“We like to think that we live in daylight, but half the world is always dark; and fantasy, like poetry, speaks the language of the night.” — Ursula K. Le Guin
Key Term: Translation
This text is Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. In it, Le Guin articulates many of her ideas about the properties of fantastical fiction as well as discussing her approach to writing. For my purposes, I am most interested in her discussion of fantasy an an act of “translation,” which resonates very strongly with the process of symbol-construction one may derive from Wayne C. Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction and Kenneth Burke’s Counter-Statement, both of which I will be exploring in other posts as I proceed through my reading lists. The gist of the idea is that, like Tolkien, Le Guin rejects the notion of direct allegory–rather, she embraces the (quite Campbellian/Jungian) idea that lived and imagined experience resonate with patterns, which become symbols, which we respond to. For Le Guin, this also seems to speak to her method of writing, as she asserts that she is more of a discoverer, a chronicler, than a planner and architect of stories. Thus, one might consider her entire writing process an act of translation, bringing things into being as prose that previously only existed in her imagination, as created by her thoughts and personal experiences.
In her various essays, she explores the ideas of why Americans have not always embraced fantasy as a particularly mature or adult practice. She identifies this as “something that goes very deep in the American character: a moral disapproval of fantasy, a disapproval so intense, and often so aggressive, that I cannot help but see it as arising, fundamentally, from fear” (Le Guin 39). This started me thinking quite extensively on the subject of the recent widespread commercial successes of books and films within the fantasy market. At first, I thought perhaps that the country’s attitudes had shifted, but then I began to complicate that idea. Of the largest fantasy franchises–Harry Potter, Twilight, Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit–two are decidedly treated as “young adult” fare, while the other (LotR/Hobbit) has become almost farcical in its cinematic depictions. This “mainstreaming” of fantasy might mark a shift in how Americans perceive the Fantastic; where once mythical or Biblical epics were an accepted form, now comic book films and fantasy fiction are acceptable sources. It may be that Americans no longer have quite the same fear of fantasy that Le Guin observed, but at the same time one cannot help but note that fantasy still seems to be treated as escapist adventure fare and little else.
This raises the question for me of “What is fantasy?” Le Guin offers some interesting discussion, characterizing her perception of the American discomfort with fantasy as arising from the rejection of imagination by adults, particularly men, as “something childish or effeminate, unprofitable, and probably sinful” (42). She accuses the predominant taste of the American public–notably characterized as primarily male/patriarchal–of being invested in “false realism,” preferring fiction with the apparent trappings of the realistic but little fact or realism about it. (One cannot help but think of reality television, there.) So, to Le Guin’s thinking, fantasy is neither popular nor acceptable at the time she was writing. It is interesting to note that Le Guin describes herself as writing in a time when fantasy is not particularly profitable; she calls this Le Guin’s Law: “There is an inverse correlation between fantasy and money” (43). Certainly the fantasy market genre has come to be profitable since then, but the greater point–that fantasy is not treated as serious or important by the dominant culture–remains interesting to me. One of my fundamental premises for approaching fantasy is that the Fantastic is not rooted in simple genre trappings. Therefore, books and films with spells, vampires, elves, and hobbits are not necessarily engaging in the project of the Fantastic even if they are entrenched in the market-defined fantasy genre.
Following Le Guin’s thinking, I wonder: Are these modern “fantasy” stories really all that Fantastical? If a function of the Fantastic is to question the world, offer a reimagined reflection of it, then perhaps these popular contemporary stories are not really all that Fantastical. Consider HBO’s meteorically popular Game of Thrones, or the book series on which it is based, George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Is this Fantastical? I would argue that Martin, while a very engaging writer, is not deeply invested in the Fantastic with this series. Rather, he is deeply invested in the market genre of fantasy, and he brings a brutally fascinating imagination to that very well-trod landscape. However, what fundamental reimagining of the world is he engaged in? Dragons, sorcerers, necromancy, the Sight–these are all long-standing fantasy tropes. Perhaps Martin is simply bringing gritty (perhaps hyper-) realism to fantasy in the same way that Tarantino has done in films such as Django Unchained or Kill Bill. There is nothing implicitly Fantastic about bringing sex and brutality to the fore in a work, though it certainly might be an interesting complication of a genre. Martin tells a great story, but I’m not certain it works on me in the way that I would say the Fantastic truly does.
I think the best contemporary example of the Fantastic that I can conceive comes from writers like Neil Gaiman and directors such as Hayao Miyazaki. Consider Gaiman’s novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which manages to tell a fairy tale while still playing with our understanding of what is real or imagined, or Miyazaki’s ability to make even films without any ostensible magic to them perfectly enchanting. For all the magical wonder of Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke, two of the finest fantasy (and, I would argue, Fantastical) films I know of, his last film, The Wind Rises, has been just as noted for its power of enchantment–and it is a “realistic” historical film. So, if magic can contribute to the Fantastic but is not necessarily required, then what is this quality that I’m pursuing? I will have to continue to strive to define it as I proceed. Even Le Guin acknowledged the links to myth in many pop-culture tales, and it is these same links that I must examine. What binds the story with fantasy trappings to the Fantastical narrative, and what separates them? By extension, where is the line between “arresting magic” and “generative magic,” as William Covino discusses?
The central concern of this list is that of transformation. In considering these texts, what can be discovered about Freire’s idea of being “re-creators” of the world and/or Tolkien’s concept of creating a “Secondary World,” and how can the ideas be placed into conversation with one another as related concepts, perhaps one even leading to the other?
Le Guin’s idea of “translation” seems to directly connect with these ideas–certainly with Tolkien’s. For Le Guin, writing is a method of “translating” the imagined experience, reasonably unique to the mind of the writer, into a form that, while not identical, can be understood by others. Her method is unclear, but her enthusiasm is readily apparent. Le Guin asserts that fantasy–and, as per my discussion above, I will argue that she refers to what I have termed the Fantastic rather than the market genre of “fantasy”–serves to allow one a means of breaking away from established structures, even such as patriarchal power (and, to throw in some -ologies, ontology and epistemology). She associates the masculine mindset with the industrial, the capitalist, the mainstream–and whether or not that direct association quite bears up, her belief is very clearly stated that the Fantastic allows one to break away from such strictures.
In Magic, Rhetoric, and Literacy: An Eccentric History of the Composing Imagination, William Covino describes the concept of “generative magic”: “We perform literate alchemy by presuming that a plurality of relationships and articulations may affect the transmutation of any ‘pure’ substance, fact, idea, condition” (28). He champions alternative modes of thinking and understanding as both transgressive and “the traditional practices of the magus” (28-29). How can the texts with fantastical themes be seen as transformative, and where is the fantasy—the “generative magic”—in the texts that address change and transformation?
Le Guin writes, “When the genuine myth rises into consciousness, that is always its message. You must change your life” (78). Alluding somewhat to Jungian psychological concepts, she also asserts that “it would seem that the true myth arises only in the process of connecting the conscious and the unconscious realms” (79). The common theme of her work seems to be that writing–translation–is creating a common language, a language of metaphor (159). The purpose of this language seems manifold in her estimation, but she does repeatedly return to the concept of discovering and translating–giving name to–elements of oneself as one sets them down in writing. Given this, it would seem that for Le Guin the very act of writing is one of change, and as previously discussed she sees the Fantastic as a method of transgression.
For Johnson, the “magic” of inspiration happens when writing proceeds as fluently and naturally as speech, when the writer is able to inhabit the “mysterious, highly pleasurable territory” of that fluency; writing ceases to be only a struggle, instead approaching the comfortable familiarity of speech (30). What connections can be drawn from the texts to the concept of fluency, of mastering a power that was previously mysterious or even frightening? How can this particular transformation be related to the concerns of pleasure and inclusion from the previous list?
Le Guin does not directly address this, but she does assert that writers’ ideas that come from within, rather than an attempt to emulate what others are doing, tend to be more effective (79). This is not to say that she believes in a lone writer conceiving in a vacuum, as she does address the way tropes and images serve as a common language, but she also claims that when the writing has come from the writer–an act of translation, as described above–it will be more effective. This is, again, not directly in line with the question, but it does offer possible connections. Le Guin is forever evasive about method, but she does support writing what one knows, what comes from within. This strikes me as very compatible with the ideas of pleasure and inclusion I have discussed elsewhere–the writer brings their own material to the table in order to be effective, rather than trying to emulate the methods and ideas of others.
A central notion of the fantastic is magic of one kind or another, and magic might be framed as an exceptional capacity for transformation that exceeds the mundane, and “the mundane” might in turn be treated as “the status quo.” Thus, “magic” is a deviation from the tried and true of ordinary society, applying ideas that are either unknown or forgotten to challenge that status quo. Given this, how do the texts challenge the status quo of our expectations?
Le Guin seems to feel very strongly about the division between the Fantastic and other forms of writing, as discussed heavily in the chapter devoted to her discussion, “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” Taking on ideas of patriarchy, capitalism, and repression, she asserts that fantasy is a genre of opposition and transgression. She further relates this idea to the act of writing by comparing it to naming, which is a basis for magic-as-Art (a concept she seems to share with Tolkien) in many traditions. Thus, for Le Guin, magic seems to equate to creating connections between people, to giving phrase to ideas, and to daring to conceive ideas outside the strictures of popular limitations. While, again, she remains elusive on method, her ideas do seem very compatible with this concept.
Very directly, how does the text create a space—perhaps, a “Secondary World”—that encourages transformative thinking? If we treat this transformative thinking as a sort of subversive epistemology, then what does the text invite as possible that would otherwise not be treated as such? Can we use this as a lens to questions our assumptions about concepts central to our own work, such as teaching, learning, and literacy, which have often been the subject of many limiting and perhaps harmful assumptions?
I think the central question I would take from Le Guin’s work, here, is one of opposition. What social expectations is the work questioning? What is it setting itself apart from? Put another way, what alternative world does the work offer in its definition of the Fantastic? For Le Guin, I would speculate that transformation and subversion come as a result of knowing what your work intends to do and what it disagrees with. This seems to connect strongly to her idea of working from the self instead of from expectations. In the end, I think she is asking many of the same questions that my list asks–so she is, if nothing else, a sympathetic voice along the path of questions and discovery.
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Ed. Susan Wood. New York: Putnam, 1979. Print.