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Ursula K. Le Guin

How have the great fantasy writers been influenced by Tolkien? What is their response to his work? Sometimes cautious, we discover.

Ursula Le Guin is the most influential writers of a kind of fantasy and SF that is both lyrical, thoughtful and motivated by a strong social conscience; fantasy which does not leave the heart and mind locked outside the covers of the book. She pioneered a notion of what fantasy and science fiction could be and do, and in order to do that she was grateful not to fall entirely under the spell of Tolkien before she could develop her own voice.

She was twenty-five and already forming her own direction as a writer when the Rings appeared in her local library. Le Guin was cautious. She tried to ignore them. They must be dull, in those beige covers, she told herself. Finally she gave in.

In an essay that appears in The Language of the Night, she wrote about her response to first reading The Lord of the Rings:

‘I read the three volumes in three days. Three weeks later I was still, at times, inhabiting Middle Earth: walking, like the Elves, in dreams waking, seeing both worlds at once, the perishing and the unperishing.’ She has lost count of how many times she has reread the Rings.

And yet she was glad not to have read Tolkien too soon:

‘To put it in the book’s own terms: Something of great power, even if wholly good in itself, may work destruction if used in ignorance, at the wrong time. One must be ready; one must be strong enough.’

Le Guin was getting to the point where she knew her own mind as a writer, so:

‘Even the sweep and force of that incredible imagination could not dislodge me from my own little rut and carry me, like Gollum, scuttling and whimpering along behind. As far as writing is concerned, I mean. When it comes to reading, there’s a different matter. I open the book, the great wind blows, the Quest begins, I follow…’

Like Diana Wynne Jones, another highly literate and intelligent fantasy writer (and one who studied from Tolkien at Oxford,) Le Guin notes the ‘peculiar rhythm of the book, its continual alteration of distress and relief, threat and reassurance, tension and relaxation: this rocking-horse gait (which is precisely what makes the huge book readable to a child of nine or ten) may well not suit a jet-age adult….’

Le Guin talks about Tolkien’s critics, especially the ones that attack him on philosophical grounds. They think that The Lord of the Rings is Tolkien’s answer to the Problem of Evil (which as I remember it is something like, ‘if God is good and all-powerful, why does he allow Evil to exist?’)

‘What kind of answer, after all, is it to drop a magic ring into an imaginary volcano? No ideologues, not even religious ones, are going to be happy with Tolkien, unless they manage it by misreading him. For like all great artists he escapes ideology by being too quick for its nets, too complex for its grand simplicities, too fantastic for its rationality, too real for its generalizations.’

She has quibbles about some things in the Rings, and over time her own stories have steered further and further from any world where Aragorn and Gandalf could feel at home.


‘It does not seem right to grieve at the end of so fulfilled a life,’ she says, and yet she has to hope that her young son that she reads to will not notice her tears as she reads the last lines of the book.

The power of The Lord of the Rings seems to defy analysis, or rather, even when we can analyse the reasons for its hold on us it doesn’t dispell the magic at all.

All quotes are from The Staring Eye, an essay, copyright to Ursula Le Guin 1974 First appeared in Vector 66/67 This copy taken from The Language of the Night, Copyright 1979 by Susan Wood. Permission for quotes used in this article was granted by Ursula K. Le Guin Permission to quote or copy must be obtained from the author or her agent, Virginia Kidd Literary Agency

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