Cultural Anthropology and Rituals of Exchange in Ursula K. le Guin's 'Earthsea.'

By Senior, W. A. | Mosaic (Winnipeg), December 1996 | Go to article overview

Cultural Anthropology and Rituals of Exchange in Ursula K. le Guin's 'Earthsea.'


Senior, W. A., Mosaic (Winnipeg)


To the extent that literary works are attempts to construct worlds and societies that "model" our own, cultural anthropology offers a vast array of features on which to focus: myths, marriage customs, taboos, kinship structures, linguistic patternings, gender roles. Similarly, the ties that bind literature and anthropology are everywhere evident in the work of those concerned with systems of values and beliefs: Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy, to use a traditionalist example, could be described as a quasi-anthropological defense of literature, just as Joseph Campbell provides an almost indistinguishable mix of the two disciplinary orientations in his monumental studies of mythology past and present. Within the last decades, furthermore, it is impossible to ignore the impact of Claude Levi-Strauss on Structuralist theorizing; nor might it be too extreme to suggest that the current vogue of ethnic literature owes much to the influence of cultural anthropology.

Yet perhaps the most definitive example of the interaction between literature and cultural anthropology is to be found in the writing of Ursula K. Le Guin. Not only was her father, Alfred Kroeber, one of the pioneering cultural anthropologists whose writings and books are still de riguer reading, but her mother, Theodora, wrote the biography of the last "wild" Native American, Ishi in Two Worlds, and compiled a tome of American Indian myths. Given that Le Guin grew up in a household visited by anthropological scholars, Native Americans, and scientists like Robert Oppenheimer, the way that she describes her fictional projects is not surprising: "My father felt very strongly that you can never actually get outside your own culture. All you can do is try. I think that feeling sometimes comes out in my writing. My father studied real cultures and I make them up - in a way it's the same thing" (qtd. in De Bolt 15-16).

Although this acknowledgment might contain a touch of irony, as Jan Horner has argued in a study of Le Guin's fiction as a critique of her father's methods, it is equally true that the credibility of her worlds owes much to her concern with anthropological accuracy and that a primary strength of her fiction is the consistent attention to the way that cultures operate. Although this aspect of Le Guin's fiction has been generally noted, I wish to look more closely at how Le Guin's knowledge of anthropological theory is evidenced in her depiction of a ritual that in many ways constitutes the basis of social structure: gift-giving. Specifically I wish to focus on the way that this dynamic is played out with increasing sophistication and sensitivity in Le Guin's 4-part saga about the customs and lifestyles of the inhabitants of a fictional world called "Earthsea."

My reason for focusing on this series - and as a series - is twofold: first, if viewed singly and reduced to a plot summary, the "action" of each novel might seem to foreground a single protagonist, whereby fiction would seem to be most at odds with the interactive actualities/politics of "real" life; second, it is only by considering the series as a whole - in which the later novels in the Earthsea saga respond to the earlier ones - that one can appreciate the way that Le Guin translates the sociological theory of "exchange" into a principle for structuring literary works. Bearing in mind, then, this caveat about the dangers of plot summary, but with a view to showing how the respective novels interrelate, let me set the stage for my discussion of "gift-giving" with a brief synopsis of Le Guin's Earthsea saga.

Overall, the series takes the forms of voyages by the protagonist/hero Ged to various islands of Earthsea, whereby he encounters many different customs and lifestyles. The first of the Earthsea books, A Wizard of Earthsea, traces Ged's first journeys when, as a goatherd from a poor village on Gont, he discovers the latent magic power within him. He leaves his home for the Isle of Roke and its school for wizards, where his rashness and pride result in a horrific act as he overreaches his power. …

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