Cheek by Jowl by Ursula K. Le Guin

“I have been asking for thirty years why most critics are afraid of dragons while most children, and many adults, are not”

“fantasy is not primitive, but primary”

6380284This book contains a series of essays on fantasy by Le Guin written in a highly assertive and critical tone. I think I will re-read this every year because it’s a little manifesto worth memorizing. The dominant essay in this collection is the central one (also the longest) focusing on animals in children’s literature and fantasy.

Le Guin begins the series of essays in debunking three stereotypes attached to fantasy like: (1) the characters are white (2) it’s a fantasy land in the middle ages (3) fantasy by definition concerns a battle between Good and Evil. She explores the reasons why some children’s literature is often in a pre-industrial setting, and how fairy tale retellings don’t necessarily mean changing the story, rather, poaching at it and getting into it.

“it interests me that most of these ‘lifelong’ children’s books are fantasies: books in which magic works, or animals speak, or the laws of physics yield to the laws of the human psyche.”

Le Guin questions what the making of fantasy really entails. For instance, a woman may turn into a troll in fantasy, but what does it really mean for a woman to turn into a troll? She compares it to “realist” literature like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Could one say that she has morphed into something monstrous?

Le Guin then turns her attention to the fantastic elements in other novels we consider great ‘realist’ and ‘serious’ literature like Moby Dick.

“The fantasy element of Moby Dick is Moby Dick. To include an animal as a protagonist equal with the human is—in modern terms—to write a fantasy. To include anything on equal footing with the human, as equal in importance, is to abandon realism…Melville’s white whale isn’t a real whale, he’s a beast of the imagination, like dragons or unicorns; hence Moby Dick is not an animal story, but it is a fantasy.”

In the main essay focusing on animals Le Guin examines how we used to be around animals in our earlier stages and what fantasy tries to capture:

“Animals were once more to us than meat, pests, or pets: they were fellow-creatures, colleagues, dangerous equals. We might eat them; but then, they might eat us. That is at least part of the truth of my dragons. They remind us that the human is not the universal.”

“As hunter-gatherers, our relationship to the animals was not one of using, caretaking, ownership. We were among, not above. We are a like in the food chain…each is at the service of the other. Interdependent. A community. Cheek by jowl.”

In literature we find interdependence between animals and nature, coexisting with humans in the same spaces. Lucretius’s poem On the Nature of Things shows us, Le Guin emphasizes, that “Lucretius saw no barrier between man and the rest of creation.” As we distanced ourselves from nature an animals with cities, and passed the industrial period, we separated ourselves from other species “to assert difference and dominance.”

Le Guin spends the rest of the book showing us the many ways in which fantasy as genre, found often in Children’s Literature brings us back to this imagined past where animals are integrated in society as equals. She examines Bambi, The Jungle Book, The Wind in the Willows, among many others and discusses how these points reinforce her thesis, and why they have been so successful. Le Guin uses some of her own stories and shows how she has tried to capture certain things and for what purpose.

Lastly, a part of this book that stayed with me, is Le Guin’s reaction to the Harry Potter phenomenon. Granted, this collection came out the same year as The Deathly Hallows, and didn’t examine in detail the overall effect and its subsequent ‘merchendise, Potter-world, Fantastic Beasts, and  Jack Thorne’s Cursed Child‘ but Le Guin has a bone to pick with the critics who had for years shunned fantasy and all of a sudden went along with the main crowd. Le Guin writes that she finds it normal for the public to fall in love with Rowling’s fantasy because they found something they missed out on since childhood, but she says:

“How could so many reviewers and literary critics know so little about a major field of fiction, have so little background, so few standards of comparison, that they believed a book that was typical of a tradition, indeed quite conventional, even derivative, to be a unique achievement?”

Le Guin blames the modernists, realists, and curriculum builders as well as the Edmund Wilson and his generation who labelled ‘realism’ and its various forms as the only kind of ‘serious’ literature. I love her criticism, brutal honesty, and analysis. All Cheek by Jowl has made me want to do is to read her all her essay collections and all her Science Fiction and Fantasy which is all now on my immediate TBR.

This book is one really well-written argument. The whole time I was highlighting and thinking of all the professors to whom I would like to send a copy. I think this book is perfect in how it’s written and how it delivers its argument. I was trying to think of a retort and couldn’t because her argument was that well done. Even in parts that I felt differently towards going in, I found myself converted by the end. Everyone should read this book.

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