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  • From Master to Brother:Shifting the Balance of Authority in Ursula K. Le Guin's Farthest Shore and Tehanu

In literature as in "real life," women, children, and animals are the obscure matter upon which Civilization erects itself, phallologically. That they are Other is (vide Lacan et al.) the foundation of language, the Father Tongue. . . .

By climbing up into his head and shutting out every voice but his own, "Civilized Man" has gone deaf. He can't hear the wolf calling him brother—not Master, but brother. He can't hear the earth calling him child—not Father, but son. He hears only his own words making up the world. He can't hear the animals, they have nothing to say. Children babble, and have to be taught how to climb up into their heads and shut the doors of perception. No use teaching woman at all, they talk all the time, of course, but never say anything. This is the myth of Civilization, embodied in monotheisms which assign soul to Man alone.

In recent years Ursula K. Le Guin has taken up an explicitly feminist position in a passionately energetic critique of patriarchal culture.1 But these lines also show her understanding of the structural parallels between patriarchy's marginalization of children and its repression of women (as well as "unruly men" and the other "animal presences" of her Buffalo Gals collection). In many ways, the transition from the third and once last book in the Earthsea series,2The Farthest Shore, to the fourth book, Tehanu, marks a similar move from a representation of patriarchal structures of authority to a critique and displacement of them by means of a "mother tongue," a phrase Le Guin has usefully borrowed and developed from feminist theory.3 This form of language has long been both hidden and neglected in Western culture, and Le Guin represents it thus in the fictive world of Earthsea. [End Page 43]

But to think about authority in literary works solely in representational terms may obscure the ways that texts also use rhetorical structures either to legitimate or to undercut their representations of authority. Le Guin explores the problems of legitimacy with particular clarity in The Farthest Shore and Tehanu. In structural terms, the new volume creates a fresh transition between the ending (third and fourth) volumes of the series. These new transitional structures provide readers an excellent arena for observing patterns of narrative authority at work.

The Earthsea novels use a sophisticated narrative technique—shifting the point of view from the mimetic to the diegetic level—in order to present their thematic representations of social and cultural patterns of authority.4The Farthest Shore shows the patriarchal world of "old" Earthsea and suggests how authority can be used and abused within a male-dominated cultural system by focusing readers' attention on the dynamics of authority between adults and children in the relationship of Ged and Arren. In contrast, Tehanu provides a powerful critique of such repressive social patterns in its representations of the passing of the old order and advent of a new, more genuinely human one, particularly in the web of relations that encompass Tenar and those around her. Yet the narrative structures in each novel reinforce the point of these representations—that identical energies and social patterns account for the parallel repressions of children and women. Readers who attend not only to Le Guin's representations of authority in Earthsea but to the narrative structures of these novels can develop a richer understanding of Le Guin's analyses of cultural and narrative patterns of authority.

To take my responses as indicative of such a readerly evolution, I begin reading The Farthest Shore, the third book, already cherishing its fictive world of island and village folk, its magic, and its simple, elegant assertions of the great Taoist principle of Equilibrium. In this world, the "Old Speech"—the "language of true names"—has the power to transform, reveal, and bind; its authority rests on these powers, as well as on its antiquity and its part in the Making, the founding of the world. As a reader, I...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1543-3374
Print ISSN
0092-8208
Pages
pp. 43-65
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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