Fear of Dragons

We tend, as a people, to look upon all works of the imagination either as suspect or as contemptible.

Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?’ in The Language of the Night

As I was preparing to launch this website, I heard about the death of Ursula K. Le Guin. Immediately, I knew my first post about the influences on my writing needed to be about her.

I first discovered her books in my early teens, when my best friend recommended the Earthsea Trilogy. A Wizard of Earthsea remains one of my favourite fantasy novels and looking back I realise that it informed a lot of my attitudes to writing about magic.

Most of the books I had read before that portrayed magic as something that happened with the wave of a wand or the chanting of spells. However, in Earthsea magic is a serious business requiring academic study, practice and patience. Le Guin taught me that magic should have rules, limitations, consequences and costs. I always bear this in mind when considering whether to include magic in my stories.

However, the Earthsea Trilogy was not the first book by Le Guin I thought about when she died. In the early nineties, while waiting to go to the theatre, I wandered into a bookshop on Shaftesbury Avenue in London. There I found a book of essays by Le Guin called The Language of the Night. This book was a revelation. For the first time, I read serious critical essays about the types of story I read for pleasure. Like most people, school had taught me about a category of books called literature which was worthy of study and analysis. Other books, especially those in a genre like fantasy, were entertaining but not important.

Within this little book of essays, the piece that stood out was ‘Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?’ In it, Le Guin argued that “imaginative fiction … can deepen your understanding of the world, and your fellow mean, and your own feelings, and your destiny.” It is something the earliest storytellers knew. Just look at the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, Aesop’s fables and even Jesus’s parables. You can tell an entertaining story and say something important at the same time.

However, it is also important to note that a message is not obligatory. Le Guin says, “The truest answer is, ‘The use of [imaginative fiction] is to give you pleasure and delight.’” Being able to discern deeper meaning and themes in the stories I read has not stopped me from reading them for pleasure. Likewise, as a writer my first thought when starting a new story is not, “What lesson can I teach?” Instead I ask, “What story would I enjoy reading?”

When I reread this essay it seemed even more relevant than ever and I realised how lucky I was. I used to write stories all the time as a child. It was what I loved doing and what I dreamed about doing with my life (well that and being an astronaut). However, once I became a teenager English lessons were for writing about other people’s stories, not for making up my own.

My teachers might not have encouraged me to write fiction as an adult, but they taught me to study it. English Literature was considered a solid and sensible choice of degree subject. I was lucky enough to spend a few years studying a wide range of fiction from classic literature right through to more popular forms like detective fiction. Everything I learnt then has contributed to the writer I am now.

In contrast, Le Guin writes about a Puritan American attitude that discourages imaginative fiction because it distracts from worthwhile endeavours. Sadly, this attitude seems far more prevalent in modern Britain than when I was growing up. The modern priorities are career prospects, earning potential and making a practical contribution to society. Creativity enriches the soul, but it rarely fills one’s bank account.

I cannot imagine how dull my existence would be without the amazing worlds other authors have enabled me to visit; how narrow my world-view would be if I had stopped reading for pleasure when I became an adult. So I plan to do what my parents did for me. I will encourage my son to read lots and discover what he enjoys. I will also encourage him, and anyone else who tells me they have an idea for a story, to take the time to tell it. Sharing our stories with the rest of the world enriches us all. As Le Guin says:

It is by such beautiful non-facts that we fantastic human beings may arrive, in our peculiar fashion, at the truth.

May your adventures be full
of mystery and magic



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