Ursula K. Le Guin’s Taoism: How “The Way” Inspired Some of Her Greatest Works of Fiction

March 1, 2022

The work of Ursula K. Le Guin resonates across time and cultures. From the rich traditions of the Hainish universe to the vast islands of Earthsea, Le Guin’s novels are some of the most detailed and transformative in the history of the genre. In her lifetime, Le Guin published nearly 50 novels, novellas, children’s books, and poetry collections and won numerous awards, including eight Hugo awards and six Nebula awards.  

Beyond being one of the greatest and most prolific writers of her generation, Le Guin’s writing also held a special spiritual resonance. Surprisingly few fans of Le Guin’s work know that she also wrote a stunning rendition of the Tao Te Ching. Yes, that Tao Te Ching—the influential Chinese religious text originally put to paper nearly 2,500 years ago. While this fact might seem like a mere footnote in Le Guin’s long career, the author credits Taoism as the inspiration behind some of her most famous works of fiction. The Lathe of Heaven’s title, for instance, was taken from a translation of the Tao, and the themes in the book tie heavily back to this philosophy. 

Just as John Steinbeck uncovered his voice somewhere elbow-deep in the sardines of Monterey’s cannery row, so too did Le Guin discover her voice buried in the ancient pages of the Tao. Ursula K. Le Guin’s Taoism is central to her characters, worlds, and even the structure of her language. Understanding her definition of the Tao not only gives us greater insight into her creative process, but it also explains why her books are so impactful. Modern sci-fi and fantasy writers can learn a great deal from Le Guin’s Taoism and can continue her lifelong work pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in fiction. 

What Is Taoism or “The Way?” 

Taoism is, in the simplest terms, a philosophy that teaches its followers to go with the flow. Essentially, Taoists believe there is an inherent balance or flow to the universe, and that leaning into it, rather than fighting against it, is the key to a happy life. The “Tao” in Taoism loosely translates to “The Way” in English—The Way being the natural, flowing path. The most important text in Taoism is the Tao Te Ching, a collection of poetry said to be written by a man named Lao-Tzu thousands of years ago. This collection of poems teaches The Way through parables and examples so its followers can apply it in their daily lives. 

Ursula K. Le Guin discovered the Tao Te Ching at a very young age and she continued to study the philosophy throughout her life. In her twenties, she had the idea to craft her own interpretations of the poems based on the many translations of the work she’d read over the decades. Although Le Guin did not speak standard Chinese, she found a transliteration of the Chinese characters and used this as the basis for her renditions. 

Unlike other English translations or renditions of the Tao Te Ching, Le Guin’s version is far more focused on the quality of the prose itself—no surprise coming from a master of the craft. She felt that other translations were too literal. They lacked the beauty, humor, and folksy charm that many say is core to the original Chinese text. Le Guin spent most of her life slowly refining her renditions and finally released the completed work in 1998. 

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Taoism is as rich and complex as the original text, but there are a few key ideas in its philosophy that go beyond the pages of the Tao Te Ching and permeate her fictional worlds as well: 

  • Equality: The Tao is everything and the Tao is for everyone. There must be equality and harmony in all things. 
  • Modest prose: Complex ideas should be expressed in the simplest terms possible.
  • Power: Everyone is capable of holding power or having it taken from them. True power comes from within. 

You don’t have to read her version of the Tao Te Ching to understand these themes. They’re as ingrained in her fiction as the bones are in your body. And like the poetry of the Tao Te Ching, Le Guin teaches The Way through story and example, particularly in her three novels The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven, and The Dispossessed.

The Tao as the Great Equalizer in The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Taoism is centered around equality, perhaps even more so than the original text itself. In her introduction to her rendition of the Tao Te Ching, she explains, “I wanted a Book of the Way accessible to a present-day, unwise, unpowerful, perhaps unmale reader, not seeking esoteric secrets, but listening for a voice that speaks to the soul.” 

This is a theme that crops up in nearly every work of fiction Le Guin has published. One of the clearest examples is in The Left Hand of Darkness, where we see a world without gender, a world where even kings can get pregnant. In this universe, neither man nor woman is superior, and much like the yin and yang of the Tao, all genders exist in harmony. In this case, the harmony is embodied in the characters themselves, being all and no genders simultaneously. 

There’s still conflict in the novel, of course, but it doesn’t stem from gender oppression. When Le Guin writes about this world, she’s asking us to envision what equality would look like in our own world. She questions the importance we place on having those clear lines between men and women. This is an idea grown in the fertile earth of Taoism, where the lines that separate people naturally break down. People are no longer forced into narrow roles, but they are free to travel The Way and whatever path it leads them down.  

Transforming the Language of Sci-Fi in The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin’s use of language is yet another equalizing, Taoist force. She doesn’t use especially complicated words to describe her fantasy worlds or ideas, much like a core tenant of the Tao is to describe the complex and mysterious in a way everyone can grasp. Her prose is undeniably beautiful, yet it’s accessible to anyone picking up her books for the first time. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s Taoism, she says, “Beauty is no ornament; it is the meaning. It is the truth.” 

In her works of fiction, this focus on simple yet beautiful language not only allows her to explore complex ideas with modest words, but it also has turned the sci-fi genre on its head. It wasn’t uncommon to find lofty, sometimes inscrutable language in the sci-fi written before Le Guin’s time. It was once a genre plagued with jargon and soulless, mechanical prose. While some older sci-fi was character-driven and grounded in emotion, it wasn’t necessarily the norm of the era. This was something notable sci-fi author Isaac Asimov poked fun at in his satirical poem, “The Foundation of S.F. Success.” In it, he facetiously says successful sci-fi writers “must talk of Space and Galaxies and tesseractic fallacies in slick and mystic style, though the fans won't understand it, they will all the same demand it.” As a pioneer of the genre himself, he was often critical of what he saw as the overuse of scientific jargon among his peers. 

Le Guin later helped change what was possible in the sci-fi genre by simplifying its language and diving deeper into the characters’ core beliefs. For instance, in The Lathe of Heaven she describes the universe’s function without a hint of scientific jargon. The language is clear, impactful, and downright Taoist. She writes: 

“Things don't have purposes, as if the universe were a machine, where every part has a useful function. What's the function of a galaxy? I don't know if our life has a purpose and I don't see that it matters. What does matter is that we're a part. Like a thread in a cloth or a grass-blade in a field. It is and we are. What we do is like wind blowing on the grass.” 

The Lathe of Heaven, for example, is a high concept novel that is incredibly complex in its subject matter. But instead of sinking into a swamp of technobabble, Le Guin walks readers through this world using simple yet impactful language. The ideas in the novel are as deeply rooted in Taoism as the modest language itself. The core theme is that it is sometimes wiser to accept reality as it is than to try to change it, especially if that change comes at a great cost. Of all Le Guin’s works, this is the most centered in the Tao, and it’s a great place to start if you wish to better understand her philosophy of life. 

Where Spirituality and Power Intersect in The Dispossessed

Expressing ideas so that they’re accessible to everyone is also a reflection of Ursula K. Le Guin’s political beliefs. She was an outspoken anarchist, believing that hierarchies breed oppression. Much of her work, both fiction and nonfiction, centers around the idea that people should have equal access to all opportunities, from food and shelter to philosophies and education. 

In many ways, her political views align with the core principles of Taoism. In a world without hierarchies, people are free to explore The Way and to discover their own inner power. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s Taoism, power isn’t given to people from a divine source or from someone higher up on the social ladder. In her Taoist utopia, power is in the hands of the individual. It’s something every person needs to uncover within themselves. In one poem of the Tao, she writes: 

“People who treated the body politic 

as gently as their own body 

would be worthy to govern the commonwealth.” 

In other words, a pure source of power comes from within, and those who have this power should use it wisely. 

This is a theme that features heavily in her novel The Dispossessed. The novel is set in an anarchist society and explores how people exert power over each other. The narrator is torn between wanting to follow his own path (The Way) or give up his dreams in the name of social or political pressure. It’s a spellbinding novel that forces readers to question not only the power structures that exist all around them, but also their own willpower. As Le Guin writes in her version of the Tao Te Ching:

“​​Knowing other people is intelligence,

knowing yourself is wisdom.

Overcoming others takes strength,

overcoming yourself takes greatness.” 

This is a simple truth that many of Le Guin’s characters have had to face, and it perfectly sums up the complex power structures that she describes in her work. 

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Taoism Still Influences Today’s Sci-Fi and Fantasy

These Taoist ideas don’t just exist in the vacuum of Ursula K. Le Guin’s body of work. There’s no denying the influence she’s had on both the sci-fi and fantasy genres over the decades. Like a pebble tossed in a pond, Le Guin’s work continues to ripple through the industry long after her death. 

It’s important to dive deeply into Le Guin’s spiritual foundation and understand how it influenced her writing style and approach. For modern sci-fi and fantasy authors, it allows them to discover where Le Guin’s philosophies came from and how her ideas might influence their own work. Her Taoist focus on equality, simplicity of prose, inner power, and the inherent beauty of life are what gave her characters and her work such universal resonance. 

Have any of Ursula K. Le Guin’s stories inspired you on a deeper level? Let us know in the comments below.

3 comments on “Ursula K. Le Guin’s Taoism: How “The Way” Inspired Some of Her Greatest Works of Fiction”

  1. I am 78 years old. I bought Earthsea for my youngest son when he was about 8 years old; he went on to re read it 3 or 4 times. Now, old I have begun to read the book, and I can see the Tao in Ged as he matures and becomes a wise mage. Thank you for the article and for awakening my belief in something forgotten.

  2. I have not read Ursula la Guins Taoist book yet .very interested to read it soon .I have been reading her books and the Tao ti Ching for years and never made the connection .Thank you

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