I mustn’t let another post go by before I say a few words about the passing of Ursula K. LeGuin. Though, like with the passing of any great writer, or indeed any great person, there is very little I can say that somebody smarter hasn’t already said better. Nevertheless, I will try.
It would also be impossible to overuse the adjective “wise” here, for there’s really no other way to describe her work: wisdom suffused every word, every line, every paragraph. Reading a LeGuin book was like visiting a guru – a real one, at least the ideal of one, as opposed to the hosts of self-help charlatans clogging the shelves out there. I’ve always maintained there is more to be learned from one good novel than from a whole-shelf full of self-help tomes, and no one proved it better than LeGuin. You couldn’t read a LeGuin book without feeling you’d learned something. I confess The Telling was beyond my meager powers, but the Earthsea books, the Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven, and innumerable short stories and novellas spoke to what it was to be human.
That is incredibly vague, and arguably it is no more than what great books and great art are supposed to do. But when it came to dealing with the Big Questions, be it coming to terms with death, or navigating gender/sex differences, or the nature of reality vs. memory, LeGuin got closer than most. She was as wise as any great philosopher or spiritual teacher. That she did it mainly within speculative or fantasy settings should blunt many a book snob’s disdain for lowly “genre” fiction; that she could no less profound writing for young people exposes Martin Amis’ idiocy concerning such things: snobs and hypocrites all, LeGuin stood them on their head and beat them at their own game.
Now I do have a bit of a confession to make: I did not know what to make of the Earthsea books when I first read them in grade school. They weren’t quite Dungeons and Dragons enough for my pre-teen tastes. Only later did I come to realize that the psychological adventure could be just as exciting as the physical one, and the metaphorical battle as gripping as the literal one. For LeGuin, fantasy was not an escape from reality but an embrace of it – an opportunity to explore human beings in different surroundings. This is the purpose of myth-making: human desires and anxieties writ large and given form.
In these ever more foolish times, the loss of wise minds is felt ever more keenly. When the world is governed by buffoons who could have been villains in any one of LeGuin’s novels, one laments that it was she and not they who had to go. But it’s not like she left us unprepared: a massive bibliography that even Wikipedia only selectively covers leaves us no excuse. The student can’t cling to the teacher forever. We have to find our own way. But we’re wiser now than we might have been.
 She obviously had no patience for gender stereotyping, or the crushing social expectations based on them. I don’t think though she would support the notion that we’re all neuters deep down – the yin and yang model seemed more her style. Like so much, sex seemed a question of balance.