Ursula LeGuin: The Word for World is Forest

September 3, 2015

9781473205789LeGuin wrote the story that developed into this novel to express her anger at the US behaviour in the Vietnam War; I was wondering whether I’d be faced with something over-didactic or political. I needn’t have worried – she is superb, as always: it’s a short, and very powerful novel.

It’s another story in the Hainish cycle of novels (if you want to know more, you can find other posts about her stories elsewhere on this site). An entirely forested planet, inhabited by apparently primitive hominids, is being colonised and logged by settlers from Earth, who exploit the natives, and make no attempt to understand them and their ways, although it’s clear their world will eventually be destroyed. LeGuin slowly sets up two clashes, between Davidson, an Earthman whom she has described as truly evil and another who is striving to understand the natives and their ways, and protect them from his own kind, and between the evil Davidson and a native, Selver, who develops the will to resist and ability to fight and passes this on to his people, becoming a god in the process.

LeGuin makes it very sadly clear that no-one escapes the struggle unscathed: the planet’s inhabitants, having learned to kill to liberate their world, can never un-learn this, even though they succeed, and the Earth colonists leave their planet never to return…the evil Davidson has lost his mind, and Lyubov, the anthropologist who hoped to understand the people of the planet and instrumental in saving their world from destruction, loses his life.

LeGuin indirectly criticises the arrogance and ignorance of her own nation, apparently accepts that extreme measures will be taken by people struggling to be free, and shows how, tragically, violence and warfare corrupt all they touch. Forty years later, it seems earthlings are none the wiser.

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