This is a literary analysis of Ursula K Le Guin’s The Beginning Place, not a review. This essay will contain plot spoilers.

The Beginning Place
The Beginning Place by Ursula K Le Guin, 2018 Tor Edition cover

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 schedules.

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 mothers.

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 space.

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.

Categories: Literary Analysis

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