Ursula LeGuin is an author that has accompanied me since my teens, when I encountered A Wizard of Earthsea in Swedish translation. I have even had the pleasure of meeting the venerable lady face to face at her Swedish publisher’s office about 20 years ago.
By now I have read most of her stories. Two of them shake my heart every time I enter their pages even though I have read both a dozen times or more: the novel The Tombs of Atuan and the short-story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. Human cruelty, liberation and escape are their key concepts. LeGuin shows that a decent human must act responsibly when society is unjust, even if the price gets steep. Liberty is gained by actively rejecting the status quo.
Arha of Atuan is a de facto slave, even though her position has a high status — society expects her to surrender her freedom to serve chthonic powers that instead ought to be shunned. While growing up she gradually learns that she is not the person others believe her to be and the insight eventually sets her free, though freedom turns out to be a tough road. In sparse scenes the reader sees the dreary life at the desert shrine and how its human denizens become twisted by their unnatural existence.
The city of Omelas is located elsewhere in never-never-land, the most attractive place one can imagine. But what is the price paid for the abundant blessings? Yes, there is a serpent in the shadows, though many townspeople deny its true qualities. The shortstory cuts like a glass shard in my heart — I am one of those unsettled souls that refuse the city’s covenant and instead walk away from Omelas.
“The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”
To use a term coined by the American author Chaim Potok: “the sacred discontent”, i.e. to reject injustice and act accordingly, accepting the cost this choice entails.