Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Ursula K. Le Guin, 2004, Gifts, 2006, Voices

"What's to gain by silence?", Cannoc in Gifts

Ursula Le Guin is a thorny writer. Her words and sentences cling to the intellect like burrs, asking questions in an annoying, low, raspy voice. Two thorn bushes that I fought my way through recently are Gifts and Voices, the first two installments of the Annals of the Western Shore.

Gifts is a quieter, more contained tale, only venturing outside its chosen locale in the stories within the story. The outside world, literally and through story, pulses in the streets of Ansul in Voices.

In Gifts, the hills from which the Uplanders scrape out a livelihood, close the reader in with a cold tale, rain lashed with occasional patches of sunlight. It is a story of magic and coming of age in the mountainous Uplands. Families with gifts to undo, heal, call the animals and lay curses maintain a fragile peace, trying not to incite centuries-long feuds between clans. Here, when women within the clan with the gift to destroy grow scarce, a man finds a bride from the Lowlands and a son that is born to them.

Only, in the lineage of the gift of undoing, he is a boy with the gift of making song and story, holding an audience in rapt silence with the words he learnt from his mother. This is the story of a boy learning to be a man, confronting a lie that held the borders of their domains safe for many a year and learning to grieve and be strong. The gifts weave their way through the story almost like myth. Except for the death of the dog, the snake and the laying waste of a hillside, the reader might well agree with the outsider Emmnon that the belief in the gifts have kept the families separate is superstition. The gift of making is, however, true and brings healing to grief.

The boy breaks away from traditions in many ways. He decides to leave for the Lowlands with the childhood sweetheart who has stayed by his side through testing times in pursuit of the dream of a better life away from the hard, vengeful living in the hills. The Uplander who learnt to read and sing finds another purpose, another role in Voices.

Voices is set in the city of Ansul, a city that ruled itself with a semblance of democracy - the city that becomes the locus for the struggle to remain literate. The Alds, modelled on the Arabs, enslaved the proud city, banning reading and writing among a people that prided itself on its knowledge and its heritage of folklore about heroes. The Alds are clearly a reflection of a mono-theist, desert-dwelling, misogynistic stereotype. They are fair, though, while the Ansul women are described as brown and round-cheeked. The Ansul dwellers are pantheist, peace-loving and originally in possession of a university that was destroyed by the invading Alds. A travelling story teller, whom we have already met in Gifts, and his wife with a lion that she calls with her gift for calling animals shape the story's crucial twists and turns.

A 'half-breed' born after the rape of an Ansul woman by an Ald soldier is the unwilling heroine. The need to sustain learning and keep alive the knowledge of the people's history and their pantheist faith is the intent. Writing about history, people's hearts and freedom - this the story-teller declares to be his heartfelt desire.

The thread of knowledge is spun into a clash of religions, blurring the lines between intuitive and printed knowledge, setting up the acquisition of knowledge as threatening to an intolerant Islamic invading race (when, of course, Islamic cultures have encouraged the arts and sciences in various ways throughout history).

To the invaders, Ansul's multiple gods are demons and the library the mythical mouth of darkness where the final battle between the representatives of (the only) god - the god of fire - and the evil spirits must be fought. Peace is achieved by discussion not war. Compromise seals the deal, not bloodshed. The unwilling heroine feels cheated by the denial of the opportunity to be a real heroine of the people, leading them to the triumphant overthrow of a tyrant. Where other fantasy authors would have revelled in the opportunity to wipe out armies, Le Guin's skill ensures that the narrative struggling to go the way of conventional fantasy is reined in. Always the threat of violence hangs over the text - and a few people do die - but the peace is held.

The deification of the printed word grates a little. The intuitive force of the oracle is reduced to reading from a page - it appears different to different people but even an oracular occurrence has to be printed. The objectification of knowledge as outside the human experience, as needing to be protected from the religious hordes, as dependent on the printed word - these are all problematic oppositions.

The heroine wonders at one point why the songs do not tell how the women managed at home while their husbands and sons hid in the mountains. We wonder too. This side of the story, the novel too glides over. The main action is out there, the heroine is valourised because she holds the masculine attributes of impulsive courage and is almost androgynous. She pats her house help on the head patronisingly for knowing how to 'hem a gusset or gusset a hem, whatever it is,' while she can read. No doubt is left about what the superior knowledge is. Le Guin slips up deliberately here - the part-ancient, part-modern society she describes does not encourage women to read, and this one does.

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