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by Bamber Gascoigne

Ursula K(roeber) Le Guin (1929-2018)


American writer of science fiction and fantasy, poet and critical essays. Le Guin  examined large ethical, moral, and social issues. Her thought-provoking novels include The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), which won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, as did The Dispossessed (1974). The celebrated Earthsea books, written for young adults, have been compared to C.S. Lewis's Narnia chronicles and Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Le Guin's fame extended beyond the genre boundaries

"Oh, damn. She liked the young, and there was always something to learn from a foreigner, but she was tired of being on view. She learned from them, but they didn't learn from her; they had learnt all she had to teach long ago, from her books, from the Movement. They just came to look, as if she were the Great Tower in Rodarred, or the Canyon of the Tulaevea. A phenomenon, a monument." (from 'The Day Before the Revolution,' the Nebula Award in 1974)

Ursula K. Le Guin was born in Berkeley, California, the daughter of Dr Alfred and Theodora Kroeber Quinn. Le Guin's mother was a psychologist and writer of children's stories. Alfred Kroeber was the head of UC-Berkeley's Department of Anthropology, who published work on Native Americans. His first wife had died of tuberculosis before the First World War. Theodora, his second wife, had two children of her own earlier; there were four children in the family. Theodora's biography of a Yahi Indian, entitled Ishi in Two Worlds (1961), became a bestseller. Le Guin grew up both in an academic atmosphere, but her summers she spent in a ranch in northern California. The family had also an East Coast home. When Le Guin was a child, her parents taught her about myths and legends from around the world. "My father studied real cultures and I make them up," she once said, "in a way, the same thing."

Le Guin attended Radcliffe College, receiving her B.A. in 1951, and her master's degree in romance languages from Columbia University in 1952. Her thesis dealt with Romance Literatures of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, particularly French. Le Guin studied on a Fulbright scholarship in France. At that time she planned to be a college teacher of French and Italian language and literature.

While crossing the Atlantic on Queen Mary, she met her future husband, Charles Le Guin, a historian. They married in 1953 in Paris and eventually settled in Portland, Oregon, where they rised their three children. The imaginary central European country, Orsinia, she created when she was a sophomore in college. While it has the traits of real world Europe, Orsinia  gave her an entry to the limitless realms of the imagination. Le Guin's other imaginary worlds and places include Earthsea, Hainish, and the West Coast.

Before publishing her first works of non-fiction, Le Guin was an instructor in French at Mercer University, Georgia, in 1954 and at University of Idaho, Moscow, in 1956. In 1954 she was a department secretary at Emory University, Atlanta. Le Guin's first short stories appeared in the early 1960s. She had also written poetry. Partly inspired by the stories of  Corwainer Smith (pseudonym of Paul Myron Anthony Linebarg Smith), she turned her attention to science fiction. "The durable and mysterious power of Cordwainer Smith's stories in not a matter only of their exuberant language and brilliant invention and hallucinatory imagery; there is a deep ground to them, a moral ground, lying in his persuasive conviction of the responsibility of one being for another." ('Thinking About Cordwainer Smith', in The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination by Ursula K. Le Guin, 2004, p. 68) Both Le Guin and Cordwainer Smith were interested in religious mythos and archetypes. Moreover, Le Guin translated the Chinese classic Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu and Cordwainer Smith had a deep knowledge of  China, where he was born and where he spent long periods later in life.

Le Guin taught writing at Pacific University, Forest Grove (1971), University of Washington, Seattle (1971-73), Portland State University, Oregon (1974, 1977, 1979), in Melbourne, Australia (1975), at the University of Reading, England (1976), Indiana Writers Conference, Bloomington (1978, 1983), University of California, San Diego (1979), and Kenyon College, Tulane University. Her several awards include Hugos (1970, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1988) and Gandalf Award (1979), Nebulas (1969, 1974, 1974, 1990, 1995, 2009), Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for fiction (1986), a Pushcart Prize (1991), a National Book Award (1973) for the novel The Farthest Shore (1972), part of Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy, a Newberry Silver Medal (1972), Harold D. Vursell Award (1991), and the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (2014), which was presented to her by Neil Gaiman. 

As a novelist Le Guin made her debut in 1966 with Rocannon's World, about a scientist who tries to save a colony from hostile alien invasion. Her first fantasy tale, 'April in Paris' (1962), was published in Amazing Stories. In the story figures from different historical periods travel to 15th-century Paris to meet and marry; the theme of journey was further developed in subsequent works.

Rocannon's World was set in the Hainish universe, which is unified by her concept that an ancient civilization "seeded" the habitable worlds. The descendants of people from the planet Hain, remotely related forms of humanoids, inhabit our part of the Galaxy. However, psychologically and sociologically the various sentinent races are very diverse. The series, which spans 2500 years of future history, continued in Planet of Exile (1966), City of Illusions (1967), and The Left Hand of Darkness, which the author herself had described as a "thought experiment." Four Ways to Forgiveness (1997) was comprised of four Hainish connected novellas. The fifth novel in the Hainish sequence, The Dispossessed (1974), is considered among Le Guin's best works.

Lavinia (2008), based on the last six books of Vergil's Aeneid, gave a voice to the Italian pricess, who married the hero of the Troyan war, but who never says a word in the epic. "As far as I know, it was my poet who gave me any reality at all," says Lavinia, the narrator. "It was he who brought me to life, to myself, and so made me able to remember my life and myself..." In spite of being a historical novel, Le Guin argued that there is not a great difference between Lavinia and her scince fiction stories – both science fiction and historical novels draw on facts and imagination.

Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs of Atuan (1971), and The Farthest Shore (1972), received a wide critical attention. The protagonist is Ged, also called Sparrohawk, whom the reader meets as a young magician, then at the height of his powers, and as the aging Archmage in the third part. The imaginary archipelago of Earthsea is roughly circular and has a diameter of some twenty thousand miles. The magic is based upon the knowledge of true names of things. True magic is taught at the Great School on Roke, in the heart of the Inmost Sea.

After an interval of nearly twenty years, Le Guin continued the series with Tehanu (1990), Tales from Earthsea (2001), and The Other Wind (2001), a tale of dreams, aging, death, and the healing of old wounds. The story is set on an archipelago on an ocean world. Ged releases into the world a nameless shadow, an evil power from the realm of the dead, which he must chase and battle with to the ends of the earth. In the encounter he finds out that it bears his own name. In the second part Ged is seeking the missing half of a talismanic ring. He is captured and entombed in an underground labyrinth, where the young High Priestess Arha, also called Tenar, has devoted herself to death. Ged must persuade her to choose life to save himself and the world. The Farthest Shore depicts Ged's and his companion's, a future King, quest to find out why the power of all the magicians in the world is failing. They encounter a corrupt magician who has made a hole in the barrier between life and death. Ged closes the hole, but loses his powers as a magus. As in several of her works, the theme of journey becomes a metaphor for self-discovery and wholeness.

Le Guin's work reflected the Taoist principle mutuality (as in yin and yang), interdependence, and ordered wholeness. She rejected a Freudian model of the psyche, in favour of a Jungian one. Before A Wizard of Earthsea, her first fantasy novel, Le Guin had not read Jung, but in this works she examined Jungian concept of shadow, representing those aspects of the whole self which have been denied. Also in her essay 'The Child and the Shadow' (1975) Le Guin emphasized the importance of understanding of the other self, which stands on the threshold between the consious and the unconsious. In 'Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction' (1976) she wrote that we don't have an isolated id, but a collective unconsious, "we have all the same kind of dragons in our psyche". Her coming-of-age novel The Beginning Place (1980, published as Threshold in 1986) illustrates many of Jung's ideas. The central characters are a young boy and a girl, who have found a gateway to another realm, an alternative barbarian universe, where the boy kills a dragon-like creature; at the end the couple return together to the real world to start their marriage.

In Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea Le Guin abandoned the male centered heroism, perhaps as a result of feminist critic. This time the central character is the aging Tenar. She is fostering a damaged child, her adopted daughter. Ged's and Tenar's relationship is developed further, and at last they consummate their love. The writer Robin McKinley praised Tehanu's "recognition of the necessary and life-giving contributions of female magic – sometimes disguise as domesticity." ('Ursula K. Le Guin' by Millicent Lenz, in Alternative Worlds in Fantasy Fiction, edited by Peter Hunt and Millicent Lenz, 2001, p. 66)

The Left Hand of Darkness used ambisexual aliens to comment on humans' sexual mores. Genly Ai is an emissary from the human galaxy to a snow-bound planet, Gethen (called Winter by the Ekumen), whose people are androgynous. Normally they are neutral, but they have the capability of becoming either male or female at the peak of their sexual cycle. During a long journey across the ice with Estraven, whom he has regarded as a male, Genly Ai finally understands his Gethenian companion, and rethinks his attitudes and the nature of sex.

In The Dispossessed the values of an anarchist world, Anarres, are contrasted with those of primarily capitalist. Anarres is a barren, small moon, from which the hero, an Anarresti physicist Shevek, starts his journey to Urras, the mother planet. Shevek's tries to develop a general theory of Time, which would re-unite the estranged societies. Shevek is not completely at home in either society. He finds that the culture of Urras is more alienating than on his home world. After finishing his work he returns to Anarres, seeing that its era of cultural isolation is coming to end.

The high quality of Le Guin's work was praised even by critics, who were not devoted readers of fantasy or science fiction. In her writing guide, Steering the Craft (1998), she challenged the general opinion to conflate story with conflict, although the writing process, discovering, finding, losing, could lead to it. The role of the narrative sentence, Le Guin said, is to lead to the next sentence and to keep the story going. "I do have a kind of basically bleak and tragic take on things," Le Guin once confessed. "It's hard not to. But that doesn't mean I don't want my kids and grandchildren and everybody else's kids and grandchildren to stay alive and lead a good life. Survival instinct is strong. And I think you don't survive unless you cultivate hope and the reasons for hope." (Le Guin in an interview with, 2000)

The Telling (2000), which continues her Hainish cycle, is a story of a spiritual pilgrimage of a woman, Sutty, who studies the culture of a remote mountain region on a planet ruled by a dictatorial Corporation. "The Commander-General of the Hosts of the Lord announced the bombing while it was in progress, as an educational action. Only one Word, only one Book. All other words, all other books were darkness, error. They were dirt. Let the Lord shine out! cried the pilots in their white uniforms and mirror-masks, back at the church at Colorado Base, facelessly facing the cameras and the singing, swaying crowds in ecstasy. Wipe away the filth and let the Lord shine out!" (from The Telling) Sutty records much of what has been banned, trying to preserve the lost past. Again women are the preserving force, in a world dominated by male destructiveness. Gifts (2004) and Voices (2006) are parts of the Annals of the Western Shore. The third volume in the series, Powers (2007), about a runaway slave gifted with impeccable memory, received the Nebula Award.

Although Le Guin had said that she had no more the "vigor and stamina" for a new novel, she wrote and participated in public debates until the last. In 2015, she launched an online fiction writing workshop for aspiring authors at the site Book View Café; she called it "Navigating the Ocean of Story." "I miss being in touch with serious prentice writers," she explained. Le Guin died on January 22, 2018, at her home in Portland. She was 88. 

For further reading: The Farthest Shores of Ursula K. Le Guin by George Edgar Slusser (1976); Ursula K. Le Guin by Joseph D. Olander and Martin H. Greenberg (1979); Ursula K. Le Guin by Joseph W. De Bolt (1979); Ursula K. Le Guin by Barbara J. Bucknall (1981); Approaches to the Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin by James Bittner (1984); Understanding Ursula K. Le Guin by Elizabeth Cummins Cogell (1990); The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, ed. by John Clute and Peter Nicholls (1993); Presenting Ursula K. Le Guin by Suzanne Elizabeth Reid (1997); Dancing with Dragons by Donna R. White (1999); Conversations with Ursula K. Le Guin, ed. by Carl Freedman (2008); 80! Memories & Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin, eds. Karen Joy Fowler & Debbie Notkin (2010); Wizards, Aliens, and Starships: Physics and Math in Fantasy and Science Fiction by Charles L. Adler (2014); The Past That Might Have Been, the Future That May Come: Women Writing Fantastic Fiction, 1960s to the Present by Lauren J. Lacey (2014); Therapy through Faerie: Therapeutic Properties of Fantasy Literature by the Inklings and by U. K. Le Guin by Anna Cholewa-Purgal (2016)

Selected works:

  • Planet of Exile, 1966 (with Mankind under Fire)
  • Rocannon's World, 1966 (with The Kar-Chee Reign)
    - Rocannonin maailma (suom. Jyrki Iivonen, 2010)
  • City of Illusions, 1967
    - Harhakaupunki (suom. Jyrki Iivonen, 2012)
  • A Wizard of Earthsea, 1968
    - Maameren velho (suom. Kristiina Rikman, 1976)
  • The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969
    - Pimeyden vasen käsi (suom. Kalevi Nyytäjä, 1976)
  • The Lathe of Heaven, 1971
    - Taivaan työkalu (suom. Jorma-Veikko Sappinen, 1991)
    - films: 1980 (TV film), prod. Taurus Film, WNET Channel 13 New York, dir. Fred Barzyk, David R. Loxton, starring Bruce Davison, Peyton E. Park, Niki Flacks, Kevin Conway; 2002 (TV film), dir. Philip Haas, starring James Caan, Lukas Haas and Lisa Bonet
  • The Tombs of Atuan, 1971
    - Atuanin holvihaudat (suom. Kristiina Rikman, 1977)
  • The Farthest Shore, 1972
    - Kaukaisin ranta (suom. Kristiina Rikman, 1977)
  • From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, 1973
  • The Dispossessed, 1974
    - Osattomien planeetta (suom. Kalevi Nyytäjä, 1979)
  • Wild Angels, 1974
  • The Wind's Twelve Quarters: Volume One, 1975
  • The Wind's Twelve Quarters: Volume Two, 1975
  • Dreams Must Explain Themselves, 1975
  • Orsinian Tales, 1976
  • No Use to Talk to Me, 1976 (in The Altered I, ed. by Lee Harding)
  • A Very Long Way from Anywhere Else, 1976
  • The Word for World Is Forest, 1976
    - Maailma, vihreä metsä (suom. Pirkko Lokka, 1984)
  • The Water is Wide, 1976
  • Earthsea Trilogy, 1977 (includes A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore)
    - films: Earthsea, 2004 (TV film), dir. Robert Lieberman, starring Shawn Ashmore, Kristin Kreuk, Isabella Rosselini, Danny Glover, Sebastian Roche; Gedo senki, 2006 (animation film), dir. by Goro Miyazaki, prod. by Hayao Miyazaki, with Timothy Dalton, Willem Dafoe and Mariska Hargitay
  • Nebula Award Stories: 11, 1977 (editor)
  • The Eye of the Heron, 1978
    - Haikaran silmä (suom. Jyrki Iivonen, 2015)
  • Three Hainish Novels, 1978 (includes Rocanno's World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions)
  • Malafrena, 1979
    - Malafrena (suomentanut Jyrki Iivonen, 2018)
  • Tillai and Tylissos, 1979 (with Theodora K. Quinn)
  • Leese Webster, 1979
  • The Language of the Night, 1979
  • Torrey Pines Reserve, 1980
  • Interfaces, 1980 (ed., with Virginia Kidd)
  • Edges, 1980 (ed., with Virginia Kidd)
  • Threshold, 1980 (The Beginning Place)
    - Ikuisen hämärän maa (suom. Jyrki Iivonen, 2017) 
  • Gwilan's Harp, 1981
  • Hard Words and Other Poems, 1981
  • The Compass Rose, 1982
  • The Adventures of Cobbler's Rune, 1982
  • Adventures in Kroy, 1982
  • In the Red Zone, 1983 (with Hank Pander)
  • Solomon Leviathan's Nine Hundred Thirty-first Trip around the World, 1983
  • The Visionary, 1984
  • Burning with a Vision by Thomas M. Disch, 1984 (contributor)
  • King Dog, 1985 (with Dostoevsky: A Screenplay, by Raymond Carver and Tess Gallagher)
  • Five Complete Novels, 1985
  • Always Coming Home, 1985 (includes casette of Music and Poetry of the Kesh)
  • Uses of Music in Uttermost Parts, 1986 (music by Elinor Armer, performed in 1986)
  • Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences, 1987
  • A Visit from Dr. Katz, 1988 (Dr. Katz)
  • Catwings, 1988
  • Wild Oasts and Fireweed, 1988
  • Catwings Return, 1989
  • Fire and Stone, 1989
  • Dancing at the Edge of the World, 1989
  • Way of the Water's Going, 1989
  • The New Atlantis, 1989 (with The Return from Rainbow Bridge by Kim Stanley Robinson)
  • The Blind Geometer, 1989 (with Kim Stanley Robinson)
  • Tehanu, 1990
    - Tehanu (suom. Kristiina Rikman, 1992)
  • A Home-Concealed Woman, 1990 (contributor, ed. Charles A. Le Guin)
  • Searoad, 1991
  • Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction, 1991
  • Talk about Writing, 1991
  • Fish Soup, 1992
  • No Boats, 1992
  • The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, 1992
  • A Ride on the Red Mare's Back, 1992
  • Findings, 1992
  • The Norton Book of Science Fiction, 1993 (ed. with Brian Attebery)
  • Blue Moon Ovet Thurman Street, 1993
  • Earthsea Revisioned, 1993 (lecture)
  • The Art of Bunditsu, 1993
  • Wonderful Alexander and the Catwings, 1994
  • Going Out with Peacocks and Other Poems, 1994
  • The Compass Rose, 1995
  • Four Ways to Forgiveness, 1995
    - Neljä anteeksiantoa (suom. Jyrki Iivonen, 2014) 
  • A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, 1995
    - Sisämeren kalastaja (suom. Jyrki Iivonen, 2001)
  • Unlocking the Air and Other Stories, 1996
  • The Twins, the Dream by Diana Bellessi, 1996 (translator)
  • Worlds of Exile Illusion, 1996 (contains Rocannon's World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions)
  • Tao Te Ching by Lao-tzu, 1997 (reteller; with J.P. Seaton)
  • The Shobies' Story, 1998
  • Steering the Craft, 1998
  • Sixty Odd: New Poems, 1999
  • Jane on Her Own: A Catwing Tale, 1999
  • Tales of the Catwings, 1999
  • The Telling, 2000
    - Kahdesti haarautuva puu (suom Jyrki Iivonen, 2009)
  • Tales from Earthsea, 2001
    - Kertomuksia Maamereltä (suom. Kristiina Rikman, 2002)
  • The Other Wind, 2001
    - Toinen tuuli (suom. Kristiina Rikman, 2003)
  • The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination, 2004
  • Gifts, 2004
    - Näkemisen lahja (suom. Kristiina Rikman, 2005)
  • Voices, 2006
    - Sanan mahti (suom. Kristiina Rikman, 2007)
  • Powers, 2007
    - Muistamisen taito (suom. Kristiina Rikman, 2008)
  • Lavinia, 2008
    - Lavinia (suom. Kristiina Rikman, 2009)
  • Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems, 2012
  • The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories Volume One: Where on Earth, 2012
  • The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories Volume Two: Outer Space, Inner Lands, 2012
  • The Found and the Lost: the Collected Novellas of Ursula K. Le Guin, 2016
  • Words Are My Matter: Writings about Life and Books, 2000-2016 with a Journal of a Writer's Week, 2016  
  • Late in the Day: Poems, 2010-2014, 2016
  • The Complete Orsinia: Malafrena Stories and Songs, 2016 (edited by Brian Attebery)
  • No Time to Spare: Thinking about What Matters, 2017 (introduction by Karen Joy Fowler)
  • Hainish Novels & Stories / Ursula K. Le Guin, 2017 (2 vols., edited by Brian Attebery)

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