The Way of the Fantasist

The following book chapter proposal was accepted for inclusion in an upcoming book addressing representations of religious faith in young adult fiction.

The Way of the Fantasist: Ethical Complexities in the Dualistic Mythopoeic Fantasy of Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea

Master storyteller Ursula K. Le Guin offers an important imaginative twist on mythopoeic subcreation, because she builds her Earthsea world upon explicitly Taoist philosophical foundations. This 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 writers of children’s and young adult fantasy literature as George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien.

Much like other religiously inspired fantasy writers, Le Guin experienced her own spiritual journey that led her to her religious views, starting when she was an adolescent observing how the Tao Te Ching brought her secular father much comfort and provided some answers 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 most of her other writings (MacCaffery and Gregory 83). Le Guin is overtly Taoist with her Earthsea saga, 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 from which she builds a beautifully sustained subcreation.

In my essay, I will focus on A Wizard of Earthsea and will explore the following key issues:

  • Taoist ethics and the existential challenges of wu wei (a core Taoist precept)
  • Bildungsroman as an Eastern, recursive process shaped by Taoist principles
  • Taoist embracing of evil in oneself to achieve balance
  • Fate, fatalism, and freewill in a dualistic universe


Wytenbroek, J. R. “Taoism in the Fantasies of Ursula K. Le Guin.” Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy 39 (1990): 173-80.

McCaffery, Larry and Sinda Gregory. “An Interview with Ursula Le Guin.” The Missouri Review 7, no. 2 (1984): 64-85.