This is a literary analysis of Ursula K Le Guin’s The Beginning Place,
not a review. This essay will contain plot spoilers.
Of all of Le Guin’s novels, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Left Hand of
Darkness, and The Dispossessed are the most talked about. However, Le
Guin was also author to many other novels and novellas, some of which,
in my opinion, are vastly underrated, particularly The Lathe of
Heaven. Shortly after Le Guin’s death in 2018, Tor reissued two lesser
known Le Guin novels: The Eye of the Heron and The Beginning Place.
I promptly picked up a copy of each.
I read The Beginning Place earlier this year. The novel is subtle, has
two relatable lead characters, and its fantastic world, on the surface a
very stereotypical “hamlet under siege from a foul beast in the woods,”
is in fact the veneer overlaying sociological and psychological depths.
The two protagonists in question are Hugh and Irene. Both are in their
late teens or very early twenties and live in an unnamed US city in the
late 1970’s. Both have domestic issues at home. Hugh’s mother is petty,
insecure, controlling, and emotionally abusive. Irene’s biological
father is dead, and her mother has remarried an alcoholic, and we are
led to believe he may be sexually abusing the children as well. Irene
has mostly escaped this by choosing to live in an apartment with two
friends, except that she hasn’t truly escaped, because she is constantly
at the beck and call of her mother.
At the start of the novel, neither Hugh nor Irene is aware of the
other’s existence. Each of them independently stumbles upon a particular
path into the woods on the outskirts of their town, one that leads to a
place they come to call “the Threshold.” It is at first an unassuming
place, just a river running through the woods. However, it quickly
becomes apparent that it no normal place. No matter what time of day or
night it is, the Threshold exists perpetually in twilight. The other
fantastic property of the Threshold becomes readily apparent when the
protagonists return to the normal world. Time moves much more slowly in
the Threshold. For each hour that passes in the Threshold, only about
one minute passes in the normal world.
Beyond the river further into the land of perpetual twilight, lies a
village called Tembreabrezi, whose inhabitants Irene comes to know well,
even becoming proficient in their language.
And so the Threshold, for both Hugh and Irene, becomes a place of
solitude and recovery, a place Hugh can escape his abusive mother, and
where Irene is, in a sense, “adopted” by healthy parents.
Hugh and Irene’s first meeting is fraught. Both have come to think that
they are the only ones who know about the threshold, and the presence of
another inside it is threatening to them. Irene reacts with protective
hostility, and Hugh falls back on the docility and self-blaming
behaviors his mother has taught him. The two would have remained that
way, were it not for the fact that Hugh’s discovery of the Threshold
turns out to have changed how it works. When both of them are in the
normal world, Hugh must enter first, or Irene cannot cross over. When
both of them are in the Threshold, Irene must pass back to the normal
world first, or Hugh cannot cross over. In order to maintain any kind of
reliable access at all, the pair is forced to coordinate their
In the village of Tembreabrezi, meanwhile, a problem indicated to Irene
at the start of the novel has been growing worse. The villagers at first
lose access to the city some miles away, then later they fear even short
trips out of town. Finally, even the pastures and fields adjacent to the
town become anathema. The reasons for the lack of access are not
physical, but psychological. The inhabitants become filled with
overwhelming fear of those places. The source of this issue, they
believe is a dragon who lives in the nearby mountains.
Before long, Hugh is enlisted to slay the dragon, even given a sword.
The similarities to traditional fantasy are cosmetic only. The journey
to the dragon’s cave is one of psychological trickery, which plays on
both characters’ fears inculcated by their respective mothers. True to
form, when the characters finally do arrive at the “dragon,” it does not
to turn out to be anything like a typical drake, but instead of kind of
demonic heifer, a grotesque monstrosity of feminine imagery.
Even after Hugh slays it, its corpse symbolically collapses onto him,
nearly crushing and smothering him to death. This is just one of many
examples I could draw on to show that the fantastic setup, in which the
villagers are psychologically paralyzed by the dragon, mimics the
psychological damage Hugh and Irene have suffered by their respective
The conclusion of the novel, achieved after Hugh finally reaches a
hospital in the normal world, suggests that the characters have built
the mental fortitude to stand up to their toxic parents, another
effective mirror to the events of the fantastic Threshold and
Tembrebrezi, whose citizens can now presumably roam free.
I found all of this well executed. Hugh and Irene’s movements from
antagonists, to friends, to lovers was both believable and uniquely
executed. The fantastic elements were successfully integrated into the
novel’s themes. The novel achieves very large effects in a very short
I have exactly one negative critique of The Beginning Place, and
that’s the depiction of the toxic parents. The alcoholic’s alcoholism or
abusive behavior is never directly shown, and his docile wife is never
shown submitting to him. Untrue to form, she even encourages Irene to
find her own place if she hates her roommates so much—the opposite of
what someone needy should be doing. Hugh’s mother is even more
problematic. In one moment, she can be emotionally manipulative, but in
many others she is too sedate and subtle in her toxic language and not
nearly needy and pathetic enough when she needs to turn the screws.
While Hugh and Irene’s reactions to the abuse seem well-realized, their
tormentors are decidedly not.
Despite that, I find this novel exceptional. It is certainly an example
for when I wish to demonstrate how to effectively tie fantastic elements
to a theme. Its short length and thematic focus make it the perfect
example of that.