Carrying Us Forward: Ursula K. Le Guin

“That requires not a war but a search and a discovery.” – Le Guin, afterword from A Wizard of Earthsea

It would be unlikely, I think, that anyone reading this column has not heard of Ursula K. Le Guin. Her works are transcendent in the field, and a documentary about her work, Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, just premiered on PBS. But I was inspired to write about her this month because I just read, for the first time, the beginning of her Earthsea series, A Wizard of Earthsea. It is a quietly breathtaking novel. The NEA promotes the book as one of their “big reads” and compiles the praise the book has garnered, including Entertainment Weekly’s claim that it is “the best young adult novel of all time.”

At the same time as I finished this novel, I was prepping for a new semester of teaching. In one of my literature courses, I teach Le Guin’s essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.” In this essay, Le Guin pits a masculine sense of narrative against a feminine one. A narrative that prioritizes “action” and a “hero,” “a killer story,” versus a narrative that shows “what people actually do and feel, how people relate to everything else in this vast sack, this belly of the universe, this womb of things to be and tomb of things that were, this unending story.” And basking in the afterglow of A Wizard of Earthsea, I could not help considering how this early novel of Le Guin’s represented her theory of fiction later expressed. After all, the protagonist Ged—the wizard-in-training who is often considered a precursor to Harry Potter—could arguably be called a hero. But is his story one of action? Is it a killer story? Or is it a story that dwells on personal transformation and relationships? I think the latter. And it seems that we are more in need than ever of stories that value the belly and womb over the spear.

And Le Guin, in her afterword to the novel, emphasizes how her story defies the convention of a heroic fantasy: “A heroic fantasy is good guys fighting bad guys, the War of Good Against Evil.” Le Guin was skeptical of this narrative that we still take for granted, that we still assume to be righteous or inspiring: Good Against Evil. Her use of capitalization underscores her criticism, her sarcasm. It reminds us of the way in which this slogan has been used as a banner call for good as well as evil. And this is, in some ways, Ged’s early struggle in the novel: his desire to be the best in fact opens him up to darkness. Le Guin resolves this struggle not with war, which she viewed as a “limited, limiting, and dangerous” metaphor. Instead, Ged must encounter himself.

Ged, as a boy and adolescent, falls victim to toxic masculinity. He experiences “bitter envy” of his rival Jasper, and both young men often spar, verbally and magically, when they find themselves in the same place. When this competition is carried to its inevitable conclusion, Ged accidentally releases a darkness and shadow into the world that he must grapple with throughout the rest of the novel. This grappling is more existential than physical. When Ged finally encounters the shadow on a mystical island, he takes “hold of his shadow, of the black self that reached out to him.” Only by examining himself, only by recognizing and dealing with his own darkness, can Ged heal himself and save the world. It is a quiet ending, a healing ending.

At first, when I read this ending, it seemed anticlimactic because I have been trained to expect and want the heroic narrative. The Campbellian journey is strong with this one (btw, Star Wars=hero myth. I mean, I love it. But hero myth). But Campbell’s hero myth, as many have noted, is sexist. Extremely so. It only fits men as theorized by Campbell. And Le Guin, despite the fact that Ged is male, wanted to write a more one-size-fits-all narrative by emphasizing, ironically enough, the individuality of Ged’s challenge. He is not fighting armies. He does not fight at all, as it turns out. And the longer I think about this ending, the longer I dwell on it (especially as I write this post in mid-August after some truly horrific events in the news), the more this ending feels like the “strange realism” of Le Guin’s carrier-bag theory.

Le Guin’s theory emphasizes that the “story isn’t over” when told or discovered in this fashion. It has room to grow, time to continue, space to expand—just as the events in Wizard of Earthsea contribute to but one of “many songs.” The multiplicity of stories and songs surrounding Ged is emphasized again and again throughout the novel. In fact, we can infer very early on that there is no danger of Ged dying or not surviving his adventure. And yet the reader is still invested. The reader wants to know how Ged will change and evolve. The reader cheers for friendship and love and self-growth.

Those seem like good things to cheer for.