Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Le Guin, Ursula K

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(1929-2018) US writer, one of the two or three most important US sf authors of the second half of the 20th century, though the fact that she tends to speculate less in the hard than in the human sciences has led some critics, unwisely, to describe her as mainly a writer of fantasy. She is not. The Hainish sequence, which contains her best-known work, is thoroughly sf; even The Lathe of Heaven (1971) – one of the works she has called "psychomyths" – offers an sf explanation for the reality-changing power of its protagonist's Dreams.

Nevertheless, UKLG is an important fantasy writer – for her work in short forms, which runs a gamut from Slick Fantasy through Fairytale and parable to erudite (and sometimes arduous) metafictions; for the Earthsea sequence, set in a full Secondary World; for the Orsinia books, set in a minimally altered Land-of-Fable Europe; and for individual novels like The Beginning Place (1980). Throughout all this work, an underlying pattern can be traced: the Quest for one's opposite, with whom one must join together to become whole (see Balance; Jungian Psychology; Yin and Yang). In 1979 she was awarded the Gandalf Award.

UKLG began publishing with "An die Musik" for Western Humanities Review in 1961 – further essentially nongenre work was assembled in Orsinian Tales (coll 1976) – and began releasing work of genre interest in 1962 with "April in Paris" (Fantastic), a slick fantasy in which a variety of people from different eras are brought together by Time Travel into a glowing 15th-century Paris, where their Wishes come true in a series of marriages with fitting others. In "Darkness Box" (1963), a prince is given the power to free Time, which allows him properly to confront his brother, who is also his Shadow. In "The Word of Unbinding" (1964), a Magus begins to understand that his enemy is keeping him alive because he fears him dead, and after unbinding his own Soul defeats his foe in the Afterlife. "The Rule of Names" (1964), a tale which seems to present a normal Theodicy of its medieval Fantasyland venue, turns into a subversive reversal of all these easy values. "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" (1973), which won a 1974 Hugo Award, puts into a fantastic frame a moral lesson about the funding of Utopia. UKLG's earlier short fiction is assembled in The Wind's Twelve Quarters (coll 1975) and The Compass Rose (coll 1982).

For many years her interest in short stories was intermittent, though the Animal Fantasies and Beast Fables assembled as Buffalo Gals, and Other Animal Presences (coll 1987; vt Buffalo Gals 1990 UK) – "Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight" itself won both a Hugo and a World Fantasy Award – are highly energetic attempts to dramatize a proper relationship (and balance) between the original American Land and the peoples who have invaded it. But not until the early 1990s did she begin once again to produce classic tales with any consistency. The most notable of these later works may be "The Poacher", from Xanadu (anth 1993, ed Jane Yolen), whose Et in Arcadia Ego conclusion is moving, evocative and ambivalent. A young man explores deeper and deeper Into the Woods until finding a magic Polder, where Sleeping Beauty and her court continue to slumber. He reads her Story in a Book of fairytales he finds in the castle, decides not to awaken her, and spends the rest of his long life enjoying the sleepers, protected by Time in Faerie, eerie and calm. He realizes that he is not in a Dream but in fact a dream dreamed by Story.

As a fantasy writer, UKLG remains best-known for the Earthsea sequence – A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs of Atuan (1971) and The Farthest Shore (1972), all three assembled as Earthsea (omni 1977 UK; vt The Earthsea Trilogy 1979 UK), plus Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea (1990). The first three volumes, which remain central to UKLG's reputation, follow the life of young Ged, who begins as an Ugly Duckling on one of the outlying Islands of the great Archipelago which constitutes this Secondary World, throughout which evocatively conceived Dragons fly. Ged soon studies to become a Wizard, and ends his active life as a Magus. During this career he resurrects (and must confront) his Shadow; he learns how to cooperate with a young woman in the furtherance of his goal, which is to achieve Balance between light and dark, male and female, life and death, Magic and its cost (every act of magic necessarily puts balance at risk). Finally he travels to the ends of the world and to the Underworld to combat a balance-destroying religious claim that Souls are immortal. In the much later fourth volume, a further sorting out of proper balance and a certain "correction" of the male-oriented fantasy world of the earlier books, is attempted; in Earthsea Revisioned (1992 lecture as "Children, Men and Dragons"; 1993 chap), UKLG makes the case for this recasting. Throughout the sequence, the intimate clarity of her conception and the pellucid authenticity of her descriptions of her world and its mortal folk make Earthsea one of the most deeply influential of all 20th-century fantasy texts.

UKLG's other work of interest includes the Orsinia sequence – Orsinian Tales (coll 1976) and Malafrena (1979) – whose relatively unadventurous texture tends to confirm speculation that the tales were at least drafted long before publication; and The Beginning Place (1980; vt Threshold 1980 UK), in which two adolescents pass through a Portal into a subfusc Otherworld, where they undergo a Rite of Passage, and return home together. As usual, UKLG transforms cliché into wise, unfettered observation.

Several of the essays assembled in The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction (coll 1979; rev 1989 UK) ed Susan Wood (1948-1980) concern fantasy – most notably its republication of From Elfland to Poughkeepsie (1973 chap), which contains informed appreciations of Lord Dunsany, of E R Eddison and of Kenneth Morris, whose reputation this essay re-established. Others are "Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?" (1974), in which UKLG argues that one "matures" not by outgrowing fantasy but by growing up into it; and "The Child and the Shadow" (1975), about Jungian Psychology. Some of the essays in Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places (coll 1989) are also of strong interest. [JC]

other works: The Water Is Wide (1976 chap); The Visionary: The Life Story of Flicker of the Serpentine (1984 chap dos); much sf (see SFE).

Plays and poetry: There is one screenplay of fantasy interest, King Dog (1985 dos). Prolific poetry begins with Wild Angels (coll 1975 chap).

For younger children: Leese Webster (1979 chap); the Adventures in Kroy sequence, being The Adventures of Cobbler's Rune (1982 chap) and Solomon Leviathan's Nine Hundred and Thirty-First Trip Around the World (1983 chap); A Visit from Dr Katz (1988 chap; vt Dr Katz 1988); the Catwings sequence, being Catwings (1988 chap), Catwings Return (1989 chap) and Wonderful Alexander and the Catwings (1994 chap); Fire and Stone (1989 chap); Fish Soup (1992 chap); A Ride on the Red Mare's Back (1992 chap).

Nonfiction: Dreams Must Explain Themselves (coll 1975 chap); The Way of the Water's Going (1989), with photographs by Ernest Waugh and Alan Nicholson; Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction (1991 chap); Talk About Writing (1991 chap); Findings (1992 chap); The Art of Bunditsu (1993 chap).

Ursula Kroeber Le Guin


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.