I first read A Wizard of Earthsea when I was eleven, I think, or around that age. I loved it from the start. I didn’t love the later books as much then as I do now, because I had to grow up a little to understand them — sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever be grown up enough to understand everything Ursula Le Guin had to say to me.
It’s one AM, and I heard two hours ago that she’s gone, and though I’m sad, all I can think about is the enormous gifts she gave the world, and one gift she gave me in particular. Not that she ever knew I existed, not that she was writing with me in mind… But nonetheless, it was a gift, and it saved my life.
I don’t mean that it pulled me out of the way of an oncoming lorry or cured me from some terrible cancer or persuaded me to turn back from a clifftop. And it wasn’t given for free: it was hard, and I had to work at it, and still do. But she showed me how to get my life back, with the power and wisdom of her fiction.
I was pretty sick. I was afraid of everything. I was afraid of dying, and I was afraid of living, and I was afraid of everything in between. I tried to run away from anything that scared me: I was scared of cancer, so I wouldn’t read anything where a character had cancer. I was scared of bugs, so I wouldn’t read anything with bugs in it, even sometimes quite throwaway references. I was scared to tears one winter hearing a line from Simon & Garfunkel: “Silence like a cancer grows…” And I didn’t want it to be me — I didn’t want to be afraid, I didn’t want to deal with it, I saw myself as something helpless, something being pursued. It was from outside me and nothing could keep it out.
And I happened to pick up a book I loved, for comfort, and found a character who was scared just like me. A character who was running away from what scared him — running away from the fear itself, letting the fear drive him… until he came to his friend, his teacher, a man who knew how hard the lesson was but told him what he had to do.
“If you go ahead, if you keep running, wherever you run you will meet danger and evil, for it drives you, it chooses the way you go. You must choose. You must seek what seeks you. You must hunt the hunter.”
I haven’t always been able to follow Ogion’s advice. Sometimes I hesitate and draw back. But it’s entirely true: if you run from anxiety, it comes after you. If you won’t acknowledge that fear is a part of you that deserves to be recognised, it swallows you whole. If you turn and face it… Ged triumphs because he turns to the Shadow and names it with his own name, tells it that they are one and the same.
My fear and I, we’re one and the same. It’s a part of me, and the more I deny it — the more I run from it — the stronger it grows. But like Ged, in turning to face it, I’ve found my strength.
I don’t imagine that Le Guin was unafraid of death, but she acknowledged her fears and saw them clearly, and they had no dominion.
For a word to be spoken, there must be silence. Before, and after.