Science Fiction Studies

#3 = Volume 1, No. 3 =  Spring 1974

Douglas Barbour

Wholeness and Balance in the Hainish Novels of Ursula K. Le Guin

The five stories by Ursula K. Le Guin with which this essay is directly concerned—Rocannon's World (1966), Planet of Exile (1966), City of Illusions (1967), The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), and "The Word for World is Forest" (1972)1—are all set in what may be called the Hainish universe, for it was the people of the planet Hain who originally "seeded" all the habitable worlds of this part of the galaxy and thus produced a humanoid universe that is single, expanding, and historically continuous, but at the same time marvelous in its variety, for each planetary environment caused specific local mutations in its humanoids as they adapted and developed. The result is a universe full of "humans" who display enough variety to provide for any number of alien encounters, and since any possible stage of civilization can be found on some particular planet, new definitions of "civilization" can be made in a narrative rather than a discursive mode.

In Rocannon's World and Planet of Exile Le Guin sketches in the background of the League of All Worlds, which is preparing to fight an Enemy from some distant part of the galaxy, and prepares the reader for City of Illusions, which is the story of the man who will eventually "rescue" humanity from the Shing, the mind-lying aliens. The Left Hand of Darkness is set in an even further future when the Shing have been defeated and most of humanity has once again united, this time in the Ekumen of Known Worlds—a subtler and humbler title than the former one. "The Word for World is Forest," being set in the first year of the league, brings the Hainish universe comparatively close to our own time.

Besides the continuous time-space history, these narratives are bound together by a consistent imagery that both extends and informs meaning. Although Le Guin has used particular images which emerge naturally from the cultural and ecological context of her imagined worlds as linking devices within each work, she has also consistently used light/dark imagery as a linking device for the whole series. Again and again, good emerges from ambiguous darkness, evil from blinding light. Thus there is a specific local imagery in each novel, and a pervasive light/dark imagery in all of them.

In Rocannon's World the local image is the "Eye of the Sea." This jewel, the efficient cause of Semley's actions in the "Prologue," appears throughout Rocannon's adventures until, when he has accomplished his task, he gives it, as a final sign that he has found his home, to the Lady Ganye, who, at the end of the story, appears as "his widow, tall and fair-haired, wearing a great blue jewel set in gold at her throat."

The light/dark imagery is more pervasive and more complex. From the very beginning the interdependence of light and darkness are made clear. Take Kyo's explanation of the difference between his people and the Gdmiar: the Fiia chose to live only in the light, the Clayfolk chose "night and caves and swords" (§7), and both lost something by their choice. The image of the Fiia dance, "a play of light and dark in the glow of the fire" (§7), reflects a pattern which Rocannon realizes had existed between Kyo and himself. This dance of shadows and light is the proper image for their interplay in all Le Guin's work: both the light and the dark are necessary if any pattern is to emerge from chaos (see Left §16). When Rocannon meets the Ancient One, he must enter the "dark place" to gain the gift of mind-hearing (§8). Later he enters the FTL ships on "a night when of all the four moons only the little captured asteroid ... would be in the sky before midnight" (§9). The success of his mission, the explosion destroying the enemy base, is marked by "not the light but the darkness, the darkness that blinded his mind, the knowledge in his own flesh of the death of a thousand men all in one moment" (§9). Clearly and consistently light/dark images dance through the whole novel.

The title of the first chapter in Planet of Exile, "A Handful of Darkness," refers to Agat's dark hand against Rolery's white one. The alliance of farboms and hilfs, of black and white, is touched on throughout the novel: Agat's and Rolery's growing love is imaged in these terms. As Rolery "seemed to hold against her palm a handful of darkness, where his touch had been" (§1), so Agat "recalled briefly ... the light, lithe, frightened figure of the girl Rolery, reaching up her hand to him from the dark sea-besieged stones" (§3). Rolery feels a "little rush of fear and darkness through her veins" (§5) because she is a natural telepath and has been "bespoken" by Agat; later, when Agat is attacked and wounded and sends out calls for help, "Rolery's mind went quite dark for a while" (§6) and she is the one to find him. Both are young and fear the Winter, for they have only "known the sunlight" (§5). That oncoming 5000-day cold spell provides some of the local image patterns of this novel, as do the customs of the Askatevar, but the light/dark imagery weaves its way from book to book.

"Imagine darkness. In the darkness that faces outward from the sun a mute spirit woke. Wholly involved in chaos, he knew no pattern." Thus begins City of Illusion, and thus begins Falk's book-long search for the correct pattern, one made up of light and darkness as all good patterns must be. Naturally enough, in a story of lie and paradox, light and dark seldom carry ordinary meanings. Falk begins and ends in darkness, yet the two darknesses are opposed: the first a mental chaos, the last an important part of the whole pattern he has sought. As the images gather, we begin to see the pattern, and the play of paradox and illusion within it. The old Listener's warning about "the awful darkness of the bright lights of Es Toch" (§3) presents one of the central paradoxes, one Falk must resolve if he is to survive. In Es Toch it is "the word spoken in darkness with none to hear at the beginning, the first page of time" to which Falk turns as he tries to outmaneuver the Shing (§8).

The two major local images are the "patterning frame" (§§1,5) and the "Way" of the "Old Canon" (i.e., the Tao-te ching). References to Falk as a stone within the frame appear throughout the story, as do quotations from and allusions to the Tao. Falk-Ramarren's final recognition that "there's always more than one way towards the truth" (§10), which is his personal resolution of the dark/light pattern, is an "open" one. Yet it has been implicit in the imagery of the patterning frame and the Tao, which has been very carefully organized, and which leads directly to the novel's final paragraph:

On the screen dawn coming over the Eastern Ocean shone in a golden crescent for a moment against the dust of the stars, like a jewel on a great patterning frame. Then frame and pattern shattered, the barrier was passed, and the little ship broke free of time and took them out across the darkness.

"Tormer's Lay," from which The Left Hand of Darkness takes its title (§16), suggests the importance of the light/dark image pattern in that novel. When Ai finally comes to accept and love Estraven as a whole person, he shows him the Yin-Yang symbol: "Light, dark. Fear, courage. Female, male. It is yourself, Therem. Both and one. A shadow on snow." (§19). This list of opposites yoked together expresses precisely the deep meaning that the image pattern points to; it clearly owes much to the Tao sensibility of Chuang Tzu who similarly yokes opposites together on the Way.2

When Estreven says that the word Shifgrethor, which Ai has found impossible to understand, "comes from an old word for shadow" (§18), a clear light is cast back across the novel, illuminating passage after passage where shadows or the lack of them are mentioned with particular emphasis--even Ai himself had said of the Orgota that it was "as if they did not cast shadows" (§10). This sequence of images is solidly grounded in Gethenian psychology and philosophy, yet it simultaneously fits into the larger pattern that connects all the novels. In Left Hand shadow images concerned with personal integrity indicate what kind of person is being referred to; they are also deeply embedded in the ecology of the planet, the warm shadows of the hearths opposing the snow, the terrible cold, so bright with danger: no wonder the Handdara is a "fecund darkness" (§5).

The essential unity of light and darkness is always implicit in the imagery, as in the description of the Foretelling: "Hours and seconds passed, the moonlight shone on the wrong wall, there was no moonlight only darkness, and in the center of all darkness Faxe: the Weaver: a woman, a woman dressed in light" (§5). The Foretelling emerges from the Darkness, the very darkness the Handdara rely on, as is shown by their "short and charming grace of invocation, the only ritual words" Ai ever learns of them: "Praise then darkness and Creation unfinished" (SS18). "Dothe," the special strength Handdarata can call up in their bodies, is the "strength out of the Dark," and "thangen," the sleep of recovery, is "the dark sleep" (§14). Yet Faxe the Weaver shines with his own light, even in noon sunlight (§5). As the Lay says, "Two are one ... the end and the way" (§16).

Having heard Estraven recite Tormer's Lay, Ai speaks of the difference between Gethenians and Terrans:

"You're isolated, and undivided. Perhaps you are as obsessed with wholeness as we are with dualisms."

"We are dualists too. Duality is essential, isn't it? So long as there is myself and the other."

"I and Thou," he said. "Yes, it does, after all, go even wider than sex.... (§16)

As wide as the universe of meaning itself, the images say. wholeness and duality, together and separate at once, a pattern of life itself, woven through an artist's fictions, the matrix of her vision.

AS THE DISCUSSION of imagery has shown, Le Guin's artistic vision is multiplex, dualistic, and holistic. That she has never sought simplistic philosophical solutions for the human problems she explores in her narratives, could be demonstrated in her first three books, but I wish to concentrate here on her artistic handling of balance as a way of life in The Left Hand of Darkness and "The Word for World is Forest."

Very few SF books have succeeded as well as The Left Hand of Darkness in invoking a whole environment, a completely consistent alien world, and in making the proper extrapolations from it. Le Guin has chosen a form that allows for various kinds of "documentation": six of the twenty chapters (not to mention the Appendix) are documents separate from the actual narrative--three "Hearth tales" (§§ 2, 4, 9), a report on Gethenian sexuality (§7), excerpts from a sacred book (§12), and "An Orgota Creation Myth" (§17)--each placed so as to aid our understanding of the narrative at a particular point in its progression. And the narrative itself is a document, consisting partly of Ai's transcription of passages from Estraven's notebook and partly of Ai's direct report to his superiors in the officialdom of the Ekumen. The whole is a masterful example of form creating content.

Quite early in the story, immediately after a "hearth tale" concerned with their Foretellings, Ai spends considerable space reporting on his experiences at a Handdara Fastness, and it soon becomes obvious that he considers the Handdara a religion of considerable profundity. I think it is safe to assume that Le Guin means us to agree with this opinion, partly because of the way in which Handdara thought reflects the Tao-te ching, which is explicitly drawn upon in City of Illusions. In Left Hand the basic Handdara religious philosophy is influenced by the specific paraverbal talent the Gethenians have, yet there are many allusive connections between this invented religion and Taoism.

"The Handdara," says Ai, "is a religion without institution, without priests, without hierarchy, without vows, without creed; I am still unable to say whether it has a god or not. It is elusive. It is always somewhere else." (SS5). Similarly, the Tao-te ching:

The thing that is called Tao is eluding and vague.

Vague and eluding, there is in it the form.                                                                         

Eluding and vague, in it are things.                                                                                     

Deep and obscure, in it is the essence.

(§21; translation by Wing-tait Chan)3

Although Taoist-influenced Zen Buddhism has many points in common with the Handdara, Le Guin has created in this "elusive" religion something that is still alien as well as very human. The Handdara's "only fixed manifestation is in the Fastnesses, retreats to which people may retire and spend the night or a lifetime" (§5). Ai visits the Otherhord Fastness to investigate the "foretellings" for the Ekumen; these predictions, which must be paid for, are apparently completely true. Ai arrives a skeptic and departs a believer, having participated unwillingly in the Foretelling by virtue of his own paraverbal talent. He remarks that although the humanoids of the Ekumen have certain paraverbal abilities, they have not yet "tamed hunch to run in harness; for that we must go to Gethen." But this chapter also reveals basic Handdara beliefs and attitudes which later clarify Estraven's behavior, for he has been Handdara trained. The response of young Goss to what Ai intends as an apology for being "exceedingly ignorant"--"I'm honored!...I haven't yet acquired enough ignorance to be worth mentioning."--is important in that it introduces the central doctrine of Handdara life:

It was an introverted life, self-sufficient, stagnant, steeped in that singular ignorance prized by the Handdarata an obedient to their rule of inactivity or non-interference. That rule (expressed in the word nusuth, which I have to translate as "no matter") is the heart of the cult, and I don't pretend to understand it. (§5)

Most readers will sympathize with Ai's last small complaint, but these ideas have much in common with the Tao of both Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu. Tao §37 says, "Tao invariably takes no action, and yet there is nothing left undone," and Chuang Tzu writes: "I take inaction to be true happiness, but ordinary people think it is a bitter thing... the world can't decide what is right and what is wrong. And yet inaction can decide this. The highest happiness, keeping alive--only inaction gets you close to this."4 The time that Ai spends at the Otherhord Fastness is the happiest he has known.

The Handdarata, Estraven tells Ai, are perhaps, in comparison with the Yomeshta of Orgoreyn, who are somewhat further into the pattern of the ecology-breaking cultures of other worlds, "less aware of the gap between men and beast, being more occupied with likenesses, the links, the whole of which living things are a part" (§16). This preoccupation with wholeness and likenesses is found throughout the Tao, for the Way unites all things.

Tormer's Lay, which Estraven recites for Ai in §16, brings to a focus the light and dark imagery which has operated which such poetic subtlety throughout; it also expresses in highly charged and culturally consistent imagery the ideas of wholeness and balance which have been implicit in the language of the novel:

Light is the left hand of darkness                                                                                        

and darkness the right hand of light.                                                                                 

Two are one, life and death, lying                                                                               

together like lovers in kemmer,                                                                                           

like hands joined together,                                                                                                

like the end and the way.

LIGHT AND DARKNESS sharing the world and our apprehension of it: this is a deeply Taoist insight, but it is also a deeply holistic/artistic one. On Athshe, the world of "The Word for World is Forest," it is one of the bases of life for the natives, and a lost fragment of old knowledge for the Terran colonists. Here Le Guin departs from any obvious use of Taoism; instead, she approaches the theme of balance, of the light and darkness joined together, through a highly dense and specific creation of an ecology and culture inextricably entwined, and through the ideas of Dement and Hadfield on the nature of dreams.5 In creating a culture in which people balance their "sanity not on the razor's edge of reason but on the double support, the fine balance of reason and dream" (§5), she has also created a powerful image of holistic duality. The sanity and balance of Athshean society, the Athshean's awareness of "the whole of which living things are a part" (Left Hand §16), stands in stark contrast to the emotional and mental imbalance of the Earth-imperialist colonial culture which represents a logical extension of certain present-day technological and political trends. Despite the fact that the Earthmen come from all parts of the globe (ironically, their leader, Colonel Dongh, is from Viet Nam), they are all imbued with the attitudes of the "Judeao-Christian-Rationalist West," as Haber will so fondly call it in §6 of The Lathe of Heaven (1972).

The Terran colonists are xenophobic despite their knowledge of other star-traveling humanoid races (the story is set in the period in which the league of All Worlds is first founded): they still believe they are kings of the universe. They have no desire to understand, or, more important, learn from, the hilfs. With the sole exception of Lyubov, the military men of the colony see the Athsheans as "creechies," animal-creatures; that is, as nonhuman and therefore to be treated as animals. Although the group is presented in general terms, the foci of interest are the individual psychologies of Davidson and Lyubov. These are extreme types, at opposite ends of the Earth-human spectrum, and in each we can see those attitudes and behavioral mannerisms which, in a mixed way, are the heritage of a civilization given over to the acquisition of material goods and power, the attitudes of which are fixed in the Hobbesian vision of man. Davidson's nearly incoherent "reasoning" provides a spectacular instance of how a man's psychosis (in this case, paranoia) correlates to the excessive exploitation of a world's inhabitants and natural resources. Lyubov's tortured soul-searching, eager reaching out to others for knowledge, and final refusal of Selver's proffered gift of dreaming, reveal a mild, humane, liberal, and finally weak man. Selver, the Athshean who becomes a "god" and acts with violence to protect his people when necessity so dictates, reveals by contrast the weakness of Lyubov's position.

These contrasts of character are partially exposed in light/dark imagery and partially translated into balance/imbalance imagery. The brightness of Don Davidson's mind, intense, paranoid, and in love with the fire that kills others, especially "creechies," is frighteningly unbalanced. Seeing "water and sunlight, or darkness and leaves" only as opposites, he chooses to "end the darkness, and turn the tree-jumble into clean sawn planks, more prized on Earth than gold" (§l). Earthmen, trying to balance their sanity "on the razor's edge of reason," fail to comprehend "the fine balance of reason and dream" and thus live in fear of the dark forests of the Athsheans, where "into wind, water, sunlight, starlight, there always entered leaf and branch, bole and root, the shadowy, the complex" (§2). The complex is that fusion of light and darkness which represents wholeness. The concept of living in both dream-time and world-time reflects this wholeness. Lyubov's reflection on his original fear of the forest and his gradual acceptance of it reveals how much the Earthmen, from a technological, well-lit, treeless Earth, have lost in their relentless pursuit of power. They would clean out the forest, burn it off, to let the light shine on the barren ground that they mistakenly believe will bear growth again. Driven by the "yumens" to struggle for survival, the Athsheans have "taken up the fire they feared into their own hands: taken up the mastery over the evil dream: and loosed the death they feared upon their enemy" (§8). Truth is complex, dark and light at once, and the various images attached to the forest, that place of no revelation, "no certainty," all contribute to our understanding of this. The Athsheans are at home in the complex, and sit under a big tree to meet with the yumens: "The light beneath the great tree was soft, complex with shadows" (§8). This complexity is deeply embedded in their culture, in which everyone lives in both times, that of the dream and that of the world.

Although specific references to darkness and light are not as numerous as in some of the other stories, the pattern is definitely there, in the ambiguous forest, behind the words and images that do appear. In a very important sense, the disturbed balance of dream-time and world-time is the local image-system in this work.

Selver, recognizing the necessity of armed resistance (of fighting a war of liberation that has obvious parallels with Third World struggles, especially that in Viet Nam), is the dreamer who becomes a god, translating to his people the terrible but necessary new dream of killing one's own kind (for the Athsheans, unlike the yumens, have recognized the essential oneness of the two races). Their survival depends upon it, but their innocence has been forever lost, and he recognizes what a terrible price that is to pay for freedom (§8). Le Guin's handling of this specific political problem is remarkable, at least in the world of popular SF, for its intellectual toughness: Lyubov's death results directly from his "liberal" inability to face the reality of the situation as the Athsheans have seen it. Selver survives, together with his people, because he rigorously follows the logic of the situation to its necessary conclusion: fight or be exterminated.

Le Guin's fictions are all imbued with great sympathy for the strange "human" cultures they present. Nevertheless, the Athshean culture of "Forest" is her clearest example yet of a culture presented as in basic and violent conflict with present-day "Earth-normal" standards but still as unequivocally the saner of the two. Thus the culture of the Athsheans, the ecology of Athshe, and the profound connections between them, are the focus of this novella. The ecological balance of Athshe, though not quite precarious, is delicate, as is revealed in §l by the complete devastation of an entire island and indirectly by Davidson's thoughts on the exploitative value of this "New Tahiti." The Athshean vision emerges in a thick poetic prose at the beginning of the first Selver chapter (§2) in a description whose beauty and complexity stand in stark contrast to the prose associated with Davidson or even Lyubov. The forest is presented in a series of concrete images; then there is this:

Nothing was dry, arid, plain. Revelation was lacking. There was no seeing everything at once: no certainty. The colors of rust and sunset kept changing in the hanging leaves of the copper willows, and you could not say even whether the eaves of the willows were brownish-red, or reddish-green, or green.

Selver came up a path beside the water, going slowly and often stumbling on the willow roots. He saw an old man dreaming, and-stopped. The old man looked at him through the long willow-leaves and saw him in his dream.

We have been introduced to the ecology from within, and to the major aspect of the culture: all that follows will merely fill out the sketch before us until it is a full portrait.

The clan system that is tied into tree names, the small village systems, the special male and female roles that have been devised to maintain the society, the major part that dreaming plays in the lives of the Athsheans, their use of "a kind of ritualized singing to replace physical combat" (§3), and many other aspects of their culture, are all brought out as the novella progresses. Lyubov explains the Athsheans in this way:

"They're a static, stable, uniform society. They have no history. Perfectly integrated, and wholly unprogressive. You might say that like the forest they live in, they've attained a climax state. But I don't mean to imply that they're incapable of adaptation." (§3)

But even though he sees that the Athsheans might be able to adapt to meet the challenge of the Earthmen, he does not really know their culture.

The most important aspect of Athshean culture is the use of dreams. Selver says that Lyubov, despite his attempts to understand Athshean ways, "called the world-time 'real' and the dream-time 'unreal,' as if that were the difference between them" (§2). Le Guin's extrapolations from Hadfield's theories have resulted in a marvelously different culture in "Forest." If it lacks "progress," Athshean culture possesses in abundance the sanity Earth culture so obviously lacks. Lyubov's thoughts on this matter in §5 add some interesting scientific "facts" to the speculative enterprise, yet all he can see is that the Athsheans have teamed to dream in a brilliant and complex fashion. The Athsheans, however, see the situation in different terms: they have learned to live, sanely, in both times.

The whole question of sanity, or balance, is argued in the concrete terms of fiction throughout the novel. There are two forms of art on Athshe, dreaming and singing, and both are specialized cultural activities which serve to nullify aggression against other humans. The Athsheans recognize a necessity for controlling one's dreams, for dreaming properly, but the devastating impact of the Terrans has resulted in a deep cultural trauma:

"And all men's dreams." said Cora Mena, cross-legged in shadow, "will be changed. They will never be the same again. I shall never walk again that path I came with you yesterday.... It is changed. You have walked on it and it is utterly changed.... For you have done what you had to do, and it was not right. You have killed men. (§2)

Having done what "was not right," Selver has become a god--"a god that knows death, a god that kills and is not himself reborn"--and for the Athsheans such a person is "a changer, a bridge between realities" (§2). The concept is clarified further by Lyubov's hesitant articulation of the implications of "sha'ab, translator" to the point where he sees that Selver is "A link: one who could speak aloud the perceptions of the subconscious. To 'speak' that tongue is to act. To do a new thing. To change or to be changed, radically, from the root. For the root is the dream." (§5). Although Selver's godhead enables him to lead the Athsheans to victory over the Terrans, it is a burden that brings him nothing but pain, loss, and insanity, and at the end he renounces it. That he should be allowed to do so is a significant example of the sanity of his culture.

His culture's sanity-the awareness that balance must be sought where dark and light meet and mix, in the ambiguous center where simple-minded "we-they" solutions fail-emerges organically from its total context in the fictional world of the novel. Yet that balance, though no longer clearly Taoist, is paralleled in the Taoist insights of City of Illusions and The Left Hand of Darkness, in the teachings of the Handdarata in the latter book, in the joining of the races in Planet of Exile, and in the lessons learned by Rocannon in Rocannon's World. For Le Guin's artistic vision, her deep understanding of the real meaning of culture, has always been ambiguous, multiplex, subtle, and dualistic/holistic in the sense that it has always recognized the cultural relativity of "truth." Always, in her work, the representatives of different cultures meet, interact, and, in the cases that count, learn of each other (often through love) that they are equally human, part of the great brotherhood of "man."


1The first three of these books have been published only in paperback; "The Word for World is Forest" appears in Harlan Ellison's anthology, Again Dangerous Visions (1972).

2Burton Watson, tr., Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings (US 1964), pp32-33, 38, 39-40, 70.

3The version of the Tao-te ching followed here is that of Wing-tzit Chan, ed., tr., The Way of Lao-Tzu (1963).

4Watson, pll2.

5See J.A. Hadfield, Dreams and Nightmares (Harmondsworth 1966), pp 66, 72; and various of Dement's articles. Further on Dement's researches-, see Brian Aldiss, The Shape of Further Things (UK 1970), pp37-39, 42, with its pertinent discussion of how the lack of REM sleep leads to insanity.



The five works by Le Guin with which this essay is directly concerned— Rocannon’s World (1966), Planet of Exile (1966), City of Illusions (1967), The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), and "The Word for World Is Forest" (1972)—all are set in the Hainish universe. The people of the planet Hain originally "seeded" all the habitable worlds of this part of the galaxy, producing a humanoid universe that is single, expanding, and historically continuous but at the same time marvelous in its variety, for the conditions on each planet caused specific local mutations. Besides the continuous time-space history, these narratives are bound together by a consistent imagery. In particular, Le Guin has consistently used light/dark imagery as a linking device for her "Hainish" novels. Again and again, good emerges from ambiguous darkness, evil from blinding light. There is a specific local imagery in each novel, but a pervasive light/dark imagery in all of them.

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