The Word for World Is Forest Questions and Answers
by Ursula K. Le Guin

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Selver is a god, and says that Davidson is also a god on page 180. How does this connect with the Athsheans’ punishment for Davidson’s acts?

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When Lyubov first hears Selver referred to as a god, he is shocked, and immediately seeks to puzzle out what that could mean. Lyubov recalls that the Athshean word sha’ab has a double meaning, as many of their words do. On the one hand, it means “god, or numinous entity, or powerful being”; on the other, it means “translator.” In contemplating how those two definitions come together, and what therefore it means to the Athsheans to be a god, he came to the conclusion that a god is one who could “[serve] as a link between the two realities…of dream-time and wake-time.” Effectively, this means that the god was one who could take a new idea, found in dreaming, and act upon it in the waking world - thus changing the world as well as himself.

It is important to understand this in order to see why both Selver and Davidson could be considered gods. In Selver’s words to Davidson, they “bring each other such gifts as gods bring.” Davidson brings with him the gift of murder into the forest. Selver received that gift in his Dreaming, and brought it into the world-time in order to save his people. In doing so, he and the Athsheans are forever changed: “You cannot take things that exist in the world and try to drive them back into the dream.”

But the gift that Selver gives to Davidson was the “people’s gift, which is not killing.” Based on what we can glean from the text about the standard operating procedures of the colonists, killing was what they did when they came to a new world they wished to take and reform in their own image. Perhaps they did not do so overtly—I’m sure they, like Davidson, would argue that they were there “to tame it,” to bring civilization to a primitive place, and bring it order and usefulness. As for the natives, forcing them into slavery wasn’t killing, it was merely putting them to good use. But they were killing nonetheless—the trees, the people, and the culture of Athshe were set on a destruction course as soon as the colonists landed.

But by the end of the story, the humans are leaving the planet for good. The clearing of the trees has stopped, the casualties on both sides end, and when the ship comes back, it is only to take the rest of the humans. As Lepennon tells Selver, “We shall go. Within two days we shall be gone. All of us. Forever.” Lepennon also says that it was largely the result of Lyubov’s work, developed from his discussions with Selver, that “Athshe is now free of the Terran Colony.” The gift of the Athsheans is not killing, and that gift was what sent the humans away with as little death as the Athsheans could manage.

Selver gave that gift to Davidson, when he refused to kill him following the destruction of New Java camp. The gift was accepted by the humans, but Davidson himself could not. Still, Davidson must bear it regardless, and as Selver said, he “must carry it alone.”

“All the killing is done now,” Selver said, and he would not end Davidson. Nor would the Ashtheans return him to his own people, who would “have to make a judgment…and kill” Davidson for his actions. As an “insane” god who could not be left among Selver’s people nor returned to his own, he must be exiled instead. “You’ll be treated like one of us when we go mad,” Selver tells him - “You’ll be taken to Rendlep…and left there.” Just as Selver was forced to accept the gift of killing to save Athshe, Davidson is forced to bear Selver’s god-gift, not killing, as punishment for the destruction he had caused among both their people.

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