“The Word for World is Forest” Ursula K Le Guin

This post was developed and authored by Alison Schell 



Le, G. U. K. (1976). The word for world is forest. New York: Berkley Pub. Corp. 


After running out of resources on planet Earth, humans travel to the planet Athshe in hopes to find more resources and another chance at life. Upon arrival they discover that the planet is already inhabited by Athshean natives, but this does not stop them from taking what they want. As they begin to colonize this new planet, the humans disregard the culture, civilians and the natural world. They enslave, sexually assault, and even kill the natives, and begin the same processes of deforestation and destroying the environment on Athshe that caused their ruin on Earth. Captain Don Davidson sexually assaults a native woman named Thele, the wife of a native man named Selver, in an incident that caused her death. After losing his wife in such a tragic way, Selver comes to the realization that their once peaceful civilization must turn to the violent ways of their colonizers in order to save their planet and its inhabitants. He leads the Athsheans in a war against the Terran people, becoming a God in their eyes as he introduces violence to a once non-violent community. In the end, the Athsheans win the war to save their planet, but they lost the peace that was the center of their culture and lifestyle. “The World for War is Forest” contains several parallels from this science fiction story to the real world, presenting issues such as European colonization, the Vietnam war, and deforestation.  


  • CLIFFORD, J. (2011). RESPONSE TO ORIN STARN: “Here Come the Anthros (Again): The Strange Marriage of Anthropology and Native America.” Cultural Anthropology (Wiley-Blackwell)26(2), 218–224. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1548-1360.2011.01096.x  

Clifford reads “The Word for World is Forest” as a parallel or a microcosm that goes beyond the 1960s era in which it was written. He discusses Le Guin’s personal connection and scholarly background related to the history of California Indians, to prove her merit and show that her pieces of literature serve a purpose to recount and represent historically accurate information and experiences of natives both during past colonization and present day. He commends Le Guin for creating writing does not hold back from the harsh truth or distract from the damage caused by colonizers by creating a human protagonist or fully good white savior, but instead making it known that even those with more positive intentions such as the anthropologist still cause negative effects by intruding into a society in which they have no understanding of the culture. Clifford then highlights several parallels between characters and experiences in the book and real-life events but focuses mainly on the lasting effect that the humans had on Athshe even after the war was won and they were gone, and the accuracy in that parallel that Europeans and other colonizers create damage and changes to native societies that can never be repaired and that will never allow for natives to live in the same peace and lifestyle they originated from. 

  • DEBITA, G. (2019). The Otherworlds of the Mind: Loci of Resistance in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word for World Is Forest and Voices (Book II of the Annals of the Western Shore). Cultural Intertexts9, 46–67. 

In this academic essay, Debita explores Le Guin’s themes of resistance to colonization and invasion throughout several of her later works, going in depth on her analysis of “The Word for World is Forest” and “Voices”. She discusses the power behind literature such as these pieces, as all actions begin with a mindset and suggests that Le Guin’s pieces force the reader to understand what is happening currently and historically through the use of science fiction in order to change their mindset and broaden their perspectives on these issues. This analysis interprets the deeper meaning of “dreaming” and the spirituality and connectedness of all of the Athshean people and minds, and how the invasion and introduction of violent resistance effects not only the current natives, but also the future generations to come.  


  • GRISAFI, L. (2020). Living in the Blast Zone: Sexual Violence Piped onto Native Land by Extractive Industries. Columbia Journal of Law & Social Problems53(4), 509–539. 

Grisafi discusses both current and historical treatment and sexually assault of native women and how flaws in the United States justice system continues to allow their assaulters to go unpunished in this academic journal. She highlights real accounts and stories of Native American women and their experiences with rape and sexual harassment from white colonizers and white men in general. This journal breaks down the fundamental injustices within a system that is meant to provide safety and justice for all citizens and brings awareness to an issue that has been continuously swept under the rug for hundreds of years. Grisafi also provides statistics and facts on violence, force, and sexual assault shown toward indigenous women throughout time. Le Guin touches briefly on these topics when writing about Captain Don’s desires toward the native women and Thele’s sexual assault and murder in “The Word for World is Forest”, but this journal goes into depth to explain the horrors that indigenous women have and continue to face with no consequences for their attackers. 



Ursula K Le Guin uses a series of symbolism and microcosms to draw parallels between the characters and experiences in her novel “The Word for World is Forest” and real-life historical and current events. In her novel there is an initial invasion for resources which results in deforestation and the destruction of nature. After realizing that they have a better chance of survival on this new planet with more resources, the invaders begin to colonize. Their colonization has drastic effects on not only the environment, but also on the native people of this planet Athshe. Le Guin uses the characters experiences with sexual assault, murder, introduction to violence, loss of culture, war and slavery to symbolize the real-life effects of European colonization on Native Americans and several other groups of people. Each character or experience, from the rape and murder of Thele, to the development of Selver to “Sam”, to the seemingly pure intentions but ultimately harmful results of anthropologist Raj, conveys a very important message and bring light to an often skipped over part of history that seems to be continuously repeating itself. For years native people have suffered through these same things and this novel is meant to force readers to understand these issues by using fictional characters and setting in order for the reader to see the impacts of colonization from a nonpolitical or economical view, but simply to feel the harm that is caused by it. 


  1. How does Le Guin use characters and character development such as that of Selver to indirectly introduce the psychological effects of colonization on the native people? 
  2. Le Guin purposefully highlights the fact that Selver struggles to remember how to dream after adapting to the human workday. What does “dreaming” represent in the parallel to the real world and what statement is Le Guin trying to make by stating that Selver is losing this ability? Furthermore, what other long-term effects do we see this invasion have on the Athshean people and culture as a whole, and how does this relate to real world historic cultures that have had similar experiences? 
  3. Indigenous women often face sexual assault. Explore how Captain Don and Thele are examples of sexism, racism, and the way native women have been portrayed and treated throughout history.