Tag Archives: Ursula Le Guin

Reading Fantasy

romantic novelist reading aloudDuring lockdown I’ve been reading even more than usual – and looking back over my Kindle intake for the last 13 weeks, I see that a surprising amount of it is fantasy. I use the term to embrace novels that may be classified also as paranormal, speculative fiction, time travel, alternative history, steampunk or even science fiction.

I was telling a friend this and he looked rather shocked. “You must have been desperate,” he said.

World building fantasy mirrorWell yes, I was – desperate for a cracking good read that would take me somewhere other than a world I was rather fond which seemed to be going to hell in a hand basket. But not so desperate that I lurched into uncharted jungle. I like fantasy. I’ve always read quite a bit of it anyway. Didn’t he?

He shuddered. “Oh romance!” he said. (Actually he said something rather crisper than that, and I found it funny and shouldn’t have, so I’m not sharing.)

I conscientiously did not take umbrage. (And a lot of it was not at all romantic, anyway.) But it set me thinking. 

Why Read Fantasy?

Beaulieu River near FawleyMy mother was the first person to ask me “Why read fantasy?” I was deep in The Lord of the Rings at the time. Actually I was weeping over Gimli’s parting from Galadriel in the forest. (I still do.)

My mother just couldn’t understand it. “But it’s not real,” she said. 

I pointed out that neither was Anna Karenina. And I knew she’d wept buckets over that, because she told me so herself. “Yes,’ said my mother unanswerably, “but Anna Karenina might have been lots of people. Nobody was or is ever going to be a Tolkien dwarf.”

clock showing just after half past 12She went off muttering, “And he was a don! Supposed to be educating people! What was the man thinking of?”

Then she shouted up the stairs, “When are you going to do your homework?”

The subtext clearly was terrible waste of time.

Fantasy and Folk Lore

I didn’t agree with her then and I don’t agree with her now. I’ve been a reader of fantasy pretty much all my life. I started off with Lang’s Fairy Books. I found a couple on the bookshelf of an ageing relative and the rest in the public library, God bless it.

There were 12 of them in various colours, the first Blue the last, The Lilac Fairy Book.  As well as other journalism, translation, historical monographs and studies, Lang produced an impressive assortment of other stories, including The Arabian Nights

Lang was one of the Renaissance men of late Victorian England – a classicist, an historian, interested in literature, religion and also psychical research and, above all, folk lore.

Taking Fantasy Seriously

Like Francis James Child, out collecting English and Scottish Popular Ballads which he published 1882-1898, or Sir James Frazer who published The Golden Bough in 1890, Lang took folk stories seriously.

I was a straightforward child. I didn’t expect to meet a wicked fairy queen or a duplicitous genie on the bus to school, 

But I suspended disbelief for the duration of the story. I knew that something real was happening here. 

Fantasy and The Enemy

Folklore and myth is full of powerful enemies – the gods in a bad mood, a witch with a grudge, a vampire feeling thirsty. The Bible gives us the serpent in the Garden, motiveless malice which could have been defied. Only it wasn’t, because mankind (i.e us) was too weak.

But what if mankind was just too afraid? And with justification?

In childhood we dread monsters under the bed. Saying that it is irrational, doesn’t banish the fear. And fear drives – or impedes – action.

Tolkien,  who served in France during the First World War, turned the horrors of the devastated battlefield into Mordor. Sauron is the great enemy, with all the characteristics of the mediaeval devil combined with Milton’s Satan. And that is allied to the terrifying ability to sway the cleverest and bravest like the most guileful twenty-first century PR guru.

The reader knows, throughout all three volumes, that this is a war which we may well lose. And if we win, it will be at terrible cost.

By contrast, Terry Pratchett, who also took childhood horrors seriously, endows Susan, Death’s granddaughter, when she is temporarily a governess, with a poker to beat the living daylights out of the bogeyman under the bed.

The violence comforts the children enormously. 

Violence is one of the things that fantasy is still allowed to show as  Not Always A Bad Thing.

Fantasy and the Rescuer

The Hero Rescuer has bit of a problem in modern times. Basically he deprives the person he rescues of agency.

Incidentally, this wiped out one of the great tropes of romantic fiction for 200 years or more, with the wave of a gender politics wand.

This is true, even in for instance, Georgian and Regency novels, where a wife genuinely had no legal identity and was effectively her husband’s property. Perfect opportunity for Sir Galahad, you might think. But we modern readers still recoil. 

But in a fantasy novel, if the author constructs the world carefully, he/she can create room for a rescuer that won’t offend 2020 sensibilities.

I have found some wonderful rescuers over the last three months. A whole legion of them in Patricia Briggs’s werewolf saga, the Mercy Thompson books and the linked series Alpha and Omega. (OK, I binge read her.)

But I already had a well-stocked library of fantasy novels that I read and re-read because they tell me things about the world, relationships and myself. And possibilities. even hope.

And what surprising things people can do, with a bit of belief, a dash of kindness and a lot of luck.

Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley, The Queen’s Wing by Jessica Thorne, The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley, The Untied Kingdom by Kate Johnson (woman versus Autocorrect is just the first battle with that one. You try googling it !) The Unlikely Ones by Mary Brown, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K LeGuin…

Fantasy in Fire and Hemlock

But probably, for me, the most striking example of fantasy telling the reader the strangeness that humanity experiences and what it can do about it is Diana Wynne Jones’s haunting Fire and Hemlock.

The story is based on the ballad of Tam Lin. (see the Child Ballads for assorted versions) which in turn is related to Thomas the Rhymer. A parallel world of inexplicable characters of power and strange limitations is there right from the start. The reader travels through as much of a fog as do the characters.

But the sense of something huge, perceived only out of the corner of the eye, is there too.
As in Tolkien. the hero can only win by losing. 

The rescuer is not at all a traditional champion. Indeed, at the start of the book, she is a child and shown as both vulnerable and without many resources. But she is courageous and a truth teller and these qualities help her to muddle her way through in the nick of time. 

5 golden rings, Lord of the RingsAnd the person she rescues is trying all the time to give her – and himself – the best possible chance.

During her childhood and early adolescence he sends her helpful books – and they are heavily weighted towards fantasy. Five Children and It. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. The Sword in the Stone. And, of course, The Lord of the Rings. 

She even builds a whole story, in which she stars as Hero out of Tolkien. She sends it to him. It won’t do. He writes back, “Use your own ideas.” 

Someone else’s fantasy is only the start, you see. To make the magic work, you have to find your own.

Sophie Weston Author


Kingsblood Royal vs To Kill A Mockingbird

A Book to Change How You Think?

To Kill A Mockingbird coverGo Set A Watchman cover


Many readers would say that Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird was a book that changed the way they thought about the racial divide in the USA. Many more were brought to the issues via the film of the same name, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch.


The recent publication of Harper Lee’s earlier book Go Set A Watchman received very mixed reviews: some questioned whether the book should have been published at all, given its history; others were shocked by the racism and bigotry of Watchman’s Atticus. Interestingly, Ursula K Le Guin wrote that Watchman, “for all its faults and omissions, asks some of the hard questions To Kill A Mockingbird evades”. Which brings us neatly to…

Kingsblood Royal — tackling the Mockingbird theme, but better?

Our latest Love Letter to a Favourite Novel is about Kingsblood Royal, a book many of us will never have heard of, by Sinclair Lewis — an American author some readers will not have heard of, either, even though he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature (and wrote Elmer Gantry).

kingsblood royal love letter

Peter, our passionate reader advocate, believes that Kingsblood Royal is “a much more powerful analysis of American racism than To Kill A Mockingbird“. Reading Lewis’s novel, Peter adds, made him feel “uncomfortable in a way that Harper Lee never quite managed”.

Peter doesn’t argue that Kingsblood Royal should replace To Kill A Mockingbird in our schools but he does make a forceful argument that Lewis’s book should be better known.

Hive members are convinced. Do read Peter’s Love Letter and see if you are, too.

The Importance of Readers (reposted from RNA Blog)

This post on The Importance of Readers was originally a guest piece on the Romantic Novelists’ Association blog. Many thanks to the RNA for letting us repost it here, complete with thoughts on our progress, nearly a year on…

Sophie Weston AuthorBack in December 2015, Sophie Weston wrote . . .

Every author understands the importance of readers.They nurture our visions, buy our books, keep us creating. You might say, they’re our raison d’être.

But how much do we know about how or why or even what they do, when they read? Especially when they read fiction.

When I say they, of course I mean we.

All authors were readers before we started to write. Most of us stay readers — some, voracious — throughout our lives. Sometimes though, we don’t read the way we used to, need to, if we’re to fulfil the purist job description. Continue reading