In early January, I was at a local bookstore when I came across Ursula K. Le Guin’s most recent book, No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters. This collection shows Le Guin, who excelled at writing a wide range of literature (fantasy, science fiction, children’s stories, essays, poetry), exploring yet another form of writing: blogging. Yes, No Time to Spare is a collection of blog posts, in which Le Guin shares her thoughts on family, the publishing industry, society and the world at large – and, perhaps most notably, aging. And I knew, just from holding the small blue hardcover and perusing the pages within, that it would be different from any UKLG book I’d read before.
Yet there was no question in my mind that I’d buy it. Because, after all, it’s Ursula K. Le Guin, my favorite writer ever. I’ve loved everything I’ve read from her in the past, and the thought of bringing No Time to Spare home was like opening my inner circle to a new friend whom I felt I’d known forever.
How fitting that this book, where Le Guin was contemplating the final frontier of life, was the last one she published, and the last one I bought by her, before she passed away.
“I Still Don’t Know What Spare Time Is Because All My Life Is… Occupied By Living”
When I first read Le Guin’s obituary in Publisher’s Weekly (she died on January 22nd, and I found out two days later), all kinds of emotions sluiced through me. Shock, since news of someone’s death is always like a punch in the gut for me. Then grief, since it hurt to know that someone who had a huge impact on my life is gone. Then awkwardness, because I didn’t actually know her, had never met her, so why was I reacting this way? Then, finally, a calm and bittersweet sense of reflection and reason, since Le Guin, who was 88 years old, was said to have been in poor health for several months. And judging from the content of No Time to Spare, she’d been thinking about the end of her life for a while.
I may not have known Le Guin, but this much, I think, is true: She lived her best life. She wrote the kinds of stories she wanted to write, experimented endlessly with her craft, and spoke her truths with elegance and wit, compassion and incisiveness. And courage, always with courage.
“For Magic Consists in This, the True Naming of a Thing”
In the midst of my reflections, I found myself going back to UKLG’s individual books. The first one was A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), which was also the first Le Guin novel I read.
I bought A Wizard of Earthsea not long after I’d finished J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and was looking for more fantasy classics. The funny thing is, if you’d asked me back then why I loved A Wizard of Earthsea, I probably would have told you how AMAZING Earthsea was as an invented world and so wonderfully different from Middle-Earth, Narnia, and so on. I might also have told you how much I LOVED Le Guin’s writing, and how AMAZING the story was, too. (You can read more about my praises of A Wizard of Earthsea here.) But after that, I don’t think I would have gone into greater detail. The story hadn’t been with me long enough for me to truly know why I loved it.
Now, 10 years later, I do know why.
For starters, A Wizard of Earthsea was the first fantasy novel I read where the antagonist is neither an evil lord nor a corrupt monarch. Instead, it’s the protagonist’s own dark side. As a young man, Ged Sparrowhawk is proud and reckless, toying with dangerous magic with no regard for the consequences. Eventually, one of his conjurings looses a shadow creature, a believed-to-be demon that later pursues Ged across Earthsea. When Ged learns what this shadow actually is, he realizes that, in order to restore balance to the world and within himself, he cannot destroy his own shadow, but rather confront it and accept its existence.
It’s a drastic shift from the typical plot-driven fantasy where a hero or heroine must defeat an external adversary – and a profound shift as well. There’s something more convincing and terrifying about facing the darkest parts of ourselves, because we all must do it at some point in our lives. So while A Wizard of Earthsea may not be as grand in scale as other fantasy classics, its focus on characters, inner wisdom, and the cost of ambition make it a truly memorable, and surprisingly realistic, coming-of-age tale.
Second, A Wizard of Earthsea examines the power of words to a depth that other fantasy novels I’d read up to that point, and even since then, don’t quite reach. Sure, Tolkien made speech a vital part of Middle-Earth, from his invented languages to key spells involving words. (Remember the Door of Durin and “Speak, friend, and enter”?) Le Guin, however, took this a step further with Earthsea’s magic system.
Through schooling and life experience, Ged (as well as the reader) learns that all things in Earthsea, including people, have a true name in the Old Speech, the language of Earthsea’s dragons. When one knows the true name of something (or someone else), one has power over that object or person. This explains why each person also has a non-magical use-name, and shares their true name only with those they trust. In addition, dragons can lie in their native tongue, but humans cannot. They are bound to the truth when they use the Old Speech, which means they must choose their words with precision and care.
Think about that. A magic system that emphasizes the intrinsic power of words. It’s as if UKLG created a world with the intention of implying – or, rather, confirming – that words, in themselves, are magical. They can raise one’s spirits, soothe one’s soul, empower one to do what they never dared to do before. They can also hurt one’s feelings, sunder relationships, and bring different peoples or nations to the brink of war. It’s not necessarily a new idea – in fact, most writers and bookworms are keenly aware of the impact of using the right (and wrong) words. But it’s undeniably poignant and relevant, especially in our world today.
“You Were Made to Hold Light, as a Lamp Burning Holds and Gives Its Light”
A Wizard of Earthsea marked the beginning of my admiration, and adoration, of UKLG and her work. I sought out the rest of her Earthsea novels after that: The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, The Other Wind, and the short story collection Tales from Earthsea. Diving into each one felt like returning to a beloved place from my childhood. And with every story, I learned I could always trust UKLG to reveal more about this ancient archipelago and introduce me to more characters who, thanks to their strengths and flaws, felt as real as the world they lived in.
If I had to choose, my favorite Earthsea novel would be The Tombs of Atuan (1971). Like A Wizard of Earthsea, it’s unique from other fantasy novels of its time in that it features a predominantly female cast, including a female protagonist. And what a protagonist Tenar is. Independent, curious, strong in spirit – yet for much of Tombs, we only see glimpses of her true self. Her position as a high priestess of the Nameless Ones, with the duty of overseeing the ominous underground tombs of her deities, forces to repress her personality and feelings. But once she meets Ged and begins to question everything she knows, she finds the courage to rebel against the priestesshood, escape the tombs, and forge her own destiny. And that climax scene, when the tombs collapse behind Tenar and Ged flee… What a powerful moment. I can still hear the roaring and feel the shuddering of the earth under my feet as I did when I first read it.
“It’s Not Death that Allows Us to Understand One Another, But Poetry.”
Once I finished the Earthsea cycle, I began seeking out more of Le Guin’s work. And if you’re aware of how extensive her back catalog is, you know how easily it could fill up a bookshelf or two (or maybe three). Every book of hers I’ve read since then has given me more reasons to be in awe of her versatility, ingenuity, and mastery of her craft. So, rather than going on and on about every UKLG book I’ve ever read (because I could very easily do that!), I’ll stick to five that have resonated with me most, with the year that each was originally published.
Lavinia (2008): Once could call Lavinia a retelling of Vergil’s The Aeneid. I think of it as Le Guin giving the wife of Aeneas her own voice so she can tell her story. Thus, Lavinia expands on the epic poem, shedding light on what Lavinia’s life might have been like before and after her tragic marriage. I’d already been impressed by Le Guin’s elegant, lyrical prose before. But Lavinia was when it truly took my breath away. This is the UKLG book that made me think, “I want my own writing to exude the same qualities as hers, but in its own way.”
Changing Planes (2003): This interplanetary travelogue was my gateway into UKLG’s science fiction. It asks the question, “What if airports were secretly a means of traveling to other worlds?” And with each chapter, Le Guin shares a vignette of one such world a traveler could visit. Every society is unique and intricate, and every setting exotic and vividly portrayed. When I finished reading, I was staggered by the sheer amount of imagination Le Guin wielded from start to finish, and by the issues plaguing these fictional cultures and how they closely mirrored our own. She was more than just an expert worldbuilder. She was also a keen observer and an unrivaled visionary.
The Left Hand of Darkness (1969): Considered a science fiction classic, The Left Hand of Darkness follows the diplomat Genly Ai as he struggles to politically and personally understand the androgynous Gethenians, who are neither male nor female but capable of assuming either sex depending on the lunar cycle. So, naturally, Genly’s evolution from repulsion to acceptance of the Gethenians and his willingness to expand his worldview is moving to witness. But the one character I’ll never forget from Left Hand is Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, one of the Gethenians. His compassion, courage, and private shame touched me in a way that’s still hard to describe. Even the term “sympathize with” doesn’t come close enough.
Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems (2012): I remember finding this book at an indie bookstore on Cape Cod and thinking first, “Ursula Le Guin writes poetry? How did I not know this?!”, and then, “Of course she’d write poetry. She writes just about everything else!” It turns out her poetry is just as graceful and insightful as her longer works. Her topics range from nature, war, and humanity, to aging, motherhood, and creativity; and her writing glimmers with an eye for beauty, a reverence for the unknown, and occasional humor. In fact, the simplicity of Le Guin’s poetry reminds me of the style of Mary Oliver, one of my other favorite poets.
The Lathe of Heaven (1971): This science fiction novel explores the possibility of our sleeping dreams manifesting into reality – and being manipulated by others for their own purposes. It’s a psychological, and ultimately more frightening, twist on the concept of power struggles. That was the main reason why I found The Lathe of Heaven impossible to put down: The idea that someone of authority, someone who you’re supposed to trust, could use you as a means of remaking the world to their liking, and you’d feel powerless to stop them. Of course I loved the writing and futuristic world-building, too. But the premise and its persuasive delivery, more than anything else, was what rocked me to the core.
“The One Thing I Am Not / and He Is Not, Nor Can We Be, Is Death”
Looking back on my favorite Le Guin stories also compels me to look ahead. Not necessarily to new works (who knows what kinds of posthumous UKLG material might be published down the road?), but to the many other books she published during her lifetime. More poetry books, short story collections such as The Found and the Lost and The Unreal and the Real, novels like Gifts and The Word for World is Forest, even books on the craft of writing. They’re all gems I’ve yet to mine, more writings of hers to savor and absorb. That’s the one of the joys of loving UKLG’s work: She may be gone, but she’d been writing and publishing for so long that her work will keep me occupied for years. And for that, I’m immensely grateful, and more eager than ever to continue.
And I’m not the only one. In the years since I first read A Wizard of Earthsea, I’ve met myriad readers who have yet to check out Le Guin’s work – which, of course, I quickly remedied with a few recommendations (or, in some cases, her books as gifts). I’ve also met people who loved her writing as much as I did. Oddly enough, the interactions of the latter that I remember most are with booksellers.
For instance, the day I bought Finding My Elegy, I was still quivering with excitement over discovering that Le Guin was a poet when the bookseller, a woman in her 60s, began ringing up my order. When she came to UKLG’s book, she paused, then hugged it and gave me a look of heartfelt approval. I didn’t find her reaction strange at all. In fact, I said, “I know,” and felt my kid-in-a-candy-store grin grow even wider.
Then there’s the most recent one, when I bought No Time to Spare last month. This bookseller, a man in his 40s, also complimented my choice of purchase, which led to a brief conversation about UKLG’s writing in general, and then to Earthsea. And the bookseller said, “The YA fantasy out there right now is nothing compared to hers. Every time a kid comes in asking for those kinds of books, I steer them toward Earthsea. I tell them to read about her dragons. Hers are the coolest dragons you’ll ever read about.”
“Thank you,” I wanted to tell him. Not only for agreeing with me about Le Guin’s dragons, but also for continuing to introduce young readers to her worlds and stories. And something tells me he’ll continue doing so for years to come.
**Quotes for headings taken from (1) No Time to Spare, (2) A Wizard of Earthsea, (3) The Tombs of Atuan, (4) Lavinia, and (5) “The Body of the World,” from Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems.