From East to West
The Portrayal of Nature in British Fantasy and its Projection in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Western American "Earthsea"
Table Of Content
- About the authors
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- Table of Contents
- I The Discourse of Nature in British Imaginative Literature: From the Middle Ages to the Early Twentieth Century
- The expression of nature in the Anglo-Saxon period
- Knights of the court and medieval romance narratives
- Sublime nature in Gothic narratives2
- Nature in 19th-century prose romances
- II Edwardian Reconfigurations of the Poetics of Nature and Fantasy
- English landscapes and fantasy in Edwardian literature4
- Children’s literature, nature and fantasy
- Nature, transcendence and fantasy
- Post-Edwardian rural fantasy narratives
- III J.R.R. Tolkien’s Depiction of Nature
- Tolkien’s “Recovery” and transcendentalism24
- The portrayal of the West in Tolkien’s works
- IV Nature, Fantasy and the American West in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea
- Le Guin’s imaginative transformation of the West
- The world of Earthsea: Precedents
- Life in a Fallen World
- A Natural Universe?
- Nature and the Language of the Making
- Cob: Power That Dominates
- Ged: Power that Complies
- Series index
The powers of nature have been a defining feature of all civilizations and human identity throughout history, and will inevitably remain one until anything akin to a post-human civilization has been established—if such a regrettable state of affairs should ever occur. As a consequence, myths and other types of narratives aiming to make sense of the world and give it meaning, have hinged upon the relationship between human beings and nature to a very great extent; from the earliest known nature-myths to modern science fiction dealing with the tensions between earthly bonds and digital reality.
In literature dealing with the fantastic, the natural world has been one of the central characters from the beginning. It has consistently displayed a fascination with natural phenomena and our varying interpretations of them, acting as a threshold for liminal experiences of reality, or serving as potent metaphors for different aspects of the human condition in fantastic guises. The natural world has been a force to contend or blend with, a repository of mystery or a source of horror; its portrayal has consistently reflected the particular preoccupations of the age in which the works were written. In epic literature, it was the abode of monsters of the mind, but also a guarantor of bliss and harmony. In the Middle Ages, nature was frequently given a symbolic treatment that reflected the concerns of an aristocratic society obsessed with courtly love and manners, while in the eighteenth century, nature in the Gothic novel centered on the sublime and embodied a subversive aesthetic that questioned the prevailing Enlightened notions of order, symmetry and harmony, centering instead on the dark and threatening aspects of the natural world.
The Romantic period became a turning point in the fantastic portrayal of nature. Influenced both by pseudo-medieval aesthetics and the Gothic fascination with how external, sublime landscapes reflected the inner turmoil and hidden recesses of the human mind, Romantic writers initiated a conscious exploration of how the forces of nature were connected to a higher reality, and how we could access both by means of the ←11 | 12→human imagination, conceived of as the “soul”. As a consequence, the literary portrayal of nature became increasingly imaginative, and the nineteenth century saw the rise of various modes of imaginative fiction, ranging from original fairy tales to tales of horror and pseudo-medieval prose romances, that coalesced into the emergence of modern fantasy in the early years of the twentieth century. In the Edwardian period, nature and the countryside were seen as the true repository of autochthonous culture, myth, and literature, overtly threatened by a growing sense of unease concerning Britain’s hegemonic role in the world, and modern Englishmen, frequently based in cities, developed a strong nostalgia. English identity was seen as fundamentally connected to the country, not the city. The country and nature became invested with a decidedly mystic aura, and interpreted both as an ancient home, and as something ostensibly foreign to the modern experience. This dichotomy allowed for transcendental explorations of a liminal space, where modern Englishmen were exposed to a timeless, mythic past. That this exploration occurred simultaneously in genres as varied as children’s literature and horror fiction, testifies to its strength in the period.
The Great War only served to enhance the British obsession with nature—enhanced, as Fussell rightly holds, by a long tradition of pastoral poetry which had dominated the national literature, and also by the fact that England had been exposed so early to the industrial revolution that by the time we reach the twentieth century, a nostalgia for the countryside had already been deeply ingrained in the cultural core for many generations. Add to this an Empire with many hundreds of thousands of Englishmen working in the administration of the colonies, and the ingredients for a powerful nostalgia for the English countryside, pictured as a kind of paradise which was antithetical both to colonial life and later to the infernal scenery of the trenches, and we have a fertile ground for further development of a type of fantasy literature which held on even tighter to the rural world.
Not in vain, it was a man born in South Africa that would establish the basic parameters for epic fantasy in the twentieth century. As I have argued elsewhere, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1954–55) there is a mélange of ancient and modern modes of narrative discourse, and Middle-earth acts as an extended chronotope that hosts the different traditions simultaneously, making room for a dialogue between them ←12 | 13→deprived of the ironic clashes that were so frequent in the modernist literature that belonged to the mode of what Northrop Frye has labelled “ironic myth”. In doing so, Tolkien brought into his vast narrative the corresponding world-visions of the ancient and more recent societies in which a very unmodern discourse made sense, and with them their respective attitudes and appreciations of the natural world.
Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books were written in the genre of epic fantasy that Tolkien was so instrumental in establishing. However, Le Guin was two generations younger than Tolkien, she was a woman, and—most importantly—she grew up and came to her own as a writer in the American West; a very different cultural, natural and social context compared to Tolkien’s. For these reasons, if we wish to properly assess the role of nature in Le Guin’s work, we need to look at two different contexts: the Tolkienian mode of fantasy, in turn heavily informed by ancient and more recent modes of narrative discourse, and Le Guin’s own Western American context. It is our aim in this book to discuss the “classic” portrayals of nature in a very long and fertile British literary tradition of the fantastic, and compare them with Le Guin’s vision of nature in her Earthsea books, in order to see how the latter’s literature simultaneously articulates a perpetuation and a deviation from the received tradition. By doing so, we will hopefully be able to disclose the structural and thematic strength of the generic tendrils, but also to show the impact of a specific cultural, historical and natural context on Le Guin’s portrayal of nature.
While the bulk of previous research on Le Guin’s fiction has centred on her science-fiction output, among the comprehensive studies which do take her fantasy literature into account, Harold Bloom’s 1986 anthology of essays Ursula K. Le Guin includes three essays that were useful to us at an early stage in our research. “The Good Witch of the West” by Robert Scholes, “The Magic Art and the Evolution of Words: The Earthsea Trilogy” by Tom Shippey, and George Slusser’s “The Earthsea Trilogy” helped us to situate Le Guin’s attitudes towards Christianity, her use of language in relation to magic, and the concept of the equilibrium which underlies the literary fashioning of Earthsea.
Individual full-length studies concerning the importance of language in Le Guin’s created universe, which is essential for the existence and life of Earthsea, include Deirdre Byrne PhD dissertation “Selves ←13 | 14→and Others: The Politics of Difference in the Writings of Ursula Kroeber Le Guin” (1995), in which she addresses the implications of language and naming, while Laura Comoletti and Michael Drout focus on the relationship between language and magic and its multilayered consequences in their co-authored article “How They Do Things with Words: Language, Power, Gender, and the Priestly Wizards of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Books” (2001). Both works helped us determine more closely the relationship between language and world-making in Earthsea.
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- Publication date
- 2021 (May)
- Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 160 pp.