Ursula K(roeber) Le Guin 1929–
American science fiction and fantasy novelist, short story writer poet, and author of children's books.
Noted for its clearly delineated portraits of alien worlds, Le Guin's work reflects her interest in Taoism and an Oriental view of history. Le Guin is the recipient of several Hugo and Nebula awards and is best known for her Earthsea trilogy.
(See also CLC, Vols. 8, 13, Children's Literature Review, Vol. 3, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed., and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 8: Twentieth Century American Science Fiction Writers.)
The five stories by Ursula K. Le Guin with which this essay is directly concerned—Rocannon's World (1966), Planet of Exile (1966), City of Illusions (1967), The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), and "The Word for World is Forest" (1972)—are all set in what may be called the Hainish universe, for it was the people of the planet Hain who originally "seeded" all the habitable worlds of this part of the galaxy and thus produced a humanoid universe that is single, expanding, and historically continuous, but at the same time marvelous in its variety, for each planetary environment caused specific local mutations in its humanoids as they adapted and developed. The result is a universe full of "humans" who display enough variety to provide for any number of alien encounters, and since any possible stage of civilization can be found on some particular planet, new definitions of "civilization" can be made in a narrative rather than a discursive mode….
Besides the continuous time-space history, these narratives are bound together by a consistent imagery that both extends and informs meaning. Although Le Guin has used particular images which emerge naturally from the cultural and ecological context of her imagined worlds as linking devices within each work, she has also consistently used light/dark imagery as a linking device for the whole series. Again and again, good emerges from ambiguous darkness, evil from blinding light. Thus there is a specific local imagery in each novel, and a pervasive light/dark imagery in all of them. (p. 164)
From the very beginning [of Rocannon's World] the interdependence of light and darkness are made clear. Take Kyo's explanation of the difference between his people and the Gdmiar: the Fiia chose to live only in the light, the Clayfolk chose "night and caves and swords" …, and both lost something by their choice. The image of the Fiia dance, "a play of light and dark in the glow of the fire" …, reflects a pattern which Rocannon realizes had existed between Kyo and himself. This dance of shadows and light is the proper image for their interplay in all Le Guin's work: both the light and the dark are necessary if any pattern is to emerge from chaos….
The title of the first chapter in Planet of Exile, "A Handful of Darkness," refers to Agat's dark hand against Rolery's white one. The alliance of farborns and hilfs, of black and white, is touched on throughout the novel: Agat's and Rolery's growing love is imaged in these terms….
"Imagine darkness. In the darkness that faces outward from the sun a mute spirit woke. Wholly involved in chaos, he knew no pattern." Thus begins City of Illusion , and thus begins Falk's book-long search for the correct pattern, one made up of light and darkness as all good patterns must be. Naturally enough, in a story of lie and paradox, light and dark seldom carry ordinary meanings. Falk begins and ends in darkness, yet the two darknesses are opposed: the first a mental chaos, the last an important part...
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of the whole pattern he has sought. As the images gather, we begin to see the pattern, and the play of paradox and illusion within it. (p. 165)
"Tormer's Lay," from which The Left Hand of Darkness takes its title …, suggests the importance of the light/dark image pattern in that novel. When Ai finally comes to accept and love Estraven as a whole person, he shows him the Yin-Yang symbol: "Light, dark. Fear, courage. Female, male. It is yourself, Therem. Both and one. A shadow on snow."… This list of opposites yoked together expresses precisely the deep meaning that the image pattern points to; it clearly owes much to the Tao sensibility of Chuang Tzu who similarly yokes opposites together on the Way.
Le Guin's artistic vision is multiplex, dualistic, and holistic. That she has never sought simplistic philosophical solutions for the human problems she explores in her narratives, could be demonstrated in her first three books, but I wish to concentrate here on her artistic handling of balance as a way of life in The Left Hand of Darkness and "The Word for World is Forest."
Very few SF books have succeeded as well as The Left Hand of Darkness in invoking a whole environment, a completely consistent alien world, and in making the proper extrapolations from it. Le Guin has chosen a form that allows for various kinds of "documentation": six of the twenty chapters (not to mention the Appendix) are documents separate from the actual narrative … each placed so as to aid our understanding of the narrative at a particular point in its progression. And the narrative itself is a document, consisting partly of Ai's transcription of passages from Estraven's notebook and partly of Ai's direct report to his superiors in the officialdom of the Ekumen. The whole is a masterful example of form creating content. (p. 167)
Light and darkness sharing the world and our apprehension of it: this is a deeply Taoist insight, but it is also a deeply holistic/artistic one. On Athshe, the world of "The Word for World is Forest," it is one of the bases of life for the natives, and a lost fragment of old knowledge for the Terran colonists. Here Le Guin departs from any obvious use of Taoism; instead, she approaches the theme of balance, of the light and darkness joined together, through a highly dense and specific creation of an ecology and culture inextricably entwined, and through the ideas of Dement and Hadfield on the nature of dreams. In creating a culture in which people balance their "sanity not on the razor's edge of reason but on the double support, the fine balance of reason and dream" …, she has also created a powerful image of holistic duality. The sanity and balance of Athshean society, the Athshean's awareness of "the whole of which living things are a part" …, stands in stark contrast to the emotional and mental imbalance of the Earth-imperialist colonial culture which represents a logical extension of certain present-day technological and political trends. (p. 169)
Le Guin's fictions are all imbued with great sympathy for the strange "human" cultures they present. Nevertheless, the Athshean culture of "Forest" is her clearest example yet of a culture presented as in basic and violent conflict with present-day "Earth-normal" standards but still as unequivocally the saner of the two. Thus the culture of the Athsheans, the ecology of Athshe, and the profound connections between them, are the focus of this novella…. The Athshean vision emerges in a thick poetic prose at the beginning of the first Selver chapter … [in a description of beauty and complexity]. (p. 171)
The whole question of sanity, or balance, is argued in the concrete terms of fiction throughout the novel. There are two forms of art on Athshe, dreaming and singing, and both are specialized cultural activities which serve to nullify aggression against other humans. The Athsheans recognize a necessity for controlling one's dreams, for dreaming properly, but the devastating impact of the Terrans has resulted in a deep cultural trauma…. Le Guin's artistic vision, her deep understanding of the real meaning of culture, has always been ambiguous, multiplex, subtle, and dualistic/holistic in the sense that it has always recognized the cultural relativity of "truth." Always, in her work, the representatives of different cultures meet, interact, and, in the cases that count, learn of each other (often through love) that they are equally human, part of the great brotherhood of "man." (p. 172)
Douglas Barbour, "Wholeness and Balance in the Hainish Novels of Ursula K. Le Guin" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. I, No. 3, Spring, 1974, pp. 164-73.
[Ursula K. Le Guin] has been compared to C. S. Lewis, with some appropriateness, especially as concerns her juvenile trilogy, but that comparison fails ultimately because she is a better writer than Lewis: her fictions, both juvenile and adult, are richer, deeper, and more beautiful than his. She is probably the best writer of speculative fabulation working in this country today, and she deserves a place among our major contemporary writers of fiction. For some writers, the SF ghetto serves a useful protective function, preserving them from comparison with their best contemporaries. For Ursula Le Guin, as for others, this protection, and the sense of a responsive, relatively uncritical audience that goes with it, may have been helpful during her early development as a writer. But with The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) she displayed powers so remarkable that only full and serious critical scrutiny can begin to reveal her value as a writer. (p. 2)
The Earthsea trilogy consists of A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs of Atuan (1971), and The Farthest Shore (1972)—the order of book publication not quite coinciding with the narrative chronology of the texts. These books have been compared to C. S. Lewis's chronicles of Narnia, especially by English reviewers, for whom this constitutes considerable praise. But the comparison is misleading. Lewis's books are allegories in the narrow sense of that much abused word—his Lion is Christ, and the whole structure of the chronicles is a reenactment of Christian legend…. Ursula Le Guin, in the Earthsea trilogy, relies on the mythic patterns of sin and redemption, quest and discovery, too, but she places them in the service of a metaphysic which is entirely responsible to modern conditions of being because its perspective is broader than the Christian perspective—because finally it takes the world more seriously than the Judeo-Christian tradition has ever allowed it to be taken.
What Earthsea represents, through its world of islands and waterways, is the universe as a dynamic, balanced system, not subject to the 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. Where C. S. Lewis worked out of a specifically Christian set of values, Ursula Le Guin works not with a theology but with an ecology, a cosmology, a reverence for the universe as a self-regulating structure. This seems to me more relevant to our needs than Lewis, but not simply because it is a more modern view—rather because it is a deeper view, closer to the great pre-Christian mythologies of this world and also closer to what three centuries of science have been able to discover about the nature of the universe. No one, in fact, has ever made magic seem to function so much like science as Ursula Le Guin—which is perhaps why it is no gross error to call her work science fiction, and also why the term science fiction seems finally inadequate to much of the material it presently designates in our book stores and other rough and ready categorizations.
A Wizard of Earthsea is the story of the making of a mage, the education and testing of a young man born with the power to work wonders but lacking the knowledge to bring this power to fruition and to control its destructive potential. (pp. 2-3)
The great gift of Ursula Le Guin is to offer us a perspective in which [magic, religion, and science] all merge, in which realism and fantasy are not opposed, because the supernatural is naturalized—not merely postulated but regulated, systematized, made part of the Great Equilibrium itself. And of course, this is also art, in which the sounds of individual sentences are as cunningly balanced as the whole design, in which a great allegory of the destructive power of science unleashed, and a little allegory of an-individual seeking to conquer his own chaotic impulses, come together as neatly as the parts of a dove's tail…. In her most mature work [The Left Hand of Darkness], Ursula Le Guin shows us how speculative fabulation can deal with the social dimensions of existence as adequately as the most "realistic" of traditional models—or perhaps more adequately in some important respects. For she does not present us with the details of a social chronicle but raises questions about the nature of social organization itself. She is not so much a sociologist as a structural anthropologist, dealing with the principles rather than the data of social organization. Her method, of course, is distinctly fictional, fabulative, constructive. She offers us a model world deliberately altered from the world we know, so as to reveal to us aspects of the "known" that have escaped our notice.
The concepts that rule the construction of The Left Hand of Darkness are those of likeness and unlikeness, native and alien, male and female. The questions asked are about the ways that biology, geology and social history control our perception of the world and our actions in it. The convention of representation adopted in this novel is one of the most fundamental—in some hands the most hackneyed—of the SF tradition: the alien encounter…. Ursula Le Guin's achievement in The Left Hand of Darkness lies in her ability to maintain a powerful narrative interest in characters who grow richer and more interesting to the very last words of the book, and who themselves embody the larger problems and ideas that are being investigated. (pp. 5-6)
On one level, the story is the story of Ai's mission, his attempt to bring Gethen into the Ekumen, with Estraven's assistance. On another, it is simply the story of two human beings, two aliens, seeking to communicate with one another through cultural and biological barriers. On the level of the mission this is an exciting story, but not more so than many other works of science fiction. On the personal level, this is a richer and more moving tale than most. But the great power of the book comes from the way it interweaves all its levels and combines all its voices and values into an ordered, balanced, whole. In the end, everything is summed up in the relationship between the two main characters, and the narrative is shaped to present this relationship with maximum intensity. (p. 8)
As in the Earthsea narratives, Ursula Le Guin remains the poet of the Great Balance, but here the balance as a tension, an opposition like the halves of an arch, is emphasized. "To oppose is to maintain," Estraven says, and so says the creator of darkness by light. As the Master Hand said on Roke, "To light a candle is to cast a shadow." And thus for us to see what it is to be human, as opposed to merely male or female, we need a non-human shadow, a world other than our own. And this is the value of the harmless illusion worked by this Mistress of Fiction in The Left Hand of Darkness. (p. 11)
Robert Scholes, "The Good Witch of the West," in The Hollins Critic (copyright 1974 by Hollins College), Vol. XI, No. 2, April, 1974, pp. 2-12.
[The Left Hand of Darkness] functions as a science-fiction novel about the writing of a science-fiction novel and is particularly informative for that reason. Since the various fictional genres can be meaningfully defined in relation to basic myths or to segments of myth, the mythic concern of LeGuin's novel, in spite of its attendant deleterious effects on the narrative, does have its point. (p. 77)
Making sense of the novel, and this is its essential weakness, depends upon an act of dislocation on the part of the reader and seeing what should be implicit as explicit, seeing the way in which the mythic structure rigorously, almost mechanically, determines the various turns of the plot….
It is proposed that, as a result of their ambisexuality, Gethenians are much less prone to the dualistic perception that conceivably is related to the permanent male/female split that characterizes most other forms of humanity: "There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive"…. (p. 80)
This Gethenian peculiarity is epitomized by the book's title, which is extracted from "Tormer's Lay":
Light is the left hand of darkness and darkness the right hand of light.
Here is capsulized the destruction of unity and the re-emergence of unity out of a disparate duality, a movement implicit in the thesis-antithesis-synthesis structural arrangement of the book and a movement basic to my theoretical definition of science fiction. From the Gethenian point of view, a unified Gethenian reality is destroyed by the knowledge of the much larger reality of the Ekumen confederation prior to being incorporated in that larger unity. Likewise, the reader's terrestrial vision is destroyed and then reintegrated to the extent that, during the reading process, he accepts the world of Gethen with its aberrant sexuality and the apocalyptic suggestion that both Gethen and Terran civilization were experiments by superior beings on the planet Hain. LeGuin's book effects a philosophical apocalypse in the three ways that science fiction can: by presenting a radically different image of man, by pointing to the existence of a previously unsuspected outside manipulator, and thirdly, as a consequence, by radically altering man's vision of human reality. The sense of mystical unity that "Tormer's Lay" initially suggests suffers an interim disorientation because of the paradoxical equation of the concrete with the abstract and the reversed correlation of light with the left hand, given the sinister associations of left, and of darkness with the right hand. But, almost immediately, the traditional association between the female and the left and between the female and primal darkness helps reintegrate the breach. (p. 81)
The Left Hand of Darkness, which begins with a chapter entitled "A Parade in Erhenrang" and ends with chapters entitled "Homecoming" and "A Fool's Errand," is primarily concerned with the journey from Karhide to Orgoreyn, "One Way" or "Another Way," and back to Karhide following "The Escape" from Pulefen Farm. Physically the journey describes a jagged clockwise circle. I mention its being clockwise because the book, beginning and ending in late spring, covers a temporal cycle. What is being dramatized is the ultimate unity of space and time. Since Gethen is known as the planet Winter, when Genly speaks of his and Estraven's "winter-journey" …, it is intended that the reader infer the identification of space and time—it is a journey across and through Winter with … all the associations of [Northrop] Frye's mythos of winter. The period of death and destruction here symbolized by winter is occasioned by the conjunction of an old and a new world of mind, the basic concern of science fiction. (pp. 87-8)
My point has been that LeGuin's use of duality and unity as mythically connotative of destruction and creation is in fact a way of talking about the relationship between new and old worlds of mind and that this relationship is at the theoretical basis of science fiction. As such, The Left Hand of Darkness is a skillfully integrated, perhaps I should say woven, piece of work, although my criticism that the plot is unfortunately subordinate to the overly conscious use of mythic material remains. The world of the novel, like the snowbound ecology of Gethen and the snowy metaphors it gives rise to, is developed with a consistency that at least equals Frank Herbert's sandbound world of Dune. Mention of "a snow-worm" recalls the sand-worms of Dune (1965), which figure so prominently in the plot of that novel. But LeGuin's single and singular reference is perhaps indicative of that loss of dramatic surface incident compelled by her rigorous adherence to a mythic design insufficiently displaced. To use a repeated Gethenian image of unity, the wheel of LeGuin's plot turns rather too inexorably and predictably in its seasonal and mythic groove. (pp. 89-90)
David Ketterer, "'The Left Hand of Darkness': Ursula K. LeGuin's Archetypal 'Winter Journey'," in his New Worlds for Old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction, and American Literature (copyright © 1974 by David Ketterer; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Company, Inc.), Anchor Press, 1974, pp. 76-91.
The typical Le Guin hero is a visitor to a world other than his own; sometimes he is a professional anthropologist; sometimes the role is forced on him; in all cases he is a creature of divided allegiance. As a student of an alien society, he has responsibilities to his own culture and to the culture he visits; he must sympathize with and participate deeply in both, for it is by the experience and analysis of their differences that he hopes to arrive at a deeper understanding of the nature and possibilities of mind and of social organization. In his role of scientist, the anthropologist expects cultural division and has been trained to explore it; but as an individual, he finds that his personal attachments exist to an important degree independent of and at times in conflict with his social duty, so that, almost inevitably in Le Guin's work, he finds that he has difficulty reconciling his public, political obligations with the bonds he has developed as a private individual. Though the cultural division often serves to exacerbate his dilemma, Le Guin's hero, as a moral individual rather than as a scientist, often confronts a universal human problem of—in bald terms—how to harmonize love and public duty. The two divisions the anthropologist hero faces are not completely separate, however; different societies demand and deserve different sacrifices. Therefore, the inquiry into what the individual owes society leads naturally into a study of the nature and possibilities of different political structures.
The political axis of Le Guin's work exists at right angles, if you will, to the powerful vision of unity that recent criticism has been exploring, and an accurate perception of her whole achievement requires us to engage both dimensions. While the recent popularity of her work derives in part, one expects, from the vision of unity, it also probably owes much to her exploration of political issues that have developed a particular urgency over the last ten years: to her attempt, increasingly precise and detailed, to use SF for studying problems that arose from the United States' use of military power in Vietnam and from the experience of an alienating and technologically bloated economic system. (pp. 237-38)
We need to recognize, however, how the structure of a novel like The Left Hand of Darkness (LHD), by dividing the moral universe into public and private worlds, frustrates unity and turns what might have become ecstatic perceptions and energies into an awareness of tragic incompleteness. It is this failure to achieve a unity the imagery seems to promise which probably accounts for the frustration David Ketterer experiences in LHD and which he attributes to a discontinuity between the mythic theme of the novel and its plot [see excerpt above]. In the light of Le Guin's recurrent political interest we can see that the discontinuity experienced serves an important thematic function and expresses an ironic perception of the difficult relation of the private individual to the public world in which he acts. In her early novels this perception gives heightened value to the unified heroic act. But in LHD the awareness of the incongruity between the public and private worlds interrupts the full "mythic" triumph, and in two works published after LHD we can see Le Guin stretching this tension between the public and private worlds to such a pitch that one or the other of the two poles has had to give way. In her latest novel, The Dispossessed (TD), she breaks through to a new definition of the problem. In order to appreciate the accomplishment of TD, however, we have to understand the problem defined and confronted in the earlier novels.
In Le Guin's early novels there is usually an element of irony inherent in the heroic activity, for public action demands the sacrifice of a private bond. The success of the heroic quest entails personal loss. This theme is given an explicit, fairy tale concreteness in Rocannon's World (RW) when Rocannon makes a contract to give what he holds "dearest and would least willingly give" in return for public victory…. In this early novel the conflict between the public triumph and private loss does not pose an ethical problem but serves to give contour to the heroic idea: we can admire the hero because he has made sacrifices and, importantly, because it is implicit that he—and the author—see more to life than just public victory. A hero without such awareness becomes either pompously comic (Superman) or sinister (Conan). In RW the reconciliation of the public and private imperatives is rendered fairly easy, however, by the unambiguous clarity and urgency of the political issue. (p. 238)
LHD attains a more difficult balance of public and private imperatives, for this later novel does not offer the earlier one's clear-cut public justification for private sacrifice…. We find no neat distinction available between the good and bad political systems; Genly Ai faces no absolute enemy against whom any act is permitted or sacrifice justified. Also, Ai's goal of persuading Gethen to join the Ekumen lacks the element of urgent crisis that sanctions Rocannon's public acts. In fact, it is important to Ai's mission that there be no public compulsion that would make Gethen's decision to join seem anything less than completely voluntary.
While the public world of LHD exerts a diminished moral imperative, in the intimacy that develops between Ai and Estraven the private world assumes an importance and value that has no equal in any of Le Guin's other novels. The conventional plot carries the public values while behind it, in a separate set of events, the private values develop. Thus, the bond the two alien beings establish on the Gobrin Ice, especially the "bespeaking," has enormous personal significance but does not directly influence political events. There are, then, in effect, two sub-plots to the novel. One is the adventure which, like Rocannon's, leads to political success; the other is the love story of Ai and Estraven. To be sure, a thematic coherence bridges these two plots: insofar as the political problem in the novel involves overcoming the fear of aliens, the love story depicts the successful healing of that division between beings. This theme of union is repeated on a more general level by the androgyny of the Gethenians which offers a pervasive image of the union of the primary opposition experienced among humans. But though they share common themes, the two subplots also move in opposite directions: in the love story Ai begins suspicious of Estraven and learns to trust him; in the political story he begins naively trusting both King Argaven and the Commensals of Orgoreyn and learns to suspect them and be cunning. The main challenge to the suggestions of coherence, however, comes from the death of Estraven, for it points to the gap that continues to exist between the public and the private worlds. Ai finally pays for public success with private loss, and at the end of the novel Le Guin makes us face the disjunction between the two worlds by having Ai force Argaven's hand, but at the cost of breaking the vow he made to Estraven that he would see him pardoned before he brought the ship down. (p. 239)
In its structure, therefore, LHD balances public achievement against personal cost, and Le Guin, dismissing neither, maintains the dialectical tension between them….
In all her work Le Guin probes in various ways for the point at which the public and private imperatives intersect, for the act that will allow them to be unified, if only momentarily. Put in the context of this search, it is clear that the split in attention that Ketterer notes in LHD has the important function of carrying one of the major conflicts of the novel, and whatever discontinuity we experience in terms of plot and theme expresses exactly that discontinuity which is being explored between the values of the public and the private worlds. LHD stands apart from Le Guin's other works, however, in its extraordinary balance and its commitment to both of the rival imperatives. The public world of the novel is neither so over-poweringly meaningful that (as in RW) it can easily and indubitably compensate for private loss, nor so arbitrary that (as in [The Lathe of Heaven]) it can be treated as morally trivial. By observing this dialectical balance we can see how far Le Guin differs from an absurdist like Vonnegut who, while he too sees a discrepancy between the two worlds, in much of his work cheerfully dismisses the public world to its insane and pompous self-destruction. LHD renders a basic allegiance to private, humane values without denying the degree to which public, institutional values influence and limit the private ones.
The balance Le Guin achieves in this novel is not a complacent one; it is precarious and leads to serious questions about man's social obligations. LHD marks the beginning of a period in which Le Guin, while always sympathetic to the private world, has pursued these social questions and has become increasingly concerned to anatomize the political structures of the public world which so powerfully affects the private. (p. 240)
Le Guin's new novel, The Dispossessed,… sets up what is for her a new definition of the political problem and thus offers a way out of the bind represented by the modern-primitive conflict of her middle period. In this latest novel Le Guin has focused entirely on modern political systems (or possible systems) and has studied them without the nostalgia for the primitive and the parapsychological machinery that constitute the alternatives to the modern state in her earlier novels. Further-more the racial differences that in all of her earlier works parallel but also dilute the more explicit political theme have been abandoned. TD differs from earlier Le Guin novels in seeing the private world almost totally as a function of specific political systems. The intimate bonds which in her early novels exist apart from any social organization and often in spite of society and which represent an absolute source of value, are here seen as inherently conditioned by the shape of the society. What is in LHD conceived of as a problem of dialectical conflict between two sources of value, love and society, has been transformed into a conflict between two forms of society, anarchist and capitalist, and the question is, not what does the individual owe to society, but what kind of society makes possible valid human bonds? And just as the vision of the political world has been reshaped, the vision of love, of the valid bond itself, has changed. From the vantage of TD we can see how much the valued private bonds of the earlier works, those between Rocannon and Mogien, Ai and Estraven, are rich expressions, not of man as a social animal, but of man alone in a hostile nature. It is significant that the love of Ai and Estraven reaches its height, not in society, but in the utter desolation of the Gobrin Ice. The failure of the public and private worlds to coalesce, therefore, may be in part the fault of an idea of love that does not allow for a social dimension. Thus, as Le Guin has made the political issues more precise and detailed, she has forced an analysis of the specific political systems themselves, which has, in turn, led her to a reinterpretation of the source of value of the private world. TD is important because, though it generates its own ambivalances and problems, it renews the possibilities for viable social action. (pp. 241-42)
John Huntington, "Public and Private Imperatives in Le Guin's Novels," in Science-Fiction Studies (copyright © 1975 by R. D. Mullen and Darko Suvin), Vol. 2, No. 3, November, 1975, pp. 237-42.
It is part of the [attractiveness of The Language of the Night] that Le Guin does not presume to present herself as critic; instead she has allowed Susan Wood (whose editing is devoted and very intelligent) to assemble the book from addresses, reviews, introductions and essays written over the past decade. Partly because of this variety and unpretentiousness, partly because of the candor, seriousness and penetration with which Le Guin speaks of her own work, but mainly because of the pleasure of seeing a first-rate mind at work on these matters, I should say that this is the most attractive introduction to science fiction yet to appear….
Although Le Guin is suspicious of definitions and boundaries in the world of fiction, she makes the necessary demarcations well. Whereas the mainstream or "absolute" novel (as she prefers to call it) presents reality "as expressed and transfigured through art," sf or fantasy presents "a personal variation on reality; a scene less real than the world around us, a partial view of reality." But "by that partiality, that independence, that distancing from the shared experience, it will be new: a revelation. It will be a vision, a more or less powerful or haunting dream. A view in, not out…."
Malafrena, in this context, is puzzling. The jacket blurb calling it a "breakthrough, mainstream novel" is certainly misleading. It is not sf or fantasy, but neither is it mainstream or "absolute"; and it is definitely not a breakthrough. It is more like a historical novel than anything else, but it has neither the superficial attractions of the genre (adventure, sex, duels, picturesque language and manners) nor the more profound ones of interpreting historical characters and events….
The central interest is in a sense historical: what would it feel like to be a young man in the 1820s willing to risk a secure and comfortable future for the sake of freedom and justice, and what was it like to be a young woman of the period? But these questions are muffled and absorbed in the universal question of what it is like to grow up at any time. History is scrupulously not violated; but it is not really used.
Why would Le Guin write such a novel now? My guess is that she did not—that this is early work. Describing her career in The Language of the Night, she says that she wrote four novels set in Orsinia before she began writing science fiction, and all have remained unpublished. My reason for thinking that this is one of them is two-fold: the Orsinian Tales, also dating from this early period, use the same method of precise location in time in the same imaginary country; and Malafrena reads like early or apprentice work, five-finger exercises. It is emphatically not hackwork or juvenilia, but it has something of the feeling of a task well done. Le Guin is never less than competent, intelligent, decent; but in this novel she is not much more.
Malafrena notwithstanding, what makes Le Guin a great science fiction writer is that this genre allows her to combine her serious and passionate interest in ideas with her ability to create real and believable characters.
Monroe K. Spears, "Science Fiction's Queen of the Night," in The Washington Post (© 1979, Washington Post Co.), October 28, 1979, p. 6.
Le Guin employs the same pervasive light-and-shadow imagery in both her science fiction and her fantasy; the significance of true names, the touching of hands, and the circle journey are important in both. The nature of evil and the preservation of the Equilibrium are her concern in Earthsea as well as in the Hainish novels. Specific images are repeated almost exactly…. Taoism is a major philosophical influence in both, and both reflect her interest in dreams and deep understanding of anthropology.
But more important than any of these analogies—and basic to the achievement of her primary purpose in both the Earthsea trilogy and the Hainish novels—is Le Guin's use of the psychological journey toward the integration of personality that Carl Jung wrote about. The progression of an ego from uncertainty and self-doubt to assurance and fulfillment is a process to which Jung devoted a great deal of attention. So, too, has Le Guin; in one form or another, the theme appears in all her novels.
In the Earthsea trilogy we have the best opportunity to see how she uses it. The protagonist of each volume undertakes a journey of personality that culminates in the integration of his self. Since these straightforward stories deal in strong colors and plain fabrics, we can readily detect the design the master patterner has woven, not just in Earthsea but throughout the entire fabric of her work. (p. 16)
Le Guin has … written much about the function of [the] Jungian shadow, calling it the dark brother of the conscious mind whom we must follow if we are to enter the collective unconscious. She goes on to say that the shadow is all we do not want to admit, or cannot admit, into our conscious self…. For Le Guin, the Jungian shadow is the guide on the journey to self-knowledge, to adulthood, to the light, a journey which, Jung says, is every individual's imperative need and duty. For Le Guin, "most of the great works of fantasy are about that journey." Furthermore, "fantasy is the medium best suited to a description of that journey, its perils and rewards." When we examine Earthsea, that is exactly what we see demonstrated. (p. 17)
Of the three books in question, the first, A Wizard of Earthsea, is most clearly patterned after the journey toward selfhood. Le Guin's hero, Ged (the Jungian ego) is an adolescent, self-centered person possessed of the innate ability to perform great feats of wizardry but lacking in the discipline necessary to use the raw talent responsibly. Chafing under the patient training of Ogion, his master, Ged first glimpses his shadow through a temptation natural to adolescence. Seeking to impress an attractive young girl with his prowess, he attempts a feat of wizardry beyond his ability to control. He is only just saved by the intervention of the fatherly Ogion; but he has felt a dawning awareness of the presence of the shadow—the dark self within, the shadow of sexual desires, the shadow of desire for power, the shadow of his own mortality—which he cannot yet accept.
Refusing to be guided by Ogion's wisdom, Ged "goes off to college," to the school for mages at Roke. He learns too easily to develop his powers…. Ged again works a great spell, one that is beyond his control: he summons the dead. Psychologically unable to accept the idea of his own death, however, Ged cannot sustain the spell and nearly destroys himself in the process. (pp. 17-18)
After this encounter with his shadow, Ged is scarred, crippled, and mentally paralyzed. The condition lasts many months, and recovery is slow and painful. Ged's confidence is gone, his facility lost. Terrified by the glimpse of his darker self which can no longer be denied, a humbler Ged hesitates to go forward, instead, preferring the safety of Roke and the paternal protection of the Archmage. (p. 18)
Ogion, the great wizard of Gont, is himself the perfect Jungian archetype of the "wise old man" often found in fairy tales and dreams, who leads the young hero back to unity of self. (p. 19)
Ged's return to Ogion fits every particular of Jung's analysis…. Like Jung's archetype, Ogion points out all the times when Ged has demonstrated his strength against evil. While Ged reflects on this, the old man offers advice, pointing out what Ged already knows but cannot yet accept. He tells Ged there is no safe place to hide from the shadow and counsels him to turn around and face it. (pp. 19-20)
As Ged pursues the shadow over land and sea, it grows more and more like him until at last, in the Jungian act of recognition, Ged sees it as a part of himself and gives it his own name…. Thus Le Guin's hero achieves the goal of Jung's individuation process—maturity and self-knowledge.
In The Tombs of Atuan, the second book of the trilogy, ten or fifteen years have passed since Ged achieved psychological wholeness. Now free to act on behalf of others, he undertakes the dangerous mission of recovering the missing half of the ring of Erreth-Akbe from the Tombs of Atuan. By joining it with the half already in his possession, he hopes to learn the forgotten "Bond-Rune" that will restore peace and unity to all Earthsea. (p. 20)
Reclamation of the ring is almost anticlimactic; again, Le Guin is more interested in the Jungian journey toward integration than in external heroic adventures. She has explained that the subject of Tombs is, in a word, sex. "More exactly, you could call it a feminine coming of age," she says. Her protagonist is Tenar who, as Arha the Eaten, the One Priestess of the Nameless Ones, must achieve her own integration of ego and shadow by symbolically reclaiming her true name. (pp. 20-1)
Into [Tenar's] sterile world comes Ged, the male principle, bearing light into the Undertomb by means of his wizard's staff, an obvious phallic symbol. He violates the domain of Tenar and the powers she serves, seeking, like the male chromosome seeking the female, to join his half of the ring of Erreth-Akbe to the half in the Treasure Room of the Tombs. With the union of the two halves, Tenar begins a new life. She easily imprisons the mage in her labyrinth. While deciding what she will do with him, Tenar experiences, not a sense of outrage at the violation, but a disquieting curiosity about her prisoner. A sexual awakening has begun.
The Undertomb itself symbolizes full sexual knowledge. Tenar had been forbidden to take a light there. Thus she didn't know what it looked like until Ged arrives with his glowing wizard's staff. (pp. 23-4)
Male and female principle are joined as the ring is made whole, not with an illusion but with a great pattern. As Snow White is brought from death-in-life by her prince, Ged leads Tenar from the darkness toward the light. (p. 26)
In Wizard, Le Guin presents clearly and simply, and in pure Jungian terms, the process of integrating the male ego with its shadow. By adding one phrase, the acceptance of personal mortality, she foreshadows the main theme of The Farthest Shore, the last book of the trilogy. When Ged achieves personal integration, the shadow for the first time is labeled as "the shadow of his death." Now it isn't just Jung's shadow, but Le Guin's as well. (p. 27)
In The Farthest Shore, Le Guin undertakes the difficult task of expressing in concrete images, experiences that are purely metaphysical. Most readers are familiar with male or female integration and the sometimes stormy passage through adolescence, but death and immortality are another matter. As the author admits, The Farthest Shore is not as well constructed, not as sound and complete as the other two books, since it is about an experience no one survives. (p. 28)
If we can't relate wholly to the symbolic journey through the Dry Lands and back, we can to Arren's personal reactions to the dawning awareness of his own mortality. To further humanize her hero, Le Guin weaves the themes of moral and social integration into the stark pattern of life and death. We recognize as our own, Arren's struggle with the problem of evil and his development from a self-centered youth to a compassionate human being.
To further acclimate the reader, Le Guin draws more heavily on the heroic epic tradition in this book than in the earlier ones. On the surface, The Farthest Shore seems familiar, the tale of a young prince who will be ruler of all Earthsea if he survives a perilous quest. Appropriately, he is named Arren, which means "sword," and he carries an ancestral blade, the Sword of Serriadh….
In addition to the enchanted sword, Arren has the advice and council of a wizard; he walks the paths of the dead; he must contend with an evil sorcerer; and is the fulfillment of a prophecy: he will unite his kingdom and rule long and well. But unlike epic heroes such as Tolkien's Aragorn, Arren will not achieve throne and crown by overcoming vast hordes of evil orcs, but by subduing his own desire for immortality, by conquering the "traitor, the self; the self that cries I want to live; let the world burn so long as I can live!"…. His victory comes not at his coronation at Havnor but earlier on Selidor where, grasping a stone brought back from his conquest of the Mountains of Pain, he knows he has achieved a true victory over self, although there is no one to praise him.
Since it deals with death, The Farthest Shore is necessarily a philosophical book. In the exchange between Ged and Arren, between master and pupil, we are reminded of the Socratic dialogues or of Aristotle instructing Alexander. Though wizardry plays a vital part in saving Earthsea, Ged realizes that his most important function is to instruct the future king. (p. 29)
The psychological journey through pain and fear to integration is a journey each of Le Guin's protagonists makes…. In The Left Hand of Darkness, Genly Ai and Estraven, his symbolic shadow, travel the "silent vastness of fire and ice" to integrate Gethen with the Ekumen; in doing so, Genly Ai is integrated with Estraven. And Shevek makes a painful trip between worlds to integrate Urras and Anarres (The Dispossessed). In mythic terms the psychological journey is the journey of Ged, scarred and suffering, to face his own shadow. It is Tenar's journey from the nameless powers of life. But most of all, it is Arren's journey through the Mountains of Pain with an endurance that outlasts his hope of achieving wholeness.
All of these journeys symbolize the journey every human being must make, one through pain and fear, aided only by trust in the goodness of man, hand holding hand, to the acceptance of mortality. Although Le Guin may embroider the design with the myriad ideas that her art inspires, Jung's archetypal journey toward integration—so clearly outlined in her Earthsea trilogy—provides the master pattern of her fiction. (pp. 34-5)
Margaret P. Esmonde, "The Psychological Journey in the Earthsea Trilogy," in Ursula K. LeGuin, edited by Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg (copyright © 1979 by Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg; published by Taplinger Publishing Co., Inc., New York; reprinted by permission), Taplinger, 1979, pp. 15-35.
The differences in narrative setting which separate Le Guin's fantasy and her science fiction are tangential. Happy endings are unrealistic and produce comedy like "April in Paris" and fantasy like the Earthsea trilogy. The exile or death of the hero, which is realistic, is the basis of tragedy and of the pressure toward verisimilitude that makes science fiction like "The Masters" or [The Left Hand of Darkness] seem realistic even though the narratives are governed by far-fetched assumptions. What is essential to Le Guin's work is not detail of setting or the type of action, comic or tragic, which she imitates. What is essential is the argument which runs through most of her major pieces, the way in which explicitly in her science fiction and implicitly in her fantasy, she examines the effects of science on individual personalities….
I will hazard the generalization that most science fiction is concerned with the technological consequences of science and hence that when science figures in such work it does so as a source of the setting or of impetus for plot developments…. The themes of [such a] novel do not really involve science. Science, more precisely some hypothetical extensions of current science and technology, provide the furniture of the setting and the impetus of the plot.
In arguing that science is the central focus of Le Guin's fiction, I do not intend to group her with those "hard core" science fiction writers who are in effect trying to predict where science and technology will take us. The quality of Le Guin's fiction is a function of a careful style and of her concern with characterization. She is concerned with science not as technology but as an attitude toward knowledge and as a mode of argument. In saying that her major theme is the effect of science on individual men, I do not mean to suggest that she is concerned about how news of life in outer space will affect us when it comes or what rocket cars will be like. Rather, she is concerned with what the scientific method does to those who try to use it….
Le Guin's fiction is a reaction to the rhetoric of science, is itself an argument that science is inherently alienating and an exploration of the process by which alienation is produced and counteracted. (p. 69)
[Le Guin] has suggested that the subject of [The Left Hand of Darkness] is "not feminism or sex or gender or anything of the sort." It is rather "a certain unease" about sexuality which she finds in the culture and which is a function of the pressure on sex roles exerted by the women's movement. The argument of the novel is not about sexuality at all…. I would describe the subject as anger, not anger about sex roles considered as a topic, but anger in Le Guin and in an audience which has decided that frustration/limitation is an aberration of rather than a condition of existence. (p. 72)
[Her] most familiar theme and her most familiar archetype [is] that of the questing hero/heroine/heroes. The motif of the quest is the central motif of Le Guin's fiction because it is the archetype which most fully represents the situation of the individual in twentieth-century Western and scientific culture. Science is crucial to Le Guin's fiction not because she is for or against it in any ideological sense …, but because scientific rhetoric, i.e., scientific models of evidence for explanation and persuasion, has created the climate within which Le Guin's work must function. Scientific rhetoric has created, for example, the debate about sex roles which is the source of the anxiety that makes [The Left Hand of Darkness] a powerful novel.
In this sense, Le Guin's rhetoric is an aspect of, at least a response to, scientific rhetoric, and it is in science as a rhetoric that one can locate the sources of the motives which compel her characters. That a commitment to science is a denial of self is a position as close to all of us as the last injunctions we have heard to "be more objective." (p. 73)
The reader of whose consciousness Le Guin's hero is the expression is in an agonizing dilemma. He must grant absolute authority to a series of physical propositions which tell him, in effect, that he is a complex chemical phenomenon, nothing more. This diminution flies in the face of every instinct in his being, instincts which tell him that he is important, capable of pleasure, and should be immortal….
While scientific rhetorical stances have attempted to eject personality from the culture, science fiction has been pumping it right back in. Few writers have done this so well as Ursula Le Guin because few have realized quite as consciously as she that the problem which science fiction as a genre addresses is not (1) futurology, (2) a moral evaluation of science, or (3) exploitation or extension of scientific knowledge; it is rather the restoration of personality to those who, in taking seriously scientific rhetoric's celebration of alienation, have found themselves in an emotional cul de sac. (p. 76)
Much of Le Guin's criticism is an argument that fantasy matters. As argument, her fiction advocates a similar position. Fantasy, subjectivity, names, mindspeaking, all analogues for personality, are what matter in her writing. That her fiction advocates a set of "collectivist" political positions is incidental. Most centrally, it argues that individual men must undertake quests for personality, for the selves stripped from them by scientific culture. This is the grounding pattern of her fiction, visible at times as its topic, and always in the responses which it invites from her audiences. (p. 77)
Rocannon's World offers the quest for self in a pattern the design of which is a formula. Rocannon is the hero who saves the world from the invaders from Faraday. He does it in an improbable, single-handed way that recalls James Bond. The novel is significant in the Hainish cycle because Rocannon learns telepathy in his travels and because he originates the League of All World's policy of cultural embargo. In terms such as these, the novel is not worth a serious person's time.
But Le Guin's development of the formula plot incorporates a number of nicely archetypal features. Rocannon's isolation is the principal of these. When his survey ship and fellows are destroyed by the Faradayans, he becomes, in effect, a man without a culture…. He is a scientist in a tribal society threatened by evil. The Faradayans are not represented in the book. They are so abstract a presence that they suggest a verbal substitution. For "Faraday" read "evil." To preserve the primitive, personal cultures of Fomalhaut II, Rocannon must confront evil.
But the evil is an offshoot, an aspect of, his own culture…. For Rocannon [the planet] is the home of Semley, the alien whose beauty has haunted his memory. The world which is eventually named for Rocannon is a planet whose cultures are personal, tribal, and which he chooses in preference to that of his origin. "Who are my people?" he says to Ganye. "I am not what I was. I have changed; I have drunk from the well in the mountains. And I wish never to go again where I might hear the voices of my enemies."… Rocannon can not return. He has defeated the Faradayans/Evil/Technology with the power of mind. He wishes to avoid another encounter which will place his personality squarely and inevitably in conflict with scientific culture.
Rocannon's World is not a good novel. It is cluttered with "windsteeds" and other furniture which are transparent plotting devices. The contrast between the power and the power-lessness of Rocannon is not clearly developed. Nor is the precise nature of the enemy whose voice Rocannon does not want to hear. Most of the possibilities for empathy with Rocannon are juvenile.
Planet of Exile does not directly exhibit the quest for alienated self. On Askatevar, Jakob Agat Alterra is a man intact, psychically and socially, although his colony's existence is threatened. The story is space opera. The Indian maiden has become Rolery, daughter of a tribe of natives of Askatevar. The cowboys fight the Gaals, a nomadic horde, read Indians, and Alterra kills a snowghoul, read grizzly bear. The novel reflects the impulse toward fantasy in one characteristic way. Romance—as love, self-sacrifice, courage, and other ideals—is not an objective entity, is rather part of the realm of personality and opinion. As fantasy, romance is increasingly incompatible with realistic settings, whose origins lie in science. Hence, Rolery and Alterra's love story must have a setting on another planet. Everybody knows the girls in New York aren't like that.
When Jakob Agat Alterra's descendant Ramarren crawls out of the clearing and into the sunlight of earth in City of Illusions, Le Guin solidly reestablishes the quest motif. Ramarren/Falk has lost his identity; he journeys in quest of it, finds it, and escapes the Shing to return home. His journey to Es Toch is also space opera. Le Guin's characterization of the enemy, the "mindlying" Shing, is not. In Rocannon's World the enemy is left undefined. City of Illusions offers a definition of sorts. The Shing are the enemy because they are completely successful liars….
Ramarren/Falk has a problem in a sense independent of the split personality which he later unites by an act of will. The illusions of the Shing, which put Spenser's Faerie Queene to shame, are an epistemological sink. None of the customary external sources of information, from the walls of his room to the testimony of Estrel, can be relied on as evidence about reality. The Shing can even lie telepathically. The dilemma they pose for the conquered citizens of earth and for Ramarren/Falk is that they have reduced all knowledge to opinion. With the Shing nothing is certain. Falk can recover his identity, and eventually does, only by entering Es Toch, by entering an arena in which his only resource is his own subjectivity. He succeeds because, using solely "artistic" means, he deduces the nature and plans of the Shing…. Falk stakes all on his opinion, succeeds, and escapes in a stolen spaceship. That is space opera again and incidental to his basic dilemma, that of a man to whom scientific evidence is denied, for whom subjectivity must be a tool.
Falk-Ramarren is a powerful archetype. His dilemma reflects that of the citizen in scientific culture who seeks to operate only in terms of certain knowledge, who rejects the risks of opinion, but finds himself forced to act in contexts in which no certain knowledge is available. Falk is an epistemological hero. His analogue is any man who does not insist that nothing is known simply because everything is now known. (pp. 77-9)
Most people encounter their own personalities far more powerfully as sexual entities than as intellectual entities. [The Left Hand of Darkness] is, correspondingly, a more powerful experience for most readers than City of Illusions because the isolation of the hero is couched in sexual rather than intellectual terms. The pressure of his sexually ambiguous surroundings on Genly Ai is a mirror of the pressure which our culture's plethora of sexual roles and liberation movements places upon the sense of identity of its members.
The way in which Genly Ai's posture functions as a model for Le Guin's readers is interesting. What does one do with androgynous Gethenians? How does one react to a pair of homosexuals kissing, flamboyantly, on a street corner? How does one remain open to the "other" without dulling the edges of one's own identity? Here, in terms of sexual identity, is an analogue to the problem of intellectual identity posed by science. One is to remain open (read "skeptical"), but knowledge is, inherently, closure. (p. 80)
George [the protagonist of The Lathe of Heaven] is simultaneously the most powerful, the most helpless, the most dangerous, and the most fragmented man in creation. George is the archetype of the man of science.
What he has is a mind that, as does science, makes him powerful. But this same ability alters the world and completely shatters, as does science, his own place in that world. George produces one world after another, just as science produces one theory after another, but he is no closer to improving the world than science is to providing any kind of certain knowledge. The quest in [Lathe of Heaven] is internalized. George's desire to stop dreaming, to escape the power of self so that he can stabilize his sense of self, is a marvelously precise analogy to the paradoxical magnification of intellect and diminution of spirit that is characteristic of scientific rhetoric.
[In The Dispossessed] Shevek is the man who will restore community to a culture crippled by walls; as such he carries considerable psychological force for any reader who counts himself, consciously or unconsciously, dispossessed of significance in the scheme of things.
Shevek, as an archetype, is not so clearly a creature of the alienation bred by science as are Falk-Ramarren and George Orr. His quest is a quest by a man with a solidly established personality for community. It is in the pure fantasy of the Earthsea trilogy that Le Guin offers her clearest representation of the task of the psyche in a scientific age. She has said that The Tombs of Atuan is about sex. Why there is a man in the tomb is an interesting question. The story is also about alienation from culture, but I share her feeling that the novel's dynamic differentiates it from her other works…. The Farthest Shore repeats the archetype of [The Dispossessed]. The man with personality saves the community…. A Wizard of Earthsea … is the high watermark of Le Guin's fiction.
[A Wizard of Earthsea] is a novel of initiation. There is nothing in it that I would call allegory. But Le Guin's use of the plot establishes a set of parallels to the situation of the disestablished self in scientific culture that is stunning. Ged is, or will be, the most powerful. He is also the most threatened….
The most powerful of magicians is the least free of men. Ged's liberation is portrayed as an education. He learns that he must pursue the shadow, must call it by its true name, must account for the fact the shadow looks like him. And then he learns the truth. The shadow is he…. (p. 83)
On one level, [A Wizard of Earthsea] is a sophomoric book, full of pretentious ambiguity and climaxed by a resolution that lacks analytical content. How does one learn what one is, after all? But the paradigm of the plot is a powerful vehicle for the expression of alienation precisely because of its ambiguity. The cult of objectivity, as the celebrant of the universe of rational cause, is singularly ill equipped to deal with the unconscious core of personality. Those whose concepts of self are articulated in rational terms are indeed pursued by a shadow. As a metaphor, the term represents precisely the force of the sorts of undifferentiated anxiety which are the result of completely buried psychological impulses. The more scientific one's conceptual schema, then the more total one's exclusion of personal knowledge from the realm of cultural significance and the more powerful the catharsis of Ged's quest for his own shadow. (p. 84)
[Le Guin's] fiction's limitations, particularly the way in which one character and one theme dominate nearly all her work, stem from the fact that it caters to a neurotic impulse in the psyche of scientific man. The power of her fiction stems from the force with which it reaffirms the beleaguered self in the face of the challenge of science. (p. 86)
Peter T. Koper, "Science and Rhetoric in the Fiction of Ursula LeGuin," in Ursula K. LeGuin: Voyage to Inner Lands and Outer Space, edited by Joe DeBolt (copyright © 1979 by Kennikat Press Corp.; reprinted by permission of Kennikat Press Corp.), Kennikat, 1979, pp. 66-86.
Authors like LeGuin are perpetually being asked to "talk about their work," and since that is tantamount to recounting the cute things your cat did last week, authors respond—as LeGuin largely does [in The Language of the Night]—with criticism. Of these intelligent and novelistically graceful essays, the weakest seem to me those in which the author tiredly repeats the obvious, usually at the prodding of a publisher, and the best of the pieces written spontaneously and affectionately for fan magazines. At times LeGuin's teacherly generosity keeps her at too elementary a level; "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie," for example, is a model of how to do this sort of thing well, but it's also something a fine mind ought not to do so often. There are some thoughtless or derivative remarks as is inevitable in a collection of largely occasional pieces, e.g. LeGuin's traditional walloping of politicians (Shirley Chisholm?) and oddities like her condemnation of "sensualists."… (pp. 100-01)
If there's an overall flaw in Language it's LeGuin's passion for morality and how that passion is likely to be misused by readers. She notes it herself … and is flexible enough to avoid its dangers in pieces like "The Child and the Shadow" or the absolutely first-rate piece on Philip K. Dick, but many of her readers won't be….
One of the surprises of the collection is the author's delicious sense of comedy, from her "mad visions of founding a Hobbit Socialist Party" … to a scene with a cat, a child, and a telephone cord, that ought to be reproduced entire in fiction. (p. 101)
Joanna Russ, "Books: 'The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction'," in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (© 1980 by Mercury Press, Inc.; reprinted from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction), Vol. 58, No. 2, February, 1980, pp. 100-01.
[In The Beginning Place] Ursula K. Le Guin has returned to the intrapsychic landscape of her earlier fantasies … and has had her characters reject it as a permanent habitation. Two modern young people, Hugh and Irena, discover a strange, fantastic realm, which Irena calls "the ain countree," and which they enter, are changed by and finally leave behind as they return to the real world.
In the essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie" … included in The Language of the Night Le Guin distinguished the genuine, risky Inner Lands ("Elfland") from the banal imitation which is really the outside world in disguise ("Poughkeepsie"). In The Beginning Place she brings Elfland into violent contiguity, as it were, with Poughkeepsie, both places rendered in a gray, gritty, realistic style which may annoy fans of the author's more colorful fantasies but which strikes me as an impressive Le Guinian advance….
In short, Elfland and Poughkeepsie are badly out of gear here, a situation which forces the author into inadvertent lies about the latter, that working-class people are inarticulate, that marriage is a mystical, once-for-all fusion (of the right people only, of course), that clumsy, shy Hugh is a possible real man (and not a woman's dream of one), that his gentleness will not vanish with his guilt over his mother (though Le Guin has previously connected the two), and that achieving his (carefully atypical) ambition will not lead to intense disillusionment.
Place falls flat at the end since the author can imagine no potential change in Poughkeepsie commensurate with the beauty and terror of the changes that have occurred in Elfland. The novel comes perilously close to recommending marriage for women and marriage-plus-upward-mobility for men as a victory over our system that produces exhausted, battered wives, embittered husbands, poverty and a trashy life for almost everyone. But Le Guin's own socially-conscious description of the real world in Place makes that solution totally inadequate. The Beginning Place, for all its beauties, remains hanging in the air; there is literally no place for the characters to return to save permanent residence in Elfland, a choice the author is far too sane and responsible to make.
Joanna Russ, "Crossing Inner Lands," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), February 24, 1980, p. 7.
Ursula Le Guin's Malafrena is set in an era familiar from novels such as Le Rouge et le Noir. The background is nineteenth-century Europe under the yoke of the Austrian Empire; the ideas are those of liberty and nationalism; and the hero, Itale Sorde, is the son of a provincial landowner—pro-Napoleon, romantic and full of idealism….
Malafrena is a remarkable feat of imagination. Background, characters and dialogue all have a fully autonomous life: there is a minimum of "period" writing and of intrusive passages of historical information to distract the reader from the plot. Despite the unspecified location—the names of places are given but we are not told where in Europe Malafrena and Krasnoy are—and the importance to the novel of political ideas, the action is both natural and convincing. Ursula Le Guin writes with such felicity that she evokes with equal assurance a family evening on the terrace or a debate in the National Assembly…. The balance between home and away, country and town, old loves and new, is constant; and there is a series of unforced contrasts between the squalor of the city (both its aristocratic salons and its slums) and the sweetness of the domey. Through touches like the view over the rooftops in Itale's first garret, the smear of excrement on the pavement he notices when about to start out on his life's adventure, and the apples eaten on the barricades, the author reminds us that things are more complicated than the hero's progress might lead us to believe.
This sense of reality does, admittedly, falter towards the end of the book. The period in prison, the street fighting and Itale's return to his estates are not quite so convincing as the earlier part of the book. Also disappointing are the rather unsatisfactory pledge of friendships which Itale makes to Piera and the tying up of loose ends in letters from Krasnoy. The disappointment seems inevitable partly because the opening of Malafrena is so good and partly because there can, in any case, be no proper domestic end for a Napoleonic hero.
Lindsay Duguid, "Prisoner of St. Lazar," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4020, April 11, 1980, p. 416.
[Malafrena] is Le Guin exercising her considerable talent in a work whose chief idiosyncracy may be that it owes more to Tolstoy than to Tolkien…. [Like] Tolstoyan dramatis personae they introspectively mull their relationships with both one another and the state, seeking either happiness or justice, if not both, in a society immemorially dedicated to the status quo….
What is new here, apart from the historical setting, is our apprehension that Le Guin has taken an important additional step, for at novel's end Sorde is poised for a further foray into the world outside his beloved Val Malafrena. The vita nova is not a will-o'-the-wisp.
At the risk of incurring the ridicule of those amused by old-fashioned concepts of Truth and Honor, I would call Malafrena a noble book. It affirms the psychological necessity of lofty aspirations without cringing away from a vivid depiction of the private and public vices that flesh is heir to. It acknowledges but does not surrender to the ubiquity of injustice and suffering. Orsinia may be an imaginary country, but what happens there mirrors, and necessarily magnifies, the imperishable realities of the human heart. (pp. 64-5)
Michael Bishop, "Books: 'Malafrena'," in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (© 1980 by Mercury Press, Inc.; reprinted from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction), Vol. 58, No. 6, June, 1980, pp. 64-5.
The social sciences inform [Ursula K. Le Guin's] fantasies with far more earthy substance than the usual imaginary space-flight, and her hypothetical futures have a strong flavor of familiar history…. ["The Beginning Place"] describes with plenty of moral and psychological complexity the mating of two modern young people; its fantastic terrain … belongs not to any conjecturable future but to that vast, vaguely medieval never-never land whose place in our shared nostalgia was sealed by Malory's telling of the Arthurian legends, revived by Tennyson and William Morris, and given phenomenal modern currency by Tolkien's saga of Middle-earth. (p. 94)
The adventure that Irene and Hugh come to share in this storybook village is excitingly told, and so simply, boldly composed of the ancient motifs of curse and quest that any summary would reveal too much. Read as a metaphor of sexuality emerging from masturbatory solitude into the perilous challenge and exchange of heterosexual encounter, "The Beginning Place" is full of just and subtle touches. Both Irene and Hugh first fall in love with images of themselves: Irene is dark, and Hugh is fair, and the objects of their infatuation in Tembreabrezi—the saturnine Master, the fair Allia—exaggerate these aspects. The dragon they must slay—white and wrinkled and blind, hideous and piteous, loud with pain and craving, heavy with viscera—would appear to be our sorry carnality incarnate, with a runny touch of the subconscious chaos, the foul disorder of bad dreams…. The exact meaning of the fact that Hugh can always get into the enchanted realm but gets lost within it and that Irene has trouble getting in but always knows the way and can get out eludes me but feels right. The terror that only Hugh fails to experience and the singing that only Irene can produce in this twilight devoid of birdsong are details that command belief without an equation, gathering their own weight within a fairyland that never seems too remote from actual states of mind. Daydream, trance, faith, and passion all exist on the borders of waking thought…. As deftly as she makes the muddled patchwork landscape around Kensington Heights yield a supernatural dell, the author manipulates the four personae her two characters yield: Hugh and Irene in their real, "poisoned" lives, and these same two in Tembreabrezi, where they bear the slightly altered names of Hiuradjas and Irena. In another feat of shading, she turns the "ain country" sinister and malevolent—as solitary sexual dreaming will become—and the polluted real world, returned to at night, in the rain, beautiful: the true beginning place.
This elegant parable of late adolescence fails of credibility only when it presses its moral too earnestly and starts to sound like a marriage manual, forcing Hugh to mumble homilies like "Two people are always sort of responsible for each other."… "The Beginning Place" delivers its humane message well enough, before its make-believe is coarsened by good intentions. (pp. 96-7)
John Updike, "Imagining Things," in The New Yorker (© 1980 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LVI, No. 18, June 23, 1980, pp. 94, 96-7.
Ursula K. Le Guin's Threshold [published in the United States as The Beginning Place] makes its effect by a firm presentation of the world from which fantasy is an escape….
The appeal of Threshold is that the suburban world and its two characters are well realized, more convincingly realized in fact than the world on the other side. The time-warp enables them to make several visits to both, and Hugh and Irena take their characteristics with them into the magical. Hugh retains his plodding sincerity, Irena her jealousy and anger that her world has been discovered by this stranger. The people of the other side, it transpires, are in some kind of danger, and the story becomes a standard quest myth, although deference to contemporary feminism gives Irena a somewhat more positive role than is customary for women in quest-literature. Hugh slays the dragon, but by this time Ms Le Guin seems to have lost interest in making the magical moving, and concentrates on the relationship between Hugh and Irena. We never even discover if the curse is lifted, for the protagonists' conclusion is that the real world, from which they were both running away, is where they belong. Le Guin deflates her own fantasy, and from a strong beginning produces a weak conclusion.
Robert Hewison, "Astounding Alternatives," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4051, December 12, 1980, p. 1408.∗