Happy Friday everyone! I am preparing for the upcoming Signum University Ursula K. Le Guin course that I am precepting (for which there may be a spot or two open, and you can see a second invite here). Elbow-deep in Le Guin (right now I’m reading her Hainish Cycle stories of the 90s before I go back to Rocannon’s World), and chomping at the bit to reread Earthsea, one of my favourite series, I thought I would share a couple of Le Guin resources for lovers of her work, both connected to “language” with some connections back to Tolkien–but in strikingly different ways.
I hope you know about the Mythlore special issue on Le Guin, just published this summer (2021). Among the great articles, Prof. Kris Swank (of the Le Guin worldbuilder course) has written about “Ursula’s Bookshelf.” You can also check out my articles, “‘A Novelist’s Business is Lying’: A Farewell to Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018)” and “‘Inventing a Universe is a Complicated Business’: Ursula K. Le Guin’s Introduction to the Hainish Cycle.”
Always thoughtful, writerly historian John Garth had an article earlier this year on his website about Le Guin and language. While Le Guin has more fully worked out implications of her Hainish world and its names, the idea of language runs deeply through Earthsea. Garth asks whether there could be a tribute to Tolkien embedded in Le Guin’s classic fantasy novel, A Wizard of Earthsea. I was skeptical at first about Garth’s winsome answer, but found the article brought a number of things together for me. “Ursula Le Guin, the language of Earthsea, and Tolkien” is worth reading not just for the thought experiment but for what the experiment produces when it comes to constructed language invention.
I was pleased this summer to be the second reader for an exciting project by one of Signum University’s bright MA students. Beginning with curiosity about “Old Speech” in Ursula K. Le Guin‘s Earthsea series, under the supervision of Kris Swank, Maximilian Hart has pulled together a paper that draws on linguistic theory, Platonism, and Taoism in a conversation between Le Guin and the theories of language and story of the Inklings—C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the oft-forgotten but ever-present Owen Barfield. And, best of all, there are dragons–and the question about whether dragons can deceive in Old Speech. If you enjoy Le Guin’s work, or if you are curious to see the Inklings as thinkers in writers in dialogue with a later speculative fiction writer, you can see the full video from Signum’s Youtube page below, and you can find the full paper here.
Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series enters an ongoing dialogue about the nature of language; in it, she proposes a language spoken by dragons and wizards, “the Old Speech,” a language fundamentally unlike our human languages. It is a language in which it is impossible to lie, a language which is simultaneously descriptive and generative: to say the name of a thing is to have the thing come to be. This Old Speech is what the ancient poetic unity of language—to use Owen Barfield’s terms—might look like: a language in which the Tao, the underlying reality of a thing, is named in every word, a language in which every word is a narrative and true. However, dragons, not the titular, and ostensibly central, wizards, are the true poets of Earthsea; the dragons are the ones who see with a poet’s eye and who are actually capable of wielding the Old Speech in its ancient, unified, fully poetic sense, a sense which encompasses all shades of meaning and existence and narrative in one word. Le Guin’s Old Speech, then, can best be understood as a true language of Barfieldian ancient unity, and the dragons are not liars but poets practicing their art.
For the PDF of the paper, click here.
About the Presenter
Maximilian Hart is a high school English teacher and has been a student at Signum University since 2016. His academic focus is currently on studying the works of Ursula K. Le Guin and her approaches to language. When he’s not reading books for class or his own high school students’ papers, he’s spending time with his wife and children or pretending to improve at chess or woodworking.
About Signum Thesis Theaters
Each of our master’s students writes a thesis at the end of their degree program, exploring a topic of their choice. The Thesis Theater is their opportunity to present their research to a general audience, and answer questions. All are welcome to attend!