What Cannot Be Said in Words: Ursula K. Le Guin, 1929-2018

Yesterday the world learned of the passing of literary giant Ursula K. Le Guin. And I don’t think I’ve ever felt so deeply upset by the death of someone I never actually met. But then, few individuals have had such a profound impact on me with their words alone.

When I was about thirteen, I read A Wizard of Earthsea. It was quite different from any piece of fiction I’d encountered before: epic but focused, mythic yet personal, with a fascinating take on magic and the power of words; and it flipped the script on the common fantasy trope of pale civilized folk and brown barbarians, revealing and rejecting the white supremacist undercurrent I hadn’t even realized was present in the genre. Eager for more, I nabbed the sequel, The Tombs of Atuan, and settled into my faux-denim beanbag chair to continue my journey through Earthsea.

Wizard was wonderful and eye-opening, but The Tombs of Atuan was a revelation. It changed how I thought about fiction, challenging and overturning my fundamental assumptions about what made good fantasy.

Sometime in the preceding year or so, I had declared anathema all books that had “slow parts.” Tombs was all “slow parts.” There was little action, and almost no magic, at least not in the flashy, overt sense I was accustomed to. The magic of Tombs was personal and interpersonal; it was empathy, and reclaiming lost identity, and freedom, and choice. It was beautiful, and restrained, and by my own standards of the time I should have been bored and done with it by page 2. But I loved every word.

Afterwards, I was unable to express why this book had drawn me in and consumed me so thoroughly. It showed me that compelling storytelling didn’t have to come barreling in with a loud bang. Sometimes the most powerful stories come softly, creeping up on you unawares.

I’m still not sure I could explain how Le Guin did what she did, how she got an adolescent boy raised on explosion-filled Saturday morning cartoons to invest himself in a young girl’s quiet coming of age. Perhaps it’s time for me to revisit The Tombs of Atuan, time to return to the world of Earthsea, and explore it once again with fresh eyes.

I wish I had some bit of wisdom or a pithy quote to end with, but there are entire books filled with Le Guin’s words and wisdom (go forth and read them, for the first time, or the fiftieth time) and I can offer none of my own. Because right now, I’m back to being that kid in the beanbag chair, failing to find the words for what I’m feeling.

Goodbye, Ms. Le Guin. We will miss you.

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