Ursula K. Le Guin (1929 – 2018) was born on this day in Berkeley, California, one of those rare, sensitive minds our species is lucky to produce once in a century. She was best known for tales of science fiction and fantasy imbued with a concern for character development and language. She also wrote poems. In a profound letter-poem addressed to children – featured in her last book, A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (2019) – she playfully expounds the power and pleasure of reading, through the voice of an aged dragon (“second cousin once removed” of Smaug, Tolkien’s iconic antagonist from The Hobbit).
Here is the poem, a delightful play of words that is at once playful and profound.
Most dragons don’t know how to read.
They hiss and fume and guard their hoard.
A tasty knight is what they need
for dinner (they spit out the sword),
then go to sleep on heaps of treasure.
They’ve no use for the written word.
But I learned early to take pleasure
In reading tales and poetry,
and soon I knew that I preferred
reading a book to fighting knights.
I lived on apple pie and tea,
which a kind lady made for me.
And all my days and half my nights
were spent in reading story-books,
a life more thrilling than it looks.
Now that I’m old and cannot see
to read, the lady’s youngest child
comes every day to read to me,
a cheerful child named Valentine.
We’re both as happy as can be
among the treasures I have piled
in heaps around my apple tree.
No other dragon watches curled
around such riches as are mine,
My Word-hoard, my dear Library:
for every book contains a world!