DRAGONS, ARCHETYPES & STORYTELLING
Extract in which Ursula K. Le Guin looks at the creative evolution of her six Earthsea books. The focus is on new perspectives in the fourth book, Tehanu.
“In Tehanu, Tenar is brushing her hair on a windy dry morning, so that it crackles and makes sparks, and the one-eyed child Therru is fascinated, seeing what she calls ‘the fire flying out all over the sky’.
“At that moment, Tenar first asked herself how Therru saw her – saw the world – and knew that she did not know; that she could not know what one saw with an eye that had been burned away. And Ogion’s words – ‘they will fear her’ – returned to her, but she felt no fear of the child. Instead, she brushed her hair again, vigorously, so the sparks would fly, and once again, she heard the little husky laugh of delight.
“Soon after this scene, Tenar herself has a moment of double vision, seeing with two different eyes. An old man in the village has a beautiful painted fan; on one side are figures of lords and ladies of the royal court, but on the other side, usually hidden against the wall:
Dragons moved as the folds of the fan moved. Painted faint and fine on the yellowed silk, dragons of pale red, blue, green moved and grouped, as the figures on the other side were grouped, among clouds and mountain peaks.
‘Hold it up to the light’, said old Fan.
She did so, and saw the two sides, the two paintings, made one by the light flowing through the silk, so that the clouds and peaks were the towers of the city, and the men and women were winged, and the dragons looked with human eyes.
‘I see,’ she murmured.
“What is this double vision, two things seen as one? What can the blinded eye teach the seeing eye? What is the wilderness? Who are the dragons?
“Dragons are archetypes, yes; mind forms, a way of knowing. But these dragons aren’t St. George’s earthly worm, nor are they the Emperor of China’s airy servant. I am not European, not Asian, and I am not a man. These are the dragons of a new world, and the visionary forms of an old woman’s mind. The mythopoeticists err, I think, in using the archetype as a rigid, filled mold. If we see it only as a vital potentiality, it becomes a guide into mystery. Fullness is a fine thing, but emptiness is the secret of it, as Lao Tze said. The dragons of Earthsea remain mysterious to me.”
(1) Ursula K. Le Guin Earthsea Revisited In Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition London: Gollanz, 2018 Illustrated by Charles Vess.
Earthsea Revisited is a printed version of a lecture delivered in 1992, in which Ursula K. Le Guin described the lifelong revisioning of gender and culture which changed her approach to storytelling. This evolution moved her decisively away from the traditional, masculine, ‘hero’s journey’ framework with which she started. Books of Earthsea brings together all six books, with additional stories and authorial reflections from different periods. Some of this work has been familiar to me for a long time, and some is new. I found it helpful to have all of the material collected in one volume.