I think Ursula Le Guin is such an important writer that, twelve years after I first interviewed her, I wrote about her again.
Earthsea, Ursula Le Guin's magical world of islands and archipelagoes, is going through a period of intense, uncomfortable social change. The old ways no longer work and the new ones are not yet clear. At last there is a central government, though its young head of state is still establishing his authority, and it's bumpy going in the wild Kargish lands, where the religion, language and ethnicity are different and the women wear burqas. He has also encountered some resistance from the college of wizards at Roke, a theocratic caste that has ruled for centuries and become rather stiff and doctrinaire, as well as hateful toward women. Now Earthsea has suddenly been plunged into turmoil by two simultaneous assaults. One is an invasion of the collective unconscious by the voices and images of the dead, who beg to be set free from the dry land behind the wall of stones where they are confined. The other comes in fire from the skies, as dragons zoom in from the west to attack farm and forest. What is the reason for these threats? Are they connected? And does this society have what it takes to meet them?
Such are the themes of Ursula Le Guin's two new Earthsea books: Tales From Earthsea and The Other Wind: the boundary between life and death, terror from the sky and how hard it is for male-dominant societies to listen to women. Timely themes, from an acknowledged master not only of fantasy but of science fiction as well, a feminist, anarchist and Green whose books are taught in universities, and who has won many literary prizes (five Nebulas, five Hugos, the National Book Award for children's literature, a Newbery silver medal, Horn book award). In a country that valued wisdom and symbolic thinking, these two books would have been met with hosannas from coast to coast.
Does it matter that they weren't? I think so. To me, Le Guin is not only one of the purest stylists writing in English but the most transcendently truthful of writers. The books she writes are not true in the way facts are true; they speak to a different kind of truth and satisfy a desire for narrative that is so fundamental it must be in our cells. As she puts it:
The great fantasies, myths, and tales are indeed like dreams: they speak from the unconscious to the unconscious, in the language of the unconscious--symbol and archetype. Though they use words, they work the way music does: they short-circuit verbal reasoning, and go straight to the thoughts that lie too deep to utter. They cannot be translated fully into the language of reason, but only a Logical Positivist, who also finds Beethoven's Ninth Symphony meaningless, would claim that they are therefore meaningless. They are profoundly meaningful, and usable--practical--in terms of ethics; of insight; of growth. ("The Child and the Shadow" in The Language of the Night, 1975)
Le Guin wrote the first three Earthsea books thirty years ago. A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) is the coming-of-age story of the boy Ged, who meddles in forbidden lore and summons up a rough, bearlike Shadow, who attacks and nearly kills him. The rest of the book concerns Ged's struggle to understand this Shadow, so strong it could bring destruction to the world unless he can defeat it. What is this rough beast? Why does it increasingly resemble him?
The second Earthsea book, The Tombs of Atuan (1970) takes place in the Kargish lands, which are separate from and more primitive than the rest of Earthsea. It is the story of Tenar, who as a small child became Arha, the Eaten One, priestess of the tombs of Atuan, ruled by the old earth powers of death, blood and brooding revenge. Into this dark underground labyrinth comes Ged, looking for the ring of Erreth-Akbe, which bears a lost rune of peace that can bring about a new era. Injured, starving, trapped, he is not strong enough to fight the old earth powers and escape unless Tenar helps him. Her entire upbringing urges her to kill him, but he is the first man she has ever seen as well as the first wizard, and she is tempted. In the end, she chooses life and escape, seeing that, by freeing him, she can also free herself. But then what? Where can she go once she is free?
Although Le Guin has been heavily influenced by Tolkien, her cosmology differed from his from the beginning. While both write of lands ruled by magic, Tolkien's Middle Earth has states and civil society; Earthsea has principalities but is more or less ruled by a caste of celibate priest-wizards centered on the Island of Roke, whose inborn mastery has been schooled at the college. In Earthsea, power of this kind is based on the Language of the Making which is also the language of dragons, only they are born knowing it; men have to learn it. Names in the Language of the Making are the thing, and knowledge of them confers power, over nature and over other people. A wizard who knows someone's true name can control him. But mature wizards do not use their power any more than they have to, for the ruling principle of Le Guin's world is not Tolkien's struggle between good and evil, but equilibrium, balance. Earthsea is a Taoist world (Le Guin has actually translated the Tao Te Ching), where light and dark, life and death are yin and yang, intertwined rather than opposed. The world gets out of balance when one side of an opposition gets too strong: light, wizardry, men. When men of power use their knowledge to fence themselves off from the dailiness of ordinary life--farming, mending, giving birth, and women--trouble is coming. Such hubris can lead to denial of death itself. It does in the third book,The Farthest Shore (1972).
The Farthest Shorebegins with the inexplicable: magic, the organizing principle of Earthsea, is failing and no one knows why. Gradually it becomes clear that a destroyer has arisen, a terribly powerful wizard, Cob, who awakens the terror of death while promising immortality to any who will follow him. His followers drift in dumb despair, work ceases and meaning drains out of the world. Ged, now Archmage (head of the wizard's council), and his young disciple Lebannen, destined to be the long-awaited king, must trace this peril to its source and defeat it. To do so, they must cross the wall of stones into the dry land, the land of death, where no wind blows, no sun shines, and people, still trapped in the prison of their names, wander forever, unable even to recognize those they once loved.
Through many perils Ged and Lebannen seek the physical entrance to the dry land but can only find it when aided by dragons. The plague of despair has affected the dragons too; their young are killing one another and drowning themselves in the sea, and even the wisest are in danger of losing their language and themselves. After a hard pursuit and struggle in the dry land, Lebannen and Ged together defeat Cob and Ged reseals the gap between life and death. But in doing so, he drains his own power; he is no longer a wizard, no longer strong enough even to walk. Lebannen must carry him over the Mountain of Pain, which is the only exit from the dry land, to the beach, where the dragon Kalessin, the eldest, awaits them. Now that Ged has lost his power, he can no longer be Archmage; Kalessin flies him on past Roke to his home island of Gont. But Lebannen will be crowned king and bring about a new era under the rune of peace that Ged and Tenar brought from underground so many years before.
So ends Le Guin's third Earthsea book. She thought it was the last. Then, twenty years later, she suddenly wrote a sequel, Tehanu (1990). I interviewed her at that time and asked her why. She said she had to tell what happened to Tenar. She had tried to earlier but couldn't; she was too caught in the tradition of heroic male fantasy to be able to figure out what would happen to a woman in a Tolkien world. "That is why I had to write this fourth volume, because I changed. I had to show the other side."
But what is the other side of heroic male fantasy? The answer is not as simple as flipping a coin with King Arthur on one side, Britomart on the other. Traditionally there are only four possible roles for women in this sort of book: absent beloved, evil witch, damsel in distress and girl warrior. Can one make room for real women without undermining the fundamental premises of the genre?
From Le Guin's practice, it would appear not. Tenar became a farmer's wife because...what else can she do on Gont? This is farm country, after all, and while she has some kind of power, it is not the kind of power of which wizards are made. Even if it were, they would never train her on Roke, where the wizards have the kind of attitude toward women one tends to find in celibate priesthoods. A widow now, Tenar has adopted Therru, a little girl who was beaten and raped and almost burned up in a fire by her parents, so that one of her arms is withered and one whole side of her face is a hardened shell of scars. Therru too has some kind of power but nobody knows what it is. Tehanubegins where The Farthest Shoreends, as the dragon Kalessin delivers Ged into Tenar's care. Tenar has always loved him, and the two finally get together, overcoming his lifelong celibacy and his shame at having lost his power. But peril persists from those who followed the destroyer and, at the end, they can be saved only by the little burnt girl Therru, who calls the dragon back in the Language of the Making, a language she has never been taught. "Tehanu," he names the child, and calls her daughter. We are left wondering, how can this damaged, tormented little girl also be a dragon?
After eleven more years, Le Guin answered that question with Tales From Earthseaand The Other Wind, which do more than undermine the conventions of heroic male fantasy; they retrospectively transform the very history she created in the first three Earthsea books. There are five stories in Tales From Earthsea, but the central one is "Dragonfly." Dragonfly is a big, ungainly country girl, whose real name is Irian. Like Tenar and Tehanu, she has some kind of power nobody can exactly name. She knows she isn't like other people and wants to find out what she is. Finally she encounters somebody willing to take her to Roke to find out. But when she gets there, she comes up against a wall. In the absence of an Archmage, Roke has become factionalized. Thorion, the Summoner, had followed Ged and Lebannen into the dry land. He stayed there too long and was thought dead; now he has somehow returned to life, by the power of his will, and seeks to rule, to become Archmage and preserve the old ways. He says no woman can be admitted into the school on Roke; Irian must leave the island. The wizards are divided; the Master Patterner, Azver, lets her stay with him in the Immanent Grove, and begins to love her. Yet he, like the few others who are willing to deal with her, seems paralyzed; none of them have the strength to stand against the dead man, Thorion, and those who follow him. So when Thorion finally comes to throw Irian off the island, she must defend herself. She challenges Thorion to meet her on Roke Knoll, the hill where things can only be what they truly are:
The air was darkening around them. The west was only a dull red line, the eastern sky was shadowy above the sea.
The Summoner looked up at Irian. Slowly he raised his arms and the white staff in the invocation of a spell, speaking in the tongue that all the wizards and mages of Roke had learned, the language of their art, the Language of the Making: "Irian, by your name I summon you and bind you to obey me!"
She hesitated, seeming for a moment to yield, to come to him, and then cried out, "I am not only Irian."
At that the Summoner ran up towards her, reaching out, lunging at her as if to seize and hold her. They were both on the hill now. She towered above him impossibly, fire breaking forth between them, a flare of red flame in the dusk air, a gleam of red-gold scales, of vast wings--then that was gone, and there was nothing there but the woman standing on the hill path and the tall man bowing down before her, bowing slowly down to earth, and lying on it.
When the others come up to him, he is only "a huddle of clothes and dry bones and a broken staff." Aghast, they ask Irian who she is. She says she does not know. "She spoke...as she had spoken to the Summoner, in the Language of the Making, the tongue the dragons speak." She says goodbye to Azver, whom she loves, touching his hand and burning him in the process, then goes up the hill.
As she went farther from them they saw her, all of them, the great gold-mailed flanks, the spiked, coiling tail, the talons, the breath that was bright fire. On the crest of the knoll she paused a while, her long head turning to look slowly round the Isle of Roke, gazing longest at the Grove, only a blur of darkness in darkness now. Then with a rattle like the shaking of sheets of brass the wide, vaned wings opened and the dragon sprang up into the air, circled Roke Knoll once, and flew.
The Other Wind continues this theme of women who are also dragons, and plays it off against another central theme of these books, the relationship between life and death. For the terrible breach between life and death made by Cob continues. Now the dead have started appearing to the living in dreams, coming to the stone wall at the dry hill, begging to be set free, as if death were a prison. And at the same time, wild dragons have come to take back the land from men; they have come even to Havnor, where the young king, Lebannen, holds court under the rune of peace. All the patterns, clues and oppositions, set up over thirty years in five other books, come to fruition and are worked out in The Other Wind, but the book is so dependent on what came before, so complex, it is impossible to explicate here. It must be read--after the others--then thought on long and hard, for its meanings are not immediately manifest.
Long after reading, certain images stay in the mind. One is the dry land, this prison of death, and its relationship to immortality through the mastery of naming, of language. Another is women who are also dragons, who can find no place here on earth but must fly off beyond the west, on the other wind. Irian, excluded by the men of power, with only a few defenders, who are outnumbered and outweighed by the dead hand--there's plenty of resonance here for any woman who ever found herself a little bit too far ahead of the affirmative-action curve. As far as gender goes, these books seem to me a true symbolic picture of where we are now, with no untainted source of male power, no mature authoritative leadership of any kind, caught midway in our evolution as social beings, still trying to struggle up out of the ooze onto the land, no longer tadpoles and not yet frogs.
Science fiction and heroic fantasy began as the province of men, and the gradual entry of women into these genres has not necessarily produced more psychological depth overall. The best writers (including Octavia Butler, Samuel Delany, Neil Gaiman, Kim Stanley Robinson, Joanna Russ and Le Guin herself) have given us complex re-visionings of gender and power relations. But most writers have ambitions no higher than those of their counterparts who write in other commercial genres like espionage, crime or romance.
That is why Tales From Earthsea and The Other Wind are cause for celebration: they are books by a master stylist writing at the height of her powers. Although plenty of mass market fantasy is written in extremely pedestrian prose, style is key in fantasy, as in poetry. For fantasy is a pure creation of the imagination, summoned unto existence by the language of the making. Le Guin's style is as spare, plain, American and transparent as a northern lake: no tricks, no razzle-dazzle, no lists. "Why," she asks in an early essay, "is style of such fundamental significance in fantasy?"
...because in fantasy there is nothing but the writer's vision of the world. There is no borrowed reality of history, or current events, or just plain folks.... There is no comfortable matrix of the commonplace to substitute for the imagination, to provide ready-made emotional response, and to disguise flaws and failures of creation. There is only a construct built in a void, with every joint and seam and nail exposed. To create what Tolkien calls "a secondary universe" is to make a new world. A world where no voice has ever spoken before; where the act of speech is the act of creation. The only voice that speaks there is the creator's voice. And every word counts. (From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, 1973)
If Le Guin is such a master and these books are so good, why have they been smuggled into the bookstore, largely unnoticed except in the professional reviewing periodicals? To understand the answer to this question, one must look at how genre is viewed in America and at the tyranny of contemporary realism in literary fiction.
Until the triumph of capitalism in the nineteenth century, the source of literature was thought to be the imagination, and the realistic novel was considered an inferior form, earthbound, compared to poetry, drama and the epic. In Shakespeare, Spenser and Milton, and even in the later, more contested work of the Brontës, Hawthorne and Melville, psychological realism exists in happy symbiosis with ghosts, fairies, demons and supernatural whales. With the triumph of capital and its handmaidens, science and rationalism, came a changed aesthetic. By the mid-twentieth century, the realistic novel of contemporary life had become so much the norm for serious fiction, at least in the United States, that anything else was trivialized or confined to a genre ghetto. We are, after all, a country run by hardheaded men who know the value of a dollar and who want no truck with moonshine. Many boast that they never read fiction. In such a culture, "magic realism" was acceptable only because it was imported; exceptions are always allowed for foreign luxury goods.
So strong was the idea that serious fiction must be a realistic picture of the present time that in the 1960s, when American novels began to combine some aspects of contemporary realism with monsters, ghosts, bodily organs run amok and other wild fancies (Ellison, Heller, Pynchon, Roth, Morrison), the writers were still considered realists or else given special dispensation as African-Americans, who, like foreigners, could be allowed their own cultural traditions because they were too marginal to threaten the mainstream aesthetic and politics. Living writers whose work was not grounded in a realistic, contemporary premise were relegated to the nursery or confined to special ghettos in the bookstore (historical fiction, science fiction, romance, fantasy), as though disqualified by genre from being shelved with "literature."
But surely this does not apply anymore; isn't this the Age of Harry Potter, when fantasy is king? Not exactly. It depends what sort of fantasy, and why. How different are the Harry Potter books really, in style and substance, from contemporary realism? Are they not parodies of same, combining realistic conventions with magical appliances and the war between good and evil? Is this parodic incongruity not, in fact, the reason they are so much fun? From the pinstriped cloak worn by the Minister of Magic to the disgusting variety of Bertie Botts Every Flavored Beans, the culture of the Harry Potter books is a faithful reflection of English schoolboy culture, including the cliques and teasing of the boarding school books that have molded generations.
And have they been treated seriously, as literature, or as a marketing phenomenon?
I would guess 90 percent of the articles I have read about J.K. Rowling deal with her not as a writer but as the commercial equivalent of a comet whizzing into the atmosphere from out of nowhere, a poor single mum writing her first book in a Scottish cafe. It's a great story, but you can only be a nine days' wonder once. After the novelty wears off, the commercial pressure remains; you are expected to do the same thing again and again and again, varying it no more than one flavor of yogurt varies from another. Every successful writer is faced with this choice: Do you stay faithful to the inner voice or turn yourself into a marketable commodity, producing a new product of the same kind every year or two? There are great social and economic rewards for the commodity production of the self.
Ursula Le Guin is doing something different. She has gone her own way, written forty books, not one of them either predictable or commercially motivated. She probably drives the industry crazy; it doesn't even know whether to classify the Earthsea books as children's literature or adult. In her foreword to Tales From Earthsea, she has some interesting things to say about commodification and why we read fantasy:
All times are changing times, but ours is one of massive, rapid moral and mental transformation.... It's unsettling. For all our delight in the impermanent, the entrancing flicker of electronics, we also long for the unalterable.... So people turn to the realms of fantasy for stability, ancient truths, immutable simplicities.
And the mills of capitalism provide them. Supply meets demand. Fantasy becomes a commodity, an industry.
Commodified fantasy takes no risks; it invents nothing, but imitates and trivializes. It proceeds by depriving the old stories of their intellectual and ethical complexity, turning their action to violence, their actors to dolls, and their truth-telling to sentimental platitude. Heroes brandish their swords, lasers, wands, as mechanically as combine harvesters, reaping profits. Profoundly disturbing moral choices are sanitized, made cute, made safe. The passionately conceived ideas of the great story-tellers are copied...advertised, sold, broken, junked, replaceable, interchangeable.
Le Guin's writing is on the edge, which is perhaps the same as the margins: idiosyncratic and hard to pin down. She is the kind of writer businessmen hate most, producing challenging, unpredictable books whose meanings are too elusive to be easily controlled. I can almost hear them saying, "No Earthsea books since 1990 and now two books in the same year? Hasn't she heard of regular marketing intervals?"
Unlike Le Guin's science fiction, her fantasies are not overtly political. The two genres have become almost interchangeable at the mass market level, but have different parents: science fiction derives from Victorian scientific speculation by writers like Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells, while fantasy grew out of myth. Le Guin's science fiction is about social and political life; some reads like ethnographies of imaginary societies, some deals with revolution. Because of its social themes, it appears more political than her fantasies, which deal with the inner life.
Nonetheless, the Earthsea books are profoundly radical because they lead one to think and feel outside of regular realistic patterns and the details of everyday life, laying depth charges that bring up long-forgotten reveries of childhood, unrecognized forms of heroism, secret challenges to power. Softly, elusively, they tear away at the wall of stones that keeps us in the dry land, the arid land of adulthood, the land of death-in-life, where so many of us spend so much of our time; they let the wind into our imaginations, and help to set us free.