The Language of the Night by Ursula K. Le Guin

8888b654372ea23eee067e0a70bd0677 The Language of  the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction by Ursula K. Le Guin

Harper Collins, New York, 1992

Before the days of “Harry Potter” and Peter Jackson’s wonderful “Lord of the Rings”,  fantasy for children and adults was a struggling genre.   Now it can be a marketing phenomenon.  One of the people who made success possible for  J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Myers is author and critic Ursula K. Le Guin. She made it possible by being a brilliant writer and a fierce supporter of both fantasy and science fiction.

Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea was my first introduction to “modern” fantasy.  I had tried reading Tolkien in seventh grade but the style was just too dense.  I had read Lewis, Kipling, White, Carroll and all the fairy tales and ghost stories I could get my hands on.  My small town library had the classics and very little else. I was at a loss.  Then, around the same time, I discovered The Earthsea Trilogy and The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, and my life changed forever.

Le Guin’s book of essays is a treasure, and, I think, a must read for readers and writers of fantasy.  The essays, written in the early 1970’s,  are arguments for the critical acceptence of fantasy and science fiction.  They demand that both forms qualify as “literature”.  They are well structured and layered with the history of  myths,  legends and fairy tales.  She supports her position with Jungarian psychology and makes references to unusual works of fantasy, including Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright.  Some of these essays may seem a bit dated but they all contain wonderful insight and Le Guin’s biting sense of humor.

The book also includes introductions to several early novels, essays about the craft of writing and talks given at award ceremonies and writers conference .

I greatly appreciate Le Guin’s thoughts about children and her understanding of their needs,  abilities and intellect.

The young creature does need protection and shelter.  But it also needs the truth.  It seems to me that the way you can talk absolutely honestly and factually to children about good and evil is to talk to the self – the inner, deepest self.  That is something children can and do cope with; indeed, our job in growing up is to become ourselves…What we need to grow up is reality, the wholeness which exceeds human virture and vice.  We need knowledge, we need self-knowledge.  We need to see our selves and the shadows we cast. The Child and the Shadow, 1974

And her love of the imagination.

...I believe that maturity is not an outgrowing, but a growing up: that an adult is not a dead child but a child who survived.  I believe that all the best facilities of a mature human being exist in the child, and that if these facilities are encouraged in youth they will act well and wisely in the adult, but if they are repressed and denied in the child they will stunt and cripple the adult personality.  And finally, I believe that one of the most deeply human, and humane, of these facilities is the power of the imagination.. Why Americans are Afraid of Dragons, 1974

Ursula K Le Guin continues to write for adults, young adults and children.  Her novel, Powers , was recently won the Nebula Award for Best Novel of 2008.

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14 Comments

Filed under Once Upon A Time III, Review

14 responses to “The Language of the Night by Ursula K. Le Guin

  1. See, this is the beauty of blogging. I would have never in a million years heard of this book or have been compelled to pick it up. My kids love the fantasy genre. In fact, we just started listening to a kids fantasy series on audio called “Pendragon”. And of course they are addicted to Harry Potter and LOTR. I might have to go find this book. I’m sure I’d like it!

    • Sandy –
      Thanks! If your kids haven’t read the Earthsea books they are a treasure. I’m now reading Le Guin’s newest YA series, starting with Gifts. It is wonderful.

  2. I am going to have to find this book. Thank you for sharing those profound quotes. I especially appreciate the second one, and have just spammed all my colleagues with it.

    Thank you so much :)

  3. I tried reading one book by Le Guin and couldn’t get into it. I’m going to give this book a try. Great review, Gavin!

    • Vasilly – Le Guin writes fantasy and science fiction. Try The Wizard of Earthsea or Gifts. As far her Science Fiction Left Hand of Darkness is my favorite.

      Have a great week!

  4. I have bought several Le Guin’a books for our library though I confess I haven’t read them yet. She came highly recommended and once I started reading Octavia E. Butler, I learned she was a must read.

    I agree with her that science fiction and fantasy deserves greater respect than it gets.

    And let me be the one to say Myers cannot write. Yes, she crafted a cash cow but what does that have to do with quality?

    Thanks, Gavin.

    • Susan – I discovered Butler in the early nineties and actually saw her read a few years before her death. It was an honor. Try Le Guin when you get a chance, I think you’ll like her.

      And I agree with you, Myers can not write. I couldn’t even finish Twilight and have to bite my tongue every time I see one of our students reading one of her books.

  5. I could never quite get into Tolkien either, although they were favourites with sons. As you say, too dense. I will definitely get hold of le Guin because I am also fascinated in the link between science and fantasy. Thanks for this review, I would never have come across le Guin otherwise, I think.

  6. Excellent review, Gavin. I have this on my tbr shelf and I plan to get to it over the next few weeks.

    …mind if I vent a little bit? My university hosted a conference on post-colonial lit last week, and I was at a workshop on post-colonialism and gender when a reputable international guest says: “Labels can be so dangerous. You know Ursula Le Guin, the feminist writer? You keep seeing her work labelled as science fiction, which of course it isn’t, she has a background on anthropology…yet she’s been trying to shake off the label all her life with no success.”

    I wanted to scream, to leave and slam the door, to cry. Just look at the amount of ignorance and prejudice behind that statement. “Of course” no one with a background on anthropology would write sci-fi or fantasy, that’s for ignorant and uneducated people. And “of course” she wants to “get rid” of the label – she’s a respectable, proper writer, so how could she not?

    (To make it even more ironic, I had read this lovely essay just the evening before.)

    Sigh. It just really saddens me that people can fight against some forms of prejudice and yet be so unquestionably prejudiced themselves when it comes to other things. They belittle whole genres they know nothing about without even blinking.

    Sorry for the huge rant. I needed to let it out :P

    • Nymeth – I understand your anger, I would be furious, too. That kind of BS is the reason I never go into academia. The egos and politics, the close-mindedness, just made me sick. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.

      I find the best thing to do is to keep talking, keep writing, clearly and succinctly. I’ve heard from several people who weren’t familiar with Le Guin and now plan on reading her work. That made me feel good.

      What you do on your blog is invaluable, keep it going.

      Oh, and I enjoyed the rant!

    • And thanks for the link to Ellen Datlow’s post! I just read it. I want to send Ms. Le Guin some flowers, or chocolate, how about chocolate?

  7. Okay, I have an unrelated question- there 300 plus members subscribed to Sunday Salon, but I’m getting very few responses. Am I failing on some front?

    Nymeth, I read a lot of YA so you don’t have to tell me about snobbishness. I do miss literary reads but I see no reason to speak poorly about a genre if you haven’t bothered to explore it.

  8. Pingback: Saturday Review of Books: May 16, 2009 at Semicolon

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