The Guardian [UK]
Chronicles of Earthsea
Ursula Le Guin's books include A Wizard of Earthsea, The
Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness and many others.
This is an edited transcript of her online Q&A, in which she
answered readers' questions about anarchism, utopias, Harry
Potter, her favourite planets and the best Dr Who
Monday February 9, 2004
'We all have archipelagoes in our minds'
-- Ursula Le Guin
Question: In The Lathe of Heaven, you portrayed a world in
which one person's utopia became another's dystopia. Do you
see a parallel between the world you portrayed in 1971 and
the world in which we live now, say with regard to the war
in Iraq? Was there any event that inspired you to write
Lathe of Heaven?
Ursula K Le Guin: The Lathe of Heaven is a taoist novel, not
a utopian or dystopian one. It's just this world in its
usual degree of mess and misery, or a little more so. Haber
is a utopian, yes: and he tries to use George's dreams to
achieve his quite rational notions of how things might be
improved: but every time he tries it, things get worse.
There is an old American saying, "If it ain't broke, don't
fix it." The novel extends that a bit -- "Even if it's
broke, if you don't know how to fix it, don't."
Q: The book also deals with the power of one man's dreams in
determining reality. Do you think dreams play any part in
influencing our reality? Philip K Dick is said to have had a
vision that formed many of his later views and ideas, as
explored in Valis. Are any of your novels based on dreams
you have had?
UKL: No, I don't think dreams change reality (I really am
fairly sane). Of course a dream can change the way one
thinks and acts, as Phil Dick's dream or vision changed his
thinking. Some writers can use dream fairly directly as
story source, as Stevenson did in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but
I do better when awake.
Q: Nicholas Lezard has written 'Rowling can type, but Le
Guin can write.' What do you make of this comment in the
light of the phenomenal success of the Potter books? I'd
like to hear your opinion of JK Rowling's writing style
UKL: I have no great opinion of it. When so many adult
critics were carrying on about the "incredible originality"
of the first Harry Potter book, I read it to find out what
the fuss was about, and remained somewhat puzzled; it seemed
a lively kid's fantasy crossed with a "school novel", good
fare for its age group, but stylistically ordinary,
imaginatively derivative, and ethically rather mean-spirited.
Q: Where did the idea of discovering 'true names' as a means
to powerful magic come from? Do you know what fired you to
include it in the Earthsea books as such a central theme?
UKL: It's a very old idea in magic, all over the world. I
read Lady Frazier's Leaves from the Golden Bough as a kid,
and probably met it there. Or almost anywhere. A writer, an
artist whose medium is words, is likely to find the idea of
magic as naming, words as power, a quite natural one.
Q: Have you ever considered allowing Earthsea to be filmed?
UKL: Well, it looks as if the last of a longish series of
non-starters is going to start; the Sci Fi Channel here is
suddenly announcing that they are going to film the first
two books of Earthsea in British Columbia and release it as
a four-hour miniseries in December. If there's a script I
haven't seen it. (I can only say I hope it is better than
the last one I saw, which, apparently feeling that Ged's
story wasn't very interesting, threw in a sea-monster, some
pirates, and -- was it cowboys? a space ship? -- surely not
. . . )
Q: One of the most memorable images of the Earthsea books is
that of the "wall of stones" and the grey world of the dead
beyond. The idea of a shadowy world of despair seems to crop
up a lot in SF -- in the last century I'm reminded of Philip
K Dick's "tomb world", or the grey town in CS Lewis's The
Great Divorce, or most recently the world of the dead in
Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. I guess there are more
ancient parallels in the Old Testament references to "Sheol"
or the Greek conception of the Fields of Asphodel. Why do
you think so many writers have talked about death in these
terms and is there a reason why it is such a recurring theme
in the Earthsea books?
UKL: The dark, dry, changeless world after death of Earthsea
comes (in so far as I am conscious of its sources) from the
Greco-Roman idea of Hades' realm, from certain images in
Dante, and from one of Rilke's Elegies. A realm of shadow,
dust, where nothing changes and "lovers pass each other in
silence" -- it seems a fairly common way of thinking about
what personal existence after death would be, not a
specifically modern one? I do hope you noticed that the wall
of stones was broken down in the sixth book of Earthsea, and
that all that world of dust and silence was "changed,
changed utterly" . . .
Q: Do you have a favourite TV programme?
UKL: I used to watch Star Trek, until they went off the
rails with Voyager, and when we were in England about two
centuries ago we got hooked on Dr Who -- the guy with the
long scarf and the great nose, not the one after him who
looked like he needed some vitamins. There isn't much to
watch on American TV now unless you are into violence and/or
canned laughter. Did you know that most of the laugh tracks
they use are so old that the people you hear laughing at the
sitcom are mostly dead? It seems appropriate. The only
program I watch weekly is Bill Moyers, which probably means
nothing to you in England. He is a terrific interviewer and
Q: It has sometimes been said that your book The
Dispossessed manifested the libertarian/communal ethos of
the counter-culture. (Perhaps Always Coming Home did too?)
UKL: I'd put it this way: Dispossessed is an Anarchist
utopian novel. Its ideas come from the Pacifist Anarchist
tradition -- Kropotkin etc. So did some of the ideas of the
so-called counterculture of the sixties and seventies.
Q: How do you view that countercultural movement these days,
as the boomers grow old (and wise?). With hindsight -- what
was its upside, and downside? Do you still share that brand
of idealism (if you ever did), or have your hopes and
visions morphed into a different shape?
UKL: I liked the generosity and the sense of responsibility
towards the future that were strong in the sixties and
seventies. They are strong again, now, among people in the
Green and anti-corporation movements, the anti-war and
anti-Bush movements. A lot of people don't get wise as they
get old, they just get old.
Q: Is Taoism a path you try to follow? Doesn't it seek to
undermine individualism and promote traditional roots -- the
antithesis, really, of boomers' ideals and legacy?
UKL: Taoism is two things: one is a religion, very nearly
wiped out by Mao Tse-tung in a tremendous act of cultural
despotism; I know next to nothing about it. The other is a
philosophy, or actually a way of thinking, which is
profoundly subversive and permanently anti-establishment.
(It's a tough act to be a radical for 2000 years, but Lao
Tzu did it.) If you want to know about the religion you'll
need to find a priest. If you want to know about the way of
thinking, read Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu. You can read Lao Tzu
in my own translation, if you like. Or there are about 50
others. I like mine best. The best complete Chuang Tzu
translation is Burton Watson's.
Q: Perhaps you feel a bit out of step with your contemporaries?
UKL: Why should a woman of 74 want to be "in step with"
anybody? Am I in an army, or something?
Q: Last year I taught The Dispossessed as part of a course
on Utopian literature. A lot of our discussion centred on
the book's subtitle, 'An Ambiguous Utopia.' Critics have
seemed to imply that this suggests both Anarres and Urras
are ambiguously utopian, but this didn't satisfy us, as
Urras seemed so bleak and oppressive. Anarres, for all its
flaws, seemed to fit within the tradition of utopias far
better. Why did you chose this subtitle?
UKL: Urras bleak and oppressive? With all that great
shopping, and good food, and easy sex, and capitalism up the
wazoo? Hey, you don't like WalMart, or something? I thought
both Urras and Anarres had their virtues and their faults,
so that each could serve to some extent as a corrective and
model to the other -- though obviously my heart belongs to
Anarres! Therefore the utopia, instead of being prescriptive
like most utopias, is ambiguous. Ambivalent. Ambidextrous.
Two hands, each offering something different.
Q: Do you have a wide reader base in languages other than
UKL: Most of my fiction has gone into Dutch and Japanese
(often the first countries to translate Anglophone SF),
French, German, Spanish (in Latin America and Spain),
Italian, and the Scandinavian languages; it used to be
pirated in Russia, now it is obtained under copyright;
altogether I think I have books of mine in 16 languages,
including Urdu, Hebrew, and Chinese: but nothing in any
Arabic language, alas.
Q: When you come to write a story, do you find that you
start with an issue you want to address, and then find the
world, the characters which will illustrate that issue? Or
do the worlds and characters come to you first, bringing
UKL: That's it. Mostly. Really, the people and the issues
all come together in a sort of clump or knot, and writing
the story is untying, unwinding the knot.
Q: Your short story 'Solitude' is one of my favourites, as
it brings to life a legitimate female solitude without
loneliness that is very hard to claim, either from oneself
or other people, on this planet! How did that story, for
UKL: Thank you, I am fond of that story too. As well as I
can remember -- origins of stories get very misty very soon
-- the characters (the mother and the two children), and the
general idea of a radically intraverted society, came all
together: that was the knot. I looked for the right end to
pull to undo the knot: that turned out to be who tells the
story -- the narrator's voice. She was going to tell me how
it was. So I let her.
Q: My brothers and I felt 'included' when we read the
Earthsea books. We were black children growing up in Britain
in the 1970s and we perceived very early on that books like
Lord of the Rings or Dune (as much as we loved them) didn't
really 'include' us -- indeed, they felt exclusive. You
describe Ged as being dark-skinned, and my brothers and I
have argued for years over whether he was black or not.
UKL: I see Ged as dark brownish-red, and all the other
people in the book (except the Kargs and Serret) as brown or
brown-red, to very dark or black (Vetch). In other words, in
the Archipelago "people of color" are the norm, white people
are an anomaly. Vice versa on the Kargish islands. That much
is pretty clear in the books. How dark you want Ged to be is
pretty much up to you! Why not? Readers rule, OK? But what
drives me up the wall is cover illustrators -- trying to get
them not to make everybody white, white, white. Did you ever
see the very first English edition of A Wizard of Earthsea?
It was a Puffin paperback, I think. I was really excited
about it -- I think it was my first English publication --
until I saw it. The Ged on the cover was this
marshmallow-colored guy drooping like a lily in a sort of
nightgown. Oh Lord! I think most white people have failed to
notice that most of the people in most of my SF and fantasy
are not white people. So. What else is new?
Q: Where did the inspiration for the Earthsea stories come
from -- your politics, your imagination, or simply a need to
tell a good story?
UKL: I hate to admit it, but it came from a publisher. He
asked me to write him a fantasy for "eleven up". Uh-oh, I
never wrote for kids, I don't know how, I said. Then I went
home, and thought about kids. Boys. How does a boy learn to
be an old guy with a white beard who can do magic? -- And
there was my book . . . Come to think of it, Ged never did
grow a beard.
Q: I've always appreciated the deeper dimension of the
Earthsea trilogy, particularly the contemplation of the
nature of life and death. Ged's message to Cob in The
Farthest Shore on life after dying: "Here is nothing, dust
and shadows. There, he is the earth and sunlight, the leaves
of trees, the eagle's flight. He is alive. And all who ever
died, live . . . " That has stayed with me, was a great
comfort to me when my Dad died
UKL: Thank you for telling me that. Soon after A Wizard of
Earthsea came out in England it received a review in a
science-fiction periodical which took the book to task for
being "consolatory" and "reassuring". Well, fair enough, I
thought, if the consolation is false, if the reassurance is
unwarranted; but are consolation and reassurance inherently
false, unwarranted -- foolish, soft, silly, childish --
sentimental? Are we writers only to threaten, terrify, and
depress our readers with our ruthless honesty: have we not
as good a right to offer them whatever comfort we've come by
I wrote the reviewer and told him what I thought, and that I
thought I had Tolkien to back me up. He wrote back nicely
enough saying that of course he hadn't been thinking of the
book as being written for children. Apparently it is
permissible to reassure or console children, but not adults.
Such an attitude seems to me to be based on a strange notion
that the Common Reader is so happy, so foolishly confident,
so stupidly trustful, that the Common Writer's whole duty is
to convince him that life is hard and full of grief and that
there is no consolation. Most adults I know already know
that life is hard and full of grief; and they look for both
confirmation of this knowledge, and consolation for it, in art.
Q: Years ago I travelled in Indonesia. I've sometimes
wondered if that archipelago was the inspiration for
Earthsea; if not, what was?
UKL: I think we all have archipelagoes in our minds.
Q: Do you agree that the world of 'Winter's King' -- which,
whether the pronouns are masculine or feminine, is all about
good and bad kings and loyal and disloyal subjects -- is not
really the same as that of The Left Hand of Darkness, where
'the kings of Karhide are all mad' and no one takes them and
their ideas of patriotism very seriously?
UKL: Yes, there is a shift between the story (written
earlier than the novel) and the novel. I can partly justify
it by pointing out that a generation has passed, during
which attitudes and ideas might well change. But then,
consistency is an ideal for which I have only very
Q: Were you pleased with the Radio adaptation of A Wizard of
Earthsea? I thought Michael Maloney made an excellent Ged.
UKL: Was that the one where they pronounced it "Jed"? If so,
I stopped listening pretty soon, because I was screaming in
pain. If not, I'm not sure I ever heard it. Remember, I live
on a planet far, far away from BBC, called Oregon.
Q: Your recommendations got me into Lord Dunsany and
Virginia Woolf. Could you suggest other books or authors?
UKL: Sure! Kipling's Kim? Patrick O'Brien? Dickens? Mark
Twain? Jorge Luis Borges? Jose Saramago? Jane Austen?
Q: Do you pronounce your name the French way or, as most of
your fans do, Luh Gwinn?
UKL: Een zees country we say Luh Gwinn. En France nous
disons Le Guin, comme le vin or le gain; et en Bretagne --
c'est un nom breton -- je crois que c'est encore Luh Gwinn.
(Like Gwyn in Welsh -- I think it's the same word.) It is
all my husband's fault, anyhow.
Q: A lot of your fiction could be described as
anthropological accounts of fictional societies. I know your
father was an anthropologist: do you still read
anthropology, and are there any anthropologists whose
writing you particularly admire?
UKL: Claude Levi-Strauss has been a great source of fruitful
irritation to my mind; so has Clifford Geertz.
Q: The austere, anti-materialistic, pioneering spirit of the
anarchist settlers on Anarres, in The Dispossessed, reminds
me a bit of accounts of the very early kibbutzim, set up by
idealistic European socialists and anarchists. Did you have
this, or any other experimental communities, in mind when
you wrote the novel?
UKL: I did indeed "read up on" the kibbutzim when I was
planning Anarres. A more important souce was the work of the
American pacifist anarchist Paul Goodman and his brother.
Q: You have written about naming the islands of the Earthsea
Archipelago, and mentioned that the names were all made up
apart from two which were names you called your children
when they were small. Which two, or is it a secret?
UKL: It's a secret. I should never have mentioned it.
Q: I confess that I most enjoy your stories of Orsinia. SF,
even your own, tends to be tricksy or didactic, I think, but
the escape from that framework into straight fiction frees
the writer's attention for more interesting things -- human
relationships and human hearts, the stuff that Shakespeare
UKL: Not being Shakespeare, some of us writers have to get
to the heart of the matter by strange roads and roundabout
ways. And to some of us, the disciplined use of the
imagination is at the heart of the matter already.
Q: As for SF itself, why is it so dominated by right-wing
politics? Is it the dark Campbell/Heinlein/Anderson
influence, or is it something intrinsic to the form?
UKL: Are you only reading the old guys? Try China Miéville!
Q: In The Farthest Shore, Sparrowhawk still had a life of
adventures; in Tehanu, he had essentially a life of
troubles. I'm of course aware that 18 years or so separate
these two books, but could you describe more precisely how
time has allowed (or forced) you to reconsider Earthsea and
its inhabitants during that period?
UKL: I think you will find some discussion of this on my
website (http://www.ursulakleguin.com ). Briefly, what
happened in the 17 years between Farthest Shore and Tehanu
was that feminism was reborn, and I became 17 years older,
and learned a good deal. One of the things I learned was how
to write as a woman, not as an honorary, or imitation, man.
From a woman's point of view, Earthsea looked quite
different than it did from a man's point of view. All I had
to do was describe it from the point of view of the
powerless, the disempowered -- women, children, a wizard who
has spent his gift and must live as an "ordinary" man. The
same place, but how changed it seems! Some people hate the
book for that. They scold me for punishing Ged. I think I
was rewarding him.
Q: How did you become a Taoist, if you would consider
UKL: By reading Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, mostly. I don't have
my library here so I don't dare try to give you any names of
scholars and popularisers who helped me understand Taoism --
I would forget most of them. I don't really know how one
"is" a Taoist. I do know that Taoist ideas inform a great
deal of my writing.
Q: What modern authors would you recommend who best
represent the spirit of the Tao? Apart from Thoreau,
obviously? (I remember in one book you call a character a
"Thurrodowist" -- ie Thoreau Taoist.)
UKL: I honestly don't know. I think part of what appeals to
me so much in the novels of Jose Saramago is that his people
go along with events without trying to "master" them -- they
do by not doing. The woman who is the central character of
Blindness is truly a great hero to me.
Q: Someone wondered if Indonesia inspired Earthsea, which is
interesting as I have always seen it as being almost exactly
how I imagine ancient Greece, in terms of landscape and many
cultural aspects. It must be strange, hearing other people's
visualisations of something that is so yours, or do you feel
that by publishing, things stop being yours in some
UKL: Well, yes, sort of -- they become yours, the reader's
-- that is undeniable and inevitable. But does that in fact
change them in my mind? Not a bit. Yours is Greek, mine is
not; no matter. There are many Earthseas, many
archipelagoes; as I said, we all have them in our heads . . .
If you want to see what my Earthsea looks like, you could
sail past the Scilly Isles (handy for you Brits); or you
could go to a little bay called Trinidad on the far north
coast of California on a foggy morning (not so handy for you
Brits). But these are both places I saw long after I had
mapped and travelled in the Archipelago. It was pleasant to
be able to say -- ah! yes! that looks just like the West Reach!
Q: What effects have Ishi and his story had on your writing?
UKL: Nothing directly that I know of. I knew nothing about
Ishi and his story until my mother began writing the
biography, long after I was grown and writing and
publishing. That a lot of my protagonists are alone of their
kind among people of another kind -- this is Ishi's
situation; also the situation of a field anthropologist;
also the situation (or so it seems to me) of most
adolescents, most intellectuals, most artists . . . "I, a
stranger and afraid/ In a world I never made."
Q: Did you base the various peoples inhabiting Earthsea upon
any particular human cultures?
UKL: No, I didn't. Earthsea is one of the conventional
pre-Industrial Revolution worlds of fantasy. The
Archipelagans are generically farmer/merchant, village/small
city folk, like most of us were all over the world until the
19th century. (But their magic works, which makes them a bit
different!) The Kargs are a desert people, more warlike,
more religious, and do not practise magic.
Q: Also, why did you make all the wizards male, and give
them all those great big staffs? My colleague, Dr Freud of
Vienna, would be most interested to hear your rationale
behind this . . .
UKL: You might read what I said above about learning to
write like a woman instead of like an honorary man. From me
you can tell Dr F. to go smoke a big cigar.
Q: I read Tehanu as a fable about damage and oppression and
as containing a lesson to society not to underestimate the
damaged child, who contains a strange strength. The Other
Wind, in conjunction with "Dragonfly", confirmed this for
me. In Earthsea Revisioned you write that dragons are what
is not owned: does this apply to women, too? Do the two last
books of Earthsea imply that women cannot be owned,
predicted, dismissed and disposed of -- because they, too,
can turn into dragons and fly on "the other wind",
transcending ordinariness and reaching a wild transcendence?
UKL: This the kind of question I cannot answer. Or will not,
I don't know which. What the book says, the book says best
in its own words. For me to interpret it, translate it into
generalities and abstractions, seems perverse and foolish. I
am not a teacher, not a philosopher, not a scholar, I am a
novelist. I think in story. I follow where the story takes
me. I try to understand where I am going. I try to tell
that. But what the story "means", in any language but its
own, is for the reader to decide -- no?
Q: I particularly would like to know what your current
thoughts on The Left Hand of Darkness are.
UKL: Well, it's about 35 years since I wrote Left Hand, so
it's been for a long time a fine, handsome, grown-up book,
out earning its living, making its own way in the world; all
its maba can do is wish it well . . .
I did have a lot of fun revisiting Gethen a few years ago in
the story called "Coming of Age in Karhide", which is in my
collection The Birthday of the World. I finally got inside a
Q: What I would most like to ask you is where you get your
UKL: I sit and listen.
Q: Do you have a favourite planet or world out of the ones
you have created? I am particularly fond of O, which hasn't
had a war for five thousand years, and where almost all the
architecture and technology (trains for instance) is
ancient. Its four-way marriages also sound interesting, if
difficult . . .
UKL: That is a nice question. Evidently I like Earthsea
about as well as any, since I keep going back. I was very
fond of going to Orsinia, but I can't seem to find the way
there any more, or even to get news about what's going on
there since they "unlocked the air" and the Iron Curtain
went down. That troubles me.
I like O too. I felt quite at home there. The four-way
marriages and all. They complicate their own lives
emotionally, but they don't let uncontrolled, unconsidered
complex technologies (the automobile, the airplane, weapons,
electronic communications, genetic manipulation, etc) do it.
They also control their population growth.
I like to dream about a people who have the wits and the
strength of character to choose what they like and want from
complex technology, and just leave what they don't need
aside -- instead of letting everything become a need and
then an obligation and then a mess, as we've done and are doing.
The Kesh people, too, limit their numbers and choose their
technologies; and I suppose the Valley of the Na, in Always
Coming Home, is where I think I'd most like to live; but
that's partly because I did live there, all the summers of
Thank you all for your very interesting and difficult
questions. I hope I didn't sound short or snippy with some
of them; with so many to answer, I tried to be brief so as
not to exhaust myself or you; and some of them really were
hard to answer in anything under a 300-page tome! All the
best -- Keep reading!
Now available: _The Unspeakable and Others_
Lord We˙rdgliffe & Necronomicon Page:
News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
"It's a political statement -- or, rather, an
*anti*-political statement. The symbol for *anarchy*!"
-- Batman, explaining the circle-A graffiti, in
_Detective Comics_ #608
Not that I know of.