Threshold by Ursula Le Guin

I think one of the reasons I may have gone away from fantasy literature after my initial love of it when I was a young teen reading and re-reading David Eddings’s The Belgariad, was it was so hard to find fantasy that matured as I did. After that early enthusiasm for fairy-tale-ish adventure, what came next, where were the works of deeper power, or greater complexity? There were some, but they seemed as rare as they were wonderful: Holdstock’s Mythago Wood and Lavondyss, Peake’s Gormenghast books, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea.

Threshold, Gollancz edition. Cover by Alan Cracknell

Threshold, Gollancz edition. Cover by Alan Cracknell

At my first reading, I found Le Guin’s 1980 novel Threshold (The Beginning Place in the US) a little dour, I think, but a recent re-read made me realise it was certainly one of those books that were taking existing fantasy ideas and adding much greater depth and weight, exploring the implications, adding complexity to the characters and ideas. Taking the Narnia-like premise of people from this world going into another, magical world, the difference with Threshold is that, unlike the children of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, who go to another world to essentially become fairy-tale versions of themselves (children in this world, adventurers then kings & queens in that world), the protagonists of Le Guin’s novel very much take the preoccupations and problems of their this-world lives with them. Initially using this other world as a refuge from difficult relationships and worldly hardships, the novel’s two protagonists (who, at first, are deeply resentful of each other’s presence in what they thought was their own personal hideaway) are drawn into the troubles of this other world in which they must play a key role.

Hugh Rogers (“Run-and-hide Rogers” as he calls himself) is twenty years old, working on the checkout of a local Thrift-E-Mart, and stifled by his over-controlling mother. Recently moved to the area, he discovers the very edge of the “twilight world” as he calls it (because its light is in a perpetual edge-of-day state) and finds in it the only real place where he can be himself. Irena Pannis, a little younger, has known the “ain country” (which she names after a line in a folk song she once heard) longer, having spent time in its mountain town of Tembreabrezi, where she has learned the language. For her it’s a refuge from a starkly unloving world, a world in which “Everybody I know just hurts each other. All the time”, and “Love is just a fancy word for how to hurt somebody worse.”

threshold_pbTembreabrezi is a way-station for travellers on the roads that pass through it, but recently something has changed: the town-dwellers themselves cannot walk the roads, cannot leave their town, and nobody is coming to them anymore. Something has to be done, something that was done, once, long before — a confrontation on a nearby mountain which left a previous lord of the town with a withered hand — something that Irena, with her basic grasp of the language, can’t quite translate or understand, something that the townspeople believe Hugh has come here to do.

A monster has to be faced. Like the worm in William Mayne’s A Game of Dark, it’s a pale, stinking, disgusting thing, almost too horrible to face, something that strips Irena and Hugh of all pretensions that they might, like the Narnia children, be in some way destined, blessed heroes in this realm — but also it’s a thing of pain and suffering, a thing that cries, “howling and sobbing”, an embodiment of something “horrible and desolate, enormous, craving”.

Quite what the monster is, why the roads are closed, and what the very palpable fear the townspeople feel is, is never stated, but I felt it was, in some way, tied deeply to Irena and Hugh’s own need for this escape-world that they find themselves in — as if, by leaving behind the fears and difficulties of the outside world when they come to the “ain country”, it in fact separates from them, into a sort of intensified, separate and monstrous form. The horror they face in this sad beast is real and loathsome and genuinely dangerous. But what happens changes Irena and Hugh, as though facing any fearful thing, if horrific and dangerous enough, can wash them clean of the lesser fears they deal with in their normal, daily lives.

Threshold is certainly a book worth not just reading but re-reading, one that feels it’s saying something new about the traditional ideas behind fantasy fiction, more than thirty years after its first publication.

Comments (4)

  1. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I’ve always had a soft spot for this particular book. I think what I like about it is that note of studied ambivalence – do the townsfolk really believe Hugh is the hero who can save them? Or are they sending him and Irene as sacrificial victims to appease some monster? My impression is that they know full well the two are going to get killed but have managed to convince themselves otherwise. There is one telling scene – the scene in which Hugh is given a sword. It is beautiful but as a gift it is largely symbolic. When Irene tells the mayor Hugh has no experience of weaponry, the mayor simply says – ‘I could not send him out unarmed.’ In other words, it doesn’t really matter if Hugh is an expert in the use of arms or a complete dunderhead. He’s going to get killed either way.

  2. Murray Ewing says:

    You’re right about the sword. I like the way it feels that, rather than the fantasy world existing for the protagonists, it feels almost like they’re minor characters from the fantasy world’s perspective, just there to do one job, but we get to follow them through a meaningful story anyway.

  3. Anna says:

    Just finished the book Threshold, so it is all still hovering – the layers, thoughts, hints…
    It seemed to me that all the answeres (or clues) of Master Sark and Lord Horn were so dualistic and nonpractical not because they knew something and concealed it from Irena and Hugh. Maybe what happened was that accute sense of inadequacy of their communication, of any communication, of any attempt of conveying something really important to another soul in words. It is easy to put words into trivialities / small talk, but as they were all to be honest to their intentions / feelings and doings – nothing they could SAY would make much difference. Lord Horn did not intend harm to be done, could not let them go unarmed, but he had to ask them to deal with this monstrous fear.

  4. Murray Ewing says:

    That’s a good point, Anna. What you say could be true of fantasy itself – that we need strange, new & wondrous images because the deeply true things we need to say can’t be put into ordinary words/ordinary images.

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