I read two novels this week by Ursula K. Leguin. They aren’t her best-known or most celebrated, but I sure did enjoy them.
City of Illusions (1967) is about a man living on a world (Earth) whose mind appears to have been razed. He is found wandering naked in the woods and taken in by the people who live there. In some ways he appears to be human; in others, he is clearly not. In search of answers to his origins and identity, he travels on foot to the City, at first alone, then in the company of a woman. Within the city, cared for (or imprisoned by) a group of people, the Shing, who claim to be human and who offer him a version of history at odds with that of the people who rescued him, he recovers his lost self.
The Beginning Place (1980) is about a young man, Hugh, whose life is profoundly unhappy. One day he discovers a kind of alternate world within the woods near his house and begins to spend more and more time there. He meets a young woman, Irena, who has for many years felt that the woods belonged to her alone. At first antagonists, then companions and finally lovers, Hugh and Irena put themselves in the service of the people living high on a mountain in this alternate world. They kill a dragon, then escape back to a reality now made inhabitable by their love for each other.
While I was reading these two novels, I preferred City of Illusions. The hero’s dilemma drew me in, as did his quest to discover the secret of his past. And I loved the way LeGuin worked out the end of the novel. It was very deft and convincing. Reading The Beginning Place made me feel somehow impatient. I felt for her characters who suffered so much. But the novel moves very slowly. It takes pages and pages for the two protagonists to meet and they don’t embark on their quest—they don’t even hear about it really—until the last third of the novel.
Despite this, I think that The Beginning Place is the better novel, if only because I find myself thinking more about it. I love how the fantasy place seems to exist both as an alternate reality and as a shared psychic reality where the two protagonists learn to face their deepest most heart-rending fears. LeGuin does something like this in her justly famous short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” In both works she somehow evokes allegory without subsuming one realm to the other. It’s a remarkable achievement.
For me, one the best moments in the novel comes when it becomes apparent that Hugh and Irena perceived the dragon very differently. For Irena, it was female, with short, useless arms and prominent teats running down her belly, a grotesque version I think of her mother whose life is defined by powerlessness and fecundity. For Hugh the dragon was . . . well, the text doesn’t say. When Irena insists that the dragon was female, Hugh “shook his head, with a sick look, his pallor increasing. ‘No, it was—the reason I had to kill it—he said, and then put out his hand groping for support, and staggered as he stood” (163). And there you have some of what makes LeGuin great. The fantasy world is real, that is, material, located in space if not time. Hugh and Irena bring a leather coat and a wool cape out of it. It’s also a shared psychic space where two wounded humans help each other face down their worst fears. In suggesting far more than she ever tells us, LeGuin creates another reality, a space for her readers who singly or in community join in the quest and (maybe) discover a new truth about their own world, their own minds.