From Homer to Harry Potter: A Handbook on Myth and Fantasy - Matthew Dickerson, David O'Hara I picked this book from the New Books shelf at one of my libraries because I was intrigued by the title and because they had chapters on Ursula le Guin and Philip Pullman (whose Golden Compass books I had just finished reading). It wasn't until I started reading that I realized the authors were evangelical Christian apologists (not a "bad" thing in and of itself).

As Christians, the authors have little use for myth that doesn't conform to their notion of usefulness; and part of that usefulness is the struggle between objective, transcendent Good and Evil. Thus, their chief objection to Le Guin is her rejection of that world view in favor of a more East Asian-flavored one of balance and karma. The authors dismiss Le Guin because she doesn't subscribe to a notion of good and evil that transcends a particular context. For Le Guin, a "good" action is one that maintains the "balance"; an "evil" action is one that disrupts it. Now, admittedly, what Le Guin might mean by "balance" can be a bit fuzzy (she's an author telling a story, not a philosopher, after all) but the context is a fantasy, where long, didactic passages are to be avoided. Particularly in her latest work, however, I think Le Guin has shown how her morality works out in practice. As she has written about her Earthsea novels, she would have written parts very differently.

The authors don't believe in Le Guin's basis for moral acts, and are in the habit of dismissing her justifications as "unsatisfying" or "evasive" -- which, of course, they would be to someone who believes Good and Evil are defined by a transcendent Superior Being (God, Allah or Iluvatar, as the case may be). The authors are great fans of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis because both base their mythologies on essentially Abrahamic foundations.

What really galls me is that Dickerson and O'Hara think it's a failing that Le Guin's morality "places a burden on people without giving them any means to lift that burden." (p. 185) They believe it's better to do something because it is ordained by God, who bears the responsibility for its consequences, than to do something because one has weighed the consequences and has consciously chosen to bear them. It's all well and good to let God "bear the burden" but in the real world it's real men and women who wind up bearing it. Le Guin's notion of a constant struggle between actions that are not wholly right or wrong is far closer to reality than a bold hero, confidentally choosing Good over Evil. A struggle, ironically enough, Tolkien clearly recognized. The example the authors employ to illustrate their point -- Aragorn's decision to follow Merry and Pippin instead of Frodo and Sam or go directly to Gondor -- undermines their argument. Aragorn's dilemma is precisely that he doesn't know what the Good is and must rely on what he believes will result for the best, knowing that the consequences will fall entirely upon him and his fellows. In the context of Earthsea, the authors are upset that Le Guin's resolutions tend to be "ambiguous, and the problem winds up being skirted by unfounded dogmatic assertions." (p. 186)

They also complain that in Le Guin's moral universe, the best choice is often to do nothing as the more power one can wield, the wider the consequences. But this is exactly the conundrum that faces the Valar and Gandalf and Aragorn and Frodo, all in their own ways. Gandalf, potentially as powerful as Sauron, his fellow Maia, cannot exert his power without risking his "integrity" (or "soul," if you will) and becoming Sauron (a trap Saruman doesn't escape). Of course, there are times to act -- Radagast is an example of falling into the opposite hole that snared Saruman, doing nothing regardless -- but the choice is fraught with perils and it's not easy to know when it's necessary, i.e., it's AMBIGUOUS!

I think the authors are right, however, in their distinction between Tolkienesque worldviews and Le Guin's ("leguinian"?) -- Tolkien sees a permanent, eternal life beyond this one; Le Guin sees a transient flame that burns briefly and then is gone, making it just that more precious. They dismiss Le Guin's views as "unfounded dogmatism" but Tolkien's are just as baseless. It's a matter of how one chooses to understand their place in the world.

Despite my "one star" rating, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the issues raised by the authors; I just profoundly disagree with their conclusions.