A shoreless kingdom

Cover illustration of a generic Middle European walled city for Le Guin’s Malafrena by an uncredited artist for Panther Books 1981

Having recently completed and been impressed by Ursula K le Guin’s Malafrena (1979), a novel set in her imagined country of Orsinia in the early 19th century, I thought I would compose a few thoughts about its history and geography before posting a review.

I’ve already discussed her bleak but beautiful short story collection called Orsinian Tales, in which a series of vignettes detailing lives lived during a thousand years of Orsinian history gives us a flavour of this fictional nation somewhere east of central Europe. Referenced as Orciny in China Miéville’s fantasy The City and the City, Le Guin’s landlocked country is the sort of polity that may well have existed in Europe’s chequered history which — not unlike Miéville’s twin cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma somewhere at the edge of Europe — seems to have slipped out of most Europeans’ consciousness.

Now may be a good time to set the scene for what we may expect in a review of Malafrena, and for that we need maps and a bit of historical context.

Middle and Eastern Europe’s complex ethnic mix from ‘The Comparative Atlas’ (Meiklejohn & Son 1936)

Unlike England, for example, which seems to have achieved a sense of nationhood in the years up to the Norman Conquest in the 11th century, much of Europe remained a patchwork of small independent kingdoms, duchies and disputed territories right through to the 20th century. While France and Spain gradually consolidated their respective mosaics into now more or less recognisable nations, Italy, Germany and other polities fragmented and coalesced throughout a millennium, sometimes even disappearing as concepts, until the Treaty of Versailles (1919) rendered of Europe a map very close to the one which exists today.

The reason for such volatile borders is clear from a look at ethnicities in the years leading up to the second world war. Ethnographic sketch maps in a 1936 atlas remind us how peoples with varied languages, traditions and cultures constantly crossed boundaries formed by geography and the flick of a politician’s wrist. Even the last score or more of years reveals previous entities like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia resolving into constituent elements. Into such a hotchpotch of migrating frontiers we can easily imagine Orsinia with its ten provinces being somewhat overlooked by the historian.

A contemporary map of the Austrian Empire in 1861, stretching from northern Italy and Bohemia in the west to the borders of the Ottoman Empire in the southeast.

Le Guin chose to create a fictional country to set her nineteenth-century epic and, being created from her own imagination, what better to call it than a term derived from her own forename, Ursula? Ultimately originating in the Latin ursus, ‘bear’, Orsinia emerged from her mind formed like a squashed, distorted hexagon. If it looked a bit like Czechia — a country made up of Bohemia and Moravia — that was purely coincidental, but I note that both the capital Krasnoy and the eastern province of Sovena have a similarly squat shape.

Both the Tales and Malafrena range across ten provinces, some named from the principal rivers such as the Molsen, the Soven and the Frailen, others describing their geographical location: the Northern Marches, the Western Marches, Perana, Molsena, Frelana, Kesena, Sovena, Montayna, Sudana and Polana. The Tales each tended to focus on particular provinces or cities, but — as we shall see — Malafrena is mainly set in the provinces stretching in a band across the middle of the country.

Ursula Le Guin’s hand-drawn map of Orsinia (ursulakleguin.com)

Officially some publishers tell us that Orsinia has as ‘near neighbours’ Czechoslovakia, Poland and Romania, with Austria also as a given, a state of affairs to which we will attribute elements in the language reminiscent of both Slavic forms and Romance names. But this is a country which is both isolated and yet very aware of a Europe outside its borders: there will be references to Austria obviously, but also to Italy, England, and France, and we will remember that the action in Malafrena takes place a mere decade or so after the defeat of Napoleon, with the events of the French Revolution still vivid in an older generation’s memory.

Eugène Delacroix: La liberté guidant le peuple (1830)

The novel’s arc actually covers the years between 1825 and 1830. In 1824 Byron had died during the Greek War of Independence against the Ottomans, an uprising that was to end successfully in 1830. The novel’s final climax is signalled by news of the July Revolution in France, a movement which brought down the absolutist Bourbon regime in favour of a constitutional monarchy (Eugène Delacroix’s contemporary painting of Liberty leading anti-monarchists over a barricade formed of corpses commemorates this event). Other countries followed suit, including Poland which had its own, ultimately abortive, November uprising against the Russian Empire.

In fact much of Europe, desperate for some form of self-determination, was in turmoil during this period, opposed by conservative forces such as Chancellor Metternich in Austria and Charles X in France, and so it is with Orsinia. But all this is as a background to Le Guin’s epic which is focused largely on a couple of families from estates in the mountainous west of the country, in particular on the young idealist Itale Sorde. Because, as the author emphasised in a 1976 paper “Science Fiction and Mrs Brown”,

The writers’ interest is no longer in the gadget, or the size of the universe, or the laws of robotics, or the destiny of social classes, or anything describable in quantitative, or mechanical, or objective terms. They are not interested in what things do, but in how things are. Their subject is the subject, that which cannot be other than subject: ourselves. Human beings.

UKLG was talking about the appearance of somebody like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Brown in contemporary science fiction, but in the context of a romance about social unrest in a fictional country the same approach applies: human beings and particular individuals are what must be our focus, the worldbuilding a canvas on which we seek the figures to engage us and maybe relate to.

A review will follow in due course, but I would like to return to the worldbuilding afterwards because this pseudocartography has to have a feeling of verisimilitude if we are to believe that characters inhabit a real world and that they aren’t just marionettes playing against flimsy painted scenery. And it now also occurs to me that a landlocked country — “my shoreless kingdom” is its description by Orsinian poet Amadey Estenskar — must have been a perfect antidote to the island archipelago that was Earthsea.


* John Bartholomew, The Comparative Atlas Of Physical And Political Geography. Meiklejohn & Son Limited, 1936.

* Ursula K Le Guin, ‘Science Fiction and Mrs Brown’ in Peter Nicholls (editor), Explorations of the Marvellous: The science and the fiction in science fiction. Fontana Science Fiction, 1978. First published as Science Fiction at Large by Victor Gollancz, 1976.
Orsinian Tales. Panther Books, 1976.
Malafrena. Panther Books, 1981 (1979).

12 thoughts on “A shoreless kingdom

  1. I‘ve yet to read Le Guin‘s „Orsinia“ (I know, I know …), but I‘ve recently been reminded of the Eastern European hodge podge of history and nationalities that appears so alien to us living further west when (finally) reading the last part of Patrick Leigh Fermor‘s account of his walk to Constantinople, „The Broken Road“ (completed / edited by Artemis Cooper and Colin Thubron). It is easy to see how Le Guin would come to choose such an environment, with its shifting external determinators, as a setting for a series of tales putting the individual (and their internal life) front and center.

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    1. The thing about these fictions — the novel and the short stories — is that Le Guin hadn’t at that time actually visited this part of Europe, relying instead on her knowledge of and affection for European literature and history of this period and later. Many of the tales, for example, drew on contemporary events and social unrest (the Hungarian uprising, or the Prague Spring for example) she knew from the news and which were reflected in the background of her stories, most of which were written or begun in the 50s and 60s.

      Your description of The Broken Road reminds me that so many of these literary pilgrimages are walks not just through landscapes but through histories with their pluralities of cultures and traditions, and conflicts and creeds. But ultimately, as you say, it’s the individuals that we want to hear about, the types the writer might meet on a train or on a park bench, or whose meal they might be invited to share.

      I do hope you get round to one or other of these volumes, Ulrike, and see how her fiction might approach Fermor’s travelogue. Myself, I’m waiting for delivery of The Complete Orsinia (currently being reprinted) which is an expanded hardback edition of these two and related pieces, ready for the expected reread in the not too distant future!

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    1. Thanks, Jeanne—for me, maps are often a way not just into speculative fiction but other genres and even fiction that pretends it isn’t a genre at all! I’m planning to do more detailed maps of Orsinia than that offered by Le Guin’s sketch plan, both for myself and for anyone wanting to ‘inhabit’ the country.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Based on my own reading of UKLG’s Orsinia based stories, I made my own map of the place, also a gazetteer. I had written her in 1988 asking if she had ever made a map of Orsinia herself. She replied graciously that she had, but that it was up in her attic somewhere and she would need a map herself to try to find it! 🙂 I was so happy to see that eventually her own map of Orsinia showed up on the web and in her Library of America edition of Malafrena and Orsinian Tales. I look forward to your own descriptions and maps of Orsinian geography!! Especially Krasnoy 🙂 I am a geofictioneer myself, and you can see some of my projects at http://www.alphistia.com if you are perhaps curious…

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        1. Thanks for commenting here, Tony, I’ve just had a quick visit to your website and am pleased to see the dedication of another geofictioneer towards their craft! I am still working on my more detailed maps of Orsinia but I have to finish the ‘extras’ in The Complete Orsinia before hopefully completing finishing touches. Expect something here in the next couple of months or so…

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  2. piotrek

    We have much better maps that show more green, and less pink than the one on the left 😉 Our main daily paper had an interesting article lately showing how various states in our area tried to prove their right to certain regions by manipulating the censuses…

    But seriously, the most fascinating thing for me lately is how the nations mix within individuals and families, and what a tragedy it is when a German, or indeed, Polish, state comes and demands full loyalty. Nations are vulgar oversimplifications of the complexity of human culture. And I need to re-read Orsinia, to reassess my view on how Le Guin dealt with that, as my memories of Malafrena are distorted by the oversimplifications I believed in when I read it years ago… I’m waiting for your full review!

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    1. I do so agree, Piotrek. The tragedy is when national identity demands total identification with a notion, an artificial construct of what the nation is supposed to be. Ultimately it’s always about power—who decides it, who has it, who wields it—and nothing at all to do with natural justice.

      Maps!!! You won’t get me trying to allot ethnicities in my version of Orsinia’s layout, you may be pleased to know, especially as apart from differences in provincial temperaments the only contrast is between Orsinians and Austrian overlords.

      One question you might be able to answer, Piotrek: the gender-neutral -skar suffix that Orsinian landed gentry bear and which seems to indicate an inherited connection to a demesne, does that reflect a Slavic practice? I assume it represents Le Guin’s ending for a toponymic surname like –ski in Russian

      Liked by 1 person

      1. piotrek

        Slavic languages generally have grammatical gender, and in Polish the -ski is for males, female surname would end with -ska. “Ski/ska” used to be associated with nobility, certainly so in XIX century. So -skar would have similar function, but without the important gender distinction.

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        1. I knew Poles at school and later taught many and so knew some surname endings indicated gender; I guess Le Guin may have chosen the non-specific -skar to keep names simple for many Anglophone readers.

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    1. Absolutely, that ability to look through both ends of the telescope in the Orsinian stories is what I love too. Coincidentally, my copy of The Complete Orsinia finally arrived today after a few weeks delay, and I’m looking forward to delving into it after completing a review of the single-volume copy of Malafrena I read.

      I will go back and read some of your other posts in due course as I can see there are some hard-hitting critiques included there! Thanks for commenting here, though.

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