In the second book of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle, the wizard Ged tells the priestess Arha that she has a choice. Stay and serve the nameless grim gods of the tomb, as she has done the last ten years of her life, or walk away from them into the light. Arha knows nothing but the dark, not even her original name. Before a religious order named her Arha, the Eaten One, she was Tenar; she had a family, an identity, choices. She can be Tenar again, but only if she can admit that she’s wasted her entire life on false gods, and only if she follows Ged out of the tombs and into a world she has never really known.
The Earthsea books are set in a world where dragons are real and so is magic. As Arha’s choice so poignantly demonstrates, Le Guin explored these fantastical worlds out of an interest in the liberatory possibilities of the human imagination. “Imaginative fiction trains people to be aware that there other ways to do things, other ways to be; that there is not just one civilization, and it is good, and it is the way we have to be,” Le Guin says in Arwen Curry’s new documentary, The Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin. Le Guin spoke in defense of science fiction and fantasy, which were and often still are maligned or outright ignored by critics. But her statement admits another, deeper necessity: We must be trained to imagine.
But imagine what? Not just magic and dragons, though Le Guin wrote of both—and who wouldn’t, if they had the chance? These elements loop in and out of Le Guin’s profoundly political body of work, a dimension Curry unveils with welcome clarity in her film, which was completed before Le Guin’s death in 2018 at the age of eighty-eight. By that time, Le Guin enjoyed preeminence within her genre and outside it. She won seven Hugo Awards, six Nebula Awards, and twenty-two Locus Awards, and the U.S. Library of Congress decreed her a “Living Legend” in 2000. Curry presents a strong case for solidifying that understanding of Le Guin as a great American author and as a public intellectual, dragons and all.
Le Guin is rightly remembered for her contributions to the genre she so doggedly defended. Her science fiction displays remarkable range and originality, shaped by her upbringing as the daughter of renowned anthropologist Alfred Louis Kroeber. She dreamed up flying cat-horse creatures and invented a galactic utopia concerned more with the collection of knowledge than with waging war. One of her most imaginative and unusual works, Always Coming Home (1985), presents the collected songs and stories of the post-industrial Kesh people, who live far in the future of Earth.
Schools for young wizards and the magical import of a person’s true and secret name are common tropes in fantasy now, but they have their origins in the Earthsea cycle (1964–2018). Le Guin likely invented the concept of the ansible, a device that transmits faster-than-light communication across the ...
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