Cinders Editor Méabh McDonnell can list five books that changed her life, Ursula Le Guin’s Very Far Away from Anywhere Else is one of them. To mark Ursula K. Le Guin’s death earlier this year, she talks about how her books affected her.
“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
Those are the words of the late, great, Ursula K. Le Guin, a writer of fantasy, science fiction, brilliant short stories, and one of my favourite books of all time. She wrote more than 20 novels, over 100 short stories, collections of poetry and was an all-round literary master. She was a wife, a mother, a feminist and a very wise person. She died in January at the age of 88 and is someone who will be remembered for a long time. I’m not going to eulogise Le Guin here because there are many people who have done the job better and more articulately than I can. Since I never knew her, I can’t say that I will miss her, but what I will miss is knowing that she’s somewhere out there in the world.
And I’ll miss knowing that there are new places for the worlds she has written to go.
I first discovered Ursula Le Guin’s writing when I was about 14 and read The Wizard of Earthsea, the first in her novels about fictional land of Earthsea, where wizards wield incredible power both for good and ill. I was fresh from Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and going through what I now refer to as my ‘High Fantasy phase’. If it had a poorly painted figure glowing on the cover, and was over 300 pages long, then I was all over it. Le Guin’s wizard Sparrowhawk – whose true name is Ged – was one of the first of those I encountered. Reading her books – although aimed at teenagers – felt like reading something ‘for adults’.
Le Guin doesn’t talk down to her readers or treat them like they aren’t smart enough to understand her writing. She trusts, and delves into the depths of story with us. Just like Ged has to delve deep to discover his talent as a wizard, so have we. I continued them with the Tombs of Atuan and Tehanu (which are both excellent).
Reading this tiny book – just barely longer than a short story – changed me. It changed my outlook on life and my perspective on where I wanted to be in the world, and how my own feelings might be too much for me to understand right now.
Earthsea gave me a fantasy that was rich but was also filled with flawed people. Ged and Tenar are by no means perfect, they struggle with doing the right thing and they both commit atrocities because of the power that is given over to them. But Le Guin shows us that this is how we learn. Earthsea places great power on education and learning from mistakes.
Earthsea was a story that woke me up to what great fantasy could be, and gave me an interest in fantasy that is clever and complex has stayed with me ever since. I returned to Le Guin with her fantasy series The Annals of the Western Shore, Gifts, and in it found a wonderful story about power, restricting oneself from power, and the tragedy of not living up to our parents expectations. The series continues with Voices and Powers, two stories which examine religion, power and it’s place in society and is one I’ve found wandering back into my reading list over the years.
But, despite thinking that and finding other people difficult, Owen and Natalie somehow manage to figure each other out. They become friends, and then Owen wants to be more and Natalie doesn’t – or rather she doesn’t want to rush into the intensity of a relationship. Owen then goes off the rails – because he’s a teenager and that’s what they’re want to do when they don’t understand how they feel. Owen’s reaction is by no means a good one – but it feels like a realistic one.
Owen and Natalie find themselves going back and forth between each other because even though they don’t know how to deal with anything else in their lives – they know how to deal with each other. And it gives us one of my very favourite lines in all of literature to prove this:
“See, I don’t understand how you play the piano. But when you play it, I hear the music.”
I was on the high mountain with a friend. There is nothing, there is nothing that beats that. If it never happens again in my life, still I can say I was there once.”
Le Guin doesn’t talk down to Owen and Natalie, she treats what they are going through as something legitimate and real. I have never identified with characters so much. As a teenager I felt like I didn’t know anyone like me – but thanks to books like Very Far Away from Anywhere Else, I knew those people were out there. I just hadn’t met them yet. It’s 88 pages of hope and it is still one of my very favourite novels. I’ll always be grateful for that.
Thanks to Ursula Le Guin I felt a little less lonely on bad days. And that means so much more now that I’m not lonely anymore.
“I was on the high mountain with a friend. There is nothing, there is nothing that beats that. If it never happens again in my life, still I can say I was there once.” – Ursula K. Le Guin
Photographs Copyright © by Marian Wood Kolisch and Euan Monaghan/Structo