Eyes and Illusions in Tolkien and Le Guin
by Gwydion M. Williams
A lady in a library saw an eye looking at her from the bookshelf. The eye was on the spine of a book, one of a set of three—which makes me think she should have seen three little eyes looking at her, but that’s not how she tells it. Ursula Le Guin got out the first volume and was so impressed by Fellowship of the Ring she was back the next morning for the other two volumes.
Evidently the eye stayed with her, and she had the idea of using it in a story of her own. The imagery re-mixes in City of Illusions: a lost man has Sauron’s cat-like gaze plus a gold ring. A future Earth is oppressed by the Shing, but they have a genuine belief in ‘reverence for life’.
The stranger, who’s given the name of Falk, feels the need to go to the ‘City of Illusions’ to find out who he is. Many warn him against this city, which has the odd name of Es Toch. An evil place? The signals are mixed. The Shing have talking animals working for them. When Falk acquires a dubious guide – one much better looking than Gollum – he is told that the Shing really mean well.
Eventually, of course, he gets to Es Toch. And then – well, that’s the interesting part and you should read it. Here I am talking about Tolkien influence, which is considerable, more than in any of her other books. Falk even wears a gold ring, but not a ring of power or ‘psionic electronics’, nothing like that. It really is just a trifle, or it would be to anyone else, though when he recovers his memories it reminds him of someone who had died a very long time ago.
City of Illusions comes from what’s usually called the Hainish Cycle, also the Ekumen cycle, but there is no ‘Ekumen’ until after City of Illusions, which looks back to a fallen ‘League of All Worlds’. There are eight full-length books: The Dispossessed; The Word for World is Forest; Rocannon’s World; Planet of Exile; City of Illusions; The Left Hand of Darkness; Four Ways to Forgiveness; The Telling. Only in the last three and some of the short stories is there an Ekumen. The ‘League of All Worlds’ is just a dream in The Dispossessed, comes into existence during the events of The Word for World is Forest.
Le Guin noticed much more than just the eye, of course. Her reviews of Lord of the Rings show a lot of insight. Minor things like noticing that Rosie Cotton has not been mentioned at all until Sam in Mordor thinks about maybe getting back to her and deeper matters, like viewing Frodo, Sam and Gollum as being in a sense aspects of the same person. This in turn was maybe a spark for Wizard of Earthsea, when Sparrowhawk needs to recognise that the darkness is part of who he is.
When it comes to Tolkienian influence, you might have expected me to talk mostly about her Earthsea series. But I see no clear connection – nothing that she might not have written had Tolkien perished in the Battle of the Somme. Her magic-based works also come later: City of Illusions was published in 1967, A Wizard of Earthsea in 1968 – though the root stories for each cycle were published in 1964.
The spirit of the books Earthsea is also very different from Tolkien, a radical break from the standard sort of ‘tale of wonder’, but in a different direction. The first two words of the title are most significant – ‘ A Wizard ‘ rather than ‘ The Wizard. (If I had wanted to be enigmatic or pedantic, I might have said that the first letter of the title is most significant.) This is part of Le Guin’s developing approach: the heroic individual is always understood as part of a group. Also what I’d call an ‘outlier’, someone who is both different and also part of it. Concerned for the group but often going against what the group sees as its own welfare.
This too has its similarities in Tolkien, but in Earthsea the wizards are part of the community, in line with older tales and unlike Tolkien—where there are only five true wizards and we never see two of them—while Radagast drifts and does little. Tolkien’s hobbit heroes are not that ordinary: Merry and Pippin are the heirs of the two leading families in the Shire, Bilbo and Frodo are rich without the need to do any work that doesn’t interest them – they are ‘gentlemen on independent means’. This is a lot different from Earthsea, where wizards may come from ordinary working families and where most of them depend on being hired for their professional skills.
One possible influence is the idea of dragons as intelligent creatures that you can have a conversation with, though you may still get eaten. That’s true of Sparrowhawk with the dragon Yevaud on Pendor and also Bilbo with Smaug, but it goes against Western tradition in which dragons seem crude creatures of destruction. The legend of Sigurd has him understand the speech of birds and animals after tasting dragon’s blood, but if I remember rightly the dragon does not talk. Fafner talks a lot in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, but Fafner is a transformed giant.
There are other sources. In Chinese mythology, dragons are not just intelligent; they are highly civilised weather-spirits who mostly do good. You see this in the semi-comic adventures of Monkey, also known as Journey to the West and used in the BBC’s adverts for the Beijing Olympic. There are lots of possible sources, but I suspect Smaug was a departure from older traditions in having a voice. Of course he followed logically from the loquacious Glaurung in the tale of Turin, a story owing a lot to the various levels of the Sigurd/Siegfried legends.
Separately from Tolkien, I’ve heard it claimed that Le Guin’s School of Wizardry on Roke is an inspiration for Hogwarts, not to mention Pratchett’s Unseen University. It would be odd if no one had such an idea earlier, but I can’t think of a case, magicians typically learn as apprentices or from relatives or from some ancient book. Also am I correct in my suspicion that Tolkien never has any sort of school or university for any subject in any of his works?
[During discussion, someone mentioned cases where the feelings of some of the hobbits imply that they have attended school, or at least know of it. But in The Hobbit, railway engines are mentioned in a description of Bilbo’s feelings. They are certainly not found or conceived of in Middle-Earth. You could regard it as the ‘translator’s viewpoint’.]
Other elements in Earthsea that might be Tolkien-derived are the healing of a broken ring in The Tombs of Atuan. Also the woman in the same novel who had forgotten her own name in the service of evil, as the Mouth of Sauron had. Typically for Le Guin, there is much more of a chance for recovery: it is not as dark or polarised a vision. Several people have noted also that both the dragons and the Old Powers shift in the later stories of the cycle, becoming much less negative. Not that it’s a simple process: the very first Earthsea story, The Word of Unbinding, has a much less conventional hero than Sparrowhawk. It shares with Tolkien the idea of not opposing power with power, looking for some different way. The second Earthsea story, The Rule of Names, has a character who enters as if they were a conventional hero – but things don’t go to plan.
That’s as much as I want to say about Earthsea for now. As for her other works, I’ve not read Catwings and didn’t feel much enthusiasm for the first of her new Gifts series. An unconnected short novel called The Beginning Place includes an interesting moral point: supposing you could save a whole land by sacrificing one innocent, would you be justified in doing so? But the topic is not developed and the actual resolution didn’t impress me much.
The same problem lies at the heart of the short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas: a city is splendid and fully of joy apart from one unhappy child kept locked in a broom cupboard. As the title suggests, Le Guin’s solution in this case is for moral people to quit that city and go somewhere else, somewhere undefined. Personally I don’t think it is the sort of thing you should walk away from. If it’s broken, fix it or discard it. It’s not always a good idea to go with the flow. On that issue I am much more in sympathy with Tolkien than Le Guin. Always think carefully before you use power or authority, but sometimes it is a crime not to act.
Of course it can be hard to be sure what is Le Guin’s thinking and what belongs just to the characters. She’s a good novelist because she can enter into someone else’s point of view and write as if it were her own. If you knew nothing of her work except the short story The Birthday of the World, you’d be seriously misled about the author’s viewpoint.
But back to the Hainish Cycle, which begins with Le Guin making a very ingenious observation: Einsteinian time-dilation neatly matches the ancient fairy-tale tradition of a mortal visitor who comes back to find that generations have passed. The resultant tale doesn’t do justice to the idea: Semley’s Necklace is little more than a frame for the idea. The short story led on to her first novel, but Rocannon’s World is much more space-opera than any of her later works. Not that I’m entirely negative about Space Opera: the Lensmen series is worth reading despite its blatant faults: if you exclude The Vortex Blasters, which doesn’t really fit, there is a well-thought-out story-arc and a rational development of technology. The books also show some ingenuity in re-introducing the ‘story arc’ in different ways at the start of each book. Another work I’d recommend is Agent of Vega, good for its time in having female protagonists, though mostly playing a rather male role. One of the four stories, The Truth about Cushgar, manages quite cleverly to have the female protagonist facing the contradictions of her anti-pirate duties and role as a mother. I was disappointed that there wasn’t any more – I have read a few of his Telzey series but thought them mediocre.
A story similar to Le Guin’s later writings – though not an influence as far as I know – is Naomi Mitchison’s Memoirs of a Spacewoman. Written in 1962, it already occupies ground that Le Guin and others would not reach for ten to twenty years. It gets packaged nowadays as Feminist Science Fiction, which I’ve mostly found a bad sign but this book is different. [ED – if it’s not an influence do you need to interrupt the flow here?]
To get back to Le Guin, who from a rather conventional start was later able to timidly go where no man had thought to venture. In Rocannon’s World, there is an unpleasantly aggressive and expansionist League of Worlds, not really consistent with her later vision – though Rocannon is an outlier and doubter within the League structures. The Hainish Cycle metamorphoses across the years and is a cluster of similar but distinct ‘universes’, much like the shifting early-21st-century Earth of The Lath of Heaven.
One interesting feature – constant throughout – is that there is no reliable faster-than-light travel, at least for living people. (Churten theory is worth a whole talk in itself and I’ll not venture into the subject here.) The norm is NAFAL ships—Nearly as Fast as Light—the physics of which is never explained: the ship vanishes from where it was and reappears somewhere else many years later. The trip takes slightly longer than it would to cross the same distance at the speed of light, but ship-time is just a few hours for those on board. It cannot apparently be used for trips within a solar system. Trips can begin or end close to a planet, but if used without a ‘retemporalizer’, there are drastic physical effects at the end of long trips. It is also lethal if the traveller is pregnant. None of this is exactly explained and we only get a detailed description in the short story Vaster than Empires and More Slow.
And there is of course the ansible, her best-known creation that may become the standard name for such an instant-communication device, though the idea was around at least in the 1950s, probably earlier. It allows her to give Rocannon’s World an interesting plot: he must get to the enemy base and communicate with his own people, who can then some kind of faster-than-light missile. They can send death faster than they can send life – a sign of being out of balance, I suppose.
The plot of Rocannon’s World is all about an internal quarrel, a misbehaving world called Faraday – rather unfair to Michael Faraday, I’d have thought. This world is never mentioned again, and nor are the Centaurans, who had seemed in Rocannon’s World to be one of the main races of the League. The planet of Rocannon’s adventures – later called Rokanan after the native pronunciation of his name – has several different humanoid races. One that we don’t see is non-humanoid; another is vaguely described as ‘winged marsupials’, though what they actually are is something else. There is an indigenous species almost identical to Earth-humans and another species of small humanoids split into gentle forest people and gnomish tunnel dwellers, Flia and Gdemiar. I did of course think ‘Sindar and Noldor’, but then decided no, these creatures are different and the Gdemiar have aspects of dwarves or even goblins; the standard stuff of magic legend, in fact.
Note also that there is no suggestion at this time that the various humanoids have a common origin. This is first mentioned in Winter’s King, a short story that generated The Left Hand of Darkness as a ‘prequel’. Before that Le Guin seems to be using the standard space-opera assumption that there are lots of almost-human species of separate origin – pretty much a magic tale translated into the language of science. Rocannon says that there are many hundred species, and also that few worlds have the diversity of what’s then called Fomalhaut II. Mostly there is one intelligent species and the rest are beasts without speech.
Rocannon is himself a man of mixed origin. He says “‘I was born on a world called Hain by my mother’s people, and Davenant by my father’s… By blood I’m entirely of my mother’s race; my father, who was a Terran, adopted me. This is the custom when people of different species, who cannot conceive children, marry.” This is different from Genly Ai in The Left Hand of Darkness, who is a genuine Earth-Hain hybrid.
Looming ominously in the background of Rocannon’s adventures is the knowledge that the League is faced with a much worse threat, a ‘War To Come’. The League is vast: “a hundred worlds had been trained and armed, a thousand more were being schooled in the use of steel and wheel and tractor and reactor”. Rocannon has reservations, the league is “dominated by the aggressive, tool-making humanoids species of Centaurus, Earth, and the Cetians” and that other species are “judged by too narrow a standard”. Some of these worlds seem to be settlements by humans: names like ‘Faraday’ and ‘New South Georgia’ suggest that. At this stage the looming enemy is extra-galactic – not much of a threat if there is no faster-than-light travel, and this too later shifts.
The whole background to the story is different from later versions of the Hainish cycle, though some familiar themes already exist. At this stage of the vision there are ‘ancient Hainish gods’ and Rocannon had been looking for a religion on Fomalhaut II and found none; they have a godless vision of the supernatural, as in almost all of her works. We also have mention of Cetian mathematics, though there is no suggestion yet that there are two Cetian planets with very different cultures.
There’s also an interesting passage that has made it to Le Guin’s quotations page at Wikiquote. Rocannon has sent his message but got no answer and is trying to come to terms with the apparent failure of his heroic quest:
“It did not matter, after all. He was only one man. One man’s fate is not important.
“‘If it is not, what is?’
“He could not endure those remembered words.”
There’s another good passage just before that: if he had mis-set the ansible he would have “sent his message out into the void where there was neither time nor space”.
There seems also an anticipation of later events: early on Rocannon wonders “what if lightspeed and even FLT bombers were very much like bronze swords, compared to the weapons of the Enemy? What if the weapons of the Enemy were things of the mind?”
This leads onto the next book in the cycle, Planet of Exile. Rocannon was taught telepathy by the older race from which the sprite-like Flia and gnome-like Gdemiar had diverged. It seems that telepathy becomes general among humans, perhaps among most of the League’s humanoids. In Planet of Exile we are on a different world, one with a small group of Earth-humans who think that the League fought and lost their war with the Enemy. Or perhaps won it but were left too weak to resume contact. The Earth-humans themselves are dwindling: they have refrained from using their superior technology against the native humanoids and there have even been intermarriages, but these seem to turn out sterile. But in the story it turns out that the Earth-humans have been adapting and can now interbreed. These are the Alterrans of planet Werel – which is unrelated to the Werel of Four Ways to Forgiveness. The distinctive feature of Alterrans is their cat-like eyes.
The theme works itself out in City of Illusions. There are inconsistencies: the fallen League is now mentioned as a cluster of eighty planets, about the size of the later Ekumen but much smaller than the League in Rocannon’s World. Davenant is now the Prime World – and in fact Hain is mentioned separately, contradicting the earlier and later notion that these are two names for the same place. The enemy are no longer extra-galactic; instead the League is preparing for war “ever since, generations before, warnings had come from beyond the Hyades of a great wave of conquerors that moved from world to world, from century to century, closer towards the far-flung cluster of eighty planets that so proudly called itself the League of All Worlds.”
The Hyades are 130 light-years away, which makes some sort of sense, you could get news from that far away without Faster-Than-Light spacecraft. Astronomical ideas are not always consistent: Rokanan is originally Fomalhaut II, and Fomalhaut is a real star but is a mere 24 light-years away, likely to be an early target for space-travelling Earth-humans. Werel has a 60-year orbit round Gamma Draconis – also a real star and an orange giant. Giant stars are enormously bright, so the habitable zone would be much more distant and any orbit would be very long indeed. The drawback is that giant stars are a brief final fling that lasts only a few million years and would probably not allow intelligent life time to evolve. On the positive side, the constellation is the dragon and the Alterrans’ cat-like eyes could also be the eyes of a dragon.
The benevolent dragon-people come to earth, correctly suspecting that their help is needed. But the conquerors are not quite what you’d expect – they are quite the most unusual villains of any space-opera tale and I think it a pity Le Guin doesn’t give us more details or include them in any later writings. They aren’t obviously evil: one gets the feeling they set out with excellent intentions, but somehow the mission got corrupted. In City of Illusions we are on Earth and the lost man – given the name Falk – is obviously an Alterran, obvious if you’ve read Planet of Exile, but the tale unveils this slowly. It starts among people who see the Shing as oppressive hypocrites: “the Shing law forbids killing, but they killed knowledge, they burned books, and what may be worse, they falsified what was left… There is no trust in them, because there is no truth in them.”
Shing are paradoxical: they have Talking Beasts yet they oppress humans. Another man tells Falk “there are not very many of the Shing” and also warns him of “the awful darkness of the bright lights of Es Toch”. The city is a giant bridge across a chasm and has the appearance of beauty, yet not the reality. Falk has had a bad time with some crude villains called the Basnasska and escapes with a woman called Estrel who acts as his guide, the treacherous guide I mentioned earlier. She acts as his friend yet laughs when she betrays him to the power of the Shing, knowing that they intend to drain his mind. You hear her actual attitudes:
“The stupid animals were no help, all they do these days is babble the Law… he was heading straight into Basnasska territory. You know the Council has them furnished with bombirds and such so that they can thin out the Wanderers and the Solia-pachim.”
Why the Shing want Falk and how he gets out of the mess he’s in is an interesting tale and I’d recommend you read the book. Currently the three books are only available bundled as Worlds of Exile and Illusion. It might actually be worth reading them in reverse order. Start with City of Illusions, which is much the best. Then try Planet of Exile, which is slow but you see in advance why these people matter. Finally maybe try Rocannon’s World, though it is much less clear in its themes.
In terms of both Hainish chronology and writing, what comes next after City of Illusions is a short story called Winter’s King, which happens after the Shing era, though we’re not told what happened to them. She revisits the theme of time-displacement, but the Gethenians of Winter are more advanced and understand the process. They also have some sort of mind-manipulation; it’s not clear why or how it developed. For the first time it is stated that the humans on all of the worlds are the descendants of settlers from Hain, a million years or more ago, some of them genetically manipulated. This is peripheral to the story, which has a mind-damaged monarch going to another world to be cured. Coming back to find that the child she left behind is now old, while she is still young.
As I said earlier, the world called Gethen or Winter is revisited as a ‘prequel’ in perhaps her most famous story, The Left Hand of Darkness. By that time she had decided that the Gethenians were a single-sex species, and rewrote Winter’s King in line with this. I won’t attempt to summarise it: if you’ve not read it, do so. You find a plausible vision of a stable society with limited technology and a foundation of myth, at least it is like that in Karhide: there is a more dynamic rival vision among the Orgota. Orgota is another place full of the awful darkness of the bright lights”; though there is no direct connection between them and the Shing, they are a home-grown development.
After Left Hand of Darkness, telepathy or ‘mindspeak’ is not mentioned. This makes sense for books like The Dispossessed, which happen before Rocannon’s World, written first but happening after. But not for some of the later short stories or for The Telling, where the ansible exists and Gethenians are part of the Ekumen but the visitor from Earth knows nothing of the ‘mystic arts’ and is puzzled by their apparent existence among the backward people of Aka. Also The Telling includes an Earth history that seems to have grown directly out of our own era and without the 1200-year interruption of Shing rule; in short, it does not add up.
The vision also no longer has room for an Enemy. In the short story Vaster than Empires and More Slow, we are told that humanoids are all descendants of the ancient Hainish people who settled Earth and the other planets, with some biological experiments or perhaps local mutations. You can’t look for consistency but you do find an awful lot of depths.
Appendix: Cycles of the Hainish Cycle
Studying Le Guin’s stories, I realised that there were major shifts of assumption in the different stories. Attitudes to sex seem to shift in line with what was acceptable in US literary circles at the time: it does not particularly match the cycle’s own long time-line. As I detail below, it starts with an assumption of warfare but this later vanishes.
Rocannon’s World, which grew from a short story called either Dowry of the Angyar or Semley’s Necklace. A pre-technological planet gets caught in a wider conflict within the League of All Worlds. An invasion by hostile aliens is expected. Functional telepathy is discovered in the course of the novel. The back-story includes Centauri and Planet Faraday, not mentioned again. It seems to be a larger League than in later novels. There are also multiple intelligent species, some humanoids but not inter-fertile.
The ‘Ansible’ for instant communication already exists. People can only travel at near-light-speed. Automatic death-machines can be sent much faster.
Planet of Exile, City of Illusions; Winter’s King (short story); The Left Hand of Darkness,
In the first two of these, the League of All Worlds has either been conquered or broken down. Humans and others use telepathy routinely. The technology is the same – no living person can travel faster than light.
Homosexuality is mentioned in Planet of Exile but seems not exactly accepted, and likewise the hermaphroditic Gethenians are a puzzling oddity. Interbreeding between different humans is not expected but happens in Planet of Exile. A common Hainish origin for all the various humanoids is first mentioned in Winter’s King. How the Shing fit in is not explained.
The Dispossessed; The Word for World is Forest
This goes back into the past, before the time of Rocannon’s World, and it also seems to be a few centuries ahead of our own era. Travel at near-light speed is normal, invented by the Hainish people. The Ansible is a new development in both novels. ‘Death machines’ are not mentioned. The League of All Worlds comes into existence in the back-story of The Word for World is Forest. There is no hint of an external threat.
The Earth has suffered massive ecological damage. In The Dispossessed, set among the Cetians, it seems that Terrans have hopelessly ruined their own world, while the Cetians have kept something sounder. In The Word for World is Forest the Terrans are exploiting a new world after damaging their own – an old theme explored most recently in the film Avatar, but Le Guin differs from most in accepting that the exploited natives will have to drop most of their nice characteristics to defeat the intruders.
One shift in assumptions is found in The Word for World is Forest, Terran culture has normalised homosexuality, though it co-exists with an exploitive attitude in The Word for World is Forest. (There are some genuine historic examples of this, notably the Classical Greeks.)
Vaster than Empires and More Slow (short story)
Telepathy has just been discovered on Planet Rokanan, in line with the account of Rocannon’s World. The book also features an empath, someone who senses feelings but not thoughts. But there is no hint of an ‘Enemy’ or internal war. It is definitely stated that there are no humanoids other than the descendants of Hainish settlers.
Four Ways to Forgiveness; The Telling; A Fisherman of the Inland Sea (short story collection)
We are back in the Ekumen, it seems, but no signs of the events of Cycle Two or of the Shing, it is more as if it has always been an Ekumen and it has always been peaceful. Its culture has a relaxed attitude towards sex, including homosexuality, and again it seems as if this has always been the case. The brief description in The Telling of how Earth was brought into the Ekumen is inconsistent with all previous accounts. The Gethenians are there, and also Cetians, but not telepathy. There is no mention of faster-than-light death machines or automatic probes. There is a radically new system of faster-than-light travel developed in The Shobies’ Story, but it has serious drawbacks.