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Wednesday, January 24, 2018

From the Books: Ursula K. Le Guin on Tolkien

Author Ursula K. Le Guin has died.

Calling Le Guin an "author" is true, but it doesn't do her justice, and that's coming from one who has not read nearly enough of her work. Not even close. Le Guin was a cultural force, particularly in the genres of fantasy and science fiction where her influence is felt so keenly that her name ranks with the very highest of titans in the fields. Le Guin's brilliance shone for decades, not just in her fiction but in the examples she set in her interactions with the rest of the field and in her thoughts to which she gave voice in many essays. Le Guin was one of the absolute giants, and her passing at the age of 88 is one more milestone in the history of two genres that still strive for respect and acceptance.

I have a small book that I got years ago as a reader's companion volume to the Book of the Month Club's editions of The Lord of the Rings. (The book is cleverly titled, A Reader's Companion to THE HOBBIT and THE LORD OF THE RINGS.) It contains a number of short essays about JRR Tolkien and his writing, and the final essay in the book, called "The Staring Eye", is Le Guin's. Here is a part of it:

They were displayed on the new acquisitions rack of the university library: three handsome books, in the Houghton Mifflin edition, with beige and black dust jackets, each centered with a staring black and red Eye.

Sometimes one, or two, or all three of them were out; sometimes all three were together. I was aware of them every time I was in the library, which was often. I was uneasily aware of them. They stared at me.

The Saturday Review had run a special notice upon the publication of the last volume, praising the work with uncharacteristic vigor and conviction. I had thought then, I must have a look at this. But when it appeared in the library, I shied away from it. i was afraid of it. It looks dull, I thought--like the Saturday Review. It's probably affected. It's probably allegorical. Once I went so far as to pick up Volume II, when it alone was on the rack, and look at the first page. "The Two Towers." People were rushing around on a hill, looking for one another. The language looked a bit stilted. I put it back. The Eye stared through me.

I was (for reasons now obscure to me) reading all of Gissing. I think I had gone to the library to return Born in Exile, when I stopped to circle warily about the new acquisitions rack, and there they were again, all three volumes, staring. I had had about enough of the Grub Street Blues. Oh well, why not? I checked out Volume I and went home with it.

Next morning I was there at nine, and checked out the others. I read the three volumes in three days. Three weeks later I was still, at times, inhabiting Middle Earth: walking, like the Elves, in dreams waking, seeing both worlds at once, the perishing and the imperishable.

Tonight, eighteen years later, just before sitting down to write this, I was reading aloud to our nine-year-old. We have just arrived at the ruined gates of Isengard, and found Merry and Pippin sitting amongst the ruins having a snack and a smoke. THe nine-year-old likes Merry, but doesn't much like Pippin. I never could tell them apart to that extent.

This is the third time I have read the book aloud--the nine-year-old has elder sisters, who read it now for themselves. We seem to have acquired three editions of it. I have no idea how many times I have read it myself. I reread a great deal, but have lost count only with Dickens, Tolstoy, and Tolkien.

Yet I believe tha tmy hesitation, my instinctive distrust of those three volumes in the university library, was well founded. To put it in the book's own terms: Something of great inherent power, even if wholly good in itself, may work destruction if used in ignorance, or at the wrong time. One must be ready; one must be strong enough.

I envy those who, born later than I, read Tolkien as children--my own children among them. I certainly have had no scruples about exposing them to it at a tender age, when their resistance is minimal. To have known, at age ten or thirteen, of the existence of Ents, and of Lothlorien--what luck!

In the essay Le Guin goes on to think about what her experience with Tolkien might have meant to her as a writer of the fantastic had she come to it earlier in life than when she did. It's interesting to consider. For myself? I came to Tolkien first when I was eight or so, via the animated The Hobbit, and three or four years later via the books. I have no idea how it affect me, as a writer of the fantastic, but then, Ursula Le Guin was a genius, and I'm only me.

I have intended to re-read Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea this year already; I have now moved it up in the planned rotation. I read it in eighth grade, I think; I recall liking it, but I never read past it. To this day my familiarity with Ursula Le Guin is more through her essays and nonfiction than through her fiction (I also read The Dispossessed, and remember it about as well, which is more reflective of me as a young reader than her as a writer). This needs to change.

Ursula K. Le Guin lived to be 88, and she leaves behind an enormous legacy not just in her own works but in all the authors on whom she was a huge influence. Her life may be over, but the ripples in time left by her having been here? Those are just beginning.

Thank you, Ursula K. Le Guin. You'll be read for a long, long time.

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