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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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Throughout these pages, we have been able to discern two main directions in Le Guin’s representation of nature. On the one hand, the chain of influence, reaching back to the European tradition and the genre of epic fantasy established by J.R.R. Tolkien, is clearly visible in Le Guin’s choice of a pseudo-medieval setting, and her portrayal of a feudalized culture, where a central power that oversteps its bounds in relation to the natural world, finds clear precedents both in the Arthurian tradition and that of Tolkien. On the other hand, Le Guin’s distinctively Western American context prompts a twist to the overarching plot-scheme of the old narratives: the old dream of a paradise in the West has been forfeited, but there is still room for hope—and by recognizing that the enemy is found at the very centre of our own culture, and that it is our own displacement from nature that has caused the rupture, the peripheral vision of previously neglected minorities are brought to the forefront in Le Guin’s work.

In fact, we could say that the aforementioned ideas are interconnected. To start with, Le Guin’s view of humanity as the destabilising element within a system of extremely intimate and intricate connections is made manifest. It is perhaps because of this that she so eagerly seeks to rid man of his centrality, which can be seen in her choice of creating a universe where, forsaking her religious European roots (Christianity), nature now sits at the very...

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