Some part of the genius of Ursula Le Guin is that she hides the crucial evidence in plain sight. In her Tales From EarthSea, Le Guin gives us a little girl named Dragonfly. She first appears in a subordinate clause of the second paragraph of the story: “By the time the girl called Dragonfly was born…” In Earthsea, one has a “use name”—which everyone uses—and a “true name” which is very carefully guarded. At the end of the story, this little girl, now a young woman becomes a dragon and flies away.
I was completely dumbfounded. A dragon? How did she do that?
This post has two emphases. Le Guin is only one. I am the other—specifically, my much-maligned notion of reading strategically and repeatedly. So I read “Dragonfly” the way you are supposed to, from front to back. It is a story about a woman named Irian—that’s her true name—and I forgot immediately that she had been called Dragonfly, her use name, as a girl. I presume I was supposed to forget that. And I am taken completely by surprise when Le Guin unveils Irian’s draconic character at the end.
By the time I read this story for the second and third times, I am no longer surprised that Irian has more than one “true name” and so, more than one true character. Now I get to look at, to luxuriate in, the way Le Guin prepares us for the great revelation. That’s what I get by reading it over and over. I bear no grudge against anyone who got all this the first time through, but the fact is, I don’t get it the first time through.
How does she do that? Well, you know she isn’t going to drop a footnote that says, “Oh by the way, Irian is really a dragon.” What she is going to do is to play with the range of symbols and suggestions that are attached to “dragon.” Here’s how that works. If you are looking for something—say Kestrels, for instance—your eye is attracted to anything that might be a Kestrel. A Kestrel is a small falcon, so you might notice any bird with pointed wings. You might notice any solid object at all on the phone lines or fence posts. You might notice anything moving quickly through the air at 50 feet or less above the ground. You might notice anything that hovers or seems to hover. You might notice anything that has even a touch of that slate blue color that appears on the Kestrel’s head.
You don’t declare any of these to be Kestrels. You look at them carefully and determine each and every one of them not to be a Kestrel. But you had to look at each and every one because you are looking for Kestrels and the appearance of any aspect of a Kestrel is part of the “range of symbols and suggestions” I referred to above.
Azver, the Patterner of Roke, reassures Irian that the bad guy of the story can’t come out to the magical grove and harm her. “He cannot harm you here,” says the Patterner. “He cannot harm me anywhere,” says Irian, “fire running through her veins” the text notes. “If he tries to, I’ll destroy him.” Well…she’s angry. She’s venting. Surely she doesn’t think she can destroy the Archmage presumptive of EarthSea. And if you keep thinking about that, you will not notice that “fire” is just a little too hot a word here. It’s not inappropriate. It’s just…oh…a little much.
There was a young prince she really should have had an affair with, but didn’t. Why not, she wonders in a period of deep introspection. “Am I a sterile thing, not whole, not a woman? She asked herself, looking at her strong bare arms, the soft swell of her breasts in the shadow under the throat of her shirt.”
The Patterner comes out of the Grove while she is thinking that. “She felt herself blush, her face and throat burning, dizzy, her ears ringing.” That comes out of a coming-of-age romance novel. She’s just an ordinary teenager after all.
Then Le Guin gives us “What do I want? She asked herself, and the answer came not in words but throughout her whole body and soul: the fire, a greater fire than that, the flight, the flight burning. She came back into herself, into the still air under the trees.”
Irian herself does not know why she came to Roke Island. Azver is sure it was not by chance. The Summoner knows that too.”
“Maybe I came to destroy him,” says Irian. Azver looked at her and said nothing.
“Maybe I came to destroy Roke,” says Irian. Azver’s pale eyes blazed then. “Try,” he said.
“A long shudder went through her as she stood facing him. She felt herself larger than he was, larger than she was, enormously larger. She could reach out one finger and destroy him. He stood there in his small, brave, brief humanity, his mortality, defenseless. She drew a long, long breath. She stepped back from him. The sense of huge strength was draining out of her. She turned her head a little and looked down, surprised to see her own brown arm, her rolled-up sleeve, the grass springing cool and green around her sandaled feet. She looked back at the Patterner and he still seemed a fragile being. She pitied and honored him. She wanted to warn him of the peril he was in, but no words came to her at all. She turned round and went back to the stream bank by the little falls. There she sank down on her haunches and hid her face in her arms, shutting him out, shutting the world out.”
We’ve had the fire already. Here we have the enormous size. We have the failure of words, as often before, since Irian came to Roke. Then we have her sinking down on her haunches. Haunches! But look back. We have the size, but it is larger than she is. What? And then she feels the strength draining out of her. She sinks down on her haunches, but then she hides her face in her arms. Le Guin giveth and Le Guin taketh away.
If you were to go through, in your own mind, the little exercise I did on Kestrels above, you would find things like huge, animal, fiery, fearsome, and silent. “Dragon” makes you sensitive to every appearance of all those. As those peripheral touches add up, you begin to say that Irian “reminds you of something” but then you follow Le Guin away from it again. From “the haunches” to “hiding her face in her arms.”
Le Guin touches on—hell, she pounds on—every aspect of dragons but never says “dragon.” Good readers probably saw it coming. I was taken completely by surprise. But only the first time. I began to get it the second time—not the revelation, but the way of preparing the revelation—and the third time, I exulted in it. “I should have seen it,” I say to myself, but without any sense that I have read poorly. “How wonderful!” I think. Then I think, “Maybe I should go back and read it again.”