A Disguised Moral Tale  


by Guido Eekhaut


It is a remarkable fact that the books Ursula Le Guin writes for ‘children’ are as beautifully intricate and complex, and stylistically perfect as the SF-fables she wrote for an adult audience several decades ago. In fact, nothing about this book, Gifts, tells the prospective buyer it’s a book for an adolescent audience, and when I picked up a copy in Forbidden Planet in London a couple of weeks ago it stood amongst the other SF and fantasy (and rather close to the ‘adult’ section of garish graphic novels). I guess that those of us who have grown up admiring the literary craft of Le Guin don’t really care if her books are marketed for ‘children’. Her stories and novels are and have always been explorations of the human condition, whatever the world of background her human characters grow up in.

            SF and fantasy provide writers with an almost indefinite freedom as to scientific, social or historical extrapolation, even if – as is the case with fantasy – this extrapolation is negative, when less sophisticated worlds are being described. This is the case in Gifts: a semi-mediaeval world, without technology (except, we may assume, the sort of industry that provides hand-made metal tools and weapons), where psychic powers are being used by a limited number of people.

These powers are genetically inherited, they are – so to speak – in the bloodline. Those who possess them rule over a tract of land, over a number of serf, as did feudal lords. Some of these powers (the gifts of the title) are harmless, like being able to call animals. Other however can be deadly and highly destructive, and give the bearer more ‘political’ power. The one that young Orrec received is the gift of undoing: he can destroy animate and inanimate things alike. But he does not know how to channel and control his gift. His fear is, that he will unjustly use it, even inadvertently kill the people he loves. So he allows his father to temporarily blind him, by wearing a blindfold. Even then the world is dangerous, for neighbouring lords are all too willing to enlarge their domain or steal cattle. Only the gifts keep a fragile sort of peace between them, for they can be the most dangerous of weapons.

            We are clearly in the land that Le Guin had explored before, more specifically in the Earthsea books. This land, and its inhabitants, is harsh and fierce, and the people are prideful because they must survive against brute forces of nature. The gifts of their lords (or brantors, as they are called in the book) protect the domains and their inhabitants against foreign invaders. All live in a subtle and armed truce, occasionally upset by mostly poorly managed raids.

The magic (which is never called as such) is fully integrated in this society and in the lives of the characters. It is an integral part of the plot, for Orrec is not only a privileged human with power over others. On the contrary: he is the victim of his gift and of its social but most of all its ethical implications. As a young adolescent he cannot understand how to use it, and his father cannot manage to learn him. But when, in a number of incidents, Orrec accidentily uses his gift anyway, he is shocked by the amount of death and destruction it brings on. His fear is that he will use it indiscriminately against all, even against his parents, maybe even against Gry, the daughter of the brantors of Barre and Rodd, whom he loves.

            Not only he fears his gift. Others are equally fearsome of him, and even more after he is blinded. They wonder of his gift is so powerful that even a simple glance of him can kill and destroy. But Orrec wonders about the true intentions of his father: “Am I to be a scarecrow?” he wonders, when he is lead into the domain of a rivaling neighbour.

            But there is more for Orrec to learn. He comes to understand that the gifts may have been used wrongly: now only their destructive side is known and used. But what if there is a positive side to them, not one that destroys people, but makes them healthy, cures them of diseases, unties – so to speak – their knots? It is while being blind to the world, and with the help of Gry, that Orrec comes to understand this hidden side of the gifts. And why would he and Gry even continue to use their gifts, since they have more mundane and ordinary capacities: he has learned to read and to memorise stories, and she is trained in handling animals. They no longer need magic to get along in the world.

            The typical Le Guin story – and certainly the sort of stories she writes for adult audiences – explores truly ‘alien’ societies where physical conditions determine interhuman relationships (like was the case, most notably, with The Left Hand of Darkness), even to such an extent that human biology can be fundamentally different from ‘ours’. The world portrayed in Gifts is much more simple than this. The gifts are of a limited use, and much less spectacular than is usually the case in fantasy. They account for a certain amount of power in its possessor, but even then their impact is rather small. We are very far removed from Tolkien, and happily so. Le Guin does not want her message obscured by too much of the supernatural. For her, any sort of power has to be limited, and used more than wisely. And if its use can be avoided at all, so be it.

            Do not let the simplicity of this tale and its plot fool you. Le Guin is a master in disguising her moral propositions as fantasy fables, which is – or should be – the way fantasy has to be used. The exorbitant exotic worlds of dragons and magicians, where heroes tend to go questing around in search of the same fateful attributes all over again, is as far as possible removed from the quiet, intriguing fables of Le Guin.


Ursula Le Guin: Gifts. Orion Publishing, London, 2004. Bound, 274 pg ISBN 1842551078, £ 10.99.



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