Ursula K. Le Guin: “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?”

I’ve been reading Ursula Le Guin’s collection of essays, The Language of the Night, and found her 1974 essay “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” just as relevant today as it ever was back then. In our post-Harry Potter world, perhaps we’re a little less afraid of fantasy as a culture, but her point remains cogent, given the backlash against Harry Potter and his ilk, too. Here’s an excerpt:

For fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it is true. Children know that. Adults know it too, and that is precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living. They are afraid of dragons, because they are afraid of freedom.

This freedom she speaks of is that of the imagination, the ability to believe in things you know not to be real:

So I believe that we should trust our children. Normal children do not confuse reality and fantasy—they confuse them much less often than we adults do (as a certain great fantasist pointed out in a story called “The Emperor’s New Clothes”). Children know perfectly well that unicorns aren’t real, but they also know that books about unicorns, if they are good books, are true books. All too often, that’s more than Mummy and Daddy know; for, in denying their childhood, the adults have denied half their knowledge, and are left with the sad, sterile little fact: “Unicorns aren’t real.” And that fact is one that never got anybody anywhere (except in the story “The Unicorn in the Garden,” by another great fantasist, in which it is shown that a devotion to the unreality of unicorns may get you straight into the loony bin). It is by such statements as, “Once upon a time there was a dragon,” or “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”—it is by such beautiful non-facts that we fantastic human beings may arrive, in our peculiar fashion, at the truth.

Unfortunately, the essay isn’t online to link to the rest of it, but do look up The Language of the Night at your local library (it doesn’t appear to still be in print, but used copies are going for anywhere from 75 cents on Half.com to $151 on Amazon). I’m still working my way through—each essay is fascinating. Working my way up to “American SF and the Other,” which is the reason I checked the book out from the library.

ETA: A blogger whose post on this essay is one of the top Google results posted the results of a Q & A with Le Guin last year that addresses her thoughts on where we are today.

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