Tehanu: Earthsea Revisited

Tehanu oval

Amazingly, I have kept to my one-chapter-of-Earthsea-a-day-except-for-a-couple-of-days-at-the-end-of-each-book pledge, and I’m already on the fourth book, Tehanu, about which I know very little. I’ve heard it described as “the book where Ursula K. Le Guin goes back to Earthsea and does it all again, only feminist,” so this should be interesting. The original Earthsea trilogy really is mostly about the dudes (and about Tenar, but Tenar spends her entire book trapped discontentedly in a hole). This one is fourteen chapters long, so I’ll reach Chapter 14 on April 1.

Predictions:

  1. There will be a plant? (The cover has a plant on it.)
  2. It will be on fire? (The plant on the cover is on fire.)
  3. “Tehanu” will be a girl or a woman. Apparently, all the female characters in the Earthsea books have names beginning with “Te.”
  4. Ged will drag Tenar kicking and screaming into this adventure.
  5. Someone will come of age. Someone always does.

This book won the Nebula, so that seems promising.

Well…here we go.

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14 thoughts on “Tehanu: Earthsea Revisited

  1. Chapter 1: A Bad Thing:

    This is a very short chapter; it catches us up with Tenar (now Goha), who is middle-aged and widowed. After a time staying with Ogion, she’s lived an ordinary life, marrying a man of Gont and raising two children. The Earthsea books tend to be built around contrasts, so here’s our first (implied) one: where Ged has spent his life performing mighty deeds, Tenar has chosen obscurity and contentment, though she does note that she has “generally lived near tombstones.” That line is a hint, possibly, that escaping your fate is a bit harder than just making deliberate choices.

    The chapter ends with Tenar trying to save the life of a vagabond child who has been horribly burned. Again, there is a connection with her old life here: she refuses to let “them” have the child. For Ged, heroism starts and ends with a world-saving quest; for Tenar, it roots itself in quiet defiance.

    Things may get rather lofty in Chapter 2: Going to the Falcon’s Nest.

  2. Chapter 2: Going to the Falcon’s Nest:

    We’re back to Le Guin’s usual method: a slow burn followed eventually by the appearance of the plot. This chapter is all Tenar (called Goha here, but as that seems to change in the next chapter, let’s just stick with her true name) and the burned child she saved in Chapter 1, Therru, travelling to Ogion’s house in response to a summons. Tenar tells Therru a story about dragons and humans coming from the same roots, and we get a preemptive title drop for THE OTHER WIND.

    I like Le Guin’s gentle beginnings. As I’ve said before, I know nowadays writers are expected to get right to it, but I do think we lose something in the process. Nothing has really happened yet, but we get some sense of Tenar and Therru and their relationship, we hear a story that is doubtless going to be important eventually, and we learn a little about how the weakening of magic in THE FARTHEST SHORE has affected Gont. It’s not a bit dramatic effect, but the encounter with the men on the road indicates that it’s made everything less safe and more uncertain. Le Guin is happy to let the story grow into itself at its own pace.

    Next up, we visit a sick wizard in Chapter 3: Ogion.

  3. Chapter 3: Ogion:

    I don’t even know how to talk about how much I love this chapter. It tells the story of Ogion’s death, and though it’s only eleven pages long, a lot happens in it, quietly. Ogion acted as Tenar’s surrogate father after she left Atuan, so the end of his life means a lot to her. However, she handles it in a gentle, understated way. Their relationship is fully visible in the way Tenar patiently takes Ogion to the spot outside he wishes to die in. At the same time, we become aware that the end of THE FARTHEST SHORE is happening simultaneously with Ogion’s death, as Ogion starts by believing Ged lost but ends his life with a vision of a dragon and the changing of the world.

    But the payoff moment in the chapter comes at the end, when the two wizards arrive to do Ogion honour, and we realise that Le Guin has, in the course of the last two decades, shifted her portrayal of Earthsea from one in which everything revolves around the men to one in which the men THINK everything revolves around the men. We know from something Ogion says in the middle of the chapter that Therru has some sort of power, unusual enough that Roke is not going to be happy about it, and when the wizards arrive, we see, perhaps, a foreshadowing of why, as they completely dismiss Tenar as a “middle-aged village woman,” don’t even hear her as she tells them Ogion’s true name, and basically do the thing whereby men treat everything female with disdain. This scene, appearing in a book published in 1990, fits right into the age of #metoo. The men see themselves as being at the centre of the story and can’t comprehend that this unimportant woman was important enough to Ogion that he told her his name. The way one of the wizards declares the name lost simply because HE hasn’t heard it is telling.

    There will be a dragon, and presumably Ged, in Chapter 4: Kalessin.

  4. Chapter 4: Kalessin:

    It’s a good thing I’ve limited myself to a chapter a day. Otherwise, I would keep reading and get even further behind on my work than I already am. I find I look forward to my morning Ursula K. Le Guin sessions far more now than I did when I was still on A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA. I’ve gradually grown to love these books.

    In this chapter, Le Guin inserts a bit of commentary on being a woman in this male-dominated world, especially in relation to the hierarchy of magic. The “Weak as woman’s magic, wicked as woman’s magic” saying that so bothered me when I saw it in A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA has returned, but from a different perspective; Le Guin now makes it clear that women are not inherently less powerful but simply barred by male magic users from the knowledge that would allow them to be anything other than “weak” or “wicked.” It’s a vicious circle; women are deprived of knowledge and thus seen as naturally ignorant. The book is pretty clearly building Therru up as something new, a dragony sort of human who will be a powerful magic user…so take that, men.

    In the meantime, Ged has come back, weakened and without his magic, and Tenar has met her first dragon. Tenar is the emotional centre of this chapter, pushing back against everything: Ogion’s death, the sheer power of the dragon, Aunty Moss’s insistence that Ged can’t be Ged, since she senses no magic in him. Tenar has made herself ordinary, but everything she does demonstrates, quietly, how extraordinary she is.

    I cannot wait for tomorrow and Chapter 5: Bettering.

  5. Chapter 5: Bettering:

    You can really see Le Guin shifting her Earthsea gears here. In the previous books, gender roles existed but weren’t really commented on, beyond the whole “Weak as women’s magic” thing. In TEHANU, Le Guin’s commentary is much more pointed. Tenar does a lot of thinking about men and women and the differences between them. It would be a little jarring and lecturey in 2018, but in 1990, it probably felt necessary as a corrective to the previous Earthsea books.

    Le Guin is also back to her old slow-burn technique, which works for me. I do, again, sometimes get tired of the apparent need for everything to start happening immediately on page one of a given novel. In my essay-writing class, I teach students that the idea of “the hook” is actually kind of problematic; it encourages essay writers to begin hyperbolically, with—metaphorically speaking—dancing monkeys, thinking only of attracting the reader’s attention and not of making the introduction work with the rest of the paper. The practice of starting a novel with a hook holds the same danger. There is more than one way to capture the reader’s attention. Le Guin does it with atmosphere and the slow, subtle weaving of the story, not by throwing somebody off a cliff in the first paragraph. Ged spends this entire chapter NOT telling Tenar why he’s in so much emotional pain, and you know what? Good for him. Not all the information in a story has to be dumped on us at once.

    We’re back to dark mirror images again with Chapter 6: Worsening.

  6. Chapter 6: Worsening:

    It’s interesting that Le Guin is giving us Ged’s despair over the loss of his magic from Tenar’s perspective. It separates us from what he’s feeling and makes us slightly impatient with him, even though we know, as Tenar doesn’t, what he’s been through and why he’s acting as he is. We haven’t actually seen the story through Ged’s eyes since A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA; as a character, he’s been built up mostly through other people’s points of view.

    We’re also in the usual holding pattern. Nothing is actually happening on the surface, but things are bubbling and brewing beneath the story, waiting to poke their way cautiously into the air later on…rather like Therru’s peach tree. We’ve had our first title drop as Tenar looks at the star she calls Tehanu. Further significance in three…two…

    (Incidental technology note: my computer thinks it’s smarter than I am. I’ve put “Tehanu” in all caps in the past because I’m not sure how to do italics in these comments—I think HTML works, but I’m too lazy for that right now—and now my computer won’t let me NOT capitalise it. I have to go back and change the word to lower case every time I use it. Thanks, computer.)

    Next up is Chapter 7: Mice.

  7. Chapter 7: Mice:

    Things continue to happen / not to happen. Le Guin is somehow adept at pulling a story out of bad improv advice. Her characters almost never accept the offer. But paradoxically, this works; the refusal to say “Yes, and…” adds a layer of tension to every scene, and those layers are cumulative. Here Ged hides from the king’s men, and Tenar helps him do so. In the meantime, a shadow of the coming plot is emerging: Therru needs to be taught, and Ged is somehow going to have to be persuaded to help with that, even if his own power is gone.

    Tomorrow, we get a different type of animal symbolism in Chapter 8: Hawks.

  8. Chapter 8: Hawks:

    In Ged’s absence, Moss enlightens Tenar as to the sexual habits—or lack thereof—of wizards. 1990 would still have been a time in which readers would not have expected blatant sexual elements in “teen literature” (tactful allusions to sexual elements would have been fine), so you can definitely see how Le Guin is dancing around the issues of Ged’s virginity and what happened to Therru in her former life (the word “rape” came up once in an earlier chapter, but not in direct relation to any character). The vague bits do have a purpose; we see how Moss’s bluntness is still offset by a certain coyness, a reluctance to come right out and proclaim the role of sex in her life, and that speaks to the habitual behaviour of the people amongst whom Tenar lives. They are matter-of-fact, but there are some things they don’t mention. Taboo is a big deal here.

    This novel seems simultaneously very big and very small. Everything is built around the juxtaposition of Therru’s (and Ged’s and Tenar’s) personal trauma and the grand hugeness of dragons and world-spanning life-and-death magical struggles. Tenar’s dragon dreams underlie a story as tiny and ordinary as a peach pit buried in the earth.

    We’re eight chapters in and not quite halfway, as the later chapters are, on average, longer than the earlier ones. We’ll have to see if anything changes in Chapter 9: Finding Words.

  9. Chapter 9: Finding Words:

    Danger in this story comes always from men. Here Tenar and Therru are surrounded on all sides by men who want to do them harm, with Handy and Aspen being the worst of the lot and the ones who finally drive them from Ogion’s house. Benevolent men such as Ged and Fan are broken, impotent, and useless. Handy and Aspen also offer different aspects of the male threat, with Handy being sheer physical menace and Aspen hating Tenar because she is a woman with some power. He needs to bring her down to elevate himself.

    It’s interesting, as I’ve mentioned before, to compare this book to the previous three Earthsea novels. Two out of the three are almost completely focused on men, with women as incidental side characters; in them, the assumption is that the world is a man’s world, and women don’t really matter. THE TOMBS OF ATUAN contains mostly female characters, but the world it presents is a backward one from which the protagonist needs to escape. In TEHANU, Le Guin shifts perspective, showing us male-dominated Earthsea from the point of view of a woman whose power, unobtrusive as it is, appears as a threat to the men in charge. It really is a #metoo sort of book.

    We have boarded the King’s ship in anticipation of Chapter 10: The Dolphin.

  10. Chapter 10: The Dolphin:

    This is one of those chapters Le Guin sometimes writes in which the tension goes out of the air a bit, though it’s clearly going to return soon enough. Tenar and Therru have found refuge on Lebannen’s ship, and the young King is reasonable, even if the wizard who accompanies him is slightly less so. Once again, we get the men’s inability to see that a woman might be at the centre of the story. The wizards are seeking “a woman on Gont,” and while they’re assuming she will lead them to a male candidate for Archmage, Tenar wonders if the woman may actually be the person they’re looking for, not just a person who will point them towards an important man. This book really is Le Guin going, “Wow, did I ever get Earthsea wrong the first time around. Let’s just fix that. *Cracks knuckles*

    Everything will doubtless get more complicated in Chapter 11: Home.

  11. Chapter 11: Home:

    As I suspected, “Chapter 10: The Dolphin” was just a pause, a moment of calm before the darkness descended once more. In Chapter 11, Tenar and Therru return home to the farm, and everything seems ever so slightly wrong. Tenar is clearly still under a curse, though she’s only half-aware of it. She is not teaching Therru, though she should be. Ged is away herding sheep. And this all leaves an opening for Handy’s attack on the farm. The end of the chapter gives us one of Le Guin’s patented nothing-is-happening-here-but-somehow-everything-is-happening-here scenes as Tenar and Ged sit paralysed by the fire beside the man Ged has injured. Here we see them both at their most human: uncertain, panicking, mostly powerless, barely able to keep three men away from a sleeping child. It’s an interesting contrast with the power we’ve seen both characters wield in previous books.

    Next up is Chapter 12: Winter.

  12. Chapter 12: Winter:

    This is another relatively calm chapter, marked by Tenar and Ged consummating their relationship and then apparently spending all winter discussing the differences between male and female power. Le Guin is building Ged up as not quite a typical man; he does have certain ideas about male and female roles, but he’s definitely less likely than any other man in the book to underestimate women. He also stands in contrast to all the men Therru knew in her early life: men who represent the darkest aspect of masculine power.

    There are only two chapters left, so I expect we’ll slide towards the crisis point in Chapter 13: The Master.

  13. Chapter 13: The Master:

    Reading through this chapter was seriously painful. Everything has gone wrong; Tenar’s son is a misogynistic jerk, and the curse Tenar is under has come home to roost, reducing her to an unintelligent animal dominated completely by men. Le Guin is not pulling her punches. The contrast between Ged and the other men has culminated in Ged being ensnared too. Aspen is…not a nice guy. It’s interesting to see how Le Guin connects his awfulness to the world-threatening danger Ged dealt with in the last book; everything ties together, the seemingly small and the seemingly massive alike.

    I’m sick, and it’s 5:20 a.m., and I can’t get back to sleep, so you know what? I’m going to break my pattern and just finish the book. There are only about ten pages left, and if I have to leave the story here, I’m going to feel crappy all day.

    Next up immediately: Chapter 14: Tehanu.

  14. Chapter 14: Tehanu.

    Hey, computer: stop automatically putting the word “Tehanu” in all caps. What’s wrong with you?

    Okay, I feel better now. Therru/Tehanu has saved everyone with her eagles—I mean her dragon. (I’m still seeing similarities between Tolkien’s Eagles and Kalessin; those haven’t gone away in the course of a single book.) All the hints about Therru’s dragon kinship have come to fruition, and the evil misogynists have been roasted.

    This book was…different. I’m going to have to think about it before I write my analytical post. Le Guin writes in her author’s note about how the book made some readers angry, and I can definitely see that. It didn’t make ME angry, but I imagine some people felt betrayed by the radical shift from heroic fantasy to something entirely different and the seeming diminishment of Ged as a character. I actually think Ged becomes a more complete person in this book, but I’m sure a lot of readers were expecting him to regain his magic quickly and come roaring in to save everybody. Ged never gets his magic back, though, and that’s kind of amazing. As Le Guin says in her author’s note, the story is about ordinary people, powerless people who are not placed magnificently above the readers, out of reach.

    I’ll do a final post on the book at some point in the next few days (I’m sick, AND I have way too much marking to do, so no promises as to exactly when), and then I’ll start TALES FROM EARTHSEA, reading it one short story at a time.

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