A little gem

stones

Ursula Le Guin Gifts
Orion Childrens Books 2005

Gifts is the first of a series entitled the Annals of the Western Shore by the admirable Ursula Le Guin. Best known for her Earthsea fantasies, she is also outstanding in the fields of SF, short stories, poetry, articles and reviews. The three titles that make up her Annals sequence may not have achieved the same level of appreciation as the Earthsea books (and amateur reviews generally have demonstrated a perplexity that the Annals haven’t been as epic as those earlier tales) but my feeling is that they are every bit as thoughtful despite a superficially unambitious and inauspicious start.

In her 1970s essay, “Science Fiction and Mrs Brown” (first published in Science Fiction at Large in 1976 and in Explorations of the Marvellous in 1978) Le Guin argued for the primacy of the human dimension not only in fiction generally but also in the SF and Fantasy genres. In Gifts that primacy, which is manifested in pretty much all that she writes, is focused on Orrec, a young man who experiences the pangs of adolescence while growing up in an isolated community in the Uplands of the Western Shore — pangs that most of us can recognise and empathise with, whatever our age. What gives it its fantasy aspect is that the growing pains are linked to the apparent lack of a capacity, the Gift of Undoing, which Orrec is expected to inherit in his genes but which is not following its expected course. This gift involves the ability to ‘undo’ or ‘unmake’ both inanimate and living objects, to reshape and often to permanently damage them, even kill them without physical contact. This of course is a terrible talent to have, especially when it is expected to be put to the use of a society of related individuals dispersed in a bleak landscape and beset by greedy outsiders.

The geography of the Western Shore is a little like an amalgam of North America’s northwest coast (Le Guin lives in Oregon) and the Northwestern Europe of the Middle Ages, but it remains a world where the existence of magic is mostly taken for granted. As in her Earthsea books Le Guin shows her adeptness in creating the illusion that such supernatural magic can be the natural extension of one’s normal abilities, so much so that it’s easily accepted almost without the necessary conscious suspension of disbelief. Living now in an upland community in Wales I myself can vouch for Le Guin’s credible recreation of the pace and atmosphere of a similar dispersed settlement, albeit in a fantasy world.

Short of a full description of the narrative I’ll just like to provide a small hint of how Le Guin resolves the tensions inherent in the plot and setting: the word ‘poet’ is derived from a Greek word meaning to make or create; and so of course the counterpart to the Gift of Undoing must naturally be a Gift of Making, here represented as the talent of the narrative artist. In addition, echoes of myth, and especially classical Greek myth, abound, in particular the stories of the blind soothsayer Tiresias, Oedipus who for shame blinded himself and, the epitome of the blind bard, Homer himself.

As in so much fantasy there is also a strong sense of human justice combined with balance between chaos and order, with the hoped-for release of built-up tension at the conclusion of the tale. Despite its relatively limited scale and action Gifts is a little gem, appealing to the latent anthropologist or philosopher among the many fans of fantasy fiction; quintessential Le Guin, it mingles fizzy concepts with melancholy and perspicacious insights into the human condition. And, as befits the first in a promising sequence of novels, there is the hope offered in the final pages of even more vicarious living in the lands of the Western Shore in the first sequel, Voices.

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4 thoughts on “A little gem

  1. Just finished a Susan Cooper book in the epilogue of which she praises Le Guin. It’s another for my reading list and another I am very much looking forward to.

    1. This is an excellent trilogy the only downside of which is it’s not as well known as it should be compared to, say, the Earthsea books. I also love her SF novels, thought-provoking as well as finely written. And if Cooper praises her …

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