A great voice has passed: Ursula K. Le Guin, but of course her voice will still echo on the winds’ 12 quarters.
Ursula Le Guin: Animist, Taoist, anarchist, feminist, novelist, poet…. Many are the Pagans she greatly impacted in her stories (and poems and essays too). The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, the Earthsea cycle….But I will write about two lesser known novels, Always Coming Home and Lavinia.
Always Coming Home imagines a far future society living in what was once called Northern California (Napa valley), an ecological culture. Like other works of hers, the influence of growing up with anthropologist parents shows (her father was a founder of the anthropology department at U.C. Berkeley, and her mother author of Ishi—Last of His Tribe). The people of The Valley of the Na live in very small towns in clans, and garden and forage. All is not idyllic, though, there are the People of the Condor, who are martial, and slave raiders. And there is the City of the Mind: “some eleven thousand sites all over the planet were occupied by independent, self-contained, self-regulating communities of cybernetic devices or beings—computers with mechanical extensions. This network of interconnecting centers formed a single entity, the City of Mind.” These cities usually were small, no more than an acre; they had extensions throughout the solar system.
The people of the Valley have some technological things like local trains, electricity and writing and are able to interact with the info node of the City of Mind—they have one terminal in their area, but are mainly low-tech/ecotechnic. They are a stateless society, with consensual community governance like many of the indigenous cultures of California before European conquest. Le Guin was prescient, and her far future California has an inland sea, something we now know is mostly likely to be the case in some centuries ahead as the Greenland and Antarctica ice continues to melt and the low elevation Central Valley of California submerges. The book is a fascinating evocation of an ecological, stateless society that has rebounded from a far in the past environmental catastrophe, only dimly remembered in a few folk memories, but referenced as a time of a cancerous growth eating up the land and the hills. The people of that time half thought of as ghosts were named the Backward-headed people and there lands were covered with walls, roads, and stank of dead animals. They were believed to still lurk in the poisoned lands, the legacy of the far past, our own age.
I was so influenced by the book for a long time after reading it I would use the work wakwa, the Kesh people’s term of respect for the land. A truly worthwhile read still for those wanting an imagining of a world that survives the destructions we are already in and which births a beautiful world. It’s written in a weave of stories, poems, artwork, and reports.
Another one of much interest to Pagans is Lavinia. Lavinia is a character in Vergil’s epic origin story of Rome, the Aeneid, but he doesn’t allow her one word. She is the daughter of the king of the Latin tribes, apparently on a trajectory to marry another tribal king, but oracular voices at the sacred springs in the forest suggest otherwise: that she will marry a foreigner who will not live long after her, and this will trigger a war. The foreigner is Aeneas the Trojan fleeing Troy’s defeat. Le Guin situates her story on the threshold of western civilization, in an animist world of bird spirits, ancestral spirits like her grandfather Picus, who became a red-capped woodpecker; the Lares and Penates; the altars of Vesta and Janus. It’s a rewarding glimpse into what religious practice might have looked like before Roman religion got hardened into imperial armor. The ‘city’ where she lives in a region of vast laurel forests, Lavina says “was a great grove, a forest. Every house stood among oak trees, fig trees, elms, slender poplars and spreading laurels.” As a girl her father allows her to run where she wishes, and has a friend who is a daughter of a herder. One day father and daughter walk the day long trek to the sacred woods of the numen Albunea, where they sacrifice a lamb adorned with a laurel garland she makes, and there she has a visionary dream, foretelling things to come.
Le Guin deftly weaves in the understanding that Lavinia as we can know her comes to us through Vergil: “I know who I was, I can tell you who I may have been, but I am, now, only in this line of words I write. I’m not sure of the nature of my existence…No doubt someone with my name, Lavinia, did exist, but she may have been so different from my own idea of myself, or my poet’s idea of me, that it only confuses me to think about her. As far as I know, it was my poet who gave me any reality at all. Before he wrote, I was the mistiest of figures, scarcely more than a name in a genealogy.” She goes on to tell us readers that he “slighted my life, in his poem.” So she through the medium of Le Guin fills it in. On a later trip to the divinatory wood by herself, she came across a shadowy figure there—in this forest of the dead she comes to discover that this man is Vergil, who says he is a dream wraith, and that his body is on a ship, and that he is dying and will soon journey to Acheron, the underworld river of woe. After they converse, Vergil says, “Perhaps, I did not do you justice, Lavinia.” The novel shows the deep truth of the poet and their vision, and the agency of their ‘material’, with so much resonance from Vergil to Ursula.
May Ursula Le Guin’s words pass down through the ages too!