The Library of America, publisher of many of the great works of American literature, recently issued as Volume 281 The Complete Orsinia, a collection of works by Ursula Le Guin of Portland. The volume includes a novel and related stories from the first half of her career. More volumes are to come. This distinct honor enshrines Le Guin’s work as part of America’s literary canon and when combined with a Distinguished Contribution medal from the National Book Award and a feature in the October 17th edition of The New Yorker establishes her as one of Oregon’s most celebrated authors.
Her fame came first as a writer of science fiction but her work is broader than the genre and includes fantasies like A Wizard of Earthsea, the influential novel The Left Hand of Darkness, historical novels and poetry. Perhaps her most famous piece is the disturbing tale The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, first published in 1973 and since frequently anthologized and discussed in literature classes around the world.
The parable describes the mythical city of Omelas set by the sea; it is summer festival. People wear robes but also ride trains. They enjoy spacious parks and listen to sweet notes of a child playing a wooden flute. There are no soldiers and no kings. Yet this happy existence comes at a price – a small child locked in the corner of a basement closet, on a stool, wrapped in rags, covered in filth, starving and able to issue only the occasional whimper. All know of the child’s existence; but most citizens accept this sacrifice as the price of their happiness and prosperity. Occasionally and incredibly a citizen of Omelas will walk out through the city’s beautiful gates and into the darkness of the fields. Those who leave do not come back.
There is a local connection to this haunting story that may prompt a reader from Salem to pause a bit and ponder: Omelas, you see, is the name Le Guin discovered when driving through Portland and catching a glimpse of the words Salem, Oregon in her rear view mirror. A mirror image, we know but tend to forget, is a reversed image. So Omelas, this soft and alluring but ultimately ugly name, is derived from the name of our fair city. There is no indication that Le Guin was inspired by any special wickedness in Salem. Her story is not set in a specific locale. Our faults though many tend to the prosaic. Nonetheless the connection makes one wonder. There is some solace. If you look at a mirror image of Salem you will not see clearly Omlelas but rather a jumble of letters, some backwards. It took an artist to make the link.
But back to the story: If you haven’t read it, read it; you will never forget it. If you have read it, read it again and marvel at the many questions it provokes. Is it enough to stay and look away or will it do to walk away? With either choice the many are happy and the child suffers. Stay and seek to save the child and risk retribution and civil war. Many more will suffer. It is your call.
Our man about town, Don Upjohn enjoys discovering and sharing literary bits about Salem.