Rich Erlich, ENG 210, 113 Reformatted 1997/98
Study Guide for Ursula K. Le Guin's
The Word for World Is Forest
1. Extensive bibliographies of works by and about Le Guin can be found in the following places:
Bittner, James W. Approaches to the Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin. Ann Arbor: UMI Research P, 1984.
Cosell, Elizabeth Cummins. Ursula K. Le Guin: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography. Boston: Hall, 1983.
Levin, Jeff. "Bibliographic Checklist of the works of Ursula K. Le Guin" in Le Guin's collection, The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Ed. and introd.: Susan Wood. New York: Putnam's Sons, 1979.
Tymn, Marshall B. "Ursula K. Le Guin: A Bibliography." In Ursula K. Le Guin. Ed.: Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg. New York: Taplinger, 1979.
There is "A Survey of Le Guin Criticism" by James W. Bittner in Ursula K. Le Guin: Voyager to Inner Lands and to Outer Space, ed.: Joe De Bolt (Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press, 1979). This is useful for early responses to Le Guin's work.
Explicit commentary on WWF can be found in Gary K. Wolfe, "The Word For World is Forest" in Survey of Science Fiction Literature, ed.: Frank N. Magill (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1979), V, 2492-96. See also Douglas Barbour, "Wholeness and Balance in the Hainish Novels of Ursula K. Le Guin," Science-Fiction Studies (=SFS) 1 (Spring 1975): 164-73; and Thomas J. Remington, "A Touch of Difference, A Touch of Love: Theme in Three Stories by Ursula K. Le Guin, "Extrapolation" 18 (December 1976): 28-41—on WWF, "Nine Lives," and "Vaster than Empires and More Slow." For background, see the two Ursula K. Le Guin anthologies cited above, plus Le Guin's own comments in the collection Language of the Night. Note that both SFS and Extrapolation, the two major SF journals in North America, have done special Le Guin issues: SFS #7 = Vol. 2, Part 3 (November 1975) and Extrapolation, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Fall, 1980). Also: Richard D. Erlich, Coyote's Song: The Teaching Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin (San Bernardino, CA: Borgo P, eventually).
2. Anyone interested in researching scientific dream research in WWF should see me; also see me if you'd be interested in the "dream time" as studied by anthropologists.
3. Afterword to WWF in Again, Dangerous Visions, Vol. 1:
Writing is usually hard work for me, and enjoyable; this story was easy to write, and disagreeable. It left me no choice. Writing it was a little like taking dictation from a boss with ulcers. What I wanted to write about was the forest and the dream; that is, I wanted to describe a certain ecology from within, and to play with some of Hadfield's and Dement's ideas about the function of dreaming-sleep and the uses of dream. But the boss wanted to talk about the destruction of ecological balance and the rejection of emotional balance. He didn't want to play. He wanted to moralize. I am not very fond of moralistic tales, for they often lack charity. I hope this one does not. I can only say—having been forced to endure the experience—that it is even more painful to be Don Davidson than it is to be Raj Lyubov. (126)
4. The "Afterword" was not reprinted when WWF was printed by itself, as a novel (New York: Berkley, 1976)—the edn. which all my citations below will be to. Anyway, it may be significant that the short story came out in 1972, while America was still adventuring in Indochina, and that the novel came out in 1976—when America was getting out of Indochina, with the general approval of the American people. I.e., such an afterword may have been (commercially?) necessary in 1972 and not so necessary in 1976. In that case, then, Le Guin is engaging in a bit of disingenuousness in her Afterword, a bit of disingenuousness standard with satirists. She gave Don Davidson hell—and then charitably noted that "it is even more painful to be Don Davidson than it is to be Raj Lyubov." To say what I suggest, however, is not to deny the last part of the Afterword: Le Guin may recognize Davidson's pain, even as she gives him righteous hell.
5. Note, then, that part of WWF is a savage satire of American involvement in Indochina, attacking our defoliation programs, our arrogance, our ignorance of the Vietnamese people, and what Le Guin strongly suggests was our racist attitudes—attitudes that led to a policy of slavery moving toward genocide in WWF if not literally in Indochina. (It's fair play for a satirist to exaggerate, so long as the exaggeration is based on something the target is really guilty of. American slang terms like "gook," "slope," "slant," etc. clearly indicate racist aspects to our fighting in 'Nam.)
6. Brute force criticism, chapter by chapter:
Chapter 1: Le Guin's narrator is omniscient with the major characters and any other characters whose heads Le Guin wants to get into. The story is told from the points of view of the three major characters: Davidson (chs. 1, 4, and 7), Selver (chs. 2, 6, and 8), and Lyubov (chs. 3 and 5).
NAFL: Nearly As Fast as Light ship.
p. 1: Note Davidson's attitude toward women: "prime human stock." Note also that he recognizes what's happened to "Dump Island" without feeling responsible and also without feeling a whole lot of sadness or regret.
p. 2: Davidson is on "New Tahiti"—a significant name for the Terrans to use—"to tame it." Of all the different divisions of people into "two kinds of people" one of the most significant is those who accept the version of Creation where humans "have dominion . . . over all the earth" (Genesis 1.26—P Code) and the version in which God creates a garden and puts Man (=Adam) into the garden "to dress it and to keep it" (Genesis 2.15—J Code). Le Guin is into Daoism and ecology and the J-Code version (although she's an atheist who talks of gods); many of her villains and negative characters are into dominance and the P-Code version. Le Guin seems to see—correctly—that the desire to "have dominion" over the land goes well with the macho desire to have dominion over people.
pp. 2-3: Note Davidson's attitude toward "creechies": "he could tame any of them" (my emphasis). As the story unfolds, does Davidson turn out to be ignorant of creechie psychology? Do Davidson and those like him make this world into "a paradise, a real Eden"—or do they work to destroy the Garden? Consider the possibility that trying to dominate the world only leads to destroying the world (a favorite idea among the Daoist philosophers and among contemporary ecologists). Throughout, note people's attitudes toward the forest. Davidson wants to cut it down.
p. 4: Right on cue, the ecologist Kees enters to give his views. Recall that we've just been told—from Davidson's point of view—that Kees had been right about "Dump Island" (2). In satire, subtlety is not a virtue.
p. 5: Note Davidson's contempt for "euros" like Kees. Davidson's contempt for anyone at all alien turns out to be an important part of his psychology.
Some place in through here try to figure out if Davidson's name might be significant. "Don" is a standard sort of masculine American name. It's the diminutive of "Donald," from the Scotch-Gaelic word for "world ruler"; it's identical in appearance to the Spanish knightly title, don. "Davidson" means "son of David", and David, of course, was the great Jewish warrior-king. If Le Guin wants us to see an allusion to David, "Davidson" becomes quite ironic: little David fights the giant Goliath; Davidson's big battles are with little Selver. King David was indeed into sex and violence, but he was also the great singer of psalms, a man with enough humility and self-confidence to risk his royal dignity dancing before the Ark of the Covenant. Davidson may emulate the worst of David and totally ignore the good things in the great King. (Note, though, that Le Guin might not approve of David at all. In The Lathe of Heaven her presentation of the Judeo-Christian-Rationalistic-Western tradition is quite negative.)
p. 6: Note the term "realistic"; it's quite important in WWF.
p. 7: Images of darkness and light are very important in Le Guin's works. She agrees with the Chinese idea of Yin-Yang: the balance of darkness and light, soft and hard, passive and active (inaction and action), female and male, etc. Davidson sees men on "New Tahiti" working "to end the darkness." (Note that Yin-Yang is the basis for everything we can perceive. It includes, by definition, all oppositions, so you can add all sorts of things to the list above: sleeping and waking, unconsciousness and consciousness, death and life.)
pp. 8 f: Hain-Davenant: In Le Guin's "future history" this really is the home planet for all the species and forms of the galactic genus Homo.
ETs: Extraterrestrials, non-Terrans.
Obknanawi Nabo: He doesn't have much of a character in WWF, but he does have a function. He shows us here that not all Terrans are downright evil. Try to figure out what other functions (if any) he serves.
slavery: Note that Davidson sees non-Terran humans as non-human. Throughout, note people's attitudes towards aliens.
p. 12: Note Davidson's genocidal plan for the "creechies." Note the obscene euphemism of "Voluntary Labor" for enslaving the native humans on "New Tahiti." (As George Orwell points out in "Politics and the English Language," such euphemisms are common when people commit atrocities and would rather not admit—even to themselves sometimes—that they are engaging in atrocities. Euphemisms are very common during wartime.)
p. 13: Note the colors and try to figure out what (if anything) they mean. Is there some system of color imagery in WWF? (Real question.)
p. 14: Davidson thinks well of technology and patriotism. What should we think of them in the world of WWF? (For Le Guin on patriotism, see The Left Hand of Darkness; for technology see Lathe of Heaven and—for technology's possibilities for good—The Dispossessed.)
p. 15: In the Yin-Yang symbol, the feminine Yin contains a speck of Yang, and the masculine Yang contains a speck of Yin. Carl Jung tells us that every human male contains a feminine portion (the Anima) and every human female contains a masculine portion (the Animus). It is probably very dangerous for a woman to deny her masculine portion or a man to deny his feminine portion. We would expect a man who denies his Anima to project it upon others, therefore, possibly, to see other men as effeminate. (Jung is undoubtedly correct in noting that each of us contains a Shadow: a primitive, "animal" portion similar to the Freudian Id. People who deny their Shadows almost inevitably project them upon others, seeing their own evil or amorality or "animality" in the people around them or in people alien enough for them to see as inferiors. I will note that I have "met" both my Shadow and Anima; I'll assert that denying them will do bad things to one's head.)
p. 17: Key word, given great stress: "Aliens." Note that the "creechies" are naked creatures, living in a forest/Garden. This might symbolize "Noble Savages" and/or some sort of unfallen innocents. (Such an interpretation would go along with, say, Denis Diderot's vision of Terran Tahitians in his Supplement to Bougenville's Voyage.) Le Guin, however, is far too learned in anthropology to believe in any sentimental vision of noble savages. She's fond, though, of getting us to sympathize with aliens, thereby getting us to see our world from a new point of view.
p. 18: To Davidson, "Creechies all looked alike . . ."—he's a racist, all right.
p. 19: Davidson sees the attack as "a crazy bad dream, a nightmare." This introduces the dream/reality motif. Note it well.
p. 20: Selver sings over Davidson. Cf. singing contests as a vent for aggressivity among the Eskimos (the Inuit and other tribes). Cf. also the observation of several ethologists (including Konrad Lorenz and possibly mentioned by Robert Ardrey) that some social species are actively inhibited from harming conspecifics if the defeated animal assumes an appeasement posture. (The most spectacular example of this is in wolves.)
p. 20: Note Davidson's interpretation of Selver's actions, and those of Selver's followers.
p. 21: "rat extermination": In the Nazi propaganda film, The Eternal Jew, the Diaspora is pictured as a bunch of rats infesting greater and greater portions of the world. Le Guin needn't have seen this particular bit of racist pornography; the idea is common in racist propaganda and has a certain perverse logic to it. If a man or woman wants to commit genocide and retain any self respect . . . . Well, those can't be people we're going to kill; that would be murder.
Chapter 2: Selver's point of view
p. 25: The standard translation of Dao—and the one Le Guin uses in City of Illusions and Lathe—is "Way"; that is probably not what the word means here, but be sure to circle any "way" you come across in Le Guin's works. Note here the description of the forest; there is a possibility that forest is a metaphor for mind in WWF (that's one of the functions for the forest in her "Vaster than Empires and More Slow" [see Ian Watson essay in SFS #7]).
p. 26: God: Note that the old man takes Selver for a god; he's correct. Figure out early on what "god" means in this novel. Note all through the novel the use of dreams by the native humans on "New Tahiti."
pp. 29-30: Summary of past action from Selver's point of view; compare and contrast Davidson's version. (Truth, for Le Guin, is many-faceted; we must see it from many angles. Finally, it is up to the reader to determine truth, through use of imagination. [See introd. to Avon, 1976 edn. of The Left Hand of Darkness—also, p. 1 of that novel by Le Guin.] Note, though, that Le Guin is not the sort whose mind is so open the wind blows through; there ain't nothin'subtle about the tone of this novel; Selver's version of things will usually be right; Davidson is generally wrong in his vision of things.)
pp, 31-34: Interview between Coro Mena and Selver:
Old Tongue: In A Wizard of Earthsea this is the True Speech; for humans, but not for dragons, it is very difficult to lie in True speech, since True Speech gives things their right names. (Note "true speech" as "language" of unconscious [and of dreams?] in Lacanian psychological theory.)
"Do men kill men, except in madness: Does any beast kill its own kind?" (33): Until now, the answers to these questions on "New Tahiti" would have been "No". On Terra, in our times, the answer to both is "Yes." We are prepared for the change in Selver's world by Coro Mena's correct statement, "The world is always new . . . however old its roots."
Selver on "yumens", p. 33: Note that Terrans are not inhibited from striking "a bowed neck"; cf. the submission posture of wolves, with neck outstretched—and bowing as an act of deference in many Terran cultures.
". . . the way we had to go was the right way and led us home": One of Le Guin's favorite sayings is "True Journey Is Return" (The Dispossessed). Note that "way" here can indeed refer to Dao (33).
"For you've done what you had to do, and it was not right" (33-34): A very powerful line for Le Guin. Ordinarily for her, human duty is to do what one must do, and cannot do any other way. This is a Daoist idea, stated explicitly in The Farthest Shore.
pp. 34-36: What kind of god is Selver?. Note the use of "must"—and the division of political labor between the native men and women on "New Tahiti."
p. 38: Note the technical stuff on dreaming and "the diurnal cycle." Real question for me: is the cycle for the Athsheans the same as ours?
pp. 42-43: Note the image of making the forest into a "dry beach." A Garden/Desert motif is fairly common, I think, among the Hebrew prophets and moralists of other peoples familiar with gardens and deserts. Note the question of whether a whole people can be insane; I'm not sure just how this question is answered—if it is—in WWF.
pp. 44-45: Selver on Lyubov and "yumens" (=Terrans): Lots of key words and ideas here: "roots," sanity," "must," "dream," "men" (often="humans" of both sexes in Le Guin), "gods within"—which we Terrans try perversely "to uproot and deny." There may be an explicitly Jungian (or Freudian) idea here. In any event it's good psychology: to deny major archetypes in the subconscious is an invitation to evil actions and mental instability—forms of madness, sometimes.
p. 46: There's an obvious re-birth motif in WWF. I'm not sure what it signifies and want your comments on it. (There's a good topic here for a paper.)
p. 47: Note that Selver has had no time for solitude and inaction (in the literal, not-necessarily-Daoist sense of "inaction"). Such involvement in continuous action would be a bad thing in classical Chinese Daoism. I will hypothesize that "little time for the . . . running of the great dreams" would be very bad in the theories of Hadfield and Dement—for sure it's a bad thing in the theories of Carl. G. Jung.
p. 48: The "Tree" coro Mena refers to here may be the World-Tree, Yggdrasil—the great ash-tree in Nordic mythology, the support of the universe. Note that one of the roots of Yggdrasil goes down to the land of Hel, the kingdom of the dead (Edith Hamilton, Mythology, ch. 23). Coro Mena suggests a much more positive career for Selver than Selver sees for himself.
(In The Farthest Shore one must go very far, even too far, to find victory.) Note the imagery of fertility and renewal—all those trees—in Coro Mena's vision.
Chapter 3: Lyubov's point of view. Note that Lyubov thinks of the Athsheans as Athsheans. Lyubov is an anthropoligist, and Le Guin usually approves of anthropologists; she is, however, well aware of Lyubov's weaknesses.
p. 52: A bit later we'll hear of the possibility that Athshean culture is stagnant. Here we see that the Athsheans have progressed a great deal with what we'd consider the Oriental skills of controlling one's own head— a process connected more with being than with doing (in the Western idea of "doing").
pp. 52-54: The Council at Terran Headquarters on Athshe.
p. 52: Note allusion of Andrew Marvell's poem, "To His Coy Mistress," the source of the title to Le Guin's "Vaster than Empires."
p. 53: Le Guin's Cetian tale is The Dispossessed; as of l988/89 she hasn't directly handled the Hainish (most of her "Hainish Cycle" takes place on worlds on the periphery of Hainish expansion and planting of human life). Note well that she talks here of the Cetians as one people; that is an important point for her later novel, The Dispossessed. (In The Dispossessed the Cetians are divided, occupying Anarres and Urras.)
p. 58: ". . . the dry, intoxicating odor of power": Le Guin is a communist anarchist in her politics and freely admits to being a Romantic in her writings. Still, she's no wildly optimistic romantic like William Wordsworth or the Moody Blues (British poet and singing group, respectively); she's quite aware of the human Will to Power.
p. 59: Note Davidson's "image of himself as the totally virile man"; note also the reference to a posture that actively inhibits aggression (an idea Konrad Lorenz develops in On Aggression).
pp. 60-61: The inhibiting position described here is identical to the position that inhabits aggression in wolves—more exactly, the position that inhibits the victorious wolf from killing, harming, or even touching a wolf that "admits" his defeat. The singing business is right out of the customs of most Eskimo groups. (For Le Guin and K. Lorenz, note that "The Athsheans are carnivores, they hunt animals": Lorenz argues against Raymond Dart and Robert Ardery that aggression is the same as predation—and argues that it's unfortunate that we do not act more like dangerous beast of prey, animals who usually develop inhibitions against killing conspecifics.)
pp. 61-62: I'm not sure to what extent the Athsheans are "a static uniform society"—they don't seem all that homogeneous from the description on p. 36, and they certainly are very advanced at being (as in dreaming and other introverted skills). Still, there may be a sense in which the Athsheans need to speed up change, and Selver's crusade against the Terrans may help them do that. (Ca. 1950 Eric Hoffer suggested that Western imperialism might bring the East out of its stagnation by goading Orientals into mass movements to expel the foreigners [in his well-known book, The True Believer]. Harlan Ellison relates war with progress in his 1968 story, "Asleep: With Still Hands.")
p. 62: On pp. 44-45 Selver had questioned the humanity of the Terrans; here, Col. Dongh and Lyubov begin a similar discussion—ending with Dongh's statement that the Athsheans aren't human beings in his "frame of reference" (64). Note the irony that Dongh is from Viet Nam. Note also the logic of the Cetian, Or, that Athsheans as carnivores kill animals and would have no moral qualms about killing (though, presumably, not eating) animals that talk and look sort of human, but who have "ignored the responses, the rights and obligations of non-violence." The logic, history, and anthropology are quite correct in this argument: insofar as we see aliens as radically Other—non-human—we will lose our inhibitations (innate and cultural) against killing them.
p. 64: Again, note the irony of Dongh's considering the "creechies" sub-or non-human; not so long ago his people were "gooks" to Americans. Note that Or's "Hainish stock" business is correct.
p. 65: The Ansible is for real, and so is the League.
p. 68: Lyubov thinks that "To the Hainish . . . civilisation [sic: British "s"] came naturally." Robert Ardrey argues in African Genesis that civilization does not come naturally to us: that it is a veneer over our animal nature. (In The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin calls this veneer metaphor very dangerous.)
p. 70: Throughout, note the diction of the military men; note the climax position for "genocide."
p. 72: Here we get the title for the book. An anthropologist like Lyubov should understand the significance of "The Athshean word for world is also the word for forest." Words often give us important clues to the (world-)views of people and peoples (another reason why it's significant that Dongh et al. often use English so badly).
pp. 72-74: Note the good points and the weaknesses of Lyubov. His head is on right, but he lacks confidence and courage. The use of "Creechie Problem" is loaded; cf. "Final Solution to the Jewish Problems" and more recent references to the "Black Problem," the Palestinian Problem," the "Catholic Problem" in Northern Ireland, etc.
Chapter 4: Davidson's point of view.
pp. 75-76: Note sanity question juxtaposed to the ansible business. Strange things may be happening to Davidson's mind in through here. It would be logical to say, We predicted the ICD, and the ETs used the prediction to pass off a phony device on us. It's also rational to think that the ETs might've put phony settings on the ansible so they could start giving orders to the Terrans on Athshe. Still, there's something strange about the way Davidson's mind jumps from theory to theory to arrive at the sort of conclusion that Lyubov says they'd come to immediately anyway: as a defense mechanism of compartmentalized minds (see pp. 66-67).
pp. 78-80: Note Davidson's ideas on treason, aliens, and sanity. Note his animal associations for humanoids. Mr. Or, the Cetian, has already worked out the logic for us: one exterminates rats. What is Davidson's idea of "normalcy"? What should we infer from the fact that of the "whole creechie work-force . . . . Not one had stayed"? Note well that Davidson is quite right about the military threat of the "Creechies" to Centralville; Selver will, indeed, use those "handy new recruits, who knew the layout of the town." Still, is Davidson's "final solution" better than what Dongh does in releasing the Athshean slaves? Note well Davidson's Messiah-complex. (Another reason why we might see "Davidson" as significant: the Messiah was or will be—depending on whom you ask—of the Davidic line of descent [see Luke 1.67-69, Matthew 1.1-17]).
p. 81: The Romantics' great contribution to moral, or ethical, theory was in pointing out that it takes imagination to feel with another person, to put yourself in another's place and feel compassion for him or her. Le Guin here shows the possibility of wicked imagination, in the older tradition: "And the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually" (Genesis 6.5). It is very important for Le Guin's vision of the source of evil that she juxtaposes Davidson's wicked imaginings with the macho theory that "The fact is, the only time a man is really and entirely a man is when he's just had a woman or just killed another man."
pp. 82-83: Note Davidson on the "damn forest," Major Muhamed's selfrighteousness (projection by Davidson?), IQ, treason, and making "this world safe for the Terran way of life." For the last cf. our going off to World War I (and other silly or unjust wars) to "Make the world safe for democracy," to "protect the American way of life," etc.
p. 84: Davidson is an exponent of conspiracy theory; this is significantly juxtaposed with what even Davidson recognizes as a sort of paranoia about "creechies" in Ecological Control Officer Atranda.
P. 85: War as a game, played by older boys with "war toys" was a popular idea in the late 1960s. The idea of "a real bond among men" engaging in hunting and/or warfare is argued by Ardrey in African Genesis and by Lionel Tiger in Men in Groups.
pp. 85-86: Davidson is less inhibited by a submission posture than some of his men are. Note here that Davidson sees homosexuality and killing "creechies" as "clean" (Le Guin isn't militantly straight, but in her early works she mildly disapproved of homosexuality among adults).
Chapter 5: Lyubov's point of view.
p. 87: The bond of friendship is a major theme with Le Guin. Lyubov's friendship with Selver is antithetical to the idea of "the Creechie Threat" (cf. "Communist Threat," "Red Menace," "Yellow Peril.").
pp. 88-89: Note Lyubov's getting used to the forest; that speaks well for his adaptability, his willingness to return to a true home for humans, and his ability to balance consciousness with unconsciousness. Note also the difference between Terran and Athshean metaphors for Man.
pp. 90-91: Lyubov is a good anthropoligist—he really gets to know the Athsheans. Note that he's a moral man, willing to give things their correct names: he talks of slaves, not "The Voluntary Autochthonous Labor Corps" (63).
pp. 92-93: The problem of scientific objectivity is raised here. Can any scientist "always leave his own shadow out of the picture he draws"? Can an anthropologist be a friend and a detached observer of the people he studies? Is it right to merely observe other people, as objects? In The Left Hand of Darkness Le Guin specifically alludes to Martin Buber's I and Thou, and in most of her works she sees as central to the integration of alien peoples a personal bond between a pair of aliens (an I-Thou relationship, as opposed to an I-It relationship). The decline of an effective pair bond between Lyubov and Selver foreshadows the lack of integration at the end of WWF.
Note here the possiblilty that Le Guin is trying to answer the question of how humans can go from individual aggression to "group enmity." In African Genesis Robert Ardrey talks about the "amity-enmity complex" (amity for the in-group, enmity for the Others); in On Aggression Konrad Lorenz talks about "militant enthusiasm" taking over a social group. Among nonhuman primates, one of the things needed for effective group aggression is a strongly aggressive "alpha ape"; among humans, a strong human leader is needed. Lyubov's inability here to figure out what "element was missing" may stem from his current ignorance about the function of gods among the Athsheans.
p. 94: Note the utter centrality of friendship—friendship "too deep to be touched by moral doubt." Note also Lyubov as a kind of savior, completing a trinity of "saviors": Davidson (in his own mind), Lyubov (the one who saved Selver's life), and Selver (the god who will save his people at such great cost to himself, the Terrans, and the Athsheans). Note very well the "definition" of "racial hatred" as to treat someone "not as 'you' but as 'one of them'." The antidote to such hatred might be touch.
p. 95: Venus Genetrix: The Great Mother in her kindly, fertile form. Radically: literally means, "from the root" (Latin radix="root").
p. 96: Selver's warning to Lyubov foreshadows the attack on Centralville. It's significant that Lyubov really doesn't understand the warning—he also fails to mention it in his report to Dongh et al.
pp. 97-98: Le Guin has no illusions about easy friendship among alien peoples; even differences in relative size can make friendship difficult. Note again the social-political set-up among the Athsheans.
p. 99: Note very well "the fine balance of reason and dream" (my emphasis). Le Guin is committed to the Daoist/ecological idea of balance.
pp. 99-100: Lyubov correctly understands the psychology of slavery, and how people in servile roles learn "how to be invisible." Note well the relationship between Selver and Lyubov as a possiblity for "bridging the gap between two languages, two cultures, two species of the genus Man." I'm not sure what two languages, two cultures, two species of the genus Man." I'm not sure what to make of "the Athshean significance of the word 'dream,' which was also the word for 'root'"—the "key to the kingdom of the forest people." I know, however, that dreams are very important for Le Guin in general (Lathe of Heaven, Farthest Shore) and for WWF in particular; roots are also very important in her thinking (see The Earthsea Trilogy). Try to figure out the significance of the lines I quote here. (The "key to the kingdom" alludes to Jesus' lines to Peter beginning with "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I shall establish my Church" and including giving to Peter "the keys to kingdom of heaven.")
pp. 102-103: Lorenz argues—and Hoffer quotes Hitler to the effect-that whatever instinctive "blood-thirst" people might have is soon slaked, usually long before we've killed anyone or even drawn much blood. (As Lorenz says, we rarely want to kill an opponent; we want him to grovel before us, admitting our superiority.) Note Le Guin's comments on suicide and murder, and see if her comments on repetitive murder seem to refer to Macbeth. (Some of Le Guin's ideas on macho are similar to those of Lady Macbeth; I can't justify the feeling, but I think Le Guin likes Macbeth and alludes to it in subtle ways. Then again, I may just be most familiar with macho theory from my own study of Macbeth.)
p. 104: "Creechie-lover": Cf. "Nigger-lover." Note that Lyubov "could not set a possible, general good above Selver's imperative need. You can't save a people by selling your friend." In the debate on ends and means, Le Guin sides with the "soft-hearted" school, or with the communist anarchists against the Marxists: i.e., "Ill means, ill end" (A Wizard of Earthsea, ch. 7). Machiavelli has the most famous statement of the other theory: ". . . in the actions of men, and especially of princes, the end justifies the means" (The Prince, ch. 18, near the end of the chapter). Note also the words attributed to the High Priest Caiaphas in deciding to execute Jesus of Nazareth: "It is better that one man should die that the people may be saved." Le Guin's view is that one man's life is always important and ought not be sacrificed to a vague general good (see Roconnan's World and Left Hand of Darkness).
p. 105: Lyubov's claiming, "I don't know what 'human nature' is" goes along with his saving Selver—philosophical realists (who we'd call idealists") believe in abstractions like "human nature"; nominalists tend to see the real reality of things in individuals. Note very well that the ecologist Gosse puts scientific detachment into a rat metaphor.
pp. 105-107: Figure out what "Selver is a god" means.
p. 107: Note very well Lyubov's starting to become a moral agent: "'What are they doing?' abruptly becomes, 'What are we doing?' and then, 'What must I do?'" Again, must is important.
p. 108: Machina ex machina: pun on Deus ex machina: the "god from the machine" that comes in to resolve the insoluble problem in a play. Note Lyubov on diversity and life; this delight in diversity is important to Le Guin and standard in sophisticated and/or recent science fiction.
p. 109: Le Guin's Daoist proclivities lie, in her early works in productive, uneasy tension with Existentialism; she disagrees with Jean Paul Sartre on a lot of things but not on the basic idea of humans as choosing animals. So it's good that Lyubov makes a choice here; it's not good that it's an unconscious choice.
p. 110: Try to determine precisely what Lyubov's treason is. Le Guin is probably serious about "traitor" here (in a stressed position)—but the political implications of the word may be the least important.
Chapter 6: Selver's point of view.
p. 113: Note the repetition of "ex-slave/ex-slaves."
Davidson was right about the military importance of the "creechies" who had served the Terrans and learned about the colonial cities.
In The Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy Robert Ornstein argues that Macbeth, "Like Raskolnikov . . . kills for self, for 'peace'—to end the restless torment of his imagination . . . . Macbeth kills because his wife makes him admit that he wishes to kill; and because he condemns himself before he kills Duncan, the act of murder is fraught with a hatred of self which eventually and inevitably becomes a hatred of all of life" (Madison & Milwaukee: U of W Press, 1965, p. 231). Selver, of course, is no Macbeth: but he, too, shares "the evil dream," and the threat to him is becoming like Macbeth: no longer the Hero-god, but a villian-hero in the bloody Jacobean fashion.
pp. 114-115: Try to figure out how significant might be the "must" at the top of p. 114. Note "the home-call that ends the hunt." This last sentence could be an allusion to the Dart-Ardrey theory that brings together hunting and aggression. (This idea isn't entirely new. Robert Ornstein discusses at some length the hunting imagery in Shakespeare's war play, Henry V [A kingdom for a Stage, ch. 8].)
p. 116: The need for action has denied to Selver solitude and dreaming silence; this is not good for his head. On p. 108 Lyubov had predicted that only fear was likely to disturb the healthy situation of the Athsheans' and Terrans' leaving each other alone. We see here that Lyubov was mostly correct. What was missing from Lyubov's theory was knowledge that Davidson had attacked the Athsheans. Perhaps Lyubov was nearly completely correct-if we see fear as Davidson's primary motivation. (That would be a real possiblity. Davidson might be driven by his fear of aliens, his fear of the forest, his fear of being unmanly.)
pp. 117-118: In Selver's "dream" many important motifs occur.
prisoner: A powerful word for Le Guin (see Dispossessed).
"You must go back . . . to your own . . . to your roots": Again note the idea in Earthsea and in The Dispossessed that "True journey is return." The most basic sort of return is to one's roots, and to the roots of being.
The narrator describes Lyubov as Selver's "friend, the gentle one, who had saved his [Selver's] life and betrayed his dream." The second "his" is ambiguous. Has Lyubov betrayed Lyubov's dream, Selver's dream, or both their dreams? How has he betrayed the dream? (Real questions.)
p. 119: Note reference to "the evil dream that must be understood lest it be repeated";—see p. 103, top and recall what I presented as the Macbeth-threat. Note here the necessity for mobilization before you can have a war; Le Guin makes much of this idea in The Left Hand of Darkness.
pp. 123-125: Selver's conference with Gosse.
Don't make too much of Gosse's objection that the Athshean can't negotiate much since they have "no government, no central authority." Le Guin's an anarchist; she believes that a promise is a promise, binding without the sanctions of government and central authority. Besides, Selver is a god; that's all the authority he needs. Obviously.
Truth: Both absolute and relative (124). We know that Davidson has made his raid and that Selver is correct here.
murder/guilt: This looks like a Sartrian idea, straight out of Jean-Paul Sartre's The Files. If you do what you must do, you may commit murder; you are responsible for the crime—but don't get hung up with guilt (124). (Elsewhere, Le Guin, I think, disagrees strongly with much of what Sartre has to say in The Flies about philosophically macho man standing outside Nature and without gods [and maybe symbolically, certainly literally in the play, murdering his mother].)
realist: Here the word is used in its political sense as opposed to the philosophical sense of realist vs. nominalist ("idealist" vs. someone-not-into-abstractions). Note well Selver's definition of "realist" and his idea that Terrans are insane (125).
p. 126: Note Selver's questioning his own sanity and Tubab's telling him that, indeed, Selver's head is not in good shape. It is reassuring for us, the audience, however, that Selver questions his sanity: dangerous nuts are usually quite certain that they're the only sane ones.
p. 127: "Weave" and "shape" are key words with Le Guin. She may see art as intrinsic to living as a human being—and artists are weavers and shapers of words, forms, motion, sounds. (Le Guin is a teller of tales: Old English scop, related to scyppan: "create," "shape," "make.") It is significant that Selver's reference to shaping dreams is followed by the wise advice that Selver needs to sing. (In the Earthsea trilogy, Le Guin demonstrates her fascination with old songs that tell the history of the people. She has commented somewhere that as a girl she was fascinated by the old tales of the Nordic scops; in the Old English tradition, at least, scops accompanied their stories with the harp.)
p. 128: Note that the Athsheans are "a little uneasy under the bare open sky," even as most Terrans are uncomfortable in the forest. Perhaps the Athsheans need to move more into consciousness, even as Terrans need to recognize more the validity of the unconscious. Note also that " . . . Selver reached out to touch him [lyubov], to console him." Touch is central to the philosophy of Odo (Dispossessed and "The Day Before the Revolution"). Lyubov, however, is now beyond Selver's literal touch.
p. 129: "A singing note came into Selver's voice . . ."—he's ready to compete with Col. Dongh. The Athsheans do know competition and aggressivity, but they've directed them into harmless competitions and "fights." Adult Athsheans haven't eliminated human passion but have learned how to control it, to make something beautiful out of it.
pp. 129-131: Selver and Col. Dongh.
Note Dongh's diction. Note also Selver's "deteriorated mental state."
pp. 132-135: Athshean-Terran Debate.
The Viet Nam analogy is made explicit here (133). Note Dongh as the Terran's "Old Man": this is the technical term for an archetype. The Old Man is supposed to be a source of wise advice. Dongh isn't quite the "turkey" or "ding dong" that his nicknames suggest; still he isn't up to the wisdom suggested by the archetype.
pp. 136-137: Note Selver as translator, the link between two peoples as well as the god who bridges dream-time and world-time. Note Selver's insistence that the Terrans are human. (Spiders are ambiguous animals for Le Guin. They're weavers, of course, but they weave out of their own "guts." Hence they can symbolize art, but also a kind of self-sufficiency that Le Guin—in a tradition as old as Erasmus and Shakespeare—strongly rejects.) Note that the god Selver needs help to walk and comes with empty hands. (The empty hands business occurs also in A Wizard of Earthsea and in Shevek's story in The Dispossessed. Shevek is explicitly presented as a link between two worlds.)
Chapter 7: Davidson's point of view.
p. 139: Davidson is also into history and being a savior.
p. 140: "A traitor to his race" is a standard locution among racists.
Thinking "about the unthinkable" is an allusion to Herman Kahn: a man who thought about how we should organize things after World War III.
p. 141: Note Davidson's idea of reality. Note that he also did what he "had had" to do in eliminating (murdering) Muhamed. Davidson, however, uses a euphemism where Selver can think in terms of murder.
p. 142: Again, Le Guin is a great believer in friendship and trust; it is highly significant that Davidson has gone a little paranoid. His lines on "Blood tells, after all" remind us (yet again) of his racism. Note the irony of his being a "euraf" from Ohio. That's progress! He's proud of his European-African ancestry; he's simply shifted the objects of his hatreds. (Ardrey doesn't deal with the idea, but the amity-enmity theory suggests that love for the in-group and hatred for the Others is intrinsic [innate, genetically determined]; culture, however, determines just who belongs to the in-group and who are the Others.)
p. 145: "massive retaliation" was the earliest formulation (under Dwight D. Eisenhower, John Foster Dulles, and maybe Allen W. Dulles) of what we now call "balance of terror" or "Mutual Assured Destruction" (MAD). It is 1/2 of the idea that aggression by America's enemies would be met with massive nuclear retaliation by us—hence, the more recent formulations).
pp. 145-147: Note again Davidson's idea of realism. (The satire here is on Henry Kissinger and his Machiavellian predecessors, all of whom were fond of accusing the "peace freaks" of being idealistic—hence, by their definitions, unrealistic. Indeed, some of the "Machiavellians" went so far as to suggest that morality in foreign policy was "unrealistic." This idea is underscored by "There were actually very few men who could face reality when the going got tough." This sports cliché was applied [with some justice] to those who wanted to pull out of Indochina when American losses got high.)
Note the macho justification for using terror tactics: the crucial thing is to show "who was boss." In The Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy, Robert Ornstein says that Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida makes clear that the Greeks' motivation in the Trojan War was to impose their will on Troy—and the Trojans risk the destruction of their civilization by refusing to accede to the moral imperative of returning Helen because this would give the appearance of knuckling under to the Greeks (Ornstein, p. 243). I am not competent to comment on the motivation of the Vietnamese in resisting the U.S. for so long; I have argued, though, that Troilus is an excellent commentary on U.S. involvement in Indochina after it became obvious that we weren't even serving our self-interest there.
p. 148: "Can't make an omelet without beating eggs": A slight variation on a cliché "justifying" evil means to attain a worthy end. Note that this cliché is a kind of euphemism. The moral issue is clarified if one said something like, "You can't make/repress a revolution without killing people."
p. 150: Le Guin doesn't approve of most recreational drugs, although she's not a fanatic on the subject—and she personally likes beer. (Esp. in her early works she tended to be a political radical and a cultural conservative.) On this page note the standard cliché on eggs and omelets.
p. 153: Note that Aabi wishes to avoid the touch of Davidson's gun. (Holding a gun to someone's head definitely puts you into an I-It relationship with him. Contrast the I-Thou touch in earlier parts of WWF.)
p. 154: Note "rats," Davidson's paranoia, and Davidson's visions of his own strength. Davidson is sort of fascistic here.
p. 157: Aabi/Judas=Davidson/Christ—says Davidson.
p. 158: Davidson assumes the Athsheans submission posture, and still manages to see himself as a god.
pp. 159-162: Selver/Davidson.
Note both of them as gods, with Davidson having given Selver the "gift" of murder. Selver wishes to give the gift of "not killing."
Note very well the repeated idea of choice.
Chapter 8: Selver's point of view.
p. 163: Lyubov has become a shadow for Selver. What does this word mean here? (In A Wizard of Earthsea the Shadow is of the Jungian variety.)
pp. 166-end: Note that Selver is no longer a god. Was his godhood a good thing? Is his return to regular humanity a good thing? Do we get a happy ending in WWF? As happy an ending as is possible?
From Richard D. Erlich, Coyote's Song: The Teaching Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin.
From 1969 through 1985, Ursula K. Le Guin published several important works that deal significantly with large-scale violence: "Winter's King" (1969), The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), The Word for World Is Forest (1972), The Eye of the Heron (1978), Stone Telling's story in Always Coming Home (1985), and, to a lesser extent, The Dispossessed (1974). For one of the bases of violence, "Vaster than Empires and More Slow" (1971) is useful, as is "Nine Lives" (1969). And "The New Atlantis" (1975) and Tehanu (1990) are important for smaller-scale violence and for Le Guin's rethinking the question in more feminist terms. In this chapter, I wish to look at Le Guin's extended investigation of the roots of war and lesser forms of highly organized mass murder—dystopian topics; and, true to Le Guin's frequent use of comparison and contrast, I'll examine also Le Guin on the opposite of dystopia ("bad place"), eutopia (a "good place").
Violence was a pressing topic in the United States of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Putting the matter crudely, human beings in general and Americans in particular were running out of excuses. Most of us, most of the time are peaceful enough, but a fair number of Americans every generation or so marched off to kill large numbers of other human beings, ordinarily to the applause of the fellow citizens of the killers. Why? * * *
THE WORD FOR WORLD IS FOREST (1972)
Le Guin returned to questions of violence and war, treason and patriotism in The Word for World Is Forest. The plot of The Word for World begins near the end of the story, with a massacre of Terran colonists at a location they call Smith Camp on a planet they call New Tahiti. In chronological order, the story goes like this.
Not very long from now, our Earth is in the midst of an ecological disaster, and we Terran humans are saved by the humans from Hain-Davenant, who, among other things, give us Nearly As Fast As Light (NAFAL) ships to allow colonizing other worlds. Some twenty-seven lightyears from Earth is World 42, New Tahiti. The Terrans plant a colony, almost all males, under military organization and authority, to prepare the world for permanent settlers. The planet is mostly water, and the land is heavily forested. Preparation of the land for farmers means clearing the forests—at great profit since wood is more prized on Earth than gold (7; ch. 1). Aiding the Terrans is "The Voluntary Autochthonous Labor Corps" (63; ch. 3)—enslaved men and women from the native species of humans: literally little green men (and women), who call their world Athshe, "Forest."
One of the Terran officers, Captain Don Davidson, rapes Thele, an Athshean woman, a rape from which she dies. "[A]cting without argument or speech," or only a bit of speech, Selver Thele, her husband, attacks Davidson and attempts to kill him: an act we may see, in Hannah Arendt's words, as "the only way to set the scales of justice right again" (On Violence 64 § 2). Davidson is a big "euraf" (WWF 79; ch. 4) from Cleveland and a professional soldier; he is hurt and scared by Selver's attack but defeats him in the fight and prepares to kill him. He is stopped by Raj Lyubov, an anthropologist who had worked with Selver, with Selver as a native informant. Selver leaves for the North Isle and lives on the coast of Kelme Deva where he sees the Terrans destroy the city of Penle, enslave some hundred of its inhabitants, and cut open the world (30; ch. 2). Commanding the Terrans at Kelme Deva—Smith Camp—is Captain Davidson. Selver organizes the Athsheans, and "after long talking, and long dreaming, and the making of a plan, we went in daylight, and killed the yumens of Kelme Deva with arrows and hunting-lances, and burned their city and their engines," killing some two hundred of the Terrans. Davidson—gone to colonial headquarters at Centralville, mostly to get laid by one of the newly arrived women—returns to find his camp destroyed. Selver attacks Davidson and is wounded by Davidson, but brings down the Terran and sings over him (19-20,ch. 1; 30-32, ch. 2).
There is an investigation at which we learn Athsheans are supposed to be "intraspecific nonaggressive" and have no real history of violence. The Terrans learn from visiting Cetian and Hainish officials that there is now a League of worlds, communicating by ansible, an instantaneous communication device. The brutal ways of Terran exploitation of Athshe are over.
Davidson is sent off to a distant outpost where he organizes a quiet atrocity against the local Athsheans. Lyubov continues his work, eventually encountering Selver at the Athshean town of Tuntar. Selver tells Lyubov to leave Centralville two days hence (96), and Lyubov forgets that advice and semiconsciously omits mentioning Selver in his report on his trip to Tuntar (109-10; ch. 5). Selver leads the Athsheans against Centralville, killing all the women—thus "sterilizing" the Terrans—and capturing most of the men. Lyubov is killed in the battle and Selver sees the body and/or the dying Lyubov (117-18; ch. 6).
Davidson kills his local commanding officer and refuses to stop fighting the Athsheans. Finally his position is over-run, and his men are killed. Selver and his comrades capture Davidson and handle him as they would an Athshean psychotic: they isolate him on an uninhabited island. Plot and story end with the return of a Terran ship and League representatives to pick up the remaining Terrans; the ship's commander and a League representative tell Selver that, in large measure because of Lyubov's work, Athshe "has been placed under the League Ban" and will no longer be subject to Terran colonizing or any other alien interference (165-67; ch. 8). Ironically, the least conventionally heroic of the trio of potential heroes in this book, the intellectual Dr. Lyubov, turns out to be highly effective; Lyubov's "inactive action" of anthropological scholarship is crucial for the long-term survival of the Athsheans.
The Word for World Is Forest might be seen as Planet of Exile (1966) shifted out of Romance and into the modes of Tragedy and Satire. Both stories use third-person, limited narration from the points of view of three main characters. In Planet, old Wold does what old people are supposed to do in Romances: he shuffles off on "his last foray," leading the women and children to a well-protected fort (87; ch. 10)—and then shuffles off this mortal coil (123-24; ch. 14), leaving the stage clear for the (relatively) young couple of Rolery and Jakob Agat to consummate their marriage in fertility, and for a new and better world to coalesce around them: a world in which the native humans and the Terrans will integrate and prosper. Jakob Agat looks around in joy at the end of the story and sees "his fort, his city, his world; these were his people. He was no exile here"; and he says to "the alien, the stranger, his wife" (122) the last words of Planet of Exile, "come, let's go home" (124).
The Word for World emphatically does not end in joy, integration, and coming home.
Selver in The Word for World corresponds to Rolery in Planet of Exile: the point of view nonTerran, native human; Davidson corresponds to Agat: a leader among the Terran colonists; and—much less exactly—Lyubov corresponds to Wold: the third member of a triangle. In Planet, we have a love triangle with the key apex occupied by Rolery, daughter to Wold and later wife to Agat, with Wold coming to love both his Summer-born daughter and son-in-law. In The Word for World, we get two love-hate triangles, with Selver emphasized. The first triangle is Selver-Thele-Davidson. Again, Davidson rapes and (indirectly) murders Thele, for which Selver tries to kill him. Lyubov saves Selver, earning Davidson's enmity. When the action of the plot begins, then, Selver and Davidson hate one another; Lyubov and Selver have come to love one another; Lyubov intensely dislikes Davidson, and Davidson despises Lyubov. To make The Word for World into a kind of Romantic Comedy would be easy enough: the "marriage" of the Athshean Selver and the Terran Lyubov would be central to a plot moving toward the conversion or defeat and expulsion of Davidson and reconciliation and friendship between the two peoples. We get a hint of this possibility in a savior motif in the central triangle. Lyubov saves Selver; Selver tries to save Lyubov by warning him of the attack on Central, and Selver does save his people; and Davidson consistently sees himself as a Messiah for the Terrans on Athshe. Which fits his name: Don, "world ruler," plus Davidson, "son of David"—suggesting a descendent of King David, as a Messiah should be (see Matthew 1.1-17).
The plot moves away from integration and toward alienation and isolation: Lyubov is killed in the attack on Central; Davidson ends up isolated on an island; and the Athsheans will be isolated by the League for generations. And that is as happy an ending as we are going to get.
In her introduction to The Word for World Is Forest, Le Guin tells how she wrote the story under the title of The Little Green Men in 1968, while in England, "a guest and a foreigner" with "no outlet" for her anger at the war in Vietnam (LoN :151). I have suggested that Le Guin's inability to demonstrate directly her anger with her government and people led her take action in the old-fashioned Prophetic way of writing a mâshâl (plural: mâshâlim): "a likeness; . . . 'taunt,' or 'satire.' Whatever the translation, the 'likeness' in question is either the aptly stated analogue of a previously experienced reality, or it is the quasi-magical, verbal prefiguring of reality in the shape, for good and for ill, in which the utterer would like to encounter it" (Rabinowitz 320). The Word for World Is Forest is, in part, a mâshâl of the war in Indochina in the late 1960s. It is also the aptly stated analog of a long series of encounters between people sophisticated in the technology and political organization of violence (civilized people) and people with far fewer means for killing other people ("primitives"). In the physical and psychological territory of "Frontierland," we meet the Others and "the normal defensive-aggressive reaction between strangers meeting" can get very bloody (Erlich, ". . . Le Guin and . . . Clarke" 111). Le Guin's Narrator places an early scene in the book in a pretty clearing that "might have been Idaho in 1950 . . . . Or Kentucky in 1830. Or Gaul in 50 B.C." (see Siciliano 76). Or, I will add, the upper waters of Mill Creek in California, a few weeks after 15 August 1865, where White men under the command of R. A. Anderson ambushed one of the few remaining groups of Yahi Indians. The limited action in the scene in the clearing in Word for World includes a distant bird saying, "Te-whet" (9; ch. 1). Kentucky and Gaul are among the many places where Terran tribal peoples were slaughtered by the civilized, and the immediate response to thoughts of Kentucky and Gaul is what Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., has assured us is the one decorous comment on massacres:
. . . there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds.
And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like "Poo-tee-weet?" (Slaughterhouse-Five 19; ch. 1 [see also 19, 23, 215]).
The best Le Guin can see for Indochina is, in a geopolitical sense, about what happened: that the United States would lose the war, and we would have to go home.
Where Le Guin proved optimistic was in the suggested body counts: Le Guin's imaginary war was far less bloody than the Terran reality (over 58,000 Americans killed, over two million Vietnamese and others). Where Le Guin was highly optimistic was in her utopian vision of the Athsheans, and in her Anarchistic faith that such a utopian culture could defeat a high-tech army. The Vietnamese did, indeed, defeat the U.S. military, but, as Le Guin well knew, they had a good deal of experience fighting off invaders. The Terran commanding officer in Word for World, Col. Dongh, a Vietnamese, mentions his people's spending "about thirty years fighting off major super-powers one after the other in the twentieth century" (133; ch. 6): the Japanese, the French, and then the USA, 1940s on.
Athshe is like an Earthsea where the Immanent Grove has spread out over the Archipelago to create a huge Yin-Yang symbol: "Ocean: forest. That was your choice on New Tahiti. Water and sunlight, or darkness and leaves" (7; ch. 1). And the people there are peaceful; like the Gethenians, they've never had a war. Unlike the Gethenians, they additionally don't have "assassinations, feuds, forays"; Athshean murders are committed only by extraordinarily rare psychopaths; even fights are rare and usually limited to adolescents ("Gender . . . Redux" 10; WWF 58, ch. 3). Most important, the Athsheans are Hainish Normal in their sexual anatomy and physiology: our Terran standard-issue, sexually dimorphic human beings. A bit more than the Gethenians, the Athsheans are sane and relevant.
With the Terran conquest, we see on Athshe a pattern of opposition Le Guin began as early as A Wizard of Earthsea" (1968) and continued into Always Coming Home (1985). The Athsheans are technologically primitive and organizationally simple, anarchistic, "communal . . . and somewhat introverted." Their populations are stable in size and stay put. "They have no nomadic peoples, and no societies that live by expansion and aggression . . . . Nor have they formed large, hierarchically governed nation-states" that can be mobilized for war. "Competition is ritualized, and, when ritual breaks down, the resulting violence does not become mass violence, remaining limited, personal." The Terrans are from a "hierarchically governed" world-state and are under military law and discipline. And the Terrans are heavily armed and dangerous.
What the Terran officials have done is familiar enough and takes little interpretation: they have sent men (mostly) organized militarily and have given them rules, regulations, and orders. They are like US Army units on the Western frontier during the Indian Wars, the period my US military history book called the "nadir" of US Army history. One cause for some US war crimes in the Indian Wars was units operating independently under ambitious commanders, with George Armstrong Custer as the best-known example. But the telegraph came through fairly early on in the American West, and Lyndon Johnson "micromanaged" US warfare in Vietnam; even so Le Guin introduces the ansible—and Le Guin supplies a League government that is competent (as LBJ was), but also moral, relatively peace-loving, and well-intentioned. In the mâshâl of Vietnam, the League can be read as a wish for something like the United Nations to attempt to undo US damage in Indochina. In political terms, the point may be that a strictly political analysis is insufficient: even if the Terran military were absorbed into a good system—with sane, ethical people giving orders from Earth—the frontier and/or military culture would undermine the new system. More concretely, a charismatic traitor like Don Davidson could get enough support to cause a lot of trouble; and, of course, in Word for World he does. Whether 1849ers going to California for gold or future loggers going to New Tahiti for lumber, men who flee civilization and strike out for riches are not going to let native peoples stand in their way; as they think necessary, the invaders will destroy inconvenient natives through "disease, malnutrition, forced removal, massacre, aggravated rape . . ." (Buckley 438). Military organization and armaments mean that when an intelligent psychopath like Don Davidson takes over a group, he has a group organized and equipped for carnage (84; ch. 4). And, finally, militarism, macho, and racism ("speciesism" here) can be mutually reinforcing. Davidson, anyway, believes that "The fact is, the only time a man is really and entirely a man is when he's just had a woman or just killed another man" (81; ch. 4). A macho mind, tightly compartmentalized, can feel both manly and guiltless raping human females not seen as really women and killing human males not seen as really men. In Davidson's head, such a mind can allow him to disobey orders and thereby endanger the Terran colony, assassinate his commanding officer, lead armed men to massacre a village—generally engage in murder and treason and atrocities—and still feel himself the only true patriot, the only truly sane, morally, and manly man.
And here I will stop discussing Don Davidson and the Terrans, whom Le Guin anatomizes in great detail. That's the dystopian satire in Word for World. The violated utopia of the Athsheans is equally interesting.
How do we get decent behavior out of human beings, a genus not notably "primitive, harmless, and peace-loving" (63; ch. 3)? One answer, as we've seen in The Left Hand of Darkness, is to be sure that they organize themselves anarchistically. In Left Hand, however, war was prevented (as things worked out) by the presence of outsiders: Ai and the Ekumen. War on Gethen would have been between two Gethenian peoples with sufficient sense of identity to have "two polarities we" and the Gethenians "perceive through our cultural conditioning" as patriot and traitor ("Gender . . . Redux" 12), and two polarities that the Gethenians through their cultural conditioning—and we through reading Le Guin's novel—perceive as Karhide and Orgoreyn. Genly Ai knows "the love of one's homeland" but beyond that he's not sure, from his own experience, what patriotism is. Estraven, soon to be exiled for treason explains it to him: "No, I don't mean love, when I say patriotism. I mean fear. The fear of the other. And its expressions are political not poetical: hate, rivalry, aggression" (19; ch. 1). In the United States ca. 1969, Estraven's comments were highly relevant: lack of patriotism was a standard charge against the Peace Movement, the people trying to end US military adventures in Indochina; since antiwar actions were necessarily "giving aid and comfort to the enemy" in time of war—however undeclared by Congress—movement people were also traitors. The Left Hand of Darkness as a whole goes even further than just problematicizing words like "patriotism" and "treason"; as a whole, Left Hand emphatically puts personal loyalties and love of home over attachments to any abstraction (true treason is to betray a friend), but Le Guin gives us technologically sophisticated people on Gethen, living in a complex civilization: there is on Gethen the possibility for conflict between personal loyalty or loyalty to home and the loyalty patriotism requires to the State.
The Athsheans have not had to deal with conflicts in loyalty between concrete people and abstracts commonwealths because they have never had abstract states to be loyal to; they are not civilized people: i.e., they don't have cultures based on cities in the ways ancient Terrans developed civilization from city life. What Athsheans call cities we'd call villages or towns, and the Gethenians might call Hearths; and no conqueror or other consolidator has come along to bind the villages into a confederation, set up his royal seat in a city, and continue expanding until he or a successor ran into another royal thug with similar ideas. So: the immediate reason the Athsheans don't have big wars is that they can't; their social groups are too small. But those groups are small because they have no history of consolidation, and one reason they have no consolidation is they have no history of feuds and forays that could be organized into rational warfare for the purpose of large-scale theft. Apparently, it has never occurred to Athsheans to organize into groups to murder, maim, wound, and (thereby) terrorize others in order to steal the property or labor of those others. Put in such terms, this hardly appears a mystery, but it is a mystery. In Le Guin's Hainish universe, warfare has been fairly common; and the Hainish universe is a legitimate extrapolation from and fabulation upon human history on our Earth—where, I believe, warfare began as highly organized theft with violence (see discussion of ACH). Why are there no feuds and forays on Athshe? Why are even fist fights uncommon? Why are they really nonviolent, really peaceful? Putting the matter formally: As human beings the Athsheans have as a trait aggressivity; to a greater or lesser degree they all are capable of getting very, very angry, so angry they desire to lash out. Further, "The Athsheans are carnivorous, they hunt animals" and can hunt in groups; and they have their rare psychotics and the concepts of rape and murder (61; ch. 3)—and weapons. Why then is there so little aggression?
One reason is that politics among the Athsheans is controlled by old women, the Head Women of the villages: ". . . old women are different from everybody else, they say what they think" (98; ch. 5). In Earthsea terms, politics on Athshe are conducted in a True Speech. A second reason is that fights will not move into deadly violence because the Athsheans have "aggression-halting gestures and positions" (WWF 60) like those of Terran wolves and jackdaws (Lorenz 123-28). And it is highly unlikely a conflict would ever get to physical combat. Among men, anyway, they have a custom like Terran Inuit and use ritualized "singing to replace physical combat." Any Athshean man can, when angry, sublimate aggressivity into art and sing a song against his opponent—a very literal mâshâl, in the sense of "taunt," "satire"—the quality of the song depending upon the man's talent. Like the appeasement gestures, the singing contests also "might have a physiological foundation . . . ." However deep their roots (and there has to be a biological basis somewhere), Athshean aggression-halting and aggression-ritualizing customs make "an effective war-barrier," especially since there is relatively little positive motivation for warfare (60-61; ch. 3). The Athsheans have little wealth, so there is little to steal. The Athsheans also have no tradition of hating outsiders and are slow to learn group enmity. They are literally in touch with one another, with an entire grammar and vocabulary of "touch-exchanges" filling that vast gap in Terran culture (US culture) "between the formal handshake and the sexual caress" (94-95; ch. 5). Possibly most important, the Athsheans are incredibly well integrated into their world. They can go with the unconscious, with the Dao. To a remarkable degree, they are sane. Athsheans can take their dreams and, according to their abilities, shape, analyze, react to, and reshape them. As a folk art they can dream while awake and "balance . . . sanity not on the razor's edge of reason but on the double support, the fine balance of reason and dream" (99; ch. 5).
Bright water and dark forest balance on Athshe. Even so, intellect—that clear light of reason—balances the maze-like, forest-like unconscious among Athsheans (25-26; ch. 2). "They're a static, stable, uniform society" from Lyubov's somewhat limited point of view, "Perfectly integrated and wholly unprogressive. You might say that like the forest they live in, they've attained a climax state"—but they can adapt and apparently have adapted rather spectacularly to the Terran colony with their massacring the Terrans at Smith Camp (61-62; ch. 3). Lyubov notes that the Athsheans have "recognized us as members of their species, as men. However, we have not responded as members of their species should respond. We have ignored . . . the rights and obligations of non-violence. We have killed, raped, dispersed, and enslaved the native humans, destroyed their communities, and cut down their forests. It wouldn't be surprising if they'd decided that we are not human." The Cetian, Mr. Or, completes the logic: "And therefore can be killed, like animals . . ." (62; ch. 3).
What it takes a long time for Lyubov to figure out is the mechanism for change among the Athsheans. He has to be told directly and then mull it over: "Selver is a god," he's told (97, , 105; ch. 5). Then he thinks, Selver is "a link between the two realities, considered by the Athsheans as equal, the dream-time and the world-time . . . . A link: one who could speak aloud the perceptions of the subconscious. To 'speak' that tongue is to act. To do a new thing. To change or to be changed, radically, from the root. For the root is the dream." Selver was such a link, a literal translator, one who carries over. "He had done a new deed. The word, the deed, murder. Only a god could lead so great a newcomer . . . across the bridge between the worlds" (106-7; ch. 5).
When Selver tells the story of the Smith Camp massacre to the old Dreamer, Coro Mena, Coro Mena replies, "Before this day the thing we had to do was the right thing to do; the way we had to go was the right way and led us home. Where is our home now? For you have done what you had to do, and it was not right. You have killed men" (33-34; ch. 2). From a Daoist perspective, and for Le Guin, these are powerful lines. A classical Daoist talks little of right and wrong but of following the way and, in Le Guin's formulation, doing as one must do—which is right. Coro Mena here admits the Western paradox that sometimes one must do evil—which makes evil unavoidable, but no less evil. And Coro Mena has, all together, an optimistic view of Selver (47-48; ch. 2)! The more pessimistic possibility is suggested by Lyubov's asking himself whether Selver was "speaking his own language, or . . . Captain Davidson's" (107; ch. 5). Selver may not be a god; he may just be a charismatic man who has learned that a possible political means to desirable ends is massacres. Either way could fit into the story. The point of view characters are a trinity of two saviors and Davidson as Messiah-manqué. There are also two clear traitors: Davidson and Lyubov (110; ch. 5). Selver could complete the threesome of traitors. Selver's gift to his people is guerrilla warfare, which requires group enmity. Athsheans must think of themselves as Athsheans, with a cause to press against the Terrans; this sets up the possibility for Selver of a conflict of loyalties. In attacking Central, Selver endangers his friend Lyubov; in warning Lyubov, Selver endangers the cause of his people and the lives of those who have chosen to follow him in the attack. Selver fails to save Lyubov, which may be a betrayal. It would elegantly reinforce the theme of treason if Selver were to betray his own nature in learning murder from Davidson and teaching mass murder to his people. But this is not my reading. The Change Selver brings the Athsheans is, I think, a true Change, just deeply, and appropriately, problematic.
At the end of the story, Selver tells Lepennon, from Hain, that a god "brings a new way to do a thing, or a new thing to be done. . . . He brings this across the bridge between the dream-time and the world-time. When he has done this, it is done. You cannot take things that exist in the world and try to drive them back into the dream, to hold them inside the dream with walls and pretenses. That is insanity. What is, is. There is no use pretending, now, that we do not know how to kill one another" (168; ch. 8).
The book ends with Selver with the memory of Lyubov—they remain in touch—and the knowledge that Davidson is on an island, still alive. It is not a totally tragic vision of isolation, but its vision of Athshe figuratively walled off from the galaxy is decorously bleak for the years of war and reaction in which it was written (1968) and published (1972).