Once-upon-a-time realms

Inverted commas 9: Imaginary Worlds

Imagination like all living things lives now, and it lives with, from, on true change. Like all we do and have, it can be co-opted and degraded; but it survives commercial and didactic exploitation. The land outlasts the empires. The conquerors may leave desert where there was forest and meadow, but the rain will fall, the rivers will run to the sea.
— from the foreword of Ursula Le Guin’s Tales from Earthsea (2001)

The late Ursula Le Guin knew all about fantastic realms. She created several, including the abiding world of Earthsea, that archipelago of islands amidst a boundless ocean.

In her foreword to the collection of short stories about this world she took a tilt at what she called commodified fantasy which, she asserted, “takes no risks: it invents nothing, but invents and trivialises.” We’re well aware of that derivative impulse that somehow diminishes what it feeds on: we see it constantly in never-ending book franchises, films, TV series, video games and assorted spin-offs: it’s a desperate experience to watch as they dilute the originals, before squeezing every last drop of merchandising out of them.

But she is optimistic about the capacity of the imagination to mount rearguard actions whenever needed, to defend against insidious exploitation whether of the commercial or intellectual kind:

The unstable, mutable, untruthful realms of Once-upon-a-time are as much a part of human history and thought as the nations in our kaleidoscopic atlases, and some are more enduring.

Despite much evidence to the contrary I too am optimistic, but she is much more eloquent on the subject than I will ever be, pointing out that these realms can adapt and evolve:

We have inhabited both the actual and the imaginary realms for a long time. But we don’t live in either place the way our parents or ancestors did. Enchantment alters with age, and with the age.

When UKLG revisited Earthsea for her final novel and short story collection she was overjoyed to find it “entirely familiar, and yet changed and still changing”. Which is entirely as it should be: when rereading the sequence I found that I had misremembered bits and forgotten others, and it will be the same when I go back at some stage in the future.

To finish, here are the hypotheses about Earthsea — and indeed any other world of the imagination — that she postulates for returning visitors to consider:

Things change:

authors and wizards are not always to be trusted:

nobody can explain a dragon.


I shall be posting a review of the final Earthsea novel The Other Wind, partly distilled from a discussion Lizzie Ross, Lory Hess and I did for the Witch Week event in 2018 but this time to coincide with May’s Wyrd & Wonder event. Tales from Earthsea will have to wait just a little longer.

Posts may appear a bit randomly for the next little while: I’m involved with a local music festival featuring Bach’s great B minor Mass and Purcell’s The Fairy Queen; as well as singing in the chorus for these I’ll be accompanying choral scholars for a recital and playing continuo for sacred music by Vivaldi for the festival service, and of course rehearsals are getting quite intense . . .

22 thoughts on “Once-upon-a-time realms

  1. Good luck with the festival, Chris! Could we count on a short post about it and your part in it (with pictures, hopefully)? Looking forward to your Tales from Earthsea review 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Ola! We’re doing the Purcell piece from memory and as I’ve been répétiteur for all the rehearsals I’m not as familiar with my part as I ought to be. And there’s only ten days to go… 😁

      Yes, I’ll have a think about posting a piece about the festival—it’s the 25th anniversary and all bar one of the events is sold out. The solo singer and the trumpeter from Meghan and Harry’s wedding are featured (Elin Manahan-Thomas is also the festival’s honorary patron) so I think that may have something to do with the matter!

      I’ll aim to post a review of Tales after the end of May.

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  2. Pingback: Once-upon-a-time realms — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

  3. One of my pet bugbears is the constant remakes and revisiting themes thoroughly exploited by the original inventors. In spite of all the modern technology, often the new product is a pale shadow of the original.

    I do need to revisit Earthsea.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Old curmudgeon that I am, the more I watch of CGI-enhanced fantasy and the manufactured emotions of superheroes the more I long for genuine humans, not cut-outs, and authentic dilemmas, not artificially-contrived conundrums, to engage the viewing public. For all that Earthsea is predicated on fantasy Le Guin does, I feel, hold a mirror up to our very real predicaments, those concerning relationships with family, friends, the wider world and the environment.

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  4. Le Guin was a true original and a wise guide to realms of the imagination. Still is, for her works continue to teach us. I’m still working my way through them, always welcoming more discussion.

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  5. Ooo, the festival sounds interesting – best of luck with that. 🙂 And can I second Ola in asking for a short post about it afterwards maybe?
    As for a review of The Other Wind – I look forward to that. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I shall definitely post something about the festival then, in response to ‘popular demand’! 😀 And I’ve been drafting a review of The Other Wind, but I’ve decided Tales from Earthsea takes priority.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Lovely and true words from LeGuin and you both. There’s definitely something to be said about the lack of imagination today–heck, just look at Disney’s retelling of its animation as live-action, all the sequels, all the prequels, all the soft reboots, all the hard reboots, all the “reimaginings….”
    It makes today’s storytelling taste so…so bland, doesn’t it? Like flavorless yogurt.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s always the worry: retellings that are essentially parasitic, feeding on their host, sucking any life force out of it, maybe eventually to kill it. Much better would be symbiotic partnerships—if I could think of any! I’ll have a think and see what I can come up with, Jean, you’ve fired me with a new positivity… 😊

      Liked by 1 person

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