BY GRANT CANTERBURY
My wife called me at work on Tuesday to ask if I had heard the news.
She had been driving and had to pull over to the side of the road when the report came on the radio. Ursula Le Guin had passed away.
She said, "It feels like the bottom has fallen out of the world."
For almost forty years Le Guin's writings have been touching my life. I think the first one was A Wizard of Earthsea when I was in junior high school. I remember on winter nights in Alaska reading the tales of the wizard Ged who spoke with dragons, and who knew the true name of every reach of water in the Archipelago, and every herb, and with a word could call the magewind into the sail of his little boat Lookfar.
It appealed to me that his name was close to my own initials, and on one occasion when I reached a high score on a quarter-eating arcade game I put them in, GEC—and then tapped the button once more to make it GED. A fitting tribute to Earthsea? Nope! But it does show that the story came to speak to me there where I was at age eleven; and every time I have revisited it since it has turned a fresh face.
The nature and power of names, the un-winnable battle against the darkness manifesting out of one's self—those lessons have only grown deeper. For a long time I retained a mental image of Ged as a sandy-haired white man, and it was many years and many returns to the story before I realized that I (and, to be fair, the cover illustrator) had been completely wrong—for the story had always plainly described his appearance, as coppery-skinned as a Navajo. A rueful lesson in the insidious nature of presuppositions! The story one reads is not always the story one thinks one is reading.
Once, while reading from Always Coming Home at night on a city bus in Sacramento, I looked up to realize that nothing around me—not the traffic on the road, not the city lights, not the preoccupations of the people—would have been carried forward into the living world of the Kesh so many millennia from now. And that this city would be entirely lost, submerged in a vast inland sea, remembered only as troubling tales for children. The bus drove onward into the darkness.
I read Le Guin's stories to my own children at bedtime when they were young, and when they were no longer so young—Catwings, and later the Earthsea books, and pieces from The Wind's Twelve Quarters. Books that are good to read yourself are not always the ones that are good to read aloud to others. But hers were.
On the way home from work on Tuesday I sat in a light rail car full of commuters. Outside rain was dripping from heavy gray clouds, and the sky was beginning to darken toward night. Around me under the ceiling lights people tapped at their phones and paged through books; a couple chatted and flirted. A teenager leaned his head sideways against the window, eyes closed.
The car took the curve of the track and began to lift into the crossing of the Willamette River. In the windows I could see the illuminated space reflected, the passengers mirrored and appearing half-real against the dimness outside as if they inhabited one of the alternative iterations of Portland in The Lathe of Heaven, a fragile contingency of history that might fall away into old chaos with any waking of a dreamer. Nonetheless the gray river moved below, regardless of any transient illusion of mine. A cormorant beat across the surface of the water, laboring to take to the air; and higher above a flight of gulls moved, long-winged, gray against gray, trailing downriver to their night's roost.
I have lived in Portland for over 20 years. Ursula Le Guin and I hardly crossed paths. I saw her only a couple of times at public events, and once we did correspond by post, briefly but memorably. But I always was aware of her presence in the city, and I have appreciated having her here. From time to time I would see her speaking out on issues of the day as a private citizen, in the Oregonian's letters to the editor; tart, witty missives that struck to the heart. The touch of imagination and humanity that she brought to our civic life has made Portland that much finer a place.
We have now lost many of the writers who created the speculative fiction I grew up reading. I think of Tolkien, charting out his great secondary world of Middle-Earth—its peoples, its tongues, and its history—as around him Europe rose up from the slaughter of one world war and then fell agonizingly into the next. I think of Bradbury, shouting out the awe and terror of a 12-year-old boy's first encounters with the multifarious wonders of life. I think of Wolfe, whom we have not yet lost, spinning tales that meditate upon memory and divinity, with mysteries coiled up inside them, and further mysteries veiled within.
But Le Guin had no peer for pure narrative grace in the expression of wisdom and love.
She played with ideas, as so many science fiction writers do. She played with manifestations of magic in this world and its shadows, as so many fantasy writers do. But more than that, she was the one who told it all. She told the stories of the not-heroes—the maimed child, the persecuted scientist, the old woman forgotten, the grocery store clerk. She illuminated their lives with a compassion and a gentle humor. She did not fail to attend to the character and sentience of beasts and birds. She saw that the world we find ourselves in is not the only possibility.
From a barren desert a band of exiles could build a new world without government or property. Gender could become fluid in a world of frost. A team of women could assemble a secret expedition and be the first to reach the South Pole. Ants could write poetry upon acacia seeds. Her stories demonstrate that a space exists for exercise of a radical freedom; yet, as every citizen of Omelas learned in time, there is no forgetting that such freedom exacts a price.
Le Guin made new worlds from the free play of imagination; and without flinching away she grounded those creations in the pain and mortality fundamental to incarnate existence.
This morning I looked at my bookshelf and saw my copies of Le Guin's books, and I realized that they were now emissaries from a mind that was no longer in the world, and for a moment I imagined their spines fading and going gray with the loss. But then, that is the special magic of books, that they can bring you the voice of those who are far away, or gone out of this world. They are not subject to the same mortality that governs us.
So, that gray-fancy was a silly one. Instead, think of her books now deepening in hue. Red sunset spreading across the oceans of Urras; a brown owl gliding through the deep blue sky above the Valley of the Na. After all, with their author gone they have come into their own. They alone have the task of bringing her imagination and her heart into connection with ours. And of course, they've been doing it for a long time already—there's no doubt that they are up to the job.
Her language was described as luminous, and I think the nature of the light that fell from it was a sublimely clear sense of what was right. As Owen Griffiths said in the slim volume Very Far Away From Anywhere Else, "She didn't mean morally right. She meant right the way the music or the thought comes right, comes clear, is true. Maybe that's the same thing as moral rightness. I don't know."
I am glad to have had the opportunity to know Ursula Le Guin through her books, and in a small way to share this city with her. I wish that I had known her more. But what I know of her from her writings is what I have no doubt that her legacy will remain – the bravest and most generous of friends.