16 June 2006

The language(s) of Ursula K le Guin

Jim Putnam mentions with admiration Ursula K le Guin's use of description, and so triggers in me two lines of thought. I'll stick to le Guin here, and keep the other for a separate post.

Le Guin is, indeed, a master story teller – in novels, poems, nonfiction and, most of all, in short fiction. I revisit my copies of her short story collections The Compass Rose and The Wind's Twelve Quarters so often that they have to be periodically replaced. The short story The First Report of the Shipwrecked Foreigner is a superb example of pure descriptive fiction – at one time I used it so often that my students adopted "the shipwrecked foreigner" as my nickname ... or perhaps that was a reference my poor dress sense.

She doesn't only use language well, though. Amongst the very many themes running through her writing, she writes well about language too. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (that language forms and constrains thought) is strong in her, as is her lifelong exposure to anthropology.

This is very explicitly true in the book Jim mentions, The Telling. A totalitarian society in rapid change (strongly reminiscent of China) attempts to eradicate the past by eradicating the language and script in which it was written. An outsider seeking to understand the society does so (and, in the process, also comes to understand herself) through exploration of the relation between that lost language and script to the new ones which have replaced them.

Language is also the underpinning rationale of her Earthsea sequence of novels and stories. As I noted last month, I have recently picked up again and finished reading this after a break of two decades – starting from Tehanu, moving on through Tales of Earthsea and concluding with The Other Wind. Earthsea is a world which consists entirely of an island archipelago, where magic occupies the intellectual space where we have science and technology. It's not your average sloppy, wish fulfillment magic though. It's a scientific magic, hard won, imperfectly understood, undermined by prejudice, its development and application driven often by commerce.

Earthsea's magic is based in incomplete knowledge of "the true speech" or "the language of making" – the language in whose words the world was created, in which not only every person but every animal, every plant, every pebble, every grain of sand, every component of those things, has a "true name". Research involves seeking more knowledge of this first ur-language. Once the true name of something is known, it can be magically manipulated; until then, it cannot although it may be affected by manipulation of objects and circumstances around or within it. There are strong echoes here of the Kabala ("In the beginning was the word..."), but also of the age of reason.

(She shows her fascination with words in smaller and more literary ways, too. The protagonist in The Telling, for instance, is a Hindu woman named Sutty. In long term bereavement after the death of her lover, she has allowed herself to sink into emotional death ... and "sutty" or "suttee" was once a practice in which some Hindu women immolated themselves alive on the funeral pyres of their husbands.)

This concern with language is not just a skill, nor just a theme; it intertwines and underwrites and permeates all of le Guin's work – and is what sets her apart, making her the phenomenon she is. Unlike most fantasy writers, she is an intellectual force as well as an entertainer – and her real concerns are in the reality of here and now. To quote from her introduction to Tales of Earthsea:

"So people turn to the realms of fantasy for stability, ancient truths, immutable simplicities. And the mills of capitalism supply them. Supply meets demand. Fantasy becomes a commodity, an industry. Commodified fantasy takes no risks: it invents nothing, but imitates and trivialises. ... Profoundly disturbing moral choices are sanitized, made cute, made safe."

Le Guin herself is an antithesis of, and antidote to, all of that – and language is at the heart of her.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Telling. 2000, New York, Harcourt.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Wind's Twelve Quarters. 1975, New York, Harper & Row.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Compass Rose. 1982, New York, Harper & Row.

Le Guin, Ursula K. Tehanu: the last book of Earthsea. 1st ed. 1990, New York: Atheneum.

Le Guin, U.K., Tales from Earthsea. 1st ed. 2001, New York: Harcourt.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Other Wind. 1st ed. 2001, New York: Harcourt.

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