The Way of the Fantasist

“The Way of the Fantasist: Ethical Complexities in the Taoist Mythopoeic Fantasy of Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.”

in Teens and the New Religious Landscape: Essays on Contemporary Young Adult Fiction, edited by Dr. Jacob Stratman, McFarland & Company, 2018, pp. 171-88.

Introduction—Postsecular Fantasy

The grand narrative of secularism and its promise to expunge the public sphere of religious expression has not lived up to its modernist expectations. Interest in orthodox religion, heterodoxy, spirituality, and mysticism thrive in this postsecular age. As J. P. Moreland discusses in Scaling the Secular City, the various presuppositions of materialism and the logical consequences of methodological naturalism at the very heart of secularism are too reductive and logically self-defeating to satisfy the longings of the human heart and to fuel the aspirations of the imagination (185-224). Moreover, contemporary philosophers and thinkers such as William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga, and Marilynne Robinson argue that the supposed irreconcilable division between secular naturalism and religious faith is pure myth, noting that reason and faith, science and religion, physics and metaphysics complement each other, opening up diverse ways of comprehending this complex universe and our places in it.[1] In short, pure secular materialism is intellectually narrow, strips the world of wonder, diminishes and even denies spiritual appreciation of beauty, and reduces the awe-inspiring human being to an accidental complex of molecules in motion. Such a spiritually bankrupt, aesthetically vapid, and imaginatively void perspective is unsatisfactory because, among other things, it is ultimately unsatisfying. For many, it is unlivable.

Where secular methodological naturalism and scientific materialism disappoint, religion and mysticism invite those postsecularists who want more than mere pragmatism and physicalism into wider realms of spiritual reality and imaginative possibilities. Although many definitions of postsecularism exist, generally speaking, postsecular perspectives seek to unite religious and secular thought, to discuss how secularist and religious perspectives can complement each other, and to explore ways in which the secular and the religious coexist such that there is both disenchantment and re-enchantment of our world.[2] Some postsecularists who find materialism spiritually lacking and aesthetically uninspiring do not necessarily wish to return to traditional religious orthodoxy. Instead, they seek satisfaction in alternative spiritualities for the deeper longings of their hearts and the desires of their imaginations, often by embracing Eastern mysticism through appropriating select elements and revised versions of such religions as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. Master storyteller Ursula K. Le Guin is one such postsecularist, choosing to build her mythopoeic subcreation, Earthsea, upon explicitly Taoist philosophical foundations. The Earthsea fantasy series abounds in Eastern mysticism, indeed rising to the level of Taoist apologetics. According to J. R. Wytenbroek, “Taoist ideas, rather than becoming the subject of her novels, become deeply interwoven with and form a basic element of many of her themes, characters, and even the structures of the plots and novels themselves” (173). Le Guin’s Taoist religious perspective and dualistic moral worldview are just as fundamental to her mythopoeic writing as the doctrines, morality, and narrative structures of Christianity are for the artistic expressions of other such mythopoeic writers of children’s and young adult fantasy literature as George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien.

Much like these other religiously inspired fantasy writers, Le Guin experienced her own spiritual journey, starting when she was an adolescent observing how the Tao Te Ching brought her secular father much comfort and provided some satisfaction to his deeper spiritual longings. Like her father, Le Guin found a spiritual and moral home in Taoism, and this religious worldview shapes her Earthsea books and informs much of her other speculative fiction (MacCaffery and Gregory 83). In her Earthsea saga, Le Guin is overtly Taoist, and, just as Lewis’s intellectually rigorous Christianity created a rich imaginative soil from which his fantasies grew, Le Guin’s embracing of Taoism and Eastern mysticism provides an intriguing and imaginatively challenging foundation upon which she builds a beautifully sustained subcreation. Le Guin adopts specific Taoist spiritual, philosophical, and moral principles to craft this bildungsroman fantasy, offering a convincing fantasy subcreation. Readers can escape into Earthsea not only to recover a sense of mystical wonderment absent from secularist perspectives, but they can also rediscover a faith in the possibility of personal moral instruction and improvement.

Several scholars have outlined specific ways in which Le Guin integrates Taoism in her literary craft, yet they have left unaddressed some important philosophical contradictions and narrative complications associated with her selective appropriation of Taoist concepts. Even though Ged, the central character in A Wizard of Earthsea, raises existential questions regarding the Taoist-inspired notions of Equilibrium that govern magic and morality in the novel, Le Guin ignores the troubling philosophical paradoxes and moral ambiguities associated with Taoist dualism. Moreover, scholars have overlooked some other fascinating elements of Taoist belief that Le Guin works quite subtly into her fabulation. Despite some unresolved paradoxes and because of her nuanced integration of lesser known Taoist principles, Le Guin creates a comprehensive mythopoeic fantasy novel that both delights and edifies the postsecular imagination that is open to such fabulation and willing to explore, analyze, and contemplate the spiritual blessings and philosophical paradoxes that is Earthsea.

[1] For example, see Craig, “What is the Relation between Science and Religion?”; Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies; and Robinson, “Humanism.”

[2] For overviews of the emergence of postsecular reactions to materialism, re-valuing of religion and spirituality, and analysis of a secular and religious co-existence, see Bauman vii-xi, Carruthers and Tate 1-8, Graham 236, Kaufman 68-73, McClure 1-25, and Ratti 1-32.