“The Word For World Is Forest” by Ursula K. Le Guin – review

I’ve read a lot of Ursula Le Guin – all of her Earthsea books, most of her Hainish cycle (of which The Word For World Is Forest forms a part), quite a few of her essays. But nothing quite prepared me for this book. Reading it, it felt like someone had thrown a bucket of cold water over my head.

It’s short – more of a novella than a novel – and it moves at a cracking pace, even by the efficient standards of Le Guin, who rarely if ever wastes words.

It was written in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, and in many ways is a cry of rage and despair at that horrible, wasteful conflict. It is angry and raw in a way that will come as a shock to those readers more familiar with its author’s other, more subtle work. Le Guin herself admits as much in her author’s introduction to the SF Masterworks edition:

“I knew, because of the compulsive quality of the composition, that it was likely to become a preachment…”

She also admits that her main antagonist in the book, the violent, monstrous Captain Davidson, gets as close to being two-dimensional as a character created by such a gifted writer could:

“Davidson is…purely evil – and I don’t, consciously, believe purely evil people exist. But my unconscious has other opinions.”

Nevertheless, this alarming tale of the attempted colonization, by humans, of another world, whose peaceful inhabitants, the Athsheans, are spurred into rebellion by their maltreatment, is more than just a thinly veiled portrait of the geopolitics of a particular era. Le Guin is far too good a writer for that. For though her sympathies undoubtedly lie with the struggle of an oppressed people against a despoiling invader, she emphasizes clearly and firmly how the very act of rebellion – however noble the cause – can change those who rebel in negative and irrevocable ways. The Athsheans call the leader of their uprising, Selver, a “god”, and Selver’s human friend, Lyubov, realizes that in the native language “god” does not just mean supernatural being, but also “translator”:

“Selver had brought a new word into the language of his people. He had done a new deed. The word, the deed, murder… But…was he speaking his own language, or was he speaking Captain Davidson’s? That which seemed to rise from the root of his own suffering and express his own changed being, might in fact be an infection, a foreign plague, which would not make a new people of his race, but would destroy them.”

This theme – of the dehumanizing capacity of violence, however necessary it may seem – is something familiar from other Ursula Le Guin stories, and indeed it is clear that Captain Davidson is such a hollowed-out figure precisely because violence is all he understands. As Selver – whose wife Davidson has murdered – says to him:

“‘We’re both gods, you and I. You’re an insane one, and I’m not sure whether I’m sane or not. But we are gods… We bring each other such gifts as gods bring. You gave me a gift, the killing of one’s kind, murder.”

In his introduction Ken MacLeod writes of Le Guin:

“She remains subversive, and her work dangerous reading, because it changes the reader and makes them look at the real world in a different light.”

I cannot think of a higher recommendation.

Squirrel Nutkin

“Redsquirrel eating 2012” by Paul Whippey

Beatrix Potter published The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin in 1903. It relates the story of a cheeky squirrel who narrowly escapes with his life after unwisely winding up the local owl. The story is set in and around Derwentwater in Cumbria, an area that is very special to me as it was to Potter, and I was there on holiday again last week when I saw my first red squirrel.

It was dashing through the undergrowth, too fast and too well-disguised for me to take a photograph, but nevertheless I was pleased, after nearly 41 years on this earth, to see a “tufty” for the first time. Since the introduction of the eastern grey, and the loss of much of its habitat, the native red squirrel has disappeared from a lot of Britain, but still clings on in Scotland and some areas of England, including Cumbria. With various conservation projects dedicated to protecting this beautiful animal, its future looks secure, and I’m pretty hopeful this won’t be the last time I see one in the wild.

Lightfastness

Last week, whilst on holiday in Cumbria, I visited the Cumberland Pencil Museum in Keswick.

Now you, dear reader, may not think the humble pencil the most exciting thing in the world – but did you know that, in 1751, redcoats had to be stationed outside graphite mines in the Cumbrian fells because of the illicit and violent trade in this precious substance? Or that, while NASA spent years trying to create a pen that would work in zero gravity, the Soviets simply gave their cosmonauts pencils? Or that Charles Fraser-Smith – the inspiration for Q in Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories – secretly employed staff at the Cumberland Pencil Company during World War Two to create a hollowed-out pencil that could contain a rolled-up map and compass? Or that the word lightfastness – officially my favourite new word – describes the process whereby the resistance of a pencil to fading is tested?

Neither did I, until last week. And I got a free pencil with my ticket. A great little museum.

“The Worm Ouroboros” by E.R. Eddison – review

I was introduced to this book by the writer Clive S. Johnson, and as new editions of this and the other novels in Eddison’s Zimiamvia series were published in the UK last summer, it seemed like a good opportunity to investigate one of the key writers of Twentieth Century fantasy.

E.R. Eddison was a civil servant at the British Board of Trade when he published what Ursula Le Guin calls his “eccentric masterpiece” in 1922. Inspired by the Icelandic sagas, Homer, and Jacobean drama, The Worm Ouroboros tells the story of the epic battle between two fantastical realms, Witchland and Demonland, for lordship of the earth. It is dark, violent, and many of its characters are essentially two-dimensional – traits often found in fantasy fiction – yet it is written in a florid, over-the-top style which carries the reader along, and seems to delight in its own ridiculousness:

Five nights and five days the Demons and Mivarsh dwelt in Morna Moruna, inured to portents till they marked them as little as men mark swallows at their window. In the still night were flames seen, and flying forms dim in the moonlit air; and in moonless nights unstarred, moans heard and gibbering accents: prodigies beside their beds, and ridings in the sky, and fleshless fingers plucking at Juss unseen when he went forth to make question of the night.

Tolkien greatly admired Eddison’s prose, though he was put off by his politics – there is more than a whiff of the übermensch about the Demonlords, Juss, Spitfire, Brandoch Daha, and Goldry Bluszco – and they’re meant to be the heroes. The villains – the Witches – are arguably more interesting and complex, especially Lord Gro, who betrays his own people, the Goblins, and serves the sorcerer King Gorice XII:

Now the King poured forth wine, speaking a charm over the cup, and when the bright wine had revived Lord Gro, the King spake saying, ‘It is well, O Gro, that thou hast shown thyself a philosopher indeed, and of heart intrepid. Yet even as no blade is utterly tried until one try it in very battle, where if it snap woe and doom wait on the hand that wields it, so must thou in this midnight suffer a yet fiercer furnace-heat of terror…’

In his foreword, Douglas E. Winter writes that, “like a vintage wine a taste for Eddison’s prose is expensively acquired”, but it’s nevertheless well worth imbibing, and when the story is this exciting – heroic feats, mighty battles, hidden kingdoms, beautiful, unearthly women – any qualms the reader may have about the structure of the narrative (especially Eddison’s awkward device of introducing his tale through the time-traveller Edward Lessingham, who may or may not be out of his mind on opium) can be put aside. It is, above all, enormous fun.