Science Fiction Studies

#23 = Volume 8, Part 1 = March 1981

Franz Rottensteiner

Le Guin's Fantasy

Ursula K. Le Guin. The Language of the Night. Essays an Fantasy and Science Fiction. NY: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1979, 270p. S9.95.

This volume, edited and introduced by Susan Wood, collects a number of Ursula K. Le Guin's writings on SF and fantasy, many of them from the fanzines, but also a few speeches, introductions to her own books, observations on other writers and assorted other shorter pieces. They are organized in the sections "Le Guin Introduces Le Guin," "On Fantasy and Science Fiction," "The Book is What is Real," "Telling the Truth," and "Pushing at the Limits." From humble beginnings, Ursula K. Le Guin has risen to become one of the most important authors in American SF, and has become known even outside the pale of SF, and for that alone her book deserves attention and respect. She is one of those writers, so rare in SF, whose work and theoretical statement form a unity. She doesn't say one thing and practice another: in her, reflection and action are one. Above all else, she tries to write beautifully, her books are intended to be fully rounded works of art, with human characters, meaning and import, aesthetics and ethics in one. What matters to her is the whole atmosphere of the writing, the sensual concreteness, rhythm, symbol, tone, and metaphor. She is not for abstract theses barely covered with a pretense of fiction. Mrs. Le Guin is intelligent and well read, modest and possessed of a sense of humor (e.g., her "30 years of malpractice"), sympathetic to other writers yet firm where essential issues are touched upon.

In some respect all her essays circle around the twin poles of beauty and truth, aesthetics and ethics. Where these are concerned, she can get quite passionate. Truth she is willing to concede only to great literature, whereas fantasy is to be content with imagination. Her preference and love in literature, including SF, is definitely the great traditional novel of character that helps to understand human nature. This view is spiritedly expounded in her long essay "Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown," starting from a remark of Virginia Woolf's. This stressing of common human beings and psychologically tenable characterization is also visible in the introductions to her own books and in her piece on Philip K. Dick.

While such a view is certain to meet with sympathy and is persuasive because Mrs. Le Guin writes so modestly, reasonably, and gracefully, there arises the principal doubt concerning whether SF can compete in this respect and whether this understanding of literature, which is apparently also shared by other SF writers, isn't at best only partially true, and more appropriate for the 19th than the 20th century. There are, after all, many other ways of writing literature, even writing novels, than "getting into the ring with Mr. Tolstoy," as Gregory Benford, for instance, quotes Hemingway as having described the novel--a hopeless fight for any SF writer. There exist some SF novels that are quite decent as novels of ideas, but none that would make the grade as novels of character. Patrick Parrinder's reply, "The Alien Encounter: Or. Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Le Guin" (SFS No. 17) seems to be much more sensible--and realistic. Mrs. Le Guin herself, attempting the kind of psychological or psychologizing novel that appears to be her ideal, comes off as at best second-rate, and often her concern with myth (which is perhaps more appropriate for fantasy) gets in the way of the characterization. Mrs. Le Guin has a good ear for language, and a genuine striving for truth and justice: but her books lack vigor and the determination to get to the bottom of a problem or a person. Above all, her fiction is dominated by a striving for balance which appears to be detrimental to truth: and for this reason she often lacks depth, the ability to face the full consequences and implications of something. She tends to glide over unpleasant truths, and therefore she simplifies--though for the sake of beauty, it would seem. The depths of the human heart are not touched in her prose, and while she is an honorable person and a respectable writer--a shining exception in the desolate wastelands of SF--she is not a great writer. As novels, not even her best SF is exceptional, and her celebrated and award-winning longer and shorter stories like "The Word for World is Forest," "Nine Lives," "The Day Before the Revolution," or "The Eye of the Heron" are first and foremost banal--ethically and morally commendable, but essentially shallow. These stories have more human warmth than they have the power to move, and I think as an aesthetics of SF, Mrs. Le Guin's views on "Mrs. Brown" could only further the self-deception to which SF and SF criticism tend anyway: the pretension that mediocre but popular works are first-rate works of literature. (Consider, for example, the insider praise for the work of the arch-sentimentalist Theodore Sturgeon, who is so often cited as a great writer unduly ignored outside of SF.) But this preference--or prejudice--for "good characterization" is certainly shared by the readership at large, which favors long books with "serious" characterization (but which nevertheless must not offer any difficulty in instant comprehension). Why else would books like "Star Dance" by Jeanne and Spider Robinson or "Dreamsnake" by Vonda N. McIntyre be so popular, except for a fundamental misunderstanding of characterization? These are hardly books that a literary critic would notice.

Mrs. Le Guin's inherent tendency for illusionism, which is in part explainable by her own development as a writer from modest beginnings in Amazing Stories and with Ace Books to the preeminence in the field today, may best be gauged from her enthusiastic attitude to the currently popular brand of fantasy. What was for the German romanticists the blue flower of Novalis are for her the dragons, and the difference between a beautiful and elegant flower and a rather crude animal like a dragon is indicative of the worlds that separate romantic fantasy from its modern incarnation as a phenomenon of the mass-market. For Mrs. Le Guin, dragons are symbols of a nocturnal, somewhat more noble world, far from everyday life and its personal and political conflicts--not mere escapism, but rather a poetic transformation of life, a metaphor and a symbol. Again and again she defends these dragons and sorcerers as symbols of a deep psychological truth, often citing Jung's psychology, his shadow and other symbols of the unconscious. Polemically it could be said that the psychological basis of modern fantasy lies not in its power of individuation but, on the contrary, in its appeal to common symbols, perhaps directly influencing the subconscious--i.e., its appeal to the mass mind. This may explain its success in the market place, but is not necessarily indicative of great literary merit. Mrs. Le Guin also polemicizes against sword and sorcery and the pretentiousness of the stolen myths found in so much SF; but she rarely cites particular examples. Samuel R. Delany and Roger Zelazny, the main culprits in this respect, are probably not meant by her, although she says a few words about a misdirection of Zelazny's development as a writer. She loves above all J.R.R. Tolkien, whom she thinks is a most profound writer often slighted by certain reviewers who claim that his philosophy and ethics are simplistic (because they are simple minds themselves, such as the writer of these lines). Is Tolkien more than a British Robert E. Howard with an university education and tenure? Yet she seems to be seriously of the opinion that fantasy is a suppressed literary form that doesn't get due attention. Dragons are symbols of freedom, i.e., of the freedom of imagination, and therefore disliked by librarians and similar unimaginative people. Why are Americans afraid of dragons?, she asks in a speech given in 1973. Can there be a bigger misunderstanding of the situation? Tolkien isn't exactly an unread, suppressed writer, and if he may have suffered some attacks, and was ignored by other critics, the readers stood solidly behind him: in commercial terms, he is one of the most successful writers of the century. Tolkien is a romantic writer, and Mrs. Le Guin says in one place of herself that her imagination is romantic and not ironical, and this natural disposition--in her case surely without any commercial intentions-- explains, perhaps more than the beauty of her writing, her success: identification is what insures success in American SF or fantasy, not critical distancing and an ironical stance. And why are Italo Calvino's so much more sophisticated and ironical knightly fantasies known to only a few? "I suspect," Mrs. Le Guin writes, "that almost all very highly technological peoples are more or less anti-fantasy. There are several national literatures which, like ours, have had no tradition of adult fantasy for the past several hundred years: the French, for instance. But then you have the Germans, who have a good deal and the English, who have it, and love it, and do it better than anyone else" (p. 40). But about what kind of fantasy is she speaking here? Surely fantasy is as old as literature, and has existed in many countries, including, most emphatically, France. But nobody there or in Germany thought, as Tolkien did, and the modern fantasy writers in England and America do, of creating complete parallel worlds: they fluctuated perhaps between a fairy tale world or a world glimpsed in dreams and the real world, but they did not think of firmly occupying a fantasy world to such an extent as to create whole alternate geographies, cultures, languages--invariable simple worlds close to nature and the physical attributes of all its creatures. All the parallel "inner lands" of Tolkien and others like him are "inner" only in the sense that they have sprung from human minds--as cannot be otherwise in literature, just as the euphemism "imaginative literature" sometimes used for fantasy, is a presumption. More important than the spiritual values in these books are the descriptions of purely physical things, of external landscapes, and of physical feats. But in the eyes of the apologists for fantasy, any stumbling around in a fantasy world becomes a spiritual quest.

Contrary to what Mrs. Le Guin thinks of the anti-fantasy attitude of highly technological people, modern fantasy is a reaction to industrial society and its pressures, and could hardly have arisen in another society; a peasant people would hardly have any use for such a literary genre. It is not chance that this kind of fantasy arose in l9th-century England, the country that first felt the full pressure of industrialization; that its main practitioners, whether Morris, Lord Dunsany, C.S. Lewis, E.R. Eddison, or J.R.R. Tolkien all profoundly disliked their own time; or that this literature reached its greatest popularity in the scientifically and industrially most advanced country on Earth (the US), and then spread from there to other countries. Modern fantasy is a literature for a discontented city population, and especially for the young people fed up with their civilization: seeing no sense in technological progress, dissatisfied with things as they are, and unable to create new values, they turn to writers who re-create at great length what genuine fairy tales told much more poignantly and with greater charm; and Le Guin's short remarks on H.C. Andersen suggest, at least to this writer, that Andersen is so much better than the touted J.R.R. Tolkien. For Mrs. Le Guin and a few others, myth may indeed be a living reality and the proper expression of what they want to say. But in general, the myths presented in fantasy are dead, and perhaps it is exactly for this reason that they can, with impunity, be varied and re-combined in literature, just as the dead languages Greek and Latin provide a ready reservoir for scientific terms. Writers who lack an inner guide that would enable them to create something truly new and appropriate for our times may approach them with the unconscious habit of grave robbers in search of "eternal verifies" to give significance to their pulpish stories. Again it is perhaps not merely chance that the fantastic writings of Mircea Eliade, as archaic and anti-scientific as they are [but Mircea Eliade knows whereof he speaks] are not even mentioned in American discussions of fantasy--for they have nothing in common with the currently popular brand of fantasy. Now, of course, even the writings of Tolkien (and Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy, which is so much better than Tolkien) have a proper, if only very minor place in literature: only when they rise to mass phenomena do they become a regrettable symptom of what is wrong with our times.

Le Guin's book is a well-written, intelligent, witty and above all coherent statement of a world view: but at the same time it is ameliorating, and for all its love for truth often is illusionistic and lacking the courage and the insight to perceive the true state of things. These latter qualities may all contribute to Mrs. Le Guin's popularity with readers, but they stand in the way of her being a great writer of lasting significance.

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