November 25, 2015

Ursula K. Le Guin

Image by Euan Monaghan/Structo
Last weekend, Sofia and I made a pilgrimage to UCLA, where the Center for the Art of Performance was hosting an evening with Ursula Le Guin. We were in the plebe seats at the back of a massive hall, but it was nevertheless a magical experience. When she walked onstage, Sofia whispered: "That's the person who created The Tombs of Atuan," and it really was a bit surreal.

She is eighty-six now, small and hunched, with a low voice and deeply wrinkled skin. For ninety minutes she was in conversation with an appropriately awestruck moderator and read from several works and took questions. She came across as witty, ridiculously intelligent, and somehow simultaneously kindly and prickly. Some of the more interesting moments: Rocannon's World, her first published novel, was in fact the sixth novel she wrote. She considers her first three published novels, which would include Planet of Exile and City of Illusions, to be "apprentice work." Thus, I suppose, she would suggest that her real career begins with A Wizard of Earthsea, which is probably where most of her readers begin as well. Landscape and human intervention came up more than once. She read three poems about the Colorado River, before and after the damming, and offered a beautiful and emotional response to a question from Sofia about Always Coming Home, saying that she was trying to create a positive future for a landscape she cared for deeply. Her pacifist stance came through very strongly, as did her love of Virginia Woolf and J.R.R. Tolkien. In Earthsea, the old word for stone is tolk; it comes up at least twice, in poignant moments, and I believe this is a nod to Tolkien's influence on her. Furthermore, inien is the word for sea, so "Earthea" itself is possibly "Tolkien" in the old language. She mentioned Tolkien's "beats" - the alternating lights and darks, ups and downs, tensions and resolutions - which she says occur at every level: sentence, section, and chapter. She also told us that she read The Lord of the Rings aloud three times (to each of her kids), and is a strong believer in reading one's own work aloud.

I read the first three Earthsea books in Nairobi at the age of nine or ten. They were the lovely set in the clamshell, with the spines that make a perky little fish when put together. They were immediately placed on that special pedestal that contains the other hallowed multi-book fantasies: The Lord of the Rings and Narnia. All the others were second-rate imitators: Shannara and Thomas Covenant and Dragonriders of Pern and other crap. Of course I read everything else I could get my hands on in Nairobi, though I was too young for The Left Hand of Darkness. I devoured the short stories and the early novels and the slightly less compelling middle novels, The Word for World Is Forest, The Eye of the Heron, and The Beginning Place (though Le Guin's great gift is storytelling, and her work is always compulsively readable, with a special empathy that shines through even in her more minor work). Then in college I read Always Coming Home and The Lathe of Heaven and The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, and became obsessed. The Dispossessed and Always Coming Home, in particular, became touchstone works in the way A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan had been when I was a child.

More than any other living writer, Le Guin seems timeless. I think Earthsea and The Dispossessed will be read in a hundred years, and possibly in five hundred. Though she's had a few misses, the catalog of her hits is more extensive than that of just about any writer I can think of. Here's my Le Guin canon (in no particular order):

A Wizard of Earthsea
The Tombs of Atuan
"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"
"Darkness Box"
"She Unnames Them"
"Buffalo Gals Won't You Come Out Tonight"
The Left Hand of Darkness
The Dispossessed
Always Coming Home

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