Oh let me count the ways I love Ursula K. Le Guin. I have many favourite authors, but her writing has a special place in my heart, and her storytelling also. The Earthsea cycle is such a rich canon of literature, and just thinking about the ways in which Le Guin explores humanity in these books makes my head spin. Tehanu perfectly demonstrates Le Guin’s ability to achieve this exploration through understatement. This is a book with dragons and mages but precious little actual magic. Once again, Le Guin doesn’t deliver the book I want, but she manages to come up with the story I need.
Tehanu is a direct sequel to The Farthest Shore. Prince Arren, now going openly by his true name, Lebannen, is King of Havnor. This is an historic event. But this is not his story. This is Tenar’s story. She has been living these past decades on Gont, as a wife and mother and now widow. She rescues a child, whom she names Therru, from abuse at the hands of her parents, who push her into a fire that results in burns down one side of her body. While caring for Therru, Tenar must begin to grapple with her own relationship with the magic of Earthsea, for Therru seems to have power—Ogion himself told Tenar she would have to instruct Therru in “Teach her all! Not Roke!” Then Ged returns, broken in body and power by his experiences, no longer archmage or indeed much mage at all, throwing another wrench into what seemed like a perfectly grand older-middle-age for Tenar!
For a short novel, a lot happens to these characters. Yet it has a sedate pace. This is not an adventure novel; Tenar’s travels are only across the small island of Gont. In this sense, Le Guin dramatically reduces the scope and scale of this latest Earthsea instalment. It’s for the best, though. It lets her focus on the story, and the themes which she examines so intently through these characters and their decisions.
The nature of power has always lain at the heart of this series, and Tehanu is no exception. It’s too easy to equate power with having magic: mages have power over people, over animals, over the world itself. Yet there are other forms of power and authority. Tenar once had access to magic, when she was a priestess at Atuan, but that part of her life is over. She still has a certain power, however, even if others need to remind her of this fact. Similarly, while Ged has lost his mage powers in this book, he seems to understand that this is only a small dimension of what it means to be a powerful person.
Le Guin explores this in another dimension with the presence of dragons. Kalessin’s appearances remind us that dragons are so different from humans in aspect and countenance: Kalessin is his true name, and to say his name is to know his being. This is a strange thing to comprehend, and if I had a deeper understanding of semiotics I might be able to engage with it more. Suffice it say, this is what I love so much about Le Guin: her stories are often short and appear so simple on the surface, but their subtext runs deep.
Tehanu also grapples with gender roles. Readers of Le Guin’s other work won’t be surprised by this, but Le Guin’s approach here is much bolder than in previous Earthsea novels. Le Guin grapples with the question of what power, if men have access to the magic of True Names that makes them mages, women have. Why aren’t women wizards? The character of Auntie Moss often serves as a mouthpiece for Le Guin’s ideas on this, the contrast between men’s showy and explosive power and women’s “roots”.
Discussions of magic aside, though, what affected me the most about this theme was how Le Guin captures the powerlessness that women often feel at the hands of men. First, there’s the scene where vagrants—including one of the ones who attacked Therru—break into her house. Ged intervenes, and Tenar implies that she has no idea what would have happened if he hadn’t been there to help. Le Guin isn’t stating that Tenar, as a woman, is helpless, but she demonstrates the ways in which Earthsea society’s gender roles cast women as victims, much as they do in our society. This happens again when Ged and Tenar confront the wizard who has been using his magic for dark purposes. This wizard sees Tenar’s audacity for speaking to him, a man, as an affront to be punished. In this character Le Guin portrays the all-too-common spectre of men silencing and demeaning women simply for existing and acting in ways that they perceive as special and permissible only to other men.
There’s an element of gender essentialism to this discussion that makes it a little uncomfortable. That being said, the relationship between humanity and dragons embodied by Therru, which I can’t go into for spoiler reasons, hints that, for Le Guin, categories like gender are not actually biological essentials but are indeed constructed—at least, that’s how I’m optimistically reading it. After all, the whole premise of Earthsea as a world is that everything is a True Name, that to know this name is to know the thing and be able to compel it. And so what people wear and do, who they are, how they speak and act and identify—these are all merely facets of their larger, truer selves, which very few can ever glimpse.
Tehanu is a fantastic way to return to this world. Not only do we get to hang with both Ged and Tenar again, but the pace of this book is just so relaxing. I read it standing up in an airport departure lounge, and then finished it at home the next day, but I felt the entire time like I was sitting outside during the summer. Reading this is just like breathing in clean, fresh air.
I wouldn’t start here, mind you. A Wizard of Earthsea is the first, best, and most essential of these novels. But it’s always just so nice to see a master of the craft return to one of her most cherished creations and continue to nurture it, critique it, and push it in new directions.