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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"

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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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III J.R.R. Tolkien’s Depiction of Nature

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J.R.R. Tolkien is the most famous example of a war-veteran who refused to say “good-bye to all that”—to use the famous title of Graves’ 1929 autobiography—and took to writing fantasy narratives that, like the predecessors we have just discussed, provide the reader with visions of wonder set off by nature, in order to reenchant a dreary contemporary reality.

Tolkien’s most famous works of fantasy, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, were not published until 1937, 1954–55 and 1977 respectively, but he had begun writing sustained narratives of fantasy as early as 1917. Two different moments related to intimate experiences of nature, beauty and transcendence—one just before the outbreak of the war, and the other soon after Tolkien’s return from the Somme—frame his descent into the infernal reality of the trenches, and the three experiences together were crucial in setting off his particular creativity.

The first moment took place in Cornwall, in August of 1914. As John Garth explains, Tolkien was sitting on the very edge of the Lizard Peninsula, the south-westernmost point of Britain, watching the rise of Venus, the evening star. The moment was enhanced by a reading of a poem in Old English that Tolkien had come across a few years earlier: Crist II, by Cynewulf, which speaks mysteriously of a certain Earendel as being “the brighest of angels”, a divine personification of the evening star, “sent over Middle-earth”. Tolkien asked himself where this Earendel...

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