On "fantasy's green country" and the place of the (non)human

I’m writing a journal article on research methodologies right now and won’t be able to use all the bits of Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists” that I think are brilliant. The whole essay is worth reading, of course, and if I could include a ridiculously long quote this would be it:

“But I will defend fantasy’s green country.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth is not just pre-industrial. It is also pre-human and non-human. It can be seen as a late and tragic European parallel to the American myth-world where Coyote and Raven and the rest of them are getting ready for ‘the people who are coming’ – human beings.


The fields and forests, the villages and byroads, once did belong to us, when we belonged to them. That is the truth of the non-industrial setting of so much fantasy. It reminds us of what we have denied, and we have exiled ourselves from.

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.

What fantasy often does that the realistic novel generally cannot do is include the nonhuman as essential . . . To include anything on equal footing with the human, as equal in importance, is to abandon realism.


I venture a non-defining statement: realistic fiction is drawn towards anthropocentrism, fantasy away from it. Although the green country of fantasy seems to be entirely the invention of human imaginations, it verges on and partakes of actual realms in which humanity is not lord and master, is not central, is not even important. In this, fantasy may come much closer to the immense overview of the exact sciences than does science fiction, which is very largely obsessed by a kind of imperialism of human knowledge and control, a colonial attitude towards the universe.


It is a fact that we as a species have lived for most of our time on earth as animals among animals, as tribes in the wilderness, as farmers, villagers, and citizens in a closely known region of farmland and forests. Beyond the exact and intricately detailed map of local knowledge, beyond the homelands, in the blank parts of the map, lived the others, the dangerous strangers, those not in the family, those not (yet) known. Even before they learn (if they are taught) about this small world of the long human past, most children seem to still feel at home in it; and many keep an affinity for it, are drawn to it. They make maps of bits of it — islands, valleys among the mountains, dream-towns with wonderful names, dream-roads that do not lead to Rome — with blank spaces all around.


In reinventing the world of intense, unreproducible, local knowledge, seemingly by a denial or evasion of current reality, fantasists are perhaps trying to assert and explore a larger reality than we now allow ourselves. They are trying to restore the sense — to regain the knowledge — that there is somewhere else, anywhere else, where other people may live another kind of life.”

— Ursula K. Le Guin, Cheek By Jowl, 2009

Wow. Just wow.