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August 13, 2010

Americans are afraid of dragons - the work of Ursula K. Leguin

Judith Maclean Miller

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People often tell me that they do not read science fiction or fantasy. Understandable when they think of sci-fi as full of unlikely robots and suspect fantasy is too far-fetched.

The best writers in these genres, though, write books which can be read as challenging metaphor—or deeply satisfying poetry. And American author Ursula K. Leguin is one of the very best.

Leguin’s novels are based in the social sciences, anthropology, psychology, or sociology, and in her deep love of literature.

“Waiting,” she says, “is a very large part of writing.” She means waiting to hear the voices, the rhythm, of a story or a novel, making sure to capture its truth.

It was Leguin who wrote some years ago that Americans are afraid of dragons.

She meant that Americans do not like imaginative literature, preferring realism. They do not like shadows or unexplained places; they shrink from the imaginative and the play of mind in alternate realities. They lack imagination. A pretty harsh and perhaps unfair comment. And maybe they are changing. Harry Potter has had a lot of influence.

My favourites of her more than fifteen novels are A Wizard of Earthsea and Tehanu, which are usually considered fantasy novels. A better term for Leguin’s work would probably be “speculative fiction.”

A Wizard of Earthsea has rewarded my many readings and many classroom discussions. It tells the story of Ged, a boy who is learning to be a wizard. It is a small novel, but dense, poetic in its language and imagery.

Ged over-reaches himself in his impatience to become fully a wizard and unleashes great harm. He then has to correct that damage. A major part of understanding and accepting what he has done involves naming what he has released, The Shadow which is driving him.

One of my favorite lines in this novel is Ged’s teacher’s response to him when Ged complains that he is not learning anything, “You have not yet understood what it is that I am teaching you.” It reminds me of how richly complex a classroom can/should be, of how little it has to do with the exchange of information.

Tehanu is a lovely novel about an older woman who is caring for a badly scarred and damaged girl-child, helping her to heal into a sense of herself. It is very moving. 

Leguin’s novels are often about new understanding, about the hope that comes from growing and reaching into new knowing, a different way of seeing the world. Leguin’s mind, like her novels and her website, are open, often playful places to be.

Leguin is never satisfied with the superficial or the shoddy. Her prose is always elegant, carefully worked, even or perhaps especially when she is challenging glib assumptions, unexamined clichés.

Her two books about writing, reading, imagination never fail to teach me something new or to remind me of something forgotten, neglected, as when she writes:

I do think novels are beautiful. To me a novel can be as beautiful as the sea. As complete, true, real, large, complicated, confusing, deep, troubling, soul enlarging as the sea with its waves that break and tumble, its tides that rise and ebb.

I agree with her.

In a world of sound-bites, quick texting, focus on information exchange, I believe we need to approach beautiful novels, like LeGuin’s, with the same attentiveness, openness, we give to the ocean’s power and beauty.

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Dotan Rousso. Holds a Ph.D. in Law—a former criminal prosecutor in Israel. Currently working as a college professor in Canada.

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