Richard’s Literary Byways: The Beginning Place, by Ursula K Le Guin

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    The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that this is the second book by Ursula K Le Guin that I have featured in these blogs. This is not a coincidence. I apologise to no one for my admiration of her writing: I believe that she deserves to be ranked, not only as a great writer of sci-fi and fantasy, but as a great writer full stop. I once (or possibly more than once) gave as an example of the power and vividness of her prose that she is the only writer I have read as an adult who has actually made my flesh creep.

    The passage that did that is in this book. Though obviously there is more to it than that, a lot more.

    Hugh is trapped. The demands of his unstable and emotionally abusive mother have forced him to abandon his ambition of studying to be a librarian and restricted his life to staying at home with her in an apartment on a soulless suburban housing development, and a dead-end job on a supermarket check-out. He would rather be almost anywhere else.

    One evening it all gets on top of him and he flees the apartment, running at random through the streets, out of the housing estate and off the edge of the world to find himself somewhere else entirely, a beautiful, apparently deserted land of rivers and forests, of tranquillity and perpetual evening twilight. The place becomes a refuge and a haven for him, and he returns again and again.

    Likewise driven by a desperate urge to escape, in her case from a violent and abusive stepfather, Irene has discovered the twilight land seven years earlier. She has explored much further than Hugh, and has found the little town of Tembreabrezi, where the gentle people have welcomed her into their peaceful lives and the couple who run the inn have all but adopted her as their daughter, giving her the sense of belonging she has never known in her dysfunctional family. She is fiercely resentful of Hugh’s intrusion into what she has come to regard as her own private world.

    But now Tembreabrezi is a safe refuge no longer, for a pall of fear is lying over the land. No one dares leave the immediate vicinity of the town, no one comes into the town from outside, and the trade upon which its prosperity depends has dried up. The townspeople cannot, or will not, speak about the terror that binds them, and try to pretend to Irene that nothing is wrong.

    When Hugh finds his way to the town he is nonplussed – as is Irene – when the people greet him as the hero who can save them from the fear. Still cagey, they tell him where to go, up to the highest meadow on the mountain above the town, but not what he will face there. Hugh agrees to go anyway, driven by the love he has conceived for the Lord’s daughter. Irene, who has grudgingly come to accept Hugh’s presence in the twilight land and whose own love, for the townspeople in general and for the Master of the town in particular, has been tainted by disillusionment over the underhandedness of these dealings, goes with him to show him the way.

    When they reach their goal they discover what Irene has suspected all along, that they have been the victims of an appalling act of betrayal. In the aftermath of that realisation, and of dealing with its consequences, they find their love for each other and their freedom.

    You may have gathered by now that The Beginning Place is not your standard escapist adventure fantasy fare. It is a fantasy with profound emotional and moral resonances, and the mainspring of its narrative is Hugh and Irene’s journey, not onto the mountain to face the fear, but towards the resolution of their problems in the real world.

    Perhaps this neither-fish-nor-fowl dichotomy is why it is one of the most obscure and least-regarded of Le Guin’s books. Fantasy fans are probably put off by the repeated intrusions of the real world and by the ordinariness of the protagonists, while those who prefer their fiction to deal with real-world people and issues probably can’t swallow the fantastic elements. But to this reader each facet strengthens the other to make a compelling whole, and the fact that Hugh and Irene are both ordinary, imperfect people struggling to make sense of their lives only draws me further into the story.

    And then there is Le Guin’s supple, lyrical and deceptively simple writing, which for me lifts any book by her out of the ordinary. No other writer I know can penetrate so deeply into the workings of the human heart in so few words. This book, overlooked as it is, is no exception.

    Oh, and don’t be put off by its YA label. It is no more ‘young readers only’ than are the Earthsea books – even less so, in my opinion. Though the protagonists are indeed young people (they are both actually twenty), the story has enough depth to satisfy even an old fart like me.

    This book presented me with a mystery as intriguing as that of the constant twilight of its alternative world. I first read, and was captivated by, The Beginning Place about forty years ago. That was a library book, and when I wished to read it again some years later all trace of it seemed to have been wiped from the Earth. I couldn’t find it in any shop or library, or even in lists of Le Guin’s published works. It was only quite recently that I discovered that the edition I had read, the first British publication, had been issued with a different title: I had been looking for a book called Threshold. It has been a quietly satisfying pleasure to finally get hold of my own copy.

    It’s still not too easy. Although the book has been reissued in the US since Le Guin’s death, along with much else, that hasn’t happened here as far as I can tell; and there is no digital edition. I had to go to, the Advanced Book Exchange, an online database of second-hand book sellers from all over the world. Worth bearing in mind if you haven’t heard of it, and if you ever want to chase down a hard-to-find book.

    And that flesh-creeping moment? You can probably guess at which point in the story it comes, but if this blog has given you any inclination to splash in the streams and walk under the trees of the mysterious twilight country with Hugh and Irene I’d be doing you a real disservice if I told you any more about it.


    Aha, this was the first Ursula K Le Guin book that I read and it made quite an impression on me.

    I think you’ve put your finger on why a mixture of normality and fantasy is so effective. The magic becomes a metaphor for the way that changes happen in our lives. As well as providing entertainment for those of us who like a bit of magic in our stories anyway.

    Great blog, again, Richard.


    Thank you Richard – sorry, my original reply has also slipped through a portal. I hadn’t heard of this book and as a HUGE admirer of Ursula le Guin I will do my best to remedy that (might be a challenge, from what you say). Thank you for a fascinating blog and for highlighting so clearly how fantasy can be just as powerful, if not more so, at speaking to human reality as something embedded in the ‘real’ world.


    Not too challenging, Kaz, if you do what I did and go to When I looked there were quite a few copies available from various sources.

    As for fantasy speaking to human reality, a lot of the tide of stuff that’s come pouring out since LOTR opened the flood-gates simply doesn’t. As a matter of interest here is Le Guin herself’s rather bad-tempered verdict on such writing.

    ‘Commodified fantasy takes no risks: it invents nothing, but imitates and trivialises. It proceeds by depriving the old stories of their intellectual and ethical complexity, turning their action to violence, their actors to dolls, and their truth-telling to sentimental platitude… The passionately conceived ideas of the great story-tellers are copied, stereotyped, reduced to toys, moulded in bright-coloured plastic, advertised, sold, broken, junked, replaceable, interchangeable.’

    A rather arrogant and intolerant attitude, you might say, but for the fact that Le Guin’s own writing does speak to human reality, very much so, and rather beautifully with it.

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