Odysseus in Arizona: Ursula LeGuin's City of Illusions

David F. Bright

Emory University

As soon as the bedraggled hero steps out into the clearing, naked but for twigs and grime, with no idea where he is, the young girl meets him and takes him home to her father, the ruler of that place. He has no remnant of his true identity, and assumes (or is given) a fabricated self. But he can't stay in this Neverland forever: he gradually accepts that he must leave the lovely princess he has views so fondly, to head west towards home. The first half of the ensuing story is occupied with traveling to his destination to the west, a voyage featuring talking animals, lotus-eaters, a cannibalistic community, blind seers, a cult of the dead, being trapped in a cave, lies about identities, and perils on the water; the second half is set at the hero's destination in the west, in a city astride a great chasm, where he meets a lad who regards him as a father figure, and helps him struggle with those who have taken control of the place, to reclaim his own name and regain his destiny. 

Welcome to the Odyssey? No, these are not Nausicaa and the Phaeacians, or Calypso: we are in North America in the 44th century. This is the world of Ursula K. LeGuin's City of Illusions (1968). The novel is her only work set in what is now the USA. LeGuin is playing with a trope that was increasingly popular in the turbulent 1960's: a distant post-disaster America (think of Planet of the Apes: the movie comes from this same year).  Like American culture in this view, Falk has no orderly awareness of his past, no good map of his present world,  and no way to understand the future that must emerge from this flow of time; so a journey back to his past is the only way forward into his future. 

This paper explores the ways LeGuin uses the Odyssey as a template for the restoration of the displaced hero, and the ways in which his people are given a new reality in his own recovery. The peoples and places he encounters are not mythological creatures from some distant past, but monsters and prodigies made up out of the reader's own national future. In this LeGuin combines a larger Vergilian perspective with the personal focus of the hero's travels and travails.


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