Some 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.