TEHANU – Ursula Le Guin (1990)

TehanuSome 17 years after Le Guin completed the original Earthsea trilogy, she returns to the isle of Gont. This time she focuses on Tenar from The Tombs of Atuan, but also Sparrowhawk remains an important character, and Arren from The Farthest Shore plays a part as well.

It’s commonly known Le Guin wrote this book partly to rectify the gender imbalance in the initial trilogy, and in the fantasy genre in general. Indeed: wizards and mages are Men, and females with magical powers generally are foul witches or servile priestesses. The medieval setting of most fantasy stories is filled with patriarchy and Kings – nobody needs to be convinced of that. So yes, in today’s parlance, Tehanu is woke – but not fully woke, as I’ll try to explain.

Before I write a bit on the book’s political issues, let me try to give an overall appraisal of Tehanu, without spoiling the first three books.

I thought the first book to be the best, an absolute classic 5-star read of undiminished power, even 50 years after it was published. Tombs was still great, but had a little less of A Wizard‘s poetry. Book three is still worth your time, but occasionally loses itself in shoddy philosophy and muddled thinking. As a didactic effort, it falls short. More details in my review.

Emotionally, Tehanu tops both Tombs and The Farthest Shore. Especially Ged’s struggle, but also Tenar’s relationship to the maimed child Therru, and Therru’s own problems, hit home. The scenes when Tenar’s son returns are chilling. Part of why it works so well is because one has a history with these characters, but it’s not only that – it’s also because Le Guin focuses on things hardly focused on in fantasy: shame, failure, existential angst. It makes the book feel real & honest, and pertinent among its peers. On top of all that, the novel also works wonderfully as a depiction of simple rural village life – detractors might object and claim not a lot happens. They are right of course: this is not an action packed tome.

Le Guin’s prose is solid, and especially at the beginning it breaths something of the first book’s mythical quality.

What I didn’t like about the book is that it remains very binary in its approach to gender. It’s hard to determine where Le Guin starts speaking, and what is only something her characters say, but overall, every character has this kind of binary, generalizing approach. Women can also have magical powers, but they are of a different kind, and all women this, all men that. It is obviously fitting for characters brought up in a world like Earthsea to speak & think like that, but as a nuanced treatment of these issues in our own world, Tehanu fails. As an often recurring talking point among the characters, the theme is also too explicitly present for my taste.

This doesn’t mean its message should be overlooked however: as a correction of what used to be a very black & white real world matter, maybe a rather black & white form of antidote was necessary in 1990.

The book also splendidly portrays the injustice of a system where males inherit everything, and can become lord of the house overnight: as I wrote, the few scenes where Tenar’s son returns are chilling, and let the reader feel the inherent injustice in an existing real world system. Such feelings are not easy to conjure, and there are writers that try their entire careers to write such powerful, meaningful moments. Similarly, the threat of male violence looms throughout various parts of the narrative, in various forms.

Finally, it’s of note to point at a certain irony. To right the wrongs of sexism, Le Guin wrote a book that could be considered problematic in another way by today’s standards. I’m not talking about low opinions on foreigners that some characters express numerous times – again, this is realistic behavior in the world portrayed. I am talking about Le Guin’s decision, as an author, to have Therru maimed and nearly killed by “tramps”, and then describing these people as Romani people traditionally have been described: as beggars, unemployed, without a home, as thieves that try to pass as tinkers. It should be noted that Romani were even accused of deliberately maiming some of their children so they’d be better beggars.

I am not claiming Le Guin specifically had Romani in mind when she wrote Tehanu – not at all. There are other explanations why Therru was disfigured, and they are more fitting if you take the entire content of the novel into account. What I am trying to say is that cultural standards evolve, and that some readers in 2020 might be more sensitive to this particular part of the story, to the extent that Le Guin probably would not have written it today like she wrote it 30 years ago. I guess that is fitting for a book that was started to correct something she wrote 17 years earlier. Betterment is a never ending process.  

Tales from Earthsea – a collection of stories published in 2001 – continues Le Guin’s effort to inject more women in the Earthsea mythos. The Other Wind, the fifth novel, also from 2001, wraps up the story of Tenar, Therru, Arren & Sparrowhawk.

Although each of the four novels in the cycle so far is in and of itself a perfectly valid point to stop, I want to read on – even though I don’t always philosophically see eye to eye with Ursula Le Guin. That says something about her power as a storyteller.

Tehanu has important problems that keep it from being a novel that is fully successful, but on those moments that it is, it is outright marvelous.

Tehanu Humphries

Consult the author index for all my other reviews, or my favorite lists.

20 responses to “TEHANU – Ursula Le Guin (1990)

  1. Tehanu was for me an unexpected wonder. To enter again into the wonderful setting washed away any critical objections I would ever bring up, and I wouldn’t want to be objective here. What I loved was the change of view, the more adult take. Like this film „Robin and Marian“ with old Sean Connors and Audrey Hepburn, slower but still recognizable the same. Or Tad Williams entering Osten Ard again, oh joy.

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  2. I read this one about 20 years ago, and remember it vaguely, and then shortly afterwards read The gate to Women’s Country by Sheri S. Tepper and staggered away from them both with that binary sexual identity you mention above: all women this, all men that. I think that was the point where the scales started to fall from my eyes regarding Fantasy — not that the problematic proto-wokeness was an issue per se, more that I suddenly noticed how much of it seemed to be pushing an agenda. And suddenly I couldn’t find any fun it it any more, y’know?

    In much the same way that every 1950s SF movie — The Thing from Another World, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Teenagers from Outer Space, etc — is a thinly-veiled Communist allegory and becomes somewhat didactic when you see it, I very much feel that the realisation that I wasn’t just reading stories sort of spoiled it for me. And, yes, I was a startlingly unperceptive young man not to have realised this sooner.

    However, Le Guin is a wonderful writer, and wrote some all-time classics (AWoE, The Dispossessed, Left-Hand of Darkness, etc), so please don’t feel I’m on some anti-woke crusade here 🙂

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    • Yes I think we are fully on the same page: I’ve written it here before, but when I read fantasy, I want to be transported to another world, and not be reminded the entire time about our own. It’s what wrecked The Fifth Season by Nemisin for me: much too obvious.

      It has nothing to do with not agreeeing with the content either, just about form.
      Not that politics can’t have a place in fiction, but whenever the didactic agenda pushing gains the upper hand, I’m usually out – unless in the case of Vonnegut and that ilk. For my tastes, politics work best if they are somehow part of the blueprint of the novel, but not obvious on the surface level of the story. For instance, gender was part of Leckie’s trilogy, but the story wasn’t about gender – not that Leckie’s gimmick was fully succesfull by itself, but that’s another matter. Similarly, Version Control has lots of interesting stuff to say about race & politics, but it’s not about that. It’s also the reason why NY 2140 by KSR failed to connect with me, to pick an author that is overtly political in interviews etc.

      As for Le Guin, from what I’ve read AWoE is her crowning achievement, with LHoD a close second. I didn’t like The Dispossessed, too binary & didactic again, but maybe I should give it another chance.

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      • Yeah, Leckie’s utilisation of gender blindness was a superb conceit, but difficult to really immerse yourself in. However, I came away with the distinct impression that it’s also not the point of that world (I didn’t get beyond the first book).

        The social elements of The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor really landed with me, but I accept that it was just a superbly written piece of work that drew some wonderful parallels — normally I’d find that kind of thing far too off-putting. Essentially, I guess I’m just not a fan of subtext 😄

        Re: The Dispossessed, I read it before these realisations occurred to me, so it might not be that good. It could just be a Catch-22 in that I read it at the perfect time and would now find it unreadable. But I don’t imagine I’ll have the time to find out any time soon, so I’m going to hope that’s not the case…!


        • The 3 Leckie books are about different things. I knew I’ve written about it – that’s the great thing about a blog: “Ancillary Justice was a book about the non-existence of free will, and Ancillary Sword was about love. Ancillary Mercy adds the theme of identity, and what it means to be a Significant being.” I think 2 and 3 are better than 1, btw.

          I also reread my review of The Book of Phoenix, I thought that book was both very bad & boring, yet at the same time very very good, highly successful in what it meant to do, and that because of the politics. So I guess I agree, it’s a paradoxical case viewed in the light of our discussion here. Here’s the review: https://schicksalgemeinschaft.wordpress.com/2016/08/19/the-book-of-phoenix-nnedi-okorafor-2015/

          I doubt it that’ll ever read The Dispossesed again. I guess I should, but so many other books, and no time. We’re all in the same boat.


  3. How serendipitous. I finished ‘The Lathe of Heaven’ not too long ago, and while it was lovely there was this little throw away line equating homosexuality with paedophilia. Whoops, that shit don’t fly in 2020. But that was written 50 years ago, and it was a dumber time back then. You can only ever be as woke as the times around you, and at the end of the day we are all tomorrow’s barbarians.

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  4. I must admit I am not a fan of Tehanu; as a book it works better than The Farthest Shore, but the gender dichotomy and the rush to right all wrongs seemed always very heavy-handed and not successful – I felt like I was seeing characters I came to love utilized as points in an ideological manifesto. I definitely enjoyed The Other Wind more, even though the feminist message is even stronger – but it’s something inherent in the world of Earthsea, and didn’t seem so tacked on as in Tehanu. That angry me was a younger me, though – I might be less harsh today 😉 Besides, I actually like ToA – I love seeing how far Tenar develops, freed from that constricting, abusive society.

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    • That’s good to know on The Other Wind, thanks! There seems to be less enthiasm for everything after the original theory, but lately I’ve seen positive opinions on the later works by people I trust, so I’m hopeful.

      I think I agree with your overall assessment of Tehanu, but there’s quite a few gems of scenes that more than make up for the book’s shortcomings. I’m 100% sure I wouldn’t have found those gems 15 years ago.

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      • Actually, one of very few reviews we have of Le Guin’s works on the blog is the one for The Other Wind 😉
        I remember a few scenes that made an impression on me – the one with the son coming back was very powerful indeed, the helplessness and fear in it something I still remember.

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  5. Aargh, I looked away and somehow lost my original lengthy comment here. I take your point about UKLG’s binary exclusivity (perhaps unsurprising given this was written over three decades ago?) but after a second read I found her rebalancing of the male supremacy in the trilogy entirely understandable. And yes, it’s not enough to say this is fine in the context of Earthsea.

    Anyway, here was my take on Tehanu: https://wp.me/s2oNj1-tehanu

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    • Yes, I’ve read your review, even before I started reading.

      I think I find it understandable too, 100%. But that doesn’t make it a fully successful reading experience today. I guess in essence that’s nitpicking: the overal message + the gems make this clearly worth it.

      I take it from your last sentence that you mean you agree the characters’ statements in the context of Earthsea don’t excuse the binary treatment in the book overal? Thinking about it some more, maybe it was the only way: how else have characters true to themselves? I’m not sure how Le Guin could have solved it. Maybe the book needs the binary approach to get its point across (like the return of Spark, the violence by that mage, etc.).

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      • As she talks a lot about balance in Earthsea, perhaps the righting of that balance requires the seesaw to wobble from one extreme to the other before settling?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, but in a way she just confirms the binary status quo – but I get that’s not what you mean. The more I think about this issue, the more I get confused.

          I still think the gender issue is too dominant/obvious in the conversations of the characters, but maybe also that was necessary to set the scene.

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          • Maybe it was an attempt to show how characters perceive and afterwards solve the gender inequality? In The Other Wind the women are given more agency, and more equality, but this doesn’t come without a fight, and fight doesn’t come without awareness – which is what maybe Tehanu was trying to achieve.

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