Book Review: Voices by Ursula K. Le Guin

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Miss Le Guin’s works are myriad. She has written A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels, The Earthsea trilogy, and The Lathe of Heaven. The one series which I know best, and that is not saying much, is her Catwings books. It is not saying much because I am missing one of the novels, perhaps two, and so I have lost part of the story.

Voices is the first Le Guin novel I have read in years. It is also the longest Le Guin story I have ever read. What inspired me to pick it up?

That’s a tale in the telling.

Voices takes place in the city of Ansul. From what a reader gathers, Ansul was once rather like Ancient Athens. The capital city of a small nation which was democratic and full of learning, Ansul kept no standing army. They had a merchant fleet but the ships were armed mostly for fighting pirates. Though they had good equipment, Ansul only has the one coast.

So when the Alds from Asudar came storming over Ansul’s land-locked border, the resistance to their invasion was scattered and haphazard. A country which relies on only words and learning to defend itself is not going to do well. This is a fact. Still, Ansul has an extra excuse for their dismal defense. The Alds’ assault was a complete surprise. They had had no forewarning of an attack, let alone an invasion.

The city of Ansul, which was home to the most libraries and their great university, held out against the Alds for a whole year. When it fell, red ruin played out in the streets. The Alds considered any woman walking alone in the streets to be free fodder for rape. As a result, many “siege brats” populate the city in the intervening years. Only old women and children, along with men, can safely go to the market. Any girl over a certain age who goes out alone and undisguised is at risk of being raped.

This would be bad enough for the people of Ansul to bear, but there is more. Their religion is believed by their conquerors to be unholy, and so practice of it is outlawed. Even the mildest gestures can be punished with death. Also the Alds, at the behest of their priests, have invaded Ansul looking for the gateway to their version of Hell. They call this the Night Mouth. And they believe the Night Mouth is somewhere within the city of Ansul.

So after they had control of the city, the Alds wrecked all the libraries. They destroyed the university. Then they went from home to home, building to building, searching for every book they could discover. Considering books to be demonic and full of witchcraft, the Alds would not touch them, so that they would not be defiled by them. Instead they had the citizens of Ansul pile the volumes into carts, then throw these tomes, weighted with stones, into the river and the harbor to drown. They do this because they consider fire sacred, so burning books is the same as elevating them to the sacred.

For seventeen years the Alds have ruled Ansul in this manner. Memer Galva, the Ansul “siege brat” daughter of Decalo Galva, has lived in her grandfather’s house for all those years. A Waylord – that is, a taxman – Memer’s grandfather was taken and tortured for information during the siege. The tortures left him crippled, so that he tires after walking around the ruin that is his house for too long without a rest. He cannot stand up straight and his hands are deformed from the torments he endured.

As a child, Memer discovers a secret room within her grandfather’s house. It is filled with books. Here she plays and, although she does not know how to read, she respects the books in the room. Once she finishes playing she puts the volumes back exactly where they came from on the shelf.

One day, in a righteous fury, Memer enters the room to find comfort. Instead she finds the Waylord – reading a book!

At first, they are both frightened. Then the Waylord relaxes and asks Memer how she got in. Memer describes the method she used to enter. He begins to ask how she could know it, then remembers her dead mother, and the answer becomes obvious.

After a few minutes of silence, the Waylord asks Memer if she wants to learn how to read. From then on, Memer makes nightly trips to the secret room, where the Waylord meets her. Over the years he educates her in history, geography, writing and reading. During these years Memer observes others from the city come to the house, many at night and in secret, with books hidden in their clothes or accessories. These are smuggled to the house in the dead of night, lest those who carry them be drowned or buried alive in the mudflats outside the city. Memer and the Waylord hide these volumes in the secret room.

Eventually, things change dramatically for both Memer and Ansul through the story of Voices. But this is not why yours truly chose to read the novel.

No, what intrigued me right from the start was the blurb on the back of the book. The blurb states that, in conquered Ansul, reading and writing are considered “acts punishable by death” according to the law of the conquering Alds.

I was immediately put in mind of history itself. The barbarians of the past who invaded the Roman Empire, Spain, and other countries always destroyed everything the civilized societies they found there had built. From churches to libraries down to the meanest peasant’s house, all the knowledge, culture, and wonders which the conquered people had built were subject to ruin. Why?

As G.K. Chesterton points out in The Ballad of the White Horse, it is because barbarians of most stripes think that destruction is the greatest power on Earth. The barbarian’s life is marked by futility, selfishness, and despair. For will he not be struck down someday by death as well, the ultimate annihilation?

In the epic poem, Chesterton has King Alfred explain that destruction is far from extraordinary. The very Earth wastes away beneath us at this moment: deserts encroach on arable territories, river banks crumble, rocks are eroded, trees die, and mountains and hills are worn away, whilst others are raised through formerly flat plains. Destruction is part of nature itself. It is nothing special – not in the way the barbarian thinks it is.

What, then, is more powerful than destruction? If annihilation is natural, what can be more powerful than it?

The answer, in the words of “a nameless man” and “A rhymester without home” is this:

“Ere the sad gods that made your gods

Saw their sad sunrise pass,

The White Horse of the White Horse Vale,

That you have left to darken and fail,

Was cut out of the grass.

– 

“Therefore your end is on you,

Is on you and your kings,

Not for a fire in Ely fen,

Not that your gods are nine or ten,

But because it is only Christian men

Guard even heathen things.”

 

How did the West survive the Dark Ages? How did science progress to the age of “Enlightenment” and beyond? How do we know with such certainty what happened so long ago in Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Athens, Sparta, Rome, Carthage, and lands beyond?

All this is here because “it is only Christian men/Guard even heathen things.” A culture which does not build, which does not learn, which revels only in death, dismemberment, and devastation, is doomed to ruin itself. Though time will one day end, whatever survives to the day when the last man on Earth makes his choice will be there because “it is only Christian men/Guard even heathen things.”

Preservation, not annihilation. Life, not death. These are the powers which war for control of the Earth. This is what is meant by the phrase “light and darkness.” There is no question as to which side will eventually win the conflict. No, there is only one question each man must ask himself:

Which side will I choose?

This writer chooses to “guard even heathen things,” rather than to leave “The White Horse of the White Horse Vale/… to darken and fail.” I choose to fight the Long Defeat, and to preserve what I can. To be the hare “who has more heart to run” than the hunter who has “less heart to ride.” I would rather “Go gaily in the dark” and “go singing to [my] shame” than “know what wicked things/Are written on the sky” or “know all evil things/Under the twisted trees.”

That is my choice.

What about you, reader? Which side will you choose? Or, as Mr. Chesterton said:

 

Do you have joy without a cause,

Yea, faith without a hope?

The Mithril Guardian

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