Ursula K. Le Guin’s Blog
107. Annals of Pard XVII: Pard’s Christmas 2015
The Fur Beneath the Fir
Through the Looking-Glass
At the Water Hole
Pard expresses his disdain for a dog calendar
Pard helps wrap prezzies
Pard helps unwrap prezzies
Excitement Makes the Eyes Shine
Christmas Eve at the Farm
Ursula Goes On and Off (jewelry thanks to Julie Mancini)
Away in a Manger — with Perla, Melody, and Little Hank
108. Some Books I Read in 2015
Elena Ferrante’s Naples Quartet.
I’ve read only the first two books. Found the first absorbing, fascinating, and a terrific study of urban class and gender structure – the social anthropology novel at its best. The second somewhat more predictable but still satisfying, especially the last half. But at the very end of it, the Worthless Prick suddenly pops up again. Oh, no! Is all the interest, all the promise of the protagonists – of the novel itself – to be thrown away on the women-adoring-a-jerk story, the love-as-addiction story? Again? I’ve gone on that nowhere trip with a novel way too often. I’m not signing on for this one. Maybe I’ll come back to the third and fourth volumes after a while. Maybe not.
Meanwhile I keep wondering why the mysteriously elusive Elena Ferrante is so mysteriously elusive. Because being mysteriously elusive is great PR, well, sure. But there’s another possibility. The psychological study of two minds, a relationship between two girls growing into women, while brilliant, is entirely in terms originated by and therefore acceptable to men (the central focus of a woman’s life is a man; women can’t and don’t trust other women). The intense competitiveness of the two girls is perfectly plausible, but as the main element of a friendship between women it ceased to convince me; mere rivalry seldom plays the part in women’s lives that it does in many men’s. And then, Lina is such a classic male-dream-woman, the eternal Carmen, magnetically sexy, fiery, holding herself apart from other women but eagerly abasing herself to the male animal…. Women of course write about such women, and often, but seldom at this level of sophistication.
Anyhow, for what it‘s worth, I’m laying no bets on the gender of the coy author.
Jane Smiley’s Trilogy of Novels, The Last Hundred Years
A year per chapter, for a century, starting in 1920 on an Iowa farm. I started the first volume, Some Luck, directly after reading Ferrante. The culture shock was awful – an old cart horse after a Maserati. Plod, plod, plod, a chapter a year.... Queer insights into the mind of a baby. Discussions of the problems of running a farm. Prose of the “transparent” kind that it’s easier and trendier to dismiss than to write. All very ordinary. Yet the wit flashes; the humor is as dry and subversive as that of a Native American. By about 1932, I’d plodded on into pure enjoyment, and a growing admiration sometimes bordering on awe.
Smiley’s courage is as great as her ambition. She flouts the mandarin demands of post-modernity and cares nothing for the limitations and snobberies of literary sophistication. She doesn’t need another Pulitzer, after all. She has a story to tell, and tells it the way it has to be told. It’s Realism, and all it implies – “ordinary” people and occupations and preoccupations – but it’s something else, too, undefinable implications that reach beyond the evidence of realism and beyond the past and present into pure imagination. The scope of the three volumes, as they follow the fortunes of the children on and off the farm, from coast to coast and on into the twenty-first century, is enormous, but the emotional intensities and depths of the story are entirely, often heart-breakingly, personal.
I have never read a book like this.
Yet I long to make comparisons. Jane Austen, for fair-minded, acute, and funny representation of the minds and manners of a certain period in a certain country. Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for the handling of those two subjects, and for understanding family relationships. Mark Twain and H.L. Davis, for genial acceptance of the endless variety of weirdness of character that flourishes in all Western America. John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, for an ultimately tragic vision of a country determined to destroy its very earth and all the life and hope that can be born of it.
I’ve written sarcastically about the search for “The Great American Novel.” As far as I’m concerned, the search is over. This one will do just fine.
Green doesn’t try to reproduce the Homeric hexameter in English (impossible for several reasons) but approximates it with a line of 12 to 17 syllables, 5 or 6 of them stressed. To my ear this works very well as narrative poetry, with excellent flexibility, an unforced music, and a long, rolling beat that carries the story relentlessly forward. It begs to be read and heard aloud.
He’s trying to give us the meaning through the sound, writing for the ear as the way to the mind. The result is uneven, but for me it carries far more power, authority, and beauty than any of the current standard translations (Lattimore, Fitzgerald, Fagles). I feel that I’m hearing Homer, at last, for the first time.
At least half of the Iliad is simply boring to me – the endless battle scenes, the killer boys with their killer toys. Bang bang you’re dead. Homer’s skill is peerless at giving us at least an illusion of variety while telling the same damn thing over and over and over; but it’s no use. I‘m up there on the walls of Troy with the Trojan women, praying to the gods to let the men finish the slaughter, be done, get over it, STOP IT! And all go home/come home safe and sound! Knowing all along that poor crazy Cassandra is right, and they never will.
I’m also unable to like or admire the hero of the epic, Achilles. I’ve tried and tried, but can’t see much but a spoilt, sullen, adolescent bully. I’m sorry for the kid, because there are clear signs that he could grow out of it, grow up into a man, and he won’t get time to. But that lack of time, after all, was his own choice.
My hero is the big loser, the husband and father, the grown-up. Hector is a mensch.
I always detested Helen, but either she comes out quite differently in this translation or my viewpoint has changed with age. Of course she’s as trustworthy as a rattlesnake; but she’s not a babe, not an airhead. She’s a woman getting passed around by men and making the best of it. She knows how fragile her glamor is. And so what she really thinks, and really wants, and really is, nobody is ever going to know. Not even Homer.
Peter Green teaches in the United States; his Iliad is published by the University of California Press. (If you’re interested, please order it from U.C. or an independent bookseller, not from amazon dot com.) I just hope he is working very hard and fast on translating the Odyssey so that I can live to read it.
109. High Noon in Harney County: Twenty Days
The FBI and other Federal agents have been in Burns, Oregon, for twenty days now, watching a crime being committed by armed lawbreakers. Today they invited Ammon Bundy, the chief lawbreaker, to a polite conversation with one of their agents, after which he was politely sent back to continue committing the crime.
They talk to him. To us they say nothing.
Twenty days of an armed, illegal, openly destructive take-over of a national property, the Malheur Wildlife Refuge and its headquarters: nothing done, nothing said.
Twenty days of holding the communities of Burns, Crane, Diamond, Frenchglen and all the isolated ranches of the area under siege and continuous threat: nothing done, nothing said.
Twenty days of domestic terrorism, financially disastrous to a struggling local economy and causing disastrous division within the local community: nothing done, nothing said.
The wish to avoid a bloody fiasco like Waco is clear, and wise.
But there are many options open to the government short of rushing in with massive weaponry to “take them out.” Why not arrest so-called “militiamen” who leave the Refuge to harass high-school students or buy snacks at the Safeway in Burns? What about a visit to freeloader Cliven Bundy, father of two of the men infesting the Refuge, who defied the Feds a few years ago and now sits at home in Nevada enjoying the million or so dollars he owes me and all other American citizens in unpaid fees for grazing his cattle on our public lands?
The longer the list of such unpunished crimes grows, the longer the federal agents tolerate armed defiance of the rule of law, the harder it is not to see their inaction and silence as impotence and cowardice.
The people of Harney County prefer their independence to outside interference, and would like to handle this situation by themselves. But the longer the siege is allowed to continue, the more impossible that becomes, and the greater is the Federal government’s responsibility for the rapidly increasing economic and moral damage.
As for us across the country, who watch this apparent comedy — a couple of hundred bigoted loons paralyzing the Government of the United States — and begin to see how much long-term tragedy must result, what do we do?
I can only suggest that we let the people of Harney County know that we support them, that we admire their restraint and decency under great stress, and applaud their sheriff and their town meetings for the steady, courageous effort to let everybody have a voice.
One good thing about this very bad situation — it allows us to see a small, remote community of our hard-working, law-abiding fellow citizens remind the rest of us how to be a democracy.
110. Thirty-Five Days
In answer to a letter about the continuing occupation of the Malheur Refuge headquarters, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley wrote me,
“Despite [the recent arrest of several militants], the armed takeover of the wildlife refuge is still ongoing, and it remains extremely taxing and damaging to the local community and to Harney County. Local leaders deserve tremendous credit for their ongoing management of this situation. The sheriff, county commissioner, and others in the community have worked hard to prevent these extremists from spreading their divisive ideology, to coordinate with federal and state officials, and to remind everyone that the community does best when we pursue collaborative solutions rather than conflict.”
What needs to be said, well said!
But it lacks a sense of urgency. Things are bad in Harney County and getting worse. Deeper damage is done every day the occupation continues to be tolerated.
Patience in a situation like this is all-important — the vigilant patience the lawmen showed in waiting for the Bundy brothers to leave the protection afforded them on the Refuge and in Burns. But patience must not become paralysis.
Is the extreme patience being shown to continued open defiance of the law partly a function of the remoteness of the place where it’s happening?
If a federal property in New Jersey was occupied by armed outsiders calling themselves “militiamen,” justifying their occupation by a radical theocratic re-interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, and calling for mass resistance to law enforcement, would four of them be allowed to continue the occupation indefinitely?
If important ongoing scientific studies and reclamation programs under federal auspices in a suburb of Chicago or Washington were being paralyzed and trashed by four hooligans carrying guns, how long would they be allowed to continue the irreparable destruction?
As Senator Merkley says, the local people and their officials have shown their determination to resist all provocation to violence and allow all voices to speak, while steadfastly refusing to permit any further attacks on their property and freedom.
The outsiders cut fences, a despicable act in cattle country; the ranchers mended them. The citizens of Harney County aren’t fence cutters, they’re fence menders. They just want to get back to work. They deserve the chance.
How much patience can the rest of us demand of them? How long are four scofflaws wrapped in American flags to hold several thousand American citizens hostage? Another week? another month? How long, O FBI?
111. The Game of Fibble
The first Game of Fibble of which actual record exists was played in Portland, Oregon, in December of 2015. A well-attested rumor has it that the Game of Fibble was played in Cannon Beach, Oregon, a few years earlier, and this may well have been the first Game of Fibble played anywhere.
We know, however, that great scientific breakthroughs and intellectual discoveries are often made almost simultaneously by different geniuses in different places. And it is possible that many geniuses in the past have invented Fibble without publicizing their discovery — possibly without even knowing it.
It is a game of unique potential, with all but unlimited opportunities for silliness.
I present the rules of Fibble, as invented and developed by E. and C. Le Guin and L. Howell, and named by U. Le Guin.
The Rules of Fibble
Revised 26 February 2016
The Object of the Game
The Object of the Game is to use up all the letters. Since you can always make up a word or suffix that fits in somewhere, it is probably impossible not to achieve this goal.
Definitions of a few of these words:
ESWOX: a kind of footgear worn by the ZOMOI, a warlike people of the Albanian hinterland.
TORG: a piece of leg armor worn with eswox.
PURPODED: past tense of the verb purpode, to intend to do something which blows up in your face.
FLOTT: a wet fart.
LORPINE, adj.: lying around on your face not doing anything
The KOUDHIAD: the great epic of the grasslands, recounting the deeds of the hero Koudh.
NAGNEET, beloved of the hero Koudh, a beautiful maiden but ill-natured.
ANAGNEET, sister of Nagneet, less beautiful but much nicer.
I am sorry that the meanings of VINGULB and GNOOT have been forgotten, but perhaps our readers can supply them.
112. The Annals of Pard XVIII
Portrait of Pard as Nominee to the Supreme Catcourt
Is that person with the Horrible Sucking Machine coming into this room?
Perhaps I can frighten her off by looking extremely evil.
Aha, I think she has been terrified.
Proof that house cleaners and dragons—I mean CATS—get along
Photos by Moe Bowstern
113. Reality Goes Over the Top
Frank Bruni’s article for the New York Times about Stanford University’s decision to accept no students at all for next year’s freshman class was such a keen, accurate picture of the current process of application and admission to prestigious colleges that a great many people took it to be a true one.
This got me thinking about the fragility of satire. When reality overdoes itself, when it gets surreal, what’s left for the satirist?
I tried to think of a headline about Donald Trump that would be unbelievable.
Trump Apologizes For Everything He Ever Said.
These are implausible, but are they unbelievable? The last two aren’t even very implausible.
Is anything about the current behavior of the Republican Party satirisable, or has it entered the Trump Zone – you can’t make it weirder than it is?
The behavior of obstinately stupid people is merely boring, but most of us find pigheadedness funny now and then. Pure, silly craziness (Chaplin delicately eating his shoelaces, John Cleese walking) can be very funny. Stupid craziness (the Three Stooges) can be kind of funny. Some people, especially children, laugh at crazy behavior even when it does harm to others. But craziness persisted in to the point of self-destruction isn’t funny and offers very little ground for making fun of it, and the Republican Party is certainly busy destroying itself and as much of the Republic as possible with it.
There is the weird Republican verbal code — “conservative” for reactionary, “center” for far right, the various ways of not saying “black,” the “Welfare Queen,” the “Illegal Voter,” — endless misnomers, lies, and fantasms. The media have so generally accepted this misuse of language as valid that most of the words it degrades have become almost meaningless. Small room for irony there.
And no snarky little kid in the crowd can possibly deny the existence of the emperor’s new clothes as the Congressmen and the Militiamen strut past, shameless in their paunchy nakedness, safely wrapped in the sacred colors of the United and the Confederate States of America.
All the same, we shouldn’t give up. There were satirists behind the Iron Curtain who could be quite painfully entertaining about life under Stalin. I remember in the dark days of a long-ago war the relief of laughing at Spike Jones, “Und ve Heil! (fart) Heil! (fart) right in der Fuehrer’s face!” I admire any contemporary satirist who‘s been able to out-bizarre the bizarre political statements and behaviors encouraged by the Grand Old Party. There are still people among us who know what to do with a candidate who doesn’t know the difference between a presidential election and a farce: you laugh him all the way to defeat.
But that leaves Cruz. What’s scary about Cruz is that there’s nothing funny about him. Can we find anything in him to laugh at? Can anybody even smile at him? If Trump is the essentially harmless nut who thinks he’s Napoleon, Cruz seems to me more like the classic psychopath, the guy “who was kind of a loner but always just seemed like everybody else,” till he got the guns, or the power, and began acting out his unspeakable fantasies.
Der Fuehrer’s Face by Spike Jones — YouTube
June 21, 2010 — Uploaded by historycomestolife
114. The Annals of Pard XIX
My Life So Far, by Pard
In the first place there were Mother and Sister and me with a mother and an aunty human who had a lot of kittens. Some tom humans came around now and then and either paid no attention to anybody but the queens, or were dangerous to kittens, pretty much like real toms. Mother and Sister and I kept out of their way and had no worries except sometimes the younger kitten humans, who will pull your tail as soon as their eyes are open. And some of the bigger ones played too rough, or tried to hug. Hugging, even when well meant, is horrible.
Life was often quite exciting in the first place, and we were happy together. I am hardly ever sad, but sometimes when I am going to sleep I hear purring around me that is not mine, and it seems that Mother and Sister and I are all curled up like one warm cat. And then I am happier than usual.
The kibbles there were all of one species, but there were plenty of them, except when there weren’t any of them. When the bowl had been empty for a while and then the kibbles were turned loose in it, Sister and I did a lot of growling and shoving to see who could get more first, but it wasn’t serious, it just made hunting and killing the kibbles more exciting.
The humans ate the weird things humans eat. Mother ate some of them too, but when she tried to hunt any of them the mother and aunty and the bigger kittens got all upset and did shouting and swatting and made unpleasantness. I dislike unpleasantness, so I never even tried. Why hunt weird things when you have kibbles? Besides, the humans don’t eat our kibbles, so we don’t eat theirs. Fair is fair. Except for exceptions.
So that was all good, but then came the awfulness. It was confusing and terrible and everything changed all at once, so that I want not to remember it, and have succeeded pretty well. There was the box that smelled of fear, and the roaring moving room-thing, and all the strangenesses, and really I don’t want to think about it or that Mother and Sister and I have not seen each other again.
In the strange place, all the humans were toms and queens and strangers, and there were far too many cats, all strangers. Sometimes I cried and sometimes I got my tail up for a while. None of the humans ever shouted or swatted, and some of them petted. But I mostly remember being in the little room with strange cats in it and with walls I could see through into a lot of other little rooms with see-through walls and cats in them. Cats, and toys, and litter boxes, and climbing places, and hiding boxes.
One of the strangenesses was that I lost my balls there. I had two of them. They were near my tail, not very big, but I liked them. After I woke up in the strange place and they put me in the little room and I was washing, I noticed they were gone. I looked all around for them but they weren’t in the little room. I was too sore and sleepy to worry much about them.
I hid in one of the hiding boxes box most of the time at first, but then I felt better and got bored and came out and investigated the toys. They were good. There was one I could get clear into and crawl through excitingly. The other cats were all right, but strangers. There were always kibbles in the bowl when I felt like hunting, but I didn’t very much. And always water, too, in bowls. In the first place, I had often had to climb up to the water hole and brace myself on the slippery white sides to keep from falling in while I drank, which was exciting, but not very. Here in the second place I never do it any more. There is a water bowl, but I don’t often drink from it these days, because the waterfall happens when I stand on the edge of the sink and request it. Water that doesn’t move isn’t half as good as a waterfall.
There was so much strangeness in the strange place that when I met the old queen and the younger aunty humans they were just parts of it. But they distinctly had good intentions, and good manners, too, admiring me, holding out their knuckles to me like noses, and making no effort to hug. So I purred loudly and kept my tail so straight up that the end of it fell over onto my back, which pleased them, and there was mutual pleasantness. And so I left there and came here with them.
[To Be Continued]
115. The Annals of Pard XX
My Life So Far, by Pard
I cried very loudly in the roaring moving room-thing on the way here, because I thought the awfulness and strangeness was all happening over again forever. I still always think that when they put me in the box that smells of fear and the roaring moving room-thing. But except for that I have hardly cried at all since coming here.
The aunty human went away and left me with the old queen and an old tom. I was distrustful of him at first, but my fears were groundless. When he sits down he has an excellent thing, a lap. Other humans have them, but his is mine. It is full of quietness and fondness. The old queen sometimes pats hers and says prrt? and I know perfectly well what she means; but I only use one lap, his. What I like to use about her is the place behind her knees on the bed, and the top of her head, which having a kind of fur reminds me a little of my Mother, so sometimes I get on the pillow with it and knead it. This works best when she is asleep.
The kibbles here are of different species and varying quality. They are let loose from their boxes and bags into my bowl twice a day at the appointed time. Most of them are good, but the small dark kind taste rather nasty and I don’t hunt them down till I really need them. Recently a large new breed appeared that taste excellent, almost as good as greenies.
No other kibble is as good as a greeny. And greenies often fly – the old tom and queen see to it that they do – and I chase them across the floor, and pursue them under things, and knock them right out of the air. Hunting is very exciting and satisfactory, especially when the prey moves.
When I first came here I was barely out of kittenhood and constantly in search of excitement. Here and there, though never in my bowl, I found what I thought was a lively kind of kibble, running around, hiding under things, even flying sometimes. I hunted them for quite a while and caught a great many, but they never did taste very good. I gave up hunting them at last, admitting that beetles are an inferior form of kibble. Still, it was fun to hunt them.
It is not fun to hunt mice. It is exciting in an intense, terrible way. If there is a mouse, I cannot think of anything else. I cannot sleep. I cannot eat kibbles. I can only smell and hear and think of mouse. I don’t understand this, and it makes me unhappy. But when the mouse comes out of hiding I have to hunt it and catch it. I always catch it. And then what? It isn’t a kibble, it isn’t to eat. It’s much bigger, and furry, who wants to eat a huge fur-coated kibble? It is a wonderful toy while it plays, but after a while it begins to run down and stops moving. So I bring it to the old queen, who is good with toys and makes them move. But if it is a mouse, she leaps up and does shouting and hurls the mouse off the bed, and there is great unpleasantness.
All the same, much as I dislike unpleasantness, I cannot leave the mouse. Usually it begins moving again, and sometimes even gets away and escapes into the outside, but not often. When it runs down altogether it is taken away. Then I can sleep and be happy.
The outside is somewhat like mice: it is too exciting. It makes anxiety. I want to go there and then when I am there I want to come inside again. I am used to walls. Walls are good, they limit things. There is no limit to the outside. It is crowded with endless things and beings, pathways and pathlessnesses, movements, sounds, tiny noises in the earth and behind every leaf, huge bangs and clamor from where the roaring things rush by and the terrible dogs pull their humans along by straps and nothing makes sense. But then, it is all exciting. There are the green leaves to eat, and then come in and throw them up on the rug. There are the beings that fly, not only little ones like beetles but ones the size of mice and even bigger. When I see them I say something to them I never say to anybody else, a kind of little clicking. I know they are to hunt. How could I catch a flying kibble bigger than a mouse, and what would I do with it if I caught it? But still when I see one, even through the window, I crouch to spring and whisper k-k-k-k-k-k-k to lure it closer.
It is very puzzling, the outside, and very dangerous. I know that, and mostly I stay in sight of the old queen or tom, and always I know the quickest path straight back to the door, my door, into my walls, into my place.
But there are the smells outside, the endless, rich, piercing, mysterious smells, and I want to go back out, and smell each leaf and stick and track for a long time, and walk on the strange paths of dirt and grass, in the danger.
Yet while I am there I want to be back inside with the old slow tom and queen, where things happen slowly and when they should happen and the kibbles are in the bowl morning and evening, where I can lie in the sun and look through the window at the outside without being in its danger, or curl up on the tom’s lap or the queen’s head and hear the purring and be happy.
There is so much mystery always that adding all the outside to it is too much for me.
Inside, I am troubled only when the old tom and queen go away for a long time, which they don’t do often any more, but when they do some of the strangeness gets into the house, the kibbles become irregular, and I am not at peace.
And my peace is disturbed when the young queens come to make the noise machine go on the floors. The anxiety of the horrible roaring noise drives me to do foolish things like trying to hide behind the thing the old queen always sits in front of staring at instead of paying attention to me. I am not supposed to go behind it, and unpleasantness occurs when I insist on doing so. Perhaps the unpleasantness of the noise machines drives me to make more unpleasantness. I don’t know. Sometimes I decide to go behind the thing simply because as I lie on the desk beside her in peaceful companionship, I get bored with her staring at it and ignoring me, and know I can change that by going where I am not to go.
Recently when I did that and wouldn’t stop doing it we both got so upset that the old queen did shouting, swatted me, and pulled my tail, and I actually glared and cursed her.
Soon after, she apologised and made amends. I did not. Cats have no amends to make. But we were both relieved that the unpleasantness was ended.
Since then, when I start to go around behind the thing she stares at, instead of attempting to exert domination and causing anxiety to us both she begins to scratch my jowls and chin most irresistibly. So I stop where I am and do not resist the irresistibility, and as she finds this irresistible too, there is pleasantness and good feeling. I just started around behind a minute ago, but settled down for a thorough jowl-rub on both sides while warmth and good feelings were exchanged.
She’s staring at the thing again now, only glancing at me now and then to pet my head and neck, but I can hear the old tom down in the kitchen and know that the kibbles of the evening will soon be in the bowl. I can wait. I have things running quite satisfactorily in this place, my place.
116. The Big Book of Earthsea
Saga has officially announced that they’ll publish all Earthsea in one volume in 2018 — a grand present for a Wizard’s fiftieth birthday.
When Joe Monti first proposed this edition to me, I was happy to think of the six books of Earthsea, Ged and Tenar’s whole story, all truly together at last — but I worried about how much it would weigh.
I read lying down. I know what a Giant Tome can do to your arms and shoulders. Not to mention your solar plexus.
But I’ve been working on my abs and my brachioradiales. I can handle it. Bring it on, Joe!
Seriously, what is most exciting to me about this edition is THE PICTURES. Charles Vess is painting a wraparound cover and a full-color frontispiece for each of the six books (and, says he, “the title page will be in color, if I have anything to say about it.” To which I say Amen!) Then he’ll be drawing some fifty black-and-white vignettes for chapter heads, ten or a dozen full-page illustrations, and a bunch of smaller pictures throughout the book.
This is the first completely illustrated Earthsea ever. And I do mean completely.
OK, I confess — I was worried about that too, at first.
I’ve had some great relationship with illustrators, and some not so great ones. Some professional illustrators, having been or fearing to be bossed and harassed by unreasonable or impossible demands, simply refuse to communicate with the writer. I accept that only if I have the corresponding right to refuse the illustrations.
But with an artist of the standing of Charles Vess, the situation is different. He can legitimately expect autonomy — to find and follow his own vision of the text without seeking any input from the writer.
I expected that he would do that. I was almost incredulous when he didn’t. But incredulity turned to happy relief. Charles is a collaborator.
I love collaboration. As a poet and story-writer I work strictly alone; but to find an artist of a different art — painter, composer, filmmaker, playwright, actor, choreographer — that I can consult with, talk with, and watch as they make what I wrote into something new, yet still itself, something I couldn’t make, couldn’t even imagine — That is a privilege and a joy.
So, this is how it’s been going:
Charles begins the conversation, emailing me occasonally with questions, remarks, while reading the books. I answer as usefully as I can. Also, we chat. I find out that he has sailed all around Scotland. He tells me about Neil Gunn’s novel The Silver Darlings, which I read with vast pleasure. I don’t know what I tell him, but slowly and at easy intervals a friendship is being established.
Suddenly Charles sends me a sketch of a dragon.
An Early Dragon Sketch
It is an excellent dragon. But it isn’t an Earthsea dragon.
Well . . . an Earthsea dragon wouldn’t have this, see? but it would have that . . . And the tail isn’t exactly right, and about those bristly things —
So I send Charles an email full of whines and niggles and what-if-you-trieds-such-and-suches. I realize how inadequate are my attempts to describe in words the fierce and beautiful being I see so clearly.
The dragon reappears. Now it looks more like an Earthsea dragon.
But still, it wouldn’t have this here, but it would have something there . . . And about its eye . . . And about those bristly things, you know, don’t they make it very male? and dragon gender is really mysterious . . . .
And so on — more nitpicking, more whimpering, more what-ifs and inadequate efforts to describe.
Patient as Job, grimy with graphite, Charles responds with further dragons, ever more graceful and powerful, ever closer to my heart’s desire . . . and his too, I hope.
First sketch for Tehanu frontispiece
Then all at once he sends a rough sketch for the title page that makes me leap up and shout Oh, LOOK AT THAT!!! even though nobody is there but the cat, who doesn’t.
But then, even in that, I find things to whine about, and ask about, and pester him about.
And so it goes. A fascinating process, but not an easy process for either of us, I think. It can be very exciting; it can be very trying.
Two different, intense temperaments; two independent people with a sense of mastery in their respective crafts; one on the East coast, one on the West, a continent between them; a mature man and an old woman, with the inevitable differences of vision and of expectation that age and gender create . . . . Is it from the differences, maybe even the strains, that a spark is struck?
But the concordances, the understandings, the growing confidence, the trust, are the fuel that keeps the fire burning.
The fire is burning. And I am perfectly certain that this book, whatever it may weigh, is going to be beautiful — a treasure.
Earthsea Title Page
For more illustrations, please visit the Facebook page of Charles Vess
Update 22 July 2016: Charles Vess Talks Slipping Into Ursula K. Le Guin’s Brain to Draw Earthsea Dragons, at tor.com
117. Health Update
I’m sorry about not keeping up my blog posts, but everything got interrupted for me this summer when my congenital heart murmur (leaky valve) finally began to exact its toll. I spent a few days in hospital, have been home now for three weeks. Doing fine but not doing very much — and that looks to be the way it will be for a while.
Pard is a great help in not getting anything done except lying around more or less ornamentally. I am learning this art from a true master.
So I won’t try to keep blogging, though I miss it, and hope maybe I can post something now and then. Even if it’s just silly poems. Like these.
118. Health Update Update
The kindness of these messages is wonderful. I wish I could thank you each. I can only thank you all — with all my heart.
Health update: My daily bouquet of medicines with weird names is definitely doing its job. Am quite recovered from the bad time, and get along fine if I don’t push it. My model of behavior is the Sloth.
Can’t hang from branches yet, but am real good at moving slo o o w w l y . . .
Best wishes to all my well-wishers,
119. The Election, Lao Tzu, a Cup of Water
Americans have voted for a politics of fear, anger, and hatred, and those of us who oppose this politics are now trying to figure out how we can oppose it usefully. I want to defend my country, my republic. In the atmosphere of fear, anger, and hatred, opposition too easily becomes division, fixed enmity. I’m looking for a place to stand, or a way to go, where the behavior of those I oppose will not control my behavior.
Americans are given to naming enemies and declaring righteous war against them. Indians are the enemy, socialism is the enemy, cancer is the enemy, Jews are the enemy, Muslims are the enemy, sugar is the enemy. We don’t support education, we declare a war on illiteracy. We make war on drugs, war on Viet Nam, war on Iraq, war on obesity, war on terror, war on poverty. We see death, the terms on which we have life, as an enemy that must be defeated at all costs.
Defeat for the enemy, victory for us, aggression as the means to that end: this obsessive metaphor is used even by those who know that aggressive war offers no solution, and has no end but desolation.
The election of 2016 was one of the battles of the American Civil War. The Trump voters knew it, if we didn’t, and they won it. Their victory helps me see where my own thinking has been at fault.
I will try never to use the metaphor of war where it doesn’t belong, because I think it has come to shape our thinking and dominate our minds so that we tend to see the destructive force of aggression as the only way to meet any challenge. I want to find a better way.
My song for many years was We Shall Overcome. I will always love that song, what it says and the people who have sung it, with whom I marched singing. But I can’t march now, and I can’t sing it any longer.
My song is Ain’t Gonna Study War No More.
Though we’ve had some great scholars of peace, such as Martin Luther King, studying it is something Americans have done very little of.
The way of the warrior admits no positive alternatives to fighting, only negatives — inertia, passivity, surrender. Talk of “waging peace” is mere glibness, you can’t be aggressively peaceful. Reducing positive action to fighting against or fighting for, we have not looked at the possibility of other forms of action.
Like the people who marched to Selma, the people who are standing their ground at Standing Rock study, learn, and teach us the hard lessons of peace. They are not making war. They are resolutely non-violent. They are seeking a way out of the traps of anger, hatred, enmity. They are actively trying to get free, to be free, and by their freedom, free others as well.
Studying peace means in the first place unlearning the vocabulary of war, and that’s very difficult indeed. Isn’t it right to fight against injustice? Isn’t that what Selma and Standing Rock are — brave battles for justice?
I think not. Brave yes; battles no. Refusing to engage an aggressor on his terms, standing ground, holding firm, is not aggression — though the aggressive opponent will always declare that it is. Refusing to meet violence with violence is a powerful, positive act.
But that is paradoxical. It’s hard to see how not doing something can be more positive than doing something. When all the words we have to use are negative — inaction, nonviolence, refusal, resistance, evasion — it’s hard to see and keep in mind that the outcome of these so-called negatives is positive, while the outcome of the apparently positive act of making war is negative.
We confuse self-defense, the reaction to aggression, with aggression itself. Self-defense is a necessary and morally defensible reaction.
But defending a cause without fighting, without attacking, without aggression, is not a reaction at all. It is an action. It is an expression of power. It takes control.
Reaction is controlled by the power it reacts against. The people who at present claim to be conservatives aren’t conservatives at all, they are radical reactionaries. The position of the reactionary is not that of the agent, but that of the victim. The reactionary tends always toward paranoia, seeing himself as the obsessive object of vast malevolent forces and entities, fearing enemies everywhere, in anyone he doesn’t understand and can’t control, in every foreigner, in his own government.
Many contemporary Republicans have permanently assumed the position of victim, which is why their party has no positive agenda, and why they whine so much.
The choice to act, rather than react, breaks the paralysis of fear and the vicious circle of aggression, frees us go forward, onward.
We have glamorized the way of the warrior for millennia. We have identified it as the supreme test and example of courage, strength, duty, generosity, and manhood. If I turn from the way of the warrior, where am I to seek those qualities? What way have I to go?
Lao Tzu says: the way of water.
The weakest, most yielding thing in the world, as he calls it, water chooses the lowest path, not the high road. It gives way to anything harder than itself, offers no resistance, flows around obstacles, accepts whatever comes to it, lets itself be used and divided and defiled, yet continues to be itself and to go always in the direction it must go. The tides of the oceans obey the moon while the great currents of the open sea keep on their ways beneath. Water deeply at rest is yet always in motion; the stillest lake is constantly, invisibly transformed into vapor, rising in the air. A river can be dammed and diverted, yet its water is incompressible: it will not go where there is not room for it. A river can be so drained for human uses that it never reaches the sea, yet in all those bypaths and usages its water remains itself and pursues its course, flowing down and on, above ground or underground, breathing itself out into the air in evaporation, rising in mist, fog, cloud, returning to earth as rain, refilling the sea. Water doesn’t have only one way. It has infinite ways, it takes whatever way it can, it is utterly opportunistic, and all life on earth depends on this passive, yielding, uncertain, adaptable, changeable element.
The death way or the life way? The high road of the warrior, or the river road?
I know what I want. I want to live with courage, with compassion, in patience, in peace.
The way of the warrior fully admits only the first of these, and wholly denies the last.
The way of the water admits them all.
The flow of a river is a model for me of courage that can keep me going — carry me through the bad places, the bad times. A courage that is compliant by choice and uses force only when compelled, always seeking the best way, the easiest way, but if not finding any easy way still, always, going on.
The cup of water that gives itself to thirst is a model for me of the compassion that gives itself freely. Water is generous, tolerant, does not hold itself apart, lets itself be used by any need. Water goes, as Lao Tzu says, to the lowest places, vile places, accepts contamination, accepts foulness, and yet comes through again always as itself, pure, cleansed, and cleansing.
Running water and the sea are models for me of patience: their easy, steady obedience to necessity, to the pull of the moon in the sea-tides and the pull of the earth always downward; the immense power of that obedience.
I have no model for peace, only glimpses of it, metaphors for it, similes to what I cannot fully grasp and hold. Among them: a bowl of clear water. A boat drifting on a slow river. A lake among hills. The vast depths of the sea. A drop of water at the tip of a leaf. The sound of rain. The sound of a fountain. The bright dance of the water-spray from a garden hose, the scent of wet earth.
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