The Telling
Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin

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The Telling


science fiction

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As this is science fiction and involves collisions of fictitious cultures with invented languages, a couple of definitions are useful:

form of address used with an equal
one who tells or teaches part of the traditional spiritual/supernatural knowledge;
form of address when speaking to a maz
The Telling

Copyright © 2000 by Ursula K. Le Guin

One “Erasure is an art we must learn from the Akans. Seriously! I mean it. The Hainish want to hang on to everything. The Akans want to throw everything away. Maybe there’s a middle way?”

If the educational tapes and historical neareal dramas she had studied in the capital were factual, as she thought they were at least in part, within the lifetime of people now living, men and women had been crushed under the walls of temples, burned alive with books they tried to save, imprisoned for life for teaching anachronistic sedition and reactionary ideology. The tapes and dramas glorified this war against the past, relating the bombings, burnings, bulldozings in strictly heroic terms. [...]

Behind the glib and bloated rhetoric lay real suffering, real passion. On both sides. Sutty knew that. She was a child of violence, as Tong Ov had said. Still, she found it hard to keep in mind, and bitterly ironical, that here it was all the reverse of what she had known, the negative: that here the believers weren’t the persecutors but the persecuted.

But they were all true believers, both sides. Secular terrorists or holy terrorists, what difference?

Where my guides lead me in kindness
I follow, follow lightly,
and there are no footprints
in the dust behind us.

Four The mother mouse was the last to be caught, and when they released her they sang:

God will bless thee, loving mother
Of thy faithful husband’s child,
Cling to him and know no other,
Living pure and undefiled.

Pao knew a lot of Unist hymns, and had one for most occasions.



“What will I do, what will I do, if I can’t keep things even in my head?” she whispered to Pao, when she finally broke down and confessed to the terror that had been tormenting her for a week. Pao hadn’t comforted her much, just let her tell her fear and misery, and finally said, “I think that will wear off. I think you’ll find it all coming back.” And of course she was right. Talking about it changed it.
He had a straight back and good features, though ambition, anxiety, authority had made his face hard, tight. Nobody starts out that way, Sutty thought. There are no hard babies.
“These people are not picturesque relics of a time gone by. They are not harmless. They are vicious. They are the dregs of a deadly poison — the drug that stupefied my people for ten thousand years. They seek to drag us back into that paralysis, that mindless barbarism. They may treat you kindly, but I tell you they are ruthless. You are a prize to them. They’ll flatter you, teach you lies, promise you miracles. They are the enemies of truth, of science. Their so-called knowledge is rant, superstition, poetry.”

She felt a wave of hatred for him that frightened her.

She turned and went on, telling herself that she should be sorry for him. He was sincere. Most bigots are sincere.

“In my mother’s time, all children could read. They could begin to read the story. The telling never stopped. In the forests and the mountains, in the villages and the cities, they were telling the story, telling it aloud, reading it aloud. Yet it was all secret then too. The mystery of the beginning, of the roots of the world, the dark. The grave, yoz. Where it begins.”

One of the historians of Darranda said: To learn a belief without belief is to sing a song without the tune.

A yielding, an obedience, a willingness to accept these notes as the right notes, this pattern as the true pattern, is the essential gesture of performance, translation, and understanding. The gesture need not be permanent, a lasting posture of the mind or heart; yet it is not false. It is more than the suspension of disbelief needed to watch a play, yet less than a conversion. It is a position, a posture in the dance.



“They saw that religion is a useful tool for those in power. But there was no native theism or deism here. On Aka, god is a word without referent. No capital letters. No creator, only creation. No eternal father to reward and punish, justify injustice, ordain cruelty, offer salvation. Eternity not an endpoint but a continuity. Primal division of being into material and spiritual only as two-as-one, or one in two aspects. No hierarchy of Nature and Supernatural. No binary Dark/Light, Evil/Good, or Body/Soul. No afterlife, no rebirth, no immortal disembodied or reincarnated soul. No heavens, no hells. The Akan system is a spiritual discipline with spiritual goals, but they’re exactly the same goals it seeks for bodily and ethical well-being. Right action is its own end. Dharma without karma.”



She had long debates with her noter about whether any word in Dovzan, or in the older and partly non-Dovzan vocabulary used by ‘educated’ people, could be said to mean sacred or holy. There were words she translated as power, mystery, not-controlled-by-people, part-of-harmony. These terms were never reserved for a certain place or type of action. Rather it appeared that in the old Akan way of thinking any place, any act, if properly perceived, was actually mysterious and powerful, potentially sacred. And perception seemed to involve description — telling about the place, or the act, or the event, or the person. Talking about it, making it into a story.

But these stories weren’t gospel. They weren’t Truth. They were essays at the truth. Glances, glimpses of sacredness. One was not asked to believe, only to listen.



There were no rules. There was always an alternative. The story-tellers, when they commented on the legends and histories they told, might point out that that had been a good way or a right way of doing something, but they never talked about the right way. And good was an adjective, always: good food, good health, good sex, good weather. No capital letters. Good or Evil as entities, warring powers, never.

The system wasn’t a religion at all, Sutty told her noter with increasing enthusiasm. Of course it had a spiritual dimension. In fact, it was the spiritual dimension of life for those who lived it. But religion as an institution demanding belief and claiming authority, religion as a community shaped by a knowledge of foreign deities or competing institutions, had never existed on Aka.

Until, perhaps, the present time.

Clumsy and archaic as nonalphabetic scripts were in some respects, they could bond and preserve, as Chinese ideograms had done on Earth, a great diversity of languages and dialects; and they made texts written thousands of years ago readable without translation even though the sounds of the words had changed out of all recognition. Indeed, to the Dovzan reformers, that may have been the chief reason for getting rid of the old script: it was not only an impediment to progress but an actively conservative force. It kept the past alive.
What was it these people believed? What was it they held sacred? She kept looking for the core of the matter, the words at the heart of the Telling, the holy books to study and memorise. She found them, but not it. No bible. No koran. Dozens of upanishads, a million sutras. Every maz gave her something else to read. Already she had read or heard countless texts, written, oral, both written and oral, many or most of them existing in more than one mode and more than one version. The subject matter of the tellings seemed to be endless, even now, when so much had been destroyed.



Whatever it was she was trying to learn, the education she was trying to get, was not a religion with a creed and a sacred book. It did not deal in belief. All its books were sacred. It could not be defined by symbols and ideas, no matter how beautiful, rich, and interesting its symbols and ideas.

From a great consensual social pattern within which each individual sought physical and spiritual satisfaction, they had made it a great hierarchy in which each individual served the indefinite growth of the society’s material wealth and complexity. From an active homeostatic balance they had turned it to an active forward-thrusting imbalance.

The difference, Sutty told her noter, was between somebody sitting thinking after a good meal and somebody running furiously to catch the bus.


She particularly detested the literal readings. By such literalism, fundamentalism, religions betrayed the best intentions of their founders. Reducing thought to formula, replacing choice by obedience, these preachers turned the living word into dead law.

Six “So they learned to read and write and tell. But they were still barbarians, yoz Sutty. They’d rather make war than trade. When they traded, they made a war of it. They allowed usury, and sought great profits. They always had headmen to whom they paid tribute, men who were rich, and passed power down to their sons. Gobey — bosses. So when they began to have maz, they made the maz into bosses, with the power to rule and punish. Gave the maz the power to tax. They made them rich. They made the sons of maz all maz, by birth. They made the ordinary people into nothing. It was wrong. It was all wrong.”

“What is sacredness?”

“What is true is sacred. What has been suffered. What is beautiful.”

“So the Telling tries to find the truth in events . . . or the pain, or the beauty?”

“No need to try to find it,” said Unroy. “The sacredness is there. In the truth, the pain, the beauty. So that the telling of it is sacred.”

“I know who you are,” she said. “You’re my enemy. The true believer. The righteous man with the righteous mission. The one that jails people for reading and burns the books. That persecutes people who do exercises the wrong way. That dumps out the medicine and pisses on it. That pushes the button that sends the drones to drop the bombs. And hides behind a bunker and doesn’t get hurt. Shielded by God. Or the state. Or whatever lie he uses to hide his envy and self-interest and cowardice and lust for power.”

“The principle we work on is that withholding knowledge is always a mistake — in the long run. So if asked to tell what we know, we tell it.”



“They believed that their beliefs should prevail absolutely, that no other way of thinking should exist. They sabotaged the information storage networks and destroyed libraries and schools all over the world. They didn’t destroy everything, of course. It can be pieced back together. But . . . damage was done. That kind of damage is something like a stroke. One recovers, almost.”

Goiri said, “Teran was dying. He said, ‘My brother, my husband, my love, my self, you and I believed that we would defeat our enemy and bring peace to our land. But belief is the wound that knowledge heals, and death begins the Telling of our life.’ Then he died in Penan’s arms.”

The grave, yoz. Where it begins.

“I can carry that message,” Sutty said finally. “Though bigots have small ears.”




“I hate the bigotry you believe in. But I’ll try not to hate you.”

“Why?” he asked. His voice was cold, as she remembered it.

“Hate eats the hater,” she quoted from a familiar text of the Telling.




“God is Reason, yes,” he said, rather uncertainly.

“Well, on Terra, the word has been an enormously important one for thousands of years, among many peoples. And usually it doesn’t refer so much to what’s reasonable as to what’s mysterious. What can’t be understood. So there are all kinds of ideas of God.”



“Whatever they said God said to do was right. Whoever didn’t do what they said God said to do was wrong. A lot of people believed this. They were called Unists. One God, one Truth, one Earth. And they . . . They made a lot of trouble.”

The words came out foolish, babyish, primer words for the years of agony.

“You see, my people, I mean all of us on Earth, had done a lot of damage to our world, fought over it, used it up, wasted it. There’d been plagues, famines, misery for so long. People wanted comfort and help. They wanted to believe they were doing something right. I guess if they joined the Unists, they could believe everything they did was right.”

text checked (see note) Jan 2005

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