Dualism in LeGuin & Tolkien: On the Inseparable, Uncertain Nature of Light and Darkness (Guest Post by Ari)

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme selected by the Tolkien Society is Hope and Courage. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts!

It’s difficult to imagine what the literary works of Ursula K. LeGuin and J.R.R Tolkien might have in common. Though both authors shared a deep love of history and mythology, LeGuin’s stories appear to be predominantly influenced by Taoism, C.G Jung, feminism, and her experience growing up across the span of three major wars: WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. However, I found myself pondering all the ways the presence of dualism stuck out to me in Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. The novel not only explores the natures of good and evil; it poses the question of whether such conflict between the two is necessary. Examining examples from The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillian, I will analyze how each of the stories uniquely tackle and confront the uncertain nature of light and darkness.

“Light is the left hand of darkness, and darkness the right hand of light. Two are one, life and death, lying together like lovers in kemmer, like hands joined together, like the end and the way.”

The Left Hand of Darkness (1933)

As the Gethen poem above indicates, dualism is not simply a central theme in Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness; it is the essence of the languages, histories, and biologies of the people who inhabit this world. There are the Yomeshta who follow the way of Meshe (reminiscent of Christianity) and the Handdara (similar to Taoism) who are most interested in the dance between light and dark or the known versus the unknown. This alone is representative of  the differences between Eastern and Western philosophies, but what makes each religious group interesting is their perspective of good and evil.

In the eyes of the Yomeshta, there is only the path of light and clarity. They seek knowledge, foresight, and exclusively celebrate life. In contrast, Handdara is the embodiment of dualism itself. Literally. They are neither male nor female, but can become either during times of sexual interest. Their entire perspective is concerned with states of being that oppose or complement, a cycle striving for balance. Like the Yomeshta, they celebrate life, but unlike the others, the Handdara embrace the inevitability of death. It is, to them, the only permanent fact that exists in the whole of the universe because “the only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next.”

“But it was from the difference between us, not from the affinities and likenesses, but from the difference, that that love came: and it was itself the bridge, the only bridge, across what divided us…”

The Left Hand of Darkness

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Handdara religion is that this inherent  “darkness” is not necessarily evil anymore than the light is good. In many ways, this reminds me of Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, who possesses both of these sides, but whether or not he’s defined as “evil” depends on his interactions with other characters and his current state. Throughout the series, Gollum swings between these two states, failing to achieve balance, but there are moments in which he inspires pity rather than hatred. Sam is suspicious of him, but Frodo is not. Is this because Gollum is pretending to be good, or has he so deeply rejected the “dark” side of himself that murdered his own friend over the Ring and no longer has control over it? In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo struggles to accept that Gollum was once a Hobbit, too (or close enough to one) and that his own distant kin was capable of such deeds. This rejection, too, leads to a sort of fall into the darkside, with Frodo briefly taken over by the Ring and refusing to throw it into Mt. Doom. So it is a refusal to acknowledge weaknesses that inevitably lead to falling prey to them? I certainly think, on some level, this is what Le Guin is attempting to articulate in The Left Hand of Darkness. If darkness/death is inevitable, is it then necessary for light/life and vice versa?

In The Silmarillion, Eru Ilúvatar is the father of everything. There was supposedly nothing prior to his creation of the Ainur, who were the “offsprings of his thought.”  Among his children was Melkor, a character who we know is later associated with the darkness that fell upon Middle-earth. But in the beginning, there was only music and light. It was only when Melkor rebelled against Ilúvatar’s song that darkness supposedly crept in. But where did the darkness in Melkor come from? Like the Handdara, who avoid too much knowledge for its fruitlessness and the agony it brings, there seems to be a theme in The Silmarillion that too much knowledge leads to destruction. This is not unlike its Christian origins. And although the Handdara do shun unnecessary knowledge, the Yomeshta embrace it.

Furthermore,  we examine The Lord of the Rings in a purely symbolic nature, I would argue the Elves could be representative of light and Sauron of darkness, with humanity struggling to come to terms with both (or balance them). Elves are rather feminine and wise, versus masculine Melkor/Sauron of brute strength. If we ignore the history and observe the archetypes, it’s possible to see the threads of dualism in Tolkien’s work, even if through a slightly different theological lens.

However, the biggest difference between the two is The Silmarillion seems to generally deny the co-existence and co-dependence of light and darkness. Outside of blurring the lines with Frodo, Gollum, and a handful of other characters, there is still an obvious  distinction between good and evil.  It is not them, but the influence of The Ring. At the same time, characters such as Melkor and Sauron are clearly irredeemable, with trolls, dragons, and orcs naturally falling to the dark side right along with them. Pejoratives are often used to reference the darkness, such as “Black-Land” or “Shadow.” Even the physical descriptions of the dark beings illustrated against them, all for the sake of the reading knowing “this is a bad guy.”   In contrast, the Elves of Middle-earth remain as defenders of men, wise councils, and part of the “natural” world.  They are beautiful and create beautiful things, despite sorrow and war. But they are not permanently marred by darkness. Even Aragorn touches on this passing embrace of light and dark; it is not a thing that is always with humanity, but rather a brief moment that must be endured:

“The dying of one day is what leads to hope of the next; men must pass through the shadows of darkness.”

Aragorn, The Lord of the Rings

Thus darkness, in Tolkien’s world, is not a prolonged state for mankind. It may be reoccuring, but there are rises and falls in power. There are strict moral lines to mind and roads, that once tread upon, must be seen until the end. Perhaps this mirrors his experience during WW1 or his focus was on the optimism and heroism of man. This doesn’t make his stories less realistic or modern; in fact, it speaks to the strengths of mankind. There is much sorrow, but there is also joy. There is loss, but there’s also love. There is friendship and peace in between the utter chaos of war. However, Left Hand of Darkness captures another side to existence, one where the boundaries between strengths  and weaknesses are not defined as good or bad. Rather, as unfortunate but necessary parts to function as a whole. How else could we define such beauty without also knowing hideousness? Kindness without cruelty? Life without death? Middle-earth could not become what it was without the arrival of Melkor or the evils of the Ring. Without darkness, there would be no way to step into the light.

About the Author

Ari Augustine is a writer of adult speculative fiction, published poet, and freelance book editor. Often lyrical, sentimental, and dark in nature, her stories feature immersive worlds and intimate characters centered around conflicts of the human condition. You can check out her website Ari Augustine Editorial here.

One thought on “Dualism in LeGuin & Tolkien: On the Inseparable, Uncertain Nature of Light and Darkness (Guest Post by Ari)

  1. Shaharee says:

    Modern novelists are more ambiguous in using light and order as good versus dark and chaos as bad. The realization has been sinking in that for our reality to exist, we need both.


Leave a Reply! We'd love to read your thoughts!

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.