Academic journal article Hollins Critic

The Good Witch of the West

Academic journal article Hollins Critic

The Good Witch of the West

Article excerpt

"... When will my apprenticeship begin, Sir."

"It has begun," said Ogion.

There was a silence, as if Ged was keeping back something he had to say. Then he said it: "But I haven't learned anything yet!"

"Because you haven't found out what I am teaching...."

In the Land of Oz, all the good witches come from the north and south, the wicked witches from the east and west. But we do not live in the Land of Oz and must take our witches as we find them. Ursula Kroeber Le Guin, born in California and a resident of Oregon, is very much of the west, and the literary magic she works is so dazzling as to make the title of "good witch" almost literally appropriate. (And perhaps I should add that the one photograph of her that I have seen pictures a woman of an appropriate formidability.) Since 1966 she has published eight novels, three of them designed especially for younger readers, and all of them likely to appear in the section reserved for science fiction and fantasy in your neighborhood bookstore. She has been compared to C. S. Lewis, with some appropriateness, especially as concerns her juvenile trilogy, but that comparison fails ultimately because she is a better writer than Lewis: her fictions, both juvenile and adult, are richer, deeper, and more beautiful than his. She is probably the best writer of speculative fabulation working in this country today, and she deserves a place among our major contemporary writers of fiction. For some writers, the SF ghetto serves a useful protective function, preserving them from comparison with their best contemporaries. For Ursula Le Guin, as for others, this protection, and the sense of a responsive, relatively uncritical audience that goes with it, may have been helpful during her early development as a writer. But with The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) she displayed powers so remarkable that only full and serious critical scrutiny can begin to reveal her value as a writer. It is my intention here to initiate such scrutiny, concentrating on that excellent novel, but glancing also at her other fiction. especially at the first volume of her trilogy for young people.

The Earthsea trilogy consists of A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs of Atuan (1971), and The Farthest Shore (1972)--the order of book publication not quite coinciding with the narrative chronology of the texts. These books have been compared to C. S. Lewis's chronicles of Narnia, especially by English reviewers, for whom this constitutes considerable praise. But the comparison is misleading. Lewis's books are allegories in the narrow sense of that much abused word--his Lion is Christ, and the whole structure of the chronicles is a reenactment of Christian legend. The fundamental story is fixed, and the narrative surface becomes simply a new way of clothing that story and retelling it as a heroic adventure. The ultimate value of such allegorizing, then, must reside in the permanent value of the legendary pattern itself, raising the question of how the story of Christ functions cognitively to help us understand our world and live in it. My own feeling in this matter is that Lewis's narratives work on us because we are preconditioned to be moved by that particular material, with its legend of a redemptive sacrifice--preconditioned by our particular cultural heritage rather than by the shape of the world itself. In other words, this kind of allegory is leading its readers toward a stock response based on a pre-established and rigidly codified set of values. But there is another kind of allegory--allegory in a broader sense--which is more speculative and less dogmatic. Ursula Le Guin, in the Earthsea trilogy, relies on the mythic patterns of sin and redemption, quest and discovery, too, but she places them in the service of a metaphysic which is entirely responsible to modern conditions of being because its perspective is broader than the Christian perspective because finally it takes the world more seriously than the Judeo-Christian tradition has ever allowed it to be taken. …

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