Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word of Unbinding is a perfect short story

 

Le Guin’s first Earthsea tale is one of her best

I just read one of Ursula K. Le Guin’s first short stories, and it was so perfect it completely derailed my original plans for this post. I have to write this love letter to my favorite author. No one alive comes close to her flawless creation of whole worlds from a handful of sentences, and no one has a deeper speculative-anthropological interest in what humanity is and should be.

You can get the story here for two bucks:
https://www.amazon.com/Word-Unbinding-Story-Twelve-Quarters-ebook/dp/B01N6G07B8/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1489863570&sr=8-2&keywords=the+word+of+unbinding

I don’t remember the first time I read one of her books — it happened in that post-high-school flurry of absolutely unbound devouring, where you’re no longer reading what you feel you “have to” to be taken seriously, but what you want to — the rubber-band snapping of freedom is disorienting, but it’s wonderful to no longer have to pretend you understand Gravity’s Rainbow at 17 years old.

In that frenzy of consumption, something of hers was tossed in, but where she really grabbed me and never let go was with The Dispossessed. A piece of Science Fiction so perfectly balanced, so perfectly human, serious without confusing being serious with being boring and grim, that I have never forgotten it. It fairly and clearly represents the benefits and flaws of a capitalist and anarchist society (two different planets locked in co-orbital positions, one desert-anarchist, the other lush-capitalist). Capitalism is not all subjugation of the poor (although that is an unavoidable side-effect, if not a planned feature), and anarchism is not all lighting fires and throwing stones — all anarchy means is the absence of hierarchical power structures. UKL shows there’s beauty and flaws in both systems because both systems are run by inherently fallible people.

 

Ursula K. Le Guin at the 2014 National Book Awards

She’s a bona fide hero. If you need proof, here’s her speech at the 2014 National Book Awards, where she received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters:

In a room filled with book publishers, at an event sponsored by Amazon, she took the industry to task for “letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant” and said, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable, but so did the divine right of kings.”

That was UKL the doyenne of American SF. This story is from Ursula K. Le Guin, the barely-published writer, and she already had the magic.

 

The Word of Unbinding: a ten-minute story packed with everything Ursula K. Le Guin would become

In The Word of Unbinding, we already see all the elements that make UKL who she is as an author. Language as simple and clear as a forest stream. The ability to plant twenty words, step back, and watch them grow into an entire vivid world. A focus on the importance of balance, acceptance, and doing the right, the human thing. Before going further, please read the story. It’s two dollars and will take you ten minutes. It is without a doubt the most worthwhile thing you will do today — doubtless more worthwhile than reading this blog.

The Word of Unbinding is an exceedingly simple story. A wizard is trapped in a dark well, guarded by strange creatures and magics, and he tries and fails to escape until there is only one way out. Like all of UKL’s writing, it is simple and straightforward, but so incredibly dense. Not in the James Joyce/Thomas Pynchon sense, but in the sense that each word is so carefully chosen and placed it’s like setting stone on stone. Here’s the first line:

Where was he? The floor was hard and slimy, the air black and stinking, and that was all there was.

She accomplishes everything she needs to in twenty words. The protagonist is lost and confused, something bad has happened to him, bad air, hard floor, and that’s it. Before there’s any chance of remotely understanding what’s going on, there’s a rock-solid sense of where the story is. Next step is explaining who the protagonist, Festin, is:

Lately, in these lone years in the middle of his life, he had been burdened with a sense of waste, of unspent strength; so, needing to learn patience, he had left the villages and gone to converse with trees, especially oaks, chestnuts, and the grey alders whose roots are in profound communication with running water. It had been six months since he had spoken to a human being. He had been busy with essentials, casting no spells and bothering no one.

UKL’s conception of how magic works and what its practitioners should be is the most compelling in all of literature. This isn’t clear from the excerpt, but her system is almost entirely based on naming. Everything in existence has a True Name, and innate power wedded to study and discovery of these names gives a wizard their abilities: just like a writer, they use language to call forth miracles, to change the reality around them. What is clear from the excerpt is what a wizard should be: Festin has not cast a spell in half a year. Magic is not about fireballs and parlor tricks, but about balance. Each and every wizard has a responsibility to maintain and protect that balance — that is what makes them a wizard. The upsetting of that balance is the source of evil, in this story as elsewhere in Earthsea (UKL’s fantasy territory).

 

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Le Guin describes herself as “the most arboreal science fiction writer.” She’s not wrong. Credit: Nikanos | CC BY-SA 2.5

A wizard reaver named Voll goes from island to island, destroying towns and enslaving people, disrupting the natural order. He seals the protagonist in a dark well-tomb. Festin, confident in his power, attempts to escape repeatedly. First as a creeping mist, then as simple air, then as a falcon, then as a trout. He is successively foiled with a blast of hot air, a storm wind, an arrow, and a fisherman’s net. Broken, cold, and kept on the edge of death, he begins wondering why his enemy will not kill him. After due consideration, he takes the last path out of his situation — the word of unbinding:

So Festin made his choice. His last thought was, If I am wrong, men will think I was a coward. But he did not linger on this thought. Turning his head a little to the side, he closed his eyes, took a last deep breath, and whispered the word of unbinding, which is only spoken once.

Festin, seeing his situation and a possible way to restore balance, makes the human (in its least cynical definition) decision and accepts the change required to set things right. Once in the land of the dead, a land of hard obsidian lava flows, black grass, and unmoving stars, he discovers Voll is long dead but has somehow returned to the world. He chases his enemy back to his corpse, forces him to re-enter it, and then sits vigil at the point of origin for the imbalance, guarding against further upset.

Festin saves the world through acceptance of the most human fact there is: all will die and turn to dust. If he had attempted to avoid what must be, he would have remained trapped and ineffective, unable to bring battle to Voll on any plane that mattered.

Cultivating imbalance for personal gain unerringly leads to evil and is set right through courageous acceptance of what must be.

This story floored me not simply because it was so perfect, so small yet so powerful, but because this is one of the first things UKL ever published, and she was already a master. She further developed her talent over a decades-long career, but everything she needed was already there: the power and clarity of her language, the strength of her perception of the world she’s creating, and the strong philosophical attachment to balance. Not to mention it’s a super fun wizard adventure story, written 53 years ago and still wonderful and fresh today.