Stepping out of the Shadow: Goro Miyazaki’s Tales from Earthsea

[My blog this year ends as it began, with anime. This essay was first published in Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, Vol. 37, no. 103 (Summer 2008), pp. 53-72. It was written in a white heat, as soon as the film came out in the UK. Ursula Le Guin didn’t like either the movie or my discussion of it, though she enjoyed the other essay I published in Foundation. Her dislike of the film was shared by many, but I still think it’s an honest movie with a fascinating relationship to its source material, both in Le Guin’s great story cycle and in anime.]

Tales from Earthsea was forged in a spirit of contention.[1]  Goro Miyazaki’s famous father Hayao made it clear that he did not want his son to direct it.[2]  Ursula K. Le Guin, on whose Earthsea books the film is based, expressed her disappointment with it on her website.[3]  And Japanese filmgoers – who made it the fourth highest-grossing movie of 2006 – found themselves fiercely divided as to its merits.[4]  Disagreement dogged the project from inception to release; and much of this disagreement seems to have sprung from the decision of Toshio Suzuki, president and chief producer of Studio Ghibli, to name Goro as its director, despite his total lack of experience or training in the art of film-making.

Miyazaki Goro

The film anticipates these divisions from its opening sequence.  The captain of a ship labouring in heavy seas appeals for help to his weatherworker, one of those trained wizards of Le Guin’s Earthsea whose power consists in learning the ‘true names’ of things and thus gaining a degree of control over them.  But the weatherworker’s powers desert him and he cannot calm the waves.  We are in a world where age-old certainties have crumbled and been replaced with an inner turmoil that keeps breaking out in bloodshed.  Soon afterwards, a pair of dragons fight to the death in territory not their own (they have flown farther East than ever before in living memory – a detail picked up from the third and fifth books of Le Guin’s Earthsea sequence).[5]  And in the following scene a boy kills his royal father for no reason.  Toppling to the palace floor, the dying king calls out his son’s name, Arren, as he dies.  Generation is at war with generation, and the only communication between them is a name thrown into the dark after the retreating footsteps of a teenage assassin: a name unattached to any visible body, as if to symbolize the predicament of Earthsea, where names have begun to lose their meanings.

The murder

For readers of Le Guin – and Le Guin herself – this unmotivated murder seems to be the most disturbing aspect of the film.  This is partly because it has no equivalent in the books (in The Farthest Shore Prince Arren leaves home with his father’s blessing);[6] and partly because we are never given the comfort of an explanation for it.  Our hope for an explanation reaches its height much later in the movie, when Arren discusses the murder with a girl called Therru.  Given that Therru’s parents abused and tried to kill her – a violent past she carries about with her in the visible form of a burn-mark across her face – she naturally assumes that the prince’s deed was an act of revenge for similar abuse.  But no: his father, Arren tells her, was a ‘great man’, whose qualities made the youngster feel inadequate (though he never claims that this is why he stabbed him).  Dissatisfied with this half-hearted effort to supply the prince with motivation, the audience casts about for a better way of accounting for the killing.  By the end of the film, for instance, we might assume the king’s assassination to be one more sign of the universal malaise brought to Earthsea by the deadly magic of the corrupt witch/wizard Kumo or Cob.  But Arren himself never seeks refuge from responsibility by claiming any such thing, and at the end of the film he sets off on the journey home to Enlad to face the consequences of what he has done: consequences we can only assume to be dire ones.  Debates about the film’s quality (as against the identity of its director) tend to centre on the question of why Goro Miyazaki chose to introduce the startling new element of parricide into Le Guin’s series, and on the extent to which viewers find themselves satisfied by any possible answers to this question.

Ursula K Le Guin

Le Guin was clearly not satisfied by any explanation on offer.  For her, the excitement of the film was ‘maintained by violence, to a degree that I find to be deeply untrue to the spirit of the books’; and this reliance on violence to stimulate the audience’s attention is a widespread phenomenon in modern fantasy, ‘literary or governmental’, which offers ‘killing people’ as a solution to the ‘so-called war between good and evil’.[7]  She regrets that the reason for Arren’s initial act of violence is so belatedly and so tersely given, and concludes that ‘the darkness within us can’t be done away with by swinging a magic sword’, while lamenting the fact that in the film ‘evil has been comfortably externalized in a villain, the wizard Kumo/Cob, who can simply be killed, thus solving all problems’.  Interestingly, her objections to the movie are couched in terms of a malaise in the ‘real’ world not unlike the kind that pervades Goro Miyazaki’s Earthsea: a malaise in this case sustained by the propagandistic simplifications of the War on Terror, which is represented as a ‘war between good and evil’ where evil can be ‘comfortably externalized in a villain’ – Saddam or Osama – and ‘killed’ with every pseudo-magic weapon at the disposal of the Good Guys.[8]

Cob and Therru

Le Guin’s objections are understandable, but do the film less than justice.  For one thing, the level of violence it contains is no higher than that found in the Earthsea books.  Every violent act in the film has its equivalent in Le Guin’s series, with the sole exception of the killing of Arren’s father.[9]  In addition, the film-makers eschew simplicity as strenuously as she does, and seem to view physical assault with equal distaste.  The wizard Kumo/Cob is precisely not killed with a blow of Arren’s magic sword.  His identity as an arch self-deceiver is merely made manifest by the blow, as he loses his wizard’s staff and with it his ability to sustain his youthful appearance; but his strength remains undiminished by the loss.  Indeed, one might question whether Cob is actually ‘killed’ at all.  As he staggers towards the dragon Therru/Tehanu in his final moments, he clearly sees her as possessed of the eternal life he craves, since she has just revived from apparent death by strangulation.  He begs her to bestow that life on him, and she gives it him in a puff of breath.  But a dragon’s breath is made of fire; so he is destroyed by what he asked for.  The implication is that it’s his craving for an artificial extension of his earthly existence that kills him, rather than an act of violence on his enemies’ part.  And his death precisely does not ‘solve all problems’.  Arren must still return to Enlad to face trial for murder.  And before this happens, as the last few wordless scenes of the film remind us, the ploughing of a field must be completed and it must be sown with seed, or there will be no harvest.

Le Guin’s view of the film has some intriguing affinities with Goro’s account of his own early response to the Earthsea books.  He first came across them, he tells us in his blog, as a High School student in the early 80s, when he found himself identifying enthusiastically with the ambitious young wizard Ged of the first book, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), quite against the grain of the book’s insistence that Ged is a surly teenager who is himself responsible for calling up the Shadow he must confront at the climax of the narrative.[10]  Re-reading the book in his late thirties, Goro tells us, he found his sympathies changed.  Now he identified not with Ged but with the older generation, those patient sages who are always telling the boy to have patience, to do only what he must, to learn thoroughly the way things work before seeking to control them.  In other words, in the process of revisiting the Earthsea books Goro’s own mind became a site of generational conflict, where his younger self as reader existed in radical opposition to the readings of his older self.  And Goro went on to make his film the site of a similar conflict, capable both of being read as Le Guin reads it and mined for a subtler reading.

Young Prince Arren behaves at several points in the movie as if he were just the sort of brainless sword-wielding hero Le Guin takes him to be.  With reckless abandon he attacks a band of slavers who are about to rape Therru, declaring as he does so that ‘life is nothing to me’ – a position traditional romances might well acclaim in their protagonists.  Later, he thrusts himself in front of the farmer Tenar when she is confronted by the same thugs, attempting no doubt to shield her from harm as (male) heroes are always expected to shield women on such occasions.  Later still, he overcomes the thugs a third and final time before striking off Cob’s hand with a blow of his father’s sword – an action which in a conventional epic would signal the transference of patriarchal power from one generation to the next.  But the briefest reappraisal of these incidents demonstrates their undercutting of the tradition of patriarchal romance they invoke.  Having been rescued, Therru contemptuously dismisses Arren as a boy with a dangerous disregard for what she holds most precious: life and all its complex processes.  Tenar responds to Arren’s effort to shield her by thrusting herself in front of him: it is not for him, she implies, to decide whose life is worth saving and whose worth casting away.  And the climactic confrontation between Arren and Cob rapidly transforms itself into a confrontation between Therru and Cob, as Therru, like Tenar, interposes herself between the warring males.  While allowing Arren to go through the motions of heroism, Goro never permits his audience to relax with the notion of Arren as hero; and his chief means of ensuring that they never do so is to cast over him the shadow of his father’s death.

Arren’s mask

This shadow takes the form of a grotesque ‘mask’ of aggression that distorts the boy’s face at key moments in the narrative; an expression of gleeful malevolence as disturbing as it is unexpected.  This mask first appears when he attacks the thugs who attacked Therru, and its appearance reminds us that he is capable of atrocities quite as appalling as anything done by the slavers.  After all, he has killed the king.  The menace of Arren’s facial expression is driven home when the chief of the thugs threatens to cut the girl’s throat if the prince approaches: Arren tells him to go ahead, and his contempt for the girl’s life as well as his own terrifies the gang into beating a retreat, aware that they have lost their only bargaining chip against him – the assumption that he is more humane than they are.  Later, the expression returns to the boy’s face in the sequence where he assaults a second father-figure, Sparrowhawk (Haitaka), with a sword he has borrowed from a third, Cob.  Here it is clearly linked with the problematic patriarchal heritage he has grown up in, where a son’s independence must show itself through violence, and where the logical target of that violence is the father who stands in the way of his child’s development.  It’s hardly surprising, then, that the mask is absent when Arren engages in his final act of violence: the attack on Cob in defence of Sparrowhawk and Tenar.  After all, this time it was Therru who urged him to fight.  But it’s also hardly surprising if his violence should prove ineffectual.  By this stage in the narrative, assaults on father-figures have been shown to have nothing heroic about them, as each one in succession awakens echoes of that first, shocking act of parricide.  The last step in Arren’s redemption must not replicate the crime that put him in need of redemption in the first place.  Violence is Cob’s tool, and cannot logically be used to destroy what the wizard stands for.     

Horus, Prince of the Sun/Little Norse Prince

The young prince could be said, then, to represent a memory of the traditional hero; the remains of a simple form of narrative that concerns itself with what Le Guin calls ‘the so-called war between good and evil’, and that has been rendered obsolete by the sophisticated appropriation of its terms by unscrupulous politicians.  His status as a memory is confirmed by the style of the character drawing in Tales from Earthsea.  Le Guin felt that ‘the animation of this quickly made film… does not have the delicate accuracy of Totoro or the powerful and splendid richness of detail of Spirited Away’.[11]  But Goro’s rejection of ‘delicate accuracy’ and ‘richness of detail’ is no accident.  It stems from a stylistic decision he took in consultation with the animators: a decision to emulate the techniques of Japanese animation from before Hayao Miyazaki founded Studio Ghibli, as Goro explains in detail in his blog.[12]  The film’s characters have the stocky simplicity – most notably in the rendering of the legs and feet – of Goro’s favourite animé, The Little Norse Prince of 1968, directed by his father’s friend and collaborator Isao Takahata.[13]  It is as if the new director is announcing a return to first principles not unlike that advocated by the Victorian pre-Raphaelites, or the Modernists of the early twentieth century.[14]  To find a style of his own he must wind the clock back to Takahata’s first full-length feature, which was also the first animated movie to be made in Japan, and the first of many projects on which Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki worked together.  In The Little Norse Prince, as in Tales from Earthsea, humanity is threatened by a powerful demon-magician, whose spells disrupt the order of the seasons just as Cob’s interrupt the ploughing and sowing of the fields of Goro’s Earthsea.[15]  Scenes from the old film are echoed in the new: notably Arren’s encounter with ravenous wolf-like beasts, which recalls the Norse Prince’s running battles with the demon’s ‘grey wolves’ and has no equivalent in Le Guin’s series.  The affectionate relationship between humans and animals elsewhere in Goro’s film recalls the central role played by animal companions in Takahata’s; Goro’s investment of Cob with the power of flight might remind his viewers of the disconcerting aerial mobility of Takahata’s demon; and the dream-sequences in Goro’s film echo the expressionistic visionary scenes with which Takahata punctuates his narrative.  Arren himself is an older version of Horus/Hols, the young hero of The Little Norse Prince, with the same shock of black hair and perpetual frown.

The magic sword

Above all, the importance of Arren’s sword in Tales from Earthsea derives from Takahata’s narrative, not Le Guin’s.  Prince Horus/Hols pulls an old damaged sword from the shoulder of a giant, and spends most of the movie trying to find a way to re-forge it; and he only succeeds when the whole community of Northmen collaborates in its forging.  In Goro’s film, the wizard Sparrowhawk reminds Arren that his name means ‘Sword’, and the boy always carries his father’s sword with him (as indeed he does in The Farthest Shore).[16]  But the weapon was not handed to Goro’s Arren in a symbolic gesture of legitimate succession.  Instead we watch him snatch it from the dying king after he has stabbed him, and for most of the film he is unable to draw it from its scabbard.  At a moment of crisis in Cob’s castle, Therru urges him to unsheathe it in order to save Sparrowhawk and Tenar, who are about to be executed by Cob.  Arren responds with the hackneyed view that he is ‘not worthy’ to wield his father’s weapon, a sentiment Therru dismisses as the irrelevance it is, while she weeps over the scabbard in frustration at the prince’s self-imposed impotence.  Then abruptly she announces that she knows the boy’s ‘true name’: the name all inhabitants of Earthsea must keep secret from any but their most trusted friend, since knowledge of it puts them at the mercy of the knower.[17]  By speaking it, she releases him from his obsession with the stolen blade.  His real identity is not Arren, meaning sword, but Lebannen, a word that refers only to himself.  So it is fitting, once again, that the moment when he succeeds in drawing the weapon during the final confrontation with Cob should prove less than decisive in the struggle against the wizard; much less decisive than the fact that Therru is with him in that confrontation.  Arren and Therru combine to overcome the wizard, and as in The Little Norse Prince, by this stage the sword has come to symbolize not the handing down of paternal power but the coming together of people who were once divided.  It was Therru’s tear falling on the scabbard, we might imagine, that loosened it in its sheath and made it functional; and it is Therru’s passion for life that finishes the demolition of Cob which the sword began.

Dragons in the east

But the choice of a pre-Ghibli style for this movie may have another rationale besides a wish to pay homage to The Little Norse Prince.  The project of bringing Le Guin’s Earthsea books to the screen had been cherished by Goro’s father, Hayao, since before the studio’s foundation; in fact, since before he directed his second feature, Nausicaa (1984), whose success enabled him to launch the Ghibli studios.[18]  One can see what appealed to Hayao about the books.  The notion of the young wizard who spends his time, in the first book, struggling against his own shadowy alter-ego instead of an external enemy, could only delight a director who has consistently worked against the notion that evil can be ‘comfortably externalized in a villain’.  As early as Nausicaa, Hayao refused to demonize the giant bugs of the poisoned forest that threatens the survival of mankind; instead he traced the source of the forest’s threat to toxins unleashed by humans themselves.  And after Laputa: The Castle in the Sky (1986) there ceased to be any outright villains at all in Hayao’s films.  Again: the ‘balance’ that must be observed by wizards in the Earthsea books would appeal to a director whose ecological convictions form only part of a larger philosophy of maintaining social and psychological equilibrium among the inhabitants of a fragile environment (think of the urgent struggle, in Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke (1997), to find a modus vivendi between humans and the forest they fear but also need).  Again: the opportunities for representing flight offered by the Earthsea books would no doubt have enthused a director who is celebrated for the aerial sequences in his films.  From the hawks into which Sparrowhawk transforms himself in the first volume to the dragon that carries Sparrowhawk and Arren to Roke in the third, flying stands for a kind of freedom in the works of Le Guin, as it does in Hayao’s movies.  Even the fierce attack on the values of capitalism in The Farthest Shore perfectly matches Hayao’s political convictions, as does Le Guin’s respect for the worth of ordinary domestic and agricultural labour and her consistent opposition to violence.  The self-consciously old-fashioned style of Goro’s film pays indirect homage to the film Hayao might have made in the early 1980s, if he could have got the rights to what was then the Earthsea trilogy.

But Goro’s film could never have been anything like that unmade film of the 1980s; because by the time he took his seat in the director’s chair a lot more had happened to the Earthsea series than a change of perspective in Goro himself.  Three more Earthsea books had appeared in print, two of which (Tehanu  (1990) and The Other Wind (2002)) took up the story of Sparrowhawk and Arren where it left off at the end of The Farthest Shore (1973), while radically rewriting Earthsea.  In Tehanu Le Guin unleashed the full force of her anger on the patriarchy that she herself had permitted to take control of her imagined archipelago.  The first three books gave male wizards an absolute monopoly over ‘serious’ magic, relegating only petty forms of conjuring to the despised female witches.[19]  And women played only a peripheral role in the plots of the first and third novels; while even the heroine of the second, Tenar, only plays Ariadne to Sparrowhawk’s Theseus (or so some readers have assumed).  Furthermore, in addition to confronting Le Guin’s own imaginative injustices, Tehanu introduced the concept that human beings and dragons were once the same species, and that the great divorce between them occurred at a time when men and women chose to devote themselves to possessions – lands, knowledge, things that could be passed from one generation to another – while dragons grew wedded to wildness and freedom.[20]  The divorce between humans and dragons resembles the divorce between men’s and women’s social roles in a patriarchal culture: and Tehanu and the books that follow hold out hope that this divorce, like that between humans and dragons, may undergo some sort of metamorphosis – though nothing so glib as an undoing.  In the years, then, when Goro was changing as a reader of the first three Earthsea books, Le Guin was changing as a writer; so that nothing about the project of filming Earthsea could remain altogether faithful to his father’s vision.

Therru at sunset (1)

In 2006, even a film based on the third book of the series, The Farthest Shore, could hardly remain untouched by the backward-reaching shadow of the books that follow it.  Women could no longer remain peripheral, and Le Guin’s discoveries about dragons could scarcely be ignored.  The violence Goro does to the plots of the Earthsea sequence no more than matches the violence done by the sequence to itself.  How, for instance, could Sparrowhawk remain the saviour of Earthsea, as he was in that third novel, in a world where the traditional notion of male heroism has been so totally supplanted by the quieter heroism of women as it is in Tehanu?  Goro’s response to this problem is to bring a character from Tehanu – Tehanu herself, whose use-name is Therru – back in time to the events of The Farthest Shore, and to make her the same age as Arren in the earlier novel.  This enables Therru to confront and undermine Arren’s individualistic, violence-fuelled notion of his own heroism at each stage of the narrative, refusing ever to let him succumb to the narcissistic self-infatuation that drives Cob.

Therru and Tenar

But this is only one of many unsettling changes Goro makes to the chronology and geography of Earthsea.  Another is his transference of Tenar’s farm from Gont, the most frequently revisited of the islands of Earthsea in the novels, to Wathort, which Le Guin’s readers visit only in The Farthest Shore and whose inhabitants traffic in human flesh.  The effect of this is to destabilize Earthsea – to pluck it from the rock on which it was founded.  Gont is the place in which Le Guin’s sequence has its deepest roots, as she shows in her short story ‘The Bones of the Earth’, where an elderly wizard plunges into the ground to soothe the quaking roots of Gont Mountain.[21]  Le Guin set Tehanu on Gont because Gont was where the Earthsea stories began, and it was there that the mighty work of re-imagining that world must also start.  By shifting Tenar’s farm to Wathort, Goro sets it at the epicentre of Cob’s bid to unbalance Earthsea; and in the process he unsettles Le Guin’s universe, which is one of the things that unsettles lovers of her books as they watch the film.

Arren at the fountain

The third change Goro has made is to conflate the first and third books of Le Guin’s sequence so that the shadow that pursues Sparrowhawk in the first novel becomes the shadow of Prince Arren, Sparrowhawk’s companion in the third.  Goro’s shadow springs directly from Arren’s state of mind after he has murdered his father.  It first manifests itself as a sense of dread that seizes the prince on the night when he first meets Sparrowhawk.  The dread intensifies in Hort Town, when the boy sees a fountain take on the appearance of the dead king; and reaches its climax in a nightmare he suffers at the farm of Tenar, where Sparrowhawk turns into Arren’s father, then into a monstrous tar-covered replica of Arren himself.  On waking the boy decides to leave the farm, convinced that if he stays he will be visited once again by the rage that made him a parricide; and shortly afterwards he meets the doppelganger from his nightmare and flees from it in terror, certain of its malevolence.  The doppelganger’s eyes are hidden, much like those of Therru, who often conceals her eyes behind a protective fringe of hair; and Arren’s terror of it makes us anticipate something terrible if ever they should be revealed.  But when the shadow does push aside its fringe – at the point when it stoops over the boy’s body, after he has fled into a swamp and half drowned himself in an effort to escape – it reveals the large, vulnerable child’s eyes that are ubiquitous in early anime.  And when it speaks to Therru at the gate of Cob’s castle, the air of malevolence that formerly surrounded it dispels at once.  With gentle courtesy it explains its nature to her, identifying itself not with the rage that drove Arren to murder, but with the princely qualities he flung aside when he fled his father’s court.  Arren himself, in fact, is the shadow – as the dark clothes he wears throughout the film should tell us – while the brightly-clothed doppelganger from his dreams represents the bright possibilities he rejected.  And his double is alive in a way that Arren is not.  After speaking to Therru at the castle gate it embraces her like a lover and whispers Arren’s true name in her ear, before melting away as her face turns crimson with blushes.  At this stage in the film, it can approach Therru with a confidence and openness the prince can only dream of; but it also gives her the ammunition she needs (Arren’s true name) to free him from his self-made prison and recall him to full participation in the business of living.

Arren’s nightmare

The role of the doppelganger in the movie, then, is quite different from that of the shadow in A Wizard of Earthsea.  In the book, the creature is a non-being summoned by the adolescent Sparrowhawk from the land of the dead, in an arrogant and self-destructive gesture, as a demonstration of his skill in working magic.  It has a ‘blind unformed snout without lips or ears or eyes’, and it stands both for an ‘ancient darkness’ that seeks to engulf the wizard, and for the young man’s own worst aspect: his self-segregation from the community of Earthsea, his immaturity as a social animal.[22]  Sparrowhawk can only defeat it when he accepts help from someone else – his best friend Vetch; after which he can embrace the shadow like another friend, hugging it to him in dreadful intimacy and whispering its true name (his own) in its ear as he does so.  Goro’s shadow is not Le Guin’s, but it is just as carefully conceived.  His Arren has rejected the role that made him part of society, his role as a prince; and by rejecting that role he has rejected life of any kind, as he showed when he stabbed his father.  It is fitting, then, that his shadow should be a lively, colourful one, capable of bringing colour to Therru’s face.  And it is fitting, too, that Arren’s return to life should involve Therru as a mediator between his living self (the doppelganger) and its fearful, violent, self-segregating twin – the boy whose adventures we have followed throughout the film.

This change is in any case imposed on Goro by the backward-reaching shadow of Tehanu, which questions the terms on which Sparrowhawk pursues and defeats his shadow-self in A Wizard of Earthsea.  One of the steps Sparrowhawk takes towards his victory in the earlier novel is when he becomes sensitized to the beauty of a young farm-girl, Yarrow, whom he meets just before his climactic confrontation with ‘ancient darkness’.[23]  The implication is that he at last recognizes himself to be  part of a community – no isolated island, but an element in the interconnected archipelago of humanity – and so can permit himself to be emotionally drawn to a fellow human being for the first time in his life.  But in A Wizard of Earthsea this understanding can never bear fruit in a fully-fledged partnership, because Sparrowhawk is a wizard, and wizards, like priests, are celibate.  Only in Tehanu, after Sparrowhawk has lost his wizardly status, is he permitted to take a sexual partner – Tenar; and in the process the lost balance between the genders in Earthsea begins to be restored.  Therru in Goro’s film is in one sense another Yarrow, and Arren a Sparrowhawk who has the potential to form a permanent bond with the girl he loves, as Sparrowhawk could not.

Therru at sunset (2)

But Therru is more than Yarrow.  At the beginning of the movie, the old wizard Root reminds the King of Enlad that humans and dragons were once a single species; a fact that does not figure in the first three books of the Earthsea sequence.  And Goro’s Therru is closely linked with dragons.  Soon after the prince has rescued her from the slavers he falls asleep and dreams that a dragon is approaching from the sky.   We learn later that this is an aspect of Therru herself, who is a throwback to an earlier phase in the world’s history, a being as much dragon as girl.  Her dragon nature betrays itself in her temperament.  Goro’s dragons crackle with fire as if on the verge of disintegrating under its force, flecks of flame spilling from their mouths while their bodies undulate in the serpentine motions familiar from the river-dragon sequences in Spirited Away.  Therru too is fiery: her angry response, first to Arren’s rescue of her and later to his intrusion on her privacy at Tenar’s farm (‘Why are you here?’ she snaps, ‘to hurt me?’) is an apt emotional counterpart to the physical form she is capable of assuming.  And she makes, too, a perfect foil to the often sullen Arren, whose intervals of passivity (he passes out several times in the movie, and grows tired when he walks long distances or works on the farm) identify him as her opposite, as limp and frail as she is energetic.  Arren is in fact Therru’s shadow, so that the reunion of shadow and substance that occurs at the end, when he rides to safety from Cob’s collapsing castle cradled on the forearms of her dragon-self, represents the righting of an imbalance that has been obvious from the moment the youngsters met.

Arren and Sparrowhawk

Once Therru has been recognized as Arren’s inverted double, it soon becomes apparent that the film’s narrative is structured around a series of doubles or opposites.  Tenar is Sparrowhawk’s opposite, her blond hair and blue eyes identifying her as of a different ethnic group from the rest of the dark-haired, dark-skinned inhabitants of Earthsea – as she is in the books.  Her stability, cultivating the farm, contrasts with Sparrowhawk’s flightiness, associated throughout the film with the hawk from which he gets his use-name, and which appears in his company whenever he enters the narrative.  This flightiness manifests itself most amusingly when the Archmage gallops off in the middle of ploughing a field to fetch Arren’s sword from Hort Town; a mission Tenar rightly sees as having little point to it.  The Archmage, meanwhile, is the inverted double of Arren’s father.  His paternal relationship to the prince is driven home repeatedly, as he blends with the murdered king in Arren’s dreams, instructs the boy in a fatherly way about the ‘Balance’ on which Earthsea depends, rides to rescue him when he is in danger, and becomes the target of the boy’s aggression in Cob’s castle.  But he differs from Arren’s father in his sense of responsibility for his young protégé; a sense that tells him that he ought to stay close to the boy, even though (as his flightiness dictates) he is always leaving him.  On one occasion when he leaves Arren by himself in Hort Town, where he is captured by slavers, Sparrowhawk first rescues the boy, then apologizes for having put him in a position where he needed rescuing.  In contrast to this, Goro is careful to place Arren at an insurmountable distance from his father at the beginning of the film.  We see the King of Enlad marching through his palace surrounded by nobles and advisers, his attention fixed on affairs of state, while two women vainly seek to catch his attention.  When at last one of his advisers is persuaded to listen, the women tell him that the prince is missing.  At this point, Goro gives us a fleeting glimpse of a strong character who never appears in the books: Prince Arren’s mother.  The queen tells the women that the king is too busy to be troubled with the matter of his son’s disappearance, and that Arren is in any case of age to look after himself.  The royal family at the film’s opening, then, has no warmth at all, no mutual interest, no coherence; and it is this incoherence that presumably, by some dreadful logic, drives Arren to murder.    

Arren’s mother, like his father, has a double in the film.  The queen’s inverted double is Tenar, who gives up her bed to the sick boy after his rescue from the slavers, invites him to join her in her farm-work, and compliments him on his unexpected aptitude as a labourer.  Like the mother, she acknowledges Arren’s manhood (how good it is to have men about the place, she says, to help in the fields); but she does so by including him in her affairs, not by barring him from adult company.  And at moments of crisis – as when Cob’s henchmen burst in through the gates – she shows a protectiveness which Arren’s mother haughtily rejects.

Sparrowhawk and Tenar

In fact, the dysfunctional royal family as a whole has an inverted double in the awkward family group that begins to form at Tenar’s homestead.  This is a family of four, unrelated by blood or marriage, whose focus is the supper table.  After the arrival of Sparrowhawk and Arren at the farm, this table is a place of enforced and unwelcome proximity, where the youngsters Arren and Therru radiate mutual hostility while the substitute ‘parents’ Tenar and Sparrowhawk exchange uneasy glances.  But by the end of the movie the same table has become a place of celebration, concerned as much with laughter as with nourishment.  At one point in between these two contrasting supper scenes, Sparrowhawk tells Arren that human beings must learn with difficulty to do what wind and leaf and whale do naturally; and the whole film could be said to concern itself with the task of achieving a ‘natural’ domestic harmony at mealtimes.  The heroic scale of that task can be measured by recalling the state of the royal family at the start.

The fusion of two adults (Tenar and Sparrowhawk) and two teenagers (Therru and Arren) into a harmonious family unit also combines two more sets of doubles.  Therru, who is part dragon, quickly forms a bond with Sparrowhawk, whose name allies him to another creature of the air – a bird – and whose addiction to wandering identifies him as a lover of the freedom enjoyed by dragons.  Therru calls him ‘Hawk’ (‘Taka’) when she meets him; and later she sings a song about a hawk, in which she wishes for a companion who will understand and perhaps mitigate her loneliness.  Sparrowhawk would seem well suited to this role, if he could be persuaded to stick around long enough to assume it.  Arren, meanwhile, bonds with the farmer Tenar.  When Sparrowhawk takes off for the town, the boy stays behind to help with the ploughing, and it is at this point that Tenar recognizes him as a potential co-worker.  So the new family created at the end of the film joins together two freedom-lovers and two lovers of the land, symbolically healing the rift between humans and dragons, the beings of earth and air, which was explained by the old wizard Root in conversation with the King of Enlad.


There is another, easily overlooked double in the movie.  When he first enters Hort Town, Arren sees a slave-wagon going by, and when he glances in through the barred rear window he sees a youngster of indeterminate sex who looks just like him, forlornly awaiting his/her entry into a life of forced labour.  Later in the movie, when Cob’s henchman Hare (Usagi) has seized Arren and thrown him into an identical wagon, we glimpse the prince through the barred window at the rear of the wagon in a precise reiteration of the earlier scene.  The identical appearance of slave and captive prince suggests another function for the simplified character drawing selected by Goro.  The people in the film often bear a close resemblance to one another; and because of their physical resemblance it’s impossible to see Arren’s situation as unique.  At one point, indeed, Sparrowhawk insists in divesting the prince of the principal token of his uniqueness.  He buys him a cloak to cover up his princely clothes, and those clothes are later stolen from him by Hare and replaced with the sombre garments of a slave.  In an interview, Goro explained the thinking behind this homogenising of Arren and his people. ‘I didn’t want to make a fantasy with a main character who is just a prince,’ he pointed out.  ‘Arren is a prince but then he has a problem and that problem can be related to many young people in Japan…  In today’s Japan, the young people are being choked.  They don’t see hope in the future, life isn’t that beautiful anymore.  They feel… oppressed and that oppression comes from their own parents’.[24]  Arren and the anonymous slave are related; and both share with Therru a sense that their generation has been stifled and betrayed by the one before.  In Therru’s case and the slave’s, that betrayal is real enough: the first has been abused by her parents, the second deprived of liberty.  But Arren’s situation is closer to that of the young people of Goro’s Japan, in that he cannot define the exact nature of the oppression that has been visited on him.  The removal of this weight of oppression at the end of the film is symbolized once again through clothing: the new-made family sits by the fire sewing a new set of garments for the prince, garments suitable for farm-work or a journey.  Here at last Arren’s physical resemblance to his people accords with his situation and his state of mind, as he immerses himself in the healthy work of an ordinary subject, which can be carried out only with the support and respect of peers.              


Among all the proliferating doubles in this movie, the evil wizard Cob is the most profligate in the range of roles he duplicates or inverts.  His ability to do so is enhanced by his indeterminate gender; in the English version of the film he is voiced by a man, in the Japanese by a woman, and his Japanese name Kumo (which can mean ‘spider’, like the English word ‘cob’) is used both for men and women.  At one point or another Cob acts as a double for almost everyone in the narrative, insinuating himself into all the different social positions that might have been used to help integrate Arren into the communal life of Earthsea.  If the changing constitution of the supper table in the film suggests that life is about learning to work and play together in fruitful co-operation, Cob’s contradictory desire is to make himself the centre of all affections, the sole beneficiary of all labour.  His white, mask-like face identifies him as an actor, with the classical actor’s gift of taking on male or female roles at will.  At various points he substitutes himself for Arren’s shadow (he snatches the boy from the shadow’s grasp when he carries him to his castle); for Arren’s mother, tending the boy in his own bedchamber as Tenar did in hers; for his lover, stooping over the prince’s prone body to offer him pleasure in the form of a cup that stains his lips purple; and for his father, as he stands by Arren with proprietary arrogance, looking down on Sparrowhawk as if to note the Archmage’s reaction to his successful seduction of his adoptive son.  Cob can fly like a dragon or a hawk – like Therru or Sparrowhawk; yet he is also associated with a single fixed location, as Tenar is – his castle.  What he represents, then, is a pastiche of the Balance or Equilibrium, the reconciliation of many complementary qualities and functions that characterizes what is ‘well and rightly done’ in Sparrrowhawk’s philosophy.  He is everyone’s shadow, as the dragon-Therru recognizes at the end of the film when she dismisses him to the darkness he came from.  ‘Shadow’ she calls him, even as she snuffs him out in a blaze of light.[25]


Shadows have no substance of their own, and Cob’s existence is sustained by draining substance from every other inhabitant of Earthsea; a process so self-centred that it upsets all balance.   Goro, who is an architect as well as a landscape gardener, conceives this loss of balance in spatial terms, and depicts it in the many broken buildings that lie scattered through his movie.  We first meet Sparrowhawk as he moors his boat in a dilapidated harbour; and when he sets out on foot to seek the source of Earthsea’s sickness, he passes further ruins: the hulks of giant ships left high and dry on land; the empty shells of farms; the decayed and decadent city of Hort Town, whose inhabitants dwell in the shattered remains of what looks like an ancient Greek civilization.  At the entrance to Hort Town, a gigantic disintegrating gateway frames a market-place where slaves are bartered, as though liberty has been lost along with architectural coherence.  Later, Therru’s near rape takes place in a courtyard full of classical columns, where the masked henchmen of Cob – slave-traders in his service – seek to combine pleasure with the sickening business they live by, as they chase the girl between surviving fragments of a long-lost feat of structural engineering, hoping to violate her before they sell her.  All these ruins find their source and culmination in Cob’s castle, which is itself reduced to ruin in a series of spectacular collapses at the end of the film.  A spiral staircase falls away as Arren runs up a tower in pursuit of the fleeing wizard.  The summit of the tower is then demolished in an earthquake unleashed by Cob’s magic, concentric shock-waves tearing the stones apart so that Arren has to scrabble for purchase at the tower’s edge.  If Goro contrived to upset Le Guin’s admirers by destabilizing her Earthsea books, one wonders if he set out to destabilize himself in this climactic sequence, which is crammed with images of balance precariously maintained, perverse embodiments of an architect’s worst nightmare.

At one point Therru leaps from a flight of stairs to the top of a narrow wall.  She is steadied by Arren, but not before she has almost unbalanced the prince and knocked them both into the courtyard far below.  During the first fight between Arren and Cob, Sparrowhawk stands nearby, hands tied, at the edge of another precipitous drop – the mode of execution chosen for him by his shadowy alter-ego.  The second fight with Cob is more vertiginous still, as the top of the tower falls to pieces under the fighters’ feet.  And after Cob’s death, Arren deliberately abandons all balance and leaps from the tilting tower in the ultimate gesture of trust.  His conviction that Therru in her dragon-form will catch him before he hits the ground marks the final step of his restoration to inward balance: his acceptance that his equilibrium as a man can only be maintained by acknowledging his dependence on others.  Central to all this drama of balance and imbalance is the castle: a building designed to protect its occupant, to keep his enemies at bay and to intimidate his subjects.  Therru and Arren must find their way through this castle to rescue Sparrowhawk and Tenar – entering it (in Therru’s case) by an unguarded gate, proceeding through it by unorthodox routes, evading its points of weakness or collapse and finally abandoning it as they fly away together to a life beyond its gloomy confines.  Dismantling old frameworks – narratives or buildings – is not necessarily destructive, Goro implies; it may even be necessary.  But it is deeply disconcerting, and he is not afraid to show this in the most graphic terms imaginable.

Hort Town at sunset

If ruins stand for the loss of balance in Cob’s new order, the ultimate effect of that loss of balance is symbolized in the film by a succession of sunsets.  Goro has chosen a rich palette of colour with which to paint the landscapes of his movie, in contrast to the subtler tones favoured by Hayao in most of his films; and the raison d’etre for this palette is the sunsets which punctuate its narrative, harbingers of the total darkness into which Cob seeks to plunge Earthsea.  Sparrowhawk first meets Arren at close of day, and gives him shelter from the darkness by his fire.  Evening falls again after their arrival at Hort Town, where Arren falls asleep alone, watching the sunset on the harbour steps; this is where the slavers catch him.  It’s evening time, again, when he decides to leave Tenar’s farm and strike out on his own; the shadow finds him at sundown and chases him into the marsh, where he nearly drowns.  Sunset represents the moment of balance between night and day; and each of Goro’s sunsets – most notably the one Arren watches from Hort Town – occur in a setting where another binary is present: that of land and sea, which gives Le Guin’s and Goro’s worlds their names, and which gives the sunsets their magnificence.  Once sunsets begin to dominate this landscape at the expense of sunrises, Earthsea as a whole will lose its balance and be reduced to the foul black tarry substance that is always linked with Cob.

Arren and Therru at sunset

The same setting of land and sea provides the backdrop for the two most striking dawns in the film, both of which are viewed from Cob’s castle.  The first is the vision of sunrise granted to the two teenagers when Therru presents Arren with the gift of her true name, as she struggles to arouse him from his lethargy in time to rescue Sparrowhawk and Tenar.  As soon as she names herself as ‘Tehanu’, the walls of the castle fall away and the youngsters find themselves standing on a pinnacle beside the open sea, with the sun rising behind them.  As the sun rises, a dragon rises too: the dragon-self invoked by Therru’s true name, which flies up over the young couple, after which the walls of the castle suddenly close in again and they return to the urgent task in hand.  The scene echoes the dazzlingly-drawn moment earlier in the film when Sparrowhawk rescues Arren from the slavers’ wagon.  He does so in a blaze of light much like a dawn, and all forms of bondage melt away before his brightness.  And a similar scene is recalled by Tenar at her farm, when she tells Arren of the moment when Sparrowhawk rescued her from the tombs of Atuan (the movie makes it a one-sided rescue, although in Le Guin’s book the rescue is mutual – Sparrowhawk needs Tenar as much as she needs him).[26]  As Tenar recalls this incident, the screen dissolves into a whiteness that leads us to expect a re-enactment of the past; instead we are shown Sparrowhawk riding into town in his quest to find Arren’s lost sword.  The re-enactment of the rescue takes place much later, and involves the liberation of both Sparrowhawk and Tenar from Cob’s castle and the installation of a new generation at the centre of the story of Earthsea.

Sparrowhawk at Cob’s castle

Sparrowhawk is lured to Cob’s castle by the capture of Tenar, who remarks as she is shoved into the castle’s lowest dungeon that the place reminds her of Atuan; ‘so many memories’, she adds, invoking the sense of a lost but constantly resurfacing past with which the film is imbued.  Sparrowhawk duly comes for her, in another breathtaking juxtaposition of light and darkness: the sequence in which he rides through the night towards Cob’s castle with his staff blazing is one of the most memorable in the movie.  But his intended re-enactment of Tenar’s rescue never takes place.  Instead, the Archmage comes face to face with a murderous Arren, seduced by Cob into trying to kill his friend as he killed his father; and this encounter ends with Sparrowhawk imprisoned alongside the woman he meant to save.  All hope lies now with the younger generation: and their fulfilment of that hope takes place in the context of an actual sunrise, as prefigured by the vision they had when they exchanged true names.  Cob comments on the rising of the sun as he watches Therru rising from the dead after he has strangled her.  And when she gets to her feet amidst the wreckage of the castle tower, demolished by Cob in a bid to annihilate the youngsters who defy him; and when she changes into her dragon-self, again as the vision predicted; we might register, consciously or otherwise, that in destroying his own castle Cob has effectively completed the picture painted by the vision.  He himself has brought about the melting of the walls of his own tyranny.  His desperate attempts to hold back the course of time, to delay his own aging by adopting an immaculate mask – in contrast to the time-ravaged faces of Sparrowhawk and Therru, both of whom have been scarred by their histories – together with his efforts to enlist the next generation in defence of his position, when he caused Arren to fight Sparrowhawk; all his struggles have merely created the conditions for their termination.  His plot to seize sole power ends with him begging for assistance from the person in all Earthsea he most despises – the girl he left out of all his schemes.  And his collapse leaves the next generation free to fly clear of the oppressive ruins of his aborted future.

Only Yesterday, dir. Takahata Isao

Much of this imagery of solipsism supplanted by co-operation, of a selfish element in the older generation overthrown by a mutually supportive younger one, of a dysfunctional, distant family replaced by a new, affectionate familial community, has clearly been carefully thought through by Goro in his courageous struggle to achieve a style of his own in the face of his father’s astonishing artistic achievements.  It’s clear, too, that his vision of the perfect community owes much to Isao Takahata, whose hymns to agricultural solidarity – Only Yesterday (1991), Pom Poko (1994), the desperate efforts to find nourishment that dominate the waking lives of the child-heroes in The Grave of the Fireflies (1988) – had their origins in the humble strife-torn village defended by Hols/Horus in The Little Lost Prince.  Despite its initial hostility to him, Hols ends by forging the village into a community, much as Therru ends by transforming Tenar’s farm into a family homestead; and Goro’s repeated acknowledgement of Takahata’s influence invites his interested viewers to follow up the thematic and visual links between their works as I have done earlier in this essay.

The hazia pedlar

It’s trickier, though, to determine how far Goro might have intended the more disturbing transformations he has effected to his father’s cinematic legacy.  Although the drawing of the characters recalls the pre-Ghibli tradition of anime, many of the characters’ faces are strongly reminiscent of specific types in Miyazaki movies, as if Goro is keen to embed the history of his father’s work in his production.  At Hort Town, Arren meets a small warty man whose face is closely modelled on that of the amoral mercenary-monk in Princess Mononoke.  But whereas in that film the monk had the glamorous villain’s role of tracking down the Spirit of the Forest, in this film he is reduced to a drug-pusher, whose attempt to persuade Arren to sample his wares is foiled by Sparrowhawk – and who at once turns vicious in a way the monk never did.  Hare/Usagi, the leader of Cob’s henchmen, has a face that recalls a long line of comic villains in Hayao’s movies, from the despicable Count in The Castle of Cagliostro (1979) to the skyborne pirate family in Laputa and the bungling sky-pirates in Porco Rosso (1992).  In this film, however, the comic villain is a would-be rapist and a slave trader, terrorizing his men and the island’s population, while acting with grovelling subservience in the presence of his master.  As if to emphasize his degeneracy, he wears a helmet whose goggle-visor recalls the 1920s headgear worn by all the pilots in Porco Rosso; his cowardice looks all the more pronounced when compared to the dashing aerial antics of his predecessors.   His subordinates who drive the slave-wagon in which Arren is transported look like members of the pirate families in Hayao’s work; but their consent to the slave trade represents a level of villainy to which the pirates never descend.  The old women who visit Tenar at her farm to ask for medicine for a sick child bear some physical similarity to the strong old women who crop up everywhere in Hayao’s work, from the mother of the pirates in Laputa to the indomitable Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle (2004).  But in this film they have become sneaks and hypocrites, betraying Tenar to Hare in hope of financial gain, despite the fact that she has been supplying them with medicine free of charge.  In every case, the charming if sometimes unprincipled characters in Hayao’s oeuvre who are summoned up by the faces of Goro’s minor players find themselves diminished and darkened in Tales from Earthsea, condemned to play wholly despicable roles where in earlier Ghibli films they were always redeemable.  Obviously Goro’s world will require far more drastic remedial surgery than Hayao’s, if it is ever to regain the balance it has forfeited.

Cob’s eyes (1)

The most direct allusion to a specific Hayao character, or rather creature, comes at the end, when Cob loses his staff and with it the magical control of his body that sustained his youthful appearance.  Cob is at once devitalized, dragging himself up the steps of the castle with the painful laboriousness of old age, white-haired and round-shouldered.  One is reminded of the many moments of physical debility that afflicted young Arren throughout the film – his exhaustion and his fainting fits – and one imagines that these had their source in Cob’s pernicious influence over Earthsea.  But when Cob reaches the top of the tower a more drastic change comes over him.  His legs shrink and his arms extend until they are grotesquely long and boneless.  Proportioned like this, Cob resembles one of the flying robots in Laputa, charged with protecting the ancient skyborne castle of the movie’s title, which is both a deadly weapon and a heavenly garden.  These robots themselves began as weapons, capable of demolishing even the monstrous gunship that attempts to take charge of the Castle in the Sky; but some of them have achieved redemption, converting themselves to gardeners who tend the rich vegetation that has taken over the ruins of the aerial fortress.  The robotic Cob, by contrast, is concerned only with self-preservation.  His lack of eyes at this stage in the movie (a grotesque detail taken from The Farthest Shore) means that he is unable to see anything but what’s inside him – and that is emptiness, as we learn from the occasional close-up.  Where the robots existed to interact with others – even if in acts of aggression – Cob is incapable of doing so; and this makes him infantile in his final moments, cackling over the seeming death of Therru, begging whiningly for life from her when she revives.

Cob’s eyes (2)

Cob, then, becomes childish as the children in the movie grow up.  And the pain involved in the process of growing is powerfully evoked in the painful sight of well-loved characters from our filmgoing past – the lovable rogues and tender robots of the earlier Ghibli movies – diminished, darkened, humiliated and finally displaced at the moment when the new generation comes into its own.  In his final moments, Cob’s grotesque eyelessness recalls the moments in the film when we could not see the eyes of the youngsters: Arren and Therru, whose eyes are veiled by their hair when they feel angry or alienated, and Arren’s doppelganger, whose invisible eyes confirm Arren’s unwillingness to confront it rather than any inherent hostility in the doppelganger itself.  Each of these youngsters, however, can unveil their eyes when they choose to communicate.  Cob cannot; and this fixes him in a permanent state of adolescent egotism, a state which he seeks to impose on Arren too, and on the rest of Earthsea, from which the magic is draining away as it strives to rid itself of the responsibility and hurt that comes with adulthood.     

In his fusion of age and youth, then, as in other things, Cob is a distortion of the community of four that forms in the film’s last sequence.  Arren’s and Therru’s new family represents a fruitful combination of young and old, as against the wizard’s poisonous compound of immaturity and senility.  In the last few shots, the teenagers work shoulder to shoulder with Tenar and Sparrowhawk on the farm, sowing the new-ploughed land with seed, laughing together at supper, sitting in the evenings contentedly at work on the clothes and equipment Arren will need on his journey back to Enlad.  And when Arren goes to face the consequences of the murder he committed, he does not go alone.  Sparrowhawk goes with him as his advocate and guide; and they wear the clothes and equipment fashioned by their farming community in those evenings of contentment.  In Hayao’s films as well as Goro’s, families are things you work on.  Think of Chihiro in Spirited Away (2001), scrubbing at the floors of a witch’s Bathhouse so as to win back her parents; or Satsuki and Mei in My Neighbour Totoro (1988), labouring to make an old house ready to receive their sick mother, or setting out on the long journey to the hospital carrying the good food they think will cure her.  Goro has not broken Hayao’s world, any more than he has betrayed the imaginative vision of Ursula K. Le Guin.  He has chosen the difficult route of telling his tale from Earthsea rather differently from the way either of them would have told it.  But for those who are willing to look closely at what he has done both to Earthsea and to Ghibli, the prospect of further difficult films from Goro is a welcome one.

Arren faces Therru in dragon form


1. Tales from Earthsea is known in Japanese as Gedo Senki.  The only version I could watch before writing this essay in October 2007 was the dubbed one released in the UK in 2007; names are therefore given as in the dubbed version, with Japanese equivalents in brackets.  I am grateful to Yushin Toda both for nourishing my enthusiasm for Japanese culture over the last couple of decades and for answering my questions as the essay reached its final draft.

2. On Goro Miyazaki’s relationship with his father see Animé News Network, ‘Taipei International Book Exhibition: Meet and Greet with Goro Miyazaki’, by Chih-Chieh Chang.

3. See Ursula K. Le Guin’s official website, ‘Gedo Senki: A First Response to “Gedo Senki”, the Earthsea film made by Goro Miyazaki for Studio Ghibli.  Written for my fans in Japan who are writing me about the movie, and for fans elsewhere who may be curious about it’   (, accessed 21. 9. 07).

4. On the success of Tales from Earthsea at the box office see the Wikipedia entry Tales from Earthsea, ‘Reaction and box office’ (, accessed 21. 9. 07).  On the divisions over the film among Japanese audiences, see Ursula K. Le Guin’s official website, ‘Gedo Senki: Responses from Correspondents’ (, accessed 21. 9. 07).   

5. See Ursula K. Le Guin, The Farthest Shore, in The Earthsea Quartet (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993), p. 475; The Other Wind (London: Orion, 2002), p. 94 ff.

6. See Le Guin, The Farthest Shore, in The Earthsea Quartet, p. 324.

7. Le Guin, ‘A First Response to “Gedo Senki”’.

8. Interestingly, too, Goro speaks of his film as a response to a universal malaise among young people in Japan (I discuss this later in the essay).  See Peter van der Lugt, ‘Gedo Senki at Venice International Film Festival’, an interview with Goro Miyazaki on the website ‘’ (, accessed 21. 9. 07).

9. Indeed, the defeat of Cob is a good deal more violent in The Farthest Shore than it is in Tales from Earthsea.  He is first ‘crushed and burned’ by the dying dragon Orm Embar, then crawls in this shattered state into the land of the dead, where he is attacked again and again by Arren with his sword (‘The blade made a great wound, severing Cob’s spine… a rage of loathing swelled up in Arren, a berserk fury, and swinging up the sword he struck again with it, a full terrible downward blow’).  Arren’s attack is as ineffectual in the book as it is in the film.  For Goro’s feelings on aggression, see his blog entry for 17th January 2006 (Goro Miyazaki’s Blog Translation, translated by Paul Barnier, The Hayao Miyazaki Web): ‘even for the purpose of defeating evil, I don’t want to make magic an instrument of violence’.

10. On Goro’s initial response to the Earthsea books, compared with his response on re-reading them, see his blog entries for 14th-22nd December 2005.

11. Le Guin, ‘A First Response to “Gedo Senki”’.

12. For a detailed discussion of this decision, see Goro’s blog entries for 27 February 2006-7 March 2006.

13. Goro tells us that The Little Norse Prince is his favourite animated movie in his interview with Peter van der Lugt, ‘Gedo Senki at Venice International Film Festival’.  The film is also known as Horus Prince of the Sun.  Goro discusses it often in his account of the ‘simple’ visual style of Tales from Earthsea: see his blog entries for 27 February-7 March 2006.

14. The analogy he makes is with the European neo-classicists of the eighteenth century; see his blog entry for 28 February 2006.

15. The version of Little Norse Prince discussed here was released on DVD by Optimum Asia in 2005.

16. For Le Guin’s description of the sword see The Farthest Shore, in The Earthsea Quartet, pp. 328-9.

17. Le Guin discusses names in general in A Wizard of Earthsea, in The Earthsea Quartet, pp. 50-2; and names and friendship on pp. 70-1.  See also her early short story, ‘The Rule of Names’, in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, 2 vols. (London etc.: Granada, 1978), vol. 1, pp.82-93, and her late novella ‘Dragonfly’ in Tales from Earthsea (New York: Ace Books, 2002), pp. 209-79.

18. On Hayao Miyazaki’s long-term fascination with Earthsea, see for instance Kaleem Aftab, ‘A feud that animated Japanese film’, The Independent, August 10, 2007, at, accessed 23. 9. 07.

19. See Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea, in The Earthsea Quartet, p. 16: ‘There is a saying on Gont, Weak as woman’s magic, and there is another saying, Wicked as woman’s magic’.

20. See Le Guin, Tehanu, The Earthsea Quartet, pp. 488-93.

21. Le Guin, ‘The Bones of the Earth’, Tales from Earthsea, pp. 151-171.

22. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea, in The Earthsea Quartet, p. 164.

23. See Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea, in The Earthsea Quartet, pp. 143-152.

24. Peter van der Lugt, ‘Gedo Senki at Venice International Film Festival’.

25. In fact, the film makes it unclear whether the dragon-Tehanu burns Cob with its breath or whether he undergoes some sort of spontaneous combustion.  Once again, the violence of Cob’s death is not the point.

26. See Le Guin, The Tombs of Atuan, in The Earthsea Quartet, pp. 272-3.

Ursula K Le Guin, ‘Semley’s Necklace’ (1964) and The Dispossessed (1974)

Hupa necklace, National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC

Last month I published a blog post about Ursula Le Guin’s relationship with her mother, Theodora Kroeber, which took as one of its central metaphors the notion of a necklace: an object that is simultaneously single and multiple, fixed in time and sequential. If you trace the beads or links with your fingers you can turn a necklace into a rosary or set of prayer beads, a tool for contemplation, and it becomes something that both exists all at once in the present moment and measures the passing of time, since the prayers or mantras you utter as you move from bead to bead take time to utter. As a rosary, though, it’s also timeless, since the experience of praying or meditating makes you lose track of time’s passing altogether. The metaphor of the necklace, I argued, has a central place both in Le Guin’s writing and her philosophy, especially in the first part of her career. What I didn’t mention in the post, however, was the transformation of the necklace metaphor that takes place in her most complex novel, The Dispossessed (1974). This transformation explains, I think, why the metaphor ceased to be of importance to her from that time forward. After writing that novel she had done all she could with necklaces, and moved on to develop other metaphors, such as the two kinds of spider’s web that lie at the heart of her fantasy novels The Farthest Shore (1972) and Tehanu (1990), or the dancing spirals of Always Coming Home (1985).

The necklace metaphor, I argued, may well derive from Theodora Kroeber’s book Ishi in Two Worlds (1962), about the last of the Yahi people of North California, a man called Ishi, who lived the final years of his life as an employee of the museum run by her husband, the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber. Theodora Kroeber describes the work of Ishi’s biographer as resembling that of an archaeologist who tries to string together an old necklace found in a dig:

There follows an account of all that is surely and truly known of him. What he believed and felt and did in the modern world and, earlier, in his own world are the bone beads of his story. The stringing of such of these beads as could be recovered onto a single strand has been my task. Surprisingly, the circle of his life’s necklace appears whole despite its many incompletions.[1]

The passage both illustrates the beautiful cadences of Kroeber’s prose, at times so like her daughter’s, and suggests why Le Guin would have been drawn to Ishi’s story: any talk of walking from one world to another was bound to appeal to an inventor of worlds. The metaphor, too, is interesting in its talk of life not as a chronological line but as a circle; and one wonders if this circularity was conjured up by the strangeness of Ishi’s appearance in modern California, when he ‘completed a trip,’ as Kroeber put it, ‘out of the Stone Age into the clang and glare of the Iron Age – a place of clocks and hours and a calendar; of money and labor and pay; of government and authority; of newspapers and business’ (p. 120). In making this trip Ishi became ‘a modern man, a city dweller with a street address’, and in the process showed both how the same historical period can contain inhabitants from different stages of technological development, and how so-called ‘primitive’ cultures are in fact just as rich and complex as ‘highly-developed’ ones – something Kroeber sought to stress repeatedly in her book, by comments like the one I’ve just quoted, in which she transforms Ishi from a Stone Age man to a modern city-dweller with a touch of her verbal wand.

Just a year after Kroeber published her biography Le Guin wrote her short story ‘The Dowry of the Angyar’ (1964, written 1963), reprinted as ‘Semley’s Necklace’ in her great short story collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (1976). In between, the story had also appeared as the prologue to Le Guin’s first novel, Rocannon’s World (1966). The replacement of ‘dowry’ with ‘necklace’ in the title of the short story on its second printing is surely no accident: it draws attention to the object at the centre of the narrative, and so to the circular structure of the story, in which a woman from a ‘primitive’ culture on an obscure planet journeys to an interstellar museum on a spaceship travelling at near light speed, then returns home, only to discover that her friends have grown old, her child grown to adulthood and her husband died in her absence. The reason for her journey is that the economy of her people has been destroyed by the appearance from space of the ‘Starlords’ in their vessels, wielding weapons beyond the imagining of Semley’s people, and abruptly putting an end to the culture of warfare by which the rulers of her people have sustained themselves since time immemorial. As a result the rulers’ fortresses have been reduced to mouldering ruins; and in an attempt to revive the fortunes of the ruling-class family into which she has married, Semley goes in quest of the necklace of the title, a treasure passed down through generations by her ancestors before it was lost. She needs the necklace for her dowry and hopes that it will somehow restore the glories of the past to her diminished household. The necklace, then, represents a return to the past for Semley, and it involves a series of retrograde motions as she looks for it.

The first of these motions takes place when she mounts a windsteed – a giant flying cat – to look for the treasure. ‘Married women of the Angyar,’ the narrator tells us, ‘never rode for sport, and Semley had not been from Hallan since her marriage; so now, mounting the high saddle of a windsteed, she felt like a girl again, like the wild maiden she had been, riding half-broken steeds on the north wind over the fields of Kirien’ (p. 15).[2] Semley’s marriage, then, has involved a taming, a narrowing down of possibilities after the wild promise of her active girlhood, and she reverses this process as she returns to the activity of her youth. The second retrograde movement is to her father’s house, which she finds in a worse state than when she left it; and the third is to the mines of the dwarflike Clayfolk who made the necklace long ago, before her family acquired it. Meanwhile she is warned three times (as in a fairy tale) that her quest for the necklace is an act of folly, driven by false values: a desire for what she doesn’t have which prevents her from appreciating the value of what she has. Her friend Durossa tells her that she herself is more precious than gold, being ‘Semley who shines like a falling star, Semley whose husband loves no gold but the gold of her hair’ (p. 14). And the elf-like Fiia among whom she inquires after the necklace find value only in the gold they discover in the cycle of the seasons – as well as in Semley: ‘For us there is sunlight in warmyear, and in coldyear the remembrance of sunlight; the yellow fruit, the yellow leaves in end-season, the yellow hair of our lady of Kirien; no other gold’ (p. 17). The third and final warning is the ‘wheedling’ note that creeps into the voices of the Clayfolk as they invite her to enter their mines to seek the necklace – a note she ‘would not hear’ (p. 19) – and the unpleasant grins they display as they promise her she will return ‘very soon’ from her flight through space to fetch it. The Clayfolk, like Durossa and the Fiia, are obsessed by her golden hair, laying their ‘heavy grey hands’ on it in the spaceship until she rebels against this intimacy (p. 25). On the journey, deprived of light, she begins to yearn for its return, and faints with relief – or the pressure of gravity – when ‘the light flashed golden, at the window’ as she docks at the museum (p. 25). Circle after circle is offered to her as she looks for the circle of gold, each one illustrating the obsolescence of the thing she seeks, the impossibility of going back in time to the same spot as before, the relativity of time itself, which moves in different ways depending on where one places oneself to witness its passage. As the Clayfolk promise, her journey takes only one night – there are no days, after all, in space – and she returns home safely to her husband’s stronghold. She even meets herself there in the shape of her daughter Haldre, who ‘stood beside Durossa, gazing with steady eyes at this woman Semley who was her mother and her own age. Their age was the same, and their gold hair, and their beauty. Only Semley was a little taller, and wore the blue stone on her breast’ (p. 30). But Semley’s husband has gone, her dowry is therefore useless, and her home no longer a home but a ruin for her. She has come back from her interstellar journey, but found herself a stranger in her house, and runs away from it ‘like some wild thing escaping’ into obscurity, ironically becoming once again the ‘wild maiden she had been’ before her marriage. For Semley, the circle of her life was a trap, not an endless rediscovery of richness as the cycle of the seasons was for the Fiia. And her end becomes a lament for the victims who have been destroyed over so many generations and millennia by the encounter between cultures, by the clash between post-industrial technology and more ancient modes of living, between past and future.

‘Wild things’ like the tormented Semley of the story’s end cannot be contained between four walls. Ishi was described by some of the modern men who met him as a ‘wild Indian’. Ishi died of a disease caught from those modern men. The coexistence of different times or historical periods in a single world can be a toxic business. The modern man, Rocannon, who gives Semley the necklace when she comes to the interstellar museum, has no appreciation of her perspective on time despite his genuine interest in her, despite his recognition that she has a complex history to which he has no access. His colleague observes that the necklace must be of great value both to her and the Clayfolk, since they have given up so many years for the mission to fetch it – referring to the years they have sacrificed in order to travel so far at the speed of light. Rocannon’s response is unintentionally dismissive: ‘“Several years, no doubt,” said the hilfer, who was used to starjumping. “Not very far”’ (p. 27). But for Semley the distance is far enough to kill her. The distance between their perspectives, in other words, is Semley’s happiness, Semley’s family, Semley’s lifetime.

‘Semley’s Necklace’ is about a journey between the past, represented by Semley with her feudal values, and the future, in the form of the Starlords. A decade after writing this story Le Guin returned to the encounter between times, between historical periods; and when she did so she also returned to the necklace metaphor. The Dispossessed too is a circular story, describing the journey of the physicist Shevek from his home world of Anarres to its sister planet Urras and back again; a journey from a possible future for the human race (Anarres is an experiment in anarchism on a scale that has not yet been tried on Earth) to what for Shevek is the past (Urras is the planet from which his people, the Annaresti, originally set out to conduct their social experiment on Anarres), and then back to the future, the planet of Anarres where his personal journey started. For Le Guin’s first readers in the 1970s, on the other hand, Urras would have looked very much like the present, since the dominant capitalist culture on that planet is locked in a war of attrition with a socialist enemy, mirroring the political scene on the Earth they lived in – so that for them Shevek’s journey takes him from the future to the present and back again to the future. But past, present and future are all a matter of perspective; for an Einsteinian physicist they are relative, since all exist at once in the stupendously large object which is the space-time continuum. Relativism is in fact built into the novel’s structure, whose narrative famously alternates between chapters set on Anarres, which tell the story of Shevek’s life from his childhood to the moment when he decides to go to Urras, and chapters set on Urras, which tell of his experiences from the time he sets off for Urras to the time he returns to Anarres. Each set of chapters occurs at a different time in Shevek’s life, yet they are presented to us side by side, as if to illustrate the fact that time and space can be viewed as a single vast unchanging object if like Einstein, Minkowski and H G Wells one understands time or duration as the fourth dimension of space.

Although Shevek’s journey from Anarres to Urras and back again takes time for him, and so can be read as a single uninterrupted narrative, Anarres and Urras also coexist, although there is little communication between them – very much as Ishi and his family coexisted with what Kroeber calls ‘modern man’, although the two communities did not interact until the last five years of Ishi’s life. From one perspective, then, the past and the future coexist at the same time in Le Guin’s novel – although it is a matter of perspective as to which planet you see as representing which. For many of the inhabitants of Urras, Shevek and his fellow anarchists are primitives, wild men who understand little of the complexities of capitalist life. For Shevek, as I said before, Urras is his past – but when he visits the planet he discovers that the future exists there too: there are anarchists among the Urrasti, who are struggling to bring about an anarchist society on Urras in imitation of the one on Anarres. And he already knew when he came to Urras that there were representatives of the capitalist past on Anarres; it was because of the capitalistic impulses of some of his fellow physicists on Anarres that Shevek decided to travel to Urras to complete work on his major work, an attempt to unite the theories of Sequency and Simultaneity in physics. Urras, in other words, contains in itself the seeds of the anarchist future, while Anarres contains in itself the seeds of regression to the capitalist past. Shevek’s journey executes a circular movement which finds echoes in other potential circular movements taking place in the unfolding histories of the two worlds he inhabits.

As in ‘Semley’s Necklace’, then, there are circles within circles in The Dispossessed, and the fate of Anarres hangs delicately poised between regression to capitalism and the ‘infinite promise’ of a continued commitment to anarchist principles. This balance might have been represented as a necklace, and it very nearly is; but a necklace doesn’t convey the problem of keeping balance, or the constant motion that makes keeping balance necessary, although it neatly invokes the idea of the circle or cycle. As a result, Le Guin places at the centre of her novel a mobile instead of a necklace, which nevertheless carries within it a memory of the past in its resemblance to that item of jewellery.

The mobile in question is one of several which Shevek’s lifelong partner Takver brings with her when the couple move in together, on Anarres, for the first time. These mobiles represent an idea which lies at the centre of the novel: the idea of the promise or bond, the commitment to future fidelity, to going on living together as equals, which Shevek and Takver offer each other before they begin their cohabitation.[3] A promise is a verbal statement made in a narrow space of time which contains within it an implied succession of future actions; in the case of a connubial promise between two people it can be understood to bind both parties to one another for the rest of their lives. A commitment to anarchy could be seen as a similar promise; anarchy can only work if all parties involved in it commit themselves to lifelong observance of its principles; and keeping that promise is as difficult and worthwhile a thing as keeping an eye on the growing child which might or might not be the fruit of a lifelong partnership. As the Annaresti put it in the poem we hear repeatedly throughout the novel:

O child Anarchia, infinite promise
infinite carefulness
I listen, listen in the night
by the cradle deep as the night
is it well with the child (p. 86)


In this poem the child or promise is suspended precariously in the deep night like a planet. But the mobiles that symbolise the promise of lifelong commitment between Shevek and Takver have more in common, it seems, with entire solar systems than with single worlds; each mobile seems to resemble an orrery or mechanical model of planets in orbit round a sun, being made up of ‘complex concentric shapes made of wire, which moved and changed slowly and inwardly when suspended from the ceiling. [Takver] had made these with scrap wire and tools from the craft supply depot, and called them Occupations of Uninhabited Space’ (p. 156). These Occupations become a study aid for Shevek, hanging above his desk as he struggles to reconcile sequency – the notion that one moment in time follows another – with simultaneity, the notion that two different moments in time can occur simultaneously when looked at from the right perspective.[4] At this point in the narrative the ‘inward’ movement of the mobiles resembles the operations of the human body and brain rather than the planets moving round the sun: ‘The delicate concentric mobiles hanging at different levels overhead moved with the introverted precision, silence, mystery of the organs of the body or the processes of the reasoning mind’ (p. 160). A little later they come to stand for the coexistence of loving partners, but also of worlds running on parallel orbits in a solar system – the orrery once again: ‘“Why does it look so beautiful?”’ Takver asks as she looks with Shevek out of their apartment window at Urras, while above them ‘the Occupations of Uninhabited Space hung, dim’ (p. 161). The promise that binds the couple gives Shevek an insight into how different perspectives and timelines can coexist while involved in constant sequential change; this is because the promise is a verbal statement that reconciles the present and the future, and that retains its meaning as it recedes into the past. In these ways it is very much like one of the mobiles; but each mobile is also very much like the necklace invoked in Kroeber’s preface – both in its circular motion and in its multiple significations.

This resemblance is noticed later in the novel, appropriately enough, by the couple’s daughter Sadik, who is one of the fruits or consequences of their promise or bond. After a long absence from his partner and child, brought about by the need for all Annaresti to stave off a calamitous drought on their infertile planet, Shevek moves back into Takver’s room and unpacks his things. One of the objects he takes out of his case is a mobile, which, as he reveals it ‘with some mystery’ to his daughter, becomes momentarily as strange to the reader as to her, ‘a curious object which as it lay in the case appeared to consist of a series of flat loops of wire and a few glass beads’ (p. 268). At first the child thinks it’s a necklace – and we are told that an unsophisticated delight in jewellery is common in rural places (as opposed to ‘sophisticated’ urban centres) all over Anarres, where ‘the deep connection between the aesthetic and the acquisitive was simply not worried about’ (p, 268). The necklace here represents, among other things, the anxiety over whether possessing something not strictly necessary can lead to a habit of self-indulgent possessiveness; and by extension the necklace can also be taken to stand for the problem of promising fidelity in an anarchy, which can give rise to habits of possessiveness between the couple concerned. Both things – a necklace and a lifelong partnership – can seem old-fashioned, like the necklace being pieced together by an archaeologist in Kroeber’s Ishi in Two Worlds – though Le Guin is insistent that this view is merely a matter of perspective, and that there are many Anarresti who do not share it. In the same way, the object Shevek removes from his suitcase is from one point of view a symbol of the past – of the time when he and Tavker sealed their lifelong bond; but it is also a symbol of his continuing fidelity to that bond, his unbroken faith.

But the object is not in fact a necklace, as the reader knows, though Sadik doesn’t. It’s something kinetic, not fixed, something that embraces both partners, not just one, something that is always changing in time while remaining the same:

‘No, look,’ her father said, and with solemnity and deftness raised the object by the thread that connected its several loops. Hanging from his hand it came alive, the loops turning freely, describing airy spheres one within the other, the glass beads catching the lamp-light.

‘Oh, beauty!’ the child said. ‘What is it?’ (p. 268)

Shevek doesn’t tell her what it is, perhaps because there’s no exact answer. It’s something her mother made, and it’s one of the Occupations of Uninhabited Space, and it’s a mobile, and it’s a form of beauty (as Sadik points out), and it’s a symbol, but it wouldn’t be possible to sum up all these aspects of the object to the satisfaction of a child. But when Takver promises to make another one for Sadik there are tears in her eyes. The mobile’s fragile representation of change and continuity, of sequency and simultaneity, summarizes something that affects her profoundly – the endurance of affect itself in despite of change. And this affect embraces the daughter as well as the parents, and so also promises (since she represents a new generation) to extend itself outwards in time to embrace the wider community of Anarres, and perhaps Urras, and perhaps much more.

As it transpires, Shevek doesn’t take the surviving Occupation of Uninhabited Space with him to Urras. In fact, the Occupation disappears (as far as I can find) after the chapter I’ve just cited, where the couple come together again after long absence, to be replaced with another mobile. A few chapters later – towards the end of the book, in the chapter where Shevek makes up his mind to go to Urras – we are introduced to this new thing, hanging over the heads of the physicist and the couple’s second child, their second living promise, a girl called Pilun:

Behind his head and the child’s, the single mobile hanging in this room oscillated slightly. It was a large piece made of wires pounded flat, so that edge-on they all but disappeared, making the ovals into which they were fashioned flicker at intervals, vanishing, as did, in certain lights, the two thin, clear bubbles of glass that moved with the oval wires in complexly interwoven ellipsoid orbits about the common centre, never quite meeting, never entirely parting. Takver called it the Inhabitation of Time. (p. 303)

This mobile is described in greater detail than any so far. The number of beads is specified: there are two, as there are two of Shevek and Takver. The term ‘orbit’ is used to described their simultaneous and complementary but separate movements, which makes them analogous to planets, perhaps Urras and Anarres. The effect of appearances and disappearances ‘in certain lights’ (‘lights’ is another term for ‘perspectives’) makes their relationship seem more tenuous than the motions of the earlier mobiles, as is appropriate for a moment in the novel when the couple are about to separate physically and occupy two different planets. But by this time in the novel we also know that their experiences on each planet will echo each other; in every alternate chapter set on one planet there are clear echoes or reflections of events in a contiguous chapter set on the other. From this point onwards, as we know, the couple will occupy the same sequence of time in different places, never touching but always complementary, always definitively in relation to one another. And they are not trapped in this condition; the fact that this is a new mobile means there is the possibility of a further mobile being fashioned from the same materials, in which the beads are poised in a different relationship. The mobile is a model of the novel we have just been reading, all of whose parts contribute to the motions, the double narrative orbits of the whole, all of whose ideas offer the possibility of further ideas to be sown and cultivated outside the orbits of the novel itself.

The word ‘Inhabitation’ as applied to this new mobile suggests that it represents, as a whole, the idea of home – a concept that’s utterly central to Le Guin’s thinking. Anarres is Shevek’s home – the place where he was born, the place where his partner and children live. But he also recognises Urras as home, the place all Anarresti originally came from, and where new prospective anarchists are still engaged in the political struggle that produced Anarres. The two worlds are complementary – neither can thrive without the other, in economic or physical terms. Remove one of these planets and the orbit of the other will be drastically and probably devastatingly altered. The mobile is a promise that the two places will cohabit, which is confirmed as it is made, since the two places do cohabit within a single solar system, a single home. So much for the name of the last mobile we meet in the novel. But what about those earlier mobiles, the Occupations of Uninhabited Space? What does Takver’s name for them signify?

One of the things it signifies, I think, is the refusal to colonize or be colonized. Ishi and his family refused to be colonized, choosing to live apart from and without commerce with the colonizers who occupied the Californian space around their desert home. The Anarresti likewise refuse to be colonized by the Urrasti, barring entry to and exit from their single spaceport to anyone but the most carefully vetted guests. And they themselves are not colonists of their planet; it was unoccupied when they came there, except by a temporary population of miners who were permitted to stay or leave as they thought fit. There are hardly any living species of any kind on its inhospitable surface apart from the Anarresti themselves. When they emigrated from Urras they occupied a space that was uninhabited, and brought with them an ideal that had been untried by their community, though no doubt an anarchism like theirs had been tried elsewhere in the vastness of the universe at some point. That ideal too, then, was an unoccupied space as far as they were concerned, and their move to Anarres was a promise to put it into practice; just as Shevek and Takver’s decision to move in together was a promise to put the hitherto unoccupied space of lifelong partnership into practice for the very first time – that is, for the first time in their lives, and from their perspective.

The two mobiles or sets of mobiles – the Inhabitation of Time and the Occupations of Uninhabited Space – come together in the final chapter of the novel, as Shevek returns to Anarres after solving his quest to reconcile the theories of Sequency and Simultaneity during his stay on Urras. The chapter opens with a return to the concept of the mobiles, which are descended from Kroeber’s necklace. First there are the two planets, Urras and Anarres, in complementary orbits:

Before they broke orbit, the view-ports were filled with the cloudy turquoise of Urras, immense and beautiful. But the ship turned, and the stars came into sight, and Anarres among them like a round bright rock: moving yet not moving, thrown by what hand, timelessly circling, creating time. (p. 314)

The reference to a rock being thrown takes us back to the beginning of the novel, when the child Shevek stumbled independently on one of Zeno’s paradoxes: if a stone is thrown at a tree it can never hit the tree because it will only ever cover half the distance to the tree, then half again, then half again – in which case how can contact ever be made?[5] Shevek’s career as a physicist was dedicated to solving that paradox, and by this final chapter we know he has solved it by the simplest of procedures: by assuming that the stone does make contact and working out a formula that explains this seemingly impossible occurrence. At the same time the reference in the passage to this rock revolving in a perpetual circle suggests time’s inescapable circularity, the fact that all things everywhere are occurring at once, simultaneously, when viewed from the right perspective. The irreconcilable paradox, in other words, remains even after Shevek has found a formula that seems to resolve it. This is why his formula permits instantaneous communication or contact between any two points in the universe, with the help of a device called an ansible which occurrs (like a premonition) in many of Le Guin’s science fiction novels written before she described its invention in The Dispossessed. All those points exist at the same time, as well as in sequence, and there are ways to communicate their equivalence, their contiguity, in spite of the distance and difference between them.

The ship on which Shevek is riding in this final chapter provides the second reference to a mobile. It’s an interstellar starship – one designed to cover impossible distances, and in the process to provide its occupants with that vast perspective that represents time as both sequential and simultaneous:

From the outside it was as bizarre and fragile-looking as a sculpture in glass and wire; it had no look of a ship, a vehicle, about it at all, not even a front and back end, for it never travelled through any atmosphere thicker than that of interplanetary space. Inside, it was as spacious and solid as a house. […] Its style had neither the opulence of Urras, nor the austerity of Anarres, but struck a balance, with the effortless grace of long practice. (pp. 314-5)

The designers of this ship, the Hainish people, are the most ancient human species in the universe, responsible for colonizing all the worlds where anthropoid peoples can be found. It is their extraordinary antiquity, the vastness of their recorded history, that gives them the perspective that sees the whole universe as their house or home; that takes no note of forward or backward motion because all directions have already been taken, at one time or many times in the past, by their ancestors – as they no doubt will be again at some point or many points in the infinite future. But their antiquity does not make the Hainish jaded. Change remains possible, infinite hope available for every individual Hainish person, for a reason as simple as Shevek’s solution to the problem of reconciling incompatible theories. One of the Hainish crewmembers explains this reason to Shevek:

‘My race is very old,’ Ketho said. ‘We have been civilised for a thousand millennia. We have histories of hundreds of those millennia. We have tried everything. Anarchism, with the rest. But I have not tried it. They say there is nothing new under any sun. But if each life is not new, each single life, then why are we born?’ (p. 318)

The statement might summon to our minds the mobile hanging above the head of Shevek’s second baby daughter as he prepared to leave for Urras – for the first time in his life, even if such departures have happened infinite times before and will happen again. In this passage Takver’s mobiles fulfil their promise, complete another orbit, and take their place in the reader’s mind as a message of hope for the worlds to come.

The Dispossessed ends, as Daniel Jaeckle has pointed out, on a note of uncertainty. Shevek faces the anger of some of his fellow anarchists on Anarres for what they see as his betrayal in going to Urras, and it’s perfectly possible that he and the hopeful Hainish crewmember will die at the spaceport. His legacy, though, is enshrined in Le Guin’s earlier books in the form of the ansible. His hopefulness, too, and the hopefulness of his Hainish fellow traveller, remains enshrined in the novel, to be revitalised each time we reread it. And the novel also offers a hopeful riposte, through slantwise references to that necklace, to the tragic stories of Ishi, as told by Kroeber, and of Semley, as communicated by Le Guin herself in her early short story. Reconciliation is always possible, Le Guin seems to say, in the fullness of time, even if we don’t live to witness it as individuals. Things are always being made new. By means of whatever wayward orbits, we are always coming home.


[1] Theodora Kroeber, Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1962), prefatory note.

[2] ‘Semley’s Necklace’, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, 2 vols. (London etc.: Granada, 1978), vol. 1, pp. 9-30.

[3] There is a detailed and very beautiful account of the notion of a promise from an anarchist’s perspective in The Dispossessed (London: Grafton Books, 1975), Chapter Eight, p. 205.

[4] The clearest account I’ve found of Shevek’s physics is in Daniel P. Jaeckle, ‘Embodied anarchy in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed’, Utopian Studies, 20.1 (Winter 2009): p. 75 ff.

[5] See The Dispossessed, Chapter Two, p. 31.

‘Towards an Archaeology of the Future’: Theodora Kroeber and Ursula K Le Guin

[I’ve been busy this month with preparations for GIFCON 2018 while working on a couple of long-ish posts for release in the next few weeks. In the meantime I thought I’d put up an essay I wrote many years ago on Ursula Le Guin, because I intend to build on some of what it says in future posts. Thanks to Edward James, then editor of Foundation, Ursula Le Guin read this piece in typescript and said that she liked it. Nothing I’ve done as an academic makes me prouder than that.

The piece first appeared in Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction, No. 67 (Summer 1996), pp. 62-74.]

On 20th August, 1911, an amazing thing happened: a man walked out of one world and entered another. He had walked further perhaps than any other man in history: several thousand years, by some people’s reckoning, from the Stone Age to the Age of Steam, from ‘Inside the World’ (as the Kesh would call it) to a place ‘Outside’ it, from the country of his people, the Yahi, to the country of the twentieth-century Californians.[1] He was infected by the experience; within five years of his emergence from the wilderness he died of tuberculosis, like so many other indigenous Americans. Nobody knows the man’s name; he kept it secret because names were not to be lightly spoken in his culture.[2] The name he was given by the strangers who befriended him was Ishi, which means simply ‘man’ in the Yahi language. Fifty years later, a woman called Theodora Kroeber wrote a book about him, Ishi in Two Worlds, (1961); and this book haunted her daughter, Ursula Kroeber Le Guin, throughout her extraordinarily varied literary career. I would like here to consider a few of the ways in which Kroeber’s Ishi continued to make himself felt in the narratives of Le Guin; how he kept wandering out of his world into ours in different forms and different contexts from her earliest published stories to her mature works of the 1980s and 90s; and the questions about the relationship between our culture and other cultures, between the ‘civilized’ and the ‘barbarous’, the past and the future, as well as the tentative answers (usually couched in the form of further questions) he brought with him.

In the course of his lifetime Ishi lived in two different places he called home. The first was the country of the Mill Creek Indians, as settlers called them, which occupied the space between two tributaries of the Sacramento River, and from which he emerged in the first fifty years of his life only to mount forays into adjacent territories as he and his family found their traditional food sources rapidly dwindling. The second was the University of California’s Museum of Anthropology in San Francisco, where he lived out his last five years, emerging from the city only to make one last brief trip to his former home. Kroeber’s account of Ishi’s sojourn in the museum is extraordinarily moving in its evocation of the loneliness of the last stages of his life. His people had been wiped out, for the most part by the guns of settlers, but also by the diseases they brought with them as a gift. His family – twelve individuals, reduced to five, then four, then none in the course of the decades – had survived in hiding for forty years after the rest of the Yahi people had been massacred – an astonishing feat of endurance. There was no one else left alive who spoke his language. From before he reached puberty there was no one left alive with whom he could have contemplated having a sexual relationship. He lived in the museum as a walking exhibit, demonstrating the skills of house-building, arrow-making, fire-lighting and shooting that had constituted his vital contribution to the community he came from, and observing with amusement and occasional wonder the bizarre behaviour of the new friends he found among the inhabitants of San Francisco. He spoke a unique mixture of the English and the Yahi languages, and he seems to have changed the lives of the people he met as profoundly as they changed his.

In Ishi in Two Worlds we are privileged to witness an encounter between two wholly different cultures – each one studying, each one studied – in the same small space at the beginning of the last century. Such a two-way encounter occurs a number of times in Le Guin’s writing, and it often takes place in an academic context. In her early short story ‘April in Paris’ (1962) a lonely twentieth-century scholar finds himself transported back to fifteenth-century France to meet his medieval counterpart.[3] In The Dispossessed (1974) a scientist from a society of anarchists finds himself trapped in a university run by capitalists, and gradually comes to recognize the extent of his isolation in this new environment. But in neither of these cases does the protagonist find himself as lonely and disoriented as Ishi must have done. Like Le Guin and her husband Charles, the medieval scholar is fluent in Middle French and Latin, and the scientist Shevek in The Dispossessed shares with his captors the language of physics. More acute states of isolation occur elsewhere in Le Guin’s work: the clone Kaph in ‘Nine Lives’ (1969), for instance, ‘a lost piece of a broken set, a fragment, inexpert in solitude’, who has lost eight-ninths of himself when eight of his fellow clones were killed in an earthquake;[4] the loneliness of the alien Falk in City of Illusions (1967), stranded on a broken world with no memory of where he came from. But Kaph shares the language and the technological skills of his fellow workers, and Falk is eventually given the chance to return to his home planet. For all their highly-developed sense of being cut off, none of Le Guin’s characters finds herself in a state of isolation as extreme as Ishi’s, except perhaps for a man and a woman in the first of her novels, Rocannon’s World (1966), published only five years after Ishi in Two Worlds. Le Guin’s other solitaries acknowledge this man and woman as their ancestors, and continue to respond to the problems they first faced in ever more complex variations on Ishi’s predicament.

The man is Rocannon, left alone on a strange world when his fellow scientists are obliterated in an instant by a bomb dropped by a faceless enemy. Like Kroeber, Le Guin conveys Rocannon’s isolation primarily in linguistic terms: ‘Mogien understood no word he said, for he spoke in his own tongue, the speech of the starlords; and there was no man now in Angien or in all the world who spoke that tongue’.[5] For Rocannon, as for Ishi, this linguistic isolation is irreversible: return is denied him, and he must learn to make what he can of the alien environment in which he has been stranded. In fact he makes it his own in a double sense. By the end of the book he has learned to call it ‘home’ (presumably in the new language he has been forced to adopt); but after his death, the League of All Worlds (of which he was an envoy) baptizes the planet as a whole with Rocannon’s name. This last development is an interesting one. Is the name of a non-native scientist, however thoroughly he has been naturalized, really an appropriate designation for a planet with a long history of its own? The name suggests not so much that the world has domesticated Rocannon as that the League of All Worlds has domesticated the world; and it suggests too that for the League the most interesting moment in a planet’s history is the moment when it loses its autonomy, when it settles into its humble place in interplanetary discourse. And what of the other occupants of the place Rocannon came to call home? The men, and above all the women, who made him welcome in their dwelling-places?

The fate of these nameless householders is hinted at in the prologue to Rocannon’s World, first published as a short story, ‘Dowry of the Angyar’, in 1964.[6] In it a woman called Semley, from the planet that will one day bear Rocannon’s name, appears out of the darkness between the worlds to reclaim one of the exhibits in a Museum of Anthropology, an exquisite necklace, and is observed with wonder by the anthropologist Rocannon. The fact that it is a necklace she has come to reclaim might be read as an allusion to Kroeber’s book. In the foreword to Ishi in Two Worlds Lewis Garnett elaborates on a metaphor Kroeber uses to describe the biographer’s difficult art:

This book, as the author herself says, is like an archaeologist’s reconstruction of a bead necklace from which some pieces are missing, others scattered. She puts together two necklaces: first, the story of a tribe that survived almost unchanged, along the streams of the Mount Lassen foothills, from what we call the Age of Pericles to the period of our gold rush; of its decay and its murder. The second necklace is the story of Ishi’s adjustment to the trolley-world of San Francisco – proof, as the author says, that Stone Age man and modern man are essentially alike.[7]

For the anthropologist Rocannon in the prologue to Rocannon’s World, Semley’s necklace is transformed from a museum exhibit into the fragment of a story to which he has no access – the story of Semley, which is what later prompts him to travel to her planet in his turn. In much the same way, Ishi invested the exhibits in the Californian museum with new meaning and new life – for instance, by objecting to the practice of leaving camping gear untended in a room that housed the dead (in Ishi’s world this might have resulted in unwelcome interference with the equipment by restless ghosts, no matter how completely the dead had been assimilated into the discourse of science).[8] Semley’s necklace comes to stand for the gap between the narratives favoured by different cultures and the ways in which encounters between these cultures may exacerbate the gap even as they seek to bridge it. For Semley the necklace has a value and a function of which the curators of the museum have no knowledge: she needs it as a dowry for her husband, an emblem of the status of her family. But unknown to her it has acquired a different function in a new cultural context since it was lost to her family in the distant past. It was exchanged with the voyagers by one of the races on her planet who privilege the values of barter over those of heredity; exchanged, in fact, for the very same starship that carried Semley to the museum. And as a result of this initial change in the valuation of the necklace, another change is brought about. Unknown to her, it has lost the function for which she sought it even as she travelled through space towards its resting-place. ‘The gap of time bridged by our light-speed ships’ means that she will return to her world years after her husband’s death; and with him dead, her friends aged, her daughter grown to adulthood, the necklace will no longer have any use as a dowry.[9] Instead it will acquire for her family the status of a cursed object, until it is returned again to Rocannon, who will eventually give it to his wife – a woman of Semley’s people – as a dowry. In the meantime, for readers of the novel it will perhaps acquire a further meaning still: it will come to stand for the deadliness of misunderstandings between cultures, and for the impossibility of returning to the precise historical point from which one has started.

Semley’s necklace becomes, in fact, a sign that changes its meaning in the space between past and present, like a word from a language that is no longer spoken which has been assimilated into a different tongue. The consciousness of such profound linguistic changes, which accompany and even bring about changes within communities that share a common language, is always present in the work of Le Guin; and for her, as for her mother Theodora Kroeber, the task of charting these changes – or recording a diversity of different understandings and ways of speaking within a text that is written in a single language, rooted in a particular time and place – is the principal problem that confronts a writer, whether she is an archaeologist or a novelist. Indeed, the language used by Le Guin herself has changed as her ideas have changed. This is most obviously the case with her use of the personal pronoun. In her preface to the 1989 edition of her essay-collection The Language of the Night, first published ten years previously, she explains the dilemma with which she was confronted when faced with her earlier essays:

In general, I feel that revising published work is taboo. You took the risk then, you can’t play safe now… And also, what about the readers of the first version – do they have to trot out loyally and buy the recension, or else feel that they’ve been cheated of something? It seems most unfair to them. All the same, I have in this case broken my taboo. The changes I wanted to make were not aesthetic improvements, but had a moral and intellectual urgency to me… The principal revision involves the so-called ‘generic pronoun’, he. It has been changed, following context, euphony or whim, to they, she, you, or we. This is, of course, a political change (just as the substitution of he for they as the correct written form of the singular generic pronoun – see the OED – was a political act).[10]

In the collection, the essay that is most seriously affected by this change in linguistic and ideological stance is inevitably the one that discusses her exploration of a genderless culture in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969): the celebrated essay ‘Is Gender Necessary?’.[11] In the 1989 edition of the collection, Le Guin prints the essay along with a commentary, as if it had been a text from a previous epoch that requires annotating to be understood by the modern reader. At this point the collection resembles an archaeological dig, the different layers or columns representing different stages of Le Guin’s development. The novel she describes as an attempt at an ‘archaeology of the future’, Always Coming Home (1985), is written in two languages: for the most part it is in English, but to overcome the ideological assumptions that are ingrained in that imperialist tongue she occasionally lapses into the language of the future, Kesh, to describe concepts that have no equivalent in ‘Western’ thinking.[12] In other words, Semley’s necklace initiated a linguistic revolution – a revolution that was carried on in The Dispossessed by the anarchist Odo, who invented a new language for her tender new-born society. In the same way, the relationship between the woman Semley and her male observer, Rocannon, foreshadows the revolution in Le Guin’s thinking about the relationship between the reader (or writer) who thinks like a twentieth-century man and the text that reaches towards other modes of being.

Theodora Kroeber

The prologue to Rocannon’s World raises another question that Le Guin went on to consider in greater depth in her later work: the question of how the writer’s perspective or philosophical stance affects her subject. Inevitably in a book about an unfamiliar culture the writer is likely to adopt a point of view that can be understood by the bulk of her projected readership; and inevitably such a point of view tends to obscure or distort the subject under scrutiny. Theodora Kroeber was acutely conscious of this problem as she tried to chart Ishi’s career. There was a danger, for instance, that the gaps in what was known about Ishi’s life would tempt the writer into irresponsible imaginative speculation, or that her readers – and she herself – might be tempted from time to time into allowing their contempt for a ‘primitive’ culture to colour their response to the story they were reading. Kroeber found some startling ways to avert such reactions. For one thing, she wittily records Ishi’s amusement at what he saw as the absurdity of the ambitions of white civilization – his dismissal, for instance, of aeroplanes and impressive buildings as inadequate and unnecessary copies of mountains and birds. For another, she keeps slipping Ishi into unexpected roles in the world of technology. ‘It is a curious circumstance,’ she writes at one point,

that some of the questions which arise about the concealment [of Ishi’s family for forty years] are those for which in a different context psychologists and neurologists are trying to find answers for the submarine and outer space services today. Some of these are: What makes for morale under confining and limiting life conditions? What are the presumable limits of claustrophobic endurance? What temperament and build should be sought for these special and confining situations? It seems the Yahi might have qualified for outer space had they lasted into this century.[13]

This unexpected juxtaposition of the close community of the Yahi with the close community of astronauts in space might almost have provided the seed for the idea of the crew of clones in ‘Nine Lives’, or the problems of forming a healthily cooperative society in a spaceship explored in ‘Vaster than Empires and More Slow’ (1971) or ‘The Shobies’ Story’ (1990). In Rocannon’s World, however, Le Guin had not yet found satisfactory solutions to the other problem confronted by her mother: the problem of making both her readers and her narrator receptive to cultural difference. Her account of the story-teller’s art in the prologue shows this:

In trying to tell the story of a man, an ordinary League scientist, who went to such a nameless half-known world not many years ago, one feels like an archaeologist amid millennial ruins, now struggling through choked tangles of leaf, flower, branch and vine to the sudden bright geometry of a wheel or a polished cornerstone, and now entering some commonplace, sunlit doorway to find inside a darkness, the impossible flicker of a flame, the glitter of a jewel, the half-glimpsed movement of a woman’s arm.[14]

The peculiarity as well as the wit of this passage lies in the fact that the archaeological metaphor applies not to the subject under examination by anthropologists in the museum, Semley, but to one of the anthropologists themselves, an ‘ordinary League scientist’ who went to Semley’s world and became part of its mythology. This is particularly odd when one considers that the prologue was originally a short story – one that concerned itself with the adventures of Semley, and made no mention at all of the adventures of an ordinary male League scientist. It is as if at this stage in Le Guin’s career, and in the history of science fiction, the only conceivable protagonist of a story must be a man who shares the cultural assumptions of his readers; the only conceivable objects of interest must be recognizable elements in the progress of ‘Western’ culture, the wheel that was of no importance to the indigenous peoples of the New World, the cornerstone of a stone-built house, never the baskets or dancing-clothes of Ishi’s family. Le Guin repeatedly states in her critical writings that that in those days – in the days when she penned Rocannon’s World – she had not yet learned to write from a woman’s perspective.[15] She seems to be right, at least in part: the woman in this passage is only a half-glimpsed movement in the dark. Writing about women and writing convincingly about cultural difference seem to have been skills that Le Guin had to learn in conjunction.

In the narratives that followed Rocannon’s World, the relationship between scientists and the cultures they study undergoes a succession of remarkable metamorphoses. Already in her second novel, Planet of Exile (1966), the scientists have come closer to the people they scrutinize; indeed they have become dependent on them. The Terran colonists in this second book have been stranded as a community on alien soil; they must integrate themselves with the inhabitants of the world they occupy or perish as Ishi perished, as a result of the incompatibility of their bodies with their new environment. The indigenous inhabitants of the planet, like so many of Le Guin’s ‘primitive’ peoples, have much in common with the Yahi; they will not meet each other’s eyes (Yahi men would not look into the eyes of Yahi women); they practice polygamy; they have summer and winter houses; they cremate their dead (the Yahi were the only native Californians to do so).[16] But by the time we meet a descendant of these two races, Falk in City of Illusions, they seem to have become entirely technologized, and little trace of the indigenous people of Alterra can be found in them. This is partly a natural result of the perspective from which Le Guin’s second novel is told. As in Rocannon’s World it is never quite clear who the narrator is in Planet of Exile, but there is nothing to suggest she does not share the expectations of a twentieth-century ‘Westerner’, since she commits the bulk of her novel to the task of tracing the movement of the main female character – a native Alterran – from the ‘primitive’ homes of her ancestors to the relatively ‘civilized’ city of the Exiles. In the same way, The Left Hand of Darkness persistently reminds its readers that they inhabit a patriarchal society; as Le Guin acknowledges in her essays, the narrator’s use of the ‘so-called generic pronoun he’ inevitably colours the reader’s response to the androgynous Gethenians. The protagonist Genly Ai may become a kind of sibling or lover of the principal Gethenian, Estraven, but that pronoun ensures that the reader never become wholly naturalized to the genderless cultures of the world called Gethen.

Le Guin’s frustration at the distortion this linguistic bias entails finds angry expression in her novella The Word for World is Forest (1972). The title of the novella alludes to a radical linguistic difference between Terran colonists and the inhabitants of a tree-covered planet. Those colonists who give much thought to such things believe they can exploit the logging opportunities afforded by this forested terrain without materially affecting the wellbeing of its human inhabitants; but they fail to recognize the extent to which the identities of these people are inextricably bound up with the woods they live in. Once again, the natives of the world called Forest, the Athsheans, have something in common with Ishi’s people. Men and women in this culture speak different dialects, as the Yahi did; male activities are rigorously distinguished from female ones; and they regard their dreams as instructive, as sometimes seems to have been the case among the Yahi. More importantly, perhaps, the men who ‘translate’ these dreams – those who convert them into speech and action – are among the most highly respected members of society. The word for translator and the word for god are identical, and the elision of these two concepts acknowledges the profound and sometimes terrible power of transmitting meaning from one form to another. Whatever is translated is changed irrevocably, so that the indigenous translator who is central to The Word for World is Forest, Selver, is also the individual responsible for transforming the culture of the Athsheans dreadfully and for ever. In this narrative, as we might expect, the proximity of what we would call the anthropologist – the ‘hilfer’ or scholar of ‘High Intelligence Life Forms’ – to the subject of study affects the subject more drastically than in any of Le Guin’s previous novels. Selver effectively merges with his hilfer friend Lyubov, and after Lyubov’s death the Terran’s ghost drifts sadly in and out of Selver’s consciousness, bringing with it the horrifying new ideas with which Lyubov is familiar. Once Lyubov’s knowledge has been translated into Selver’s language, Selver and the people he incites to violence against the colonists can never be the same again. The Athsheans avenge the Yahi nation on the colonists, destroying them with spears and bare hands as the Yahi themselves never could; but in the process they learn a new way of life; they learn the skill of genocide, and can never forget what they have learned. The precarious balance which kept Selver’s people free from war – uniquely free in the known universe, as the novella suggests, a situation as precarious as the ecological and cultural balance that enabled Ishi’s people to survive – has been destroyed, and they will never again be exempt from this infection.

The acute pain expressed in The Word for World is Forest – Le Guin observes that in contrast to her other work ‘this story was easy to write and disagreeable’[17] – springs from its fusion of the issues encountered in Ishi in Two Worlds with those of contemporary American politics. Throughout its length the parallels between the world called Forest and 1960s Vietnam are often made explicit.[18] The military leader of the Terran colonists is a Vietnamese soldier called General Dongh, who is despised as the scion of an untrustworthy race by his eurafran subordinates; and the eurafran soldiers among the colonists dull their sensibilities, as American combatants did in Vietnam, with the intensive use of hallucinogenic drugs. But the most aggressive of the colonists, Captain Davidson, bears an uncanny resemblance to an earlier manifestation of American colonialism, a man called Anderson who was the most prominent of the Indian-killers in Kroeber’s book.[19] Like Anderson, Davidson inspires unthinking devotion among his followers; as with Anderson, his concern for preserving a sense of his own masculinity is a driving force behind his violent xenophobia; and like Anderson he is a man adrift, a loose cannon who begins by being exploited by the colonial administration for their own ends but who rapidly develops an agenda of his own and loses all contact with his superior officers.[20] Kroeber attributes the savagery of the suppression of the Yahi in part to the aggressive individualism of the gold-seeking Forty-niners, stranded as they were hundreds of miles from the national government, with its inadequate but sometimes well-intentioned laws concerning the treatment of native Americans.[21] Like a forerunner of Marlon Brando’s General Kurz in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Davidson quickly detaches himself from the chain of command and begins to act as a god on his own account. His actions as much as Lyubov’s awareness of his actions contribute to the translation of the peaceful Athsheans into killers – just as Kroeber judges that the killing of Yahi children taught the Yahi how to kill the children of the whites. Lyubov cannot help bringing Davidson into the Athsheans’ world, and at the end of the story Davidson is still alive years after Lyubov’s death, living among the Athsheans as implacably as the anthropologist lives on in Selver’s dreams. In this way Le Guin offers her most terrible and despairing word on the relationship between anthropologist and anthropologized, between the student and the studied: an impassioned cri de coeur on the impossibility of dissociating the dominant culture of the writer from the culture she strives to represent.

The Dispossessed responds to this problem by smashing the form of the conventional linear narrative. In its account of the career of the physicist Shevek, chapters on his early life in the anarchist world of Anarres alternate with chapters on his later stay in the capitalist world of Urras. Neither period in the scientist’s life is privileged over the other, and both phases make an equal contribution to his eventual reconciliation of the theories of Sequency and Simultaneity in post-Einsteinian physics. In the process, the problem of time which dogged Kroeber’s account of the life of Ishi reaches tentatively towards a solution. The problem is that in Kroeber’s text, for all the qualities that would have made Ishi and his people so well suited to life in the twentieth century, they remain firmly locked in the past – all are dead by the time the book is written – while Kroeber’s own people inhabit another period, the present; and the two periods remain as rigorously segregated from each other as Anarres is from Urras, despite all the writer’s efforts to bring them together. This is a problem of narrative technique as well as of chronology. A linear form of narrative insists that one thing follows another; it invites its readers to believe in the inexorable progression of a uniform ‘human race’ towards some sort of apotheosis, and so encourages the dominant culture to regard itself as possessing exclusive rights to the future. In The Dispossessed, by contrast, the past and the future coexist with the present. Anarchy has emerged from capitalism, and is continuing to emerge from it as the text unfolds thanks to the efforts of revolutionaries; at the same time, without constant vigilance on the part of the anarchists capitalism may swiftly reemerge from anarchy. In the course of the novel, discontented elements on Anarres are returning to capitalist values as conditions on the planet deteriorate, while dissidents on Urras struggle to forge anarchy in their disintegrating homeland. The point of narrating the two processes in parallel, as Shevek sees it, is that without an awareness of where they come from the Anarresti are in constant danger of repeating the mistakes of history. By returning to the Anarrestis’ point of origin, Urras, Shevek hopes (among other things) to remind the inhabitants of Anarres of the need to be perpetually renewing the revolution. At the same time he hopes that he will serve as a beacon of hope for the future to the revolutionaries on Urras. Without addressing themselves to both cultures simultaneously, neither he nor they can ever hope to find a way forward, either in science or in politics.

In addressing two antagonistic societies, Shevek might be said to offer a model for addressing two phases of American history, one of which has been privileged in textbooks to the virtual exclusion of the other. At one point in the dual narrative he hints at this in terms that must be startlingly familiar to Le Guin’s American readers:

He was a frontiersman, one of a breed who had denied their past, their history. The Settlers of Anarres had turned their backs on the Old World and its past, opted for the future only. But as surely as the future becomes the past, the past becomes the future. To deny is not to achieve. The Odonians who left Urras had been wrong, wrong in their desperate courage to deny their history, to forgo the possibility of return. The explorer who will not come back or send back his ships to tell his tale is not an explorer, only an adventurer; and his sons are born in exile.[22]

This way of describing the relationship between Urras and Anarres, the Old World and the New, may seem to place Shevek in the position of the heroic frontiersman of the legendary Wild West; an Anderson, say, who has suddenly become aware of his European ancestry and has returned to Europe to learn about the origins of the American republic – and to teach his ancestors a lesson. But Shevek has something in common with Ishi as well as with Anderson. Like Ishi he is baffled by the possessiveness of the people he encounters; like him he is amused by much of the gadgetry they are so proud of (and with Ishi he finds pockets one of the most amusing of these gadgets).[23] Moreover Shevek, like Ishi, is given to reversing the usual criteria for distinguishing civility from barbarism. The operations of capitalism ‘were as meaningless to him as the rites of a primitive religion, as barbaric, as elaborate, and as unnecessary’.[24] The history he learns on Urras is as much the history of those who opposed the barbarism of the capitalists as it is that of the capitalists themselves; it is the history of the freedom fighters who are branded barbarous by the society they challenge, and whose forebears have been banished to a harsh environment that resembles the barren land set aside by the American government for Indian reservations.[25] For this reason one might imagine that Shevek would have found as much to admire in the Yashi as in their European successors.

On the other hand, it is quite possible that he would not. If the Anarresti had been presented somewhat differently – or if Le Guin had written about them a few years later – they might have resembled a fusion of Native Californian culture with the culture of the pioneers. But The Dispossessed resists such a fusion. The moon to which Le Guin’s anarchists were exiled was uninhabited apart from a small colony of miners; and there seem to be no surviving aboriginal inhabitants of Urras. The one development of their society that the anarchists refuse is what the narrator calls a regression to ‘pre-urban, pre-technological tribalism’.[26] Le Guin’s utopian vision had to wait another eleven years before it could embrace a post-urban, post-technological culture as something better than a regression.

Which brings us to the most complex of her fictions, the unique compilation of stories, poems, recipes, songs, plays, maps and commentaries produced by the nonexistent future inhabitants of the Napa Valley, Always Coming Home (1985). In this book at last a people who bear some resemblance to the Yahi take over the various narratives contained in the volume, and adopt the role of instructors with respect to the ‘editor’ of the text; a very different role form that of the anthropologist’s so-called ‘informant’. Once again, the title of the book deserves to be dwelt on. Throughout Le Guin’s work two motifs recur repeatedly: the motif of the journey and the motif of the home. As we have seen, Ishi’s journey between two times was also a journey between two homes: his home by the Sacramento River and his home in the museum. Shevek traces a similar journey between two homes: his childhood home of Anarres and his ancestral home on Urras. The title of Always Coming Home combines the notion of travel with the notion of domestic stability – the spaces traditionally allocated to men and to women in European history. It suggests, as Ishi’s story suggests, that they are inextricably linked; that sequency need not be privileged over simultaneity, that constant movement can work hand in hand with an awareness of, and a respect for, where one is. It suggests that the culture of the Kesh need not inhabit an inaccessible future, but that it has always been present, always available to those who permit themselves to see it: like the woman who is glimpsed for a moment among the crowds of San Francisco in the story called ‘A Hole in the Air’.[27] The man of the Kesh who sees her is another Ishi, an exile who has strayed from the far future into the twentieth century through the mysterious hole of the story’s title, and who dies, as Ishi did, of an infection caught during his visit. The woman, on the other hand, is presumably still living in San Francisco at the time Le Guin is writing the story; waiting, perhaps, to find her way through another hole in the air to the Valley of the future, the place where she will finally be at home.

In addition, the title of Always Coming Home evokes the dual nature of the texts in that collection. Some are accounts of journeys, dominated by the history related by Stone Telling; others are celebrations of life among the Kesh, made up of the poems, songs and recipes interspersed with the prose throughout the book. The prose stories in the collection recount for the most part incidents in which the delicate balance of Kesh life is challenged or disrupted: breaches of Kesh etiquette, incursions by hostile intruders on the Valley, disturbances in the domestic environment – like the story of the vampiric consumer Dira (an anthropomorphic tick)[28] who almost eats a Kesh woman out of house and home, or the story of two angry old women who destroy their households, ‘Old Women Hating’. These narratives look familiar enough to a twentieth-century reader; they are appropriate components of what we take to be a literary work, although they also serve to strengthen the reader’s awareness of the difference between our culture and that of the Kesh. The recipe, on the other hand, is perhaps the most characteristically Kesh of the genres contained in the book. It is a text to be returned to time and again, to be modified, reduced or expanded as occasion demands, refusing to assert its authority over the reader, and ready t be forgotten as soon as it has lost its usefulness. It offers a witty analogy for the way the Kesh regard their literature; they ‘do poetry’, as Le Guin explains in an essay, ‘as a common skill, the way people do sewing or cooking, as an essential part of being alive’.[29] By reading or performing the poetry, by playing the music that accompanies the text (the first edition was accompanied by a CD), by cooking from the recipes, we bring the population of the book alive by inviting it into our homes; and in doing so we bring together the present and the future, what might be and what is, more fully perhaps than in any of our previous literary encounters. When we participate in Always Coming Home we find ourselves haunted by the Kesh as the translator Selver was haunted by the anthropologist Lyubov: changed by, rather than changing, the subject of study.

We might also find ourselves haunted by the ghost of Theodora Kroeber. The recipe is a mode of writing (like the anthropological biography) that Le Guin seems to have associated with her mother. In her introduction to the 1985 edition of Kroeber’s book of Native American stories, The Inland Whale (1959), Le Guin observes that ‘Theodora’s native gift was for the brilliant shortcut that reveals an emotional or dramatic truth, the event turned legend – not raw fact, but cooked fact, fact made savory and digestible. She was a great cook both of food and words’.[30] By combining cookery and Native American legend in Always Coming Home Le Guin might be said to have combined two periods of Kroeber’s life: the first sixty years, when she gave her energies to creating a home, and the last two decades, when she gave herself to creating books. In an essay on women who have succeeded in combining motherhood and writing Le Guin asks herself what her own mother might have achieved if she had not chosen, or been constrained, to separate the two roles chronologically.[31] The Kesh would have had a kind of answer: the roles are not fundamentally dissimilar, and both are equally creative. By the end of her life Kroeber was at ease with them both, as she was with the many surnames (Kracaw, Brown, Kroeber, Quinn) that marked out the successive stages of her personal history.[32] This is not, perhaps, an answer that will satisfy many women; but it is an answer that looks forward to a time when choices will no longer be determined by the gender, race, class or wealth of the chooser; a time that is always leaking into ours through the holes in the air made by the experimental writings of Ursula K. Le Guin.



[1] ‘Inside’ the world and ‘Outside’ the world are terms coined by Le Guin in Always Coming Home (1985; London: Grafton Books, 1988). The terms are explained in the section called ‘Time and the City’, pp. 149-72.

[2] For Yahi naming conventions see Theodora Kroeber, Ishi in Two Worlds (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1962), pp. 126-8.

[3] ‘April in Paris’ can be found in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (London etc.: Granada, 1978), vol. 1, pp. 31-45.

[4] ‘Nine Lives’ is also in the Wind’s Twelve Quarters, vol. 1, pp. 128-57.

[5] Rocannon’s World and Planet of Exile (London: W.H. Allen and Co., 1983), p. 27.

[6] ‘Dowry of the Angyar’ can be found under its later title, ‘Semley’s Necklace’, in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, vol. 1, pp. 9-30.

[7] Ishi in Two Worlds, ‘Foreword’.

[8] Ishi in Two Worlds, p. 206.

[9] Rocannon’s World and Planet of Exile, p. 4.

[10] Ursula K. Le Guin, The Language of the Night (London: The Women’s Press, 1989), pp. 1-2.

[11] The Language of the Night, pp. 135-47.

[12] ‘Towards an Archaeology of the Future’ is the title of the book’s first section, Always Coming Home, pp. 3-5.

[13] Ishi in Two Worlds, pp. 97-8.

[14] Rocannon’s World and Planet of Exile, p. 4.

[15] For instance, in her essay ‘The Fisherwoman’s Daughter’, reprinted in Dancing at the Edge of the World (New York: Doubleday, 1972), p. 126.

[16] See Ishi in Two Worlds, Chapter Two, ‘A Living People’.

[17] See Again, Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison (New York: Doubleday, 1972), p. 126.

[18] See Le Guin’s essay on The Word for World Is Forest in The Language of the Night, pp. 125-9. It is worth noting that the original title of the novella was The Little Green Men, alluding not just to the generic Martians but to racist descriptions of Vietnamese people in terms of size and colour that were prevalent in the language of the pro-war lobby in the 1960s.

[19] See Ishi in Two Worlds, pp. 63-8 etc.

[20] Anderson’s concern for his own masculinity is hinted at by his admiring disciple Sim Moak: ‘Anderson was twenty-five years old and as fine a specimen of manhood as one would wish to see… you can imagine a great tall man with a string of scalps from his belt to his ankle’ (Ishi in Two Worlds, pp. 65-6). Davidson too is a ‘big, hard-muscled man’ who ‘enjoyed using his well-trained body’ (Again, Dangerous Visions, p. 36).

[21] See Ishi in Two Worlds, pp. 43-5 etc.

[22] The Dispossessed (London etc.: Grafton Books, 1975), p. 80.

[23] The Dispossessed, p. 62; Ishi in Two Worlds, p. 162.

[24] The Dispossessed, p. 113.

[25] Attempts to resettle the Yana people on reservations proved abortive; see Ishi in Two Worlds, pp. 62-3 and 72-4.

[26] The Dispossessed, p. 85.

[27] Always Coming Home, pp. 154-7.

[28] I am grateful to Ursula Le Guin for pointing out to me that Dira was a tick when she read this essay in typescript.

[29] Dancing at the Edge of the World, p. 186.

[30] Dancing at the Edge of the World, p. 139.

[31] Dancing at the Edge of the World, pp. 231-2.

[32] Dancing at the Edge of the World, p. 138. Tenar in Tehanu inherits Kroeber’s multiplicity of names.