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Presented at the 1989 annual meeting of the Western Literature Association by Mick McAllister.
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Mick McAllister. "Green Thoughts Asleep and the Fury of Dreams: Native Shading in the Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin". At Wanderer's Well http://www.dancingbadger.com/greethtf.htm (July, 2001).
Summary: Ursula Le Guin's Always Coming Home merges anthropology and science fiction to create a visionary alternate California influenced by the values and customs of native peoples, by Le Guin's knowledge of Asian world views and philosphies (principally Taoism), and by the environmental concerns that float through her work since her earliest publications, such as The Word for the World Is Forest. This essay provides a brief but complete overview of the interpenetration of science fiction and American Indian themes prior to 1990, a summary of Le Guin's themes in earlier work, and a suggestive rather than comprehensive analysis of her masterpiece, Always Coming Home.
July, 2001: I am posting this essay, written in 1989 for a conference on Western American literature, in celebration of the reprint edition of this wonderful, neglected book. The University of California has published it in a quality trade paper edition, minus the cassette of Kesh music. (The music can be purchased separately at an address listed in the front matter of the University of California reprint.) It is still possible to find complete copies of the original boxed edition (with cassette) through Powells Book Store in Portland, and the mass market paperback turns up regularly in secondhand stores. The book was briefly available in this inexpensive paperback edition, but it has been effectively out-of-print for roughly ten years, despite Le Guin's formidable literary reputation (numerous Hugos and Nebulas, a National Book Award, The Pushcart Prize, and a Newberry) and proven marketability (her science fiction titles are in and out of print on almost a monthly basis). Even though it was short listed for the National Book Award for fiction in 1985, it quickly disappeared from the bookstores.
Always Coming Home was beaten out that year by Don Delillo's White Noise. It was a year when coming in second was nothing to sniff at. The Hugo and Nebula awards that year went to Orson Scott Card's own brilliant mediation on xenophobia, Ender's Game, and another nominee was Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.
Le Guin is one of the literary treasures of our culture, an unassuming, brilliant mind whose every novel, whether "meant" for children or adults, is rich with wisdom and delight. Her latest novel The Telling explores some of the themes of Always Coming Home: the importance of understanding the relationship of reality to our ability to describe reality, for example. She has also published a new collection of Tales from Earthsea that augments her classic Earthsea tetralogy. For a less academic discussion of Le Guin and her career, try my author page on her.
1. Le Guin has discussed her parents' influence on her work in a number of essays, notably "Theodora," originally published in 1985 (the same year as Always Coming Home) as Le Guin's introduction to a reprint of The Inland Whale, and collected in Dancing at the Edge of the World.
2. Crow would have Le Guin's novel "a Romance" in Northrop Frye's sophisticated sense. It seems to me that it fits only one of the criteria Crow identifies, and that only tenuously. It is "set in a mythic universe," but it does not posit a universe "of three levels," it does not "involve vertical action among these realms," and its action is a goal-less quest, therefore no "image of permanance or perfection [is discovered] through a reconciliation of opposites" (4). In fact, this latter requirement violates the literary ethic of the novel in some fundamental ways. As Le Guin has said in a variety of essays on her craft, the concept of the heroic quest is a questionable foundation for a theory of fiction. (See "Conflict," "The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction," and "The Fisherwoman's Daughter," in Dancing at the Edge of the World, for examples.)
I would prefer to call her novel a "Geomance," with a nod to Le Guin for the neologism. Her word carries none of the patronizing baggage inevitably appended to "Romance." To call Le Guin's work a romance is to deny the reality of dream-time (see below) and to impose a linear, goal-directed paradigm on a book it no more fits than a tutu a bear.
3. Le Guin introduces her own version of the passage, the essay "World-Making" (Dancing 46-48) by remarking, rather charitably, that the text in Women Writers was "slightly garbled." In fact, it is distinguished for the shoddiness of the editing. Even though Le Guin always bases her personal appearances on a text (Dancing vii), the editors of Western Women clearly relied on the transcript of the session and made no effort to verify the resulting text. For example, the title of the Earthsea Trilogy is rendered "Earth Sea" and Le Guin's own name is consistently spelled without the dividing space (LeGuin). The Costano Indians become the Cossanos, Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyl" becomes some sort of portmanteau cartoon crow named Jeckyl, the name of novelist Philip K. Dick is misspelled, and Le Guin is represented as seeming to think that novelist Gene Wolfe, whom she calls--rightly--"one of the major novelists of the eighties," (and whom she had edited for an anthology published the same year as the interview) is a woman named "Jean Wolf" (74). Comparison of the interview text with "World-Making" reveals a tangle of likely accuracies, mistranscriptions, and transcriptions of what were probably Le Guin's extemporaneous changes. As a record of what Le Guin said, the thing is nearly useless. Relying on it as a source for statements unsupported elsewhere and controversial in the context of her work is unwise.
4. Not only because this assumed distinction implicitly invalidates her science fiction but because Crow's misinterpretation misses something about the nature of Le Guin's novel, I must point out that the book is not called Coming Home but Always Coming Home. The difference matters very much. Every Le Guin novel comes home, at last (literally, in fact, with a few exceptions); every journey is a gyre, and meaningless without the return.
5. 'Small', to digress a moment, is a relative thing. The Kesh use folk metaphors to express the nature and detail of their world, but the world itself is permeated with futuristic elements. To deny this is to miss one key full cycle of Le Guin's narrative.
The closest thing to a priesthood among the Kesh puts them in touch with the interstellar consciousness we would call God and they Yaivkach, the City of Mind. It is a vast computer that functions independent of its forgotten human builders. Its goal is "to go on existing. Its existence consisted essentially in information." Yaivkach is a primitive god indeed; it gives the Condor the information they need to build hi-tech weapons and it serves as the conduit whereby the people of the Na Valley resist the Condor invasion. Its real function, however, is to store the book itself, i.e., to gather "information."
From the point of view of the Kesh, the Condor people are "futuristic" because they have reinvented technological devices like the airplane and the tank. From Pandora's point of view (and ours, sometimes), the Kesh are a people of the distant future looped back on the past. Their computer network places them solidly in a potential future of real time.
6. Anyone who doubts that her interest spans her career might look at the poem "Mt. St. Helens/Omphalos," dated 1972 (reprinted in Buffalo Gals, 57). Le Guin describes building a "henge" on the mountain and says of the place "there is no other/center." The poem as a whole could serve as frontispiece for Always Coming Home, down to the play on "henge/hinge."
An odd coincidence: Comparing Kroeber's map of the Napa Valley (Handbook, Plate 34) with Le Guin's of the Na (141 and 375 particularly) reveals that Ama Kulkun, the Kesh "Grandmother Mountain," one of "the most centrally sacred places to the people of the Valley" (41) is the Napa Valley's Mt. St. Helena.
7. That is to say, even if a book is not linear in its chronology, we can only read the words one at a time, either in the linear sequence proposed by the author or in some random but still stepwise progress we select. The closest we can come to nonlinear experience is to re-read the book, thus containing the book while we read it. Le Guin particularly rewards re-reading, not only in Always Coming Home, where the accumulation of fragments invites, even demands, that we sample here and there rather than attempt to absorb the book in one progress from cover to cover.
However, neither the fragmentation nor the non-chronological presentation are new experiments for Le Guin. In The Dispossessed, the narrative flows simultaneously forward in two streams, one beginning as Shevek departs for Urras and ending as he returns home to Anarres, the other moving in a more meandering way from his birth on Anarres to the day of that departure.
The Left Hand of Darkness, like Always Coming Home, is constructed from fragments woven into a narrative thread that makes a chronological progress from the day that Genly Ai realizes that his patron in court will not present him to the King and ends about a year later when he summons the Ekumen ship down to accept Gethen's application to join the League. As in the later novel, we will not understand the novel completely unless we read it twice, once with itself as context.
8. In her Stanford interview, asked about the relationship between "dream time and the real world," Le Guin may have made this rather startling statement: "It's all the same thing" (77).
9. It was first published in 1972, as a novella. To underline the connection, Le Guin makes the New Tahiti military governor, Colonel Dongh, a Vietnamese with William Westmoreland's inimitable grasp of rhetoric, and he compares the "creechie" problem to the war in Viet Nam: "You can't disable a guerrilla type structure with bombs, it's been proved, in fact my own part of the world where I was born proved it for about thirty years fighting off major super-powers one after the other in the twentieth century" (133).
10. And they are right. Both Earth and Athshe were originally populated by the Hainish, who also invented interstellar drives (8 and 64; also Dispossessed 69 and Buffalo Gals 92). The Terrans believe that "New Tahiti" (their name for Athshe) was a colony of some million-years-past Earth expedition, which would require that the interstellar emigrants be some unidentified and hitherto undiscovered contemporaries of Homo Habilis.
11. Booth refers to the novel as a "lovely" portrayal of a people who take "story life, and particularly dream life, as 'realer' than real life" (177n). Le Guin made what must have been a rather disconcerting appearance as the last speaker at a University of Chicago symposium on narrative in 1979. Surely Booth was intimately involved in the symposium, given his field of scholarship and his tenure as a professor at the University of Chicago. Her essay begins as a Moebius strip and ends in the middle ("It Was a Dark and Stormy Night; or Why Are We Huddling about the Campfire?", Dancing 21-30).
12. The sexism here is an ironic joke: creechie men are intuitive and emotional; the villages are run by the hard-eyed, industrious women, who do not generally become dreamers, though they do "dream," just as hunting is a female task, though men might sometimes hunt.
13. In Always Coming Home, the visionary Flicker offers a useful explanation in her description of visions (297). We can "make meanings out of them, find images in them, live on them, but they are not for us or about us, any more than the world is."
14. Not to follow it, necessarily, but to "act upon it." Le Guin reinforces the distinction a few pages later, when she notes that messages will pass from Dreamer to Dreamer and the recipient will pass the message on to the "Old Women," but "it will be the Old Women's choice whether to believe or not" (37).
15. "They lived the social-intellectual life with the grace of a cat hunting in a garden, the certainty of a swallow following summer over the sea. . . . Nobody seemed to fit the human skin so well" (68).
16. Those which do not often have some cyclical element or ironic commentary on the need to return home. For example, The Eye of the Heron ends rather clearly where it began, with the first incident of the novel recurring. The Shantih people are on an exodus from home rather than returning to it.
17. Speaker for the Dead (Tom Doherty Associates, 1986).
18. Crow seems to consider the appendix disjunct from what he calls "the book proper" (15). Pandora wrote the appendix; Le Guin wrote the book.
19. "Bryn Mawr Commencement Address" and "Woman/Wilderness" (1986), in Dancing, 147-64.
20. "Crazy Dog, so you are here! Together the white dancing passes, extravagantly [hugely and ephemerally] the white dancing passes." [With apologies to Pandora, this tentative translation of the last words in the book. She thinks the geomancer is George Hersh; I am not so sure.]
21. Whatever Black Elk's relationship to her early work, it is unquestionable that Flicker's story of the great vision and her attempts to evade and elucidate it are directly related to the key event of Black Elk Speaks; similarities of both detail and theme are inescapable. Le Guin refers in passing to Black Elk in "Non-Euclidean View of California" (Dancing 94).