© The Washington Post
Following the tributes paid in the last few days to the legendary science fiction and fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin, who passed away on January 22nd, I feel a little embarrassed to admit that I have only read one work by her.
This was a collection of her first three Earthsea novels (1968-72), set in an imaginary archipelago where magic, wizards and dragons are all prominent. I read it when I was 12 or 13 and it wasn’t until I was halfway through that I realised I’d got its title completely wrong. The front cover of the book bore the name The Earthsea Trilogy, but ‘Earthsea’ was inscribed in such ornate medieval lettering (especially the ‘E’ and the ‘h’) that I misread it as The Fartisea Trilogy, which would have been pronounced as the flatulent-sounding Farty-Sea Trilogy. Thus, while I read, I kept wondering when the characters were going to pack their bags, leave Earthsea and move to the obviously-more-important Fartisea of the title. D’uh!
Anyhow, the Earthsea stories really impressed me. It was a revelation at that age to read a work of serious epic fantasy that gradually built a whole fantastical world around its characters but did so in clear, unpretentious prose. The quality of the writing especially struck me because a little while earlier I’d tried to read Lord Foul’s Bane (1977), the first of ten volumes of Tolkein-esque fantasy written by Stephen Donaldson and known collectively as The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. But I’d soon given up, defeated by Donaldson’s pompous, overwrought prose-style.
Other things that I liked about Earthsea are neatly encapsulated in this tribute that the American science fiction writer John Scalzi wrote about Le Guin in the Los Angeles Times the other day: “This was a subtle gift that Le Guin gave to a young person wanting to be a writer – the idea that there was more to writing fiction than ticking off plot points, that a rewarding story can be told without overt conflict, and that a world wide and deep can be its own reward, for those building the world and those who walk through it.”
Coincidentally, I’ve recently been reading a collection of short stories called The Dream Archipelago (1999) by Christopher Priest, which like Earthsea are set on an imaginary group of islands that have fantastical properties. One story, The Negation, is about a young, naïve man called Dik who aspires to be a writer but who gets drafted into the military and assigned to a bleak snowbound frontier-town when war breaks out between his country and a neighbour. He discovers that as a propaganda stunt / cultural morale booster, the government is sending a writer called Moylita Kaine to live in and write about the town for a period; and, because Kaine wrote the novel that first fuelled Dik’s writerly ambitions, he arranges to meet her. He subsequently gets into trouble when Kaine decides to involve her trusting young admirer in an act of subversion. I hadn’t realised that The Negation was autobiographical, but on his blog the other day, whilst paying his respects to Le Guin, Priest described the story as “a disguised but also explicit account of my meetings with her.” He’d known her while she and her husband were living in London in the mid-1970s.
Knowing this, it’s easy to imagine Le Guin (who was then in her 40s) as the enigmatic Kaine, brusque but self-effacing, “sometimes… deliberately vague”, her eyes sparkling “in the snowy light from the window”; and the younger Priest as the story’s shy, unsure-of-himself hero.
© Penguin Books