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About This Book
This book critically examines Le Guin's fiction for all ages, and it will be of great interest to her many admirers and to all students and scholars of children's literature.
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Le Guin’s Continuum of Anthropomorphism
In no case is a higher third born of the confrontation of opposites.
The Farthest Shores of Ursula K. Le Guin
The Farthest Shores of Ursula K. Le Guin
Only when the Man listens, and attends, O Best Beloved, and hears, and understands, will the Cat return to the Cat’s true silence.
Ursula K. Le Guin
Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences
Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences
[The dialogic text] is constructed not as a whole of a single consciousness, absorbing other consciousnesses as objects unto itself, but as a whole formed by the interaction of several consciousnesses, none of which entirely becomes an object for the other.
Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics
Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics
Harold Bloom compliments Le Guin as a writer of “precise, dialectical style.”1 Le Guin does not seem to value dialectic, however. There are many different unreconciled ideas in Le Guin’s work. In the Earthsea books alone, Le Guin purportedly draws on Taoism, Jungian psychology, various feminisms, different models of anthropology, “the Hermetic and Neo-Platonic traditions and some elements of Zen,”2 Sartre’s existentialism, and “Buber’s I-Thou relationship and some of Martin Heidegger’s ideas on speech and being.”3 We would have trouble synthesizing these many systems, to be sure. I don’t think Le Guin is asking us to.
Dialogue, while concerned with interdependence, does not insist upon a synthesized or reconciled position but revels in simultaneous, separate, and equally powerful positions in concert with each other. Le Guin engages in “thought experiments” in the parallel lines of different genres regarding the way worldviews relate to each other. Rather than address the dialogue among formal philosophies like those described above, I want to examine the way Le Guin uses anthropomorphism to show the limits of binary and dialectic. She establishes a continuum that plots points on the line for humans, animals, aliens, and dragons and then examines the spaces between those points. Even when it seems that Le Guin is synthesizing different positions on the continuum of sentience by providing us with characters like the eponymous Tehanu, Myra from “Buffalo Gals” (1987) and Selver in The Word for Word is Forest (1972),4 she is really showing us how those positions, or characters, on the line are in conversation with each other—any character is a platform for dialogue rather than a determined identity.5 There is a line that stretches between the binary of self and other, and Le Guin is interested in the degrees between those end points.
The Human and the Animal
Hailing the other across distance is important in Le Guin’s work. The space between us is the most vital part of a relationship because it is what allows relationship to occur—it signifies the need for relationship and establishes a place for it. Michael Holquist asserts that even “the very capacity to have consciousness is based on otherness. This otherness is not merely a dialectical alienation. . . . On the contrary: in dialogism consciousness is otherness” (1990, 18). Synthesis removes the space between and fragmentation proclaims it to be unbridgeable—or it simply ignores the gaps entirely. One cannot create a self or a round literary character by destroying the other, synthesizing it with the self, or eschewing contact with it.6 In each of these cases we are left with only part of the story of existence, and a skewed one at that.
Le Guin recognizes the necessary separation of the self and the other, but she tries to get characters as close to the other as possible and mediate a gap that cannot simply be closed. What Le Guin says of people might be said of her characters: “If you deny any affinity with another person or kind of person, if you declare it to be wholly different from yourself . . . you may hate it or deify it; but in either case, you have denied it spiritual equality and its human reality.”7 Le Guin repudiates the ultimate fragmentation of characters as “wholly different,” yet she doesn’t suggest the equally simplistic notion that we’re all really just the same deep down. As she says in the introduction to her collection Buffalo Gals and other Animal Presences, “this conversation, this community [of animals] is not a simple harmony. The Peaceable Kingdom, where the lion and lamb lie down, is an endearing vision not of this world. It denies wilderness. And voices cry in the wilderness.”8 She argues for difference by degree—real and potentially dangerous differences, but differences that are not insuperable. There are many stops between self and other.
Roger Sale argues that animal characters are “the major source of the power of the best children’s literature.”9 The animal character provides the writer of children’s and adult literature with yet another way to approach the question of identity. Ann Swinfen observes that “this urge to leap the gulf which divides men from animals is shared by the writers of all animal tales, . . . whatever may be the other motives behind their work” (14). Margaret Blount claims that all writers who use animals as dramatic material are attempting to cross “the great gulf between human and animal.”10 In attempting to cross this gulf, the author “may leap, build bridges, or even pretend the gulf isn’t there” (Blount, 17). And authors have provided us with everything from people in fur, as we see in The Wind and the Willows and Angelina Ballerina, to the animal represented with the consciousness that the author believes is peculiar to its species, such as in Call of the Wild and Black Beauty.11 William Magee marvels that certain writers for children, especially Elizabeth Sewell, achieve in their writing a “distinctive and credible nonhuman point of view.”12 Different authors attempt to represent the animal at various distances from the human, and they have different beliefs about how far from the human they can go.13
Useful anthropomorphism should go beyond a random use of animals as people. Many contemporary children’s picture books depict characters as animals with no apparent purpose except the obvious belief that the implied audience likes animals. The nature of the animal often isn’t part of the rationale for the choice (the fox and hen as natural enemies, for instance), nor is the animal supposed to have some metaphoric value (foxes are crafty). At best animal characters often merely serve as costumes for characters almost childlike themselves; at worst they are part of a strategy to erase race, class, and gender from what might otherwise be stories depicted in realistic settings. Ducks and cats paint houses together and spiders have tea parties for insects. In her fiction works, Le Guin’s animal choices are always purposeful. In her Solomon Leviathan (1983) a giraffe and boa constrictor take to the waves in a rowboat. While this might seem like a set of odd character choices, it’s important to note that the absurdity of the relationship matches the absurdity of their quest to find the horizon. In other words, the characters are purposefully absurd.
Nor should anthropomorphism be a thoughtless mixture of animal and human, or what Le Guin describes as “just tacking a few tentacles or queer mating habits on to a standard Anglo-Saxon cardboard man and calling it a Pxzquilchian Native.”14 Such pasting of parts or swapping of heads Barbie/G.I. Joe-fashion serves not to put the animal and human (or different kinds of animals) in relation with each other but to point out the failure of synthesis. Le Guin plays with this failure on purpose when she creates her woefully designed Milts in The Adventure of Cobbler’s Rune (1982). The characters are meant, as an odd mixture of creatures, to seem both ridiculous and monstrous. Purposeful mixture of animal and person can be done, and must be since we are limited in our ability to imagine what is truly other. C. S. Lewis challenges us “to imagine a new primary colour, a third sex, a fourth dimension, or even a monster which does not consist of bits of existing animals stuck together. Nothing happens.”15 Le Guin, for her part, thinks of the animal as something neither to equate with nor divorce from humanity. Rather, she asks us to consider it along with the child and the woman as points increasingly distant from “man,” neither in opposition to him nor in search of blending into him. It is her opportunity to get us to play with how the vertical line of status intersects the horizontal line of sentience. “So long as ‘man’ ‘rules,’ animals will make rude remarks about him” (1990c, 12). 16Le Guin asks us to move from the vertical to horizontal line as we consider difference; she encourages us to rethink status by using anthropomorphism as the metaphor of difference.
Of Synthesis and Connection Denied
In a few of her stories reproduced in Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences (1987) Le Guin plays with the problems of animal-human relationships and the related difficulty of adult-child, man-woman relationships. These are stories about betrayal across gender, age, and species. Two of the tales deal with transformation and two with separation. “The Wife’s Story” and “Horse Camp” each show us a transformation: the former is about the transformation from wolf to man and the latter is about the transformation from girl to horse. In “The Wife’s Story” we are told of a mysterious problem that a She-wolf’s husband is having. He acts strangely, and their children don’t seem to recognize him: “Make it go away!” shouts the youngest in her father’s face.17 It turns out that the husband changes into a man “in the dark of the moon” and is caught in the transformation at the story’s end (68). According to his wife, he had “turned into the hateful one” and his destruction by the pack is necessary if regrettable (70). The wife waits to see if he will resume his wolf form at the end or perhaps come back to life in his wolf form with the death of the human, but the human corpse remains. The two forms die together. From H. G. Wells to Le Guin, it is clear that trying to synthesize man and animal and erase difference is not the answer. The manwolf ends up betraying himself and his family; the pack and his wife betray him; all betray the children. There is no way to combine, erase, or ignore difference without betrayal and destruction.
In “Horse Camp” the transformation is subtle and gradual, and more figurative than literal. Norah, off to horse camp with her friends and older sister, identifies more and more with the horses. By the last third of the story Norah begins to see herself as a horse, identifying with the horses that run free, feel beautiful, and are disciplined by Meredy the handler.
At the end of the story, however, she sees her older sister Sal, now also a horse, “walking lightfoot and easy, fresh, just starting up to the high passes of the mountain. On her back a young man sat erect, his fine, fair head turned a little aside, to the forest. One hand was on his thigh, the other on the reins, guiding her.”18 Adolescent Sal is heading into the dark forest of sexuality in horse form—reined in and reigned over by the erect young man. “No, no, no, no!” Norah calls, feeling betrayed in some ineffable way by change, her sister, the boy, and her own future (147). The horse and woman are analogous here as two who are subject to handling by man. It is a comparison made to show us what awaits the beautiful, the free, the strong girls in a world where the axis of power is vertical, where she and the horse are both ridden.
Two other stories that deal with animals and betrayal feature different thought experiments. Rather than having the gaps erased, as in “The Wife’s Story,” they are made unbridgeable. This is the betrayal. In “The White Donkey” young Sita encounters a unicorn as she takes her goats to a field to graze. The unicorn can be approached, we know from folklore tradition, only by a virgin. Sita finds the “donkey” beautiful and, after a little hesitation on the unicorn’s part, establishes a relationship of trust and appreciation. Sita doesn’t know that the animal is a unicorn; to her it is a singularly beautiful white donkey with a curious horn on its forehead. As it is with “Horse Camp,” this story is about the girl-horse bond that Le Guin recognizes as both typical and instructive regarding empathy; it illustrates the dramatic irony of these innocent girls reaching out to the other in a man’s culture.
Sita’s uncle arranges her marriage and she has to say goodbye to her white donkey, for as a married woman she will move to her new husband’s home, and her brother will take over the goats. She has been “sold” for “one bullock and one hundred rupees cash.”19 She cries when she says, “‘Goodbye, white donkey.’ The white donkey looked at her sidelong, and slowly, not looking back, moved away from her and walked into the darkness under the trees” (142). Her uncle, who sends her off to a man at whom she wouldn’t look earlier, betrays the relationship and mediation between the girl and the mythical beast. Separation is forced and the gap is made impassable.
In “May’s Lion” there is another case of man cutting off the mediation between woman and beast, though betrayal might be seen in multiple ways. In Aunt May’s account given by her niece, the story’s narrator, we learn that a mountain lion has come out of the woods and rests beneath the fig tree in the yard. The cat is sick, May determines. She doesn’t know what to do. She is concerned that she has to milk her old cow Rosie and that time is running out for her to make a decision. After consulting with Miss Macy on the telephone and being made to worry about rabies, May calls the sheriff. Two car-loads of men respond and May concludes, “I guess there was nothing else they knew how to do. So they shot it.”20 The vertical relationship is chosen— shoot the wild thing. They don’t know any other way.
Betrayal is complicated, as complicated as the relationships that exist in the story: “I didn’t want him shot. But I didn’t know what to do for him. And I did need to get to Rosie” (183). The men betray May by shooting the lion, a sick lion that May gives water to and wishes no harm. May betrays the lion by turning it in. Rosie the cow, whose attention is made a priority because she is a part of the system, betrays the lion with her need. The cow betrays May by forcing her to make a decision. May betrays herself by deciding not to go on to Rosie in spite of the lion in the yard. Nobody escapes blame in this tale.
But the narrator offers us an alternative. After she relates May’s story to us there is a gap in the text—a gap as significant as that between animal, woman, and man in the story. Across that gap the narrator offers another way. The narrator wants to tell the story again as fiction, “yet without taking it from [May]; rather to give it back to her, if I can do so” (183). In this version the woman in May’s position decides to walk by the mountain lion in order to milk the cow. Later the mountain lion dies beneath the fig tree. The cow is milked, the lion dies on its own terms, and there is no betrayal: “It’s still your story, Aunt May; it was your lion. He came to you. He brought his death to you, a gift; but the men with guns won’t take gifts, they think they own death already. And so they took from you the honor he did you, and you felt that loss. I wanted to restore it” (188). Le Guin speculates that “perhaps it is only when the otherness, the difference, the space between us is perceived as holy ground, as the sacred place, that we can ‘come into animal presence’” (1990c, 13).
Neither synthesis nor separation is satisfying, and the notion of having to make a choice between the two is unacceptable. In two other tales Le Guin experiments with tr...
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Citation styles for Ursula K. Le Guin Beyond Genre
APA 6 Citation
Cadden, M. (2005). Ursula K. Le Guin Beyond Genre (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1698456/ursula-k-le-guin-beyond-genre-fiction-for-children-and-adults-pdf (Original work published 2005)
Cadden, Mike. (2005) 2005. Ursula K. Le Guin Beyond Genre. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis. https://www.perlego.com/book/1698456/ursula-k-le-guin-beyond-genre-fiction-for-children-and-adults-pdf.
Cadden, M. (2005) Ursula K. Le Guin Beyond Genre. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1698456/ursula-k-le-guin-beyond-genre-fiction-for-children-and-adults-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Cadden, Mike. Ursula K. Le Guin Beyond Genre. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2005. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.