Many years ago I had this idea for essays about Ursula K Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle. They’ve been sitting around in my brain for ages, so I thought I’d post a short bit from the first one. Partly as a kick to myself, partly to see what other people think… if you’ve read Rocannon’s World I’d be interested to hear what you think (it’s still very draft!).
Narrative conventions: questioning “the hero”
Le Guin’s playing with narrative conventions begins in the Prologue. Semley’s experience fits a pattern for those who spend time with the fairies under the hill – one night with them being, in reality, much longer. However, although her story seems at first that of the hero on a quest, Semley definitely does not fit that pattern. Her quest is ultimately pointless, since she gains the jewel but loses her family. Thus Le Guin questions the very idea of the hero’s quest, with one objective met but devastating long-term consequences. Indeed, the idea of the hero has already been challenged through the fact that it is Semley, not Durhal her husband, who has the idea and the courage to undertake the journey.
As the main character, it might be expected that Rocannon would be the hero. However, he never plays into that role. It isn’t that he is a coward; he rejects Mogien’s suggestion that they find the ship given to the Clayfolk so that Rocannon can leave the planet, saying “I’m not going to run off eight years into the future and find out what happened next!” (27). However, he rarely plays a direct part in the action. He does participate in combat at one point, and gets in a shot at an enemy, but then himself gets shot through the leg. When he does manage to have an impact on events he is closer to an Odysseus than anything else, using words, silence and cunning to get his way – sometimes. For instance, when he is about to be burned at the stake, he uses his impermasuit to withstand the heat and refuses to speak to his captor Zgama. He doesn’t rescue himself, though, relying on a companion to do that; neither does he rescue his friends from the strange insect-like people, this time relying on the help of strangers to do so. When he and a companion are threatened by ruffians, he gives up Semley’s necklace rather than attempting to fight or connive his way out. Thus, while he is the protagonist, he is not heroic. Mogien is far more traditionally the hero, riding his wingsteed into battle and slaying enemies. Interestingly, there is never a comparison made between the two: Mogien, while not as knowledgeable as Rocannon, is never shown to be a thug; Rocannon is not lacking in manliness for not matching Mogien. Le Guin suggests that survival doesn’t necessarily have to do with heroism, and that there are multiple ways of being a man and being useful.
Story and reality
The Prologue opens with a question: “How can you tell the legend from the fact on these worlds that lie so many years away?” (3). It continues, “How can you tell fact from legend, truth from truth?” – proposing that legend is, in fact, a form of truth. The opening of the story proper furthers this theme: “So ends the first part of the legend; and all of it is true. Now for some facts, which are equally true, from the League Handbook for Galactic Area Eight” (22). Mythology and academic texts are thus given equal stature in the matter of ‘truth’.