Why You Should Read… Ursula K LeGuin

I am pleased to welcome Mark Barrowcliffe today – M D Lachlan (author of Wolfsangel) – to talk about one of his favourite authors. Mark’s website can be found here, and he posts on Twitter as @mdlachlan. His article is about Ursula K LeGuin.

I’m going to confess – I haven’t read that much of the author I’m recommending here, although I was until recently under the impression I had read more. So this comes as a recommendation to myself – one that I intend to follow – as well as to you.

They say the books you read earliest are the ones that stay with you longest and this was certainly the case for me with Ursula K Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. I read it first when I was around 11 and was utterly consumed by the book – so much so that I did a lot of stalking about looking for dark presences I thought, or rather hoped, might be lurking in the shadows trying to annihilate me.

Le Guin’s writing certainly has the power to capture the imagination in that way. One author I know contends this is the first responsibility of a fantasy novel – to transport the reader, to make them care about a set of people in an alien world in the way they care about their own stories and those of their families and friends. As a kid the travails of Ged were certainly of more concern to me than the doings of my peers and relatives in Coventry where I grew up.

I think the first responsibility of a fantasy writer is the same as any writer anywhere – everything to do with the novel they’re creating. The language, the story, the characters, the world building, the pacing, dialogue, exposition, must all be high quality – at least if I’m going to enjoy a book. It’s a short life and I’m not spending it reading books that contain lines such as ‘she laughed, haughtily’ no matter how fascinatingly the author has detailed their world’s economy.

The first thing you notice about Le Guin’s work is that she can write – that is she has a clear, distinctive voice that conveys what she wants to say in an original and arresting way. There are plenty of novelists who can’t do this. Dan Brown springs to mind, Stephanie Meyer and even dear old JK Rowling too. They have virtues as writers; style is not among them.

Then there are the characters. Le Guin imagines them as people, not as roles. Too much fantasy fits characters into broad types – the plucky thief, the silent warrior (guilty, m’lud), the child that slowly comes to his knowledge. Hang on, isn’t the last one exactly the character of Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea? Well, yes, but he is so well imagined that that ceases to matter. He was also reasonably original at the time he appeared. Fantasy authors would later rip the living arse out of the farm boy who discovers he has amazing powers motif. Ged, though, is much more than that. We see him first as a person rather than a wizard.

There is a great humanity to Le Guin’s work – an understanding of people.  She’s not afraid to confuse us with her characters either, to make them as contradictory and difficult to pigeonhole as real humans are. What is the reader to think of Tenar, the priestess of The Tombs of Atuan? Her childhood has been stolen, she is the slave of dark rituals and almost friendless. And yet this has marked her and turned her into something of a spiteful monster. The reader has no easy response to this character – she’s not a Malfoy nor even a Saruman. Both these villainous characters are at an end point (at least in the H Potter I’ve read). They do not progress, they don’t contain any contradictions. (I know Saruman gets his staff broken but it doesn’t make him any nicer and his contradictions are all in his back story.) Tenar is more complex – she’s a threat to our hero but she herself is on a journey.

Not all readers enjoy this sort of thing.  There is a big market for heroic heroes and villainous villains and a growing one for villainous heroes and even more villainous villains. Nothing wrong with that at all and great books are still being written in both those traditions. Le Guin, though is more complex and, to me, more interesting. You could call Ged a hero but Tenar defies any easy categorisation.

Le Guin is also a writer with something to say, although she is clever enough not to try to shoehorn it into her novels. She puts themes from Taoism into her work, her characters don’t conform to the pale skinned fantasy stereotype and anarchism, feminism, anthropology and sociology inform her writing. But she puts the story and the characters first.

I think it’s a bad idea to try to say something through a novel. If you have a philosophical point of view then an essay is a better place for it. That’s not to say that novels can’t say anything, just that they’re more interesting when you get the sense the author is working through a problem rather than proselytising. I think this is the case in the Earthsea series. As the books progress you sense Le Guin’s growing dissatisfaction with the character of the heroic, problem-confronting wizard, the very male protagonist. Something more interesting emerges across the series of books.

This blog has concentrated solely on  the Earthsea books and I confess that’s all I’ve read of Le Guin, and not even all of that series.  I came to ‘reread’ the Earthsea books and found that I had only read the first one.  I’m now working through them. My excuse is that, as a kid in the pre-internet days, I didn’t actually realise there were any sequels. Then, when I came to realise there were, for some reason I thought I’d read them. On top of this I’ve always been a fantasy rather than SF fan so I haven’t picked up The Lathe of Heaven or The Left Hand of Darkness. I intend to put that right soon and, if you haven’t read them, I recommend you do the same. I don’t think we’ll be disappointed.

Many thanks for this Mark!

If anyone else would like to write a feature for Why You Should Read… then please get in touch!


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AMANDA RUTTER, one of our guest reviewers, used to be an accountant in the UK but she escaped the world of numbers and is now living in a fantasy world she creates. She runs Angry Robot's YA imprint, Strange Chemistry. And we knew her when....

View all posts by Amanda Rutter (guest)

3 comments

  1. What a wonderful expression: “to be consumed by a book”. Love it.

  2. I enjoyed Earthsea and also her Annals of the Western Shore series. I like her spare and elegant style. No extra words, everything she says is perfectly and concisely stated.

  3. Kat beat me to what is one of LeGuin’s hallmark stylistic beauties: the ability to say a lot in oh so little. I don’t know a single fantasy author, and perhaps no author at all, who writes so tightly yet conveys depth of character and substance of both plot and thoughtfulness. I wish more authors (or at least their editors) would take a lesson from her. As a side note, along with the Earthsea series, I’d highly recommend the Powers series as well.

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