Review: The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction (repost from 2018)

The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a book of essays, talks and introductions first published in 1979, and revised in 1989.

“From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” is an essay on style in fantasy. She focuses on three writers: JRR Tolkien, ER Eddison & Kenneth Morris. I don’t know much about the latter two; I had never heard of Morris before, and Eddison is an author I’ve attempted to read before, but I did not get very far in The Worm Ouroboros.

She also has this wonderful description of Lord Dunsany’s style:
“The King James Bible is indubitably one of the profoundest influences on Dunsany’s prose; another, I suspect, is Irish daily speech. Those two influences alone, not to mention his own gifts of a delicate ear for speech rhythms and a brilliantly exact imagination, remove him from the reach of any would-be peer or imitator who is not an Irish peer brought up from the cradle on the grand sonorities of Genesis and Ecclesiastes. Dunsany mined a narrow vein, but it was all pure ore, and all his own. I have never seen any imitation of Dunsany that consisted of anything beyond a lot of elaborate made-up names, some vague descriptions of gorgeous cities and unmentionable dooms, and a great many sentences beginning with ‘And.’ “

I’m a little skeptical about this part, though:

The lords of Elfland are the true lords, the only true lords, the kind that do not exist on this earth: their lordship is the outward sign or symbol of real inward greatness. And greatness of soul shows when a man speaks. At least, it does in books. In life we expect lapses. In naturalistic fiction, too, we expect lapses, and laugh at an ‘overheroic’ hero. But in fantasy, which, instead of imitating the perceived confusion and complexity of existence, tries to hint at an order and clarity underlying existence–in fantasy, we need not compromise.”

This essay was written in 1973, and I wonder if she would have qualified this assertion had The Silmarillion been published by then (it was published in 1977). The Silmarillion is told in a more remote, mythic register than LotR, but if anything it has a good deal *less* order and clarity — certainly the “lords of Elfland” have more than a few lapses…

In “Do It Yourself Cosmology” she discusses the relationship between sf and fantasy:

“The original and instinctive movement of fantasy is, of course, inward. Fantasy is so introverted by nature that often some objective hook is necessary to bring it out in the open and turn it into literature. Classically, satire provided this hook, as in Ariosto or Swift. Or the reforming impulse shaped the dreamworld into an identification with Utopia. Or identification with nature enabled the Romantic fantasist to speak, at least briefly, out of the silence of the moors. Nowadays it is science that often gives fantasy a hand up from the interior depths, and we have science fiction, a modern, intellectualized, extroverted form of fantasy. Its limitations and strengths are those of extroversion: the power and intractability of the object.

The strength of fantasy is the strength of the Self; but its limitation or danger is that of extreme introversion: left to itself, the vision may go clear out of sight, remaining entirely private to the fantasist’s consciousness, or even remaining unconscious, exactly like a dream. The purer the fantasy, the more subjective the creation, the likelier this is to happen. It is a miracle, and pretty much a modern one, that we have any great non-satirical fantasies in print.”

“American SF & the Other” is a short essay about elitism and the portrayal of aliens in sf. This one is available online, you can read it here:…

“Science Fiction & Mrs Brown” is an essay on character in science fiction. Le Guin uses Virginia Woolf’s essay “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown,” essay on the role of characterization in the novel, as a starting point to discuss character in fantasy and science fiction. I am not sure exactly what to say about this one; I’ll have to come back to it some other time.

“A quite good simple test to detect the presence or absence of Mrs. Brown in a work of fiction is this: A month or so after reading the book, can you remember her name? It’s silly, but it works pretty well.”

“Is Gender Necessary, Redux” is an annotated essay about The Left Hand of Darkness. The essay was written in 1967, but the annotations are from a revision in 1988. It’s really interesting, but will make more sense in context, so if you haven’t read the novel you might not understand this one.

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Published by Beth @ Beth's Bookish Thoughts

This blog is for my thoughts on reading. A couple of my friends on GoodReads have blogs, so eventually I decided to start one myself. I hope to get involved in the book blogging community and become a better reader and writer! I am not accepting copies of new books for review, but I would be interested in new editions or new translations of classic authors. Find me on Upwork (as an editor) in the profile link. From September 2018 to October 2020 I blogged at Blogger.

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