My Mother and Ursula Le Guin

As far as I can tell, my mother has only read one fantasy novel and it was by Ursula Le Guin.

My mother was an odd figure in the small, conservative desert town I grew up in. She came from a poor Midwestern family, one of many children that didn’t receive the care or love she deserved from a mother with a slew of rotating husbands. In her late teens, she took a job on the racetrack caring for horses, a passion she genuinely adored, and eventually found herself in California in the late 70s. She met my father, got pregnant with me and then settled down to raise a family.

My mother was not the type of feminist often presented in the media. There was no lofty ideological rhetoric or foundational texts for her to call upon; she had not attended college and books were not a common commodity in her home growing up. There were likely scores of women just like her all over the country, ladies who didn’t need academic theory to recognize that women were given a raw deal in our society. Nonetheless, she did stand out among the small set of adults in my childhood.

Long before gender fluidity was discussed seriously in middle-class America, she intended to raise her sons in a different environment than the one she experienced. She put traditional “girl” toys in my room to compliment the trucks and action figures given to my brother and I by relatives and friends. She wanted her sons to play with what they wished and not be restricted to activities deemed gender appropriate by our community. She was not angry when at age four, I brought the “girl” toys to a neighbor’s house and said, “I don’t want these. You can have them.” I made an innocent choice, but it was my choice.

We were not allowed to have any war-like toys in our home. No GI Joes or plastic guns were present, as my mother hoped to raise her boys in an environment that did not encourage violence and physical conflict as the norm. Nevertheless, she would laugh as my brothers and I fashioned crossbows and bazookas out of branches and twigs in the backyard. Maybe it was genetic or demonstrated just how far cultural norms extended into young boys, but she never stopped us from playing the way we wished.

When she decided to go to college, I was 7 years old and had two younger brothers in tow. Now that I have two children of my own under the age of 5, I can only imagine how difficult it would be to complete any kind of formal education with a handful of rugrats to care for.

While she intended to earn a practical degree and get a decent middle-class job, college did provide her the opportunity to read and create in ways she hadn’t before. By her own admission, she was never an avid reader, but she had read A Wizard of Earthsea by Le Guin. When given the opportunity to write her own short story for her Lit 101 class, she used Ursula’s opus as a springboard to create her own fictional world. The story involved a girl on a quest for magic stones, encountering a motley crew of creatures and characters along the way. It may not have been worthy of ascending to the fantasy pantheon, but she was proud of it. I don’t know what grade she received for the work and it didn’t matter.

There were reasons my mother could identify with Ged, the protagonist in the Earthsea Cycle. My mother’s lineage was unclear and she was expected to do little with her future by adults in her orbit. She too went on an adventure that took her far from home and became the only one of her siblings to earn a college degree. She was opposed to violence and appreciated the cooperative theme present in the novels.

Yet, the reason she loved A Wizard of Earthsea was because Ursula Le Guin wrote them; a strong woman, who braved a male-dominated field to construct some of its best modern works. My mother never read Angela Davis or Gloria Steinem, but she did have a fantasy novel that presented the way forward for a young woman in her place and time.

I hope to provide a different childhood for my girls than my mother received, and with the growth of the #metoo movement, I anticipate their working and social realities will be healthier than the one my mother experienced. I hope my daughters won’t need Earthsea the way my mother did, but they will surely be on the shelf to inspire them on their own journeys.


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Roland Dodds is an educator, researcher and father just north of San Francisco who writes about politics, culture and education. He spent his formative years in radical left wing politics, but now prefers the company of contrarians of all political stripes (assuming they aren't teetotalers). He is a regular contributor at Harry's Place and Ordinary Times.

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35 thoughts on “My Mother and Ursula Le Guin

  1. A wonderful story.

    “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” is one of the most interesting moral questions wrestled with in fiction since The Brothers Karamazov.

    A giant… but so gentle that you don’t even recognize that she changed your mind.

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      • If *that’s* the moral – have you? (And this isn’t me picking on you, honestly… it’s the question I ask myself about once a week, more some weeks, and then figure out what to do next with my “no”. it’s a very profound story not because it isn’t clear, but because it is simultaneously the most didactic and the most forgiving story I’ve ever read. Taoist to a fault.)

        https://www.utilitarianism.com/nu/omelas.pdf if anyone is curious to read it.

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            • Countless millions suffer in many ways great and small. The thing is that it can’t be a real utopia or paradise from a Jewish perspective if it is based on the sacrifice of one innocent. The Rabbis decided that if your life is at stake, your generally allowed to break a rule of the Torah. There are three exceptions, three things that a Jew must choose death over rather than perform. These are idol worship, murder of an innocent, and commit an act of sexual misconduct.

              Sacrificing one child in perpetuity would fall under murder of an innocent even though the child is still technically alive and idol worship. I think most of the Rabbis of the Talmud would see perpetual pain to a non-deserving person as close enough to murder because pain is considered something to be avoided for yourself or others in Judaism. Its why the ultra-Orthodox Rabbis have ruled positively on medical marijuana. The idea of a perfect society based on the pain of one person would be madness to the Rabbis because a perfect society should have no pain. Its idol worship because the perfect society is seen as something worthy to make an act of sacrifice to.

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              • Thank you for explicating. I’m familiar with the theology although I appreciate your take on it, as well.

                I don’t think it softens the question – the urgency of the question – of what to do about the innocents who suffer and die to maintain the near-utopic society that most of us here experience, though.

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        • I generally consider myself an anti-utilitarian and more explicitly an anti-utopian.

          Humans are vastly imperfect creatures and we always will be. Plus one person’s utopia is another person’s hell. There is simply too much human variance to come up with any utopia. Small communes of 20 or so people have ways of falling apart quickly.

          The sooner people give up on ideas of utopa and/or messiah-esque figures saving us all, the better.

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      • Half the time I think the problem is that they walk away at all.

        Where are they going to go where it isn’t worse, where the cost of their existence isn’t higher, but more distant and easily rationalized by all the ways that we rationalize the sacrifices that make our lives comfortable, or even possible?

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  2. Great essay. The Wizard of Earthsea is one of the best fantasy trilogies of all time, its a shame the adaptations suck. I’ve always kind of thought Spike Lee should try to make a trilogy out of it.

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  3. I have kayaked (a little and mostly indifferently) in Nova Scotia and by and large did not enjoy it (I am not fond of physical activity in general). One experience I had with my folks when doing it, however, was encountering a whale and it was a singular experience. The vast ocean dweller came close when it spouted you could feet the moisture in the air (and the odor; pro-tip whale breath: avoid). Then it departed and as it sounded you could feel it through the thin hull of the kayak; the water displacing, the sense of something vast departing and leaving the entire locale ocean reverberating in the wake of its passage.

    When I first heard that Le Guin had passed I felt an echo of that sensation. The feeling that a giant had departed and the world reverberated, ever so slightly, in the wake of their absence.

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  4. Wonderful story. For me, LeGuin started with The Left Hand of Darkness freshman year, first quarter, the writing requirement class reskinned as “Science Fiction”.

    I remember that the paper I wrote for that class got mimeographed (no personal computers then!) and handed out to the class with my name taken off. The person whom I thought of as the smartest student in the class remarked on it, “Well, this is obviously well-written …”

    That glow has stayed with me a long time. And yes, I will acknowledge my debt, both in writing, and in thinking about gender, which I do a lot, to LeGuin.

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  5. It’s funny, I’ve been casting about a bit, trying to figure out whether I want to reread Left Hand of Darkness, or my all-time beloved, the Dispossessed, or Four Ways to Forgiveness, or or or, among my favorite and much re-read titles. And then there are all the side-hustle books, just as good, Writing as a Wave (or something like that?) and a half-dozen I haven’t even ever read yet….

    But I think I’ll be revisiting her late YA trilogy, instead. Because I miss her voice even more than her insights.

    The first time I read Powers, I said this:

    Gav and his sister Salla are loyal slaves in the house of Arcamand, and Salla tells Gav he must keep secret his gifts of memory – perfect recall and the occasional “remembering” of something that hasn’t happened yet. A great tragedy sends Gav out of his masters’ house into the wide world beyond, and he must learn who he is and what his powers mean in the face of grave peril. But that’s just the plot.

    Here’s what really matters about Powers:

    Le Guin is a master taleteller, and her most recent works are not just story but Story. Every word is chosen, careful as a poem. Reading her is like following tracks through the woods, except that every step is clear, and true, and gravid with the next step’s sure coming. Such a thing takes a whole life’s skill and practice, on top of one’s natural talents, but it doesn’t get in the way. Never once while I was reading this book did I lose the tale in admiration for its telling – only after the course was run, and I was let go to wander.

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    • For me, always the Earthsea books. My first exposure to fantasy writing was Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions when I was a wee lad and snitched it, unobserved, out of my father’s bookcase, to be read by flashlight under the bed covers. At some point Lord of the Rings was overwhelming, but Earthsea brought me back to the “small” fantasy, where important things don’t have to involve massive armies and death on a large scale. Ged, in The Farthest Shore: “Then very seldom do you come upon a space, a time like this, between act and act, when you may stop and simply be. Or wonder who, after all, you are.” Too few chances to simply be.

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  6. This is a really nice story. The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas is the only Le Guin I’ve ever read over 40 years ago. It’s quite powerful and it’s stayed with me ever since.

    The only other time I’ve encountered her was as a minor character in Streiber and Kunetka’s Warday.

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    • That is so her, and so lovely. And made me laugh to think how she might have patterned the fictional U.K. LeGuin’s life in a way that somewhat resembled, though magnified in its absurdity, the real life of her friend James Tiptree, Jr. (aka Alice Sheldon).

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      • As Robert Silverberg said:

        It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing. I don’t think the novels of Jane Austen could have been written by a man nor the stories of Ernest Hemingway by a woman, and in the same way I believe the author of the James Tiptree stories is male.

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        • Yup, but Tiptree is a bit different, I think, considering that she actually worked at it, maintaining a male persona for years and expressing to some friends in later years stuff that more modern folks tend to call “gender dysphoria,” …. Le Guin was also one of the first people she told, as they had maintained (like she did with Silverberg, Russ, and I forget who else) an extensive correspondence.

          Yes, and I love that they stayed friends afterwards, and that Silverberg tells that story on himself.

          Anyone who is interested in this tangent might want to check out the following:
          Julie Phillips, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon
          Letters to Tiptree (I forget who the editor is)
          tor.com also just started an interesting series about women sf writers of the 70s, which can be found here: https://www.tor.com/2018/01/22/fighting-erasure-women-sf-writers-of-the-1970s-a-through-f/

          Normally I am mildly irritable about the word erasure and its clickbait use, but given that I’ve heard any number of women sff writers who were big in the 70s *literally* complain about feeling invisible and erased, I give this one an easy pass.

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  7. On my desk is a copy of “Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book About The Way and The Power Of The Way a new English version by Ursula K. Le Guin”

    Pursuant to discussions above, I’d like to quote from it:

    18. Second Bests

    In the degradation of the Great Way
    come benevolence and righteousness.
    With the exaltation of learning and prudence
    comes immense hypocrisy
    The disordered family
    is full of dutiful children and parents
    The disordered society
    is full of loyal patriots

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