I encountered Ursula Le Guin at a pre-Easter church sale. I went there looking for bargains and ran into Le Guin on a trestle table, in the form of the Earthsea trilogy, three much-thumbed but well-preserved paperbacks, affordably cheap. I started reading A Wizard of Earthsea that evening. By next morning I had finished all three books and discovered a new literary love.
Since then, I have returned to the three books many times. I did so again, last month, during the lockdown. It was meant to be good escapist literature. Instead, I found my thoughts straying to the pandemic that shut down a world too busy for its own good.
As in many of her subsequent books, there are no epic battles in the world of Earthsea, no life-and-death chases. The blurb of the first book hints at a grand confrontation between the young mage Sparrowhawk and “the evil shadow-beast he has let loose in the world.” But the “evil shadow-beast” is nothing like the wicked witch of Narnia or the Dark Lord of Mordor. It is the shadow of the young mage’s own death, an essential part of his being. The resolution Le Guin offered was neither fleeing from death nor triumphing over it, but acknowledging its existence and fitting it in its proper place as a necessary end to a well-lived life.
In that trilogy–as in many of Le Guin’s subsequent books– a well-lived life is not a life of epic questing or grand heroism but one of decency, kindness, and responsibility. As Sparrowhawk says in The Tombs of Atuan, “Hospitality, kindness to a stranger, that’s a very large thing.” A truth for everywhere and all times.
We read books; most we forget, some we remember, a few we return to. The ones we return to are the ones that stand the test of time, and retain a sense of relevance. “Having intelligence we must not act in ignorance; having choice we must not act without responsibility,” Le Guin says in The Farthest Shore. Is there a better guide for a post-pandemic world?
Sam Muller loves dogs and books and spends much time trying to save one from the other. Her recent publishing credits include Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, Apparition Lit, and the Truancy Magazine. Her preferred place of residence is inside her head in worlds of her own creation.
Ursula Kroeber Le Guin (1929-2018) was an American science fiction and fantasy author.A Wizard of Earthsea sold millions of copies worldwide. In 2016, she became one of the few authors to be published by the Library of America during their lifetime.