Friday, September 2, 2016

Imaginary Countries

Ursula K. Le Guin (b. 1929)
From Ursula K. Le Guin: The Complete Orsinia

Two Children on Their Way to the Fairytale Forest, 1901–02, casein and oil on canvas by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863–1944). Image courtesy of The Athenaeum.
During her college years in the early 1950s, Ursula Kroeber began working on her first novel. She later recalled that the Soviet takeover of Czechoslovakia and subsequent events had “roused the political spirit in me,” but she hadn’t yet visited the countries of Eastern Europe and didn’t feel comfortable writing about them. She explains:
I was twenty years old, working at one of the dining tables about midnight, when I got the first glimpse of my other country. An unimportant country of middle Europe. One of those Hitler had trashed and Stalin was now trashing. . . . I see the river, the Molsen, running through an open, sunny countryside to the old capital, Krasnoy (krasniy, Slavic, “beautiful”). Krasnoy on its three hills: the Palace, the University, the Cathedral. The Cathedral of St Theodora, an egregiously unsaintly saint, my mother’s name. . . . I begin to find my way about, to feel myself at home, here in Orsenya, matrya miya, my motherland. I can live here, and find out who else lives here and what they do, and tell stories about it [from the Introduction, The Complete Orsinia].
It’s not a coincidence that the name of this imaginary country (Orsinia) and her own name both stem from Latin words for a female bear (orsa in Italian, from ursa in Latin). As Ursula K. Le Guin (she married in 1953) explained to James W. Bittner, “It’s my country so it bears my name”—and presumably the pun was intended.

Le Guin’s first published story, which appeared in 1961, was about a musician in a backwater province of this invented region. During the next three decades she wrote and published a total of thirteen stories and one novel set in Orsinia, and the tales span in chronology from the twelfth century to the late 1980s. “For years I felt as if I were a transmitter of some kind, that would be suddenly activated by an urgent message from Orsinia, from one century or another and from various persons.”

Eleven of those stories appeared in 1976 as Orsinian Tales, and the story that closes the collection is, appropriately enough, “Imaginary Countries.” Set during the last days of summer in 1935, it describes the Egideskar family as they end another year at “Asgard,” their vacation home. The three children—Stanislas, Paul, and Zida—have been spending the summer exploring the environs, mapping the trails, and envisioning make-believe realms, often based on Norse mythology, while their father and Josef, his research assistant, have been working on a history of medieval Orsinia, also known as “The Ten Provinces.”

As Bittner points out, both Ursula and Zida were six years old in 1935, so the story is, “among other things, a portrait of the artist as a young girl. Le Guin has written a tale about the family of a professor who is writing a history of Orsinia, a country she invented.” As she reminisced to an interviewer in 1988, the young Ursula and her brother “played narrative games with stuffed animals, with toy soldiers, or acting out parts ourselves,” and her vast reading that informed this recreation included science fiction stories and Norse myths. In addition, like the Egideskars, the Kroebers spent summers during the 1930s at a family getaway, a Napa Valley ranch named “Kishamish” (from a myth invented by Ursula’s brother). During those summers Ursula’s father, Alfred L. Kroeber, worked on what would become his monumental study in comparative cultural anthropology, Configurations of Culture Growth.

Still, in spite of the parallels with Le Guin’s own childhood, the story is very much a work of fiction. As she recently admitted, “Nothing and no one in it much resembles anywhere or anyone in my life, but all the same, it’s about as autobiographical as I ever got.”

Notes: The name of the Egideskars’ summer home, Asgard, is the realm of the high gods (the Aesir) in Norse mythology. The children incorporate numerous other references to Norse myths in their play. Yggdrasil is the World Tree, an enormous ash whose roots and branches connect the human home of Midgard (Middle Earth) with other realms, including Asgard. The half-giant Loki turned against his divine companions and was punished by being chained to a rock; one tradition places his prison under a grove of hot springs. In yet another myth, Baldur, the Norse god of light, is doomed by prophecy to die young. To forestall his death, his mother asks all things not to harm Baldur, but fails to ask the mistletoe. Since nothing will harm him, he is essentially invulnerable, and it becomes a game among the gods to aim missiles at him. His blind brother Hodur is left out of the game, but Loki makes an arrow out of the mistletoe and helps Hodur aim the bow, killing his brother. Finally, Ragnarök is the Twilight of the Gods, when everything will be destroyed and a new creation brought into being

Note also that the date at the end, 1935, refers to the year in which the story is set.

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