Ursula K Le Guin


The Word of Unbinding

In ‘The Wind’s Twelve Quarters’


Early playing with what was to become Earthsea – testing out some ideas that were clearly worthy of expansion. Even this nascent phase, though, there are several definitive elements, most of which are very cool.


There’s that wider sense that this character, this place, is only a small part in a much larger and nuanced world, with much that’s gone before and much to come after. It’s a powerful mythic context which I think, ironically, enhances the potency of the character more than so many fantasies that demand that their events are eon shaping, that their wizard is the *best eva!!!!*. Rather, particularly as Le Guin has added to the canon, heroes become more heroic as they take their place alongside their equally impressive predecessors. ­ Moreover there’s still all this room to imagine countless other heroes, events, places, adding to the sense of gravity.


Another classic Le Guin thing is conveying that being a magician that is not about flash (despite having that capacity), but about sacrifice, cost, humility and perspective. This, for example, is a typically (and wonderfully) Le Guin perspective on what is admirable and to be expected in an experienced wizard:

Lately, in these lone years in the middle of his life, he had been burdened with a sense of waste, of unspent strength; so, needing to learn patience, he had left the villages and gone to converse with trees…

- so you’re a kickass wizard at the peak of your powers, you should go out and … learn some patience. It’s so refreshing when supposedly mature mages actually act maturely, differently – the notion that having great power will change your perspective. You’re not still essentially that everyday guy/kid – but you can throw fireballs and turn into a freakin’ dragon!


There’s that core of magic as words/naming – in complete opposition to Saussure and Derrida – that there is an unfallen, pure language. There really are magic words. There’s the concept of the magician as the caretaker/protector of their region.


Also interesting that here in one of the earliest stories there’s a picture of the greyscale afterlife, which does occasionally have (generally toxic) commerce with the living world. Unfortunately this was later reduced to Le Guin getting preachy, as she sometimes does, losing her profundity in grinding a pretty narrow-minded axe.


Oh, yeah, in amongst all this generally fabulous context she actually has a story, in this case a puzzle solving issue of a difficult escape.


August 2014