Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying life:
bright the hawk’s flight
on the empty sky.
I first read this poem, which prefaces Ursula Le Guin’s classic fantasy story A Wizard of Earthsea, when I was twelve years old. As with all her writing it has stayed with me for my whole life, gaining depth, translucency and wisdom. And now, after hearing of her death, I’m reading it again, with a new dimension of sorrow and joy.
It helps and it doesn’t help. Her flight remains vivid, but now the sky is empty.
Ursula K Le Guin was one of the great novelists of the twentieth century. Countless writers, from Salman Rushdie to Kate Elliott, namecheck her as a major influence on their work. In all her writing – her novels, short stories, poems, essays and memorable squibs – she was a wise and supple thinker, alive always to the contradictions and mysteries of human experience.
She was born in 1929 to anthropologist Alfred Louis Kroeber and writer Theodora Kracaw, both influences which appear to have shaped her future: she followed her mother’s vocation, and her familiarity with anthropology made her speculative fictions closely attentive to social and political relationships.
Her earliest writings were unclassifiable stories set in an imaginary European country shaped by real histories: not quite alternative histories, but not quite realism either, which later became Orsinian Tales and Malafrena. When she couldn’t get them published, she turned to science fiction and fantasy.
Her first novel, Rocannon’s World, was published in 1966. Set in a world in which a number of human civilisations on different planets are setting up diplomatic relationships for the first time. It was the first of the Hainish Cycle of novels and short stories, of which the best known are The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, both winners of the Hugo and Nebula Awards for science fiction.
A Wizard of Earthsea, published in 1968, followed hard on Rocannon’s World, and the trilogy that followed, The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore, proved to be her breakout books, beloved by generations of readers. She returned to these stories more than two decades later with another two books, Tehanu and The Other Wind, in which she unpicks the patriarchal assumptions and attitudes of the mages of Roke.
Tehanu is an extraordinary novel, pitch-perfect in its lyrical austerity. It’s at once a deeply moving love story, a dissertation on power and sexuality, a reflection on human cruelty and an essay on misogyny. And it showed one of Le Guin’s hallmarks, and the reason why she remains a great writer: her constant questioning of her own assumptions. She famously didn’t suffer fools gladly, but she was equally as interrogative of her own work.
Her writing was always political: from the sexual politics of the genderfluidity in The Left Hand of Darkness to the exploration of anarchism in The Dispossessed. Her later YA trilogy, Annals of the Western Shore (2004–2007), is an acute investigation of imperial brutality that is clearly influenced by the events of the Iraq War. Lavinia (2008), one of her final novels, is a breathtaking rewriting of the Aeneid, which imagines the story of a woman mentioned briefly in Virgil’s poem.
There were other ways in which she was exemplary. As a writer she was dismissed throughout much of her both as a woman and as a writer of genre, and perhaps this life, as much as her background, made her sensitive to other kinds of marginalisation.
In 2004, when the Sci Fi channel put out an adaptation which featured a blond, blue-eyed Ged, Le Guin was furious. She published an article called ‘How the Sci Fi Channel wrecked my books’.
‘My protagonist is Ged, a boy with red-brown skin,’ she wrote. ‘In the film, he’s a petulant white kid … I think it is possible that some readers never even notice what color the people in the story are. Don’t notice, don’t care. Whites of course have the privilege of not caring, of being “colorblind”. Nobody else does.’
And of course, she was feminist, writing in a time and a genre which was famously sexist. Her 1987 reply to George Zebrowski, who asked her to blurb an anthology of science fiction that contained precisely no women, remains a masterpiece of acerbic restraint. It’s worth quoting in full:
I can imagine myself blurbing a book in which Brian Aldiss, predictably, sneers at my work, because then I could preen myself on my magnanimity. But I cannot imagine myself blurbing a book, the first of the series, which not only contains no writing by women, but the tone of which is so self-contentedly, exclusively male, like a club, or a locker room. That would not be magnanimity, but foolishness. Gentlemen, I just don’t belong here.
But perhaps what makes her writing stay with me most of all is its beauty. She always makes beauty in the most unexpected ways, rendering the ordinary strange so we can see it anew.
Very few writers are as attentive as Le Guin to the grace of humble things. In the Earthsea quintet, her characters explore the darkness of their moral dramas – betrayal, mortality, cruelty, love – in a world which is redeemed by the innocence of nature or human gestures of friendship, trust and compassion.
Le Guin draws the art of magic, the immense possibility of human imagination, as a gift beset with all the dangers of human arrogance, greed and fear. As with the young wizard Ged, whose hubris unleashes disaster, redemption exists in the everyday things that make life luminous: the smile of a friend, the skill of a weaver’s hand, a meal shared.
She imagined worlds of plurality and diversity, and showed the consequences when justice and the recognition of common humanity are put aside. Perhaps the best way to honour her memory, as Native American fantasy writer Daniel Heath Justice suggested yesterday, is to seek out and read the ‘many writers of talent, courage, and commitment whose work is still too often relegated to the periphery’.
Le Guin knew better than anyone that speculative fictions are all reflections on our world, and that our world is full of ordinary things that are ignored or dismissed by the powerful, but which are themselves miracles. As, indeed, is the work she left us.