True Voyage is Return

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

–From “Little Gidding,” T. S. Eliot

“True voyage is return.” The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin

For someone whose wanderlust threatens to drive her insane at times, the line “True voyage is return,” a proverb by the brilliant and admirable Odo, hit me like a hammer. It’s one of the three or four lines that stuck with me after finishing the book a month ago, repeating itself in my thoughts unbidden, raising questions as I plan to live abroad. Laura quoted to me from “Little Gidding” yesterday and I was excited about the first line: “We shall not cease in exploration”!! Huzzah! But it continues, saying that we will “arrive where we started.” I read through the Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot this morning, a work of genius, and the resounding theme is cyclical, “In my beginning is my end,” “What might have been and what has been / Point to one end, which is always present.”

For Odo, the meaning was connected to all her other thoughts and the society she created, a working anarchist utopia, communal, free. For “true voyage” to benefit the larger society, the organism of which the individual is only part, there must be “return.” Knowledge, experience gained, must be brought back to the community and shared. That isn’t what Eliot meant in “Little Gidding”: he is more concerned about the cycle of things, the days, the seasons in an unending pattern. You return to where you began because you have traveled the world, seen everything, so that the only place left is where you started, because it has now become the unknown. “Through the unknown, unremembered gate / When the last of earth left to discover / Is that which was the beginning.” Implied is the idea that the cycle would continue, and you would once again leave, never ceasing in exploration.

The explorer, the voyager, does not set out on their journey knowing when they will return. They know that they will, or might, someday, if they are able, but that is in the indeterminate future. As Bilbo said, “It’s dangerous business walking out your front door [..] you never know where you might be swept off to.”

Even the original Walking Song from The Hobbit includes return: “Yet feet that wandering have gone / Turn at last to home afar.” But I prefer Bilbo’s version from The Fellowship of the Ring:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

The Word for World is Forest

Yesterday I read The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin. It’s unfortunate that it is now out of print because I would recommend it to anyone interested in speculative fiction, sci-fi, or the idea that literature explores humanity. Because that is what Le Guin does: explore humanity. She’s a master at it.

Humanity is the overarching theme in the Novels of the Ekumen (a.k.a. the Hainish Cycle). What is it that makes us human? How can “they” from this other world be as human as I am? In The Word for World is Forest, the issue is complicated by that the Athsheans don’t look human–the humanoids from the other worlds at least look more or less the same. But the Athsheans are a meter high and covered with green fur. It is easy, then, for the Colonists to treat the Athsheans as animals and for the Athsheans to cultivate fear and hate for the Colonists. You see all sides of this issue, even the side of the two people who do manage to form a friendship, bridging the gap between “two languages, two cultures, two species of the genus Man” (100).

I’ve tried to find the best sentences or passages that exemplify her use of language, but it is difficult, because the book has to be taken as a whole. The power is in the complete story. (Quotations are found below, click ‘Read More’.)

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