Re-reading The Telling

The TellingI just re-read Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Telling, which is the last of the Hainish novels. I found the book very compelling the first time I read it and wondered why it didn’t seem to get as much attention as some of her other work. It hasn’t been mentioned much in recent tributes either.

On my re-read I was just as taken with the book as I was the first time. It may rank along with The Dispossessed as my favorite among Ursula’s work. And this time, I had a deeper reaction.

On my first reading, I took the title to imply storytelling. This time, I saw the larger meaning of the path called the Telling. It incorporates story and deep thinking — the use of the mind — along with movement and body and the way human beings are part of nature.

Since Ursula was a student of Taoism, it’s easy to see Taoist elements in this path followed by the people of Aka. But it has its own flavor, because she developed it to fit in the world she made.

It speaks to me because I have learned over the years just how important my body is to my overall being. Long ago I figured out that even though I was an intellectual, a person who got caught up in ideas, I never truly understood anything unless I could move with it. Of late, I have become more and more aware that humans do not exist outside of nature. (One thing I’ve been thinking a lot about is the importance of including the people who live in so-called “wild” places into plans to preserve them. Most of those places have had human involvement for millennia. It is possible for humans to live in, and even shape, nature without bulldozing it or digging it up.)

So philosophically, I found myself in the same place as the people following this path, this way, this tao or do, on Aka — a practice banned at the time of the story. In other words, perhaps the book means so much to me because it speaks to something I’ve discovered on my own. In part, this is why I love The Dispossessed; the lives of the people on Anarres remind me of my experiences in co-ops and in trying to create alternative institutions. I can see where the society came from, and can want to live there without being blind to its flaws.

I noticed something else this time. The resolution of the crisis at the heart of the story — and I will be vague here for those who haven’t read it — turns on the fact that Sutty, a Terran member of the Ekumen, brings a different cultural background to this new planet than the envoy (who is Chiffewarian) or others who have looked at it. That is, she sees a connection they have overlooked because their cultures lack it.

That’s very important, I think. Even among humans, we are wont to think that everyone approaches situations in the same way. We in the west are particularly prone to this, believing that western culture has “triumphed” over all others and that everyone subscribes to our values.

I also noted Sutty’s growth over the course of the book. In the beginning, she is uncertain, but by the end, she has figured out her own value and become strong in it. That’s worth watching, too.

I’d been planning to re-read this book ever since I treated myself to the Library of America edition of the Hainish Novels and Stories last fall. It is bittersweet reading Ursula K. Le Guin now that she’s gone, but oh, the work she left us. We still have that.


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