“From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” by Ursula K. Le Guin

Harlan Ellison and Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin (Photo credit: Pip R. Lagenta)

In celebration of a new collection of stories from fantasy master Ursula K. Le Guin, author of the much-loved Earthsea novels, called The Unreal and the Real, I bring you this flashback to a classic 1973 article, “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” in which Le Guin turns her sharp eye to style in fantasy. Her reputation in the genre has, I think, earned her views a hearing.

What Tolkien called “faerie,” Le Guin calls “Elfland”:

Let us consider Elfland as a great national park, a vast beautiful place where a person goes by himself, on foot, to get in touch with reality in a special, private, profound fashion.

From this beginning, Le Guin argues that “certain writers of fantasy” despoil “elfland” by making it too accessible, too familiar—by, in short, demanding too little commitment from the reader. Her essay focuses on style—as in, the way the story is told, including especially the language used. It’s a very good argument. But here, rather than rehash it, I want to cull from it the gems Le Guin drops regarding the nature of fantasy.

The quote above already gives us one clue to her vision: faerie is a place where readers can uniquely come into contact with reality. It’s a wild place, not necessarily congenial to life elsewhere, in “Poughkeepsie.” As she puts it, “you are not at home there.”

As she circles closer to this peril and foreignness, Le Guin compares fantasy to “a game played for very high stakes.” She writes, “It is a different approach to reality, an alternative technique for apprehending and coping with existence.” This, by the way, is a common sentiment about fairy stories more generally, among their admirers. Such stories present the reader with an “alternative,” a parallel that heightens experience and, in this way, discloses human nature. Similarly, for Le Guin, fantasy involves “a heightening of reality.”

In its approach and its materials, then, fantasy is “nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity than naturalistic fiction.” Returning to her metaphor of the park, she asserts, “It is a real wilderness, and those who go there should not feel too safe.” One thinks of Tolkien’s remarks about the perils of faerie—warnings every adventurer would do well to heed. As I understand this, fantasy (when it’s done well) works to concentrate nature—including human nature—to reveal what normally lies hidden. In a sense, fantasy is to nature as poetry is to language.

As I mentioned above, Le Guin’s central argument is about style, and the bulk of her essay focuses there. In the midst of this argument, though, she drops another gem: filling a story with the trappings of fantasy—dragons, hippogriffs, a Medieval setting, knights, castles—doesn’t make it authentic. True fantasy is, for her, “a journey,” comparable to psychoanalysis. It “employs archetypes,” which, she reminds us, “are dangerous things.” Here one thinks of Terri Windling, who sees intimate, internal journeys as a rightful domain of fantasy.

But Le Guin’s essay focuses on heroic or “epic” fantasy. So, much of her argument about style has to be considered in that light. Even so, her demand for a costly journey into “faerie” is valuable for all of us. At least for me: it helps to account for my disinterest in much of what passes for “fantasy” on the paperback rack at the local library. She reminds me, “A writer may use all the trappings of fantasy without ever actually imagining anything.” But this “commercial exploitation of the holy ground of Myth” comes at a cost: it devalues the essential promise of the genre.

These impassioned, insightful remarks from a skilled storyteller brush gently against others I’ve noted in prior posts. If you have a chance to read the essay, it’s well worth the effort, and still timely some thirty-nine years after publication.

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4 thoughts on ““From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” by Ursula K. Le Guin

  1. There’s lots of different types of fantasy and there’s no one right answer. But perhaps somewhat tangential to Ursula’s thesis, I find a lot of contemporary authors have focused on the scale and multiple threads/characters that was one aspect of Tolkein, decided more was better and have gone for massive without capturing the real spirit of wonder.

    • You make a great point. Le Guin is arguing (already in 1973) that this loss of wonder is like taking an RV and a television and an iPad into the wilderness. You might as well stay at home, she says. Which I take to mean: You might as well write realist fiction about modern politics, war, and so on, or historical fiction. Nothing wrong with those genres, of course, but they aren’t fantasy. (They might be someone’s fantasies, but that’s a different animal.)
      I suppose it comes back to the question of what fantasy is, in the sense of what makes it distinct from other genres (and non-genre fiction). Lots more to say there, but with you I like wonder in the mix.

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