Ursula K. Le Guin and Unexpected Ancient History

By Owain Williams

Recently, I have been reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s Tales of Earthsea, a series of short novels set in a fantasy world where much of the world is composed of small islands, the Archipelago. At once, upon reading these books, they felt familiar. The beautiful, lyrical prose is reminiscent of Tolkien and there are dragons and wizards, traditional fantasy staples. Yet, there was something else, a constant, but often subtle, resemblance to Ancient Greece.

"A Wizard of Earthsea" by Ursula K. Le Guin, cover by Yvonne Gilbert

I had known Ursula K. Le Guin was familiar with ancient history. She had, after all, written a retelling of Virgil’s Aeneid, from the perspective of Lavinia, the title character. Yet, her relationship with ancient history certainly goes beyond this single work, it seems to permeate her fantasy work.

Reading the travels of Sparrowhawk, the protagonist of A Wizard of Earthsea, I could not help but be reminded of Homer’s Odyssey. Sparrowhawk’s journey from the island of Gont, to Roke, to Iffish and beyond reminded me of Odysseus and Telemachus as they journeyed between islands of men and mythical creatures and palaces of gods and kings. When I first noticed this resemblance, I thought, it must have been a coincidence, the result of Le Guin taking inspiration from mythology, just as Tolkien had done before her.

However, in The Tombs of Atuan, the second book of the The Tales of Earthsea, there is a description of an ancient wall that conjured images of Cyclopean grandeur:

Arha turned off the path to follow the great wall of stone that bounded the Tombs behind the domed hall. The rocks it was built of were massive; the least of them would outweigh a man, and the largest were big as wagons. Though unshapen they were carefully fitted and interlocked.”

How could this not be the massive Mycenaean walls that dot Greece’s landscape? Indeed, after reading this passage, I could not help but imagine the walls of Mycenae, Tiryns, and Dyme.

The Cyclopean “Dymaean Wall” in Achaia. © Siga | Wikimedia Commons
I am not sure how conscious Le Guin was of this connection, whether it was intended or not. Yet, she certainly seems to have been inspired by Mycenaean Greece later in her writing career. In discussing the last piece of fiction set in the world of Earthsea, a short story called The Daughter of Odren, she said,
The last story I wrote… came from idly looking at the map and wondering what life was like on O back in the old days. It turns out to have some curious resemblances to life on Mycenae.”

It just goes to show that ancient history can be found just about anywhere!

1 comment

Totally disagree as Fantasy is still Fantasy ( i.e. Make believe) and creates more myth generalizations and intermingling of both historical places and events then the limited value it adds to the understanding and knowledge of reality.Events and plots seem familiar because writers take real events and places as background then adapt them to suit or further their writing In other words they steal what they need,build on them to create alternatives ,which is really the function of a fantasy writer. We can never be sure as to how much is adaption or fiction and yet the adaptions can change our impression of reality So enjoy fantasy for what it is “escapism and fun” a

Ted Kennedy

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