Nov 13, 2023

the weight of liberty

Ursula LeGuin, near the end of The Tombs of Atuan:

“Now,” [Ged] said, “now we’re away, now we’re clear, we’re clear gone, Tenar. Do you feel it?”

She did feel it. A dark hand had let go its lifelong hold upon her heart. But she did not feel joy, as she had in the mountains. She put her head down in her arms and cried, and her cheeks were salt and wet. She cried for the waste of her years in bondage to a useless evil. She wept in pain, because she was free.

What she had begun to learn was the weight of liberty. Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not easy. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one. The road goes upward toward the light; but the laden traveler may never reach the end of it.

Malcolm and I finished Tombs and will move on to The Farthest Shore, but first we’re taking a break with Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

More, though: I needed the little message from LeGuin, mother and writer, packed into the Afterword of Tombs. She had no plans for a sequel, much less a trilogy (and beyond!). She even resisted the idea, since Tolkien’s influence weighed so heavily on the literature of fantasy. But, she said, “a writer sometimes writes a message for herself, to be read when she begins to understand it.” And a road trip that followed her completion of The Left Hand of Darkness set her mind alight:

When [Left Hand of Darkness] was done, I thought: What next? and looked around in my mind. There was Ged and his world, Earthsea, vivid and alive, ready to be explored further. And there was that interesting phrase about bringing a ring from the Tombs of Atuan…Atuan was a Kargish island. I hadn’t thought much about the Kargs. Very different people from the Archipelagans. White-skinned barbarians, pirates, untrustworthy folk. But if you were a Karg, who might you be? Whom would you trust? Where would you live? What was Atuan like?

Now came the great improbable impetus to the book: a road trip to southeastern Oregon, our first visit to Harney County, a high and lonesome land of mountains and great sagebrush plains, of pure skies, of distances, and silence. Coming back from there, after a two-day, weary, dusty drive with our three kids, I knew my novel would be set in that desert. In the car, when we weren’t playing Signs Alphabet or singing “Forty-Nine Bottles,” I began to dream my story. That land had given it to me. I am forever grateful.