When words and ideas are dance partners, the results are miraculous. In actuality, it seldom happens. More often than not, beautiful words are used to gussy up empty ideas, or notions of genius are suffocated by tumid or unremarkable prose. Ursula K. Le Guin was a master choreographer in bringing the two together, wreathing marvelous words and brilliant ideas into stories that illuminated our world through her invention of new ones. Few minds in history have been as good at singly summoning either words or ideas, but she was adroit at both, and was a master at brokering the peace between them.
On Monday, January 22, Le Guin died. Undoubtedly Portland’s most important writer, she was, at the same time, more: an indelibly American stylist who inspired writers around the world to create their own cultural monoliths (Harry Potter cribs generously from Le Guin’s Earthsea novels); a visionary with the ability to boil down societal ills into wonderfully wedge-shaped ideological experiments (the suffering of one child in her short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” allows for the rest of the city to lead lives of bliss); a dreamer whose gorgeously rendered other-worlds are disguised vessels for delivering human truths about the here and now.
For her entire career, Le Guin was relegated to the margins, as her work was stamped with the labels and markers of literary (and societal) hierarchy: science fiction, fantasy, feminist, environmentalist, and so on. These terms are all lacking—these words do not match up with the ideas Le Guin shared with us. Even now, as heartfelt obituaries, online tributes, and all manner of marvelous anecdotes about Le Guin pop up like tiny undiscovered islands in the Earthsea archipelago, she is being—perhaps unavoidably—generalized, codified, and explicated. But the only word in the English language that fairly describes her is “storyteller.” As she wrote in the introduction to a 1976 paperback edition of The Left Hand of Darkness: “While we read a novel, we are insane—bonkers. We believe in the existence of people who aren’t there, we hear their voices, we watch the battle of Borodino with them, we may even become Napoleon. Sanity returns (in most cases) when the book is closed. Is it any wonder that no truly respectable society has ever trusted its artists?”
Let Le Guin’s books remain ever open; let the sanity she fended off never fully return.