LeGuin spoke, often, about the use of symbols and mythology and fantasy. Check out this whole speech! Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons? Excerpts from this speech, delivered first in 1974 to the Northwest Library Association, are offered here.
She opens the speech telling a story about looking for the book, “The Hobbit” by JRR Tolkein in a small local library. She was told that this form of literature was “escapism” and not considered good for children, so it was kept in the adult section of the library.
She goes on to describe the reality that fantasy, science fiction, and even just plain ordinary fiction is often poo-pooed by the American adult, even when most adults will at least consider allowing children to read these things.
“In wondering why Americans are afraid of dragons, I began to realize that a great many Americans are not only anti-fantasy, but altogether anti-fiction. We tend, as a people, to look upon all works of the imagination either as suspect, or as contemptible.
“My wife reads novels. I haven’t got the time.”
“I used to read that science fiction stuff when I was a teenager, but of course I don’t now.”
“Fairy stories are for kids. I live in the real world.”
Then follows an entire reflection on why Americans in general, and American men in particular, are not taught to like and trust and use their imaginations. Somehow, imagination is considered suspect or childish or even harmful!
Where literature is concerned, in the old, truly Puritan days, the only permitted reading was the Bible. Nowadays, with our secular Puritanism, the man who refuses to read novels because it’s unmanly to do so, or because they aren’t true, will most likely end up watching bloody detective thrillers on the television, or reading hack Westerns or sports stories, or going in for pornography, from Playboy on down. It is his starved imagination, craving nourishment, that forces him to do so. But he can rationalize such entertainment by saying that it is realistic – after all, sex exists, and there are criminals, and there are baseball players, and there used to be cowboys – and also by saying that it is virile, by which he means that it doesn’t interest most women.
What, then, are the uses of the imagination?
She continues her reflections commenting that Americans seem to actually be afraid of little green men, dragons, fairies and elves. Americans scoff at this kind of thing, make fun of it, and certainly, by and large, do not engage with it. And her real point in response to all of this?
LeGuin: “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.”