Two days ago came the distressing news of Ursula K. Le Guin’s death. While Tolkien has always been my favourite author, she was always a close second and probably had a more profound impact on the way I see the world and my own personal political views than Tolkien ever had. I was instantly in shock over this and ended up crying for several hours in my bedroom, and then in the kitchen. It shouldn’t have been that much a surprise given that she was 88 years old, but I honestly couldn’t imagine the world without her. I also hoped that one day she might see some of my own writings should I ever finally complete one of my novels. I know that will never happen now (her not seeing my writings that is, not that I will ever complete a novel, I still hold out hope for that). I thought I would write about Le Guin and the impact she has had on my life. In the last couple of days it has been so good to see so many other people writing about her and the influence she has had on them. So I guess at least one more article about her should be okay.
I first became aware of Le Guin when I was 13 years old. One summer holiday I was actually quite sick for some time with some mystery illness and I was genuinely afraid of what was going to happen to me. One of my father’s parishioners (and a family friend) dropped in one afternoon with Le Guin’s Earthsea books for me to read. By the time I was 13 I had already read The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion (okay that did go over my head a bit at the time), and a host of other fantasy books by different authors such as C.S. Lewis (Narnia), Susan Cooper (The Dark Is Rising), and Alan Garner (The Moon of Gomrath et al.) to name a few, but I had never come across Le Guin’s books before. As soon as I began reading the first few pages the fears over my illness disappeared into the back of my mind and I found myself in a world that was both new and yet at the same time seemed familiar. I read each book one after the other. As a secondary world I loved Earthsea. I guess as I was living in a country actually made up of islands it wasn’t too hard to imagine being there. It was different from Middle-earth, but like Middle-earth, seemed a very believable place with rules and history. Somewhere that I would love to go if I had the chance. By the time I was 13 my belief in God was starting to wane and Narnia’s religious allegory was so blatant it had started to put me off them, so it was nice to find another world I could lose myself in for a while.
When I was at University I found I had a little left over every week that I could buy books with, so that’s when I got into reading more fantasy books that I could get from book sellers and the second-hand bookstores such as the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett, the Elric saga by Michael Moorcock, the Mythago Wood series by Robert Holdstock (I still think the second of the series, Lavondyss, is one of my most favourite books of all time}, H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos stories, and I also finally read the family set of the Merlin Trilogy by Mary Stewart, as I was quite into Arthurian legend at the time. I also remembered the Earthsea books I had read a few years before and decided to seek out what Le Guin had also written. I was aware that she also wrote a lot of science fiction and though I was familiar with science fiction my preferred genre was (quite obviously) fantasy. I found the short story collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters by her in my favourite bookstore. This book featured her earliest short stories. As well as having two Earthsea stories in it, The Word Of Unbinding and The Rule of Names (which were the first stories I read in this collection), it also had The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas which is the story I tried to reread again when I heard the news of Le Guin’s death but had to abandon due to more tears. It was a collection I really enjoyed reading and I liked her mini introductions before each story to explain how she came to write it, or to explain something in the story. These introductions also discussed ideas such as anarchism and Taoism, both of which I had little knowledge of at the time. After reading this collection I sought out more books by her. I got my own copies of the Earthsea books so I could reread them and finally read the fourth book Tehanu. Over the next few years I read all the books of hers I could find such as The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven, The Dispossessed, The Beginning Place, Searoad, The Compass Rose, Orsinian Tales, A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, Four Ways To Forgiveness and Unlocking the Air. I’ve tried reading Always Coming Home, an imagined future society living in what is now Northern California, but like The Silmarillion, it’s a difficult book to read cover to cover, but I do like dipping into it now and then (much like The Silmarillion which is what I tell people to do when they’re struggling to read it).
When I was 28 I came across a copy of The Language Of The Night, a book of her essays on fantasy and science fiction. It included essays such as “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?”, “The Child and the Shadow”, “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie”, and “Science Fiction and Mrs Brown”. In some of these essays she’s looking at fantasy and science fiction stories through Jungian analysis. Jungian interpretations of literature was something I was interested in at the time so I found it quite fascinating. I liked what she had to say about viewing characters in The Lord of the Rings, for example, how one character was the bright aspect and another was its shadow, but both made up a complete character, such as Aragorn/Boromir, Gandalf/Saruman, Theoden/Wormtongue, and of course Frodo/Gollum, and how it is the shadow that completes the quest. In “Why Americans Are Afraid of Dragons” she defends the relevance of fantasy tales in the modern world and why everyone should read them. “Elfland to Poughkeepsie” informs you how to tell true fantasy from the fake stuff. After all, as she points out, you can put dragons and elves into stories but that doesn’t necessarily make it fantasy, not if it is really some modern novel in which the author has used a fake fantasy setting to tell the story with. She goes on to give examples of real fantasy writing and mentions various writers worth looking for, such as E.R. Eddison, Kenneth Morris, and James Branch Cabell, two of which I have read since due to her suggestion, but Cabell’s works are seemingly hard to find. I love these essays. This is a book I return to again and again, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Every time I read a new work of fantasy I hear a voice in my head asking if, according to Le Guin, this is really a work of true fantasy? It has also guided me with my own writing when I have written fantasy stories and attempted novels. As yet I have never tried to have any of my written fiction published, though my poetry has appeared in numerous journals over the years.
I also have Dancing At The Edge Of The World which is another book of her essays and reviews. I found the reviews very interesting. It includes a review of my beloved Star Wars. She didn’t really like it that much. I always wonder if she changed her mind or saw any of the other ones. Probably not, but I guess I’ll never know.
Since the year 2000 I tried to keep up with all the new books she wrote. I really love her short stories and I really enjoyed the collections The Birthday of the World And Other Stories and Changing Planes. And of course in 2001 there were two new Earthsea books: Tales From Earthsea and The Other Wind. One of my flatmates got me a first edition of The Other Wind, which I am still very delighted with. She also wrote a new fantasy trilogy The Annals of the Western Shore which was comprised of the books Gifts, Voices, and Powers which is worth checking out. As she got older her writing got more profound and insightful.
I have said many times to friends that I’ve always regarded the Earthsea books as the second best fantasy series from the Twentieth Century after The Lord of the Rings, though as two books appeared after the Millennium maybe they will be regarded as one of the best fantasy series from the 21st Century too. Though I love Tolkien’s works, Le Guin’s values, her politics, and her writing style have overall been a bigger influence on me than Tolkien has. Indeed I loved her writing style so much a lot of my fantasy prose is probably reminiscent of her writing. I also like how her essays have given me insights on how to write, what not to do, and how to analyse works of fantasy and science fiction, either through Jungian terms or how to recognise it as true and real writing. On the day she died I wrote on Facebook that I always felt like she was one of my guiding lights and with her gone I felt like I was a bit more lost in the dark. For now we mourn her loss, but thankfully we will always have her novels, short stories, poems, and essays. She left us a very large body of work that we can read and reread to our hearts content and so in a very real way she will always still be with us.
RIP Ursula K. Le Guin.