When I started writing, very tentatively and with much hesitation, back in the ’80s, one story stuck in my mind, a story full of poetic lyricism and with a premise that set one on one’s ear, that a king may be a woman, not a man, that time may be reversed or superceded in that one’s child becomes older than oneself within the strange turn of a story. What is truth? What is the illusion of truth? This story was Ursula Le Guin’s “Winter’s King.”
Back then I was so unsure of myself, but I know two things: I adored Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, and I also deeply admired Le Guin’s “Winter’s King.“ I didn’t read much science fiction, didn’t like much science fiction. Mostly, magical stories fascinated me, along with Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brönte), Rebecca (Daphne Du Maurier), and Jane Austen’s canon (of course). Gothic romances, yes, but the science fiction novel has its roots firmly in Gothic romance (think Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). What is it like to be human? To be a person who has dreams and ambitions? To perhaps go beyond death and to be immersed in the supernatural? – That is the center of the Gothic romance.
Back to Winter’s King. Here’s an excerpt, the opening:
When whirlpools appear in the onward run of time and history seems to swirl around a snag, as in the curious matter of the succession of Karhide, then pictures come in handy: snapshots, which may be taken up and matched to compare the parent to the child, the young king to the old, and which may also be rearranged and shuffled till the years run straight. For despite the tricks played by instantaneous interstellar communication and just-sublightspeed interstellar travel, time (as the Plenipotentiary Axt remarked) does not reverse itself; nor is death mocked.
The language! Le Guin was a poet first, then became a fiction writer. Can you tell? This is dense, but you can tease apart already the line that the story becomes. It is a story of a young king (female) who has been brainwashed by a treasonous adviser, but it’s not known whether she should abdicate or she should stay and call for killing mutinous crowds outside the palace: which is the treasonous path and which is not? Eventually she is evacuated to a faraway planet where her mind is healed, and when she returns, due to time dilation of near-lightspeed travel, she is the same age as when she left, her daughter now an old dying King with a country decimated by rebel battles and treachery. The young king returns to save the kingdom, which she could not have done in her brainwashed state.
Stooping over the body Argaven [the young king] lifts up that cold hand [of the old king, her daughter] and starts to take from the age-knotted forefinger the massive, carved, gold ring. But she does not do it. “Keep it,” she whispers, “keep it.” For a moment she bends yet lower, as if she whispered in the dead ear, or laid her cheek against that cold and wrinkled face. Then she straightens up and stands awhile and presently goes out through dark corridors, by windows bright with distant ruin, to set her house in order: Argaven, Winter’s king.
Eventually I realized this story is related to Le Guin’s famous work The Left Hand of Darkness (they are set in the same world), but for me this story stands so well on its own. I still go back and look over this story from time to time, and it reminds me of the central reason I write: to make sense of things that are unusual, exotic, or just fantastic, to bring a human story into something large and unimagined before. And, the delight of language, language, language!
Ursula Le Guin died last week, as you may have read in the paper, or heard on the news. She was a truly amazing writer and creator. I’m glad to have discovered her work for myself. Do you have a favorite story or a favorite writer whose work has stuck with you all your life? What do you read when you want to be inspired to write? Who might be your “imaginary mentor” if you had the power to choose any writer or artist to learn from? Thanks for visiting!