Sunday, 7 February 2010

The Door

Bright the hawk's flight on the empty sky.  Image by J R Douglass, U.S. National Park Service - public domain - hat tip: www.weforanimals.comOver on, that crafty wordsmith and tale-tinker Jo Walton is revisiting one of the great fantasy classics, and my personal favourites - Ursula K Le Guin's fables of Earthsea. Yes, all six books, not just the original trilogy. It is really worth going and having a decko, starting with this post.

Those books mean a lot to me. I read the first three between the ages of nine and ten. In addition to scaring the living blue blazes out of me, they taught me the first rudiments of real poetry that touched me as something more than good strong verse. 'Only in silence the word', yes; but also the lavish, immersing colours and textures behind Le Guin's light clean prose. More than this, the way she made the fate of little imperfect people on their little squabbling islands weigh as heavy in the scale as all the cities and thrones and powers of Gondor and Arnor and Narnia. Finest of all, perhaps, the masterfully simple reckoning with the savagery and cosmic unfairness of the world. Here were heroes who would meet its eyes, or salute it as a known foe, or fall under its wheel, without thinking to surrender to it; and all from a maker who did not then feel she had to explain - perhaps even to herself - what she was doing...

And Ged and Tenar themselves, two of my favourite characters in all literature. In the long lovely hurt of reading The Farthest Shore, it was only when I came back to the books in my late teens that I knew why one special scene in the Southern oceans had always driven such a fine spike through my heart. "I should like to see Tenar again..." says Ged, gliding swiftly at once to another thought; and, Gods, I thought, he loves her; he has loved her down these bright years, beyond magic and wisdom and dragons; and always his staff has stood between them. If she is dead when he comes back to Gont, that of all things will break him like a dry twig. And many years later, all the bitter horror of Tehanu was worth reading to know Tenar had grown in her teller's mind too; and to meet her once again, and the old goatherd coming home.

Of all the cosmic unfairnesses in Earthsea, cruellest is the unutterably bleak, mean emptiness of its stone-walled afterlife, where those who died for love pass one another indifferently in the streets, each on their aimless way to an appointment with nothing or a drink of dust from the abominable Dry River. The root of that, Le Guin would not strike for many a year, until the marches of my own middle age. Yet when I was a little boy, in terror once of the Christian hell and twice of the materialist oblivion, I saw Ged defeat their horrid hybrid time and again: first with clear eyes and bold words on Selidor strand, and last with his deed at the mouth of all dying. He could not make things other than they were. But he could do what it fitted a man to do about them.

And there - no less than here - that changed everything.

Some years later, I badly needed to put into words something of what I had come to feel about death. I still mostly hold by it. It is about our world, not Earthsea; and on these shores it is a slant way of looking at things, and not a reality as ragged as the mountains called Pain. But it is precious to me for all that; and if you know your Le Guin, you will see how it is in great part to her that I owe it .


Our hope lies not beyond the door -
Not in the plains where run
All rivers, sands, and lights at last:
It lies beneath the Sun.

The stars that nail the changeless skies
Shine only for the blind:
A land for deathless memories,
Not living humankind.

The shades who walk those dusty streets
Reck not of life nor love.
Immortal mansions are less sweet
Than wind and grass above.

Distrust who urges you to hoard
Therein, undying gold.
No dream of love, no dram of life
That gold will there afford.

For our estate, when life is past,
Is living earth and mind:
We keep no more, then, at the door,
But what we leave behind.

And that is not nothing. It is all the world, and perhaps that can be very nearly enough.

As the great singer sang, when she bore me a-dragonback to The Farthest Shore so long ago:

"His death did not diminish life. Nor did it diminish him. He is there - there, not here! Here is nothing, dust and shadows. There, he is the earth and sunlight, the leaves of trees, the eagle's flight. He is alive."

Or for those who find such comfort too mystical, too pagan, or merely too uncertain, this word at least remains:

"I have given my love to what is worthy of love. Is that not the kingdom and the unperishing spring?"

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