Let Me Tell You a Story #28: Wizards and Dragons and Death

One of my favorite authors, Ursula K. Le Guin, passed away yesterday.

I was going to post something else today, but I postponed it (you’ll see it next Monday) because I wanted to take a little time to reflect on what I’ve learned from Le Guin, and what I still have to learn.

I first heard about her when I was seventeen and touring colleges during the spring break of my senior year of high school. Some of my classmates were in Florida or Mexico having the tropical spring break experience, but I was slogging from interview to interview all across the Midwest, trying to make a good impression.

At my first-choice school, my interviewer asked right away about what I liked to read. When I started throwing out then-current Big Fantasy Names, he asked me if I’d ever read the Earthsea Cycle, and when I replied that I’d never heard of it, he proceeded to tell me about what were (as it turned out) some of his favorite books he’d ever read.

I took that kind of book recommendation seriously, even twenty years ago. Before we left campus I had checked the college bookstore to see if they had copies–they didn’t.

I got them from my local bookstore two days after I returned home, and within a week I’d read all three of them (the original trilogy–Tehanu, the fourth, had been published then, only I didn’t know it.) I had never read anything like them (this was pre-Harry Potter, so a school for wizards? Not an old or tired concept to me.) I had only read fantasy where magic was easy, or trivial, or powerful but relatively consequence-free; what Ged went through during his studies, and after them, and the price he paid fascinated me.

And I had never before read anything with such an original and nuanced take on death–both the death-worship cult in Tombs of Atuan, which both intrigued and terrified me, and the journey into the dry land in The Farthest Shore.

At that age, I hadn’t thought much about death at all. Even though these were middle-grade/YA novels, they were an important part of my transition to adulthood, when the bigger questions started to plague me.

I still have those copies, I will never get rid of them.

Sadly, though they accepted me, I didn’t end up going to my first-choice school, as my second choice gave me a substantially better financial aid package. I never got to go back to the man who introduced me to Earthsea and thank him. I absolutely would have, and spent another hour, like we did in the interview, talking books with him. There’s a good reason that’s the only interview from that week I actually remember!

Even though I’ve read and loved so much of her work, there’s still so much left for me to read. On my trip to Portland last fall, I scored four more Le Guin books, none of which I’ve gotten to yet–but I had plans to read the entire Hainish Cycle this year, as well as her book on writing Steering the Craft.

I hope her works continue to be an inspiration to me as I read through them this year. I hope I can keep recommending them to new readers, as they were once bestowed upon me. My heart hurts whenever I think about how there will be no more books from her, but then it hurts less when I realize just how much she left us to ponder.

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