Usually described as science fiction, Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, which includes seven or so novels and a few stories, is marked by lucid instances of genre inversion. This might be expected given that Le Guin is writing in the late sixties when she also begins the Earthsea fantasy series, but such inversion doesn’t occur in the Earthsea novels–only in the Hainish Cycle. In general, fantasy characterizes the isolated world, while science fiction often supercedes or displaces fantasy as these worlds are enjoined with the broader galactic community. The most vivid instance of this occurs right at the very beginning of the cycle: first published as a short story in Amazing Stories (1964), “The Dowry of Angyar” later served as the prologue for Rocannon’s World (1966) and again as “Semley’s Necklace” in the retrospective collection of Le Guin stories called The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (1975). Alternatively, as can be seen in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), which I’ll discuss another time, fantasy operates as a mode that informs and potentially subverts the premises and assumptions of science fiction.
The science fiction rubric is clear enough: these are novels about the Hainish, an ancient galactic civilization that has collapsed and is being re-enjoined by the League of Worlds and then the Ekumen. The worlds, including Earth, are rationalized in terms of colonization by the Hainish some hundred thousand years ago. Species are ambiguous hybrids of autocthonous and alien, with some suspected genetic modification and probable evolutionary change. There is advanced technology such as ansibles, which provide instantaneous interstellar communication, and faster than light travel (no one can survive it, but it can be used for genuinely terrifying military purposes that anticipate Iain M. Banks’ 1987 Consider Phlebas). There is travel between the stars at nearly the speed of light, and so there is time dilation. And so on—many of the obvious markers of science fiction.
Immediately at the beginning of the prologue of Rocannon’s World there is an italicized anthropological entry that identifies the different “High-Intelligence Life Forms” for “Galactic Area 8, No. 62: FOMALHAUT II.” The physiological characteristics, social state, and level of technological progress are noted for each species and race. The Gdemiar are “[h]ighly intelligent, fully hominid nocturnal troglodytes, 120-135 cm. in height, light skinned, dark head-hair,” who possess “a rigidly stratified oligarchic urban society modified by partial colonial telepathy, and a technologically oriented Early Steel culture” (3). The Fiia are likewise highly intelligent and fully hominid, but they are “diurnal, av. ca. 130 cm. in height”; they seem to live in “village and nomadic communal societies,” with “partial colonial telepathy, also some indication of short-range TK,” and they appear “a-technological and evasive, with minimal and fluid cultural patterns” (4). The Liuar are taller hominids, above 170 cm, and they possess “a fortress/village, clan-descent society, a blocked technology (Bronze), and feudal-heroic culture” (4). There are two races of Liuar: the Angyar, who are very tall with dark skin and yellow hair, and the Olgyior, who have light skin and dark hair. The Angyar are “lords,” while the Olgior are “midmen.”
Obviously, this particular style of anthropological documentation is itself unfamiliar. We could peruse an entry on hominids on Earth and feel unsettled. The discourse is pseudoscientific, that of a quantifying observer who fancies naming and classification. The bare rudiments of taxonomy, metrics, and abbreviations allude to a broader scientific culture. This perspective is that of the League of Worlds, of which Rocannon is the main representative in both the prologue and the subsequent narrative. Rocannon peruses the entry while trying to identify Semley, one of the Angyar, but it doesn’t tell him “who she is…” (4).
The story that gives us Semley’s story is not told from Rocannon’s point of view. In this sense, it differs from the novel proper, which follows Rocannon in limited third person. The story, instead, follows Semley on her quest to recover her great grandmother’s jewelry, a necklace with one jewel called “Eye of the Sea” that is worth a kingdom, literally. Once we turn away from Rocannon’s point of view and follow Semley’s story, we enter into a fantasy world despite carrying this anthropological catalogue that cues us to science fiction. It immediately elicits us to think about the fantastic and all of the markers that constitute fantasy.
The Angyar themselves are startling. They seem mythical or heroic. They are large, almost gigantic, beatific and lordly people. Their world is feudal, and it is so essentially: they rule over the Olgyior by natural right. The coming of the Starlords seems to have initiated a crisis or decline—one that Semley responds to by seeking the necklace to restore her family’s status. They are sublimely beautiful in that oxymoronic sense to which Samuel Taylor Coleridge so strongly objected: giant dark skinned and golden haired.
Semley’s quest for the necklace is, as Mary Fraughton has observed, a fantasy quest, in part because she seeks treasure, in part because the journey that she undergoes is the archetypical hero’s journey, what Joseph Campbell called Monomyth. (Campbell’s theory is problematic; I use it here as a shorthand for a narrative pattern.)
The crisis that precipitates her departure is the general decline of the Angyar. The discontent that leads Semley to leave home has been affecting her from some time before she acts. She is finally driven to leave by the humiliation of the Starlords using “a couple of dwarvish Clayfolk as interpreters” when they come to collect taxes.
The “Eye of the Sea,” the heirloom she seeks, went missing before the present crisis, and her attempt to recover it is really restorative: to restore the world and her family to its former status and social order. The quest is fundamentally nostalgic, but it shouldn’t be underestimated. It is, after all, a sort of unfathomable journey. Indeed, the “necklace all of gold, with the blue jewel set in the center,” described as a “kingdom’s ransom,” haunts the entire novel with an almost mystical presence—a quality of returning, an emblematic aesthetic that counterpoints Rocannon’s own quest. And yet, as Durossa and the Fiia tell Semley, she is what her husband Durhal values—not some token of wealth and status.
Monomyth is typically marked by a series of challenges and temptations, helpers and guardians, crossings of thresholds into abysses (the belly of the whale) and eventual return or rebirth with mastery of both spheres.
Semley’s two most prominent helpers are also the starkest fantasy elements throughout Rocannon’s World: the flying beasts of the Angyar called windsteeds and the elf-like Fiia. Half feline and half raptor, the wingsteeds resemble griffons with tiger heads: “striped coat fitting sleek over hollow, buoyant bones, green eyes slitted against the wind, light and mighty wings” (8). Married women among the Angyar don’t ride for sport, so the wingsteed represents a return to her childhood.
The Fiia “are fair; they look like children, only thinner, and wiser” (7).They have no interest in gold. For them, “there is sunlight in warmyear, and in coldyear the remembrance of sunlight; the yellow fruit, the yellow leaves in end-season, the yellow hair [on Semley]” (9-10). They are collective and telepathic, lovers of and dwellers in nature. Of course they don’t have the necklace—why would they want it? In the hero’s journey, the Fiia represent either wisdom or regression. They don’t think she should go to the Clayfolk in pursuit of the necklace. She goes anyways. This double possibility–are they wise or merely like children who can’t engage with the realities of the world–continues to the end of of Semley’s journey. If we question Semley’s pursuit of her inheritance, we probably find the Fiia wise. If we admire Semley’s quest, we may well see the Fiia as an obstacle on her journey.
The Clayfolk are the Gdemiar. They have “lank black hair and gray-white skins, dankish looking like the skins of grubs, eyes like rocks” (11). In some ways, they are the crucial figure of transfiguration in the prologue—they are both the guardians of the threshold and the means of transport. As alluded to earlier, these troglodytic people are based on the dwarfs of Germanic or Norse mythology (or perhaps, more likely, J. R. R. Tolkien). Dwarfs, as we know from The Hobbit, love treasure. Indeed, they originally made the “Eye of the Sea” and sold it to the Angyar.
In the domain of these “Night-lords,” as the Gdemiar call themselves, Semley encounters significant technological progress, without understanding or even caring about it. They have “lights that burn forever,” cars that pull themselves, and machines that make clothes, cook food, sweeten the air, and serve (15). Such progress was implied in the anthropological entry describing the Gdemiar as “a technological oriented Early Steel culture” with technology “enhanced to Industrial” who were presented with an “Automatic Drive ship” (3-4). It may seem hard to believe that the League of Worlds would accelerate an iron age society to an industrial society and lend them a star ship, but this is exactly what has happened. Perhaps equally difficult to grasp, but of the utmost importance, the materialistic Clayfolk agree to take their star ship some four to five light years to New South Georgia in order to recover the “Eye of the Sea.” And they do this in return for Semley’s “thanks” (and perhaps a some groping of Semley’s golden hair enroute). Their adoration for Semley is evident in the compliance to her request—a request that is absurd by almost any measure, especially for a culture with a “bargain-obsession.” It is also seen in their “grudging wonder, a sullen yearning” manifest in their desire to touch her hair and her hands, feet, and throat during the voyage.
I want to emphasize Semley’s own perspective of the journey in order to hold it against what readers, who perhaps want to privilege the Gdemiar’s technological point of view at this point, might overlook. As I’ve argued before, such instances of genre inversion mark different investments of belief and disbelief. Held in tension here are two variants of the journey. Semley’s interstellar journey is stunning from a genre perspective. In fantasy terms, a journey into the underworld and the realm of night, a visit to the land of the dead, punctuates the big stories of mythology from Odysseus to Virgil. Bilbo Baggins is lost in the Goblin tunnels and has his encounter with Gollum. Gandalf has his battle with the Balrog. The Gdemiar tell Semley that they will take her “to the place where the treasure lies” on a “greater windsteed”—it is a “very far journey,” yet “it will last only one long night” (15).
The salient point, noted by the Gdemiar, is that Semley does not understand nor care about their superlative technology. Her wingsteed is packed away in some cryopreservation box. She is taken on a space ship at speeds approaching that of light. But Semley doesn’t understand these things. To her, a couple nights have passed and she just wants to put it behind her: “The price was paid, the past was the past” (20). For Semley, her ability to persist and undergo the unknown is the price she pays.
In many ways, Semley’s journey through the “long night” resembles the crossing of the magical threshold in the hero’s journey, what Campbell calls the “belly of the whale.” For Campbell, the hero is “swallowed into the unknown and would appear to have died” (75). When Semley experiences the lack of gravity as she wakes up enroute, she asks, “Am I dead?”
And yet there is a marked difference between Campbell’s sense of the “belly of the whale” and Semley’s transit. “Instead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes inward, to be born again,” Campbell tells us. But, of course, Semley goes precisely outward and well beyond the confines of the visible world. She doesn’t go inward. Indeed, Semley lack of interiority remains a constant from beginning to end. Nor is she reborn.
Semley goes on the hero’s journey and she returns from the sea of night with her prize, the “Eye of the Sea.” But the return is not what she expects nor what we would expect from the hero’s journey. For, of course, nine years have passed in what has only been a few days for her. Her husband is dead. Her daughter is grown up. Semley breaks on what is, for her, an incommensurable experience.
Of course, Campbell’s hero’s journey seems overly focused on male heroes. As a woman, Semley has her own journey and her own conclusion. She is heroic and her journey is a story, unlike her broken father, whom Semley visits in Kirien, and for whom “the story’s over” (9). Semley’s journey marks the beginning of a new story. Her encounter with Rocannon in New South Georgia is what motivates his visit to her world.
The change to the world marked by Semley’s journey is encapsulated by her daughter Haldre, many years later when speaking with Rocannon, who has now come to their yet unnamed world: “The world itself has become a grain of sand on the shore of night. All things change now” (41).
Postscript: Rocannon’s World can be found in the three volume collection Worlds of Exile and Illusion (Orb Books, 1996).
© Daniel Burgoyne 2012