Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Goddess of Earthsea, Part I


Writer's Almanac today posted this poem by Ursula K. Le Guin--and got me to thinking about her.


by Ursula Le Guin
What little we have ever understood
is like an offering we make beside the sea.
It is pure worship when pursued
as its own end, to find out. Mystery,
the undiminishable silent flood,
stretches on out from where we pray
round the clear altar flame. The god
accepts the sacrifice and turns away.

"Science" by Ursula K. Le Guin, from Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems 1960-2010. © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

I'm not sure when I first was aware of her work, but, based on some notes in some books, I think it was the fall of 1977.  I was teaching seventh graders then at Harmon Middle School in Aurora, Ohio.  I had recently received my Ph.D. from Kent State University and was inflated (bloated?) with self importance--so much so that I'd recently altered the name on my bank checks to read "Dr. Daniel Dyer"--a title that tended to puzzle more than impress.  My middle schoolers were never really impressed, actually.  Once they found out I was not the kind of doctor who could set a bone or even help a horse, I could see the wonder die in their eyes, replaced by a sort of bemusement about a world that could confer upon people doctorates that were useless.

I did not know, teaching that fall, that the school year 1977-1978 would be a momentous one for me--and for the Aurora Schools.  In the spring of 1978, the Aurora teachers (I among them) would go on a protracted strike.  In May my dear grandmother would die in Columbia, Missouri.  While I was attending the funeral, Aurora settled its strike, and I returned to a district much changed.  The strike had cost me a play production I'd been working on for over a year--Billy the Kid, an original script I'd written with some wonderful Aurora youngsters.  (I would get to do it later, though.)  And in May 1978 I would resign from the Aurora City Schools and join the faculty of Lake Forest College in Illinois, a position I kept only a single year.  I spent the next four years trying to get back to Aurora, which I eventually did in the fall of 1982.

For some years I had been teaching fantasy stories to my seventh graders.  We learned about The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain; I took a busload to see The Sword in the Stone at the old Kent movie theater downtown; the kids wrote their own fantasy tales based on maps they'd drawn.

Lloyd Alexander
A weird Alexander moment.  Around this same time I attended a meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English in Philadelphia.  One of the featured speakers was Lloyd Alexander.  I was full in the thrall of his Prydain books (many of my students read them, too), and while he was speaking, I stood in the back of the room with a telephoto lens on my camera and took, oh, 70,000 shots of him while he was talking.  (No flash--I wasn't that crude!)  After about 65,000 or so, he glanced my way with a look of total confusion on his face--well, maybe it was petulance, annoyance.  Who can say?  So I took only about 5,000 more.   As I write this, I remember the time Tobias Wolff visited one of my classes at Western Reserve Academy and became so annoyed with the (busy) school photographer that he stopped the class and asked for no more pictures.

BTW: I cannot find a single one of those 70,000 Alexander shots ...

And then--somehow--here came Le Guin.  I loved A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) and immediately charged through the remainder of the trilogy--The Tombs of Atuan (I read it in November 1977, the month I would turn 33) and The Farthest Shore (I read it the same month).  I cannot find the first volume, though--perhaps it died of  over-use,  all those  times I read it and let students borrow it.

Le Guin said some lovely things in these novels about a young man, Ged, who gradually discovers his wizardly powers.  (Hmmmm ... a series of stories about a boy wizard?  Something like that could never catch on!)  How about this from The Farthest Shore ...

For in this love he now felt there was compassion: without which love is untempered, and is not whole, and does not last (86).

Works for me.

I've often wondered how Le Guin (born 1929, still writing) has felt about the Harry Potter phenomenon--seeing someone else find a vast vein of gold inside a mine you first dug ... ?  (Lloyd Alexander's books were also about a boy-wizard ... is he gnashing his teeth somewhere, too?)

I'm guessing Le Guin merely smiled and kept writing.

BTW: Just checked ABE Books--a 1st printing of Wizard, signed, is only $4500.  My birthday's in November; Christmas is not long after ... ?

TOMORROW: Le Guin's other writing--and her visit (sort of) to Western Reserve Academy, spring 2002.

Ursula K. Le Guin

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