The Word for World Is Forest – Military States, Translators, and Humans who Change Everything

I wasn’t planning on writing about Ursula Le Guin’s Hugo award winning novella turned novel The Word for World Is Forest, but the 5 hour audiobook fit in nicely to my 6 hour drive to Tennessee. I was struck once again by the connections I see between the work of Le Guin and that of China Mieville, as well as the way this fit into some of the thinking I’d beendoing about representations of the military state.

The Plot: Terran colonists take over the planet Athshe (which means “forest”), calling it New Tahiti, cutting down huge swathes of forest, planting farms, and forcing the indigenous people into “voluntary” labor. The health of these slaves quickly deteriorates because their natural rest cycle is completely disrupted by their human masters; Athsheans sleep rarely and frequently engaged in lucid dreaming throughout the day, which the Terrans punish as laziness. Since they don’t sleep and because they are intraspecies non-aggressive, meaning they do not attack each other and they do not attack the humans whom they recognize as men and women as well, Athsheans (or “creechies” as the Terrans call them) make ideal workers. This happy state for the humans begins to change, however, begins to change when the Athsheans learn murder. Athshean Selver, who served the humans for a time until his wife was raped to death by a particularly cruel and xenophobic human named Davidson, leads a group of Athsheans into Davidson’s camp, killing all the men and burning the buildings. At this point, the off-planet government steps in and orders the humans to have no more contact with the Athsheans unless invited and to free all of the laborers. While most humans comply, Davidson gathers a group of like-minded followers and begins systematically wiping out Athshean villages in his area. In retribution, Selver and his followers attack the main headquarters of the human colonists, killing all five hundred women and many of the men and taking the rest prisoner. Selver orders that the humans remain in the already cleared area of Central until the government spaceship returns, at which point they will leave the planet for good. After Davidson is defeated, the human comply and return to Terra on the next flight.

First of all, I want to call attention to some of the gender issues at play here. For starters, Davidson is, to me, a hilarious character, drawn straight out of the macho-man days of pulp sci-fi; he cares a great deal about being masculine and hates anyone who isn’t. One of the things I really liked about this novel was the fact that Davidson is painted as quite the psychopath, casting into doubt all those previous heroes of sci-fi. Secondly, I wish to call attention to those five hundred women, women who either can to the colony to be brides to men they had never met or to be prostitutes. Having just rewatched 28 Days Later, I was struck by the fact that in our representations of a military state, women become a commodity almost instantly, for both sexual purposes and for reproduction. Women are what allow men to think that their work has some kind of purpose. The Athsheans  quickly realized that the presence of women meant that the humans could establish a permanent settlement; not the guns, not the machines, but the women.

The second thing (and really the more important for the purposes of this project) is the title of the book itself. Raj Lyubov, a scientist studying the Athsheans and their advocate in colonial matters, explicates some of the implications of the word “Athshe.” Terrans are bound to dirt, Athsheans are bound to trees; Terrans imagine themselves as clay, Athsheans imagine themselves as branches. I really appreciate the way this novel highlights the workings of ideology at a word-by-word level. One of the most important words is “sha’ab” which, Lyubov tells us, has many meanings (he explains that many words in the Athshean language are like coins, having two meaning). The primary meaning of “sha’ab” is “god,” and thus Selver is called when he begins fighting against the Terrans. The secondary meaning is “translator,” and it is upon this meaning that Lyubov spends some time ruminating. He comes to the conclusion that the “translator” aspect of the word refers to a individuals ability to translate what they see in dreaming into reality.

After Selver “translates” murder into reality, his people are fundamentally changed, and it is this aspect of the novel that reminds me the most of Mieville’s Embassytown, though the change in the Ariekei is arguably much more extensive than that in the Athsheans. Still, I find this idea of “translating” dreams into realities very interesting, especially since this kind of translating is very much bound up in language. At several points, the narrator notes that a Athshean says, “The whole land with be like the dry beach,” because she has no word for “desert.” As Lyubov examines the word “sha’ab” his mind is immediately drawn to the fact that Selver worked with him as a translator, making Terran-Athshean dictionaries. They spent a great deal of time sharing words to refer to what happens during dreaming. All of this highlights for me the necessity of a word in order to recognize a thing. Athsheans never killed each other until the humans came and gave them both the word and practice.

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The Farthest Shore – Platonists and Sophists…again

As I have plugged away through the Earthsea novels, I have honestly become increasingly disenchanted. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why reading these novels felt like such a chore, like I was making myself work through them so I could get onto other, more interesting books. I spent a lot of time discussing my feelings about the novels with my intellectual partner Ben, who long ago got used to me talking my way around some issue before coming to some kind of conclusion, usually preceded by the phrase “I know what it is!” I couldn’t tell if it was just my perceptions of the issues with gender in the novels that were making me so grumpy about them or if I disliked them for other reasons. It wasn’t until I read blurb on the front of on of the paperbacks — “The Classic High Fantasy Series” — that I realized what was going on: I don’t like high fantasy. I never really have. I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was younger and enjoyed them to a certain extent, but I only got halfway through the Silmarillion before deciding I couldn’t take it anymore. I just get impatient, and more so as I’ve gotten older. I say this now in order that readers may take my comments on the Earthsea novels with an appropriate grain of salt.

The Farthest Shore seems to mark the end of the first series of Earthsea books while Tehanu marks the beginning of a new era, at least in terms of Le Guin’s thinking about the novels. As such, it wraps up the story of Ged rather nicely with him embarking on a final quest in which he uses all of his magical power to save Earthsea from an evil sorcerer before secluding himself to a quiet retirement (though he returns in Tehanu). On this final quest, he takes young prince Arren, the boy destined to take the throne as the first king Earthsea has had in many, many years. I was upset by this book almost from the get-go: when Ged, now the Archmage of Roke, tells his fellow mages that he intends to take Arren with him on his quest, the mages ask why he takes a companion, since he went on his previous quests alone, and why his companion is this boy with no magical power instead of another mage. Rather than correcting the mages and reminding him that he always had help on his quests, Ogion on his trip to the ends of the sea and Tenar on his visit to Atuan, Ged just agrees that he did usually go on his quests alone. From that point on, I was just really annoyed with Ged, which was easy considering that Arren is the primary point of view for this novel and he often gets rather annoyed with Ged too, but when he’s not annoyed he’s preoccupied with hero worship. But, of course, Ged is a mage, is the mage, so who are we to question his methods?

What I did find really interesting about The Farthest Shore is the way it deals with the relationship between word and meaning, signifier and signified. In fact, the problem that is presented at the beginning of the book is that words, magic words, are losing their meanings. Arren’s father, a small-time wizard in his own right, says the spells for the Festival of the Lambs, but then tells his son, “I said the words, but I do not know if they had any meaning” (5). And, indeed, the lambs were being born deformed, indicating that the words had lost their meanings, their power. Notably, this loss of meaning is a geographic specific phenomenon; Ged and Arren travel to places where the words have lost their meanings while in other places the words still work fine (of course, Ged can always use the words, but what kind of Archmage would he be if he could not). In their time with the Children of the Open Sea, Ged and Arren witness the loss of meaning as the singers fail to finish singing the Long Dance because they cannot remember the words. So, there are two ways that the words are lost: when they are forgotten and when they are remembered sounds without power/meaning. What replaces the words is an extreme distrust of wizards which often manifests itself as either denial of wizardly power or a denigration of wizards are lazy or manipulative. Arren himself falls into this mindset for some time, thinking to himself, “That’s wizard’s talk, making things seem great by great words. But the meaning of the words is always somewhere else” (125). Mages, it seems, are reduced to sophistry to the islanders as the veil of illusion is lifted from their eyes.

Harkening back to my post on Anathem, I call attention to the Platonic/Sophistic debate that continues to play out in this text. I find the clear lines of the debate in this text interesting, given that Le Guin continues working in her theme of dualism: the recurring image of life and death as both sides of one’s hand emphasizes the argument that life is only recognizable because of death, light is only given meaning by darkness, etc. However, Le Guin does little to complicate the Platonic/Sophistic divide, and instead the onslaught of meaninglessness, or perhaps multiple meanings, is part of an undeniable evil.

The Tombs of Atuan – The Damsel in Distress

I waited forever for my copy of Ursula Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan to come in the mail, but now I can finally continue with the Earthsea novels.

The Plot: After she is determined to be the reincarnation of the Priestess of the Nameless Ones, Tenar is taken away from her family and raised in the Tombs of Atuan, the center of Karg worship. Her name is taken from her and instead she becomes Arha, the Eaten One. As Arha grows, she is initiated into the rituals and secrets of her position by the two high priestesses of the Godking and the Twin Gods, Kossil and Thar. Many of these secrets are somewhat humdrum: ritual dances, chants in words whose meanings have been forgotten, blood sacrifices, etc. At the end of her training, though, Arha is allowed to enter the Labyrinth, a maze that stretches under the tombs and temples above. Arha learns her way through the Labyrinth by memorizing directions given to her by Thar and Kossil, which were taught to them by the previous priestess, or Arha in another body. Arha continually explores the Labyrinth until one day when she sees a man there, a stranger and a mage (Ged from A Wizard of Earthsea of course). She traps him in the Labyrinth and tells Kossil of his presence (by this point Thar has died and Arha has realized that Kossil is not a true believer, only a woman in search of a little power). By law, Arha must be sure that the stranger dies, but instead she saves him from dying of thirst and brings him food and drink in his prison in the Labyrinth and talks to him. This goes on for a couple of days until Arha realizes that Kossil has been spying on them, at which point she has Manan, her eunuch servant, move Ged to another locked room, then bury a coffin in the ground. She tells Kossil that Ged has been buried alive, but soon Kossil is actually checking to see if it is true and Arha realizes that she is pretty well screwed. Meanwhile, Ged has been trying to tell her that the Nameless Ones are not gods and are instead quite evil, and that he has been using all of his magical power to keep them at bay while he is there. He calls Arha by her true name, Tenar, and convinces her to leave with him and they narrowly escape while Kossil and several others are crushed when the temple of the Nameless Ones collapses. As they travel across the island to Ged’s hidden boat, Tenar quickly realizes that she has no useful skills, that she does not even know the language of the lands to which she will be traveling with Ged. Additionally, the Nameless Ones still have some kind of hold over her, and though they try to make her kill Ged, she instead leaves the island with him and he promises that she can go live with his former master who lives quietly and simply.

On the one hand, I felt like this book continued in the same somewhat sexist train of the previous: it’s a damsel in distress story, except that in this case the damsel didn’t even know she was in trouble until the man came along to tell her so. And perhaps one of the saddest parts of the book is Ged insisting that Tenar learn the language of the islands when she wants to learn the old language of the dragons, the language of power. At the same time, I think this novel says something about the power of enculturation and predetermined roles: Tenar’s struggles with the expectations placed on her as Arha really take center stage. Additionally, the moment at which she realizes that she has no skills outside the temple is especially notable because she is female; to a certain degree we come to a similar question as the one presented in P. D. James’s The Children of Men: what happens when the roles that women have been raised to occupy no longer exist for them? This novel did not have a happy ending for me. Oh sure, Tenar gets to go to Havinor with all the cheering people, but what she’s really probably going to end up doing is cooking and cleaning and making tea for Ged’s former master. And all because the power that she had was power derived from evil in some form or fashion. I’m left feeling a little heartbroken for Tenar and ambiguous about the novel as a whole.

A Wizard of Earthsea – True Names, Wizard Schools, and Shadows

Ursula Le Guin’s 1968 young adult novel A Wizard of Earthsea and its followers are some of the most influential works in YA fantasy. These novels have seen numerous adaptations, including a Sci-Fi Channel miniseries and a Studio Ghibli iteration (both of which Le Guin was displeased with). Additionally, comparisons may be drawn between between Earthsea and such contemporary works are the Harry Potter series and the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini.

The Plot: This novel is written as a previously untold legend of an already widely-known and wide-praised man, Ged. It begins with Ged’s childhood, his initial training by his ignorant witch aunt, and his rescue of his village from vicious raiders by using his power to summon thick mists. After this feat, he is accepted as an apprentice by the wizard Ogion, a very quiet man whom Ged grows to love, but soon Ged tires of not actually learning how to use his power; Ogion instead focuses on trying to get Ged to learn to listen, to be still and silent, to learn humility. After a brush with the daughter of an enchantress, with some power in her own right, and almost calling forth a shadow out of the darkness, Ged opts to leave Ogion for the island of Roke, where there is a school for wizards. Ged proves to be an extremely apt pupil, but also an extremely proud one, quick to anger and lusting to use his power. While he makes a friend, Vetch, he also makes an enemy, Jasper, who goads him into performing a bit of difficult magic: calling forth the dead. Unfortunately, when Ged succeeds, the shadow also comes into the world and attacks Ged. He is saved by the masters of the school, but spends a long time recovering from the attack and is left with scars on his face and body and a new hesitancy in his learning. He is never the same quick pupil again. After Ged receives his mage’s staff and leaves the school, he is stationed in Low Turing, a collection of islands living in fear of the near-by dragons. Ged performs his duties as mage well, healing the sick and helping construct sturdy boats for fishing and travel, but when a friend’s son falls ill, Ged tries too hard to save him, sending his own spirit into the world of the dead to chase after the boy. When he turns back, he finds his way blocked by the shadow, and only the instinctual ministrations of his little pet, an otak (something like a weasel or rat?), brings him back to life. He decides to leave Low Turing so that the shadow may not harm the people there, but before he does, he deals with the dragons, killing five of them outright and mortally wounding a sixth before making a pact with the dragon patriarch, who is bound to keep his word because Ged knows his true name. Ged begins his travels, ending up on the island of Osskil, where the shadow has possessed a man’s body and attacks Ged. He is saved by the lord and lady of Osskil, the lady being the same enchantresses daughter who tried to ensnare Ged as a boy. She again tries to trap Ged using a stone of Old Power, but Ged again escapes, this time in the body of a hawk. He returns to Ogion, who tells him that the only way to defeat the shadow is to hunt it, which Ged then sets out to do. After quite a bit of sailing, Ged ends up on the same island as his friend Vetch and tells Vetch of his quest. The other wizard opts to join Ged, and together they sail east past the last island known to them, until they reach the land of the dead at the edge of the world. There Ged again confronts the shadow and calls it by his own name, realizing it to be the shadow of his own death and therefore uniting it with himself. Vetch and Ged safely return home and so ends this legend.

A Wizard of Earthsea is one of the first novels to feature a wizard school. Previously, wizards were largely conceived of as getting their education either through books or in a master/apprentice relationship. However, the wizard school idea proved to be extremely popular, and I don’t just mean Harry Potter. Between the publication of A Wizard and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, a number of books have features wizard schools, including Jillian Murphy’s The Worst Witch series, Terry Pratchett’s Unseen University in his Discworld novels, Jane Yolen’s Wizard’s Hall, and arguably Professor X’s school for mutants in various incarnations of The X-Men. I would argue that this shift is belatedly following a shift in education. On the one hand, general education by and large moved from the hands of individuals tutors or priests to the hands of teachers in schools a long time ago. On the other hand, institutions for teaching “trade skills” — welding, auto mechanics, plumbing, electrical work — are quite a bit newer. It seems that in this sense, the idea of magic as a practice has won out over the concept of magic as a philosophy; students at Hogwarts are often seen learning how to do things, not so much the principles behind them. It’s like learning how to make an omelet with learning how the chemical nature of the eggs changes as they cook (I once had someone try to teach how to make an omelet in this manner; it was extremely confusing).

The second thing about A Wizard of Earthsea that I found resonating with more contemporary fantasy that I’ve read is this idea of the True Name, perhaps most obviously in Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle. The idea is that in order to harness power, you must learn the Old Language in which things have their True Names. In A Wizard, this Old Language is a precursor of the Hardic language; in other iterations, it might be the language of elves or something like that. This connection between wizardry and knowing the right words is a long-standing and deep-seated one, though there are some notable breaks from the tradition, including Gandalf the Grey in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker novels. Now, as a rhetorician and post-modernist, I scoff at this notion of true names holding power, though perhaps somewhat hesitantly. After all, parents are warned not to let their children wear clothing with their names clearly displayed for a reason; we seem to give an inordinate amount of trust to someone who walks up to us and knows our name.

Finally, it is worth noting that, much like The Left Hand of Darkness, this book is very concerned with shadows and their relationship to light and to the material world, a theme which I had been told runs throughout Le Guin’s work, but now I can see that for myself.

So now that I’ve said all that, here’s what I really want to say: I found this novel extremely troubling because it is extremely sexist. Here are the female characters we meet or hear of:

  • Ged’s aunt, who is a small-time witch and is described as ignorant. In reference to her, we hear the phrases “weak as woman’s magic” and “wicked as woman’s magic.”
  • The evil enchantress who is Lady of Gont
  • The daughter of the enchantress, whom Ged meets on Gont and again at Osskil
  • The village witch of Low Turing, who has little power or knowledge, though she knows enough to know that Ged is not dead when he falls into his coma
  • The Karg woman on the little reef who was probably once a princess or lord’s daughter
  • Yarrow, Vetch’s sister, who keeps house for him and for her brother. At one point she says to Ged, “I wish I could truly understand what you tell me. I am too stupid.”

There are no female mages. Women with magical skill may not enter the School of Roke. Instead they become backwater witches or, apparently, evil. Now, I’m not quite sure what to do with this. It is possible that this is the sexism of the narrator and the sexism of this society; after all, myths and legends are prime places for ideologies to hide. At the same time, I feel like this reading is overly generous, because Le Guin does little to create any kind of contrast by which we may look at this sexism rather than through it to the story. I’m anxious to continue through with the series (I’m waiting for book 2 to arrive in the mail because it was the only one I couldn’t find at my local Half Priced Books) just to see how this mess plays out.

The Left Hand of Darkness – Nationalism and Communication

On of the things that immediately struck me about shifgrethor is that it’s an ideology based on the premise that all communication is rhetorical. Consider Genly’s thoughts on his first interview with the king of Karhide, Argaven:

Though Argaven might be neither sane nor shrewd, he had had long practice in the evasions and challenges and rhetorical subtleties used in conversation by those whose main aim in life was the achievement and maintenance of the shifgrethor relationship on a high level. Whole areas of that relationship were still blank to me, but I knew something about the competitive, prestige-seeking aspect of it, and about the perpetual conversational duel that can result from it. That I was not dueling with Argaven, but trying to communicate with him, was itself an incommunicable fact. (35)

I’ve frequently noticed in “alien encounter” stories that language is something of a barrier, but the ideology behind that language isn’t that big of deal. For example, in Octavia Butler’s Dawn, Lilith is slightly altered genetically by the Oankali to remember everything she has heard, meaning that the language lessons she was undergoing have a new efficacy. However, translation seems to continue to work on a one-to-one model; the fact that the Oankali are supposedly a non-hierarchical race does not seem to affect Lilith’s ability to understand their language at all. Here we see something a bit different; Genly has no problem with speaking Karhidish or Orgota, but there are aspects of communication that he does not understand at all, and we as readers are repeatedly reminded by him that he struggles with understanding. Similarly we are constantly reminded of his difficulty in seeing Estraven as ambisexual. There are underlying ideologies to communication that Genly simply cannot comprehend for quite a while. And, of course, he seems to be assuming that his own communication is unrhetorical, even though he is in fact attempting to persuade the Gethenians to join the Ekumen of Known Worlds. But beyond all communication being part of shifgrethor, it seems that almost any act has the potential to confirm or insult shifgrethor. Once he reaches Orgoreyn, Genly says, “Manners here were certainly different from manners in Karhide; there, the fuss he was making would either have degraded his own shifgrethor or insulted mine; I wasn’t sure which, but I would have done one or the other — practically everything did” (127). Shifgrethor is constantly on-going and extremely performative, which does make it more like our postmodern conceptions of ethos than Aristotle’s (though I stand by my previous statement that shifgrethor and ethos shouldn’t be conflated).

Genly’s thoughts on shifgrethor upon entering Orgoreyn are important in discussions of nationalism in this novel as well. One of the things I liked the best about this novel is that we get to see two different cultures on this planet rather than the Gethenians being collapsed into one cultural group, and the tensions between national identity and shifgrethor play out in interesting ways. At one point Genly says to Estraven, “You’re isolated, and undivided. Perhaps you are as obsessed with wholeness as we are with dualism” (252). Estraven refutes Genly’s assumption, stating, “We are dualists too. Duality is an essential, isn’t it? So long as there is myself and the other” (252, emphasis in original). This harkens back to a previous instance when Estraven spoke of “the other” shortly before his exile, when he explains to Genly what he means by patriotism: “No, I don’t mean love, when I say patriotism. I mean fear. The fear of the other. And its expressions are political, not poetical: hate, rivalry, aggression” (20). If shifgrethor is an expression of Gethenian unity, patriotism is then an expression of Gethenian duality. Karhide is often suggested to be lacking in a certain national cohesiveness which Genly describes like this: “Quarrels, murders, feuds, forays, vendettas, assassinations, tortures and abominations, all these were in their repertory of human accomplishments; but they did not go to war. They lacked, it seemed, the capacity to mobilize. They behaved like animals in that respect; or like women. They did not behave like men, or ants” (51). The gendered nature of this comment aside, Genly references ants again when he is imprisoned in a work camp in Orgoreyn: “If there were ants on Winter, Gethenians might have tried to imitate them long ago. The regime of the Voluntary Farm is a fairly recent thing, limited to one country of the planet and literally unknown elsewhere” (191). Sharp contrast is drawn between Karhide and Orgoreyn; whereas Estraven calls Karhide a “family quarrel” and Genly witnesses the feudal system in which by and large individual lords do as they will, Genly describes the Orgota as “people trained from birth in a discipline of cooperation, obedience, submission to a group purpose ordered from above,” in short, people who are able to mobilize (186).

The increasing national unity in Orgoreyn seems to have a correlating diminishment of shifgrethor. In his journals, Estraven writes, “Tibe [the prime minister put in place after Estraven’s exile] wants to teach Karhide how to lie. He takes his lessons from Orgoreyn: a good school” and later explains that Karhide becoming more like Orgoreyn would most likely result in war erupting between the two (162). Genly hears Tibe’s attempts on the radio, saying, “He talked much about pride of country and love of the parentland but little of shifgrethor, personal pride or prestige” (108). This suggests to me that nationalism and shifgrethor are, in fact, incompatible, and this can perhaps be seen most clearly in the difference in how Karhiders and Orgota treat shifgrethor, which we can see when Genly comments on the differing manners and customs of the Orgota which would have been considered shameful in Karhide. Moreover, Orgota seem to have much less difficulty waiving shifgrethor, perhaps showing that with the construction of the national identity, maintaining the integrity of self throught shifgrethor becomes increasing less important, and given the somewhat dystopic nature of Orgoreyn (labor camps, secret police, the necessity of having “papers” for travel and work), I think that Le Guin is suggesting that this is a bad thing.

The Left Hand of Darkness – Introduction to Shifgrethor

As soon as I read Le Guin’s introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, I immediately began to draw connections between LHD and Embassytown, especially given that Le Guin’s name comes up quite frequently in interviews with Mieville. Here’s a selection from that introduction:

It is words that make the trouble and confusion. We are asked now to consider words as useful in only one way: as signs. Our philosophers, some of them, would have us agree that a word (sentence, statement) has value only in so far as it has one single meaning, points to one fact that is comprehensible to the rational intellect, logically sound, and — ideally — quantifiable. Apollo, the god of light, of reason, of proportion, harmony, number — Apollo blinds those who press too close in worship. Don’t look straight at the sun. Go into a dark bar for a bit and have a beer with Dionysios, every now and then. I talk about the gods; I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth. The only truth I can understand or express is, logically defined, a lie. Psychologically defined, a symbol. Aesthetically defined, a metaphor. (xvii)

In the introduction, Le Guin posits science fiction not as an extrapolative genre, predicting the future, but as a “thought-experiment,” something that instead reflects reality rather than makes any kind of prediction. She goes on to say that LHD is populated by an androgynous race, but she is in no way predicting that humans will become sexually androgynous so much as reflecting the fact that the lines between gender-specific roles are becoming more and more blurred, giving us career moms and stay-at-home dads for example.

Related to this androgyny — but really, ambisexuality is a better term since each Gethen has the potential to be either male or female during its mating period — is the concept of shifgrethor, which Genly attempts to define as “prestige, face, place, the pride-relationship, the untranslatable and all-important principle of social authority in Karhide and all civilizations of Gethen” (14). I was at first disposed to this of shifgrethor as ethos, but that’s not quite right at all. Ethos is perhaps consciously crafted within a particular text or is generated by the multiple public faces/appearances of an individual (we can even talk of ethoi), and of course one individual in one situation may be interpreted in several different ethoi by different audiences given their particular backgrounds, assumptions, terministic screens, etc. Shifgrethor is not like that at all. Shifgrethor, Estraven tells Genly, comes from the old word for shadow (266), and given that Gethenian philosophy conceives of light and dark not as opposites but rather as a kind of unity, I think it is safe to assume that a person’s shifgrethor is not separate from him/herself. Furthermore, a person’s shifgrethor cannot be added to or taken away; it can only be insulted or confirmed.

One of the ways I think that we can think about shifgrethor is as a certain integrity of the self that has to do with the Gethen’s ambisexuality. I’ve found Gayle Rubin’s essay concerning the trafficking of women in kinship systems to be helpful in thinking about this. She writes, “Kinship systems rest upon marriage. They, therefore, transform males and females in ‘men’ and ‘women,’ each an incomplete half which can only find wholeness when united with the other. Men and women are, of course, different. But they are not as different as day and night, earth and sky, yin and yang, life and death” (279). What caught my attention in this passage was the way that Rubin compares the duality of man and woman to other dualities, dualities that Gethens readily turn into unities. I think that perhaps one way of understanding the difficulty Gethenians have in waiving shifgrethor is by thinking about the waiving of shifgrethor as a kind of acknowledgement/announcement of the un-unity of self. Interestingly, it is right after Estraven explains to Genly that shifgrethor comes shadow that Genly is able to see Estraven not first as a man then as a woman, but as both at once.

  • Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Ace Books, 2010.
  • Rubin, Gayle. “The Traffic in Women: Notes of the Political Economy of Sex.” Feminist Theory: A Reader. 2nd ed. Boston: McGraw Hill Inc., 2005. 273-288.