The Language of the Night by Ursula K Le Guin

Le Guin, The Language Of The NightFollowing my mewsings on Michael Moorcock’s Wizardry & Wild Romance, I thought I’d take a look at another book on imaginative fiction (fantasy and science fiction, in this case) which I came across early on — in one of those wonderful bookshop sales where a single table would be crammed with all sorts, from academic obscurities to battered, failed bestsellers, and where you really could make discoveries, back before the internet neatly ordered everything — Ursula Le Guin’s collection of essays, introductions and talks, The Language of the Night (or the revised edition, anyway, issued by The Women’s Press in 1989). This book contains some touchstones of writing about fantasy that have stayed with me ever since.

In ‘The Child and the Shadow’, Le Guin retells a Hans Anderson fable and relates it to Jung’s ideas on archetypes (particularly the one he calls the Shadow) and the process of individuation. Fantasy, she says, ‘is the natural, the appropriate language for the recounting of the spiritual journey and the struggle of good and evil in the soul… Fantasy is the language of the inner self.’ This led to me making several attempts on Jung’s own tangled thickets of prose — books about his ideas are usually better than those he wrote himself, with Man and His Symbols being perhaps the best (it has pictures!). And, whether Jung’s ideas are ‘true’ or not — whether they’re the roots of a very peculiar science or (far more likely) an extended, imaginative metaphor for the inner life — I’ve always found them useful.

TheLanguageoftheNightIn ‘Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction’, Le Guin talks about what a myth is, in terms of what a writer is trying to do when they write fantasy or science fiction, and how it comes not purely from the unconscious, or the conscious, but from an equal meeting of the two, a forging of something somehow universal from the deeply personal — something another favourite writer of mine, Alan Garner, has said, too (‘A writer has to live an insoluble paradox. He requires a public, and can achieve it only by becoming most private.’ To which Le Guin would no doubt have said, ‘Less of the “he”, please.’).

The essential essay, from a fantasy reader’s point of view, is ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie’. Here, Le Guin provides an almost cruelly neat test to tell the would-be fantasy that just mimics the proper use of faraway never-never lands, dragons, wizards and magic, from a genuine emanation of Elfland. For Le Guin, it’s style that makes something fantasy. She praises Dunsany, E R Eddison, Kenneth Morris and James Branch Cabell, and says Leiber and Zelazny could do better (‘When humour is intended the characters talk colloquial American English, or even slang, and at earnest moments they revert to old formal usages.’). The test is simple: take any passage, change the names from mock-fantasy ones to mundane ones, and see if it still reads as fantasy. She uses as an example a passage from Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni series, which neatly summed up my own feelings the one time I tried to read it — it’s not fantasy, it’s fancy dress.

Elsewhere, there are good short essays on Philip K Dick, James Tiptree Jr., and Tolkien. Moorcock, of course, hated Tolkien with a profound hatred, but for Le Guin, he’s the high point of the genre, a writer she’s glad she didn’t read too early, because that might have skewed her own writing:

‘Those who fault Tolkien on the Problem of Evil are usually those who have an answer to the Problem of Evil — which he did not. What kind of answer, after all, is it to drop a magic ring into an imaginary volcano?’

Wizardry & Wild Romance cover

Wizardry and Wild Romance, Gollancz (1987), cover by Les Edwards

But here, Le Guin is doing a very different job from Moorcock. She is, mostly, defending fantasy and science fiction for their own sakes — often, defending imagination for its own sake — rather than sifting out the good from the bad. (She does have the occasional go at a specific author — not as frothingly vitriolic as Moorcock, but just as damning: ‘The recent fantasy best-seller Jonathan Livingstone Seagull is a serious book, unmistakably sincere. It is also intellectually, ethically and emotionally trivial. The author has not thought things through. He is pushing one of the beautifully packaged Instant Answers we specialise in in this country.’)

Like Wizardry and Wild Romance, The Language of the Night is very much of its time, as a lot of the essays chart the early stages of SF’s emergence from the ghettoes of the past:

‘SF is pretty well grown up now. We’ve been through our illiterate stage, our latent nonsexual stage, and the stage when you can’t think of anything but sex, and the other stages, and we really do seem to be on the verge of maturity now.’

But some of Le Guin’s exhortations are just as relevant. In ‘Stalin in the Soul’ — a wonderfully-argued piece about the art of art — Le Guin holds up Zamyatin’s We as an example of what she thinks is the best of all SF novels, yet one that was written under a repressive regime, and only ever published outside its author’s home country. She compares this to the sort of art most often produced in her own, free country, which is all too often self-enslaved to the market.

Threshold, Gollancz edition. Cover by Alan Cracknell

Threshold, Gollancz edition. Cover by Alan Cracknell

Perhaps the problem nowadays is that fantasy and SF — in certain forms — are too easily accepted, so much so that we fail to remember what they can do, what they can be. ‘Fantasy,’ Le Guin says, ‘is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity than naturalistic fiction is.’ It’s a jolt to read this, in a culture swamped with fantastic imagery, in novels, films, and games. It reminds you there are really profound, great, even dangerous things to be found in works of the imagination, and that they are, perhaps, just as rare today, even when fantasy and SF are so much more culturally acceptable.

‘The great fantasies, myths and tales are indeed like dreams: they speak from the unconscious to the unconscious, in the language of the unconscious — symbol and archetype. Though they use words, they work the way music does: they short-circuit verbal reasoning, and go straight to the thoughts that lie too deep to utter.’