Falling in Love With Ursula K. Le Guin

Parsing (and writing songs about) her beautiful, strange worlds and "magical relationships."

It feels difficult to write about an author who has inspired me as much as Ursula K. Le Guin has. However, upon her death, I feel moved to reflect on some ideas her words implanted in me. Her anthropological fiction gave me a renewed sense of wonder and fresh appreciation for understanding how people behave. I don’t think of the hypothetical realities she wrote about as sci-fi or fantasy; I’m struck instead by her embrace of magical thinking and empathy. Le Guin’s isn’t the kind of bombastic magic you find in more traditional fantasy books: I have always understood the magic in Le Guin’s books as creative expression. Her main characters go on physical quests that become journeys toward their own vulnerability.

Le Guin was very keen on balance between light and darkness, equal and opposite forces. Le Guin’s interest in Taoism was distinct in her writing: In Taoist Tai Chi, a push with one hand is balanced with an equal push with the other hand. Le Guin interpreted gender roles, power dynamics, and good versus evil similarly: No one is just one way; there is always a balance of opposing forces within one person. If there is an excess of one force, it collapses and turns back towards its counterpart. In the novel The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, rather than employing “utopia” to simply mean “ideal,” Le Guin imagines an advanced society where conflict and trouble still exist, and the world’s flaws make it feel more real. Similarly, her story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” is set in a utopian city where at the core of everyone and everything functioning well is one child being tormented and punished. She focused heavily on the idea that, in a society where some are to succeed, it is often balanced with the oppression or suffering of others. As the title of “Omelas” suggests, she also posited that you can be the person who walks away from a supposed utopia when you can see the expense at which it exists.

I was spending many hours in a van, crossing great distances on a national tour, when I first fell in love with Le Guin’s writing. My friend and bandmate finished the first book in Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle, A Wizard of Earthsea, and passed it on to me. The book is a coming-of-age story in a mysterious and beautiful world that, in its completeness, rivals the setting of any of the great fantasy epics. The main character spends a great deal of the book in pursuit of a shadow enemy, whom he finally uncovers to be his own shadow self and must merge with and accept as a part of himself to fully understand and conquer this shadow. I relate to this metaphor so greatly: I am only able to really find resolve and self-understanding in moments when I am able to accept the parts of myself that sabotage me, in a non-magical sense. I devoured A Wizard of Earthsea in a few hours and soon finished the whole Earthsea Cycle. I was so deeply moved and inspired by every book.

When a librarian friend of mine who was a big fan of Le Guin found out I had just read and loved Earthsea, I was surprised that she was very critical of the series in comparison to Le Guin’s other writing. She took issue with the facts that Earthsea’s main stories and heroes, were primarily male and the wizard school only accepted men (and that they must remain celibate for their magic to stay “pure”), and with the portrayals of some female heroes as weaker characters or somehow dependent on men. But to me, the fickle, distrustful witches of Earthsea’s ability to be sexual and conduct powerful wild magic seemed like an amazing counterpoint to the somewhat uptight wizard school. I viewed this as Le Guin’s critique of stereotypes of women that come from living in a patriarchal society. From the perspective of a neutral observer, her writing suggested the outrageousness of the misogyny of certain male characters simply by descriptive suggestion. An amazing main female character, like Tenar from the second book, is strong and inspiring when she runs away from her captivity as a priestess, yet it does feel strange to see her caught in a more traditional gender role in the fourth book after you haven’t seen her in some time. I understood my friend’s opinions: I could see where Le Guin makes up for it a bit in the last two books, but observe how she had an opportunity to take her female characters in the series further. Still, within her time period, Le Guin stepped into such a male-dominated genre and was a visionary, and I prefer to applaud her successes rather than critique her flaws. Luckily, my friend’s critique turned me on to read Le Guin’s other books and writing. I got further insight into other beautiful and strange worlds and was inspired to parse them even more closely.

One of my best friends explains a term she uses, “magical relationships,” to mean intimacies that defy mainstream societal expectations of heteronormativity and monogamy. Her idea is based on the understanding that human beings put so much expectation on romantic relationships to fulfill us completely, and we should let real connections flourish through change instead of being crushed by codependency and distrust. These relationships expand on the idea of romantic partnership to account for new, self-determined kinds of connections; the word “magic” is used as a synonym for creativity. Based on the themes of Le Guin’s fiction, I believe that the author would find truth in this in parallel to many types of relationships/friendships. In her classic novel The Left Hand of Darkness, the main characters, Ai and Estraven’s, deep connection and trust comes from the gradual understanding of each other’s genders. Ai, who is a man from a planet called Terra, learns to relate to the androgynous people he encounters on another planet, Gethen. Ai embraces his own duality through his growing love for Estraven, a person he encounters on Gethen who is “ambisexual” and does not have one permanent gender or sex. Creating understanding and developing empathy are the ultimate ways to destroy bigotry, and are also crucial to analyzing how our social expectations and interactions are shaped by our perception of gender. This feels relevant to our present world.

In a few of her short stories, Le Guin outlines an invented polyamorous marriage arrangement she calls “sedoretu.” In each sedoretu, there are two heterosexual relationships, two homosexual relationships, and two heterosexual platonic friendships without sexual intimacy. Le Guin says that this polyamorous marriage is “just as complicated as it sounds, but aren’t most marriages?” In an abstract way, this union feels very balanced to me, with the idea of sharing another person intimately in a socially accepted way. This leads me to believe that Le Guin had a deep comprehension of love and intimacy, and how much invisible work and processing that must happen to uphold them, which goes unseen in many stories of love and romance. We want a commitment of love to be everlasting, but what exactly does that mean?

I don’t think love is easy to understand in a long-lasting sense, because love is ever-changing, a non-static force. I explored this theme on my most recent album, Call It Love. The album also contains a song inspired by the third book in the Earthsea cycle, The Farthest Shore, in which the two main characters are on a journey to restore magic to the world by facing their own mortality. In The Farthest Shore, an evil wizard is trading people’s immortality for their magic/creative work. Musicians forget their songs, makers lose their craft, and wizards’ and witches’ powers stop working. Those who gained immortality became dull and lifeless, because what is there to live for without the potential of what could be created next? To create is magic in and of itself, in all aspects of life, and to lose creativity is to lose life’s luster and potential. My hope is that future generations of Ursula Le Guin readers extend her creations forward by making magic themselves. Upon losing her, I hope we will gain the magic of a new wave of readers who may become writers, exploring subversive topics and creating their own new worlds to do so.

Briana Marela is an electronic/ambient pop musician from the United States, living in the forested Pacific Northwest. She grew up in Seattle, then attended school at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, where she studied audio production and music technology. She released her debut album, All Around Us, on Jagjaguwar Records in 2015. Her second album for Jagjaguwar, Call It Love, was released in 2017 and features co-production by labelmates Small Black.