Lost Heros, Lasting Inspiration: My Thoughts on the Passing of Ursula K. Le Guin

“Come home, Tenar! Come home!”

In the deep valley, in the twilight, the apple trees were on the eve of blossoming; here and there among the shadowed boughs one flower had opened early, rose and white, like a faint star. Down the orchard aisles, in the thick, new, wet grass, the little girl ran for the joy of running; hearing the call she did not come at once but made a long circle before she turned her face towards home. The mother waiting in the doorway of the hut, with the firelight behind her, watched the tiny figure running and bobbing like a bit of thistledown blown over the darkening grass beneath the trees.

—The Tombs of Atuan

My hero died last week.

I never met my hero, although when I was in my twenties and seeking representation for my first book, I received an encouraging note from her literary agent, who said she [the agent] was too busy to take on new clients, but that the synopsis I’d sent sounded like a “very good novel.” This kind encouragement from my hero’s representative made me very, very happy. Soon after, another agent from the same agency agreed to represent me, and this two-degree separation made me feel close to my hero, as if I had a personal connection with her, because my agent had surely met her and perhaps talked to her occasionally on the phone.

WizardEarthseafullBut those small joys had a minor impact on my life compared to the influence of my hero. I first read her work as a teen. It was among the first batch of fantasies I explored after finishing Lord of the Rings. The intriguing artwork on the paperback edition of A Wizard of Earthsea drew me in: a dragon entwined around a city, approached by a lone youth in a boat, and what a story lay inside! A brilliant but arrogant and obnoxious boy makes a terrible, pride-driven error that impairs his mental abilities and costs another boy his life. Humbled, the once-brilliant boy has to return to the beginning of his studies and work hard to master knowledge and skills that had previously come easily to him. Meanwhile a malevolent shade released by his mistake haunts him, then hunts him as he grows to manhood. After various adventures, one of which involved the dragons on the cover, the young man finds the courage to face his shadow and defeats it by recognizing and accepting it as a part of himself. This book spoke to me like no other ever has. It taught me about courage and perseverance and that failure is rooted in fear—especially the fear of one’s self. (Teachings I have not been terribly good at applying in my own life, but which I nevertheless strive to follow.)

The opening of the next Earthsea book, The Tombs of Atuan, contains my favorite line in all of literature:

…the little girl ran for the joy of running…

I love the rhythm of that sentence and what it conveys about the five-year-old girl who is about to be taken from that airy place of light and life—

…here and there among the shadowed boughs one flower had opened early, rose and white, like a faint star. Down the orchard aisle, in the thick, new, wet grass, the little girl ran…

—to an underground labyrinth built as a shrine to death. Like Persephone, the girl is wedded to dark gods and lives underground, becoming the anointed jailor and executioner of condemned prisoners sent to starve in the dark. The girl is jailed herself in a patriarchal system that claims to revere her while isolating and preventing her from deciding her own path in life. Finally, with a little help from the boy (now a grown man) from A Wizard of Earthsea, she escapes to a place where she can at last be herself—a woman who lives, one who runs for the joy of running. For a long time, Tombs was my favorite novel, although when I was young, what I loved was the romance of it. Now that I’m older, I recognize this coming of age story for what it is: a girl’s awakening and rebirth as a woman of wisdom and power, the only one in all of Earthsea able to live openly as herself and be called by her true name.

The Farthest Shore came next in my Le Guin readings. I didn’t really like it when I was young, but upon reading it as an adult, I realized I hadn’t liked it because I didn’t understand it when the once-obnoxious-boy-now-middle-aged man from A Wizard of Earthsea confronts his mortality (while helping another teenager realize his potential). Now that I’m over the midlife hump myself, The Farthest Shore and Tehanu (the fourth novel in the Earthsea Cycle and another featuring its protagonists’ midlife crises) speak to me the same way Wizard and Tombs did when I was a teen. The effect is magical, as if my hero had called me by my true name and enabled me to know myself.

lohdcoverMy teenage and young adult reading choices led me away from my hero’s work for a while. I read Left Hand of Darkness while still in high school, but it didn’t embed itself in my memory the way the Earthsea books did (I reread it recently, however, and wow! what a story). Sometime in my early thirties I rediscovered my hero when I picked up a copy of The Dispossessed and stood in awe of her imagination and narrative skills. It’s often the little moments that get me in her work. A child’s mobile hanging from the ceiling in The Dispossessed. A brief but heartbreaking obituary of an ordinary man living an ordinary life in the post-apocalypse Napa Valley of Always Coming Home. A dying mother unable to walk up a hill, yet brushing off her mortal fatigue in Gifts. I remember these moments like prayers, and through them I have worshipped my hero, and longed for her blessing.

I used to daydream about traveling to Portland and running into her at the home of some imaginary mutual friend. In the early 2000s I worked with a well-known physician affiliated with the University of Oregon, and I used to fantasize about visiting his home and him saying, “Oh sure, I know her; she lives just down the road. I’ll invite her over and introduce you.” Of course I never pursued these dreams. My hero had written about how, while she was grateful for her fans’ admiration, she’d met enough of them and just wanted to live her days in peace without being pestered by strangers. I loved and admired my hero and respected her wishes not only because they were her wishes, but because fangirling is unseemly. I don’t like talking to strangers; why would I foist that on the woman I most admire?

What she had begun to learn was the weight of liberty. Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not easy. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one.

—The Tombs of Atuan

Sometimes I question whether I’ve shown my hero adequate devotion. After all, I haven’t read even half of her works (The Lathe of Heaven, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, and her last novel, Lavinia, are must-reads on the TBR). Yet, I tell myself it’s all right: there’s still time, and even if I never read another one of her books, my hero’s work shaped my life. I never met my hero, but she spoke to me, and her words taught and inspired me to read, and write, and strive to be a better human being than I was yesterday (or ten minutes ago). My hero was the muse, mentor, and mother I never met. She speaks to me, and calls me home. Because of her, I am deep down the little girl, running on wet grass in the orchard, taking a circuitous route, but still heading home while running for the joy of it.

In Memorium, Ursula K. Le Guin, 1929 – 2018


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