Wizard of Earthsea 5). However, the exact nature of women’s power is only sketchily defined in Tehanu. It seems to have its roots in the body, in sexuality and nurturance, and it is consistent with Carol Gilligan’s observation that whereas men define themselves primarily in terms of separation and individuality, women’s identity “is defined in a context of relationship and judged by a standard of responsibility and care” (160-61). This “woman’s power” is revealed mainly in two characters, Tenar and Therru.

Tenar embodies the power of caring. Her name may derive from the French verb tenir or the Italian tenere, both of which come from the Latin tenere, “to have, to hold, to keep” (Le Guin did graduate work in French and Italian). In The Tombs of Atuan Tenar holds on to her humanity, against all efforts to deprive her of it, by caring for Ged (in both senses of the word), and in Tehanu she holds on to the people she loves and her own self- respect against even harsher opposition. Her Gontish name, Goha, means “a white spider.” Spiders make a thing of beauty, their web, that is also a home and a means of living. The spider is thus an appropriate symbol of women as artists and homemakers, people who make connections. Le Guin used the same symbol in her earlier story “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight,” where the spider known as Grandmother (a figure borrowed from Native American mythology) weaves a web that ties all of nature together (Buffalo Gals 50-51).

As a child, Tenar was forced to sacrifice her identity to become Arha, the Eaten One, a high priestess of dark powers known only as the Nameless Ones. In a similar way, Therru is sacrificed to evil by her father, yet both ultimately escape with the help of others. Both characters have an inner power that seems to be connected to their ordeals. Tenar hypothesizes that the root of power is a heightened potential, a sort of emptiness that must be filled, in either a positive or a negative way (Tehanu 215-16). Ged tells Tenar that he could see power in her from the first time he met her: “I had the power to know power, then, … And you—you shone, in that terrible place, the Labyrinth, that darkness” (94). Ged is at first disappointed in Tenar for not “using” her power, because he does not realize what kind of power she has and how she is using it, fulfilling her potential with a wholehearted commitment to life.

Therru, whose given name means “burning” and whose true name, Tehanu, is the name of a star, has a different sort of power from Tenar’s. Early in the story, Tenar tells Therru that dragons and humans were originally one race and that some beings still exist who combine human mind with dragon heart and can appear in either form. Therru, whose future as a woman is irreversibly marred by the fire that disfigures half of her face, turns out to be one of these beings. She represents the hope of the future of Earthsea because she can integrate wisdom and power, reason and feeling, action and caring. She can do this because she is part dragon, and, for Le Guin, dragons are a symbol of nature, of wildness and freedom and anger (“Earthsea Revisioned” 22-23). They possess an unlearned knowledge, like that of the animals in fairy tales, that makes them instinctively act “rightly” (Le Guin, Language 62-63).

Le Guin’s concept of what her dragons represent has changed over time. In A Wizard of Earthsea the highest forms of wisdom and power seem to be reserved for men, and all of the dragons that appear in the story are male. In The Farthest Shore the dragon Orm Embar, who helps Ged to fight Cob, is also male, but Ged admits that he does not know whether the oldest dragon, Kalessin, is male or female (151). In Tehanu the only two characters who are both dragon and human—the Woman of Kemay and Therru—are both female, and Tenar also shares some traits that link her to the dragons. She often has dreams of flying with dragons, and she is able to look dragons in the eye, a thing that no man can do. Therru says that she sees fire around Tenar’s head when Tenar is brushing her hair (111-12), and Moss later sees fire around Tenar’s head when Tenar is angry (122). Therru tells her, in the latter case, “You are a red dragon” (121). Learning the Old Speech, the language of dragons, comes naturally to Tenar. She says, “That was like learning the language I spoke before I was born” (95), but when she tries to teach it to Therru, she senses that doing so feels wrong (133). Tenar later learns that Therru, like the other dragons, has always known the Old Speech because it is her native tongue (250).

In her poem “To Saint George,” first published in 1982, Le Guin suggested that women and dragons share an identity as dangerously knowing and debased “others” in the male imagination:

Woman is worm.
… … …
… … She knows
the oneworm, the roundworm
unending, hollow, all, egg,
being the dragon.
Saint, better get her
before she talks.

Wild Oats 36)

In a 1991 interview with Colin Greenland, Le Guin said, “The dragons … are or represent a different kind of power from the powers in Earthsea—marginalized, unused, something to do with women” (61). In Tehanu the witch Moss tells Tenar that women’s power has roots that go back into the dark: “No one knows, no one knows, no one can say what I am, what a woman is, a woman of power, a woman’s power, deeper than the roots of trees, deeper than the roots of islands, older than the Making, older than the moon. Who dares ask questions of the dark?” (57). Tenar herself spent much of her youth in the dark, in the underground labyrinth that was her legacy as a priestess of the Nameless Ones, yet she also has dreams of flying in light and fire, like a dragon. Le Guin seems to imply that in the margins, where women and dragons live, opposites unite. To have roots, paradoxically, is also to have wings.

The focus on women’s power in Tehanu may appear to exclude men from possessing the same kind of wholeness, but Le Guin has stated that the kind of freedom that her dragon-people represent “rejects gender” (“Earthsea Revisioned” 24). Le Guin does imply that there are essential differences between male and female experience and therefore between male and female power. But when the fan that belongs to the weaver Fan is held up to the light, the paintings of dragons on one side and of humans on the other combine to reveal a scene in which “the men and women were winged, and the dragons looked with human eyes” (Tehanu 115). The potential for wholeness is available to both sexes, even though in this case women lead the way.

Therru possesses traits that link her to Ged as well as to Tenar. Like Ged, she has scars on one side of her face (his are on the left side, hers on the right side). This divided face resembles the yin and yang symbol that is one of Le Guin’s favorite images of wholeness. The resemblance is made even more pronounced in Therru’s case by her possession of one seeing eye and one blinded eye (like the opposite-colored dots within each half of the symbol). It is later revealed that the apparently blind eye actually sees a different reality, the essential natures of people and things.

In Ged’s case, his scars are a sign of the price he has paid for wisdom, because they were made by the shadow that he accidentally called up in an effort to show off his power, a shadow that he ultimately had to accept as the dark side of his own personality. Unlike Ged’s scars, Therru’s are not a result of a moral error and do not represent personal growth. Instead, the burning away of half of her face reveals a different reality underneath, “as if her face were not human at all, an animal, some strange horny-skinned wild creature” (Tehanu 199). Her face is not a reflection of her own error, but of human error, of humanity’s potential for inhumanity. When others look into her face, what they see reflects what they are: the humane see a hurt human child; the morally deformed see a monster. When Ogion says of Therru “They will fear her” (23), he is referring to the power that he sees within her, but Tenar’s answer—“They fear her now” (23)—acknowledges the human tendency to blame the victim by thinking that misfortune is always deserved or is somehow contagious.3

What Tenar and Ged are able to teach Therru is the nature of humanity and the power of love. They are able to teach her by example, because both have fully accepted their own humanity and have committed themselves to the risks and burdens that life and love entail. They teach her the useful arts of living—planting food, cooking, making clothing, and carrying on the memories of humanity by memorizing the sagas that are both art and history. By loving each other and her, they make the connection that keeps her with them when she is offered a choice between the absolute freedom of dragons and the limited freedom of humanity.

There is an inherent tension between the Taoist philosophy of acceptance that informed the first three books of the Earthsea series and the feminist anger and activism that moved Le Guin to write Tehanu. The power of women in Tehanu is a paradoxical power because it seems powerless to bring about the needed change in the sexist society of Earthsea. When Ged and Tenar stand on the edge of a cliff, about to be pushed over by the misogynistic wizard Aspen, they are saved by a dragon ex machina, not by any action of their own. At first glance, such an ending seems regressive, denying women the ability to fight back against oppression. But Le Guin explains in “Earthsea Revisioned” that Ged and Tenar cannot fight the old system with the tools of that system: “Their strength and salvation must come from outside the institutions and traditions. It must be a new thing” (19).

Tehanu often has an angry tone that contrasts with the tone of the first three books in the series and that may account for its less enthusiastic critical and popular reception. Anger is an unsettling emotion, and female anger directed against men is disturbing not only to male readers, but also to many female readers. Several of the early reviews of Tehanu objected that the shift in tone and attitude undercut the previous Earthsea books or that the ending lacked a feeling of resolution.4 These are related objections: if the tension between anger and acceptance is not resolved, the book may feel unsatisfactory, incomplete. Yet it is possible that Le Guin is implying that such conflict is an aspect of living, not a problem to be resolved.5 She acknowledged the dangers of her approach in an interview with Colin Greenland: “Will people see this as a deconstruction of Earthsea, as an invalidation of the text of the three books? That’s obviously a risk, and for some readers it will do that. For me, it revalidates them. I took the risk of unmaking something I’d made because I wanted to ground Earthsea more securely in a larger perception. The perception is different, … the world is not changed” (61). By challenging her readers to reevaluate their assumptions about Earthsea, she is “writing beyond the ending,” asking them to rethink their attitudes toward gender and power in their own world.6 This goal is related to the open-endedness of the novel. Le Guin told Colin Greenland, “I left the book open at the end, to let it fly; although grounding it in Tenar’s question: ‘Where can I live?’ … That question is answered, but that turns out not to be the final question at all. The question is where can Therru live? And that question I can’t answer. Nobody can answer” (61). Because she does not try to impose her own vision of utopia on her readers, they are free to imagine their own.7

By not resolving the tension between anger and acceptance, Le Guin may be implying that both are necessary—acceptance of the limitations imposed by life itself, but anger at unnecessary suffering and abuse of power. The anger is a necessary spur to action, but it also seems to have a connection to joy. After Therru is burned, she appears to be “without anger, without joy” (Tehanu 33). Tenar, the character who is most often described as being angry, is also the one who dreams of flying with dragons, an image of pure joy. And the dragon Kalessin’s own fiery roar could be “laughter or contempt or delight or anger” (249). By revalidating female anger and linking women to the natural wisdom and power of dragons, Le Guin gives her female readers, in particular, a myth of their own, a metaphor of empowerment in their search for a better self-image in our own patriarchal world.

What Le Guin offers in the end of Tehanu are images of a window facing west and a seed to be planted. Windows and doors are important symbols in Tehanu of life as a state of transition, an idea expressed in the song of the Creation of Éa:

The making from the unmaking,
The ending from the beginning,
Who shall know surely?
What we know is the doorway between them
that we enter departing.

Tehanu 207)

In one of her dreams, Tenar sees the doorway of the Creation of Éa as a small window facing west (216-17), like the window of Ogion’s cottage, where Tenar finally decides that she, Ged, and Therru can live (252). West is the direction that the sun travels and therefore the direction of the future, of possibility. It is the location where the dragons live and where, in The Farthest Shore, Ged and Arren enter the land of the dead. West has always been a direction charged with significance in Le Guin’s fiction. She herself lives on the West Coast, has used it as a setting of several of her works of fiction, and has chosen to write science fiction and fantasy, the literature of possibility. In the dream world of her novel The Beginning Place (1980), the west also is a site of danger and potential, the location of the half-human, half-dragon monster that the protagonists must both kill and acknowledge as a part of themselves (McLean 136-38). In Tehanu, when Tenar leaves Ogion’s cottage and returns to Middle Valley, she no longer dreams about dragons. To regain her dreams, she needs a window facing west.

After Therru is burned, the first sign that she still cares about the future is her desire to plant a peach pit, to increase “the number of peaches in the world” (Tehanu 33). While she and Tenar are away in Middle Valley, the seedling dies, but Therru is determined to plant another. In this desire, Le Guin captures the essence of “women’s power,” in small ways affirming life in the face of death and trying to increase the number of good things in the world.


  1. Craig and Diana Barrow also argue that Lebannen is a son of Ged’s and Tenar’s spirit (36).

  2. See, for instance, the reviews of Tehanu by Robert A. Collins and by Mike Christie.

  3. A poem of Le Guin’s, “His Daughter,” mentions that Crazy Horse, “the visionary warrior,” named his daughter, who died as a child, They Will Fear Her (Wild Oats 48). Therru is perhaps Le Guin’s attempt to imagine a girl who could fulfill the promise of that name.

  4. For objections to the change of tone and direction, see Ann Welton, who says that Tehanu is “basically unsuccessful” because “it is not sufficiently of a piece with the trilogy to which it is attached” (16); Mike Christie, who says that a reader “may well be surprised and disappointed by the fourth book’s sudden change of mood” (95); Robert A. Collins, who says “the acid effect of social criticism within a mythic structure is jarring” (428); and John Clute, who says that the book is “decidedly bad-tempered. … most of it, told deliberately in the chuntering rhythms of the disenfranchised women of Gont, has a slightly sour effect on the reader. … one resents the corrosiveness of Tehanu, for in telling this particular tale Le Guin has chosen to punish her own readers for having loved other books she herself wrote” (1409). Tatiana Keller says that Tehanu “feels like it demands a sequel” (23), and Heather Neill says, “Ironically, while Le Guin is satisfied with her ending, readers feel it suggests another beginning” (R9).

  5. In her essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” Le Guin says that “Conflict, competition, stress, struggle, etc., within the narrative … may be seen as necessary elements of a whole which itself cannot be characterized either as conflict or as harmony, since its purpose is neither resolution nor stasis but continuing process” (Dancing 169).

  6. I am obliged to Nancy Huse, the respondent to an earlier version of this paper at the 1992 Midwest MLA conference in St. Louis, for suggesting this interpretation of the ending of Tehanu.

  7. In her essay “A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be” (Dancing 80-100), Le Guin questions the desirability of any utopia that is static rather than organic, imposed rather than evolved.

Works Cited

Abel, Elizabeth, Marianne Hirsch, and Elizabeth Langland, eds. The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development. Hanover, NH: UP of New England, 1983.

Barrow, Craig, and Diana Barrow. “Le Guin’s Earthsea: Voyages in Consciousness.” Extrapolation 32 (Spring 1991): 20-44.

Christie, Mike. Review of Tehanu. Foundation 49 (Summer 1990): 93-95.

Clute, John. “Deconstructing Paradise.” Times Literary Supplement, Dec. 28, 1990, 1409.

Collins, Robert A. Review of Tehanu. In Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Review Annual, 1991. Ed. Robert A. Collins and Robert Latham. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1994. 427-29.

Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1982.

Greenland, Colin. “Doing Two Things in Opposite Directions: Ursula Le Guin Talks to Colin Greenland.” Interzone 45 (Mar. 1991): 58-61.

Keller, Tatiana. Reply to letter of Elisabeth Vonarburg. The New York Review of Science Fiction 32 (Apr. 1991): 22-23.

Le Guin, Ursula. The Beginning Place. New York: Harper and Row, 1980.

———. Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences. Santa Barbara: Capra, 1987.

———. Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places. New York: Harper and Row, 1989.

———. Earthsea Revisioned. Cambridge, MA: Children’s Literature New England, 1993.

———. The Farthest Shore. New York: Bantam, 1972.

———. The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Ed. Susan Wood. 1979. Rev. ed. Ursula K. Le Guin. New York: HarperPerennial, 1989.

———. Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea. New York: Bantam, 1990.

———. The Tombs of Atuan. New York: Bantam, 1971.

———. Wild Oats and Fireweed. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

———. A Wizard of Earthsea. New York: Bantam, 1968.

McLean, Susan. “The Beginning Place: An Interpretation.” Extrapolation 24 (Summer 1983): 130-42.

Neill, Heather. “Strong as Women’s Magic.” Times Educational Supplement, Nov. 9, 1990, R9.

“Ursula K. Le Guin: The Last Book of Earthsea.” Locus 24 (Jan. 1990): 5.

Welton, Ann. “Earthsea Revisited: Tehanu and Feminism.” Voice of Youth Advocates 14 (Apr. 1991): 14-16, 18.

Ursula Le Guin with Jane Slaughter (interview date March 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3273

SOURCE: “Ursula Le Guin,” in Progressive, Vol. 62, No. 3, March, 1998, pp. 36-9.

[In the following interview, Le Guin discusses her experiences as one of the first female—and feminist—science-fiction writers, the portrayal of women in contemporary science fiction, her utopian vision in The Dispossessed and Always Coming Home, Taoism, and her objection to fundamentalist Christian criticism of imaginative literature.]

Ursula Le Guin, sci-fi feminist, was a gender bender before the second wave hit shore. Since The Left Hand of Darkness, a tale of an androgynous world published in 1969, Le Guin’s work has endeared her to women and has won her a following much larger than the hard-core sci-fi universe. Her two utopian novels, The Dispossessed and Always Coming Home, offer an anarchistic and Earth-friendly version of a better way to live (though one is set on a moon).

Le Guin challenged science-fiction conventions head-on in a 1973 talk that was reprinted in a special Le Guin issue of Science Fiction Studies. “One of the great early socialists said that the status of women in a society is a pretty reliable index of the degree of civilization of that society,” she noted. “If this is true, then the very low status of women in SF should make us ponder about whether SF is civilized at all.”

She didn’t limit her critique to the depiction of women, however. “In SF, where are the poor, the people who work hard and go to bed hungry? Are they ever persons, in SF? No. … The people, in SF, are not people. They are masses, existing for one purpose: to be led by their superiors.”

Le Guin, sixty-eight, who won the National Book Award in 1972 for The Farthest Shore, lives in a comfortable but not grand house in Portland, Oregon, her home for forty years. As we talk, six- month-old kittens make themselves at home between us. I’m absurdly pleased when she tells me I’m the best-smelling person, to a cat, to come along in months.

[Slaughter:] How did science-fiction loyalists react to your early feminist work?

[Le Guin:] When I came out and said “I am a feminist,” I lost a lot of automatic support that I had in the science-fiction community, which is still fairly male- dominated. It’s probably about two-thirds men and one-third women.

Strange as it seems for people who are supposed to be writing about the future, there’s a wing of science fiction that’s politically very radically conservative. And very anti-feminist. So I cut off some readers right there.

But I really wonder if I would have been able to go on writing novels if the second feminist movement hadn’t come along and picked me up and shown me how to write about women. My mother was the first person to say to me, “Why do you write about men?” And I said, “I don’t know how to write about women.” She said, “Well, you ought to find out.”

One of your short stories, “She Unnames Them,” appears to be about Adam and Eve. In an introduction, you said that this story tells whose side you’re on. How would you describe that side? Women and animals vs. the man who says. “What’s for dinner?”

I’m on the women and animals side, yes. That’s probably a cultural divide, for this culture, anyhow.

You write a lot about women’s way of being in the world. You talk about a female way of being.

I’m not an essentialist. As the daughter of an anthropologist, at least my father’s generation in anthropology, I can’t be an essentialist. He was of the generation that said there is no such thing as human nature. That makes a lot of sense to me as a novelist. As soon as you say men are, women are, you’ve lost sight of the fact that they are that way in your culture, in your society, right now. But can you look over the fence and see what they’re doing in the next garden? They’re doing something totally different. I’m always aware of that.

With Always Coming Home, several reviewers said it is a matriarchy. Because it isn’t a patriarchy. What it is is just equality. They handle gender very differently than we do. Gender division of labor basically doesn’t exist. You do the work you’re best fitted for, which again has happened in many other societies.

So you would disagree with the people who say that women are innately the caring, the good, and men are innately the violent?

I have to argue against it both because it seems intellectually suspect and also because it makes me morally very uncomfortable. As soon as you start saying men are innately violent, you’re saying, “Let’s go, boys.” It’s an excuse. “Women care, so let’s leave the women home.” We’ve simply built the walls higher.

Opening doors in walls is the image I always get back to. If I have any particular job as a writer, it’s to open as many doors and windows as possible and to leave them open. So the house gets drafty.

How far has science fiction moved from “the Rotary Club on Alpha Centauri,” as you put it in 1973?

In a superficial way, it’s moved very far. I think there are probably more female protagonists now than there are male. But they’re sort of Barbarella. There’s a lot of window dressing of gender equality.

Of the Star Trek variety?

Star Trek does try. Considering the medium the producers work in, they’re fantastic. I just read a scholarly essay knocking them pretty hard for gender tokenism. But who else does anything about racially integrating or gender integrating? There are two major officers of Deep Space 9 who are women, and they’re real officers. They don’t hang around and say, “Well, Captain, what should we do?”

Most of the media is horrible. Star Wars—Princess Leia and two nurses, in the entire galaxy. Most of that stuff is so naively male-centered it’s unbelievable. But the media are twenty or thirty years behind the writing in science fiction. There are lots of women writing interesting science fiction.

When I entered the field, it was just beginning not to be basically a pulp-magazine form, mostly read by adolescent males. Of whatever age. Slanted kind of toward engineers, obsessed with technology. Very optimistic about the future, unless it was an after-the-atomic-bomb story. And written in an almost consciously anti-literary mode, written by people who think that art is somehow opposed to intelligence.

There’s still a faction within science fiction—they call themselves hard science-fiction fans—who consider aesthetically oriented writing to be suspect because they think it’s not subservient to the ideas that it’s supposed to be expressing. There’s a conservativeness there: “We want things the way they were, and we want things at a pulp-fiction level. We want adventure, and no emotions, please. No characters, please.”

And then a bunch of us came in and insisted, “This is nonsense. We want literature and we’re going to do science-fiction literature, and we have just as good ideas as you guys. And we talk English better than you.” And it’s been that way ever since. The standards went up immensely and very quickly. It was fun being in on that generation. We were very arrogant about it, of course.

I wanted to talk about The Dispossessed. I think you called it an anarchist utopia.

It is an anarchist utopia, but its subtitle is “an ambiguous utopia.”

Is anarchism a philosophy that still attracts you?

My anarchism I’m writing about in The Dispossessed is pacifist anarchism, not the guy with the bomb in his pocket. It was basically defined by people like Kropotkin, who was very influential in the very first days of the Russian Revolution—there was a chance that that revolution might have gone anarchist instead of communist. And in this country Paul Goodman and Emma Goldman. I found myself at home with it in a way that I’d never been quite at home with socialism. Anarchism is a political philosophy more than a political movement, and it fits in extraordinarily well with Taoism, which is my other main intellectual bent. They are inevitably related.

One of the things that strikes me about Anarres, the utopian society in The Dispossessed,is that they’re living in a desert, under conditions of scarcity, and yet the people are cooperative. Whereas the usual model is that scarcity causes fighting and you can only have cooperation and sharing if there’s abundance. Did you do that on purpose?

No, I really didn’t do it on purpose. People have written articles about it and shaken my confidence. One of Kropotkin’s major works is Mutual Aid. He was a biologist, studying animals in the Siberian arctic—talk about tough!—and he found enormous cooperation among the animals. Of course, Social Darwinism in the early twentieth century said that the way all animals related was pure conflict. But take woodpeckers in the United States—the nestling from the year before hangs around and helps bring up this year’s new ones. Or the way whales behave, the aunties for each baby. All that kind of stuff had been pushed aside by the desire to find nothing but competition and violence. Which, of course, is there. If there isn’t enough to go around, people are going to jostle for it, whatever species they are. But some of them work out clever alternatives—it isn’t just, one eats and the other starves. Both eat a little less. It’s amazing how often this happens.

So I guess unconsciously I used that model. Also because, you know, when you’re doing a novel there’s an awful lot of stuff in it, a lot of information to be given. It simplifies life to put it in the desert. If I had had to describe all the different kinds of plants in a rainforest planet, the novel would have just crawled out of the living room. A desert really can simplify things for the writer—large open spaces with people standing around in them.

On Anarres, much of the society was structured to combat selfishness and power-grabbing, but one place that backstabbing still thrived was in academia.

We’re all cross-grained, nasty in varying degrees. We’re all selfish in varying degrees. You can’t legislate that out. What makes most utopias so boring is that the people are so good. Even Marge Piercy, in Woman on the Edge of Time—I can’t stand those utopian people. They’re all good and nice and kind and noble and better than me. Nobody likes people who are better than they are. The novelist really can’t do that.

But she didn’t make the future conflict-free. There was this big conflict between the people who wanted to genetically engineer the next generation and those who wanted to keep it random.

But it was an intellectual conflict. What I want in a novel, I do demand something of the grit of ordinary life. Whoever we’re talking about, life is not easy, there’s a lot of pain, there’s a lot of boredom and frustration no matter what, and I think novelists do owe it to their characters to let them have that.

How have your ideas about utopia changed over time?

Always Coming Home is my real utopia; it’s not ambiguous. It is a straightforward attempt to draw a society that I like, a society that I think is worthy of the place where I put it, which is my favorite place in the world—the Napa Valley of California, a very long time from now. It is, again, anarchist. There is no central government. But the apparatus of society is drawn more from tribal peoples and so-called primitive peoples, certain California Indian customs and the Pueblos. I just picked and chose things that I liked. It’s a steady-state society, a climax civilization, like a climax forest. Ours is not. Ours is a growth model.

The shark model—you can’t survive if you’re not moving. Forward, we call it.

And that is such a strange model. Some of the reviewers said, “Oh, she’s a Luddite.” Anti-technology. But I love to describe technology—the book is full of it. They don’t use much “high” tech. They have a sort of intergalactic or at least interplanetary web of information, which they’re not particularly interested in using. Some of them are. Some of them go look up things and get into it and obsess over it, but most of them are too busy doing the things you do with other people. I was trying to say, you can have all this incredible information and yet not need to use it.

Are there other causes that get your blood boiling?

The environment is the big one, the most scary one, where capitalism just comes smack up against common sense. Everything the scientists are telling us and have been telling us for decades now about the atmosphere, the oceans, the food resources. I live downriver from Hanford, where we made all the plutonium. It’s all quietly seeping toward the Columbia River, in the groundwater. It turns up in my books. In my far future books there’s always a big area where nobody can live, and it’s my private Hanford.

I’m going to read a quote from 1977, from an interview in the magazine Seven Days.

I’ll probably disagree with it.

You said, “I have found, somewhat to my displeasure, that I am an extremely moral writer. I am always grinding axes and making points. I wish I wasn’t so moralistic, because my interest is aesthetic. What I want to do is make something beautiful like a good pot or a good piece of music, and the ideas and moralism keep getting in the way.” Would you still argue for an incompatibility between the moral and the beautiful?

I didn’t mean there’s an incompatibility between the moral and the beautiful. I meant that you need enormous skill as an artist to make a seamless whole out of ethical and aesthetic values. Virginia Woolf discussed this same problem and said if you’re preaching, you are not doing first-class art. The central ethical problem of my life as a writer is precisely that. If you’re preaching, you’re a second-class artist. But do you have to dump the morality to be a first-class artist?

Look at the moral ambiguity of Shakespeare. “Others abide our questions, thou art free.” Who said that? Shelley? Of Shakespeare. In other words, Shakespeare stands above morality, he’s so good that you can find the world inside him. That’s the dream, but how many artists can do that? With me, it is in a sense the productive vital tension between having something to say or feeling very strongly a moral, political agenda, and trying to keep it so deeply buried in my work that it does not preach—just informs, gives the work energy. But as soon as it comes out and says, “You should not do that. You should do this,” I think I’ve blown it as a novelist.

Your most recent publication is a translation of the works of Lao-Tzu. You mentioned Taoism earlier. Are you a Taoist?

Yes. The Taoism that most Americans who say they’re Taoists are talking about has to do with two books, Lao-Tzu’s book and Chuang-Tzu’s. Both books are about 2,500 years old. Both are Chinese classics. Lao-Tzu’s Taoism is about how to live. Very practical. Totally anarchistic, has absolutely no respect for anything. It’s only eighty-one little short poems—one of those things you chew over your whole life long and it never stops nourishing.

In some of your essays, you seem to make a point of calling yourself a non- Christian. Is it important to you to be a non-Christian?

Yes, it is, because I live in a country that calls itself Christian. Since Reagan came to power, this country has had a sort of orgy of self-congratulation about being Christian, and this really annoys me deeply. I feel it’s incumbent upon me to say so, because people seem to be afraid to say anything against Christianity at all these days.

The fundamentalist Christians have declared themselves to be my enemies in saying that all fantastic, imaginative literature is evil. OK. This makes me a little combative. I’m with Voltaire. I say, “To hell with the priests.” If they take that line, they have made me their enemy.

The whole problem of censorship is reduced over and over to pornography. Ask any librarian—90 percent of calls they get to withdraw a book have to do with Satanism, witchcraft. It is interference by fundamentalists or other rightwing groups with libraries and school curricula, school books, school libraries. It comes from fundamentalist Christians who apparently believe in witchcraft. If they didn’t, why would they make such a fuss over it?

But it’s not just Christianity. It is assumed in the United States that you’re some kind of monotheist, that you believe there is a God. You always run into this basic assumption of what people are. I meet it in writing classes: Everybody’s white, everybody’s heterosexual, everybody believes in God. I never have been interested in the idea of God. It’s just not part of my way of thinking. It doesn’t make much sense to me. That’s one of the reasons why Taoism appealed to me; I could find a structure of thought which is completely non-theist. It is a mysticism.

Do you come out and talk about non-theism very often?

No. Because I think it’s more effective to have it be part of the silent basis of everything I write. My work is central to my life. I would rather do it than say it. If my stories come from this central position of my own life, they’ll be honest and clear. And they won’t do anybody any harm. Because that is important. I think artists are responsible to their community to try not to do harm. That is a very unfashionable, perhaps dangerous thing to say. It doesn’t mean self-censorship, it doesn’t mean being afraid to hurt people’s feelings. It doesn’t mean not to rock the boat. It may mean to hurt people’s feelings. It may mean to rock the boat. But you’re doing it in the interests of not hurting people, not causing pain, trying to make the world a little more endurable.

I’m not an atheist in the sense of one who wants to fight with those who believe in God. I am simply not interested. I have a strong natural sympathy for polytheism, people like the Hindus or ancient Romans who had little gods everywhere, or Native American religions, which—what I know about them, which is not a lot—have a fully spiritual approach to reality. They don’t have gods, but everything is sacred. Now that makes complete sense to me. This is the religion I understand. But as soon as you get centered into a hierarchy with a boss at the top, I’m out.

Pamela Uschuk (review date August 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 603

SOURCE: A review of Sixty Odd, in Parabola, Vol. 24, No. 3, August, 1999, pp. 107-09.

[In the following review, Uschuk discusses the poetry of Le Guin's Sixty Odd in terms of its Taoist influences.]

Influenced by Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, which Ursula K. Le Guin translated, this collection of sixty-nine poems is also linked to the divinatory hexagrams of the I Ching. Sixty Odd refers to Le Guin’s age as well as to poem count. In her preface, Le Guin divides the poems into two groups, “catching” and “following.” “Catching,” she explains, is “a desire to catch, to hold, surround, describe the sight, the emotion, the vision, a passionate desire that forces the words into poetry … a longing to make sense.” “Following,” she continues, “works by metaphor and without narrative.”

The strongest poems in this collection lie in the first section, “Circling to Descend.” Here metaphors can hunt with sharp talons, eerie as great horned owls, or bob odd little clown heads like the acrobatic acorn woodpeckers she is fond of. In “Field Burning Debates. Salmon Fate Discussed,” the images are passionate and powerful, her fierce love of nature bursting from the lines: “We are the desert god. / His left hand plucks from the burning / what his right hand burns” or “The god debates fate / while with his fingers he feeds his mouth / and eats the fingers one by one.” Her nature imagery is poignant and deceptively simple in “Late Dusk,” whose last line, “Say the light is beautiful, failing,” echoes one of her mentors, the great German metaphysical poet, Rainer Maria Rilke.

In an homage to another ancestor/mentor, “For Gabriela Mistral,” Le Guin’s dream imagery marches down the page in incantatory lines that plumb the mysteries of dualism and balance. The poem itself becomes one great circle.

If I walk south
with the ocean always on my right
and the mountains on my left,
swimming the mouths of the rivers,
the estuaries and the great canal,
if I walk from low tide to high tide,
and full moon to new moon, south,
and from equinox to solstice, south,
across the equator in a dream of volcanoes,
if I walk through all the tropics
past bays of amethyst and bays of jade
from April spring to April autumn, south,
and cross the deserts of niter and asbestos
with the sea silver on my right
and a hundred mountains on my left,
a hundred mountains, maybe more,
I will come to the valley.…
And I will speak your language.

Le Guin’s wry wit grounded in feminist polemics can be seen in poems like “Read at the May Award Dinner, 1996.” If you enjoy poetry uncluttered and utterly accessible, you will cheer this admonition to the deans of the Literati:

“Above all beware of honoring women artists. For the housewife will fill the house with lions and in with the grandmother come bears, wild horses, great horned owls, coyotes.”

Revelatory and fresh as individual images (“I am my ancestors’ sci fi”) can be, sometimes Le Guin’s poetry falls a bit flat. In “From Morning Poems,” for example, Elisabeth is described as “a rose among roses,” a cliché that might set the teeth of lions grinding. But Le Guin fans who admire the vistas of her creative genius will forgive these momentary lapses. In “Infinitive,” Le Guin writes,

We make too much of history,
But what we need to be
is, oh, the small talk of swallows
in evening over
dull water under willows.

revealing the complex Taoist perspective at work in her poems, a perspective that sharpens those same lions’ teeth.

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