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From East to West

The Portrayal of Nature in British Fantasy and its Projection in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Western American "Earthsea"


Martin Simonson and Jon Alkorta Martiartu

The portrayal of nature in the genre of fantasy fiction, from the Middle Ages to more modern times, has been conditioned by the diverging social, political and historical contexts. This book seeks to disclose how the natural world has been depicted within this genre during different periods, drawing a comparison between the British tradition of fantasy literature and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle. Le Guin adheres to the general traits of the genre up to a point, but as a woman of the 20th century living in the American West, her works also deviate from the received tradition in many significant ways.

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I The Discourse of Nature in British Imaginative Literature: From the Middle Ages to the Early Twentieth Century


It is the purpose of this chapter to provide some background on how nature has been portrayed in British literature throughout the ages. It is necessary to do so, because Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle belongs to a genre commonly known as epic fantasy; a literary mode established mainly by J.R.R. Tolkien in works like The Lord of the Rings, which set the standards for subsequent fantasy literature written in this field. As I have argued elsewhere (Simonson 2008), one of the traits of this genre is that it puts different historical narrative traditions in dialogue on a simultaneous level, so the first step is to provide an outline of how nature has been portrayed in some salient examples taken from the Western canon, with which both Tolkien and Le Guin were intimately familiar. We shall then concentrate in some detail on the Edwardian period, a post-Romantic moment in history in which the foundations of modern fantasy were laid, and whose literary expression of nature affected J.R.R. Tolkien, who grew up in this period and would himself be instrumental in creating the genre in which Le Guin would later write Earthsea.

English literature is said to begin with Beowulf, a work of narrative verse written in Old English at some point in the 8th century. Beowulf is indebted to age-old myths and other preceding narrative genres, such as heroic poetry and the folktale—but above all to the epic tradition of Classical Antiquity, which blend all three. Epic literature...

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