Ursula Le Guin re-read: the Hainish Novels – Part 3: The Envoi – The Word for World is Forest, The Telling

If the first three books were milieu and setting, and the second (masterpiece) books were *absolutely everything*, the last two books on this list – while remaining “milieu” in the sense that we are in the usual Le Guin worldbuilding frame, and the Hainish universe just keeps getting etched in deeper – are probably the most idea-enmeshed books of the lot. The characters become extensions of that idea, there to give voice to it; the setting becomes a backdrop for the idea, although it is sometimes clear that the setting is stage props and Le Guin really is talking about us, humanity, our own sins and graces, given the freedom to talk about it through the prism and the POV of an alien perspective.

The Word for World is Forest opens with a chapter that very nearly made me never go on reading at all – not because it was badly written or anything like that, this is Le Guin we are talking about, if anything because it was too well written and too visceral and so poisonous that I recoiled from it with an instinct that was close to self-preservation. Captain Donaldson is the essence of what we might call toxic masculinity, and the proud bearer of the banner of Manifest Destiny and anthroposuperiority (although it isn’t beneath him to screw a local alien female, just because he can and she’s there for him to do so). He is everything that is the worst about a colonizer – a White Man’s Burden writ large, everything can be solved with superior (brute) force, anyone who disagrees with him is automatically “a traitor”, one must obey orders absolutely right until the moment that those orders actually directly stop him from doing the filth that he feels those orders entitle him to do at which point continuing to obey those original orders automatically becomes “traitorous” and he can justify his willful disobedience by the sheer power of the utter unshakeable knowledge that he is “right” and that this fact mitigates everything. Le Guin is squarely on the side of the non-humans in this. She takes humanity and holds it up by the scruff of its neck and points to it with a laser pointer and states clearly, children, this is an example of BAD. There is one “good” human on this planet which Terra has taken just because it can without any regard for its original inhabitants, and he doesn’t survive the book. We are given little time to mourn him. He is a singleton working against the juggernaut of the colonial entitlement machine and we know he is doomed, right from the start, because he chooses to pause and to think and to listen and to learn, all the things that the juggernaut has no time to do as it rolls forward.

This is a short novel – or a novella, as it was touted – but it seems to me as though it was a narrative torn from the middle of a much greater story. It leaves me oddly tingling with a bunch of things I would still want to know. The native culture is sketched in with Le Guin’s usual verve – but that’s just it, it’s *sketched in*, and we are given the broad parameters without really getting into the full function and meaning of the society (as we are in, for example, The Dispossessed with its juxtaposition of the two different worlds in the book). As much as humanity is held up as “bad”, the alien culture here is portrayed as “possibly good, but perhaps irretrievably damaged by human interference” – and left there. It is the human interference – the IDEA of the human interference – that is important here. Le Guin explores – briefly – the idea of colonization and its potentially disastrous consequences; everything else in this book is a tool used to that end. It leaves the reader with an odd sense of waiting for… more. Maybe that is a good thing. But still. It’s a niggling sense of not quite having arrived to where we thought we were going.

The Telling is a whole different kind of book. When it comes to the Hainish novels, I’ve been entertained, fascinated, occasionally awed, grateful for the opportunity to understand things… but The Telling is the only Hainish book that actually brought me to tears.

It has been said of The Telling that it isn’t so much a story about storytelling as it is about religion and politics – those two being the driving Ideas behind this particular novel. It is the last Hainish novel-length work – and now, of course there will never be another – and perhaps the knowledge of that, itself, going in, makes it feel a touch elegiac. There’s that. But there’s also something else, something that goes much deeper. A writing itch – if it is all-encompassing, as it is for some people – has been called a kind of vocation – and here, at last, in this book, is the religion for what the vocation stands for. Le Guin’s complicated “outside observer” character struggles to understand this “world made of words” that she is supposed to make sense of:

“Before long she became unhappy with her definition of the system as a religion; it seemed not incorrect, but not wholly adequate. The term philosophy was even less adequate. She went back to calling it the system, the Great System. Later she called it the Forest, because she learned that in ancient times it had been called the way through the forest. She called it the Mountain when she found out that some of her teachers called what they taught her the way to the mountain. She ended up calling it the Telling.”

More specifically –

“It appeared that in the old Akan way of thinking any place, any act, if properly perceived, was actually mysterious and powerful, potentially sacred. And perception seemed to involve description – telling about the place, or the act, or the event, or the person. Talking about it, making it into a story.”

This is what moved the earth for me. The idea that it is possible to believe in Story as the Great Holy Thing in the Universe. That there doesn’t need to be an all-powerful God who created anything, or destroyed anything; there doesn’t need to be God who judges or who condemns or who forgives, a God who demands worship or blood sacrifices in order to grant boons (one at a time). The world is a story, and we are part of it. Perhaps those of us who write have always understood this, have always been able to hear the story underneath the world and have tried to tell it in our own small ways, to tell those bits of the Great Story which we had been fortunate enough to have come close enough for us to be heard and perceived – and shared.

Le Guin’s maz characters, the teachers of this world, the keepers of the story, attempt to explain in their own way:

“we’re not outside the world. We are the world. We’re its language. So we live and it lives. If we don’t say the word what is there in our world?” – one says.

“…the rest of the world knows its business. But all we know is how to learn. How to study, how to listen, how to listen, how to talk, how to tell. If we don’t tell the world, we don’t know the world. We’re lost in it, we die. But we have to tell it right, tell it truly.” – another adds.

So it isn’t just a story, it has to be the right story, the true story. A story that is wrong, or told wrong, or is a lie, wounds the universe.

In order to be holy all we have to do is hold true to our Story.

Can you see why I wept and trembled?

This isn’t blind faith. Blind faith, in fact, is shot down in The Telling – “Belief is the wound that knowledge heals,” our protagonist is told. This… this is understanding. This is what makes the world make sense.

It’s misunderstood, of course – it almost inevitably has to be. In a review for the hallowed New York Times a reviewer named Gerald Jonas apparently stated that the main character of The Telling, Sutty, appears to be “little more than a mouthpiece for the author’s personal vision of a good society.” That, incidentally, is true of any protagonist of any book by any author –but it kind of comes across as particularly patronizing here, a (male) reviewer patting a (female) writer on the head about her cute little “vision of a good society” (by implication, she doesn’t really understand what “makes” a society and is writing about utopia…) and about her (female, lesbian, woman-of-color) protagonist who is clearly just used as a mouthpiece anyway but even if she weren’t her opinions would not necessarily have carried weight anyway. Le Guin doesn’t posit a perfect society. She merely points at society’s flaws and leaves us to think about them – and to work towards correcting them, if we can.

Don’t read reviews. Read the book. Read it and weep. Read it and rise as warriors, ready to Tell this world as best you can, to the best of your ability, to whoever can hear you, for as long as they will listen. That is the thing that is sacred. Do that and all things become holy.

In some ways I would have loved more Hainish novels – in particular, I would have LOVED to see a novel of the beginning, of Hain’s first steps into the Universe. But not now, not after this. The Telling is a worthy finale to this particular series. In whatever order you read or re-read these books, this one should come last. And when you close it, you should be left with a sense of peace, and a fierce sense of re-dedication to being a necessary – nay, an essential – part of a world greater than yourself – only a part, to be sure, but without your presence it would be a different world. A different story. You make it a true Telling.


These essays first appeared on my Patreon



Ursula Le Guin re-read: the Hainish Novels – Part 3: The Envoi – The Word for World is Forest, The Telling — 1 Comment

  1. The Telling moved me as well. I think it might have passed The Dispossessed on my list of personal favorites; it’s certainly right up there with it.

    It’s also a good book on effective resistance and on the mistakes that get made when two cultures don’t understand each other. Definitely a good book to read now.