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Excerpts from Language of the Night

Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction is a collection of essays by Ursula K. Le Guin, edited and with introductions by Susan Wood. Here I quote some selected passages to give a flavor of the essays.

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Prophets and Mirrors: Science Fiction as a Way of Seeing

We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel—or have done and thought and felt; or might do and think and feel—is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become. A person who had never known another human being could not be introspective, any more than a terrier can, or a horse; he might (improbably) keep himself alive, but he could not know anything about himself, no matter how long he lived with himself. And a person who had never listened to nor read a tale or myth or parable or story, would remain ignorant of his own emotional and spiritual heights and depths, would not know quite fully what it is to be human. For the story—from Rumpelstiltskin to War and Peace—is one of the basic tools invented by the mind of man, for the purpose of gaining understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.

The Child and the Shadow

The ego, the little private individual consciousness, knows this, and it knows that if it’s not to be trapped in the hopeless silence of autism it must identify with something outside itself, beyond itself, larger than itself. If it’s weak, or if it’s offered nothing better, what it does is identify with the collective consciousness. That is Jung’s term for a kind of lowest common denominator of all the little egos added together, the mass mind, which consists of such things as cults, creeds, fads, fashions, status-seeking, conventions, received beliefs, advertising, popcult, all the isms, all the ideologies, all the hollow forms of communication and togetherness that lack real communion or real sharing. The ego, accepting these empty forms, becomes a member of the lonely crowd. To avoid this, to attain real community, it must turn inward, away from the crowd, to the source: it must identify with its own deeper regions, the great unexplored regions of the Self. These regions of the psyche Jung calls the collective unconscious, and it is in them, where we all meet, that he sees the source of true community; of felt religion; of art, grace, spontaneity, and love.

How do you get there? How do you find your own private entrance to the collective unconscious? Well, the first step is often the most important, and Jung says that the first step is to turn around and follow your own shadow.

That is escapism, that posing evil as a problem, instead of what it is: all the pain and suffering and waste and loss and injustice we will meet all our lives long, and must face and cope with over and over and over, and admit, and live with, in order to live human lives at all.

But what, then, is the naturalistic writer for children to do? Can he present the child with evil as an insoluble problem—something neither the child nor any adult can do anything about at all? To give the child a picture of the gas chambers of Dachau, or the famines of India, or the cruelties of a psychotic parent, and say, Well, baby, this is how it is, what’re you going to make of it?—that is surely unethical. If you suggest that there is a solution to these monstrous facts, you are lying to the child. If you insist that there isn’t, you are overwhelming him with a load he’s not strong enough yet to carry.

The young creature does need protection and shelter. But it also needs the truth. And it seems to me that the way you can speak absolutely honestly and factually to a child about both good and evil is to talk about himself. Himself, his inner self, his deep, the deepest Self. That is something he can cope with; indeed, his job in growing up is to become himself. He can’t do this if he feels the task is hopeless, nor can he if he’s led to think there isn’t any task. A child’s growth will be stunted and perverted if he is forced to despair or if he is encouraged in false hope, if he is terrified or if he is coddled. What he needs to grow up is reality, the wholeness which exceeds all our virtue and all our vice. He needs knowledge; he needs self-knowledge. He needs to see himself and the shadow he casts. That is something be can face, his own shadow; and he can learn to control it and to be guided by it. So that when he grows up into his strength and responsibility as an adult in society, he will be less inclined, perhaps, either to give up in despair or to deny what he sees, when he must face the evil that is done in the world, and the injustices and grief and suffering that we all must bear, and the final shadow at the end of all.

American SF and The Other

If you deny any affinity with another person or kind of person, if you declare it to be wholly different from yourself—as men have done to women, and class has done to class, and nation has done to nation—you may hate it, or deify it; but in either case you have denied its spiritual equality, and its human reality. You have made it into a thing, to which the only possible relationship is a power relationship. And thus you have fatally improverished your own reality. You have, in fact, alienated yourself.

Books Remembered, Children’s Book Council Calendar

As a child I paid very little attention to authors’ names; they were irrelevant; I did not believe in authors. To be perfectly candid, this is still true. I do not believe in authors. A book exists, it’s there. The author isn’t there—some grownup you never met—may even be dead. The book is what is real. You read it, you and it form a relationship, perhaps a trivial one, perhaps a deep and lasting one. As you read it word by word and page by page, you participate in its creation, just as a cellist playing a Bach suite participates, note by note, in the creation, the coming-to-be, the existence, of the music. And, as you read and reread, the book of course participates in the creation of you, your thoughts and feelings, the size and temper of your soul. Where, in all this, does the author come in? Like the God of the eighteenth-century deists, only at the beginning. Long ago, before you and the book met each other. The author’s work Is done, complete; the ongoing work, the present act of creation, is a collaboration by the words that stand on the page and the eyes that read them.

Introduction to Rocannon’s World

Definitions are for grammar, not literature, I say, and boxes are for bones.