Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

URSULA K. LE GUIN

I want to pay tribute to Ursula Le Guin (1929-2018), the wonderful fantasy writer who died on 22 January this year. Her Earthsea trilogy (later a tetralogy, in fact) is the only fantasy work – apart perhaps from C.S. Lewis’s very different Narnian Chronicles – that I would put on a par with the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.

I devoured the Earthsea books – read and re-read them – when I was a teenager, and they helped to change my view of the world. Their balance of Taoist wisdom, Castaneda-inspired magic (both her parents were anthropologists), narrative excitement and poetic vision make them, for me, still unique in the realm of fantasy. I’ve put in the covers of my slightly battered old Puffin copies here.

Her hero Ged became a role model for me; and his two (sometimes conflicting) pursuits – for magical (read, if you like, spiritual) understanding, and for ways to sustain the ecological balance of the world – have been the quests of my life also. Le Guin’s fiction clarified them for me.

 

She was said to have become discontented with the original Earthsea trilogy because it was too male-centred; I was never sure I agreed, because the second, central volume, The Tombs of Atuan, had a wonderful heroine, Tenar, who plays a central role and, initially, holds all the power in her hands, as a trainee priestess in whose underground labyrinth Ged finds himself trapped.

I haven’t read as many of Le Guin’s sci-fi books as I should; I shall now do so. The one I have read is The Lathe of Heaven: a powerful parable about trying too hard to improve the world. That book has become an essential part of my thinking and I recommend it strongly, to technologists and ecologists alike.

There was undoubtedly something magical about Ursula Le Guin herself. When I heard the announcement of her death on the radio, quite unexpectedly I found all the hairs on my body standing up: a wave of energy went over me. Then again when I heard her discussed on Last Word, the BBC’s obituary programme. She was one of those extraordinary women – among them I would name Kathleen Raine, Lois Lang-Sims, Iona Opie the folkorist, and Nancy Sandars, translator of Gilgamesh – who have very special qualities of imagination and wisdom which the world needs and which they find ways of transmitting.

I think of these female elders as the Sibyls or prophetesses. For some people, the proverbial ‘Old Wives [i.e. women’s] Tales’ is a term of abuse. Not for me. It’s the tales told by old women that are the most important. (Tolkien agreed: look at the episode of the healing herb, athelas or kingsfoil, near the end of the Lord of the Rings). Their lives and experience (they all seem to a ripe old age) have distilled something that the rest of us seriously need. Fortunately Ursula Le Guin left it for us in her books. Read and enjoy!

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