I loved, and was deeply influenced by many women writers of fantasy and historical fiction growing up: Mary Renault, Rosemary Sutcliff and Mary Stewart, to name only a few. But Ursula K. Le Guin went one step further than the rest. She reached into the heart of nine-year-old me, her magic seeping through those black marks on that white page – reached right in there with that word-magic of hers, right into my very soul, and flipped a switch. On.
Think, she said. Think about life. Think about good and evil. Think about all you take for granted in your childish way. Are all the things you accept as true, without thinking, really and absolutely true, always and everywhere? Is there a truth that goes above and beyond them, holding them inside, still valid in their own way, but ridiculously small and unimportant when you look at the bigger picture?
It sounds a little teacherly when put like that. But the way she did it, keeping her philosophy beautifully embedded in her story, never preaching, never pedantic, made all the difference.
The tale in question was ‘The Wizard of Earthsea’, arguably one of Ms Le Guin’s most beloved works, and for good reason. It is psychologically, dare I say spiritually, absolutely sound. After following Ged the hero in his quest for popularity and power (yes, I can relate to that) and seeing him crash and burn as a result (yes, I can relate to that, too,) there is a final chase. The dark thing Ged has released into the world first hunts him down, then is hunted by him in turn. The story culminates in a struggle between the two forces. Ged and the dark Thing wrestle in a state between land and sea, life and death, waking and sleeping.
Except that they aren’t two. At the climax of the struggle, Ged names his nemesis: it is himself. He doesn’t seek to banish the darkness or deny it any longer. He claims it and so has power over it. He takes it back into himself, becoming a wiser and more complete human being as a result.
It’s a teaching story, in the best tradition of myths the world over. It holds a nugget of truth about life told in metaphorical terms. And for the little nine-year-old reader, whose whole being leapt and thrilled with that discovery – “It’s him – of course it’s him – that was the only way he could deal with it!” – it was a watershed moment. She has never gone back to a dully divisive world view in the years since and has always, doggedly, tried to name her darkness.
It may be out of fashion to imagine one can teach through stories. Market forces yell otherwise: “Entertain us!” they cry. “To hell with all the meaningful stuff!” But I suspect that’s a passing craze. People have always been curious about the universe and how it works, and the human soul is a piece of the universe, after all. It needs exploring.
Thank you, Ursula, for helping me discover mine.
Note from Gillian: I have lost Mary's bio! I blame living in far too interesting times. You can find out more about her here: http://maryvictoria.net/