Fantasy Island: Ursula Le Guin Remakes the World

Village Voice
Oct. 30, 1990

I am a great fan of the work of Ursula Le Guin and have been privileged to write two articles about her.  This one. a review of A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore and Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea, all by Ursula K. Le Guin, including material from an interview I did with her in 1990.

            Therru, a little glrl crippled by the sadism of her father and his friends, is the center of Ursula Le Guin's latest book. One of Therru's eyes is blind, one hand has been burned into a claw and half her face is a hard mask of scars. "They raped her and beat her and burned her, these things happen, my lord," says Tenar, who takes care of her. "These things happen to children." It could, be a story from Child Abuse Hotel or Crack House Street. It could be the story of Lisa Steinberg.
            But it isn't. Because, suddenly, there are dragons. And they make all the difference.  Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea is about child abuse, but it is also about  the common heritage and uncertain borderline between humans and dragons. It is about power: male power and what happens when it’s lost; female power and how no one knows what it is; and the mysterious, fragile power of Therru, the burnt child.
            And it is a children’s book.  People in this country are rather strict about the baoundary between children’s and adult literature, but I have never felt completely at home on either side of that divide.  I read most kinds of novels, classic, modernist, realistic, science fiction, young adult,” detective stories, depending on my mood.  Why eat a streak of what you really want is a peach?  When I feel anxious, sad, or needy, when I long for a world simpler and cleaner than my own, where the individual’s ability to affect events is a given, responsibility is clear, and morality more important than success, then I read fantasy.  These qualities are, of course, found in religious literature as well; the end of Tehanu,in fact, reminds me of that moment in Milton's Samson Agonistes when the hero's torment turns suddenly, out of all reason, to power and transcendence.
            Milton? Aren't we getting a bit grand for "kiddielit," as it is called in the trade?
            Don't be fooled by marketing categories. The Earthsea books are children's literature like the Odyssey and Beowulf are children's literature. Composed sparely, shaped by narratives so basic they must be inscribed upon our cells, they read as if they were not written but found, dug out like jewels from rock.
            Each tale in the Earthsea trilogy is an extended metaphor. A Wizard of Earthsea, concerning young Ged's flight from, then pursuit of the Shadow he has arrogantly called up from the netherworld, is about overcoming childish grandiosity, accepting one's mortality along with one's strength. The Tombs of Atuan tells of Ged's rescue of Tenar, and her efforts to escape the dark goddesses she has been raised to serve—the struggle to emerge from the darkness of childhood fears and irrationality, to learn to think clearly, to find the light of civilization and friendship. The Farthest Shore is the tale of Ged's fight against a monstrous, immensely powerful egoist willing to send everyone in the world to death that he might live forever. The battle is so grueling Ged loses his own powers in winning it, but he also finds and tests the young king who will bring order to the world.
            The Farthest Shore, published in 1972, was supposed to be the end of the series.  Now there’s Tehanu, which takes up where the last book left off, but is a different kettle of fish entirely. The first Earthsea books are linear, gestural, full of action; this one is talky and abrupt, doubling back on itself, full of unresolved menace, without closure. Its heroes wait, hide, and flee; they have no power to fight. The first three books lay out the answer to the problem of evil with some confidence (lack of balance); this one asks, like Gertrude Stein on her deathbed, "What is the question?"
            The answer to the missing question has already been revealed. Since Ged has lost his powers, the wizards who keep balance in the universe need a new Archmage. One of them has a vision, "a woman on Gont," the small island where Tenar and Therru live. But what does the vision mean? A woman cannot be Archmage; this would be a contradiction in terms. What can the question be to which the answer is a woman?
            Tehanu is a feminist deconstruction of heroic fantasy, Le Guin's critique of a younger, simpler self, who, as she told me recently, took as her model Tolkien, the great breakthrough writer who legitimized the form, "though he was heir to a long, purely male tradition of heroic adventure fantasy. My Earthsea trilogy is part of this male tradition—that is why I had to write this fourth volume. Because I changed. I had to show the other side."
            Feminism has made heroic fantasy—and a number of other classical literary modes, not to mention social relations—impossible, without developing alternative modes to put in their place. Like the worker in Brecht's poem who asked, "Who built the seven gates of Thebes?" Le Guin asks, by implication, who did the dishes for all those feasts in Tolkien? And how can any of us—even men who share housework—be heroes when we have to spend so much time caring for ·house and children? And without heroes, how can evil be defeated?
            So many questions.· Some feminist writers try to substitute female knights in armor for male but that doesn't work for me. What works is books that ask questions of myth, like Christa Wolf’s Cassandra, Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony, and the, fiction of Ursula Le Guin. Le Guin is a prophet unhonored in her own country. Oh, she is honored (one Horn Book Award, one Newbery Medal, three Hugos, one National Book Award for Children’s Literature) but as a writer of genre books—the ones you find under “Science Fiction” or “Children” instead of "Literature."
            Le Guin disdains such boundaries. "I am always trying to break down walls," she says. She writes science fiction, fantasy, New Yorker stories, young adult books, poetry, and essays. Almost all her work is political. This fact has not been noticed too much by the people in charge of standards—you know, the guys who set the value of books, the literary equivalent of the Federal Reserve system. Of course, they think the political novel is dead anyhow, and they aren't about to recognize one that pops up in the wrong part of the bookstore. They expect political writing to be set in the real world, and Le Guin's is set in a universe of possibility. What, she asks, would society be like if there were no stable division into two genders, but merely an estrus period in which any individual could become either male or female? (The Left Hand of Darkness) What if there were an anarchist revolution, no state, no method of coercion—how would people be kept in line, and what would happen if someone got out of it? (The Dispossessed) Is a non-violent revolution against overwhelming force realy feasible? How? (The Eye of the Heronwhich was shelved as a Young Adult book.)
            "The Dispossesed gets discussed in terms of politics because it's a classic utopian fiction," Le Guin said. "The Eye of the Heron is my most neglected book. It is the first book I wrote where the women took the book over; I intended a man to be the hero, but the women took it over. And people haven't talked about the politics of Always Coming Home." Published in 1985 in a box including an audio tape, Always Coming Home is probably her least accessible book. It is, like a number of her science fictions, an ethnography of a people that do not exist.
            "The book is hard because I really got past ways of thinking that we consider to be innate but are cultural. Most male reviewers said the society I was writing about was a matriarchy. It isn't. It isn' t a patriarchy either. It isn't any kind of -archy, but a consensus society like thousands that have existed. In Always Coming Home, I returned California to the prewhite state of many coexisting societies which quarreled among themselves but didn't have wars because they didn't want them.  They had shouting matches instead.  But I set the novel far in the future to allow for climatic changes and genetic changes in humans. Another universal misreading was that it was after a nuclear holocaust. It wasn’t. There are hints of poisonous places, but they are all there already, like Hanford."
            Remote as Le Guin's books sometimes seem, they are very much of the present. In Tehanu, especially, one has the sense of an evil growing stronger, of a good barely able to defeat it. Who is there to stand against the dark but Ged, a wizard who has lost his power, and Tenar, a woman who gave hers up to marry and have kids? It is no accident that the central symbol of Tehanu is a burned, abused child.
            But this is fantasy, so there are dragons. And in Le Guin's dragons, as in Tolkien’s, lies much of the satisfaction of her universe.  There is also the homespun American purity of her language.  For, as she says in one of her essays, in fantasy, style is everything: “There is no borrowed reality of history, or current events, or just plain folks at home in Peyton Place.  There is no comfortable matrix of the commonplace to substitute for the imagination, to provide ready-made emotional response, and to disguise flaws and failures of creation.  There is only a construct built in a void, with every joint and seam and nail exposed….Where the act of speech is the act of creation.  The only voice that speaks there is the creator’s voice.  And every word counts.”
            Kid stuff?  Sure, if all adults need are stories of mundane cleverness and failure, small loves and missed connections.  Children’s literature, sure, if children are the only ones who need stories that remind us of the firelight flickering on the walls of the cave.


Copyright © Meredith Tax 2010. All Rights Reserved.