WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:
- Rocannon's World (New York: Ace, 1966; London: Tandem, 1972).
- Planet of Exile (New York: Ace, 1966; London: Tandem, 1972).
- City of Illusions (New York: Ace, 1967; London: Gollancz, 1971).
- A Wizard of Earthsea (Berkeley: Parnassus, 1968; London: Gollancz, 1971).
- The Left Hand of Darkness (New York: Walker, 1969; London: Macdonald, 1969).
- The Tombs of Atuan (New York: Atheneum, 1971; London: Gollancz, 1972).
- The Lathe of Heaven (New York: Scribners, 1971; London: Gollancz, 1972).
- The Farthest Shore (New York: Atheneum, 1972; London: Gollancz, 1973).
- From Elfland to Poughkeepsie (Portland, Oreg.: Pendragon, 1973).
- The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (New York: Harper & Row, 1974; London: Gollancz, 1974).
- Dreams Must Explain Themselves (New York: Algol, 1975).
- The Wind's Twelve Quarters (New York: Harper & Row, 1975; London: Gollancz, 1976).
- Wild Angels (Santa Barbara, Cal.: Capra, 1975).
- The Word for World Is Forest (New York: Berkley, 1976; London: Gollancz, 1977).
- Very Far Away from Anywhere Else (New York: Atheneum, 1976); republished as A Very Long Way from Anywhere Else (London: Gollancz, 1976).
- Orsinian Tales (New York: Harper & Row, 1976; London: Gollancz, 1977).
- The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Susan Wood (New York: Berkley/Putnam's, 1979).
- Malafrena (New York: Putnam's, 1979).
- Leese Webster (New York: Atheneum, 1979).
- The Beginning Place (New York: Harper & Row, 1980); republished as Threshold (London: Gollancz, 1980).
- Gwilan's Harp (Northridge, Cal.: Lord John Press, 1981).
- Hard Words, and Other Poems (New York: Harper & Row, 1981).
- The Adventure of Cobbler's Rune (New Castle, Va.: Cheap Street, 1982).
- The Compass Rose: Short Stories (New York: Harper & Row, 1982).
- The Eye of the Heron (New York: Harper & Row, 1983; London: Gollancz, 1983).
- Solomon Leviathan's Nine Hundred and Thirty-First Trip around the World (New Castle, Va.: Cheap Street, 1983).
- The Visionary: The Life Story of Flicker of the Serpentine of Telina-Na, published together with Wonders Hidden: Audubon's Early Years, by Scott Russell Saunders (Santa Barbara, Cal.: Capra, 1983).
- Always Coming Home (New York: Harper & Row, 1985; London: Gollancz, 1986).
- King Dog: A Screenplay, published together with Dostoevsky: A Screenplay, by Raymond Carver and Tess Gallagher (Santa Barbara, Cal.: Capra, 1985).
- Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences (Santa Barbara: Capra, 1987; London: Gollancz, 1990).
- Catwings (New York: Orchard, 1988).
- A Visit from Dr. Katz (New York: Atheneum, 1988).
- Wild Oats and Fireweed (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).
- Catwings Return (New York: Orchard, 1989).
- Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places (New York: Grove, 1989; London: Gollancz, 1989).
- Fire and Stone (New York: Atheneum, 1989).
- The Way of the Water's Going: Images of the Northern California Coastal Range, by Le Guin, Ernest Waugh, and Alan Nicholson (New York: Harper & Row, 1989).
- Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea (New York: Atheneum, 1990; London: Gollancz, 1990).
- Searoad: Chronicles of Klatsand (New York: HarperCollins, 1991; London: Gollancz, 1992).
- Fish Soup (New York: Atheneum, 1992).
- A Ride on the Red Mare's Back (New York: Orchard, 1992).
- Blue Moon over Thurman Street (Portland, Oreg.: NewSage Press, 1992).
- Earthsea Revisioned (Cambridge, Mass.: Children's Literature New England / Cambridge, U.K.: Green Bay Publications, 1993).
- A Fisherman of the Inland Sea (New York: HarperPrism, 1994; London: Gollancz, 1996).
- Going Out with Peacocks and Other Poems (New York: HarperPerennial, 1994).
- Wonderful Alexander and the Catwings (New York: Orchard, 1994).
- Four Ways to Forgiveness (New York: HarperPrism, 1995; London: Gollancz, 1996).
- Unlocking the Air and Other Stories (New York: HarperCollins, 1996).
- The Twins, The Dream: Two Voices / Las gemelas, el sueño: dos voces, by Le Guin and Diana Bellessi (Houston: Arte Público Press, 1996).
- Nebula Award Stories Eleven, edited by Le Guin (London: Gollancz, 1976; New York: Harper, 1977).
- "The Diary of the Rose," in Future Power, edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois (New York: Dutton, 1977).
- Interfaces: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction, edited by Le Guin and Virginia Kidd (New York: Ace, 1980).
- Edges: Thirteen New Tales from the Borderlands of the Imagination, edited by Le Guin and Kidd (New York: Pocket Books, 1980).
- The Norton Book of Science Fiction: North American Fiction, 1960-1990, edited by Le Guin and Brian Attebery with Karen Joy Fowler (New York: Norton, 1993).
- Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching, A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, translated by Le Guin and J. P. Seaton (Boston: Shambhala, 1997).
Selected Periodical Publications--Uncollected
- "On Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream," Science-Fiction Studies, 1 (Spring 1973): 41-44.
- "Surveying the Battlefield," Science-Fiction Studies, 1 (Fall 1973): 88-90.
- "European SF: Rottensteiner's Anthology, the Strugatskys, and Lem," Science-Fiction Studies, 1 (Spring 1974): 181-185.
- "Ketterer on The Left Hand of Darkness," Science-Fiction Studies, 2 (July 1975): 137-139.
- "A Response to the Le Guin Issue," Science-Fiction Studies, 3 (Spring 1976): 43-46.
- "The Space Crone," CoEvolution Quarterly, 10 (Summer 1976): 108-111.
[This entry was updated by Nancy Barendse (Charleston Southern University) from her update in the Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, volume 6, of the entry by Brian Attebery (College of Idaho) in DLB 8: Twentieth-Century American Science Fiction Writers and the entry by Andrew Gordon (University of Florida) in DLB 52: American Writers for Children Since 1960: Fiction.]
Ursula K. Le Guin is a writer of great versatility and power, acclaimed for her science fiction, fantasy, and children's literature. All her fiction is distinguished by careful craftsmanship, a limpid prose style, realistic detail in the creation of imaginary worlds, profound ethical concerns, and mythical reverberations created through the use of symbolic and archetypal patterns. Her typical story involves a hero's quest for maturity and psychological integration, and her major theme is the need for balance and wholeness. Her goal in writing is to show her readers themselves and their lives at a distance, the better to create orderly patterns out of random information.
Ursula K. Le Guin was born in Berkeley, California, in 1929, the youngest of four children and the only daughter of Alfred Louis and Theodora Kracaw Brown Kroeber. Her father was a renowned professor of anthropology, an expert on California Indians; her mother was an author in her own right, with several children's books published by Parnassus Press, but best known for Ishi in Two Worlds (1961), the biography of the last "wild" Indian in North America. Le Guin grew up in Berkeley in a secure and intellectually stimulating environment. Her parents were progressive and nonsexist in raising children. The house was filled with books, and her father was frequently visited by major figures in anthropology and other fields. She claims that her parents' careers in anthropology strongly influenced her writing: "My father studied real cultures and I make them up--in a way, it's the same thing."
As a child, Le Guin wanted to be a biologist and a poet. She read widely as a youngster, preferring Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough (1890), Norse myths, and science-fiction magazines, though she temporarily lost interest in science fiction as she matured. As she explained in The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction (1979), "it seemed to be all about hardware and soldiers." Lord Dunsany 's A Dreamer's Tales (1910), which she encountered at age twelve, was a revelation to her, making her realize that grownups were still creating myths. It opened up to her "the Inner Lands," which she calls "my native country."
Le Guin wrote her first fantasy story at nine, about a man persecuted by evil elves, and submitted her first science fiction, a story about time travel that she wrote when she was ten or eleven, to Amazing Stories. It was rejected, but Amazing Stories was to publish her first science fiction over twenty years later. She received a B.A., Phi Beta Kappa, from Radcliffe in 1951 and an M.A. in French and Italian Renaissance literature from Columbia in 1952. On a Fulbright to France in 1953, she met and married a fellow Fulbrighter, history professor Charles A. Le Guin. She abandoned graduate studies to raise a family: the Le Guins have three children and reside in Portland, Oregon.
Le Guin started writing, according to an introductory note in her short-story collection The Wind's Twelve Quarters (1975), at about age five. She wrote poetry, some of which was published, and stories, which were not. In the note she mentions a science-fiction story written in 1942, when she was twelve. It was rejected by John Campbell, the editor of Astounding Science-Fiction. Her next try at the genre was accepted by Cele Goldsmith Lalli for Fantastic--twenty years later. That story, "April in Paris" (collected in The Wind's Twelve Quarters), was her first published piece of fiction. It is a lightly comic time-travel story using her knowledge of medieval France. Several more stories appeared in the mid 1960s. One of them, "The Dowry of the Angyar" (1965), or, to use the title Le Guin prefers, "Semley's Necklace" (collected in The Wind's Twelve Quarters), grew into her first published novel, Rocannon's World (1966). Another, "Winter's King" (1969; collected in The Wind's Twelve Quarters), established the setting for her first major critical success, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). These stories and novels, along with two intermediate works, Planet of Exile (1966) and City of Illusions (1967), form a loosely organized future history; that is, a series of independent works share a common historical background, somewhat like Robert Heinlein's chain of novels and stories. Le Guin's cycle is usually referred to as the Hainish cycle after the original race of humanity who are said to have arisen on the planet Hain and colonized other planets, including Earth, until galactic war isolated the various human settlements. All Le Guin's Hainish stories take place long after the war and a subsequent dark age, and they cover around twenty-five hundred years, during which contact is gradually being reestablished with the colony worlds. In the meantime, however, most of these colonies have forgotten their origin, and many of their humanoid inhabitants vary widely from "Hainish normal" biologically as well as culturally, altered by time and independent evolution and perhaps, as it is suspected of the androgynous Gethenians of The Left Hand of Darkness, by biological experiments conducted by the ancient Hainish. The Hainish cycle also includes The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974); the novella The Word for World Is Forest (1976); two more of the stories in The Wind's Twelve Quarters, "Vaster than Empires and More Slow" (New Dimensions 1, 1971) and "The Day before the Revolution" (Galaxy, 1974); three stories from A Fisherman of the Inland Sea (1994); "The Matter of Segri"; and Four Ways to Forgiveness (1995).
All of her stories are about reciprocal relationships. There is a sort of golden rule in her fictional world, which states that whatever you touch touches you. This golden rule has a scientific backing in ecology; it also has philosophical underpinnings in Taoism and in Zen. Le Guin is uncomfortable when critics claim her as a great and original thinker, for she works best with what she calls "fortune cookie ideas," ideas proposed by someone else and capable of expression in very simple terms. Beginning with such an idea--ecological balance, for example--she can show through her stories how simple terms hide a mass of complexity and contradiction that surfaces only when the idea interacts with human lives.
Gaverel Rocannon, the protagonist of Rocannon's World, is an ethnologist specializing in alien cultures. In "Semley's Necklace," which serves as a prologue to the novel, he is a minor character whose primary function is to comment on the action, his wistfully scientific outlook contrasting effectively with the high-flown, legendary quality of the rest of the story. In the novel he is the central figure in a quest that grows increasingly mythlike. Seeking revenge for the destruction of his ethnographic survey team, he sets out with a group of native friends to warn his home world about the rebels who have set up a military base on Fomalhaut II, later known as Rocannon's World. His most important companions are the aristocratic warrior Mogien, the servant Yahan, and the elf Kyo. Each has a different view of Rocannon and his quest: to Mogien, Rocannon is a warrior avenging his honor; to Yahan, Rocannon is a powerful wizard fighting the evil magicians who are laying waste to the world; to Kyo, Rocannon is a man fulfilling a strange and wonderful fate. A series of encounters with thieves, nature, and various alien beings serve to reinforce each view of Rocannon, according to each companion's perspective. Yet at the same time Rocannon's own view remains the central one and the view the reader is most likely to have. Rocannon sees himself as "an ordinary League scientist," middle-aged, physically unprepossessing, and fundamentally peaceable. In the end he plays the traditional mythic hero's role by gaining a great gift at high cost. His treasure is the ability to make contact with other minds telepathically. He uses the gift as a weapon against his enemies and as a consequence must share the experience of their deaths. After the book's climax he seems to fade away, consumed in the legend that is growing around him. One hopes, however, that he will pass on his gift to others, freed of its penalty by his own sacrifice.
Other themes in the novel impress themselves on the reader almost independently of the color and adventure of the story: the conflict between rationality and an irrational universe, the responsibilities of a technologically advanced civilization in dealing with a less advanced society, the danger of judging from prejudice, the wonder of establishing ties with someone different from oneself, and the tragedy of having to take up violent means to defend oneself against violent adversaries. Rocannon is the rational being in an irrational world: a scientist in the midst of legend. He learns that truth hangs suspended somewhere between his notions of cause and effect and his friends' belief in spells and talismans. He comes to respect their understanding of the world and their way of life as valid alternatives to his own, the knowledge of which enriches his life. As an anthropologist, he objects to the League of All Worlds' manipulation of this recently discovered planet and puts a stop to its use as a weapon in a cosmic arms race.
Prejudice takes many forms in the novel. The Centaurans who made the initial contact with Fomalhaut II chose to deal only with the crafty, cave-dwelling, tool-making Gdemiar, or Clayfolk, ignoring the other intelligent races on the planet and thus upsetting carefully balanced interspecies relationships. Rocannon makes a similar mistake in assuming intelligence in the tall, humanoid, winged creatures of the southern plains and in failing to recognize it in the small, furry, furtive beings who live among them. The former turn out to be mindless predators, while the latter are not only intelligent but friendly, saving the lives of Rocannon and his companions. Rocannon's life is saved several times in the novel. These rescues serve not only to advance the plot but also to point out how vulnerable man is alone and how dependent upon the good will of friends and strangers. By seeking out individuals unlike himself, meeting them on their own ground, offering them his loyalty and accepting theirs, Rocannon not only completes his quest but also raises its significance beyond a mere exercise in warfare. His passing alters the world he travels through, so it is appropriate that it be given his name.
Le Guin's second novel takes up the same themes: prejudice, technology, clashing worldviews, and communication across barriers of race and culture. In Planet of Exile the telepathic skills won by Rocannon have become codified mental disciplines taught throughout the League of All Worlds. The novel deals with a League colony which has, for unknown reasons, been abandoned. Left without a spaceship or ansible (Le Guin's term for an instantaneous message transmitter), the colony on Werel has struggled to preserve its cultural heritage without unduly influencing the native cultures for a period of ten Werelian years--each equivalent to more than sixty Earth or League years. As the book opens, the planet is entering into winter, a brutal season lasting a quarter of a lifetime.
As in Rocannon's World, there is conflict in this story between two cultures, one technological, the other atechnological and illiterate. There are some interesting reversals in this pair of opposing civilizations, however, that prevent our reading the book as a conventional meeting between civilized explorers and colorful savages. The native Tevarians, who live a life so marginal that they have not invented the wheel or learned to sing, are fair-skinned. The colonists from Earth are dark. The colonists practice a variety of psi skills: the skeptical natives view their neighbors as witches. Both groups are inbred and stagnant. The Earthmen are gradually losing the knowledge and skills their ancestors brought with them. Their numbers are shrinking because of a high incidence of infertility and spontaneous abortion. Their body chemistry is alien to the planet: no microorganisms will attack them, but neither can they eat native foods without special medication. One of them comments that the world seems to be rejecting them like an unsuccessful graft. The native population is not decreasing, but they have not furthered their way of life for many generations, and there is no place among them for exceptional individuals like the girl Rolery.
The stalemate between these two cultures is broken by the combined onslaught of winter and the nomadic, plundering Gaal, a rival native culture. Finding a common enemy gives the two groups a common cause. The catalyst bringing them together at last is the Romeo-and-Juliet love between Rolery, the only native born in summer, out of season, and Jakob Agat, a young leader of the colonists. Since the natives are truly aliens, separated long enough by time and perhaps by experiment from their ancient Hainish ancestors to have become almost a separate hominoid species, the love of Jakob and Rolery carries an onus of miscegenation in addition to the division between the two societies.
This star-crossed romance is brought about by a mistake. Jakob warns Rolery by mindspeech, or telepathy, when she is in danger of drowning in the incoming tide, even though telepathic contact with the natives is strictly forbidden. The initial contact establishes a bond between the two. They meet again when Jakob goes to Rolery's ancient father, Wold, to ask his aid in fighting the approaching Gaal hordes. Angry Tevarians see them meeting in a forest hut and attack Jakob, breaking off the uneasy truce he has engineered with Wold.
When the Gaal attack, Wold's village is destroyed, and the survivors seek refuge in the city of the farborn, or colonists, where Rolery is already Jakob's wife. Together, the two groups hold off the Gaal until the first winter storms put an end to fighting and the Gaal move south. During the fighting, the colonists discover themselves to be, for the first time, susceptible to infection. They have begun to adapt to their adopted world and may even prove able to interbreed with natives. Jakob and Rolery are the beginning of a new, vigorous, hybrid race.
Telepathy is again a metaphor for communion between unlike individuals. In the case of Jakob and Rolery it grows into love and the redemption of two societies. But mental powers, as in Rocannon's World, can be misused. The old farborn woman, Alla Pasfal, uses her psychic skills to overhear the thoughts of the Gaal. Misunderstanding what she hears, the colonists are unprepared for a last, devastating attack. To make communication into a one-sided thing, in which one ventures nothing oneself but only takes from others, is a major sin in Le Guin's universe, and it is duly punished. But to reach out, to take off one's mental armor before a stranger, is a heroic act that always results in some good. Planet of Exile contains a clearer statement than ever before of Le Guin's central theme that the "other" that one fears is really one's most important potential ally, because he or she, being different, has what one lacks. In Planet of Exile everything centers on Werel's long, violent year. Trees live a single season, specialized plants bloom between winter snows, birds and animals make long migrations, and people spend years preparing for the oncoming cold. Details are striking and plentiful. The reader finishes the book with a sense of having experienced that immense turning of the seasons.
Cultural details are also more carefully depicted than in the earlier novel. The proud half-empty city of the farborn and the winter camp of the natives are presented with equal care and compassion. The portrayal of both cultures is abetted by occasional looks from one to the other: one sees the farborn through the eyes of both Rolery and Wold, and one sees the scornful picture of native life held by many of the colonists. A scene such as the rock-pounding council of the natives is seen from the inside as a time-honored mainstay of tribal harmony and from the outside as a comically barbaric rite.
Characters, too, are strong in this work. Agat is much like Rocannon and equally attractive. Rolery is a woman in a culture that pays little attention to women, but it is her act of daring that sets events in motion and her endurance that saves Agat's life. She questions, experiments, adapts, and mediates between her people and the farborn. Wold, the old chieftain, is the most memorable of all. He is earthy, crafty, forgetful, and immensely dignified. A strong and rebellious warrior in youth, he is a wise leader in old age. He shares his people's prejudice against the farborn, but he rises above it in his dealings with individual colonists. Alone among his people he remembers the previous winter, and he is willing to drop pride and mistrust in the interests of survival.
The weaknesses in Planet of Exilehave to do with conflicts between plot and theme. There is considerable reduplication of adversaries: the Gaal, winter, and the grotesque snowghouls represent the same threat, and it is a threat imposed from outside, not one which grows from the acts and thoughts of the principal characters. Having an outside adversary is not necessarily a flaw, but it lessens the importance of the rapprochement of Earthman and alien. Planet of Exile is nevertheless an enjoyable story and might seem more satisfying if Le Guin had not shown in The Left Hand of Darknesswhat more could be done with the same materials.
One learns why the colony in Planet of Exile was cut off in Le Guin's next novel, City of Illusions . A hostile race called the Shing has conquered the League of All Worlds and taken Earth for the capital planet. Mankind on Earth exists in isolated pockets kept by their Shing overseers from making any real advancements or joining forces to share what knowledge is left to them. The book begins with a nameless amnesiac who appears mysteriously in the vast forests of occupied Earth. He is found by a young girl named Parth in the clearing near her forest home. Although he knows nothing, not even how to speak, he learns quickly from Parth and the other members of her small community. They name him Falk, meaning yellow, because of his strange golden eyes. When he has learned all that they can teach him, he decides to set out for Es Toch, the legendary city of the Shing, far away in the western mountains, to find out who he is.
Falk's quest is a journey toward his own maturation through a landscape that complements the stages of his growth. His path leads from the simplicity of the forest to the savagery of the prairies to the unexpected sophistication of the desert to the uneasy civilization of the mountains. There is a hidden valley in the forest where animals speak, and where men are brutal because of their fears. Many of the groups and individuals he meets along the way are notable. An old man has isolated himself from other men because he is a powerful empath, one who reads feelings as a telepath reads thoughts, and he cannot stand the presence of so many emotions; he welcomes Falk, however, and gives him important information. A tribe of wandering herdsmen lives rigidly controlled lives of custom and taboo amid the boundless openness of the prairie. A woman, Estrel, is, like Falk, imprisoned by the herdsmen. They escape together, and she becomes his guide and lover. Ultimately she betrays him, as suggested by her unwillingness to return Falk's confidences or his physical passion. She manipulates him by playing the passive sexual object. The Prince of Kansas, an old man with some of the kingly madness of Othello or Lear, reads Falk's fortune on a device called a patterning frame. The picture of him working it strongly suggests fate or some god ordering the movements of the universe: "Turquoise shot to the left and a double link of polished bone set with garnets looped off to the right and down, while a fire-opal blazed for a moment in the dead center of the frame. Black, lean, strong hands flashed over the wires, playing with the jewels of life and death." Falk's fortune is read twice, on different patterning frames, and both times the yellow stone that represents him refuses to conform to any known pattern except the mystical configuration known as Vastness. Falk thus represents the unknown, the outsider who will break the deformed pattern imposed by the Shing upon the Earth.
Falk reaches his goal--the glass city of Es Toch--almost halfway through the book and then discovers that he has an equal mental and moral distance left to traverse. The Shing confuse him: they treat him with alternating roughness and concern; they lie and then refute their own lies; their city is made of glass, but the glass is murky so that nothing shows clearly through the floors, walls, and ceilings of its towers. They produce a boy who claims to be of Falk's people, like him a traveler from another world. They offer to restore Falk's memories, but say the operation will unavoidably destroy his personality, the self he has built up since he first appeared in the forest. They even tell him that there are no Shing: they are men, they say, maintaining a fiction for the benefit of other men, who would otherwise turn to warfare and destruction. Estrel may or may not be one of their agents. Falk must find his way through all these webs of half-truths and outright lies.
He decides to let them restore his former self, to trade his memories for those of Agad Ramarren, descendant of Jakob Agat of Planet of Exile, navigator for the first Werelian expedition to Earth. But he also plants a clue by which his old self might discover and incorporate the new. It is a clue so subtle that even the Shing will not detect it, merely a passage from the so-called Old Canon of man: "The way that can be gone / is not the eternal Way. / The name that can be named / is not the eternal Name." Falk meditates on that passage, which is Le Guin's adaptation of the opening of the Taoist book, Tao Te Ching, until it becomes so much a part of him, body and soul, that it might become a road for his return from the nothingness the Shing wish to cast him into. He succeeds--the memory carries across the imposed mental block--and two personalities, Falk and Ramarren, coexist in one brain. The combined knowledge and strengths of his two selves help him outwit the Shing, penetrate their lies, and escape. He sets out for his home planet, presumably to help prepare the way for ultimate victory over the Shing and the eventual establishment of a new and more humanely conceived League of All Worlds.
The great lie of the Shing, which Falk/Ramarren penetrates, is their one law: "It is wrong to take life." It is a lie because it pretends to be adequate and inflexible, because it denies conscience and moral complexity. The Shing allow themselves to cheat and mistreat mankind in any way short of causing death. As Falk comments, they made a law about killing because it is the only thing they really desire to do. The lie is accompanied by one great secret, hinted at by the old empath in the forest: the Shing are sterile. There are few of them and they cannot mate with humans. Their position is much like that of the colonists on Werel, except that those colonists finally reached across to their neighbors, mentally and physically, and were able thus to renew their race. The Shing cannot even communicate with mankind. They defeated the worlds of the League by their ability to mind-lie. No one else could tell a lie telepathically, and the League was built on that fact. But the Shing cannot send thoughts directly; they can only project what seem to be true thoughts. This inability, which they use as a weapon, is their tragedy. Lacking truth, they devote themselves to falsehood. Their culture emphasizes perversion; their architecture relies on illusion and disorientation. Falk, who vows as he sets out on his journey never to tell an untruth, is able to confound their lies with his trust.
Running counter to the law of the Shing is a theme that helps unify the novel despite its shifts in locale and its mazes of falsehood. It is the Way, the Tao. Falk is seeking his own Way, the path to his true nature, which cannot be guided by arbitrary rules like the Shing law. He carries with him a copy of the Old Canon when he begins his journey: it is stolen by the fearful men who capture him in the forest. The old empath is a Thurro-dowist--he lives his life according to Taoist teachings augmented with Henry David Thoreau 's Walden (1854), the Younger Canon. The Prince of Kansas gives Falk another copy of the Tao Te Ching to replace the one he lost, and it is that copy which enables him to retain his personality.
Earlier sections of the book reveal Le Guin's growing authority over her material. The forest is deftly, quickly built up with relatively few images. It already carries the connotations of sleep, dream, and the origins of things, which will become important in later stories about forests. The physical setting throughout seems solid and alive, as if Le Guin were taking real pleasure in exploring an unspoiled America. Emotional relationships take on new complexity in this novel. The Prince of Kansas is a minor character but an impressive one: his section is as packed with implication as a poem. Language is generally used more tellingly than in earlier works with less feeling of ornamentation, more of conviction. Symbols develop unobtrusively and are picked up later for further investigation in such a way that one would never suspect them of having been purposefully planted. As Falk journeys down the Ohio River, for instance, he encounters an illusion of a boating party from a long-vanished city. He is invited to return with the members but fears some trap; the illusion may have been produced by the Shing. But the promise in his mind, the image of a thriving human city, helps him later to reject Es Toch because it is not a true, living city. Perhaps no true city exists any more, but he knows what one would be like. The image expands beyond its original context in an unexpected direction and enriches the story without ever seeming to impose itself upon the reader.
Each of these first three novels holds out the promise of better work to come. In The Left Hand of Darkness their individual strengths--the interplay of legend and science in Rocannon's World, the clash of cultures in Planet of Exile, the controlled use of symbolism and its ethical base in City of Illusion--are combined and the promise fulfilled. In The Left Hand of Darkness, one immediately becomes aware of the presence of an individualized narrator. Le Guin's previous books were all narrated anonymously by someone outside the story. The narrator of The Left Hand of Darkness is also its protagonist, Genly Ai, a native of Earth sent to a planet called Winter or Gethen. Ai is the lone envoy of a post-League organization, the Ekumen, which is not so much a political body as an idea and a hope of free commerce and communication among far-flung worlds. The Ekumen has mystical overtones reminiscent of the Instrumentality of Man in the novels and stories of Cordwainer Smith , who is one of the few science-fiction writers Le Guin acknowledges as an influence. Genly Ai comes alone to Gethen bearing the message to its natives that they are not alone in the universe, that there is a family of similar worlds which they are invited to join. He is alone because a lone alien will generate curiosity without triggering fear, but behind him stands a wise and benevolent organization that has learned from the mistakes of its predecessor and from the conflict with the Shing. He is an apostle of the gospel of peaceful interdependence.
Genly Ai is not old, wise, and experienced. He is young, fervent, and often mistaken in his judgments of people and events. He is telling a story that is still very close to him and still painful, and he resorts to a rich variety of methods to tell it. Into his narrative he pulls reports by previous Ekumenical observers, recorded myths and legends from different parts of Gethen, and the diaries of his principal ally, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, who he does not even know is an ally until late in the story.
The story is Ai's own report to the Ekumen, but it is no impersonal listing of contacts and treaties. The Ekumen would not be satisfied by that sort of thing, nor would Ai consider it sufficient. He says, at the outset, "I'll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling: like that singular organic jewel of our seas, which grows brighter as one woman wears it and, worn by another, dulls and goes to dust." Le Guin makes good use of her narrator and of his complex relationship with the events he is recounting. He is sensitive enough to allow her to display her gifts for description and metaphoric analysis; he is fallible enough to generate considerable tension through gaps in understanding; and he is deeply enough involved in the story to lend it tremendous emotional weight.
An important aspect of the book is the culture in which it is set. The story begins with a parade, an exotic, colorful ritual surviving from Gethen's distant past. Pomp and panoply indicate the presence of aristocracy, and the heavy clothing of the participants indicates a cold climate. There is no military aspect to this parade; instead of soldiers there are merchants, lords, and entertainers. The cars in the parade are electric, one discovers later. This is no backward world to be conquered or raised up by civilized invaders, nor is it a mechanistic wonderland. Instead of either of these clichés, it is a culture approximately on a level with our own, a rarity in science fiction. Gethen, or this particular part of it, Karhide, is a monarchy, and the purpose of the parade is to accompany the king to the dedication of a new bridge. Ai's talk with his neighbors at the ceremony contains little details that begin to fix Karhide in the reader's mind. More of the capital city of Erhenrang is seen as Ai returns to his home, and more is learned about its climate, history, and social organization. An unfamiliar word appears in passing--"kemmer"--and then a related form, "kemmering." Ai goes to dinner at Estraven's home, and only then is the important fact about Gethen revealed: its people are neither men nor women. They are androgynes, sexless except for their periods of sexual potency--kemmer--during which they make take on the characteristics of either gender. This phenomenon is further explained by a Karhidish tale about two "brothers," one of whom bears the other's child. Gethenians are androgynous, a fact no more startling to them than the fact that they have two ears and only one nose. Ai has been among them long enough that he partially shares their view and begins to feel like a freak himself. The Gethenian sexual arrangement does not become the central issue of the story but develops into an effective vehicle for exploring the implications of sexual differentiation. It is a part, though not usually the commanding element, of every institution in Karhide.
The dominant influence upon Gethen is its climate. The physical environment becomes a third noticeable feature, after narrator and culture. Gethen is cold, even in the tropics; elsewhere there is nothing but ice fields and volcanoes. Life is marginal, and because of the cold, change is slow. Time-tested traditions survive into the machine age virtually intact. People dress in furs, travel cautiously, gather together in great communal dwellings, eat much and often, conserve every resource. They have innumerable words for ice, fog, and snow. Feuds are common, but full-scale warfare is unknown--though the novel suggests that this may be due to a lack of masculine aggressiveness. As the story progresses, its background of cold and ice intensifies until at the climax there is nothing in sight but two people and a sled on an immense field of ice. Le Guin says she conceived the book starting with that image. It is a mark of her virtuosity that the wealth of detail in the first half of the book gives way smoothly and naturally to the starkness of the second.
Two themes carry over from Planet of Exile. One is winter as a commanding force in men's lives and a symbol of all that is implacable in nature. The other is the companionship that can spring up between strangers in the face of such a mindless enemy as cold. Like the earlier book, The Left Hand of Darkness, it is in large part a love story. This, however, is a love born in mistrust, crossed not by the stars but by the protagonists' prior loyalties and preconceptions. The love between Genly Ai and Estraven, prime minister of Karhide, is subtler, more mature, and less easily fulfilled than that of Jakob Agat and Rolery. For Estraven, it grows out of a recognition, in the Ekumen, of the values he has spent his political career fostering: from this recognition evolves a personal attachment to the Ekumen's envoy. For Ai, Estraven represents everything he finds most disturbing about Karhide. Estraven is a master at the intricacies of prestige that dominate Karhidish society. He is powerful and proud, yet through the eyes of Ai, who insists on trying to view Gethenians as men, he is womanish. Only when these two are isolated on the great ice field are they able to reconcile Ai's blunt hastiness and the ambiguities that underlie Estraven's character. Even so, their love stops short of complete commitment. They avoid the sexual contact that is theoretically possible between them, although Ai comes to terms with Estraven's androgyny when the latter enters kemmer in the female phase, responding to Ai's permanent masculinity. Their true consummation is through mindspeech, which is previously unknown on Gethen. Even that pure form of communication is troubled between them, because Estraven "hears" Ai's telepathic speech in the voice of his long-dead brother and lover.
Le Guin's customary storytelling format, the journey of discovery, takes two forms corresponding to the two parts of the book. In the first half of the book, the Envoy travels around Karhide and into the other large region of the Gethenian Great Continent, Orgoreyn. His discoveries are primarily cultural ones, as Le Guin explores the ramifications of her major postulates, ambisexuality and an ice age. The first half of the book exposes a wealth of supportive detail that brings the world of Gethen to life. Slow, silent electric cars that crawl over mountain ranges; a plump, chatty "landlady" who shows strangers into the Envoy's room for a small fee; a glimpse of a sort of monastery perched on seemingly inaccessible cliffs; an ancient city whose streets are tunnels because of the ever-present snow; a religion that praises all things incomplete and uncertain; a ritual that seems to foretell the future accurately but also shows how useless it is to mankind to know the future; tragic tales; icy myths; and blood-colored palaces--all these contribute to our sense of Karhide and its way of life. Orgoreyn has a different set of cultural clues: great, smelly fish warehouses; enormous banquets of bland food and fierce liquor; luxuries unknown in Karhide, like hot showers; secret police and endless piles of paperwork; and prison camps out in the vast western forest of the country. Orgoreyn is clearly modeled on Stalinist Russia, which leads many critics to assume Karhide to be America, as if the two were the only possible counterpoints to one another. In this case, however, the choices are a centralized and seemingly efficient but highly oppressive bureaucracy and a disorganized and illogical but essentially humane tribalism. Karhide is the more attractive not because it reflects our own way of life but because it retains values that American and Soviet societies tend to push aside: harmony with nature, unlimited hospitality, continuity with the past, social grace, and inner tranquility. These are Asian values, and the primary religion of Karhide, Handdara, blends aspects of Taoism and Zen. The rival religion of Orgoreyn, Yomesh, is more like Christianity or Islam, that is, an activist faith based on revelation.
The second half of the book recounts Genly Ai's rescue by Estraven from an Orgota prison camp and their flight over the glaciers back to Karhide. During this time Ai begins to absorb everything that he has observed on Gethen and to relate it to himself. Against the blank background of ice and snow, Gethen and the Ekumen meet and merge in the persons of Ai and Estraven. We are given to understand that this is what the Ekumen is, a meeting face to face or mind to mind of unlike individuals, like a marriage on a grand scale.
From this elevated conception of human interaction, Le Guin jumps, in her next science-fiction stories, back down the scale of social evolution to the troublesome near future. The Lathe of Heaven (1971) takes place on Earth in the twenty-first century and concerns a man, George Orr, who changes the Earth without the knowledge of anyone except the other two main characters. He does so by dreaming. For reasons unknown and unimaginable, certain of George's dreams change the fabric of existence; furthermore, they do so retroactively, so that unless one is aware of the dream as it occurs, one's memory is changed along with everything else. The dream, as George says, hides its traces.
This capacity to change things disturbs George. He is content with the world as it is, with adapting himself to reality rather than wrenching reality to fit his expectations. In an effort to suppress his dreams he resorts to sedatives, and that results in his being assigned to a government-affiliated psychologist, Dr. Haber. Dr. Haber is also a researcher, a specialist in dreams, and he is excited by the strange wave patterns generated by George's sleeping brain. He does not admit to himself that he believes George's story, but he begins using the dreams to bring about specific changes, giving George hypnotic suggestions about their content. He has George reduce population, alter weather patterns, and give him, Haber, the directorship of a large dream-study institute. George is alarmed; he is now upsetting things more than he had been on his own. Haber will neither acknowledge his power nor stop taking advantage of it. George enlists the aid of a lawyer, a skeptical young woman named Heather Lelache. She observes a dream session with Haber and feels the change as it occurs, though Haber half convinces her that nothing has happened. In the end it takes George, Heather, and some improbable turtlelike aliens dreamed up by George to overcome Haber and let the Earth return to its own course.
The Lathe of Heaven is rare among Le Guin stories in that it is not cast in the form of a journey. Instead it revolves around the interactions of three main characters, George, Heather, and Dr. Haber. It almost seems, for a while, like a tug of war between Heather and Haber, with George as the rope, but the reader realizes eventually that George, passive as he seems, is the strongest of the three. He is more like the fulcrum on which the other two rock back and forth. The power Dr. Haber seems to have is only what George lends him, and Heather, under a mask of cold efficiency, is frightened and insecure and needs George's quiet confidence.
Each character has a role to play, and each role is matched by the character's name. George Orr is the dreamer and the adjudicator. He lives among possibilities; he poises on the either-or's. He is the Tao personified: one who accepts and loves, who welcomes whatever occurs and is never overwhelmed. Both of the other characters see him as weak at first, but Heather later finds integrity in him. His power is somehow related to his inner peace: he is so sure of himself that the world accommodates itself to his dreams.
Haber is the manipulator. His name (English "haver," one who has; Latin "havere," to have) suggests possessiveness, the will to have or control. He is a caricature of the Judeo-Christian tradition of striving toward progress. He wishes to move forward without knowing where he stands. Whereas Orr is a solid block of wood, Haber is compared to an onion--all slippery layers, with no core. He has walled off his conscious mind from his unconscious; the rationality of the former serves only to disguise the blind desires of the latter. He is so out of touch with his motivations that he never realizes he is lying to George or to himself. In the end, when he has learned to duplicate George's gift, his hidden self breaks through and nearly plunges the world into a permanent nightmare.
Heather Lelache is the coward. (That is what le lâche means in French.) Coward, however, is more her self-assessment than fact. The mask she has built up for herself, that of a hard-edged, ambitious, calculating spider-woman (she also calls herself the Black Widow) does enable her to take action, to help George when he needs help. She has the courage to believe George, to stand beside him, and, when necessary, to let herself draw on his strength.
The book follows the shifting relationships among these three people, which are further complicated by the successive reality shifts caused by George's dreams. These changes are never exactly what Haber intends them to be: George's unconscious mind always throws in unexpected elements without disobeying instructions. Like wishes in many traditional fairy tales, George's dreams have their own logic and proportion that defy control by an outsider. They cannot be dictated to: there is always an unexpected penalty with every boon. Population is reduced, but at the expense of a devastating worldwide plague. War ends on Earth, but only because aliens attack from outer space. Racial strife stops, but at the loss of all variation among mankind. Everyone is gray. During this sequence Heather, who is black, disappears briefly, then reappears with much of her personality gone along with her color. George, the arbitrator, assigns the cost of every change, and as the designs get more grandiose the penalties grow more severe.
A summary of The Lathe of Heaven does not reveal the wry humor running through it. Much of what happens is rather grim: people are crowded and unhappy before Haber takes command and oppressed and unhappy afterward, but Orr's cheerfulness saves the book from too much darkness. Some of the humor consists of inside jokes about its setting, and some of it comes from the characters' self-appraisals. The aliens that appear either from the depths of space or from the equally obscure depths of George's unconscious are indubitably comical. They look like giant sea turtles and talk in mangled English peppered with quotations and platitudes. They are also connected with one of the most beautiful images developed in the book, one associating sleep with the ocean: the waking mind is compared in the opening passage to a jellyfish drifting onto a rocky shore. The aliens are creatures who live in a state closer to dream than to waking life; the universe of dream is their native habitat. And in that universe they are no longer comical and awkward. George dreams of them, near the end of the book: "His dreams, like waves of the deep sea far from any shore, came and went, rose and fell, profound and harmless, breaking nowhere, changing nothing. Through his sleep the great, green sea turtles dived, swimming with heavy inexhaustible grace through the depths, in their element."
Le Guin's "discovery" of Earthsea began with her story about a wizard, "The Word of Unbinding," published in Fantastic in 1964. A later story, "The Rule of Names," developed both the islands of Earthsea and the rules of its magic and introduced a dragon. In 1967 Herman Schein, publisher of Parnassus Press in Berkeley, California, wanted to branch out from the young juvenile market and asked Le Guin to write a book for older children. Schein gave her complete freedom of subject and approach. Le Guin returned to the imaginary islands of Earthsea she had discovered and wrote A Wizard of Earthsea, which was published in 1968. The second volume of the Earthsea trilogy, The Tombs of Atuan, followed three years later. The Farthest Shore completed the series in 1972. Although each novel can be read independently, the same themes and images reverberate through all three, and they form a unit which is greater than the mere sum of the parts. Almost twenty years later, Le Guin returned to Earthsea with Tehanu (1990), technically turning Earthsea into a tetralogy. But because of Le Guin's development as a feminist, Tehanu becomes more of an answer or complement to the trilogy than merely a fourth book. Therefore, it may be useful to view the series as a trilogy plus one.
The trilogy covers the youth, young manhood, and old age of the Wizard Ged, who rises from goatherd to become Archmage of all Earthsea. Readers are told at the beginning of A Wizard of Earthsea that the hero will become famous in song and legend. He is a mythic hero, and the trilogy follows many of the traditional patterns of myth: the orphan hero of obscure origins, the early evidence of his great powers, the wizard who guides him, his struggle with inner demons, the quest, and the initiation whereby he is made whole and comes into full possession of his powers. Aside from the borrowings from standard myth, the trilogy shows a decided Jungian influence, which many critics have noted, though the author denies having read Carl Jung at that time. Le Guin's father was, for a while, a practicing psychoanalyst, and Jung's name was the four-letter word in the Kroeber household.
Other critics have mentioned the possible influences on the trilogy of Tolkien, George MacDonald , M. R. James , and C. S. Lewis 's fantasies. Le Guin creates a world without a deity, although magic exists, along with tremendous powers for good and evil. Hers is a modern, existential, humanistic universe where the weight of responsibility rests on the individual to act wisely, for by acting otherwise he can imperil the balance of the world. As Ged is taught at the school for wizards on Roke Island, "you must not change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow on that act.... To light a candle is to cast a shadow...." In the emphasis in the trilogy on balance--of good and evil, light and dark, life and death--many critics have seen the influence of Taoist notions of dynamic equilibrium, of the necessity for a balance of yin and yang.
The plot of A Wizard of Earthsea concerns the disastrous consequences of power used unwisely, disturbing the Equilibrium. Like the classic "sorcerer's apprentice," young Ged overreaches himself through pride and anger. While summoning up the spirits of the dead, he unleashes his own formless "shadow" and nearly dies from the encounter. Chastened, he completes his training; but once he leaves the protection of Roke, he is pursued across the world by the evil shadow. He is tempted twice to gain power over the shadow (that is, to learn its name) by allying himself with the forces of evil, but both times he refuses the temptation. Then his old mentor, the wizard Ogion, advises him to turn from hunted to hunter and seek out the shadow. After many adventures, he finally confronts the shadow on the open sea and calls it by its name: Ged, his own name. By accepting and embracing his dark side as part of himself, Ged is made whole and becomes a man.
What the child needs to grow up, Le Guin asserted in The Language of the Night, "is reality, the wholeness which exceeds all our virtue and all our vice. He needs knowledge; he needs self-knowledge. He needs to see himself and the shadow he casts. That is something he can face, his own shadow, and he can learn to control it and to be guided by it." Le Guin sees fantasy as a psychic and moral journey "to self-knowledge, to adulthood, to the light." The goal of that journey is psychic wholeness. A Wizard of Earthsea succeeds as myth, as moral allegory, and as vivid adventure story. It received the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award and was named an American Library Association Notable Book.
The Tombs of Atuan concerns a feminine coming of age to match the masculine one of A Wizard of Earthsea; it focuses on the rite of passage of the adolescent Tenar. Tenar had the misfortune to be born the same day the old Priestess of the Tombs of Atuan died and so was hailed as her reincarnation. She is taken away from her parents, given the new name of "Arha," or "The Eaten One," and raised to become the next Priestess. The place of the Tombs is an unchanging, sterile, desert environment where no men are allowed, only females and eunuchs. Everything is consecrated to the perverse worship of death and the "Nameless Ones," the dark powers who inhabit the Tombs and the immense underground Labyrinth. The first third of the novel deals with the childhood apprenticeship of Tenar in this gloomy place, where her natural humanity is suppressed.
The adventure begins when Tenar, now an adolescent Priestess, discovers a light in the Labyrinth. It is Ged, seeking the lost half of the ancient Ring of the wizard Erreth-Akbe. The Ring contained a lost Rune of Wholeness; once the two halves of the broken Ring are brought together, wholeness and good government can be restored to Earthsea, and the wars may cease. But Ged has defiled the holy place. As Priestess, it is Tenar's duty to have him put to death. Nevertheless, she becomes fascinated by this man and keeps him imprisoned instead, thereby earning the enmity of Kossil, the Priestess of the Godking, who has the power to destroy Tenar. Eventually, Ged wins Tenar over. He tells her her original name, so that she can be reborn as a whole human being, and entrusts her with the restored Ring (which serves as a symbolic wedding ring for the two). Finally they escape from the Labyrinth with the Ring. An earthquake swallows the Tombs and the Labyrinth, and the worship of death and evil is ended.
The novel resonates with image patterns of silence versus sound, dark versus light, and death versus life. For example, Ged tells Tenar, "You were never made for cruelty and darkness; you were made to hold light, as a lamp burning holds and gives its light." Once again, Le Guin emphasizes the need for balance: darkness must be recognized and accepted as a part of the whole, but it must not be allowed to overwhelm the balance. The dark powers "should not be denied nor forgotten, but neither should they be worshipped. The Earth is beautiful, and bright, and dark, and cruel.... There are sharks in the sea, and there is cruelty in men's eyes. And where men worship these things and abase themselves before them, there evil breeds.... They exist. But they are not your Masters." The Tombs of Atuan was a Newbery Honor Book and was nominated for the National Book Award for Children's Literature.
The Farthest Shore , a novel of epic scope, brings the trilogy to an exciting conclusion. It won the National Book Award for children's literature. If A Wizard of Earthsea concerns balance and wholeness on the individual level and The Tombs of Atuan concerns the union of two people, then The Farthest Shore extends the concern with Equilibrium to the entire cosmos. The Tombs of Atuan deals with the imbalance caused by worshiping death over life; The Farthest Shore shows the imbalance created by worshipping life over death.
As the novel opens, there is trouble in Earthsea, signified by ominous signs such as wizards forgetting their craft. Prince Arren of Enlad is sent by his father as a messenger to the Archmage Ged on Roke Island to inform him of the trouble in their region. Ged decides to go on a quest to find the source of the rapidly spreading decline, and he invites young Arren to accompany him. They sail first to Hort, a town with no laws or rulers. There Arren is sold into slavery and rescued by Ged. Next they travel to Lorbanery, an island of weavers who no longer weave. After Ged is wounded in a savage attack by the islanders of Obehol, he and Arren drift in their boat until they are saved by "the children of the open sea," a tribe of gentle raft people. Yet the decline reaches even there; the singers forget the words to their songs.
Finally, the dragon Orm Embar leads Ged and Arren to the deserted island of Selidor, "the westernmost cape of all the lands, the end of the earth." There Ged meets the anti-King, the Unmaker, the cause of all the trouble: the renegade wizard Cob. Cob made a spell to open the gate between life and death, so that no one will ever die. But in defeating death, he destroyed the Equilibrium and also defeated life, causing it to lose its savor and reality, lack a center, and become a hollow void. To defeat Cob, Ged and Arren must descend into the kingdom of death itself. There Ged shuts the door between the worlds of life and death. Arren guides and carries the exhausted Ged over the Mountains of Pain back into life. A dragon returns them to Roke. Ged then disappears on the dragon's back, his great task of restoring the Equilibrium done and his wizardry ended. Arren is acclaimed King of all Earthsea, having fulfilled the prophecies about a ruler who would return from the land of death.
The relationship between Arren and Ged is reminiscent of that between young Arthur and Merlin; and Arren, like Arthur, wields a magic sword, fulfills the prophecies, and unites the land. Ged has come full circle in the trilogy, from the young apprentice to the master who must pass his wisdom on to the next generation. In Ged's training of Arren, Le Guin gives us the fullest exposition of the necessity to learn to keep the balance of contraries and to do only what is necessary: "On every act the balance of the whole depends.... we must learn to do what the leaf and the whale and the wind do of their own nature. We must learn to keep the balance. Having intelligence, we must not act in ignorance. Having choice, we must not act without responsibility." Only man, of all creatures on earth, is capable of evil. But "in our shame is our glory. Only our spirit, which is capable of evil, is capable of overcoming it."
The Earthsea trilogy is the sort of fantasy which teaches about reality and is appropriate for all ages. Because it draws on the powerful, archetypal patterns of myth, the stories have an inevitability and an ethical and psychological truth. Le Guin's only failing is an occasional preachiness; not content to let the action speak for itself, she must elucidate the moral. Nevertheless, the trilogy works both as high fantasy and realistic epic adventure. It establishes the patterns of initiation, fine style, and ethical concern that can be seen in all of Le Guin's books for children, which, while not on the scale of the trilogy, are nonetheless worthy achievements.
Even though Le Guin created in Tenar a strong and independent female presence, the trilogy has been criticized for not being feminist (or at least feminist enough). At the end of The Tombs of Atuan, Tenar realizes that all her knowledge and her skills as a priestess are useless. Because there is no role for her in Earthsea society, she chooses isolation in Gont. She does not even appear in the third volume. As Elizabeth Cummins observes, "Le Guin created a strong woman and then was unable to imagine an appropriate place for her in the hierarchical, male world" of Earthsea.
"I was a timid and conservative feminist at first," Le Guin says. "But there were milestones that helped. One was the publication of the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women . I read every word. It was terrific stuff and that was a revelation and a joy. We could write like women instead of honorary men." Her progress, in particular her developing feminist perspective on language, can be followed through her essays in The Language of the Night and Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places (1989).
It is Le Guin the mature woman writer who produces Tehanu. The balance restored at such cost at the end of the trilogy is gone. Ged, no longer a wizard, has been reduced to a goatherd, and no archmage has been found to replace him. Tenar, a middle-aged widow, can see the imbalance in her world, especially among the wizards themselves. As Holly Littlefield notes, "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." They cannot accept a prophecy concerning the new archmage because it mentions a woman. Therefore, Tenar keeps from them the knowledge that the one they seek is Therru, the badly burned and abandoned child Tenar has taken in. In what Le Guin subtitled "The Last Book of Earthsea," readers witness a reordering of power as its control shifts from adult males to a young girl. Craig and Diana Barrow conclude, "The series begins with the wizardry of men ... but ends with the wisdom of women." Their wisdom flows from their connection with dragons, the oldest and most powerful of creatures in Earthsea. Ogion tried to teach Tenar the words and spells of wizards, but the language of men is hard for her to speak, unlike the language of dragons which comes naturally to her. As power shifts in Earthsea, Tenar--as well as Le Guin--can speak as a woman, no longer as an honorary man.
When Le Guin returns to the Hainish universe in The Dispossessed , it is markedly different. The difference is reflected in the setting of the novel, both time and place. The time is early, long before the events of even Rocannon's World. There is no "ansible," no mindspeech. Technology is not much advanced from what we know today, although the people of Hain have interstellar spaceships. The place is a pair of planets known as the Cetian worlds. We have not heard much about these twin worlds before, only that they produced an advanced mathematical system which will subsequently be adopted by all other worlds, even the home planet of Hain. The Cetian worlds share a single orbit and each circles the other. They are like the Earth and the moon, only more equal; each is the other's moon. One world is lush and watery and is the home planet for the Cetians. The other is dry and spare, and was colonized many years before the story begins by a group of anarchists who hoped to create utopia.
The story has no alien beings, only men of various persuasions. It has no disguised magic, such as telepathy or precognition. Everything is slow, sober, down-to-earth. The writing verges on pure naturalistic reporting, except that the places being written about do not exist on Earth. When Le Guin wrote The Dispossessed, she was in the middle of her fantasy trilogy of Earthsea; all of her impulse toward magic seems to have gone into the latter and none into this story. But it is fuller than any other of her stories in character and in social and political interplay.
At the beginning of the book Shevek, the hero, is getting ready to leave his home planet, the colony world Anarres. It is the exact middle of his story. The second chapter returns to Shevek's childhood on Anarres. From there the chapters alternate, one on Anarres, taking Shevek toward the point of his departure, and then one on Urras, following his exploration of a new world and his eventual return home. Anarres is a harsh and ugly world. Most of it is barely habitable desert with no margin for elegance or much comfort. Everyone is occupied with survival. People work hard. For vacations from their regular work they work at something else. The code of behavior is very strict. Sexual standards are loose, but in other ways it is an almost puritanical place. The reforming fervor that launched the colony has settled down into moralistic conformity. Custom, as is often the case, proves more binding than law. But there is a certain joyfulness among the people of Anarres that grows out of a spirit of cooperation. Though no one has very much, no one is left out either. Men and women are treated equally: even their names are interchangeable, being randomly assigned at birth by a computer. All occupations carry equal dignity. There still remains from the old revolutionary impulse a sense of common cause. In addition, the fact that no one on Anarres owns anything begins to seem wonderfully liberating. There is a certain gypsy feeling that comes of having no "hostages to fortune." Le Guin captures the excitement of living in an ongoing experiment in freedom.
The experiment is based on the theories of a philosopher named Odo, whose life and ideas are modeled on such figures as Karl Marx and anarchists Emma Goldman and Peter Kropotkin. Odo proposed a society without laws or institutions, a society based on personal responsibility, on each member's recongnition of his own needs and the needs of others. Odo's theories inspired a number of people on Urras to reject every governmental and economic system offered to them. Soon after her death, a large group of her followers took up an offer by the State to be transported to the moon, that is, to Anarres. This move was designed to get those troublesome followers off the hands of the various Urrasti governments.
The Dispossessed is subtitled "An Ambiguous Utopia" because Anarres is both utopia and dystopia. However, Urras is also a mixture of the flawed and the ideal. The two worlds therefore each hold only half of the truth. Urras is a place of great beauty, vivid colors, and luxuriant life. There is inequality, but the poorest people are not much worse off than the people of Anarres. It is a world of variety. There are three main countries, corresponding approximately to our own capitalistic, communistic, and Third World nations. The reader discovers most about the capitalistic state. It has much elegance and beauty, but sharp social and sexual divisions. Shevek finds intolerable the fact that everything and everyone there is essentially owned by someone else. He is treated as a commodity, with all the respect given to a valuable object and none of the sensitivity owed to fellow men. The pampered, artificial women of Urras both fascinate and repel him. He sees little difference between the capitalistic and socialistic states. To an Odonian, as long as there is property it does not matter whether individuals or the state own it, and as long as there is a state, it does not matter how firm or lenient it is. Odonians consider socialism to be a betrayal of their own movement, a halfway gesture.
But, as Shevek discovers, there are freedoms on Urras which cannot be found on Anarres, values which Anarres has sacrificed along with property and government. Urras is rich not only in material things. It has a history which Anarres has cut itself off from. It allows a free play of ideas that is limited by the utilitarianism of a collective society. It is in communication with the rest of the universe, whereas Anarres has closed itself off for fear of contamination. On Urras, Shevek discovers the work of the Terran mathematician Ainsetain (Einstein). It provides him with the clues he needs to finish his theory of Simultaneity. With his completed theory and the technology of Urras, the ansible can be built. Instantaneous communication between worlds will allow for a League of All Worlds, just as mindspeech later offers the possibility of a greater union, the Ekumen.
On Anarres, in the alternate chapters, Shevek acts as the conscience of the Odonian revolution. He and his friends start an organization which they call the Syndicate of Initiative. Its main purposes are to publish the work of Shevek and other original thinkers who have not been able to convince the majority of its value, and to open communication with Urras after generations of isolation. On Urras Shevek is the messenger of freedom. In spite of the efforts of his official hosts to isolate him from the lower classes, who still hold some Odonian sentiments, he meets some rebels and partakes in a spontaneous rally against the government, or, more precisely, against Government. He is shot at, goes into hiding, and takes refuge at the Terran embassy. Neither world is comfortable with his presence, which indicates that both have need of him. When he makes his breakthrough and discovers the equations for Simultaneity, he also comes to a decision. He refuses to let Urras buy his ideas, and he refuses to let Anarres suppress them. The alternative is to give his equations away to all groups, all worlds, so that none can either keep them hidden or profit from them. He dispossesses himself. Then, with nothing to burden him, he goes home.
The political, economic, and mathematical aspects of The Dispossessed have occupied the attention of most readers of the book. But its thematic core is about a man throwing a rock over a wall. In the opening scene both rock and wall are physically present, but we do not know yet what they signify. More often they are there only as terms in analogies: Shevek is a rock; Anarres is a rock hanging in space; Shevek finds himself locked in or out of a room; his syndic breaches the wall of distance to open radio contact with Urras; and his theory of Simultaneity formulates in his mind as a picture of a rock perpetually approaching but never reaching its goal. The act of throwing a rock is a sign in the book for a refusal to accept boundaries. Even on Anarres walls are constantly springing up, and even an Odonian finds it difficult to pick up the rock and throw it. Shevek, who is to some degree based on Le Guin's childhood memories of the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, is the sort of individual every society tolerates most grudgingly and needs most desperately; he is a free and creative man. He cannot help picking up the rock: scientific curiosity will leave nothing unexamined. But to throw it is to call attention to oneself, to be labeled uncooperative, dangerous, a traitor. Le Guin says that even in utopia there are rocks to be thrown, social or mental boundaries to be crossed. That is a further refinement of her concept of heroism, and Shevek is the most fully realized and developed of her heroes.
Between The Dispossessed and The Eye of the Heron (1983), Le Guin concentrated her science-fiction efforts in short stories. The Wind's Twelve Quarters includes a few post-Dispossessed pieces, including a lovely, elegiac portrait of Odo called "The Day before the Revolution" (1974).
Le Guin is fond of forms that fall between the short story and the novel. One of her most widely reprinted short pieces, a story called "Nine Lives" (1969), was nominated for a Nebula Award in the novelette category. Another piece, included along with "Nine Lives" in The Wind's Twelve Quarters, is slightly longer: Le Guin jokes in her introduction about its deserving all too well the title "Vaster than Empires and More Slow." "The Word for World Is Forest," which first appeared in Harlan Ellison 's anthology Again, Dangerous Visions in 1972, came out in a volume by itself four years later. In these middle-length fictions Le Guin tends to come out more strongly on issues that concern her than in short stories, which do not allow for sufficient development, or in novels, which require a fuller and therefore more equivocal treatment of theme.
Aside from "Nine Lives," a fairly straightforward story on cloning, these novelettes and novellas are a disturbing group. "Vaster than Empires and More Slow" is troubling because of its characters, who are all psychological misfits. The story concerns an expedition, very early in League history, to the far reaches of the galaxy. The trip is to be long and quite possibly fruitless. If the members return at all they will be faced with a time gap of hundreds of years due to the speed of their ship. Only maladjusted people volunteer for such an expedition: people seeking escape from the complexities of normal society.
The cast of the story is not only an odd one, but it is singularly unattractive, or at least seems so at first. One expedition member who particularly irritates his fellow travelers and the reader is Osden. He is defensive, egotistical, and sarcastic. He is also sensitive not only to human emotions but to those of any sentient being. He feels the hostility of those around him and feeds it with his offensive behavior, bringing out the worst in everyone else. Even the most sympathetic character, the commander Haito Tomiko, is angry and destructive around Osden. The least engaging character, Porlock, is a quivering slob, a blend, as the name suggests, of Philip Roth 's Portnoy and H. G. Wells 's Morlock. The atmosphere aboard ship is one of profound unease, and the tension increases when they land on the first planet on their path.
The world they encounter is an all-vegetable one: trees, grasses, shrubs in profusion, but nothing mobile, no foragers or grazers or predators. The explorers see furtive shapes in the shadows, though there should be none; their fear intensifies when Osden is mysteriously attacked (by Porlock, it turns out). Osden finally realizes that the planet's biosphere is one sentient organism, connected by nervelike roots just below the surface. The fear they feel is the forest's fear of them, the invaders. He breaks through the fear and enters into communication with the great green being. While the others depart, he remains behind, having found a companion who does not fear or pity him.
Most of the story is disconcerting and the descriptions harsh. The early League years seem to be, for Le Guin, a time of trouble and misunderstanding. But the forest world encountered by the explorers, much as they fear it, is a thing of great beauty. It grows in the reader's mind until it finally overpowers the rest of the story. At the end there is a vision of timeless peace, as Osden shares the forest's perception of light, growth, and wholeness.
The Word for World Is Forest carries over the same picture of a world of unbroken greenery, the Garden of Eden before the Fall. This time inhabitants share the peace of the forest: small greenish men of Hainish stock, hunters and food gatherers living in harmony with the forest. These people are dreamers, able to induce a dream state while they are awake and to control it. They live among visions, and the visions keep them sane and whole. The story could have been a charming study of these people who lived amid shadows--forest shadows and dream shadows. But into this setting comes an echo of the author's times: war in Vietnam, exploitation of resources, dominance of one racial or cultural group by another more powerful. The clash between peaceful natives and brutal Terran colonists results in a story that seems, in contrast with Le Guin's usual elegance, raw, fierce, and ungoverned.
The apexes of this story are Lyubov, a Terran scientist; Davidson, a military leader; and Selver, a native. Lyubov is a typical Le Guin hero, with a twist. He respects the natives, is intrigued by their culture, and tries to protect them against the abuses of the colonists, but he is weak. Davidson, on the other hand, is strong but, in Le Guin's view, quite mad. He represents Le Guin's attempt to get inside the masculine-dominant mind. He views this world the way he views women, as a conquest. Natives are work animals, their women a temporary substitute for women of his own species. He and most of the other men in the colony call them Creechies, evidently a corruption of "creatures." Selver is a leader among the natives, Athsheans, as they call themselves. Bullied and humiliated by the Terrans, neither he nor any other Athshean has put up resistance until his wife is raped by Davidson and dies. Then the deep pacifism of his culture gives way to the realization that Terrans will not treat Athsheans as fellow men and therefore cannot be treated as such. Selver becomes possessed of a new vision, the possibility of violence. He becomes, in Athshean terms, a god: one who translates a heretofore unknown dream or vision into action. In leading an Athshean uprising, Selver loses the balance of dream and waking that keeps his people sane. He is nearly overcome by the vision of murder that fills him, but escapes it in the end, aided by the dream self of his murdered friend Lyubov.
Davidson finds no such escape. His private war with the Creechies escalates even after his people have surrendered to them. He had made the wrong decision long before to treat all Others as if they did not matter. Everything unlike himself--which ultimately comes to include everything--is a thing to be utilized for his benefit. This decision leads him on a course with no retreat. He can only respond to gentleness with scorn and to resistance with savagery. He must "teach them a lesson" and "save his honor." There is no compromise. Selver is wiser. He twice decides not to kill Davidson when he has the opportunity. Davidson is ultimately exiled to an island which he and his exploiters have made into a desert. The Terrans abandon their colony. Unlike most Le Guin stories, this one ends with no meeting of strangers, only a bitter lesson learned on both sides and the hope of a reconciliation between the two peoples in some distant future.
Very Far Away from Anywhere Else (1976) is a rare Le Guin try at straight realism. It was named an American Library Association Notable Book for Young Adults. This contemporary love story about two adolescents is Le Guin's first attempt to deal in fiction with the problems of adolescent sexuality. Central characters Owen Griffin and Natalie Field are teenagers in their senior year of high school, both extremely bright--he wants to be a scientist, she a composer--and consequently both misfits and loners in the local school, although Natalie is more self-confident and better adjusted than Owen. They are drawn together out of loneliness. Natalie has the confident assertiveness Owen lacks, and Owen has a sense of humor that brightens Natalie's severe, disciplined existence. They become best friends because they can understand and talk to each other. Problems arise when sex intrudes on their relationship, because neither is ready for it yet. Natalie kindly but firmly rejects Owen's blunt sexual aggression. Distraught, Owen drives recklessly, and his car turns over on a curve. After he recovers from the accident, he finally stops being childishly angry at Natalie, and they are reunited. In the end, as they go off to separate colleges, it seems likely they will remain friends and may one day mature into lovers. Meanwhile, both have grown and learned about life and themselves from the relationship. Owen learns to stop being scared of life, to accept himself as he is and thereby to accept others. Like all Le Guin's fiction, Very Far Away from Anywhere Else concerns the painful effort involved in becoming a whole human being.
Orsinian Tales (1976), eleven stories set in an imaginary Eastern European country, shows Le Guin venturing into mainstream fiction. Composed before and during her work on the Hainish novels and the Earthsea trilogy, they retain techniques from her other works, such as the circular journey and the blending of fantasy and realism. James W. Bittner (Science-Fiction Studies, November 1978) identifies their theme as the certainty of human relationships amid the fluidity of everything else--politics, geography, psychology, morality. As such, they are "acts of the imagination that transform the calamity of history that is central Europe into a celebration of the individual's ability to survive bad times." "Imaginary Countries," the last story, forms the chronological center of the collection. This distinctively autobiographical tale includes a young girl who tries to trap unicorns and pretends to be various mythological characters. The other stories range in time from 1150 to 1965, yet each, says critic Charlotte Spivack, "presents a moral turning point in the lives of its principal characters.... Love for another often proves to be the road to freedom." Concluding in typical Le Guin fashion, most end at a beginning place, "essentially a prologue to an unknown future."
Malafrena (1979), an historical romance, is also set in Orsinia, between 1820 and 1830. Itale Sorde, a young political revolutionary, leaves his country estate for the city to fight for freedom. After establishing himself in work (editing a liberal journal), friendship (with a long-admired writer), and love (with the baroness Luisa), he is imprisoned for two years. Between the accounts of Itale's successes and trials in the city, Le Guin tells the stories of his friends and family in the country. Eventually freed with Luisa's help, Itale goes back to Malafrena a broken man, only to find a beginning place in his return. Using the circular journey to explore her coming-of-age theme, Le Guin shows again that it is the certainties in relationships--friendship, integrity, love, fidelity--that are important.
Leese Webster (1979), a fiction for juveniles, is a charming, wise little story about a spider. The delicate line drawings by illustrator James Brunsman, in black against a gold background, are appropriate for the intricate spiderwebs Leese weaves. Le Guin uses images of spiders, webs, and weaving throughout her works, with both positive and negative connotations, so this story is a logical extension of the concerns of the rest of her fiction. Moreover, little children can often identify with spiders, who are like children in certain positive ways: small, persistent, industrious, creative, and beneficial.
Leese Webster is a spider born in a deserted palace. She grows up alone, in the bedroom of a princess. At first, Leese spins her family's traditional webs, but then she begins to experiment with new patterns. Not all her experiments succeed, but she tries copying the patterns she sees around her in the paintings and carpets. The other spiders either ignore her webs or dismiss them as a waste of time. Nevertheless, Leese persists and begins creating successful original designs. But no matter how hard she tries, her webs are grey and cannot approach the beauty she remembers of the jewels on the throne, which had light inside them.
When the palace is cleaned to be made into a museum, Leese's webs amaze the authorities, who preserve them behind glass. Leese is saved by a cleaning lady, who says, "Never kill a spider.... It's bad luck," and drops Leese out the window. Leese's long plunge into the garden outside is traumatic, and she imagines herself to be dead. But it proves instead to be a rebirth into a marvelous new world. The stars appear to her like the jewels in the throne room. Flies are plentiful, so Leese no longer goes hungry. Best of all, Leese achieves her highest goal as an artist, for the light of sunrise on the dewdrops clinging to her webs makes them shine "brighter than the jewels of the throne, brighter even than the stars." While the tourists admire her weavings inside the palace, Leese is happy with her "wild webs" outdoors, "shining with the jewels of the sun."
The story shows Le Guin's style, with its clarity and natural patterns of imagery, at its best. And though Le Guin omits the usual moralizing, the message of the story is nevertheless clear: it is a parable about the artist and her craft. It implies that the artist may suffer loneliness, neglect, and even ridicule, but it is worth persevering. The artist must constantly experiment to grow, even if those experiments do not always work. Leese triumphs through talent, hard work, and persistence. The final message of the story is that nature itself is the greatest work of art and that our own creations will shine brightest not as they copy other man-made things but as they approach the status of natural artifacts. Though the child reader may not register all these messages consciously, she will be encouraged by the story of Leese to persist in her own creative efforts, knowing that, although the rewards may be slow in coming, the effort is worthwhile in terms of self-fulfillment.
Le Guin's other books for young children include The Adventure of Cobbler's Rune (1982), Solomon Leviathan's Nine Hundred and Thirty-First Trip around the World (1983), A Visit from Dr. Katz (1988), Fire and Stone (1989), Fish Soup (1992), A Ride on the Red Mare's Back (1992), and the Catwings series: Catwings (1988), Catwings Return (1989), and Wonderful Alexander and the Catwings (1994). Fire and Stone, a picture book, tells the story of a town terrorized by a dragon. When the dragon attacks, the townspeople hide in a pond. Two children cannot flee because they are physically different, so they hear what the dragon says when it flies over, and thus they are able to rescue the town. Fish Soup also addresses differences, but in a preachier fashion for older juvenile readers. The neat Thinking Man and the messy Writing Woman must learn balance; and the clear moral of the story is to expect more of girls and demand less of boys.
On a visit to Sweden, Le Guin acquired a Dalarna horse, a small carved wooden horse that has become a symbol of the country. She learned much of the history of the carved horses but could find no legend behind them. So she created one: A Ride on the Red Mare's Back . In it she combines typical Scandinavian fairy tale elements with feminist touches. In the dark winter of the North, a father takes his son out to teach him to hunt, but the boy is kidnapped by trolls. His older sister sets out to rescue him, taking a piece of her mother's good bread, the scarf she has knitted for her brother, and her only toy--a carved red mare with painted bridle. When she is attacked by the troll under the bridge, she bribes him with the bread, and her toy becomes a real (although talking) horse, just for that one night. Together, the girl and the red mare rescue the boy (who enjoys misbehaving and doesn't want to come home). As a reward, the father carves the girl a colt for her red mare.
So far, Le Guin has written three books involving the Catwings. In the first, Catwings , after Mrs. Jane Tabby dreams of fleeing her dangerous, urban neighborhood, she gives birth to four kittens with wings. As soon as they can fly, she urges them to escape. After several difficulties getting along with other animals in the forest, the Catwings discover two farm children "with kind hands," finding a happy compromise between the city and the woods. In Catwings Return , two of the kittens, Harriet and James, decide to visit their mother. They find their way by the smell of garbage to "the narrowest, dirtiest alley in the oldest, poorest part of the city," just in time to see it demolished. They rescue a frightened, tiny black kitten also with wings and feed and wash it and teach it to fly. Mom, they discover, has a new home in a penthouse apartment with a kind old woman, so Harriet and James take the newest Catwing, Jane, back with them to the farm. Wonderful Alexander and the Catwings opens with a regular (i.e., wingless) kitten, Alexander Furby, living a posh life on a country estate. Attempting to live up to his epithet, "Wonderful," he goes exploring but ventures too far. After being chased by trucks and dogs and spending the night up a tree, he is rescued by Jane, the only Catwing who cannot talk. In gratitude for her help, Alexander encourages Jane to confront the fear (rats) that has kept her from talking. The delightful drawings in all three books keep Le Guin's environmental and psycho-sociological messages from becoming intrusive.
The Beginning Place (1980) is another story of adolescent maturation and love, almost a companion piece (although far superior) to Very Far Away from Anywhere Else. Once again, male and female adolescent misfits find companionship, love, and maturity together. Here, however, Le Guin creates a unique blending of realism and romantic fantasy. Her teenage hero and heroine escape from homes which are not real homes and families which are not real families into a fantasy world, "a good place." She returns to the mythic quest mode of the Earthsea trilogy but goes further in showing the complementary relationship between the fantasy world and our so-called real world.
The central characters of The Beginning Place are Hugh Rogers and Irene Pannis. Hugh wants to attend college and become a librarian, but he has stayed at home because of his possessive mother and worked as a supermarket checker. He lives in a development named Kensington Heights: "To get to Oak Valley Road, he crossed Loma Linda Drive, Raleigh Drive, Pine View Place, turned onto Kensington Avenue, crossed Chelsea Oaks Road. There were no heights, no valleys, no Raleighs, no oaks." Finally, Hugh runs away from home and discovers in the woods at the outskirts of the city a gateway into a land of perpetual twilight. In that land he finds a town called Tembreabrezi, which exemplifies a pastoral, ordered, medieval form of existence.
Irene has left home because of a stepfather who makes sexual advances toward her, and she has been living with a couple who are in the process of breaking up. She has vowed never to fall in love, associating it only with the power to inflict pain. Years before Hugh does, she has discovered Tembreabrezi and made an alternate home there with a tranquil, totally accepting substitute family. She idolizes the master of the town; he is both father and lover to her, for he seems to offer "desire without terror ... love without effect, without penalty or pain. The only price was silence." But as she grows up, she finds it increasingly difficult to pass through the gateway.
When Irene discovers Hugh in Tembreabrezi, she resents him as an intruder on her secret land. However, the villagers hail Hugh as their long-awaited savior. The town has fallen under a curse: no one visits and the roads are closed. It all seems to be caused by some unnamed menace in the mountains. The Master tries to leave with Irene but cannot pass the borders of the town. Seeing his fear, Irene loses faith in him. Hugh accepts the sword of the lord of the region and agrees to slay the menace because he wants to help the people and he has fallen in love--ironically, not with Irene, but with Allia, the lord's daughter.
Hugh and Irene go into the mountains together to face the menace, just as Ged and Tenar threaded the Labyrinth hand in hand to restore wholeness to Earthsea. When Hugh finally slays the dragon, the act is vividly described in terms that suggest sexual intercourse and matricide. In a symbolic rebirth, the wounded Hugh is dragged out from under the dead creature by Irene. Together they find their way back to the city, where Hugh recovers from his wounds in a hospital. In a rather abrupt ending, Hugh's mother refuses to let him come home, so Hugh and Irene take an apartment and decide to make a life together. As she does in all her fiction, Le Guin emphasizes in The Beginning Place the need to accept the pain and suffering involved in growing up and falling in love.
The achievement of The Beginning Place is its vivid, detailed realism, which brings alive both the plastic suburb and the haunting twilight land and makes us believe in the possibility of crossing the threshold between the two. The "real" world and the "fantastic" one are coexisting and complementary: the people of Tembreabrezi need Hugh and Irene to save them, and the young couple in turn need Tembreabrezi so that they may find themselves and grow up. Le Guin's writing in The Beginning Place has her characteristic purity and clarity and is frequently lyrical. She shows an admirable new restraint in not spelling out her moral for the reader but allowing the story to speak for itself.
The Compass Rose (1982) is a collection of twenty short stories, some previously published separately. In her preface, Le Guin says of the collection, "This is the compass in four dimensions, spatial, temporal, material, and spiritual, the Rose of the New World ... the stories it contains tend to go off each in its own direction.... Within it, various circling motions may be seen.... It gives rise to apparent excursions outward which are in fact incursions inward." She includes one more Orsinian tale and several humorous stories, such as "SQ"--in which a secretary is left running the world after almost everyone else has failed the sanity quotient test--and "Intracom"--a satire of Star Trek.
Others take for their theme miscommunication, such as "Mazes," in which a behavioral scientist fails to understand the sophisticated physical language of the animal under study, and "The Eye Altering," in which colonists on a new world mistake adaptive mutations for illness. "The Author of the Acacia Seeds and Other Extracts from the Journal of Therolinguistics," "The Wife's Story," and "Mazes," are quirky experiments in points of view. The frequently anthologized "New Atlantis" and critically acclaimed "Diary of the Rose" (which won a 1976 Jupiter Award) both speak against oppressive, authoritarian government. "The Water Is Wide" ends with a character once again arriving at a beginning place.
"The New Atlantis," a dark, sardonic picture of life in a future America, is an illustration of the fact that oppression can come from any quarter, from free enterprise and the American Way as surely as from any "ism." The heroine of "The New Atlantis" is a violist in Portland not too far--maybe twenty years, maybe a hundred--in the future. Her husband, a physicist, has just been released from a Rehabilitation Camp, really a concentration camp for radicals, intellectuals, and other groups deemed dangerous to the state. "The New Atlantis" shows the love between the musician, Belle, and the scientist, Simon, in a society where marriage is illegal and even fidelity is suspect. They survive illness, shortages of food and resources, and FBI surveillance, but when Simon and his friends discover a method of tapping solar energy directly, without expensive equipment, the government moves in and takes him away again.
Running throughout the story is a series of counterpoint passages, perhaps Belle's dreams, about a drowned continent and the beings who have begun to awaken as it starts to rise again. The reader is given no explanation of these passages, only the sensations of pressure and darkness giving way gradually to light and life. Other clues suggest that Belle may be in tune with the unknown Atlanteans. For instance, a man on a bus with her starts talking about rising and sinking continents, and although he tells her that it is all in the pamphlet he is reading, the pamphlet proves to be completely unrelated. Later, when she improvises on her viola, listeners in the next room have a vision of white towers rising from the sea. The underwater speakers tell of music that they hear as they rise: "the voices of the great souls, the great lives, the lonely ones, the voyagers."
Nothing is explained: who or what is in the New Atlantis, why the sea beds are rising and the continents sinking, what those have to do with Belle and Simon. The lack of clear connections is frustrating. It is not that the story seems meaningless: one gets a sense of purpose beyond human comprehension. The Atlanteans are waiting for some consummation, but it never comes. The story ends with their questions, "Where are you? We are here. Where have you gone?" People on the surface have failed to keep the appointment. Because Simon's discovery is suppressed or lost, civilization ends before the white towers break into the air. As in The Word for World Is Forest, there is no meeting. It is a sad and puzzling story, a story of squandered opportunity.
The Eye of the Heron first appeared in Millennial Women (1978), a collection of feminist science fiction edited by Virginia Kidd, before being published separately. Luz, the daughter of Boss Falco, lives in Victoria City on the planet Victoria, a dumping ground for undesirables from Earth. Begun as a penal colony, the society in Victoria City has developed as authoritarian, violent, and male-dominated. Outside the city is the town of Shantih, where the People of Peace, who were exiled from Earth for being pacifists, live. Inevitably, the two clash. The story describes Luz's development of self-identity, which she achieves at the cost of her family, her city, and the man she loves. But her story, too, ends at a beginning place.
Familiar images and ideas abound--cycles, journeys, coming of age. The heron, Spivack notes, is a sacred image in Taoism, signifying vigilance, quietness, and the ability to enter higher states of consciousness. Showing what happens when pacifists fight back, the novel thematically comes between The Dispossessed, with its pacifists who refuse to fight, and the psychology of war Le Guin presents in The Word for World Is Forest and Always Coming Home (1985). Spivack finds other similarities to The Word for World Is Forest: both incorporate effective nature symbols, yet in both worlds the good characters are unambiguously good and the bad have no redeeming qualities.
Le Guin sets Always Coming Home in a post-nuclear-holocaust future, but the book is more cultural anthropology than science fiction. It is the story of the peaceful Kesh or Valley people and the warrior Condor people who, as she says in her "First Note," "might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California." The narrator, Stone Telling, looks back over her life caught between the two cultures. Growing up with her Kesh mother, Stone Telling knows the Valley culture from the inside: pacifist, anarchist, matrilineal, free, with all members participating in decision making, where wealth is measured by how much one gives. As a young woman, she goes to live with her Condor father and discovers how different Condor culture is: patrilineal, highly structured and authoritarian, with strict divisions of labor and gender, violent (against man and nature), where wealth is measured by how much one has. Although she marries a Condor man and bears him a child, she never fits into Condor life, and with her father's help she returns with her daughter to the Kesh. Because she has family ties to both groups, no matter where she goes Stone Telling is always coming home. Because she feels different from those who are wholly Kesh or wholly Condor, she never fully arrives at home, remaining in the process of coming.
Le Guin fills Always Coming Home with familiar themes and images: circular journey, coming of age, definition of humanity (to the Condor, Kesh are animals), and identity through naming. Taoism informs the sets of opposing forces: male/female, authoritarian/anarchist, violent/pacifist, public/private, foreign/familiar, dystopia/utopia. Stone Telling's story is her lifelong attempt to achieve wholeness. Le Guin also seeks wholeness for her novel by blurring the line between fact and fiction: in addition to the samples of Kesh poetry, stories, drama, myths, legends, recipes, and alphabet and essays on dances, clothing, and time, the book comes with an audiotape of Kesh music.
Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences (1987) presents Le Guin as science-fiction writer, poet, humorist, literary critic, social critic, naturalist, feminist. This collection of eleven stories and twenty poems also includes introductions by the author. In the stories and in most of the poems, Le Guin asks (dares) readers to look at life from something other than a human perspective, to consider their relation to the animal, vegetable, and mineral presences with whom they share their world. Le Guin's only thematic collection, this book includes stories previously collected in The Wind's Twelve Quarters and The Compass Rose and several poems from Wild Angels (1975) and Hard Words (1981). The title story, which won a Hugo Award in 1988, concerns a young girl rescued from a plane crash by a coyote, who is in fact Coyote, the trickster. Through her literally and metaphorically altered vision, the girl comes to see all inhabitants of her world as people. In "May's Lion," Le Guin tells the same story twice, once as it was told to her by May herself and once as she translates it into a story from the Kesh. As she explains in her introduction, in this story she shows us how she transforms actual events into fiction. In the final story of this collection, Le Guin takes a new approach to a favorite topic, the significance of names, in "She Unnames Them."
In Searoad: The Chronicles of Klatsand (1991), Le Guin turns entirely to "mainstream" fiction. These twelve stories, ranging from two paragraphs to novella-length, are linked by their common setting--a small town on the Oregon coast--to form a feminist novel about self-sufficient women. Primarily through their relationships with other women as mothers and daughters, most of the characters discover their sometimes painful path from convention to personal freedom.
In 1993 Le Guin and Brian Attebery (with Karen Joy Fowler) edited The Norton Book of Science Fiction: North American Fiction, 1960-1990. It received mixed, sometimes harsh, reviews, especially for the editorial decision to represent well-known writers through lesser-known works. The reviews, such as Richard Erlich's in Extrapolation (Winter 1995), are worth reading because they cover such issues as canon formation in an increasingly respectable genre.
A Fisherman of the Inland Sea (1994) collects eight science-fiction stories. Some, such as "The First Contact with the Gorgonids" and "The Ascent of the North Face," Le Guin calls "silly stories." "The Shobies Story," "Dancing to Ganam," and the title story return readers to the familiar worlds of the Hainish. Le Guin also returns to familiar themes: delight in a rich mix of cultural interactions, discovery of the heroic in the unlikely, and emphasis on marginalized people. As usual, her "science" fiction leans more toward character than technology, but in this collection Le Guin explains the Churten Drive, the method of flight that replaces NAFAL propulsion. Thus she eliminates the long transit times between worlds, preventing a recurrence of the isolation in time as well as space that afflicted Ekumen envoys such as Genly Ai in The Left Hand of Darkness. As a show of Le Guin's stature as a popular writer, HarperCollins selected A Fisherman of the Inland Sea to launch its new imprint for science fiction and fantasy, HarperPrism.
The four novellas which make up Four Ways to Forgiveness (1995) were originally published separately, but they are clearly interconnected, much like the stories in Searoad. However, these novellas show Le Guin's development as a feminist from the men-bad/women-good divisions in Searoad to a mutual fallibility and respect between the sexes. In "Betrayals" Yoss, a physics teacher who retired to the marshes of Yeowe, and Abberkam, a former political leader wandering the marshes and talking to himself, have been betrayed by life. They have lost family to death or space travel, possessions to fire, pets to old age, honor to the corruption of power. When need brings them together, they find peace in their losses and discover reciprocal respect. "Forgiveness Day," winner of the 1995 Sturgeon Award for best short fiction, presents the story of Solly, an Ekumen Mobile who finds herself at odds with the owner-mentality of Werel and the stiff, professional major assigned to protect her. In "A Man of the People," Havzhiva leaves the routine of Hain for the danger of post-liberation Yeowe. Although sent as envoy for the Ekumen, he finds himself leading the fight to ensure that the free people of Yeowe include free women as well as free men. "A Woman's Liberation" charts the progress of Rakam from house slave and use-woman to educated freedwoman on Werel. When the government decides to alter the status of manumitted slaves, she stows away to Yeowe and joins the movement to include women as full members of the new society.
Le Guin concludes the book with "Notes on Werel and Yeowe," describing the people, the natural and political histories of the planets, the language--anthropological notes similar to those found in The Left Hand of Darkness and Always Coming Home. Of her anthropological approach, Gerald Jonas writes, "It is not hard to discern in the entwined histories of Werel and Yeowe echoes of South Africa, Vietnam, Ireland, 19th-century Hawaii, the antebellum South and so on. But these echoes never become intrusive because, for all her interest in the ways that societies evolve, Ms. Le Guin always hones in on individuals and the roles they play, by choice or not, in the great events of history."
In her most recent book, Unlocking the Air and Other Stories (1996), Le Guin gathers eighteen stories published between 1982 and 1996. Mostly mainstream fictions, they are described by one critic as "magically realistic." Leaning toward the magical are "Olders," a story concerning an ancient and long-lived but somewhat wooden race of islanders, and "The Poacher," a variation of Sleeping Beauty. The title story is a fairy tale as well, of love and revolution in an unnamed Eastern European country (which Le Guin identifies elsewhere as Orsinia) where "[t]hey stood on the stones in the lightly falling snow and listened to the silvery trembling sound of thousands of keys being shaken, unlocking the air, once upon a time." Intensely realistic is "Standing Ground," in which a teen and her pregnant, retarded mother confront protesters at an abortion clinic. "Ether, OR" lies somewhere in the middle, a realistic portrayal of small town life--except that the town moves around, never staying in one location for long. Le Guin describes this collection of stories as "explorations of the mysteries of ... ordinary living and ordinary pain." Her most extraordinary exploration is "Half Past Four," in which she presents eight scenes with the same characters, but in each scene the characters have different relationships with one another.
Le Guin has been publishing poetry almost as long as prose, but her poetry has received a lukewarm, at best, reception. For instance, one critic dismisses Hard Words as lines of chopped-up prose, banalities, and jingles. Le Guin does use short lines; she does focus on the ordinary; she does like to play with clichés. But her techniques add up to more than greeting-card verses. Her poems are chants and dances and blessings, feminist retellings and rebuttals of myths, chronicles of events both large (a hysterectomy) and small (ironing) in the lives of women. When nature is her topic, she writes with a keen eye, with humor, and with reverence. On the whole, the value of Le Guin's poetry may lie in the exercise: concentration on getting the words right may inspire her insightful essays on the nature of language, while attention to rhythm and flow carries over into her graceful prose.
The critic Peter Nicholls has praised Le Guin for bringing to the field of science fiction "an intelligent and feeling use of image structures, in the manner of a poet" and "the interest of the traditional novelist in questions of character and moral growth." She brings these same talents to the fields of fantasy and children's literature. Le Guin has great gifts as a writer; she has been lauded by many critics for her style, her adaptation of mythic structures, her psychological insight, and her moral wisdom. Having mastered high fantasy, Le Guin has moved on to straight realism, fantasy for juveniles, and a unique blend of realism and romantic fantasy.
FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR
- "Ursula K. Le Guin Interviewed by Jonathan Ward," Algol, 12 (Summer 1975): 6-10.
- George Wickes and Louise Westling, "Dialogue with Ursula K. Le Guin," Northwest Review, 20, nos. 2 and 3 (1982): 147-159.
- Jonathan White, "Coming Back from the Silence," Whole Earth Review, 85 (Spring 1995): 76-83.
- William Walsh, "I Am a Woman Writer; I Am a Western Writer," Kenyon Review, 17 (Summer-Fall 1995): 192-205.
- Sara Jameson, "Ursula K. Le Guin: A Galaxy of Books and Laurels," Publishers Weekly, 242 (25 September 1995): 32-33.
- John Algeo, "Magic Names: Onomastics in the Fantasies of Ursula K. Le Guin," Names, 30 (June 1982): 59-67.
- Brian Attebery, "The Beginning Place: Le Guin's Metafantasy," Children's Literature, 10 (1982): 113-123.
- Søren Baggesen, "Utopian and Dystopian Pessimism: Le Guin's The Word for World Is Forest and Tiptree's 'We Who Stole the Dream,'" Science-Fiction Studies, 14 (March 1987): 34-43.
- Douglas Barbour, "Wholeness and Balance in the Hainish Novels of Ursula K. Le Guin," Science-Fiction Studies, 1 (Spring 1974): 164-173.
- Marlene S. Barr, ed., Future Females: A Critical Anthology (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1981).
- Barr and Nicholas D. Smith, eds., Women and Utopia: Critical Interpretations (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1983).
- Craig Barrow and Diana Barrow, "The Left Hand of Darkness: Feminism for Men," Mosaic, 20 (Winter 1987): 83-92.
- James W. Bittner, Approaches to the Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Research Press, 1984).
- Bittner, "Chronosophy, Aesthetics, and Ethics in Le Guin's The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia," in No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, edited by Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983), pp. 244-270.
- Bittner, "Persuading Us to Rejoice and Teaching Us How to Praise: Le Guin's Orsinian Tales," Science-Fiction Studies, 5 (November 1978): 215-242.
- Peter Brigg, "A 'Literary Anthropology' of the Hainish, Derived from the Tracings of the Species Guin," Extrapolation, 38 (Spring 1997): 15-24.
- Barbara J. Bucknall, Ursula K. Le Guin (New York: Ungar, 1981).
- Susanne Carter, "Variations on Vietnam: Women's Innovative Interpretations of the Vietnam War Experience," Extrapolation, 32 (Summer 1991): 170-183.
- Thomas D. Clareson, ed., Extrapolation, special Le Guin issue, 21 (Fall 1980).
- Anna Valdine Clemens, "Art, Myth and Ritual in Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness," Canadian Review of American Studies, 17 (Winter 1986): 423-436.
- Robert Collins, "Fantasy and 'Forestructures': The Effect of Philosophical Climate upon Perceptions of the Fantastic," in Bridges to Fantasy, edited by Rabkin, George E. Slusser, and Robert Scholes (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982), pp. 108-120.
- Elizabeth Cummins, Understanding Ursula K. Le Guin (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990).
- Richard D. Erlich, "Ursula K. Le Guin and Arthur C. Clarke on Immanence, Transcendence, and Massacres," Extrapolation, 28 (Summer 1987): 105-129.
- Anne Fadiman, "Ursula K. Le Guin: Voyager to the Inner Land," Life, 9 (April 1986): 23-25.
- James P. Farrelly, "The Promised Land: Moses, Nearing, Skinner, Le Guin," Journal of General Education, 33 (Spring 1981): 15-23.
- Carol Franko, "Acts of Attention at the Borderlands: Le Guin's The Beginning Place Revisited," Extrapolation, 36 (Winter 1996): 302-315.
- Donald M. Hassler, "The Touching of Love and Death in Ursula Le Guin with Comparisons to Jane Austen," University of Mississippi Studies in English, 4 (1983): 168-177.
- Keith N. Hull, "What Is Human? Ursula Le Guin and Science Fiction's Great Theme," Modern Fiction Studies, 32 (Spring 1986): 65-74.
- David Ketterer, New Worlds for Old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction and American Literature (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1974).
- Karl Kroeber, "Sisters and Science Fiction," Little Magazine, 10 (Spring--Summer 1976): 87-90.
- David J. Lake, "Le Guin's Twofold Vision: Contrary Image Sets in Left Hand of Darkness," Science-Fiction Studies, 8 (July 1981): 156-164.
- Holly Littlefield, "Unlearning Patriarchy: Ursula Le Guin's Feminist Consciousness in The Tombs of Atuan and Tehanu," Extrapolation, 36 (Fall 1995): 244-258.
- Susan McLean, "The Beginning Place: An Interpretation," Extrapolation, 24 (Summer 1983): 130-142.
- Walter E. Meyers, Aliens and Linguistics: Language Study and Science Fiction (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980).
- R. D. Mullen and Darko Suvin, eds., Science Fiction Studies: Selected Articles on Science Fiction 1973-1975 (Boston: Gregg, 1976), pp. 146-155, 223-231, 233-304.
- Victoria Myers, "Conversational Technique in Ursula Le Guin: A Speech-Act Analysis," Science-Fiction Studies, 10 (November 1983): 306-316.
- Peter Nicholls, "Showing Children the Value of Death," Foundation, 5 (January 1974): 71-80.
- Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg, eds., Writers of the 21st Century Series: Ursula K. Le Guin (New York: Taplinger, 1979).
- Donald Palumbo, ed., Erotic Universe: Sexuality and Fantastic Literature (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986).
- Warren Rochelle, "The Story, Plato, and Ursula K. Le Guin," Extrapolation, 37 (Winter 1996): 316-329.
- Robert Scholes, Structural Fabulation: An Essay on the Future of Fiction (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975).
- Bernard Selinger, Le Guin and Identity in Contemporary Fiction (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988).
- W. A. Senior, "Cultural Anthropology and Rituals of Exchange in Ursula K. Le Guin's 'Earthsea,'" Mosaic, 29 (December 1996): 100-112.
- George Edgar Slusser, The Farthest Shores of Ursula K. Le Guin (San Bernardino, Cal.: Borgo Press, 1976).
- Charlotte Spivack, "Only in Dying, Life: The Dynamics of Old Age in the Fiction of Ursula Le Guin," Modern Language Studies, 14 (Summer 1984): 43-53.
- Spivack, Ursula K. Le Guin (Boston: Twayne, 1984).
- Ian Watson, "Le Guin's Lathe of Heaven and the Role of Dick: The False Reality as Mediator," Science-Fiction Studies, 2 (March 1975): 67-75.
- Kingsley Widmer, "The Dialectic of Utopianism: Le Guin's The Dispossessed," Liberal and Fine Arts Review, 3 (January-July 1983): 1-11.
- Donna Glee Williams, "The Moons of Le Guin and Heinlein," Science-Fiction Studies, 21 (July 1994): 164-172.
- Susan Wood, "Discovering Worlds: The Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin," in Voices for the Future, vol. 2, edited by Clareson (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1979), pp. 154-179.
- J. R. Wytenbroek, "Always Coming Home: Pacifism and Anarchy in Le Guin's Latest Utopia," Extrapolation, 28 (Winter 1987): 330-339.
- Marilyn Yalom, ed., Women Writers of the West Coast: Speaking of Their Lives and Careers (Santa Barbara, Cal.: Capra, 1983).