I was deeply saddened to hear about the demise of Ursula K. Le Guin, the acclaimed science fiction and fantasy writer best known for her Earthsea series. She was much more than a writer of science fiction. She was a poet, a philosopher, a feminist and a visionary. She had penned many poems, short stories, essays and even written children’s books. What is uncanny is that I was in the process of writing this blog post on one of her short stories when I heard the sad news yesterday. What a coincidence! Maybe I have acquired some ESP skills of my own while immersing myself in her fictional world!
I recently happened upon an inventive and cleverly written short story from Le Guin’s 1982 collection, The Compass Rose. The story veers out of the sci-fi genre into the realm of myth and folklore. I have always relished stories about mythical and supernatural beings. After all, dragons, wizards, vampires and other shape-shifting creatures are more enthralling than a world peopled with dull people like us. This fascination that I undoubtedly share with countless other readers goes beyond the curiosity of the unknown. In Jungian terms, myths and mythical creatures convey archetypal truths about human nature and emanate from our ‘collective unconscious’. These myths and legends have existed for millennia across the world among different cultures and are as old as humankind itself.
Please read Le Guin’s interesting story here (it is brief and you can read it in a few minutes.) before you read the rest of my post which contains spoilers:
The story is narrated in first person from the perspective of a wife. At the beginning of the story, she creates the picture of an ideal husband. She describes the gentle and considerate ways of someone devoted to his family. This hardworking man and wonderful father is also gifted with an amazing ability to sing. But his disposition starts to change gradually. He becomes more irritable and starts disappearing from home. His prolonged absences arouse his wife’s suspicions especially as his voice changes when he returns home and he even starts smelling strange. Needless to say, the transformation scares the wife and children. His little daughter becomes afraid of him overnight. We are told that it’s the moon’s fault and that he has got the curse in his blood. Could this man be transforming into a wolf? The next time the moon changes, the wife sees a fleshy and furious man emerging in place of the handsome wolf. The pack hunts him down and brutally puts him to death.
Wow! I never saw this coming! The reversal of the werewolf story is a clever ploy by the writer. The first person narration is a good device to trick the readers into believing that the story is about human beings. She certainly managed to dupe me. The narrator keeps us guessing throughout the story and the plot is unraveled gradually, a hint at a time. The unexpected twist in the end when you discover that the wolf is the true form makes you go back to re-read the story in light of what you have discovered. Not once does the narrator say that the story is about human beings but the reader makes the assumption about the text. It is interesting how our minds can be tricked into believing what we perceive to be true. The narrator teases us by talking about the close bond she shares with her sister, her parents who have moved south and her life in a community. I thought her perfect husband had gone astray and had infidelity issues when she brings up the smells that linger and describes how he washes himself to get rid of the smells. I even suspected child abuse when the little girl develops a revulsion for her father overnight and is petrified of him.
Yet, the narrator drops many hints throughout the story. She talks of a hunting trip and game, of the husband sleeping during the day and the fact that on one sleepless occasion, he goes out in the glaring sun. He also leads the singing in the full moon with others joining in which should have led us to imagine wolves howling to the moon. At this point I realized the story was about a werewolf. But I still thought it was about a man who changes into a wolf. It was only when the wife trembled with a grief howl and a terror howl that I finally realized she is a wolf.
Fiction abounds in examples of the werewolf motif right from classical antiquity to modern literature like the Harry Potter series. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Lycaon is transformed into a wolf by Zeus for serving him the flesh of a prisoner and for attempting to murder him while he slept. (the Greek word for wolf is ‘lycos’ and the word lycanthropy or ability to transform into a wolf is derived from the same root). In a Breton lai called Bisclavret, written by Marie de France in the 12th century, a werewolf’s wife on discovering his secret identity becomes disgusted with his physical appearance and doesn’t wish to “lie with him” anymore. She finds a knight who had been pursuing her for a while and schemes with him to steal the wolf’s clothes and prevent him from becoming human. The selfish adulterous wife turns out to be more ‘beastly’ than her noble werewolf husband and in the end is banished out of the kingdom by the King but not before having her nose bitten off by the wolf.
There was a time when people believed seriously in werewolves and thought they were humans under a curse who could change their form into wolves. Any unusually hairy person or someone with a sensitivity to light could have been rumored to be a werewolf centuries ago. Unfortunately they were thought to be in cahoots with witches and just like their alleged partners in crime, they were also put to death in the Middle Ages.
Le Guin has subverted this popular literary trope into something unexpected and has demonstrated how we as readers bring our biases and preconceived notions to the text, which begs the question as to who the real beast is. If it is scary to imagine a man turning into a wolf, doesn’t the transformation from a wolf to a man present an even more frightening prospect?
Adieu, Ursula le Guin! You have departed this world, I hope, only to find newer worlds beyond! I can imagine you in some far away galaxy in the universe spinning even more wondrous tales!