In the last three months we’ve lost two women who, between them, contributed hugely to the world of the human imagination. I say lost, but in truth we were privileged to have found them in the first place. One was a folklorist known for collecting childhood ephemera — both virtual and real — in Britain, the other a writer and poet who, through the genres of fantasy and science fiction, brought an anthropologist’s eye to considerations of how we function as individuals and as social animals.
These two outstanding individuals are of course Iona Opie and Ursula Le Guin.
Iona Opie died at the end of October 2017. The Guardian obituary described her as a “folklorist who collected, codified and published children’s rhymes, riddles and street culture”, but unusually she wasn’t trained as an academic. Her curiosity was instead piqued by the meaning and origins of a rhyme about what North Americans call a ladybug:
Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home,
Your house is on fire and your children all gone.
Together with her husband Peter that germ of an idea grew into a mammoth study called The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes when published by Oxford University Press in 1951. The 550 entries give not only the rhymes in English but also point out analogues in other cultures and discuss theories as to their origins. (The Ladybird rhyme is number 296 in this book.) A companion work is The Oxford Nursery Rhymes Book (1955, reprinted in 1980 by Book Club Associates): this features 800 “rhymes and ditties” along with 600 charming illustrations — woodcuts and engravings, some anonymous but also examples by the 19th-century engraver Thomas Bewick and by Joan Hassall (d 1988).
The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren was published by Oxford University Press in 1959. My 1973 paperback is well thumbed, proof of my then burgeoning fascination with the British folk tradition in one of its many stages of flux; it revealed to me how such traditions have deep, almost conservative roots going back centuries but are yet susceptible to up-to-date fashions, transformations and, inevitably, corruptions. The Opies’ study demonstrated that recording these precious manifestations was crucial in ensuring they remained as evidence of a living, evolving tradition and not merely as archaic lore somehow preserved like an insect caught in amber.
OUP continued to publish the fruits of their collaboration (she did the research, he the writing up) and in 1974 came The Classic Fairy Tales, again copiously illustrated but now adorned with both coloured and monochrome plates culled from historic publications. The text of the earliest versions in English of some two dozen tales, some famous, others more obscure, are here preserved, along with discussion about origins, analogues and so on. In her late seventies (Peter had died in 1982) Iona was still immersed in the subject: she was therefore ideally placed to pronounce Jack Zipes’ The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales (2000) as “authoritative and fascinating”, a quote which appeared on the cover of the paperback edition.
I don’t think it’s possible to overemphasise the pioneering work of the Opies and of Iona in particular. Reference works are usually hard things to review in a few words, but when they represent glittering treasuries of half-remembered, half-forgotten memories — especially for an aging English-speaker such as myself — it’s terribly easy to believe that they are priceless relics to be preserved and protected; but more than that, they give us food for thought concerning challenges such as continuity and change, renewal and replacement. And for this I — we — must be grateful to Iona Opie.
In a review I wrote nearly three years ago I waxed lyrical about what is possibly Ursula Le Guin’s most famous novel:
When I first read The Wizard of Earthsea I could almost believe in magic, so credible was the description of Ged’s emerging talents. Years later, magic of a different kind was uppermost in my second reading of the trilogy (along with Tehanu and the two other sequels). This magic was to do with sympathetic characterisation and with the creation of credible imaginary cultures and worlds as much as with hope and tragedy, with human triumphs and failings, with empathy and enmity.
Perhaps unfairly I contrasted her Earthsea sequence with C S Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, to the detriment of the latter:
A relatively recent reading of The Chronicles of Narnia impressed me so much with the degree that Le Guin has surpassed Lewis in her depiction of a humanistic as well as humane alternative universe; superficially there are some similarities (many common to much fantasy, such as magic, maps and mythical animals) but the tone and the richness and the “rightness” of her creation is what sets it apart from Lewis’ world: if Narnia is a tapestry then Earthsea is a working model of a reality.
I ended the mini-review with the hope that Le Guin’s Earthsea sequence would be “one of those works that reveals further treasures with each successive reading”. I think, with the recent passing of UKLG, that this reread must be imminent. In fact a Twitter thread begun by author Nicola Davies and hashtagged by Ed Finch #ReadingEarthsea has suggested exactly that for February.
But Earthsea is not the only accomplishment that she should be remembered by. I have been slow but steady with first reads and rereads of her works, whether you class them as fantasy or science fiction or — the label I prefer — speculative fiction. Some I’ve even got round to reviewing, but not as much as I’d have liked.
As with Iona Opie’s researches what underlies Ursula Le Guin’s writing is a fathomless curiosity: a ceaseless questing about what it means to be human, and how the touchstone for what makes us human lies in the culture we produce. I’m looking forward to having my preconceptions challenged all over again.