Ursula K. Le Guin: Reviews
by David Bratman
Always Coming Home, by Ursula K. Le Guin; illus. by Margaret Chodos. Harper & Row trade pb, 525 pages, $25 in box with cassette, "Music and Poetry of the Kesh", music by Todd Barton. Reviewed by David Bratman, from Mythprint, March 1986.
The Earthsea trilogy and The Left Hand of Darkness placed Ursula Le Guin in the prime position among living American fantasists, but as of now all previous evaluations of her work are obsolete: Always Coming Home is her masterpiece to date, as clearly as The Silmarillion was Tolkien's. Like The Silmarillion, however, it's likely to puzzle some people, or at least prove difficult to pick up for a casual read: it's long, it's disconnected, it dumps you into an alien culture for some time before even beginning to explain what all those strange words and concepts mean -- and it rivets the imagination like no other secondary world since Middle-earth itself.
Or at least it riveted my imagination. Always Coming Home is a very easy book to describe, but difficult to evaluate in any terms other than the deeply personal. That intensity is part of its power. To begin, then, with the description:
Le Guin, under the name of "Pandora", has adopted the viewpoint and to some extent the persona of an anthropologist studying the customs of a people called the Kesh: primitive by our standards but very civilized, living in a valley in northern California some time in the distant future, long after our own civilization has fallen and the shape of the lands has changed. Like any anthropologist, she studies her subjects by collecting their culture: oral and written literature, religion and philosophy, art (particularly poetry and music in this case), and daily customs.
That's background: Always Coming Home is the collection of Kesh prose, poetry, drama, and music that Pandora/Le Guin has so carefully assembled, interwoven with some brief, clear "nonfiction" essays on numerous aspects of Kesh culture, ranging from religion to cookery. The book has over a hundred separate pieces altogether, ranging in length from tiny poems of a few lines to a full-length novel. There are illustrations, maps, and an accompanying tape cassette of Kesh music and poetry. The music on the tape was written and performed by musicians from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and some of the poetry is recited by Le Guin herself. It makes pleasant listening (the Kesh musical scale is the standard Western tonal one), and the ostensible "field recordings" add to the anthropological atmosphere. All these pieces fit together like a mosaic, building up a picture of Kesh life and culture, as any good anthropological study should. The parts don't have to be read in the order they're given in, but they do shed light on each other. This is, I should emphasize, a huge volume, and both its size and its unusual structure may make it a bit difficult to grasp. Certainly it is not a novel in any normal sense of the word. (The size and the cassette share responsibility for the rather painful price.)
Inside those individual pieces, the Kesh prove to be a quiet, pastoral society, reminiscent of American Indians in some ways, particularly in their naming customs and some of their religious beliefs. In this book, the dominant Kesh literary form is the autobiography. There are nine such stories given, ranging from one to nearly one hundred pages in length. One, called "Stone Telling", runs through the book in three separated chapters, and is long enough to stand as a novel on its own. It tells of a half-Kesh woman who leaves the peaceful valley to live with her father among his people, the Condor of the far north, a warlike and technocratic society. Another life story, "The Visionary", was published independently as a chapbook, and was reviewed in last August's Mythprint.
The individual pieces can be great fun to read, but I find it hard to recommend anything for a sampler, as the parts are so interdependent. Perhaps "Stone Telling" or "The Trouble with the Cotton People" -- both stories about Kesh who leave their country -- would do best. But even then some explanation would be necessary. This is really a book to be lived with (and in), rather than to be cut up into chunks.
What really impresses me about this book is not so much the stories themselves, appealing as they are, but the sheer quality of the secondary creation. This imaginary world feels real, right down to the bone. The geography illustrates this vividly. Some "local color" novels could take place anywhere; this one, for all its futurity, is firmly rooted in the soil of northern California. The cover of the book is a photograph of the local landscape. The maps locate all the sites of the stories, so carefully and precisely that an intrepid reader could locate the exact sites of the Kesh towns. Le Guin grew up in the valley where the Kesh will someday live; it's her native country. As someone who grew up amid similar landscape in another valley not far away, I appreciate the author's feelings. Perhaps Le Guin wrote this book partly to honor her homeland; if so, it works.
In addition to depth, this book has guts. Le Guin has bravely attacked head-on our preconceived notions about what belongs in a fantasy world. The Kesh are not the perfect little aborigines they may appear to be at first glance: they have electricity, guns, a railroad, and access to a worldwide computer network. And it's all integrated into a whole culture; this society manages to find a connecting theme in all its surroundings.
Le Guin also faces up to the whole problem of creativity. She is the reporter of her story, as Tolkien sometimes saw himself the reporter of his, but she is also its inventor, and explores the implications of this in some introspective soliloquies by Pandora.
Kesh civilization has its utopian elements: the people live at peace with themselves and with nature, and are in general happy and content. But their lives are not perfect: they are materially poor, they often suffer from genetic disease, they squabble with each other and their neighbors. Le Guin has fully achieved in this book what she sketched in "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas": a joyous, happy, mature society without the didacticism, sappiness, or artificial perfection of a utopia.
Always Coming Home is an immensely civilised creation. I'd never spent $25 on a fantasy book before I bought this. I have never considered my money better spent.
Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences, by Ursula K. Le Guin. Capra Press hardcover, 196 p., $15.95. Reviewed by David Bratman, from Mythprint, November 1987.
This book is a miscellany of the author's stories and poems about animals, with a few courtesy appearances by plants and rocks. The pieces were written over the last 15 years, and take a variety of forms and styles, but most share the trait of giving striking new perspectives on the world. Seven of the eleven stories have appeared in previous Le Guin story collections, but they are placed here in a new context and with new introductions. Of these, "Direction of the Road" is perhaps my favorite Le Guin story, a wise and wry piece giving a tree's opinion of the increasing hustle and bustle of our civilization. Other pieces are similarly skewed: "Mazes", a chilling experiment at describing first contact between a human and an alien from the alien's point of view, and "The Author of the Acacia Seeds", three tiny deadpan non-fact articles on the languages of animals. By contrast, "Vaster Than Empires and More Slow" is a comparatively straight-forward science fiction story about a spaceship expedition to a planet where the trees have developed a collective consciousness.
Of the four stories new to book form, the title story and "May's Lion" are especially interesting for the light they shed on Le Guin's difficult magnum opus, Always Coming Home. In "May's Lion" the connection is explicit. First Le Guin recounts her childhood memory of hearing a neighbor tell of her encounter with a mountain lion in the Napa Valley foothills; then she retells it as fiction: the same encounter, in the same place, to a woman of the Kesh (the people of ACH), the way it should have happened -- without the real lion's ignominious end at the guns of the county sheriffs. The story is a brief demonstration of the process Le Guin went through in translating the valley and people of our world into fictional terms.
The title story's relation to Always Coming Home is more metaphorical. It concerns a child rescued from a plane crash by a coyote, who while living with her and the other desert animals sees and talks with them as humans living in a simply-built town. The story can be read as a literalization of the Kesh way of looking at the world: to them, animals share the status of "people" with humans, and are grouped with us in tribes called "houses". The animals of "Buffalo Gals" also share with the Kesh a skittish aversion to our modern civilization. Readers wishing to absorb the Kesh worldview might find this story useful. It's an interesting piece in its own right as well.
Some of the poems in this book are reprints; others are new. They're grouped in four sections by theme: rocks, plants, birds and beasts, cats. (Of course cats get a section of their own. Le Guin is a woman of taste, to be sure.) For those who appreciate the author's poetic style they are a charming assortment.
This collection was intended for a general audience, rather than the specifically sf/fantasy reading audience of her earlier collections, The Wind's Twelve Quarters and The Compass Rose. This shows in the introductions: Le Guin finds it necessary, based on her experience reading some of these stories aloud to audiences, to explain what she's getting at in her tricker science fictional constructs.
Buffalo Gals is a vivid expression of Le Guin's mind and personality. Those who enjoy her recent work will admire this new book; those who don't will merely find confirmation of what they've been complaining about.
Catwings, by Ursula K. Le Guin, illustrated by S.D. Schindler. Orchard hardcover, 40 p., $10.95. Reviewed by David Bratman, from Mythprint, December 1988.
Four kittens are born with wings. Soft furry wings. Even their mother doesn't know why. To escape the dangerous life of wild city cats, they fly away to the countryside, where they find dangers of a different kind. (Imagine how birds would react to the discovery of cats that could fly.) Eventually they meet two children with kind hands, who take care of them. (I'm trying not to say, "take them under their wings.")
This little story has "cute" written all over it. It's evidently designed to do for felines what unicorns have done for horses. The charm of the story, not to mention that of the immensely appealing illustrations (cat lovers, prepare to coo!), is nicely offset by the author's keen understanding of human, and animal, psychology. The birds, for instance, are a nice touch. So is the way the children's gradual caution turning to trust of the cats is matched by that of the cats for the children. This is not a casually tossed-off novelty item, for all that it appears designed to grab at the basic baby-boomer instincts, but a thoughtfully prepared work.
A sequel, Catwings Return, is in the works. Oh no, Mr. Cat!
Changing Planes, by Ursula K. Le Guin, illustrated by Eric Beddows. Orlando: Harcourt, 2003. ISBN 0-15-100971-6, hardcover, 246 pp., $22. Reviewed by David Bratman, from Mythprint, July 2003.
Ursula K. Le Guin changes human beings to explore what we are like unchanged. For many years, she has written stories and novels about fictional societies in which basics of biology, physiology, or culture are markedly changed, as an experiment to see what this does to human nature and society. The most famous of these, The Left Hand of Darkness, asks "What if there were no sexes?" This and other stories have been set on other planets, in a loose framework involving ancient interplanetary seeding and its future rediscovery.
In Changing Planes, Le Guin makes her imaginary experiments without the leash of that framework, or the restrictions of plot and storytelling. It's a collection of fifteen short pieces on the human or humanoid civilizations to be found on other planes of existence which can be reached through the imagination. Most of them are "reports and descriptions," as the author says, rather than stories with plots and principal characters. Several have been previously published over the last few years.
What if we only spoke when we really had something to say? What if flame-wars were the organizing principle of society? What if there were no sleep? What if we migrated with the seasons, like birds? What if we could fly like birds? What if dreams were shared? What if everybody were royalty? (A really caustic one, that.) What if the world were a library? (A more poignant place than you might think.) These are among the questions these pieces explore. And all of them ask: how would people live, how would they feel, if these things were so?
Before the first piece, there's an introduction, an example of the pure silly whimsy that Le Guin doesn't let loose in print very often. It describes how one can change into these other planes of existence while sitting, in mind-numbing boredom, in airports waiting to change another kind of plane. It's delightfully witty, but it seems very different from the rest of the pieces. They have their wit, sometimes caustic, sometimes silly (the piece without sleep is frightening, but it's titled "Wake Island"), but they're fundamentally serious. The first piece, "Porridge on Islac," is a cautionary tale about how the society came to be, and one of the few which discusses origins. Most of them just are the way they are.
The introduction gives the impression we're in for travelogues on the beauty and wonder of the places. But Le Guin does not have the eye of a tourist or even a naturalist; her instinct is that of an anthropologist. She is not interested in the places but in the people who live there. Her persona stays in interplanary hotels, but goes out and meets the people, finding out how they live, instead of gazing at the tourist attractions.
Le Guin says she hopes these pieces will encourage her readers to try interplanary travel for themselves; "or if not, they may at least help to pass an hour in an airport." They will certainly do at least that much, and probably a good deal more. This is a book of pure imagination that shows how fantasy can lead to self-understanding. And the elegant drawings by Eric Beddows, one for each tale, can only help.
Cheek by Jowl, by Ursula K. Le Guin. Seattle: Aqueduct Press, 2009. 149 pp., $16 (softcover). ISBN 978-1-933500-27-0. Reviewed by David Bratman, from Mythprint, March 2010.
A new essay collection by Ursula K. Le Guin is as important an event as a new novel or poetry collection from her. This small book, from a small press, deserves not to be overlooked. Described on the cover as "talks & essays on how & why fantasy matters," it does not reprint her famous 1970s essays on the subject, but carries on the argument to current time: almost all the contents date from the last decade. Le Guin is still fulminating against what she once called "Poughkeepsie fantasy," but she now phrases it in terms of the junk fantasy of recent times, the ones about "the Good guys and the Evil guys [who] are hard to tell apart since all of them use violence as the response to all situations." The Lord of the Rings is frequently cited as the antidote to all this mouthwash. I cheered when Le Guin writes that, despite the superficial faithfulness of the films, "the focus on violent action and the interminable battle scenes overshadow and fatally reduce the moral complexity and originality of the book." Le Guin gets it, in a way apologists for the film do not. (Elsewhere, she has a similar complaint to make about Disney’s version of Bambi.)
Several other themes recur in these essays. She cites fairy tales as her earliest influences, long before she set herself up as an author, and hence an influence that one may remain unaware of unless closely examined. Perhaps this may also be so for others. She warns against reductionist criticism, rationalizing fantasy away as satisfying the author's personal psychological needs (and she places readings of The Lord of the Rings as a Catholic apologia or a Great War expiation into that category). She chides critics who dismiss fantasy as childish, or who discuss it while remaining unaware of its genre. The Harry Potter books may be delightful, but a school for wizards was not – as many critics claimed – a unique and unprecedented idea, ruefully says the author of A Wizard of Earthsea. All fantasy critics, she says, should read Tolkien's "On Fairy-Stories." You can disagree with it, but you can’t ignore it.
She interestingly contrasts fantasy with realistic fiction for older children. The latter is mostly didactic message fiction. It spoils the reader into looking for messages in everything. When asked by child readers in those terms, she replies, "I'm not an answering machine – I don’t have a message for you! What I have for you is a story." For fantasy is a branch of myth: it’s stories that tell us who we are. And it does so by taking us out of ourselves. Realistic children's fiction is mostly relentlessly quotidian. Fantasy can "include the nonhuman as essential."
This explains the longest essay, which takes up about half the book. It’s the title essay, a taxonomy of animals in children’s literature, both realistic and fantastic stories. ("Cheek by jowl" is, of course, how humans and animals live, in societies that do not artificially separate them.) Le Guin surveys about thirty books, classic and new, famous and forgotten. Her highest praise goes to the realistic books describing animals' lives from their own, animalic perspective, because like fantasies they take us into the nonhuman. These include not just the famous tales of horses and dogs and deer, but one about a cow and another about a chipmunk.
Moving towards more anthropomorphic stories, Le Guin becomes more critical. She is cautious but forgiving of classic writers like Grahame and Kipling, but she inserts insightfully ruthless barbs into some well-loved authors. Pullman's His Dark Materials, she points out, despite appearances is virtually animal-less. His daemons are wish-fulfillment fantasy pets that don't even have to be fed. Adams' Watership Down, though it claims to be realistic about rabbits, is to Le Guin deeply dishonest here, a rigidly sexist story where even the good guys are militaristic, and in both respects it is anthropomorphic. (Though I love that book, I must admit this criticism is well-taken, except for one thing: of the acquiring of does from another warren, Le Guin says, "That the females might have any voice in the matter is not even considered," which is flatly untrue. They want to go, they take initiative, and they are active if secondary partners.)
But it's not all negative at this end of the animal story. Charlotte's Web and The Sword in the Stone, by the two Whites, are true to their own premises and face the tough moral questions about animal-human relationships unflinchingly. She even has a good word for Through the Looking-Glass as a cat story.
This essay has nothing to say about her own work – catwings, she decided, were out of the essay’s remit – because Le Guin is a true critic and not just a me-me-me author. Yet elsewhere she has new and interesting things to say about her own work. "The Poacher," she says, is a story built on dredging out those unexamined childhood fairy-tale influences. In an essay on A Wizard of Earthsea, she talks about writing for older children without prior experience, and about the difference between intentional decisions, like making her wizard non-white, and unconscious creation of implications, like citing the myths surrounding him, which she intended as purely a trick to create resonance, but which generated whole new stories afterwards.
The Compass Rose, by Ursula K. Le Guin. Harper & Row hardcover, $14.95. Reviewed by David Bratman, from Mythprint, September 1982.
Here it is: the new Le Guin short story collection. It contains twenty stories, the oldest first published in 1974, the two newest first published in this volume. It is a treasury of fine fiction.
The first thing to note about this book is how heterogenous a collection it is. There are straight science fiction stories, such as "The Eye Altering". There are mixtures of science fiction and mythic elements, such as "The New Atlantis". There's a story taking place in Le Guin's imaginary middle European country, Orsinia, called "Two Delays on the Northern Line". There is one pure fantasy story, "The White Donkey", concerning a young woman who meets a unicorn but does not recognize it for what it is. There are other stories that are unclassifiable.
In comparing this book with Le Guin's previous collection, The Wind's Twelve Quarters, which contains stories first published as far back as 1962, I can see the growth and change in Le Guin's talent and writing style. In the new collection there is much less open Nortonesque romanticism, and more open and sometimes biting wit and satire. A story like "SQ", for instance, works well as a science fictional cautionary satire. There is the gentle humor of having the scientist in "The Author of the Acacia Seeds" publish a report which ends, "I have obtained a sizable grant from UNESCO and stocked an expedition. There are still four places open. We leave for Antarctica on Thursday. If anyone wants to come along, welcome!" And in "Sur", there is the tale of an Antarctic expedition almost that carefree. Oddest of all is "Intracom", which begins sounding like a light take-off on Star Trek. But if you read it closely, it turns out that the spaceship is an allegorical vehicle for something else altogether.
All of the stories are short, averaging less than fifteen pages. Most are easy to read, some are fairly difficult. All are excellently crafted and a joy to behold.
Fish Soup, written by Ursula K. Le Guin, illustrated by Patrick Wynne. Atheneum hardcover, 32 pages, $13.95. A Ride on the Red Mare's Back, written by Ursula K. Le Guin, illustrated by Julie Downing. Orchard Books hardcover, 48 pages, $15.95. Reviewed by David Bratman, from Mythprint, February 1993.
Ursula K. Le Guin has in recent years written half a dozen children's books, with the collaboration of nearly as many illustrators. All of them fall into the category known in the trade as "chapter books": about 50-150 words per page, with illustrations on at least half of the two-page spreads. Two new books of this sort from Le Guin appeared last fall. Catwings is the best-known of her earlier children's books, but Fish Soup is a good candidate to replace it. This small (9 inches high) book tells a charming tale, utterly divorced from the real world but with a keen eye for human psychology. The Writing Woman of Maho and the Thinking Man of Moha live in houses that reflect their characters -- messy for her, neat for him -- but they're friends and visit each other often. One day they decide it would be nice to think up some children (instead of having them the usual way, but this is a children's book and that alternative is not mentioned). It takes them a while to get the formula exactly right, and that is the story, told with cheerful good humor.
The ink drawings of Patrick Wynne, covered with a beige wash, are a perfect complement to the story. Before I met Pat or had even heard of him, it was the sheer quality of his art for Mythlore that drew my attention, and if I had never heard of him before now that same quality would have caught my eye instantly in these drawings. They're drawn in a carefully naturalistic style despite some unnatural content (flying mice?!), with a careful eye for nature and for consistency of style, showing a rich imagination (the Writing Woman's books are something to see) and lightness despite the heavy line. The art is full compatible in style and subject with the story, and adds to it.
A Ride on the Red Mare's Back is a larger book, in page count, word count, and physical size (10.5 inches in height). The story, set in the wild forests of the North, concerns a girl who rescues her younger brother from the trolls with the help of her carved wooden horse which comes to life. In a note on the jacket, the author explains that the story is an attempt to create a folk tale for the Dalarna horses carved by Swedish woodcutters. As such, it has both the classic simplicity and odd quirks of genuine folk tales. I liked the way the girl finds her way to the troll caves by following the direction the wooden horse faces while nestled in her hand. There's a delightful ambiguity in that which isn't spoiled when the horse comes to life, but which is diminished when the children find their way home by following a silvery thread not otherwise mentioned or explained.
Julie Downing's watercolor paintings, one for every other page spread, are nice complements to the story: not too busy, with bright colors (especially the horse's red paint), and an occasional imaginative breaking of the frame.
The Other Wind, by Ursula K. Le Guin. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 2001. ISBN 0151006849, hardcover, 256 pages, $25. Reviewed by David Bratman, from Mythprint, November 2001.
One of the most memorable images in Ursula K. Le Guin's classic A Wizard of Earthsea was of the dry lands, the otherworld where the dead go: the hillside where a simple wall of stones marks the border between the lands of living and of dead, which the living can see only in trance or dream, and must not cross. Le Guin explored the dry lands further in her third Earthsea book, The Farthest Shore. Now she returns and wrests the complete meaning and significance from it, in an expedition into the roots of the very nature of Earthsea, and of life and death in it.
The Other Wind follows up on major plot threads from Tehanu and Tales from Earthsea as well as from The Farthest Shore. It will read more easily if you know all three of these, but an adventurous new reader can pick up what needs to be known. I like all of Le Guin's work, but I enjoyed this book more than its two immediate predecessors, and I suspect readers less sympathetic to her writing will like it better too. It is less cryptic, and less didactic. There are no crude antagonists here, only people trying to understand each other. Even one character repeatedly shown up as foolish is sympathetic.
The story begins with Alder, a village sorcerer having disturbing dreams of the dry lands. He visits Ged, the retired Archmage, who gives him comfort and simple work to do (and a cat!). Without Ged, Alder goes to the king's city in Havnor, then to the wizards' isle of Roke. In these places he learns that his dreams are associated with other disturbing events. He meets royalty, councillors, mages, and dragons. He wonders why they keep him around. But they know that in the end Alder will be the one to realize what must be done.
This is a very directed novel, focused on its ending, but less so than this summary may imply. After arriving at Havnor, Alder ceases to be the only viewpoint character. The relations between each pair of a cast of nearly a dozen are important. It's a very political fantasy, and a very theological fantasy, and it shows how these can be written without the hack and bloat so common to the subgenres. For it is also a short novel, and a gentle one.
Solomon Leviathan's Nine Hundred and Thirty-First Trip Around the World, by Ursula K. Le Guin, illustrated by Alicia Austin. Philomel hardcover, $13.95, 32 p. Reviewed by David Bratman, from Mythprint, January 1989.
Ursula K. Le Guin has written several new children's books lately, which makes the reissue of this old one especially appropriate. Solomon Leviathan is actually one of Le Guin's earliest surviving works, having been written in her early twenties. But it wasn't published until a handsome but obscenely expensive small press edition appeared five years ago. Now the tale is reissued in a more generally available edition at a price that makes a half-hearted stab at being reasonable.
Both editions are illustrated by Alicia Austin, an artist who made a major splash in fan circles in the early '70s but who's been seen too little since she turned pro. The 19 mostly full-page water colors in this new large format (11 inches high) edition are compatible in style with the line drawings in the small-press edition. The small-press edition also had an introduction by Le Guin recounting the making of the tale, which is not reprinted here.
Solomon Leviathan is a pleasantly silly nonsense tale. There's this giraffe (male) and this boa constrictor (female), you see, and one day they decide to go to sea, in a boat that's neither pea-green nor particularly beautiful, to seek the horizon. They don't find it, but they do meet up with the lumbering whale of the title, and decide that since the horizon is unreachable, they might as well just all keep sailing together. The giraffe and the boa constrictor fancy themselves philosophers, and have conversations like this:
"The sea is bluer than the sky," the giraffe said, looking down. "The sky is bluer than the sea," he said, looking up.I enjoyed reading this book. It has the vividness and also the meandering quality I've come to expect in great authors' juvenalia. Austin's illustrations are more problematical. They're carefully done, ith bright colors, and the seascapes have a fine Japanese quality, but I'm not so happy with the main characters, particularly with how their genders are conveyed. The giraffe has a beer belly, and the snake looks as much like Mae West as a snake can, its feminine quality being expressed in its mouth, which is curved to look the way a female human's mouth does when wearing too much lipstick. This convention has been used by bad artists to convey femininity for time immemorial; I'm almost surprised Austin didn't go all the way and supply the snake with fake eyelashes.
"Impossible," said the boa constrictor. "Of two things, one must be bluer."
"Not of two bananas," said the giraffe.
Tales of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin. New York: Harcourt, 2001. ISBN 0-15-100561-3, hc, 296 pp., $24. Reviewed by David Bratman, from Mythprint, June 2001.
A fifth Earthsea book is news of great moment to readers of the first four. Anyone who has not read the others should do so before approaching this one, but Earthsea veterans will find a rich new experience.
Le Guin is not the author to drag her heroes, Ged and Tenar, out of a well-deserved retirement to slog through a carbon copy of previous adventures. Indeed, Tenar does not appear in this book at all, while Ged and his master Ogion are featured only as secondary characters in the two shortest stories. Tales of Earthsea is five stories of varying lengths, plus a short historical and anthropological essay, that fill in details of Earthsea in the manner of Tolkien's Niggle painting new branches and leaves on his Tree. There is no commodification or embalming of her creation here -- indeed, the author spends half the foreword in a terse condemnation of just those practices in fantasy. There is only plain, beautiful prose from a thoughtful mind.
The tales cover a broad period, from the founding of the wizards' school on Roke to the unsettled time of Tehanu, the fourth novel. Le Guin attempts with great care to meld together her changing visions of Earthsea from over the years. The early books were straightforward (if not quite conscious) invocations of Taoist balance and Jungian archetypes: Le Guin's use of these has become more subtle in time. The early books were also, she later decided, unconsciously sexist. In the first book, A Wizard of Earthsea Ged is a boy attending an all-male wizards' college. Later, the author asked herself why women should not have equal magical powers and why male wizards should apparently be celibate, and devoted Tehanu to answering these questions.
Tales of Earthsea continues that examination. Three of these stories directly address the same questions. The problem is that authorial innocence lost cannot be regained, and thus the assumption of a celibate male wizardry appears less as thoughtless sexism, as it did earlier, than as active malevolence. It is shoved offstage, or crumbles or appears willful in the face of a self-evident egalitarian truth. So in "The Finder", the first story, the sympathetic protagonist is a partnered male wizard who founds Roke (building on earlier informal teaching) as a co-ed academy, leaving it to a later Archmage, whose story is summarized in the essay but not told in full, to expel women. This story is more effective in its harrowing account of its hero's enslavement to and escape from a more powerful, arrogant wizard. And "Dragonfly", the final story, is the tale of the first latter-day female student at Roke, and the sexist obstacles she must overcome to get there in the first place and to be accepted when she arrives. The trouble with this account is, it's not how women came to be admitted to Oxford and other places like Roke, or how they were kept out beforehand. The main characters are well-drawn, but there's no excuse for making the fictional history of female emancipation so caricatured when it could draw on a real history that's far more complex and nuanced than this. "Darkrose and Diamond" is a more delicate, subtle, and successful tale, of a young man who finds that the rule of celibacy forces him to choose between wizardry and love.
The remaining two stories, both short, are the ones featuring characters from earlier books in secondary roles. In "The Bones of the Earth", the young Ogion assists his master in preventing a major earthquake. In "On the High Marsh", Archmage Ged helps an anguished student. What is striking about these stories is that all four wizards, including the student, are shown as powerful but humble, completely without pride of position. The student had to be cured of this pride; so too, we know from A Wizard of Earthsea, had Ged in his day. These are men who are not above keeping house or sleeping in the barn, and it seems clear that this attitude to both life and work is Le Guin's ideal of both wizard and man, in contrast to the power-mad arrogance of the antagonist Gelluk in "The Finder" and the selfish manipulations of the extraordinarily problematic Ivory in "Dragonfly".
The essay, "A Description of Earthsea", is short but very detailed, resembling parts of the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings. It lays out the history, literature, ethnography, and rules of wizardry of Earthsea, the broad outlines of which are clear from the other books, but which are here given more fully. It will appeal to readers who love imaginary worlds for their subcreational life. But it would be meaningless without being paired with the vivid, well-wrought descriptions in the stories themselves. Earthsea is a particularly rich world, and this collection makes it richer.
Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin. Atheneum hardcover, 226 pages, $18.95. Reviewed by David Bratman, from Mythprint, June 1990.
Any new novel by Le Guin is of course an Event, but this one is more than that: it's the fourth Earthsea book, a sequel to The Farthest Shore which was first published 18 years ago. The year after The Farthest Shore appeared, the critic Lin Carter wrote, "I suspect that Miss Le Guin is not yet done with Earthsea." He was right. Le Guin intended to write a fourth book, but it didn't flow, so she set it aside.
But she did not abandon it. Le Guin never intended to leave the Earthsea series as it was. She has described the "trilogy" as a four-legged chair that was missing one leg. A Wizard of Earthsea was the young man's book: Ged as an apprentice wizard. The Tombs of Atuan was the young woman's book: Tenar, the priestess of the tombs. The Farthest Shore was the old man's book: Ged as Archmage. That left one book missing, but Le Guin was not ready then to write the old woman's book. Now she has done so. The woman, again, is Tenar. Having escaped, with Ged's help, from Atuan, she settled on Gont, and she's still there. She's a farmer's widow, now running the farm on her own. Her two children are grown and living away from home, and she has adopted another child: a gypsy girl called Therru, burned and abandoned by her family. This is Tenar's book: she is the viewpoint character; and it's also Therru's, because though mostly she is inconspicuous, she is always present and never unimportant.
The problem with writing a new Earthsea book now is that a lot has changed in 18 years, including the author. The earlier books were written in a European fantasy tradition which by custom included some things Le Guin can no longer accept: in particular, a dismissive attitude towards women. All the wizards in Earthsea are (of course) men; women can only rise to be village witches, and there's a saying on the island of Gont: "Weak as woman's magic, wicked as woman's magic." So Le Guin's challenge was to write a book about magic in Earthsea that didn't dismiss women, that explained the attitudes of the earlier books in a fair but feminist light, and that did this without undercutting the authority of Ged, the Archmage who is the central figure of the trilogy.
Surprisingly, perhaps, she has accomplished these things. She has done it partly by having Ged deny his authority, following up on hints in the last chapter of The Farthest Shore. Ged has spent all his magic energies fighting Cob. He has done with doing; he is no mage now. And she has done it partly by creating a character, Aunty Moss, a village witch, who explains some things about wizards we did not learn before: why they are all men, and why they lead monastic lives on Roke or wherever they travel. Moss's explanations, particularly in the chapter called "Hawks", are a real eye-opener. They help put a feminist cast over not just this book, but the whole of Earthsea: the effect is of retroactively rewriting the entire trilogy without changing a word.
The tone of Tehanu is utterly unlike the other Earthsea books. It has a quiet feel to it: the word "autumnal" kept coming to mind. Somehow the style reminded me of Le Guin's screenplay King Dog, although the two books have very little in common. The plot is eventful, but passive in a way. For the first time in this series Le Guin depicts characters sitting around waiting for things to happen. Previously such scenes sped by in a few sentences; now they're the center of attention. The scale of the book is small: it takes place entirely on the island of Gont, with one small coastwise excursion by ship. The focus is novelistic, not epic: in this book, dishes get washed and crops get planted -- things traditionally of female concern. The more sensible male characters do their share. The contemporary issue of child abuse casts a shadow over Therru's life. In all these ways Tehanu is unlike the earlier books.
Like the earlier books, though, it is superbly written. After an introductory chapter recounting Therru's adoption, the story begins when Tenar is summoned by the dying wizard Ogion, who had once taught both her and Ged. When Ged appears, it is straight from the final scene of The Farthest Shore on the back of the dragon Kalessin, in a magnificently written scene. Ged is too worn to do much of anything for a while, and Tenar tends to him. Eventually he gains enough strength to head off, for reasons I will let you read the book to discover, and does not reappear for another four chapters, by which time he has found a new role that an ex-wizard may play in life. Tenar continues to live at Ogion's home as long as she may, learning, thinking, and doing. Her concerns for Ged, for Therru, and for herself shape her actions. The tale ends in peace, and with a new hope for Earthsea.
Each of the Earthsea books may be read independently of the others. Earthsea's naming customs and its particular system of magic are clearly explained without expository lumps. Yet there isn't much reason, it seems to me, to read Tehanu alone: the characters, and the story, depend so much on where they have been before. I would recommend, in fact, that if you haven't re-read the Earthsea trilogy recently that you do so before immersing yourself in Tehanu. It will make the reading much more rewarding.
Perhaps Tehanu is not a masterpiece, but it is an important book, a well-written one, and a moving one. It adds a new and very important dimension to the masterpiece that is Earthsea, and does so without violating the rules or disappointing expectations.
The Visionary: The Life Story of Flicker of the Serpentine, by Ursula K. Le Guin. Half of a Capra "Back-to-Back" paperback, with Scott Saunders' Wonders Hidden. $7.50. Reviewed by David Bratman, from Mythprint, August 1985.
"The Visionary", says the author, "is one of several autobiographies in a book called Always Coming Home ... In the book are stories, life stories, histories, poems, and dramatic works of a people called the Kesh or the Valley People, who might be going to have lived in a particular region of Northern California a long time from now ..." This short piece (43 pages), then, is a welcome slice of Le-Guin-in-progress, for (to my knowledge) Always Coming Home has still not been scheduled for publication. Clearly, she intends the book to be a multi-disciplinary look at her invented people; and in that light, this selection can be seen as a piece of oral history, vividly spoken aloud.
Flicker is a woman, telling in her old age the story of her childhood and early adulthood. As a girl, she sees people all around her whom no-one else can see, and later on uses her talent to live for several years in semi-isolation receiving visions of her tribe's myths. Flicker's major problem is that, though she considers herself a prose artist, she is yet painfully aware of her inability to communicate her visionary experiences clearly and completely. Those sections I found a bit baffling in the reading, but as for the rest, Le Guin conveys Flicker's hopes and dreams in a manner reminiscent of her unsurpassed mainstream young adult novel, Very Far Away From Anywhere Else.
Le Guin's approach to "future fantasy" is different from that of most authors who've tackled the idea recently. The industrialized past does not weigh heavily on some overdrawn back-to-nature movement; instead, the Kesh manage to find a connecting thread in all their surroundings. Flicker and her father are electricians by trade, or "members of the Millers Art" as she calls it, and the spirit in live electric wires is as real to Flicker as are the ghostly people she sees. The Visionary is a fragment, but a fine one.
(The companion piece is a fictionalized biography of the naturalist Audubon's childhood in Haiti and France; it's a sentimental thing, with horribly stilted dialogue.)