Write, Critique, Revise, Repeat: On Le Guin and Asking the Hard Questions of Ourselves

One of the most striking aspects of Ursula K. Le Guin as a writer and thinker is how much she encouraged sharp interrogation of everything we believe or hold dear. This is a hard thing for most humans to do, and it is noticeably lacking in much of early speculative fiction.

So many classic fantasy heroes are Chosen Ones, appointed as champions of Good against the forces of Evil; it would be easy for a reader new to Le Guin to pick up A Wizard of Earthsea and assume that Ged would be one of that lot. The first paragraph tells us: “…some say the greatest, and surely the greatest voyager, was the man called Sparrowhawk, who in his day became both dragonlord and Archmage. His life is told of in the Deed of Ged and in many songs…”


Yet even in Wizard, which I first read as a young and impressionable child, I was struck by how Ged is so clearly flawed. He makes mistake after mistake; and even when we think he has learned better, Ged errs again. For his final quest, his friend Vetch offers to travel with him, but Ged asserts that he must venture alone. “This is no task or bane of yours. I began this evil course alone, I will finish it alone, I do not want any other to suffer from it….” Ged means well (as we often do), yet he is wrong here, and Vetch must chide him: “Pride was ever your mind’s master.” Ged eventually admits that Vetch is right; they set off together to try to right a greater wrong.

Yet Le Guin never asked more of her heroes than she asked of herself, at times with a frankness and openness that I have not seen elsewhere. She brought that keen and inquisitive eye to one of her most famous works, The Left Hand of Darkness, specifically, examining and taking apart her own essay on the novel. She’d written a piece defending some of the choices she’d made in the book, choices that people were criticizing:

“‘Is Gender Necessary?’ first appeared in Aurora, that splendid first anthology of science fiction written by women, edited by Susan Anderson and Vonda N. McIntyre. It was later included in The Language of the Night. Even then I was getting uncomfortable with some of the statements I made in it, and the discomfort soon became plain disagreement. But those were just the bits that people kept quoting with cries of joy.

It doesn’t seem right or wise to revise an old text severely, as if trying to obliterate it, hiding the evidence that one had to go there to get here. It is rather in the feminist mode to let one’s changes of mind, and the process of change, stand as evidence – and perhaps to remind people that minds that don’t change are like clams that don’t open. So I here reprint the original essay entire, with a running commentary in bracketed italics. I request and entreat anyone who wishes to quote from this piece henceforth to use or at least include these reconsiderations. And I do very much hope that I don’t have to print re-reconisderations in 1997, since I’m a bit tired of chastising myself.”

–Le Guin, Is Gender Necessary? Redux (1976/1987), Dancing at the Edge of the World

She goes on to examine various elements of the novel that she’d previously defended:

“I quite unnecessarily locked the Gethenians into heterosexuality. It is a naively pragmatic view of sex that insists that sexual partners must be of opposite sex! In any kemmerhouse homosexual practice would, of course, be possible and acceptable and welcomed – but I never thought to explore this option; and the omission, alas, implies that sexuality is heterosexuality. I regret this very much.” (Dancing at the Edge of the World)

Le Guin realized that her own assumptions limited how she presented possibilities for sexual orientation in The Left Hand of Darkness—a limit that many queer readers found particularly painful in a work that was so revolutionary on the gender and sexuality front. Instead of doubling down and denying, as many of us would do, Le Guin found the courage to explain her error, and to simply and clearly express regret for that failure.

Another notable instance is where Le Guin re-examines her choice to use he/him for a gender-neutral pronoun:

“I call Gethenians ‘he’ because I utterly refuse to mangle English by inventing a pronoun for ‘he/she.’ [This ‘utter refusal’ of 1968 restated in 1976 collapsed, utterly, within a couple of years more. I still dislike invented pronouns, but I now dislike them less than the so-called generic pronoun he/him/his, which does in fact exclude women from discourse; and which was an invention of male grammarians, for until the sixteenth century the English generic singular pronoun was they/them/their, as it still is in English and American colloquial speech. It should be restored to the written language, and let the pedants and pundits squeak and gibber in the streets….]” (Dancing at the Edge of the World)

Many today still resist such simple changes to old habits, despite the harm those habits cause.

Throughout this essay, Le Guin fearlessly exposes what she consider previous errors in her thinking—sometimes major structural elements, sometimes a single word that deserved further emphasis: “[Strike the word ‘probably’ and replace it with ‘certainly.’]” It’s worth reading the whole thing, word by word and line by line, and I am tempted to simply tell you to go do that. It is a spectacular effort, and a practice that we see all too rarely in scholarship, to have a writer critique her own previous (celebrated) ideas.

Le Guin’s actions in that revised essay influenced my own thinking extensively. A story I published as a young writer was criticized for how it presented lesbian characters, and though I reflexively defended it for many years, eventually, I had to realize that no, my critics were right—there were deep problems with what I had done; I had actually done damage with my words. I was sorely tempted to take the story down from my website, to try to erase it from the visible world. It is frequently embarrassing to realize just how wrong you were. But with Le Guin as model, I left it up—bracketed with an explanation of where I thought I had gone wrong. (Thank you, Ursula.)

Though her essay work would be enough, Le Guin does the same work throughout her fiction, questioning and revising her earlier ideas. There are multiple obvious examples, perhaps the most famous being the 1990 novel added to the Earthsea trilogy (1968-1972).

It was a trilogy—it should have stopped there. But Le Guin added Tehanu, subtitled The Last Book of Earthsea, making her trilogy a tetralogy.

It turned out that she had more to say, that after all those years, Le Guin was questioning the shape of her wondrous world. Here, after giving us a trilogy in which women can’t be wizards, we finally see women’s magic and how it exists in Earthsea: the witch Moss describes it as being “deeper than the roots of trees, deeper than the roots of islands, older than the Making, older than the moon.”

In this novel, Ged and Tenar are past middle age, and we are shown a different aspect of the world than wizard battles—a focus on raising children, raising goats, living in harmony with nature, and an emphasis on “being” rather than “doing”—aspects very much in harmony with Le Guin’s Taoist writings. As her thinking shifted and evolved, so did her writing; Le Guin was unafraid to go back in and expand her world, making room for new possibilities, even if she had to wedge them into the cracks a little to do so. But she wasn’t done yet.

In 2001 (at age 70), Le Guin brought out the short story collection, Tales from Earthsea, and published yet another novel, The Other Wind.

“When Tehanu was published I put a subtitle on it — “The Last Book of Earthsea.” I was wrong! I was wrong!

I really thought the story was done; Tenar had finally got her second inning, and Ged and Tenar were obviously happy-ever-after, and if I didn’t know exactly who or what Tehanu was, it didn’t bother me.

But then it began to bother me.

And a lot of things about Earthsea were bothering me, like do wizards really have to be celibate, if witches don’t? and how come no women at Roke? and who are the dragons? and where do Kargish people go when they die?

I found the answers to a lot of those questions in the stories that make the Tales from Earthsea.

So then I was able to find out who Tehanu is—and who the dragons are—in The Other Wind.

–Ursula K. Le Guin (from her website)

She abandoned her previous fruitless attempts at limiting her world, expanding her trilogy into the Earthsea Cycle, a richer, fuller society than her original (still brilliant) envisioning.

There were a few other Earthsea stories after that. A final twelve-page short story, “Firelight,” was published in June 2018, in The Paris Review, covering the last days of Ged—you’ll need to subscribe to read it there, but it’s also available in the new complete Earthsea edition, gorgeously illustrated by Charles Vess and already on my holiday wishlist. But perhaps it is foolish to think that anything of Le Guin’s is ever really complete—she would warn us against that, I think. Everything is subject to revision, and within every story lie buried a thousand more.

I want to close with one particular Earthsea story, my own favorite, “On the High Marsh.” At first, it seems like it almost isn’t an Earthsea story at all—it is a story of a murrain among the cattle, in a remote part of the world. There are no dragons here—just a widow in her cabin, living her life, and the stranger who comes to her door, seeking work.

Eventually we learn there is more to the story (there always is, with Le Guin), when Hawk comes to the door. Hawk is Ged, of course, the Archmage, and he has come seeking his great foe: “it wasn’t a good thing to have a man of very great power, a mage, wandering about Earthsea not in his right mind, and maybe full of shame and rage and vengefulness.” That is, perhaps, the story another writer might have given us—how our hero Ged vanquished his opponent, and then sought him out and vanquished him again, crushing him utterly.

Instead, Le Guin gives us a villain who has learned better:

She looked at the door of the bedroom. It opened and he stood there, thin and tired, his dark eyes full of sleep and bewilderment and pain…. …“I didn’t understand,” Irioth said, “about the others. That they were other. We are all other. We must be. I was wrong.”

For Le Guin, even for the worst villains, there is the possibility of revision and redemption. Ged forgives Irioth, and leaves him there in peace with the widow, to heal the cattle and live a quiet life. In Le Guin’s world, there is always room for forgiveness, for a righting of wrongs. Yet she never lets you off easily—you have to look honestly at the past, admit mistakes and damage done, and try to do better going forward. It is painful but necessary work, if we are to heal the world.

In these dark times, I find that I particularly need that reminder, that faith in humanity. There are days when I read the news and despair. But Le Guin would have little patience with that despair, I think; she would chide me to do better. We all hold within us the possibility to be better—every day, every minute going forward. What we have to do is look deeply, with a steady heart and a clear eye. Lookfar was the name of Ged’s boat—and we should look far, to a better future. But look close too. Look hard.

And if you lose your way—well, re-reading the Earthsea Cycle a time or two wouldn’t be the worst way to find it again.

I expect I will be reading these stories for the rest of my life.