In the fantasy world of Earthsea, there is a language of dragons. In theses words of power, to know the true word for something is to know its totality. Only when you see the true light of something, its beauty and how it lights up the world, do you know its name in the words of dragons.
Recently, one of those lights left our world. On January 23, 2018, Ursula K. Le Guin died, leaving behind a world undeniably shaped by her life and certainly darker for her light passing. While we may try, I do not believe we could ever completely encapsulate her name in the words of dragons for it is too complex and bright.
It pained me to hear of her passing. From my childhood, Le Guin has been an integral part of my discovery of my transgender identity, my womanhood, and my ability to see beauty within myself and the world.
In Le Guin’s Earthsea book The Tombs of Atuan, a young girl has two names, a name given to her, Arha, and a name she has for herself, Tenar. A young wizard, Ged, who knows the language of dragons, sees her two names and that the conflict prevents her understanding her true self. The young girl fears that by accepting one side means the death of the other. Yet Ged tells her, “To be reborn one must die, Tenar. It is not so hard as it looks from the other side.” In the end, she becomes Tenar, rejecting the name given to her by society and accepting the true self that she knew existed within her.
As a young kid slowly discovering that I was transgender, I felt this same fear. To become Jessie, who I truly was, I had to let James, the person my family had come to love, die. I feared transitioning, fearing that I could not get through it to the other side.
Seeing Tenar’s struggle, I learned that to discover one’s true self was a death, yet it also was a rebirth. With birth comes death and with death comes rebirth. Through Le Guin’s words of power, I learned that I could be “reborn” in my true self as a woman.
And Le Guin had much to say on the meaning of womanhood. She had a long-standing and well-earned reputation as a feminist.
“Why are men afraid of women?" "If your strength is only the other's weakness, you live in fear," Ged said. "Yes; but women seem to fear their own strength, to be afraid of themselves." "Are they ever taught to trust themselves?" Ged asked, and as he spoke Therru came in on her work again. His eyes and Tenar's met. "No," she said. "Trust is not what we're taught."
These words, written 30 years ago, still ring disturbingly loud in the light of the #MeToo movement. Le Guin fought hard against the oppression and discrimination that women face at the hands of men. She recognized that women were taught to not trust in themselves and that men feared women because they were seen as complete opposite of manhood, of masculinity. A radical idea, even today, especially in light of our present discussions about the dangers of toxic masculinity.
As I began my own transition, I felt myself overcompensating, acting more feminine in order to reinforce new identity. Yet Le Guin’s work, like her much-lauded The Left Hand of Darkness, emphasized that masculinity and femininity were not in opposition to each other. That one gender’s strength was not the other’s weakness. Gender was not a division, but something that bound us together as humans.“My heart told me incontrovertibly that neither gender could go far without the other. So, in my story, neither the woman nor the man can get free without the other.” To me, this meant I didn’t have to perform femininity. My masculinity and feminity did not have to combat each other inside of me. I could never truly be myself if I was just one or the other. So, I could just be me.
Yet Le Guin was also pointing out that in order to grow as humanity, we needed to not be separate, but be one. Men should not be fighting women and vice versa. Humanity cannot have two identities, two names. We must let that old mentally die in order for something new to be reborn.
Yet no matter what we say or go though, the death of what has come before is still terrifying. That is why I am saddened by Le Guin’s passing. It feels as though a piece of the beauty of the world has disappeared, even if she may be reborn elsewhere. But Le Guin had something to say on this as well.
“You will die. You will not live forever. Nor will any man nor any thing. Nothing is immortal. But only to us is it given to know that we must die. And that is a great gift: the gift of selfhood. For we have only what we know we must lose, what we are willing to lose... That selfhood which is our torment, and our treasure, and our humanity, does not endure. It changes; it is gone, a wave on the sea. Would you have the sea grow still and the tides cease, to save one wave, to save yourself?”
Death is not a loss of beauty in the world. Death is actually the proof that beauty in life exists. That very knowledge, that death is proof of beauty, is humanity’s greatest gift. Our awareness of death makes us work to make life beautiful. It helps us force us to work to better ourselves, to “rebirth” ourselves, as it were. Certainly, Le Guin’s powerful words caused me to embrace my own rebirth. Perhaps her words will help inspire a rebirth in humanity.
Upon reflection, I think maybe Le Guin does not have a name in language of dragons. Le Guin’s worlds helped to guide me. I dreamed in them, and I used those words of power to work magic in my own life. Yet as Le Guin wrote, “We men dream dreams, we work magic, we do good, we do evil. The dragons do not dream. They are dreams. They do not work magic: it is their substance, their being. They do not do; they are.” Perhaps, truly, Le Guin was a dragon herself. Dreams were Le Guin’s substance, her being. She did not do, she was.
If she was a dragon, I do not fear for what happens next to Le Guin. For “I do not care what comes after; I have seen the dragons on the wind of morning.”