Analysis of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Novels

When Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929 – January 22, 2018) has Genly Ai state in The Left Hand of Darkness that “truth is a matter of the imagination,” she is indirectly summarizing the essential focus of her fiction: explorations of the ambiguous nature of truth through imaginative means. Few other contemporary authors have described this process with the force and clarity of Le Guin. Her subject is always humankind and, by extension, the human environment, since humanity cannot survive in a vacuum; her technique is descriptive, and her mode is metaphoric. The worlds Le Guin creates are authentic in a profoundly moral sense as her characters come to experience truth in falsehood, return in separation, unity in variety. Frequently using a journey motif, Le Guin sends her characters in search of shadows, rings, theories, or new worlds—all of which are metaphors for undiscovered elements of the self. Along the way, Le Guin demands that they learn the paradoxes inherent in life, the ambiguous nature of creation, and the interrelatedness of all that seems to be opposed. Once made, these discoveries allow her characters to be integrated into themselves and their worlds.

In the end, her characters stand for no one, no concrete meaning; they simply are. Le Guin offers her readers characters motivated by intellectual curiosity, humanism, and self-determination, a nonviolent, nonexploitative philosophy capable of encompassing the unknown and complex cultures in relation to one another.

Ursula-le-GuinUnity is what Le Guin’s characters seek: not a simple sense of belonging but a complex sense of wholeness. Much of her outlook is derived from the Daoist philosopher Lao-tzu, who maintained that scientific, ethical, and aesthetic laws, instead of being imposed by any authority, “exist in things and are to be discovered.” Thus, Le Guin’s characters must learn to recognize the true natures (or true names) of people or objects—none of which yields easily to the protagonist—before apprehending their essence and role in the world. Dao (Tao) is the ultimate unity of the universe, encompassing all and nothing. Built upon paradox, Daoist philosophy proposes that apparently opposing forces actually complete each other. Discovering this in a world enamored of dualist thought, however, requires attaining an attitude of actionless activity, an emptying of the self and at the same time the fullest self-awareness. This compassionate attitude establishes a state of attraction, not compulsion: a state of being, not doing. Indeed, because the cycle of cause and effect is so strong, the Daoist sage never tries to do good at all, for a good action implies an evil action. Discovering the correlation of life/death, good/evil, light/dark, male/female, and self/other requires a relativist judgment. The Native American lore Le Guin absorbed as a child also contributed to her sense of unity. In her writing, she has drawn upon her rich knowledge of myths and the work of Carl Jung as well as her own fertile imagination to create intricate metaphors for psychic realities. In her own words, “Outer Space, and the Inner Lands, are still, and will always be, my country.”

Rocannon’s World

Le Guin has described Rocannon’s World, her first published novel, as “definitely purple,” an odd mixture of space age and bronze age, the product of an author unsure of her direction and materials. Drawing heavily on Norse mythology, the novel originated from a short story, “Dowry of the Angyar,” published in 1964. The story begins when a woman named Semley leaves her husband and child to claim her dowry, a gold and sapphire necklace. During her search, Semley time-travels to another planet, where Rocannon, an ethnologist, struck by her beauty and bearing, gives her the necklace, a museum piece on his planet. Semley returns home, believing that she has been gone only overnight. To her dismay, though, she discovers that she has been gone for sixteen years. Her husband is dead; her daughter a grown stranger.

The remainder of the novel concerns Rocannon’s exploration of Semley’s planet, known to him as Formalhaut II, with the aid of Semley’s grandson Mogien. After his ship is destroyed by rebels from the planet Farady, Rocannon must warn the League of All Nations of their rebellion. To do so, he must locate the rebel ship in order to use their ansible, an instantaneous transmitter, since his has been destroyed.

This episodic tale moves from adventure to adventure, as Rocannon learns that appearance often belies reality, that knowledge is not gained without sacrifice. The price he pays for increased understanding (the gift of mind-speech through which he can hear the voices of his enemy) is costly: Mogien’s life. Through his efforts, how-ever, the planet is saved. Rocannon, a man changed forever by his knowlege, never returns to his own planet, and he dies without knowing that the planet he rescues is given his name.

Often her own best critic, Le Guin has cited this novel to illustrate the flaws of mixing science fiction with fantasy, of ignoring the limitations imposed by plausibility, of excessive caution in creating a new myth, and of reliance on stereotyped characters and situations. Although this novel lacks the rich complexity of her later works, it does contain elements Le Guin develops in subsequent novels. A readily apparent trait is that her focus is not on theoretical or applied science but rather on social science: how different individuals, races, and cultures perpetuate diffusion through lack of communication and how her main character surmounts these genuine yet arbitrary barriers. For example, as an ethnologist, Rocannon is interested in learning about all kinds of human behavior; nevertheless, he assumes superiority over his “primitive” guides. Experience, however, leads him to admire the individual qualities of Mogien, Kyo, and the Fiians. During their journey, his admiration of and loyalty to them increase to such an extent that loyalty becomes a prominent theme, one developed more thoroughly in The Left Hand of Darkness, with the relationship of Mogien and Rocannon prefiguring that of Genly Ai and Estraven (as well as other pairs of characters).

The most important goal in the novel, though, is to locate the other, often presented as the enemy, unify it with the self, and thus receive personal gain. The mindspeech Rocannon learns to hear expresses his fear. Though once he listens to the voices of his enemies he will never regain the self-sufficient confidence he had before embarking on his journey, he earns a vital awareness of his human limitations. Rocannon’s sense of adventure is tempered by responsibility; his gain requires loss. In the end, Rocannon feels that he is a temporary resident on an alien planet. His sense of displacement denotes his lack of completion as a character. The novel ends without any resolution. In her next two novels, Le Guin shows greater control over her materials: less dependence upon others’ stories and more considered ideas and direction. Where Rocannon’s World indicates a major theme of self-exploration, City of Illusions develops this theme, bringing it closer to its fullest realization in The Dispossessed.

City of Illusions

City of Illusions begins dramatically in the blank terror of mental darkness experienced by Ramarren and ends in an even larger exterior darkness when Falk-Ramarren, returning to his home planet, departs for his unknown future. In the intervening time, Le Guin presents vivid scenes of an America largely undeveloped and peopled by disparate tribes, all of whom distrust one another and are united only in their universal fear of the Shing, an alien group that maintains division through that terror. Themes of communication, truth, self-discovery, and selfunification are central to this novel.

Using the quest motif, Le Guin has Falk nurtured by the pacific Forest Dwellers, who instill in him their set of values. When he leaves to discover his former identity, Falk confronts differing values, conflicting truths. Along the way, he receives the same warning from those who befriend him: trust no one; go alone. Although he neglects to heed this advice always, these warnings prepare him in part to withstand the considerable powers of the Shing, whose authority depends on self-doubt. Falk is able to recover his past self and retain his present self when he discovers that “there is in the long run no disharmony, only misunderstanding, no chance of mischance but only the ignorant eye.” After he achieves this state of understanding, his two identities merge; he becomes Falk-Ramarren to return to his world with the truth—or rather truths—he apprehends.

Le Guin’s Daoist beliefs are given full exposure in this novel, where FalkRamarren not only reads the Tao Te Ching (late third century b.c.e), called the Old Canon, and looks for The Way, but also demonstrates the strength of passivity and enters a state of actionless activity to find himself. Stoical and silent, he prefigures Shevek of The Dispossessed. Le Guin’s use of setting is also significant as it is employed to reflect psychological states. Her description of the Shing buildings in Es Toch suggests the illusory quality of this alien race and Falk’s ambiguous state of mind. This novel fails, however, to measure up to later works. The Shing, for example, meant to personify evil, are all but unbelievable. Their ambiguity lapses into confusion; their “power” is unsubstantiated. Falk’s sudden compassion for them is thus rather surprising. Another mark of this novel’s early place in Le Guin’s career is her heavyhandedness regarding her source. Not only does she thinly disguise the Tao Te Ching but she also employs puns and even paraphrases passages to stress her meaning. In her later novels, she achieves better results through greater restraint and insight.


The Left Hand of Darkness

Le Guin arrived at a denser, more original expression of Daoist thought in The Left Hand of Darkness. In this novel, she brings together previously expressed themes in a striking metaphor. Time levels, separate in former books, coexist in this novel, as do polarized political systems, philosophies, and genders. Genly Ai, the man sent to bring the planet of Genthen into the Ekumen (formerly the League of All Worlds), must, like Falk, come to see the relativity of truth. To do so, he must cross barriers of thought, barriers he is at first incapable of recognizing. Even when he does, Ai is reluctant to cross, for he must abandon his masculine-scientific-dualist training to become a relativist. He must believe that “truth is a matter of the imagination.”

Ai’s difficulty in arriving at this conclusion is complicated by his alien existence on Genthen, where he is not merely an outsider; he is a sexual anomaly, a pervert as far as the local beings are concerned. Being a heterosexual male in an androgynous culture adds immeasurably to Ai’s sense of distrust, for he cannot bring himself to trust “a man who is a woman, a woman who is a man.” The theme of androgyny enriches this novel, not simply because it develops the complex results of an androgynous culture but also because it demonstrates how gender affects—indeed prejudices—thought and explores the cultural effects of this bias. Initially, Ai can see only one gender, one side at a time. This limited vision leaves him vulnerable to betrayal, both by himself and by others. Through his friendship with Estraven, Ai begins to respect, even require, those qualities he at first denigrates until he and Estraven become one, joined in mindspeech. Ai’s varied experiences on Genthen teach him that apparently polarized qualities of light/dark, male/female, rational/irrational, patriot/traitor, life/death are necessary complements. The order of the universe requires both.

The Left Hand of Darkness consolidates Daoist ideas expressed in Le Guin’s previous books, places them in a dramatically unique culture, and develops them with a finesse lacking in her earlier novels. Ai discovers what Falk does: a fuller recognition of self through merger with the other. He does so, however, in a much more complete way because Le Guin complicates The Left Hand of Darkness with questions of opposing political systems, the nature and consequences of sexism, the issue of personal and political loyalty, and the interrelatedness of different periods of time. While retaining her basic quest structure, Le Guin has Genly Ai construct his “report” by using multiple sources: Estraven’s diary, folktales, ancient myths, reports from previous investigatory teams. This adds texture and depth by dramatizing the multiplicity of truth and the unity of time. In a sense, this mixture of sources, added to the seasonlessness of Genthen, where it is always winter, and the relentless journey over the Gobrin Ice, constructs a center of time for the reader, an objective correlative to Ai’s state of mind. Within a circular framework, a sense of wholeness is achieved. Ai will set the keystone in the arch, the image that opens The Left Hand of Darkness, by adding Genthen to the Ekumen. Later, he cements his personal bond to Estraven by visiting his home, ostensibly to return Estraven’s diary but actually to assuage a sense of betrayal for not having Estraven publicly absolved of his “crime” of supporting the Ekumen instead of his king. At the novel’s end, however, when Ai meets in Estraven’s son the father’s limitless curiosity, Ai’s journey begins anew.

Robert Scholes stated that one of the great strengths of The Left Hand of Darkness is that it “asks us to broaden our perspectives toward something truly ecumenical, beyond racism and sexism, and even speciesism.” Clearly, Le Guin opened up new territory for science-fiction writers to explore.

The Dispossessed

In The Dispossessed, her next novel in what is called her Hainish cycle, she presses even further, bringing to full realization her heroic figure of the Daoist sage in the protagonist Shevek. Stoic, persistent, curious, and humane, he shares qualities with Falk, Estraven, and Genly Ai. Shevek’s character and journey, however, differ from his predecessors’ in several important respects. Shevek’s sense of alienation is tempered by his mature love for his partner Takver. No matter how alone he is on his journey, Shevek can and does turn to their mutually supportive relationship for solace. Shevek’s sense of individual integrity is also more conscious than that of previous characters. Already aware of himself and his value, he is able to expand beyond both. Most important, Shevek has a clearly defined sense of purpose—a need to unbuild walls through communication—and a certainty of return. Early in the novel, Le Guin assures her readers that “he would most likely not have embarked on that years-long enterprise had he not had profound assurance that return was possible… that the very nature of the voyage… implied return.” Buttressed by this conviction, Shevek goes forth, his empty hands signifying his spiritual values, and effects a revolution in both senses of the word: a completed cycle and a dynamic change. When he discovers his theory of temporal simultaneity, Shevek gives it away, for he knows that its value is not in its scarcity but in its general use.

The Dispossessed is not simply a vehicle for Daoist philosophy; it is just as significantly a political novel. Le Guin subtitles the novel An Ambiguous Utopia, indicating her focus, and she directs her reader’s attention by alternating chapters on Anarres, Shevek’s home planet, and Urras, where he resides throughout much of the novel. Scenes from Anarres are recalled through flashback as Shevek, surrounded by an alien political and social system repugnant to much in his nature, reflects upon himself in relation to his culture. Anarres, founded by libertarian followers of Odo, a radical Urrasti thinker, is at once dedicated to individual freedom and to the good of the whole. There is no formal government, only a system of individually initiated syndicates, a Division of Labor to keep track of job needs, and the Production Distribution Committee to oversee production loosely. On Anarres nothing is owned; everything is shared. Because everyone is equal, there is no discrimination, no exploitation, but there are stringent societal responsibilities that all Anarresti share. Because Anarres is virtually a desert, with plant life so scarce that no animals are indigenous, careful conservation, voluntary labor, and a sense of duty to the whole are required of everyone.

By contrast, Urras is wealthy, lush with water, teeming with life. Its capitalistic system, however, encourages exploitation because profit is the motivating force. As a result, Urras has an entrenched class system, with women and workers considered inferior to the intellectual and governing classes, and a power structure intent on maintaining control. Although much of this authority is exerted by custom, some is imposed by force. Shevek, unaccustomed to any type of exploitation, violence, discrimination, or conspicuous waste, needs to experience fully the benefits and detriments of Urras before he can make necessary connections. After he recognizes that the seeds of his freedom germinated in the rich soil of Urras, he can declare his brotherhood with the Urrasti and offer them what he can: a way to the only future he knows, that of Anarres. Speaking from deep within himself, Shevek tells Urrasti rebels “You must come to it alone, and naked, as the child comes into his future, without any past, without any property, wholly dependent on other people for his life…. You cannot make the Revolution. You can only be the Revolution.”

The Earthsea series

The Earthsea series has been categorized by many as “young adult fiction.” Le Guin does write often and well for young audiences, and the fact that the three original books of the series (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore) were quite short, were populated by sorcerers and dragons, and used the vocabulary and syntax of high fantasy, tended to identify them as children’s literature, at least on the surface. However, their subtle spiritual, mythic, psychological, and philosophical underpinnings and the elegant simplicity of the writing make the books challenging and satisfying to adult readers as well.

In A Wizard of Earthsea, Le Guin introduces Ged, a natural-born wizard whose insensitive family does not realize his innate gift. Ged becomes a sorcerer’s apprentice to the mage Ogion but ultimately is forced to leave before completing his studies because he keeps casting spells before learning their complications. His inner conflicts are revealed through his struggle to find and to name what he believes to be a mysterious shadow pursuing him. Le Guin’s essay “The Child and the Shadow” (in The Language of the Night) discusses her depiction of this archetypal Jungian “dark brother of the conscious mind.”

In The Tombs of Atuan, Ged meets Tenar (known as Arha), the child-priestess of the dark Nameless Ones. Ged has gone to the Labyrinth of the Nameless Ones to recover a Ring that is necessary to the well-being of Earthsea, but he becomes a prisoner in the Labyrinth. Ged and Tenar help each other out of their different sorts of darkness and bondage, return the Ring to its rightful place, and become firm friends. Tenar finds a refuge with Ged’s old master, Ogion. Tenar is as powerful as Ged in her own way. Yet, she too leaves her apprenticeship with Ogion before completing her training, though for a different reason. Ged is forced to leave; Tenar chooses to leave for the fulfillment of married life.

Le Guin’s understanding of identity and its relationship to naming is revealed in the theme that runs throughout the Earthsea series: To know the true name of someone gives one power over him. Hence, characters have “use” names as well as real names. Real names are usually only told at the moment of death or to someone who is completely trusted.


In 1990, Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea was published, formally (or so Le Guin has said) bringing the adventures of Tenar and Ged to an end. Tehanu is markedly different from the earlier books in the series, however, in that it is written unequivocally for adults. Perhaps Le Guin wanted to aim it at the audience who had grown up reading her books and was now older and mature—like Tenar and Ged, no longer rash in their actions and fearless with the immortality of youth.

In Tehanu, the fourth book of Le Guin’s Earthsea series, Tenar has been widowed. She is called to assist in the treatment of a badly burned and sexually abused young girl, whom Tenar adopts and names Therru. A visit to the now-dying mage Ogion elicits the information that there is a powerful and dangerous presence in Therru. The dramatic return of Ged aboard the back of the dragon Kalessin, however, occupies Tenar’s mind, as she must nurse him. He has lost the powers of archmagery and is now an ordinary man, vulnerable to violence, grief, depression, aging, and sexual love.

Tehanu is, like much of Le Guin’s work, a careful compendium of names, spells, and physical transformations. (As a venture in world-making, Tehanu resembles Always Coming Home, a work intended primarily for adults. Purporting to write the history of several peoples in the distant future, Always Coming Home is accompanied by tape-recordings of poems and stories, and the text is supplemented by illustrations and glossaries of terms.) Tehanu, however, deals more directly with the dark themes of child molestation and abuse and death than do the earlier volumes in the series.

Four Ways to Forgiveness

Just as Tehanu deepens Earthsea to include the difficult realities of violence, oppression, sex, and aging, Four Ways to Forgiveness deepens Le Guin’s exploration of the ways that power creates deep gulfs between the powerful and the powerless. As in The Dispossessed, Le Guin uses the device of two planets, Werel and Yeowe, connected by kinship and history, to illustrate the separate “worlds” created by privilege and exploitation. Four Ways to Forgiveness is a novel in the form of four interconnected novellas. Each of the four sections is, in its own way, a love story and could stand alone as a tale of alienation healed. Taken together, the four tales present the larger story of an entire society mending, a new whole being conceived through the union of opposites, and the whole being born through blood and pain.

The first story, “Betrayals,” tells of two aging survivors of Yeowe’s long, bitter struggle for emancipation. They each have retreated to live in seclusion and “turn to silence, as their religion recommended them to do” in old age. When the man becomes ill, the woman nurses him. When her house burns down, he takes her in. In helping each other, they learn to see each other. Seeing each other, they learn to love each other. Like Tehanu, “Betrayals” explores the issues of what loves and graces are left for old age, after the many inevitable losses of life.

The second section, “Forgiveness Day,” is the love story of a brash young Ekumenical diplomat on Werel and a stolid, traditional soldier of the ruling class. Their path to partnership gives the author a chance to examine sexism and racism from the point of view of a woman who has been raised in an egalitarian society and from the point of view of a male military defender of the privileged group. To the woman, the rules of behavior that enforce power and powerlessness seem bizarre; to the man, they seem completely natural. Through sharing a difficult ordeal, the two learn to appreciate each other and build a lasting loving partnership. As they work through the difficulties in their relationship, the author demonstrates for the reader how mental practices of power and privilege make true friendship and love impossible.

The third section, “A Man of the People,” follows the career of a Hainish historian as he leaves the comfortable provincial village in which he was born. He studies the history of the diverse cultures of the universe, travels widely, and finally goes to Yeowe as an Ekumenical observer. On Yeowe, he commits himself to the struggle for the long-delayed liberation of women, and in this commitment to a community, he finally experiences the sense of belonging he left behind him when he first left his pueblo. The meditations of the historian on his discipline allow the author to present her ideas on the difference between local cultural knowledge and universal crosscultural knowledge (both of which she honors), education as revolution, and the interplay between historical observation and activism.

The final piece, “A Woman’s Liberation,” tells the life story of the Werelian woman who becomes the Hainish historian’s wife. This simple first-person telling, reminiscent of the slave narratives collected to support the abolition of slavery in the United States, details the life of an owned woman from childhood in the slave compound to service in the big “House” to the day when she is technically “freed” through the difficulties of staying free and gaining equality. Le Guin uses the final two sections of the book to depict, explicitly and realistically, many of the ugly inhumanities that accompany slavery, such as sexual abuse and other violence. To this author, power and exploitation are not merely theoretical subjects; she seeks to portray the real human suffering that is an essential component of institutionalized privilege.

Major Works
Long fiction
: Planet of Exile, 1966; Rocannon’s World, 1966; City of Illusions, 1967; A Wizard of Earthsea, 1968; The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969; The Lathe of Heaven, 1971; The Tombs of Atuan, 1971; The Farthest Shore, 1972; The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia: An Ambiguous Utopia, 1974; Very Far Away from Anywhere Else, 1976; The Eye of the Heron, 1978; Leese Webster, 1979; Malafrena, 1979; The Beginning Place, 1980; Always Coming Home, 1985; Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea, 1990; Searoad: Chronicles of Klatsand, 1991; Four Ways to Forgiveness, 1995 (four linked novellas); The Telling, 2000; The Other Wind, 2001.
Short fiction: The Word for World Is Forest, 1972; The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, 1975; Orsinian Tales, 1976; The Water is Wide, 1976; Gwilan’s Harp, 1981; The Compass Rose, 1982; The Visionary: The Life Story of Flicker of the Serpentine, with Wonders Hidden, 1984; Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences, 1987; Fish Soup, 1992; A Fisherman of the Inland Sea: Science Fiction Stories, 1994; Solitude, 1994 (novella); Unlocking the Air, and Other Stories, 1996; Tales from Earthsea, 2001; The Birthday of the World, and Other Stories, 2002; Changing Planes, 2003.
Poetry: Wild Angels, 1975; Hard Words, and Other Poems, 1981; In the Red Zone, 1983; Wild Oats and Fireweed: New Poems, 1988; Blue Moon over Thurman Street, 1993; Going Out with Peacocks, and Other Poems, 1994; Sixty Odd: New Poems, 1999; Incredible Good Fortune: New Poems, 2006.
Nonfiction: From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, 1973; The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, 1979 (Susan Wood, editor); Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, and Places, 1988; Napa: The Roots and Springs of the Valley, 1989; Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew, 1998; The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination, 2004.
Children’s Literature: The Adventure of Cobbler’s Rune, 1982; The Visionary, 1984; A Visit from Dr. Katz, 1988; Catwings, 1988; Solomon Leviathan’s 931st Trip Around the World, 1988; Catwings Return, 1989; Fire and Stone, 1989; A Ride on the Red Mare’s Back, 1992; More Tales of the Catwings, 1994; Wonderful Alexander and the Catwings, 1994; Tales of the Catwings, 1996; Tom Mouse and Ms. Howe, 1998; Tom Mouse, 1998; Jane on Her Own: A Catwings Tale, 1999; Gifts, 2004; Voices, 2006.
Translations: Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way, 1997 (of Laozi); Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral, 2003. edited texts: Norton Book of Science Fiction: North American Science Fiction, 1960- 1990, 1993; Selected Stories of H. G. Wells, 2005
Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.

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