Friday, May 7, 2010

Essay: "The Left Hand of Darkness"

I was thinking that I should perhaps share some essays I have written in the past, and here is the first of those essays. It was my final paper for a science fiction class I took in the winter term of 2008. I share it here with only minor editing.

I wrote it about Ursula K. le Guin's book The Left Hand of Darkness, which is one of my all time favorites. However, I give away the entire plot in this essay, so you might not want to read it unless you've already read the book. In fact, it may not make sense if you haven't read the book.

In this essay I discuss Joseph Campbell's idea of the hero's journey (which coincidentally MANY stories follow) and how the characters in this book follow the hero's journey. If you want to learn about the journey without reading this essay you can find a summary of it here.


Introduction to the Hero's Journey

In "Left Hand of Darkness" Genly and Therem undergo their own hero journeys. They pursue the same quest: to bring Gethen into the worlds of the Ekumen. The hero journey begins with a call to action, which the hero may or may not accept to begin with. Once it is accepted he (I will simply refer to the hero as “he” when describing the steps followed) undergoes various trials. He has companions who help them, and he must cross a threshold between that which he knows and the new world of his journey. There are various things which may take place in the journey, some of which are: a symbolic death and rebirth; a symbolic dismemberment; a symbolic meeting and sacred marriage with a deity; a trial which helps to enlighten him; a journey across an ocean; a long journey by foot; abduction, and rescue if he is unable to escape without help. There are more steps which may take place in the hero’s journey, but these are the steps which take place in Genly’s and Therem’s journeys. There is also a threshold which must be crossed when returning home. Once the hero has returned home, he bring something great to the people. He returns to life, and though he may not continue his life as he had been before the journey, he lives in the ordinary world and finds peace within himself.

Genly Ai's Journey

Genly Ai’s journey begins before the book starts. We do not know what form the call to action took for him, or whether he first refused it. All we know is that he accepted it and it took him to the world of Gethen, where he took on the role of envoy. The guardian between the world he knew and the world he went to was time: when he traveled from world to world he stayed young while all those he knew aged and died. He had companions in the ship with him when he went to Gethen, who would take his place on the planet should he die in his attempt to bring the people of Gethen into the alliance of the Ekumen planets. When he reached his destination, Gethen, he met with one who gave him aid: Therem. (He did not completely trust Therem until later, but that is beside the point.) Genly went through trials while in Karhide, such as first convincing people that he was from another planet, and losing the support of Therem when Therem was exiled.
Genly traveled to the Foretellers. With the Foretellers, he underwent a symbolic dismemberment by deliberately abandoning the “l” in his name; the people of Karhide could not pronounce that letter, and he did not want to mark himself as an outsider while among the Foretellers. While with the Foretellers he also met Faxe, who is the Goddess in Genly’s journey. The foretelling is a form of symbolic marriage between Faxe and Genly; Genly was caught up in the web of connection within the group of foretellers, which was very sexual in nature. He saw Faxe as a woman during the foretelling, and describes her as “a woman dressed in light. The light was silver, the silver was armor, an armored woman with a sword” (66.) There was a bright light which shone from her.
Genly later gained a better understanding of the people of Gethen when he met Foreth, who was Therem’s former kemmering. Foreth cornered Genly into agreeing to take certain monies to Therem. By doing so, he served as a teacher for Genly, who wrote “he had just taught me a lesson: that shifgrethor can be played on the level of ethics, and that the expert player will win” (106.) Shifgrethor is a code of conduct among the people of Gethen, and it is something which Genly continued to learn of throughout the book. This lesson learned from Foreth was a key point in his education of the people of Gethen; it is also a key part of his journey, as he later came to the realization that learning to understand the people of Gethen was a part of his journey.
Genly encountered more trials once he entered Orgoreyn. On his very first night there he was forced to flee from where he has been sleeping because of an attack. At that point he underwent a symbolic death and rebirth: he lost his identification papers, and without them he lacked his identity and his name. With the other refugees of the attack he was placed in a pitch black room, which represents a womb. Somehow someone in Orgoreyn learned where he was, and he was rescued. He was led from the dark womb, and wrote “I was set apart from those nameless ones with whom I had fled down a dark road and whose lack of identity I had shared all night in a dark room. I was named, known, recognized; I existed” (112.) He was given new papers which identified him, and so was reborn. Additionally, he regained that which had been dismembered from him while he was in Karhide; the “l” in his name. The people Orgoreyn could pronounce that letter.
In the capital of Orgoreyn, Genly continued his quest to bring Gethen into the alliance of the Ekumen worlds. For his efforts, he was abducted from where he had been staying and shipped off to Pulefen Farm where he was a prisoner and forced to work. Because of drugs administered to him he became very ill. He was rescued by Therem, and recovered his health. Together they undertook a long journey across the ice, returning to Karhide; this journey by foot is an important part of the hero’s journey. During it he repeated a step of the journey which he had already taken: sacred marriage, which is symbolized by his empathic and telepathic connection with Therem.
The ice itself marks a threshold which the powers of Orgoreyn could not follow Genly across. When Genly arrived in Karhide he signaled the ship in orbit which holds his companions, so it would land on Gethen soon. The king of Karhide agreed for his country to become part of the Ekumen, and so Genly’s quest was completed; once Karhide becomes part of the alliance, the other nations of Gethen were sure to also join. Genly also became a master of two worlds, because of how he had adapted so much to Gethen (to the point where men and women of his own race seemed unnatural to him), while still representing the Ekumen. But his journey was not quite complete, as he was uneasy and had to come to terms with Therem’s death. He went to Estre, which was Therem’s homeland. There he met Therem’s father and son, and he seemed to find peace there. His journey finally ended.

Therem Estraven's Journey

Therem’s journey began when he learned of the Ekumen. We do not know whether he first refused the call, or what form the guardian between the world he knew and the journey he embarked on took. The “God” which Therem met is Genly. Genly is the God because he is an alien being from another world, and because he came in a ship that can fly he may be seen as having supernatural powers. (Nothing on Gethen can fly – there are not birds or winged insects.) Therem’s first trial was to arrange an audience between Genly and king Argaven. Though he succeeded in that, it proved useless because he lost king Argaven’s trust, and so Argaven did not trust Genly.
Therem was then exiled and forced to flee Karhide. He did received some help from companions along the way. First there was the cook who prepared a meal for Therem before being officially informed of the exile, even though the cook must have known that Therem was about to be exiled. After being officially exiled, Therem’s former kemmering, Foreth, tried to help – though Therem refused his help. Then when Therem was struck by sonic gun and was unable to row across the bay, he was aided by strangers who took him to the shore of Orgoreyn. The bay may be seen as an ocean, and so Therem’s crossing it may be seen as a step in the hero’s journey.
In Orgoreyn Therem underwent a symbolic dismemberment: he abandoned his land-name, Estraven. He deliberately abandoned it, because as he wrote: it “is no business of any man in Orgoreyn” (79.) When asked his Commensality, he said Karhide, even though the more specific answer would be Estre. He also underwent a symbolic death and rebirth; he lost his papers, which defined who he was in Orgoreyn. When the Inspector asks him how he intends to return to Karhide, Therem responded “By coffin” (80.) This was a joke, but was significant in his symbolic death. Therem received new papers and so was reborn. He then faced the trial of convincing the government of Orgoreyn to become part of the Ekumen. Unfortunately, he did not succeed.
Therem soon learned a lesson about Genly’s lack of shifgrethor. Genly gave him Foreth’s monies in such a way that greatly offended Therem. Therem purposely insulted Genly by giving him direct advice. After his temper cooled, he realized that Genly did not seem offended by the insult, and in fact seemed to accept it. Therem wrote, “His shifgrethor must be founded, and composed, and sustained, altogether differently from ours; and when I thought myself most blunt and frank with him he may have found me most subtle and unclear” (151.) He realized that most likely much of the advice he had attempted to give Genly before was almost certainly misunderstood by him, because of how Genly’s shifgrethor was so different from his own. This understanding was an important step in Therem’s journey, as it helped him to understand more about the Ekumen worlds which he was trying to unite his world with.
When Genly was taken to Pulefen Farm, Therem followed and rescued him. Together they undertook a long journey across the ice to Karhide, which is the ice was a threshold over which the powers of Orgoreyn could not follow them. During the journey a symbolic sacred marriage with the God takes place by means of an empathic and telepathic connection with Genly. Therem’s quest was completed when Genly, at Therem’s insistence, signaled the ship which has been in orbit around the sun. Nonetheless, Therem cannot follow his journey to its end and return home; Tibe’s men, upon learning that he has returned to Karhide, kill him.

Comparing their Journeys

We do not know what call to action Genly received, though we do know that Therem’s call to action was Genly’s message of the worlds of Ekumen. We do not know if either of them refused the call to action to begin with. We know that the guardian between known and unknown for Genly was time, but we do not know what it was for Therem. They both had companions, but left them behind; Genly left his when he landed on Gethen, and Therem left his when he was exiled from Karhide. They both received aid on their journeys; Genly received help from Therem, and Therem received help from the strangers who took him across the bay. Therem’s journey across the bay signifies a journey across an ocean.
Therem and Genly both underwent a symbolic dismemberment, and symbolic death and rebirth. The dismemberment for Therem was the abandonment of his land-name when he arrived in Orgoreyn, and for Genly it was when he made the decision to take the “l” out of his name. Though Genly regains that which he dismembered from himself, Therem did not regain his again. They both underwent a symbolic death and rebirth by losing their identification papers, and then getting new ones. A difference in that stage in their journeys was that Genly went into a place which was very symbolic of a mother’s womb, and Therem did not. They also both met symbolically with a deity. For Genly, the Goddess was Faxe; Therem’s God was Genly. They both have a symbolic sacred marriage with their God(dess). This means that Genly takes part in sacred marriage twice, since he had his own sacred marriage with Faxe, and then another one with Therem. They both learn a lesson in the shifgrethor by way of the money Genly brings to Therem; Genly learned that shifgrethor may be played on the level of ethics, and Therem learned that Genly’s shifgrethor is entirely different from his own. This understanding is a key step towards understanding each other and bringing their races closer together.
Genly and Therem continued their quest in Orgoreyn, though both of them fail there. When Genly was abducted from where he has been staying in Orgoreyn and taken to Pulefen Farm, he was rescued by Therem. Together they made the long trek across the ice, which is the threshold across which the powers of Orgoreyn could not follow them. When they arrived in Karhide Genly signaled his ship; king Argaven agreed to join the Ekumen, and their quest was completed. However, only Genly completed the hero’s journey, because Therem was killed before he could continue to live his life. Genly was very unsettled until he went to Estre where he found peace within himself, and could continue on with his life.

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