. . .there must
be a story for my dear young hero.
It will not be the old story. ("My Hero" )
Ursula K. Le Guin's Daoist spokespeople frequently advise turning and returning to one's cosmic and individual roots to get one's life in order. Returning to roots is also good advice for the study of an author's canon, or for disinterested study of a culture, for example, in a science fiction thought experiment: to know a culture, you must dig down, figuratively and carefully, into its roots, examine its bases; one must look to its origins and myths of origin, closely examine physically and politically out-of-the-way places where people still try to go with the old ways.
In "A Man of the People" (1995), Havzhiva, the title character, is told "that to know who the Yeowans were he must know the plantations and the tribes" (FWF 131): this includes facing not just past history but a living history of continuing oppression. In a more neutral context, Estraven in The Left Hand of Darkness implies that to know Karhide one must know the Domains (LHD 6; ch. 1); and more explicitly, Genly Ai's "landlady" in Erhenrang delights in advising him to get out of the capital city into the provinces if he wants to study the basis of the culture of Karhide. Ai's landlady tells Ai that he-the landlady-is "a Yomeshta," a follower of the cult of Meshe, but, "We're a lot of newcomers, see, for my Lord Meshe was born 2,202 years-ago, but the Old Way of the Handdara goes back ten thousand years before that. You have to go back to the Old Land if you're after the Old Way," and the place to go in the Old Land is to go to "Old Karhide, to Rer, the old King's City" (47; ch. 5).
Ai goes to Rer and from Rer to the nearby Handdarata Fastness of Otherhord (53-54), the setting for the Foretelling in "The Domestication of Hunch" chapter in The Left Hand of Darkness (ch. 5). Rer itself is described briefly, but memorably, and in a way generally consistent with Le Guin's other stories using the city.
No landboat or car can enter Rer. It was built before Karhiders used powered vehicles, and they have been using them for over twenty centuries. There are no streets in Rer. There are covered walks, tunnel-like, which in summer one can walk through or on top of as one pleases. The houses and islands and Hearths sit every which way, chaotic, in a profuse prodigious confusion that suddenly culminates (as anarchy will do in Karhide) in splendor: the great Towers of the Un-Palace, blood-red, windowless. Built seventeen centuries ago, those towers housed the kings of Karhide for a thousand years, until Argaven Harge, first of his dynasty, crossed the Kargav and settled the great valley of the West Fall. All the buildings of Rer are fantastically massive, deep-founded, weatherproof and waterproof. In winter the wind of the plains may keep the city clear of snow, but when it blizzards and piles up they do not clear the streets, having no streets to clear. . . . The Thaw is the bad time on that plain of many rivers. The tunnels then are storm-sewers, and the spaces between the buildings become canals or lakes, on which the people of Rer boat to their business, fending off small ice-floes with the oars. And always, over the dust of summer, the snowy roof-jumble of winter, or the floods of spring, the red Towers loom, the empty heart of the city, indestructible. (53-54)
Ordinarily in Le Guin, cities are suspect, and in Left Hand both the Harge dynasty's city of Erhenrang in Karhide and, far more so, Mishnory in Orgoreyn are dangerous places. But cities are not monovalent or malevolent in Le Guin or in any other complex mythos, and a Daoist view pretty much precludes the idea of cities or anything else as evil in themselves. More than Abbenay in The Dispossessed, certainly more than Es Toch in City of Illusions, and as much as any city in her canon, Rer and its civilization sybolizes not "negative force-restraint, constraint, repression, authority-but . . . . The City as goal and dream," where, perhaps, "No word or moment or way of being is more or less 'real' than any other, and all is 'natural' . . . " (LoN : 147). 1
"Winter's King" (1969/1975)
Le Guin started out on Gethen in Erhenrang and Rer: she tells us in the headnote to the 1975 reprint of "Winter's King" in The Wind's Twelve Quarters that the first version of "Winter's King" was written a year before she began work on The Left Hand of Darkness. In that original version of "Winter's King," we have a series of pictures that give most of the high points of the story of King Argaven XVII and his son, successor, and predecessor Emran. 2 When Emran is still a small baby, Argaven is kidnapped and "mindformed": an "induced paranoia," it turns out, that a healer much later tells him was likely to have caused him to "become a remarkably vicious ruler, increasingly obsessed by fear of plots and subversions, increasingly disaffected from your people. Not overnight, of course. That's the beauty of it. It would have taken you several years to become a real tyrant . . ." (WTQ 89, 100). Argaven is released by the kidnappers and shows up on the streets of Erhenrang, drugged and brainwashed, wanting only to abdicate. Besides continuing to rule and abdication, the only other choice for him is suicide, which puts him in a dilemma foreseen by the conspirators. Suicide is held in contempt on Karhide, and the conspirators correctly counted on Argaven's "moral veto" of the option. 3 Abdication required consent of Argaven's Council, and the conspirators correctly counted on the Council's veto of that option. "But being possessed by ambition themselves, they forgot the possibility of abnegation"-renunciation-"and left one door open . . ." (WTQ 101), a door Argaven uses: he leaves his ring of office with the baby, Emran, and takes an Ekumen spacecraft to Ollul, twenty-four light-years away, just over twenty-four years away, Gethenian time, traveling nearly as fast as light (98).
As simply "Mr Harge" on Ollul, Argaven is cured, attends school-widening his view of the galaxy, learning to perceive his world as part, not center, his culture as one among many (102)-and waits. What he is waiting for, it turns out, is to be of use. A Terran ethnographer tells him that "Waste is a pity," and Argaven's talents are being wasted: he was (and is) "the right king" for Karhide, a ruler with "a sense of balance," who "might even have unified the planet"-and "certainly would not have terrorized and fragmented the country, as the present king seems to be doing" (103).
So Argaven Harge sets out to return to Gethen, after having been away twelve years, subjective time, thirty-six years on Gethen. He arrives back home some sixty years, Gethenian time, after he left, to be welcomed by a small group, a very small number of whom recognize him, all of whom turn out to be exiles and rebels. King Emran is now an old tyrant and an ineffective ruler; he has cut off relations with offworld humanity, ceded the Western Provinces to the Orgota, lost to them the capitol of Erhenrang, and resides now in what I'll call the île-de-Karhide, attempting to consolidate his power to the east of the mountains, in the Old Capital at Rer (WTQ 105-06). Argaven Harge takes up the cause of the rebellion. "Snow and ice and guerrilla troops keep Orgoreyn at bay on the west side of the Kargav Mountains. No help came to the Old King, Emran," when the country rises against him. Emran commits suicide in burning Rer and is succeeded by his father. The king is dead"-Argaven, dead for sixty years to his people-"long live the king," Argaven, returned to rule again (106-07).
This original (male-gendered) version of the story has much to say about choice, renunciation, and exile, about what would become in Left Hand the idea of the blood-bond needed to cement the keystone in the arch: more literally the sacrifice necessary to restore a balance, to reweave a tear in the tapestry of humanity (97). It has nothing to say about androgyny because the Gethenians in the 1969 version are not androgynes; in the 1975 re-issue version, however, the Gethenians are androgynous, and in the 1975 version Le Guin uses "the feminine pronoun for all Gethenians-while preserving certain masculine titles such as King and Lord, just to remind one of the ambiguity." The androgyny of the characters doesn't change the plot, "but the pronoun change does make it clear that the central, paradoxical relationship of parent and child is not, as it may have seemed in the other [earlier] version, a kind of reverse Oedipus twist," with father killing son, "but something less familiar and more ambiguous" (WTQ 85-86; headnote). And something relevant for considerations of gender as well as generation.
Personalized and psychologized by Sophocles, Sigmund Freud, and the Freudians, Oedipus's killing the Old King, his father, and marrying the Queen, his mother, becomes a story of intrafamily rivalry and forbidden lust. Alternative to Freud among nineteenth- and early twentieth-century theorizers, we might look to Johann Jakob Bachofen and his Mother Right (1861), Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough (1922), and other studies of early societies for the idea that one became king of an ancient city precisely by becoming the consort to the Queen, with the Queen as representative of The Mother, The Lady: the Earth. In that case, killing the old King-Father to become new King is less a psychological gesture in a family drama and more a conscious political act, and a religious act. Taking this view, one may speculate that the Oedipus legend as Sophocles handed it down is a bit of revisionist myth-making, reading patriarchal kingship into a time when gendered political arrangements were different, arguably more balanced. More immediately relevant, in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), Ong Tot Oppong, Investigator, tells us explicitly in "The Question of Sex" (ch. 7) that a Gethenian child "has no psycho-sexual relationship to his mother and father. There is no myth of Oedipus on Winter," although there is a strict prohibition against incest between generations (LHD 94, 92). The Oedipus legend in its family-drama forms does not apply in the world of "Winter's King" in either version, and part of the usefulness of the changes in the 1975 version is eliminating Oedipus and most other ready-made categories.
Relatively young Argaven XVII, a parent, pursues to the death old King Emran, the parent's child, to retake a kingdom. If we need a legend, a more likely candidate would be that used in "Semley's Necklace" (1963/64): the night journey that lasts years, the young parent meeting the child grown up (WTQ 21-22). Making the pronouns feminine should get most readers to picture Argaven's farewell to the baby Emran as a mother's farewell to her baby (96-97). Insofar as we gender the Gethenians in "Winter's King," then, we have Argaven as loving mother pursuing to the death her grown daughter-grown into an old and vicious tyrant. For many readers this will be much "less familiar and more ambiguous" than Oedipus, Laius, and Jocasta. Another part of the usefulness of the 1975 version of "Winter's King" is its subtextual attack on the view that "Sugar and spice and everything nice / And that's what little girls are made of": i.e., the sentimentalized view of women, occasionally endorsed-although hardly in my sardonic terms-by women, and even feminist women. But not by Le Guin. Along with Joanna Russ, Alice Sheldon, and Suzy McKee Charnas, what might be the mainstream among feminist writers of SF, Le Guin holds that XX sex chromosomes and/or the womanly condition will not guarantee a nice human being. This idea is implied by the violence within the human repertoire of the androgynous Gethenians in The Left Hand of Darkness, but there we may picture Gethenians in that novel mostly male. In the revised "Winter's King," we may err equally, but more likely on the side of picturing Gethenians as female. And the story's lightly-sketched frame of a series of pictures insists that we picture the story's ambiguous, bitter climax, of Argaven's politically conclusive, bitter victory.
Now at last comes the dark picture, the snapshot taken by firelight-firelight because the power plants of Rer are wrecked, the trunk lines cut, half the city is on fire. . . .
Snow and ice and guerrilla troops keep Orgoreyn at bay on the west side of the Kargav Mountains. No help came to the Old King, Emran, when her country rose against her. Her guards fled, her city burns, and how at the end she is face to face with the usurper. But she has, at the end, something of her family's heedless pride. She pays no attention to the rebels. She stares at them and does not see them, lying in the dark hallway, lit only by mirrors that reflect distant fires, the gun with which she killed herself near her hand.
Stooping over the body Argaven lifts up that cold hand, and starts to take from the age-knotted forefinger the massive, carved, gold ring. But she does not do it. "Keep it," she whispers, "keep it." (WTQ 107)
"We will bury you" is every younger generation's generous promise and implied threat to every parental generation. If all goes well, young survivors bury (or burn or set out for the vultures) loving and beloved parents who have died. Younger Argaven kills her old daughter and will dispose of the body after the customs of Karhide. We have no ready-made myth or legend for Argaven's deadly victory, no neat category into which to pigeon-hole and therefore make safe this act; so we must face that picture and thereby face a horror more frightening than the familiar and familiarized tale of Oedipus: a political killing in "Winter's King," where a parent, as a practical, uniquely historical matter-mundane not mythic, nonsexual, nonpsychological, nonpathological-has (ethically considered) killed her child.
"Coming of Age in Karhide" (1995)
Because although half the fun is, of course, confounding expectations, the other and more serious half of the fun is the attempt to get myself and my reader NOT to gender the characters-to accept & believe genderlessness/genderbothness even amidst a seething of hormones.- Le Guin on "Coming of Age," letter, 10 Oct. 1996
When Le Guin returned to Rer, it was to tell another story of youth and age, but a very different one: not better, just different. 4 "Coming of Age in Karhide" is not a story of royal politics, royal heroism. The only injury is a kid's broken leg; the only blood is menstrual blood. "Coming of Age" may be Le Guin's best attempt so far to find a story for her dear young hero, a very mundane, domestic story, set in an elegantly rendered science-fictional world.
About the time Emran Harge was making her last stand in Rer, Guyr Thade Tage em Ereb, a tradesperson of Rer, was conceiving a child with Karrid Arrage, a cook (eventually head cook) of the Ereb Hearth (Year's Best 483). In the year Argaven XVII began his/her second reign, "the Year One, or sixty-four-ago" (it is always "the Year One" on Gethen), Sov Thade Tage em Ereb was born. 5 Fourteen years after that, "in the Year One, or fifty-ago," Sov came of age, entering kemmer (estrus, heat) for the first time. In this Year One, now, the sixty-four-year old Sov has "been thinking about that"-coming of age-"a good deal" and narrates for us her/his coming of age story (471). That is the story, reasonably enough, of "Coming of Age in Karhide"; the plot is that story sandwiched between a short introduction on the City of Rer generally and an even shorter conclusion-two paragraphs-bringing us up to date on Sov's cousin, Sether, and giving the quietly stated moral of the story. Sov has gone into radio-the main medium on Gethen-and Sether "went into the Handdara, and became an Indweller in the old Fastness" at Rer, and is now an Adept. Sov visits the Fastness often, and Sether returns frequently to the Hearth. Sether and Sov talk, apparently of "The old days or the new times" and the story ends with the clause, "somer or kemmer, love is love" (486). Though they have not vowed kemmer and do not live together, Sov and Sether love one another, and, "Coming of Age in Karhide" is a love story and a story of a marriage.
As a love story and story of a marriage, "Coming of Age" is in the line of works from Le Guin as romantic (WTQ 1). Still, this is definitely not a story featuring "dreary male heroes" (Lefanu 143) doing chivalric or even macho-manly things to win the hearts of otherwise inactive women. Nor, the androgyny of Gethenians not withstanding, is it a story of which any but the most literal-minded would ask, "Where are the women?" Indeed, "Coming of Age" beautifully supplies the story of family structure and the practices of child rearing Joanna Russ correctly noted were absent from The Left Hand of Darkness ("The Image of Women" 39). The complaint people might have starting to read "Coming of Age" is that our world, anyway, has quite enough coming of age stories, and those of us who were regular movie-goers in the 1960s and 1970s may claim to have seen more than our quota of such stories and demand one hell of a variation on this romance theme if we are to be subjected to another. In "Coming of Age in Karhide," Le Guin delivers brilliantly.
First of all, time's figurative arrow in "Coming of Age" brings in with it not one coming of age story but at least four: the main story of Sov's sexual initiation and a word or two on Sether's (483-85), the coming of age of the Gethenians in entering the Ekumen (471), and the coming to the end of sexuality by Sov's mother's sibling Dory (and a number of others), and Sov's own approaching or having reached the end to her/his sexuality (473-74). "Coming of Age" means only puberty only for males; Gethenians are potentially male and females, and, we learn here, have menopause as well as puberty for coming of age.
Second, the arrow of time is only one of time's manifestations. Time also cycles and endures; the arrow or spear of plot is complemented by the carrier bag of-well of all the miscellaneous useful or interesting things one might put into a carrier bag. 6 In a perhaps more familiar figures of speech, science fiction tends to "foreground the background" and characters and their stories in SF compete for our attention with their worlds. In "Coming of Age in Karhide," Le Guin integrates with great skill story and world, and amply justifies our attention by giving us a perfect small cameo of a story set in a very ample world.
In "Coming of Age," Rer, the Ereb Hearth, and the Thade family are major features: Sov is embedded in them all, rooted, woven into their fabric-except those figures of speech are static, and a major part of the point of "Coming of Age" is that Rer and all it contains are (like water) both static and dynamic. Rer is like the farmhold Udan in ". . . A Fisherman of the Inland Sea" (1994), where the protagonist returns after a number of years to find "Everything was the same, itself, timeless. Udan in its dream of work stood over the river that ran timeless in its dream of movement" (FIS 167). Except, of course, the people of Udan keep changing. And Rer is no farmhold but a city, "the oldest city in the world," on Gethen, over 15,000 years old, with 15,000 years of changes. Rer is the place where Karhide became a nation, and the place of Karhide's first experiment in literal anarchy, where "Sedern Geger, the Unking," in a major change, "cast the crown into the River Arre from the palace towers, proclaiming an end to dominion," thereby beginning "The time they call the Flowering of Rer, the summer Century . . . ," which ended when the Hearth of Harge came to power (under Argaven I) and moved the capital to Erhenrang, across the mountains (Year's Best 471).
Politically, the people of Rer have been blessed in what a rabbinic authority in Fiddler on the Roof suggests is the proper blessing for a monarch: "May the Lord bless, and keep the Czar-far away from us!" Except for the recent warfare between Emran and Argaven XVII, the Harges have generally stayed on their side of the mountains, far from Rer; and the Harge monarchs wear only a ring of office, not a crown. They lack the political power to really push things around, to run things, Orgota fashion, with totalitarian "efficiency," to work their will imposing «progress» on Rer. More symbolically, but still of political consequence, Rer has not been urbanly renewed or planned but "rebuilt forever" by her people, becoming a city "as vast and random and ancient as the hills," as enduring and evolving as the hills. "Rer is all corners," and the people of Rer joke "that the Harges left because they were afraid of what might be around the corner" (), which makes Rer not only hill-like and like an ancient farmhold, but also like a forest, like Selver's forest for one, where "Revelation was lacking" and there is "no seeing everything at once: no certainty" (WWF 26; ch. 2).
Rer is a city Le Guin can like, and it is a fitting center for the Handdara unfaith, with the Handdara's lack of Revelation, its appreciation of uncertainty (LHD 71; ch. 5): a good Daoist place, with tunnels and randomness and, in the Thaw, lots of running water (476, also LHD 54; ch. 5).
The Ereb Hearth is also a good place; to start with, it is a good place to be a kid as a member of what Charnas in Motherlines, with poetic economy, calls a "childpack" and Sov calls a human "flock, a school, a swarm." The Thade kids run "in and out of our warren of rooms," doing work and getting educated and "looking after the babies"-though their care of babies includes playing catch with them. Sov feels that such "escapades were well within the rules and limits of the sedate, ancient Hearth," and tells us, very significantly, that the children felt these limits "not as constraints but as protection, the walls that kept us safe," which statement leads into Sov's first mention of a cousin Sether, and Sether's breaking a leg trying a rope-swing from a balcony in "Another misguided attempt at flight," before Gethenians had learned the word flight from the Ekumenical "Aliens" (472-73). Note here the elegance of intertwining of plot, background, image, and theme. Sether is to become Sov's lover, within the norms of the Thade family, and that love is central to the plot. The Hearth as a physical place is a major, if mostly neutral, setting of the story; and the Hearth with its physical and figurative walls is here a variation on a Le Guinian theme. Flying-falling upward through "a golden light"-becomes an image for Sov's sexual initiation (484). Most important, I think, these walls, the walls to the Hearth buildings, are not to be unbuilt; the safety of this Hearth is an unambiguously good thing, and appreciating safety in this eutopia is legitimate.
The Thade family is special and possibly old-fashioned in three or four ways. First, it is quite large. Sov's grandmother had four children, all of whom had children, yielding Sov "a bunch of cousins as well as a younger and an older wombsib," about whom we learn nothing, except for cousin Sether. Second, the neighbors gossip that "'The Thades always kemmer as women and always get pregnant,'" with someone inevitably adding, "'And they never keep kemmer.' . . . The former was an exaggeration," Sov tells us, "but the latter was true. Not one of us kids had a father. I didn't know for years who my getter was, and never gave it a thought." The reasons for the Thades' actions are not so much ideological as practical: "Clannish, the Thades preferred not to bring outsiders, even other members of our own Hearth, into the family." The implications, though, are quite ideological. In Left Hand, Ong Tot Oppong was convinced that "The whole structure of the Karhidish Clan-Hearths and Domains is indubitably based upon the institution of monogamous marriage" (LHD 92; ch. 7). The Thade portion of the Ereb Tage Hearth is indubitably not, and it is the only Hearth Sov tells us about. The little eutopia of the Thade clan is, for us, matriarchal-literally, as we shall learn (Year's Best 478)-and presents a women's space, a nonmonogamous, nonmarried women's community, and one that is unambiguously good. 7 The implications of this local taboo against monogamy, for some of the Thade children, though, can be bad: When young people among the Thades "fell in love and started talking about keeping kemmer or making vows, Grandmother and the mothers were ruthless. 'Vowing kemmer, what do you think you are, some kind of noble? some kind of fancy person? The kemmerhouse was good enough for me and it's good enough for you,' the mothers said to their lovelorn children, and sent them away, clear off to the old Ereb Domain in the country, to hoe braties till they got over being in love" (472). 8
We have, potentially, a kind of Romeo and Juliet story in "Coming of Age": a romance of young lovers, Coming of Age in each other's love, and, in despite of their family (possibly singular in this case), vowing kemmer and killing themselves off in the love-death of a romantic-tragedy-or, for a variation, vowing kemmer and finding a way to live happily ever after, making for a romantic comedy.
Le Guin follows neither of these routes. Instead of old Capulet's patriarchal household in Romeo and Juliet, or older Wold's tents and Winter City in Le Guin's own Planet of Exile (1966), we have here the "warmth and density and certainty"-a positive certainty-"of a family and a Hearth embedded in tradition, threads on the quick ever-repeating shuttle weaving the timeless web of custom and act and work and relationship," and in which Sov is quite happy until she turns fourteen, and enters the Gethenian form of puberty, the first coming of age. That is why Sov remembers the year; it is not why it is memorable for most of the Thade kin, who recall it as the year of "Dory's Somer-Forever Celebration" (473), and Sov significantly interrupts her/his coming of age story to tell that of a relative.
Dory is mother to Sether (475), and "Mothersib" to Sov, which I would translate here as "aunt" or "mother's sister," except, as we might expect from the physiology of Terran humans, "In their last years of kemmer . . . many people tend to go into kemmer as men; Dory's kemmers had been male for over a year, so I'll call Dory 'he,' although of course the point was that he would never be either he or she again" (473-74). Which makes Dory roughly, and misleadingly, analogous to "mother's brother," a point anthropologists and students of Old English poetry can appreciate. In societies in which the mother's clan keeps the children, "mother's brother" is an important male figure in raising those children. For whatever reasons, in old Germanic society, the mother's brother had a close relationship with at least the boys. "Mothersib Dory" is obviously an important person in Sov's life, but "his" role will not fit into Terran categories.
In any event, Dory is joined by age-mates "in the middle of going out of kemmer" or who had ended sexuality but hadn't marked the passage, and they stage an impromptu ritual and throw one great party. After fifty some years, what Sov most vividly remembers is "a circle of thirty or forty people, all middle-aged or old, singing and dancing, stamping the drum beats" in the centerhall of the Hearth, lit by fires. Like the old people in "Pathways of Desire" (1979), they have more reality than the young. "There was a fierce energy" in Dory et al., "they stamped as if their feet would go through the floor, their voices were deep and strong, they were laughing. The younger people watching them seemed pallid and shadowy." The motivation for the party was Dory's public recognition that s/he can no longer have kids or sex and has "to get old and die"-so they dance! And Sov looks at the dancers and wonders, "why are they happy? Aren't they old? Why do they act like they'd got free?", and this is the transition question to the story proper of Sov's puberty (473-74).
Puberty for Sov is about the same trouble that it is for large numbers of Americans on Terra, except a little worse and a little better because "bisexual" and concentrated in time. As with us, any tissues that can erect will erect during puberty, causing embarrassment-all the more acute because one is sure everyone can see or smell what is going on-plus, of course, «pubescing» kids undergoing physical discomfort or real pain. On Gethen, though, there is this much advantage over the Hainish norm: everyone's "tits are on fire" one time or another; everyone's "clitopenis" gets "swollen hugely" and sticks out, then shrinks till "it hurt[s] to piss" (475, 477). Every adolescent can get the unwanted hard-on, the unexpected blood flow. Introducing for a moment Genly Ai's mistake of seeing Gethenians male, then female (LHD 12; ch. 1), I'm going to gender Sether male in his finding puberty "dehumanizing. To get jerked around like that by your own body, to lose control," and he "can't stand the idea. Of being just a sex machine." And here he asks Sov if she-as I'm picturing this exchange-knows about how people "in kemmer go crazy and die if there isn't anybody else in kemmer? That they'll even attack people in somer? Their own mothers?" Ong Tot Oppong, in The Left Hand of Darkness, had said that "there can be no unconsenting sex, no rape" among Gethenians (94; ch. 7). Sov thinks so too, but the Narrator Sov remembers that Sether said that Tharry told him of a truck driver who went into kemmer as a male and "he did it to his cab-mate." We can note that Sether doesn't have the word rape, and that in the story the driver comes "out of kemmer and committed suicide" in shame for what he had done (477-78). And we can believe Tharry's story of the truck driver or not. I believe it: among the Athsheans in The Word for World Is Forest, some people do go crazy-very rarely-and murder other Athsheans, however strong their cultural and perhaps even physiological inhibitions against murder. It is possible that there have been some rapes in Gethenian history. Most of the rest of Sether's speech is the sort of tripe adolescents (and a few science fiction writers) sometimes tell one another on Terra: "People in kemmer aren't even human anymore! . . . . It's a primitive device for continuing the species. There's no need for civilized people to undergo it" (478).
Picturing Sether as male, we can see here one standard male hang-up, and a standard masculinist dream: rage at losing control to one's body, the desire for asexual (woman-free) reproduction. On the other hand, picturing Sether as male we get a denial of the stereotype-which lasted into the 1990s-of males in love with our bodies and thrilled with the thought of erectile tissue constantly erected.
The up-side of puberty for Sov, is that Sov gets more in touch with the mother, Guyr, and starts getting treated more like an adult. The saying Sov has heard among old people is "We shape each other to be human," which s/he recalls as Guyr strokes Sov physically (perhaps with Guyr's being touched by Sov metaphorically). And Guyr tells Sov, in a metaphorical «stroke» that even "Grand," the grandmother, has been bragging about Sov: ". . . what a beauty, what a mahad!", with mahad explained as a dialect word of Rer, meaning "a strong, handsome, generous, upright person, a reliable person": Yiddish Mensch, in a grandmother's mouth. The up-side is also Sether. At the end of Sether's speech on the inhumanity of sex, Sov tells Sether that s/he's human; "even if you have to do that stuff, that fucking"-a word she hears first aloud from Sether-"You're a mahad"; and five lines into the following section, Sov is saying "I want to go into kemmer with Sether" (478).
Sov's grandmother is pleased with this idea, although s/he must remind Sov that Sether may look older but s/he's a month or two behind Sov in pubescence. They are both "Dark-of-the-mooners," like Grand once was, and Grand advises Sov to "stay on the same wavelength, you and Sether," and grins a grin Sov hadn't seen before, "an inclusive grin." This "unquestioned autocrat in the Hearth" was starting to treat Sov as an equal, a clue that s/he "might be becoming more, rather than less human" (478). And Grand has hopes for Sov, and Sether, too, and wants Sov to spend a halfmonth at the Handdara Fastness: "'You've got a good brain, ' said Grand. 'You and Sether. I'd like to see some of you lot casting some shadows, some day. We Thades sit here in our Hearth and breed like pesthry. Is that enough?" (479). The question is rhetorical for Grand, if an open one in Le Guin's canon.
At the Fastness, Sov's ignorance is respected: in the Handdara, the Karhidish version of Daoism, they respect the Uncarved Block, the Child who has less to unlearn to contact the Dao, the Mother. Sov practices the Untrance daily-a kind of Tai Chi, it seems-and has her first menstruation, looking at "the smear with horror and loathing." The Indweller who sees her washing her sheet says nothing, but brings her stain-removing soap (479). After that, Sov has much better moments at the Fastness: a sense of peace "sank into me"-and s/he feels a "strangeness" of soul s/he associated with puberty, but now without the pain: it is part of "an immense enlargement" (480). As in Earthsea there is the Long Dance on midsummer's eve (FS 117; ch. 8), so at the Fastness there is a Midsummer Chant, for four days. Sov joins in, and then truly joins in. Sov can no longer hear her own voice "and heard only all the voices, and then only the music itself, and then suddenly the startling silvery rush of a single voice running across the weaving, against the current, and sinking into it and vanishing, and rising out of it again"-and then an ellipsis mark and it's time for dinner; Sov had been lost in the music and has touched something basic in Sov and in the world (480). S/he is ready for a change.
Sov's mother and "Grand" and the elders come for Sov at the Fastness and they return home and Sov is given all new clothes. "There was a spoken ritual that went with the clothes, not Handdara, I think, but a tradition of our Hearth; the words were all old and strange, the language of a thousand years ago"; and the ceremonial response, as among the Kesh and Native Americans, with variations, is "Haya!" Then Sov is given one last bit of advice, and Le Guin makes explicit a point mostly implicit in The Left Hand of Darkness (not sufficiently recognized by Ai, just assumed by Estraven): "'last advice,' they called it, since you gain shifgrethor when you go into kemmer, and once you have shifgrethor advice is insulting." 9 Not very originally, but usefully, they tell Sov to be careful-not of pregnancy, since s/he won't be fertile as female or male for a year or so-but to be careful of the Doorkeeper, and more generally careful who is to be the first. They parade Sov to the Ereb kemmerhouse and leave, with the family speaking the Handdara blessings, "'Praise then Darkness' or 'In the act of creation praise'" (481). 10
There is a ritual entrance to the kemmerhouse, lead by a Doorkeeper (cf. Roke in Earthsea), who is a "halfdead," which makes sense: he is a "pervert," that is, "a person in permanent kemmer, like the Aliens," like us. As Sov asks, what normal person would "want to live in a kemmerhouse" (482). The Doorkeeper, contrary to the suspicions and prejudices of some of Sov's family, turns out to be ethical and reliable. Sov thinks, "As I had in the Fastness, I felt the familiar reassurance of being part of something immensely older and larger than myself, even if it was strange and new to me," and s/he feels s/he "must entrust myself to it and be what it made me." S/he goes with the situation, the ritual; at the same time, as is common in mystic submission, s/he is "intensely alert" (483). 11
The first to approach Sov is Karrid Arrage, in kemmer as a male. The family also warned Sov of Karrid, and some in the kemmerhouse mistrust him when he picks her up, erotically. Karrid responds, "I won't hurt my own get, will I? I just want to be the one that gives her kemmer. As a woman, like a proper Thade. I want to give you that joy, little Sov." And he undresses Sov and s/he kemmers as a woman-and Karrid moves on before they couple (483), with Sov taken away by Berre, a stranger in kemmer as a woman, and they play erotically, much to Sov's delight. And then a man comes up and engages Berre's full attention, and Arrad Tehemmy, a hearthmate in kemmer as a man and older than Sov by a few years asks to be her first, and is (484).
Sov spends the entire first night with Arrad, "fucking a great deal"-and eating a great deal; the house's beer, though, is rationed by "an old woman-halfdead" who won't let people get drunk. Even sober, Sov feels "in love forever for all time all my life to eternity with Arrad"-until Arrad moves into somer, and a deep sleep, and Hama arrives: "and it was entirely different with Hama than it had been with Arrad, so that I realized that I must be in love with Hama, until Gehardar joined us. After that I think I began to understand that I loved them all and they all loved me and that that was the secret of the kemmerhouse" (485). There are others, but Sov as Narrator remembers only one other name. By the third or fourth close encounter of the erotic kind, however, even the densest reader should realize that «the first time» can be socially sanctioned and beautiful and erotic, and not at all romantic in ways that validate "love forever for all time all my life to eternity"-definitely not romantic in ways that reinforce long-term pair bonding and "the institution of monogamous marriage."
Coming out of kemmer, Sov meets Berre again, and when they're both in somer Berre talks a little business. S/he's "in the radio trade," not making radios but broadcasting, and s/he invites radio-lover Sov to visit at "the tower." This is how Sov finds a "livelong trade" and makes "a lifelong friend." This exchange ends the narration about the kemmerhouse, and leads, without a break in paragraph, to Sov's recalling telling Sether, "kemmer isn't exactly what we thought it was; it's much more complicated" (485). Apparently, sex doesn't have to be kept in "a room, as it were, apart"-in Ong Tot Oppong's elegant phrase-but can be integrated into friendship, and business. And sex, reproduction, love, and friendship can be separated from marriage as an institution.
"Coming of Age in Karhide" ends with Sov's summary of Sether's first kemmer, at the beginning of autumn (for another change of the year) and "at the dark of the moon," a time of power. If we have been picturing Sether as a boy entering manhood and Sov as a girl becoming a woman-and I intentionally offered temptations to do that-these last two paragraphs are very important.
One of the family brought Sether into kemmer as a woman, and then Sether brought me in. That was the first time I kemmered as a man. And we stayed on the same wavelength, as Grand put it. We never conceived together, being cousins and having some modern scruples, but we made love in every combination, every dark of the moon, for years. And Sether brought my child, Tamor, into first kemmer-as a woman, like a proper Thade. (485)
When Juliet finally makes love with Romeo, so to speak-and they do make love, not just copulate-Juliet is Romeo! 12 It's a gender-bender, and Le Guin is having things at least two ways: We see women's space, women's community among the Thade family; we can see Sov as a girl becoming a young woman (including the passage of menarche), a girl in love with her cousin Sether; and we are refused our categories of sex and gender and sexual propriety: Sether doesn't just have nipples to get irritated in puberty, but tits, Sov gets unmotivated erections with a clitopenis, and when clitopenis enters vagina, it is Sov's penis in Sether's vagina-and Sether in kemmer as a man aids in the "proper" sexual initiation of Sov's daughter. And we have a denial of romance, and an assertion of pair-bonding and love.
The very end of "Coming of Age," though, is the final bringing up to date, with intimations of the second coming of age, "Somer-Forever" (or at least until death).
Later on Sether went into the Handdara, and became an Indweller in the old Fastness, and now is an Adept. I go there often to join in one of the Chants or practice the Untrance or just to visit, and every few days Sether comes back to the Hearth. And we talk. The old days or the new times, somer or kemmer, love is love. (486)
Not sex here, not heterosexual marriage. What remains from the old times of Rer to the new Ekumenical age is the love of two humans as humans.
In "Coming of Age in Karhide," Le Guin may have found a story for her "dear young hero," and it was not "the old story" of macho heroism. "You have to go back to the Old Land if you're after the Old Way," and maybe you have to return, and re-return, to the Old Way to get to the new story. In her second return to Rer, Le Guin may have again come of age as an artist; in giving Sov and Sether and their family, City, and world to us, she may have helped American SF come of age. And in unrepentantly using the androgynous characters, in getting us, at least intermittently, "to accept & believe genderlessness/genderbothness," Le Guin here may mark a coming of age of American feminism as a set of feminisms, where one of the feminisms is a strangely Daoist one that can examine in one short story: a family where children count descent from their mothers, remain with the mothers, are ruled by the mothers-and include in the women's space of that story that most uncompromising symbol of (sexual/gender) integration, the Androgyne. 13
About this Book: End Notes
1 See also EoH 27; ch. 2: Luz’s seeing for a moment with Lev’s eyes “the glory, the City that should be, and was,” at least as a dream, an ideal.
2 According to Le Guin in the WTQ headnote (85-86) and Elizabeth Cummins Cogell (Biblio. A-15), the changes to produce the 1975 version of "Winter's King" were in pronoun references (plus, I think, other changes to render the story more androgynous). For this discussion, I have not consulted the 1969 version. For at least one significantly changed passage (WTQ 105-06), see Bittner, Approaches 142-43, n. 26: "So 'men' became 'people' and an 'empire' becomes a "commonality"—and a reference to the complexity of life is expanded to include "difference"; for a discussion of the original version of the story, see Approaches105-09 (ch. 4 § 6).
3 Cf. comment on suicide in WWF (103; ch. 5).
4 Le Guin might prefer "Coming of Age" if she sees "Winter's King" as a "killer story," part of the "wonderful, poisonous" male Heroic cycle ("Carrier Bag," DEW 168 [most of the DEW essays marked with a square and female symbol are relevant]).
5 It is more difficult to think the idea of Progress when one's calendar is always on the Year One. It is more difficult to value transcendent actions if your calendar is not dated from one.
6 "The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction" (1986) coll. DEW.
7 Except, of course, “matriarchal,” “women’s community,” and “women’s space” are our gendered terms, at most only obliquely applicable on Gethen.
8 Note hint in TD on maternal tones of voice as a candidate for a cross-cultural constant (199; ch. 5): the (grand)maternals lines here read well in the accent of an Ashenazi grandmother (cf. below, mahad/Mensch).
9 Cf. "Solitude" (1994).
10 For my use of "blessings" here, see "Nine Lives," where Kaph's "Good night" or similar phrase is called, in the final word of the story, "benediction" (WTQ 147).
11 Cf. Serenity in "Solitude" on "To be aware," esp. 156.
12 The distinction between copulating and making love is developed in TD, e.g., ch. 10.
13 Le Guin has written in her own voice, that through the late 1960s, "Art was to transcend gender. This idea of genderlessness or androgyny is what Virginia Woolf said was the condition of the greatest artists' minds. To me it is a demanding, a valid, a permanent ideal"—if definitely a problem as an ideal, given "the fact . . . that the men in charge of criticism, the colleges, and the society had produced male definitions of both art and gender" (ER : 6).