On some level I had been expecting the news for awhile, as she was born in 1929, but it still saddened me terribly to hear of Ursula K. Le Guin’s death. Few other writers have made such an impact on me.
This may come as a bit of a surprise from a theologian, since Le Guin did not hide her disdain for Christianity (or, I am tempted to say, what she thought of as Christianity). She was, if anything, a philosophical Taoist. But it is a rare and precious thing to discover a thinker from whom you benefit as much by disagreement as by affinity. Her ideas have always been worth the struggle, and what of hers I have not adopted has driven me to improve my own thinking.
I hope at some point to write much more extensively on her oeuvre. Some of her books have been done to death, especially The Left Hand of Darkness, which imagines a world in which human beings are most of the month neither male nor female but once a month develop the sex organs of either. This was seen as revolutionary before its time, though few notice her own later expressed conviction that it was a failed experiment and that the book was really about winter and survival. (NB: don’t read it in February.) I wish a lot more attention was paid to The Dispossessed and its exploration of, among other things, how either abundance or scarcity shape a society—with results exactly the opposite of what you might expect. She has a host of lesser-known works too, some for good reason, but others, like the trilogy Gifts, Voices, Powers and her surprisingly beautiful retelling of an ancient Roman story from a woman’s point of view, Lavinia, deserve a wider reading.
Until then, here are two articles I’ve written already that engaged with her work in some way. The first is “The End of Magic,” which examines the pattern in fantasy fiction of shutting down the magical world at the end of the tale. I would like to state here for the record that when I start talking about the Earthsea series I said simply that it was “the most morally and metaphysically sophisticated fantasy series to date”—an editor inserted “post-Tolkien” against my wishes. I did intend to say that it was better than The Lord of the Rings. The only thing now that may nudge me toward a grudging acceptance of the editorial insertion is Fleming Rutledge’s brilliant The Battle for Middle-earth: Tolkien’s Divine Design in the Lord of the Rings. I had been skeptical of how deeply thought out the Christian themes in the LOTR was until I read this book, but her case is absolutely convincing. From the other direction, if Le Guin had stopped with Tehanu I would still unambiguously award her the prize. But the short story “Dragonfly” and the final novel The Other Wind, despite being great stories in themselves, degenerate into polemic, always a temptation of Le Guin’s (and one I share).
The other article I wrote is “Searching for a church: Life on the ecclesiastial frontier” (originally entitled “Dispatch from the Ecclesiastical Frontier”—I hate subtitles). This takes the adage “Rules change in the Reaches” from the Earthsea series and uses it is a lens to look at missional and international church settings. I’m sure it’s a use that would have startled Le Guin.
I hope that she is dancing with the dragons.