Illustration by P.D. White
There are so many things one could say about Ursula LeGuin, who died Jan. 22. The sure, clean music of her prose, the way certain of her images and passages stay in your mind forever (the labyrinthine tombs of Atuan, the clot of black shadow called forth by Ged), her deeply thought-out world-building. But this week as I reread some of her essays and books, I was reminded how much she engages the reader.
A lot of us can find ourselves spoon-feeding the reader with the appropriate emotions to have, the appropriate conclusions to draw. But there’s almost no way to read LeGuin and not have one’s mind opened to ideas, feelings and possibilities that feel like your own explorations. That refresh and engage your mind and your emotions.
Recently I read some of her essays in Cheek by Jowl, a collection of essays about how and why fantasy matters. Reading one essay The Wilderness Within, I was suddenly cast back into my childhood and the role of solitude in creative work—which wasn’t actually LeGuin’s point at all. But her words took me there.
The essay starts with how a writer is influenced by other writings, and she scolds the literary establishment for ignoring fairy tales, folk tales, oral stories, and picture books—the pre-literate influences that touch us before we can read.
LeGuin uses the story of The Sleeping Beauty as an example.
“The Sleeping Beauty… is one story I’ve ‘always known,’ just as it’s one of those stories ‘we all know.’ Are not such stories part of our literary inheritance?”
Of course they are. And, in truth, I’m not sure who LeGuin is arguing with here. I’m don’t think there are many writers or readers or critics who would argue with that. But, straw man or not, it does give her chance to talk about her take on Sleeping Beauty, and how it influenced her own writing.
She briefly recounts the familiar tale—the curse, the spindle, the sleep, the kiss, –then notes, “I wasn’t aware it held any particular meaning or fascination for me, that it had ‘had any influence’ on me, until, along in my sixties, I came on Sylvia Townsend Warner’s evocation of the tale in a tiny poem…
The Sleeping Beauty woke:
The spit began to turn,
The woodmen cleared the brake,
The gardener mowed the lawn.
Woe’s me! And must one kiss
Revoke the silent house, the birdsong wilderness?
Illustration by Edward Coley Burnes-Jones
According to LeGuin this poem was a revelation. It turned the story on its head and suddenly she could see her own way into it.
“The pall of sleep… is supposedly the effect of a malicious spell, a curse; the prince’s kiss…a happy ending. Townsend Warner asks, was it a curse after all? The thorn-hedge broken, the cooks growling at their porridge-pots, the peasants laboring again at their sowing and harvesting, the cat leaping upon the mouse…Beauty staring in some confusion at the smiling young man who is going to carry her off and make her a wife—everything back to normal, everyday, commonplace, ordinary life. The silence, the peace, the magic—gone.”
LeGuin realized that, at least for her, the story was about that “still center” symbolized by the sleeping castle: ‘the silent house, the birdsong wilderness.’”
It is, of course, in archetypal terms the enchanted place of childhood. Preadolescence. Celibacy. Virginity.
“…a place hidden in the heart and mind of a girl of twelve or fifteen. There she is alone, all by herself, content, and nobody knows her. She is thinking: Don’t wake me. Don’t know me. Let me be…
At the same time she is probably shouting out of the windows of another corner of her being, Here I am, do come, oh do hurry up and come! And she lets down her hair and the prince comes thundering up… and the world goes on.
But at least she had a little while by herself, in the house that was hers the garden of silence. Too many Beauties never even know there is such a place.”
Although LeGuin goes on to talk about how this led her to write a short story based on the tale, what really struck me was her delicious description of that place before the kiss.
“That is the image we retain. The unmoving smoke above the chimney top. The spindle fallen from the motionless hand. The cat asleep near the sleeping mouse. No noise. No bustle, no busyness. Utter peace. Nothing moving but the slow subtle growth of the thorn bushes, ever thicker and higher about the boundary, and the birds who fly over the high hedge, singing, and pass on.
“It is the secret garden; it is Eden; it is the dream of utter, sunlit safety; it is the changeless kingdom.”
Illustration by Martha Saudek
This whole section caught me up. Because I, too, knew that enchanted place. For a time I was in complete possession of my body, of my mind, of my interests. It didn’t occur to me to be defensive about any of that. Who was there to answer to? I wasn’t completely a girl. I wasn’t completely a boy. I was just a person. I was about ten years old.
I think that maybe why I’m drawn to writing for children. Part of me wants to touch that changeless kingdom, again.
And then my thoughts moved onto something new. Even though it wasn’t the point of LeGuin’s essay, it occurred to me that being an artist requires regular visits to that timeless place.
There, we are not necessarily boys or girls, human or animal. We are all of them. We are briefly accountable to no one. And, until the first person reads our work, we don’t have to be defensive about anything.
We can’t stay in that place, of course. The work must come back through the thorns. It needs to communicate. Or rather, most of us in this field, hope it communicates. And so our “critic” comes in (waking us considerably less gently than with a kiss) and starts to do his or her work.
But as artists we need to routinely reclaim that place of solitude, of quiet, of stillness whenever we can. The cook spoon can fall from our hands; the phone can go unanswered; the floor can be unswept. Because as LeGuin notes, that’s where the magic is.