Myth and Folklore

Ursula K. Le Guin: In Memoriam

I was saddened this morning to hear about the death of Ursula K. Le Guin, one of the giants of fantasy literature, and an author I have written about and taught for many years. I was asked to write a brief article about her for The Conversation, which is available to read here: https://theconversation.com/ursula-k-le-guins-strong-female-voice-challenged-the-norms-of-a-male-dominated-genre-90636

Here are also some of my favourite quotations from Le Guin’s Earthsea books and her essays about fantasy literature in The Language of the Night:

On the conception of The Wizard of Earthsea:

‘Serious consideration of magic, and of writing for kids, combined to make me wonder about wizards. Wizards are usually elderly or ageless Gandalfs, quite rightly and archetypically. But what were they before they had white beards? How did they learn what is obviously an erudite and dangerous art? Are there colleges for young wizards? And so on.’ (The Language of the Night, p. 51)

On challenging assumptions about race in her fantasy writing:

My color scheme was conscious and deliberate from the start… I didn’t see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white (and why all the leading women had “violet eyes”). It didn’t even make sense. Whites are a minority on Earth now – why wouldn’t they still be either a minority, or just swallowed up in the larger colored gene pool, in the future? The fantasy tradition I was writing in came from Northern Europe, which is why it was about white people. I’m white, but not European. My people could be any color I liked, and I like red and brown and black. I was a little wily about my color scheme. I figured some white kids (the books were published for “young adults”) might not identify straight off with a brown kid, so I kind of eased the information about skin color in by degrees – hoping that the reader would get “into Ged’s skin” and only then discover it wasn’t a white one. (A Whitewashed Earthsea)

On fantasy, dreaming, and the inner journey:

The great fantasies, myths and tales are indeed like dreams: they speak from the unconscious to the unconscious, in the language of the unconscious – symbol and archetype. Though they use words, they work the way music does: they short-circuit verbal reasoning, and go straight to the thoughts that lie too deep to utter. They cannot be translated fully into the language of reason, but only a Logical Positivist, who also finds Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony meaningless, would claim that they are therefore meaningless. They are profoundly meaningful, and usable – practical – in terms of ethics; of insight; of growth… It also seems to me that most of the great works of fantasy are about that journey [to self-knowledge]; and that fantasy is the medium best suited to a description of that journey, its perils and rewards. The events of a voyage into the unconscious are not describable in the language of rational daily life: only the symbolic language of the deeper psyche will fit them without trivializing them. (The Language of the Night, pp. 62, 65)

On magic and “true names” in Earthsea:

To change this rock into a jewel, you must change its true name. And to do that, my son, even to so small a scrap of the world, is to change the world. It can be done… But you must not change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow on that act. The world is in balance, in Equilibrium. A wizard’s power of Changing and of Summoning can shake the balance of the world. It is dangerous, that power. It is most perilous. It must follow knowledge, and serve need. To light a candle is to cast a shadow… (A Wizard of Earthsea, chapter 3)

On action and self-knowledge:

“When I was young, I had to choose between the life of being and the life of doing. And I leapt at the latter like a trout to a fly. But each deed you do, each act, binds you to itself and to its consequences, and makes you act again and yet again. Then very seldom do you come upon a space, a time like this, between act and act, when you may stop and simply be, or wonder who, after all, you are.” (The Farthest Shore, chapter 3)

On life and death:

“Death and life are the same thing—like the two sides of my hand, the palm and the back. And still the palm and the back are not the same…They can be neither separated, nor mixed.” (The Farhest Shore, chapter 5)

Ursula K. Le Guin, 1929-2018. R.I.P.

 

References:

Le Guin, U.K. (1992) The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. New York: HarperCollins.

Le Guin, U.K. (1993) The Earthsea Quartet. London: Penguin.

Le Guin, U.K. (2004) A Whitewashed Earthsea: How the Sci Fi Channel wrecked my books. Available at: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2004/12/a_whitewashed_earthsea.html

 

New article on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Father Christmas Letters in The Conversation

I had a new (festive) article published yesterday on the The Conversation, titled: “J.R.R. Tolkien’s Christmas letters to his children bring echoes of Middle-earth to the North Pole”. In this article I discuss the letters from Father Christmas Tolkien sent to his children, and the creation of an entire parallel Christmas mythology (alongside his Middle-earth legendarium) which appropriated American popular culture about Santa Claus, but also added new characters, details and even invented languages and scripts! Some of the research that went into this piece is also included in my first monograph, Tolkien, Race and Cultural History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

You can read the entire article here.

Alan Garner’s The Owl Service has its 50th anniversary today!

One of the books I’ve worked with very closely during the last few years is Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. Garner’s creative re-use of the tale of Lleu, Blodeuwedd, and Gronw from the Welsh Mabinogion made it a prime candidate for inclusion in my recently published monograph, Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). In Chapter 5, I explore the way in which Garner creatively reshaped and appropriated this Welsh legend, and I argue that he created a “prototype text” in which the supernatural erupts into the mundane and intrudes into family and/or romantic relationships of teenagers. Books such as Jenny Nimmo’s The Chestnut Soldier and Catherine Fisher’s Darkhenge has followed this tradition, using Welsh myth as a way of dealing with psychological traumas, internal anxieties, and the perennial problems that often concern teenagers
(romance, sexuality, intergenerational and sibling conflict, etc.).

Having been published in 1967, I knew that the book was going to be 50-years-old at some point this year, so I got in touch with HarperCollins to find out the exact date. Thanks to their archivist, Dawn Sinclair, I now know that The Owl Service was published on 21st August 1967, so it celebrates its 50th anniversary today. Dawn very kindly tracked for me the relevant page in the Collins Complete Book Catalogue, Autumn 1967:

Photo courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers Archive

Photo courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers Archive

To mark the 50th anniversary of The Owl Service, I contributed this article to the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) online today: https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/alan-garner-owl-service-fifty/

I look forward to teaching the book again this year and to sharing its haunting qualities with my students.