When I look back at the stuff I wrote twenty years ago, I do a lot of cringing. Luckily, this stuff is unpublished and likely to remain so. I haven’t yet reached the point where I have to cringe in retrospect at material that has been out in the wild for decades. In 1990, Ursula K. Le Guin hit this point.
“Cringe” may, in fact, be the wrong word here. The first three Earthsea books are not worthy of cringing, but they’re also very traditional where gender roles and the assumptions governing epic fantasy are concerned. All three of them are quest narratives. In all three, the person on the quest is a man, and in two, almost every important character is male. In The Tombs of Atuan, we get the quest from the perspective of a woman, but she’s not on the quest herself; she’s the guardian of the object of the quest. I continue to be quite happy to see the first three Earthsea books as following the trajectory of Beowulf: the first involves a hero fighting a dark version of himself, the second involves that hero descending into the underworld to confront a formidable female figure, and the third involves the hero, years later, setting out with a younger hero to die in battle against an even bigger threat.
The question that remains is: what if Beowulf didn’t die in the final battle against the dragon? What if he survived but lost everything he had seen as making him Beowulf? What then?
In Tehanu, Le Guin returns to—and reshapes—Earthsea. It’s still Earthsea, but we’re no longer seeing it from a grand epic perspective, a perspective dependent on the idea that the One True Male Hero will do heroic things and heal the world. Where The Farthest Shore ends with eagles—sorry, a dragon named Kalessin—and the coming of the One True King, Tehanu is less pat and satisfying. It isn’t a denial or a refutation of the previous books, but it does provide a questioning of their values.
Tehanu picks up where The Farthest Shore leaves off, but from the perspective of Tenar, not Ged. By this point, Le Guin’s delaying-the-advent-of-the-plot tactic is pretty familiar to me, and the fact that Ged doesn’t turn up until the end of Chapter 4 is not surprising. We instead become familiar with who Tenar is now: a middle-aged widow who has lived a normal life after choosing not to stay with Ogion and pursue her studies. She has two grown children, and in the first chapter, she takes in a third, a little girl named Therru who has been physically and sexually abused by her family, then shoved into a fire. Therru’s scars are a harsher echo of Ged’s; they have consumed half her face, taken her eye and much of her voice, and turned her hand into a claw. People tend to have a hard time looking at her, and most magic users are repelled by her, as they sense power in her but not the means to control it.
As in The Tombs of Atuan, most of the book takes place close to home. However, Tenar’s earlier home was a temple; now it’s a farmhouse. Even Ogion’s house, where the first part of the story happens, is portrayed as rather ordinary; Ogion’s staff is never taken out from behind the door, and while Tenar thinks frequently of his books, she never opens them. What magic we do see is—with a few exceptions—small, and it comes from women such as Ivy the village witch and the rather wonderful Moss, another village witch who is not fond of bathing but who is kind to Therru. When stronger magic users, all men, turn up, they are sources of danger and ignorance.
This is really the crux of the book: the contrast, and the clash, between male and female power, both magical and otherwise. Le Guin rewrites certain aspects of the earlier books. “Weak as women’s magic, wicked as women’s magic” makes a reappearance, but it does so in such a way that we begin to see it for the propaganda it is, the frustratingly circular mocking of women’s magic, which is only as “weak” and “wicked” as it is because women have been cut off from the forms of learning available to men. The male wizards here (with the exception of Ged, who is no longer truly one of them, and Ogion, who dies in Chapter 3), are universally terrible, ranging from well-meaning but condescending to openly malevolent. Aspen is the worst of these; his vicious hatred of Tenar, which culminates in him cursing her in such a way that she is effectively reduced to a mindless animal, abused and humiliated by men, seems rooted in fear, another major theme of the book.
It’s not only in the magic users that we see the imbalance of power between men and women. Tenar is continually having to contend with the effects of her own invisibility as a middle-aged widow. Even her own son, who arrives home from his time at sea in a late chapter, simply assumes that the farm is his and that he understands how to run it, though his mother has been doing that alone for years. Spark, the son, is one of the cruellest characters in the book and becomes, for Tenar, the emblem of her failure. The scene in which Spark refuses to do the dishes—unlike Ged, who has calmly been helping with the housework all the way through the story—becomes the centre of the narrative, the moment that embodies Tenar’s helpless rage at her position in the world. After that, Aspen’s curse is an inevitable afterthought.
Ged’s role is the antithesis of his role in the earlier books. There, he was defined by his power. Here, his power is gone, and he spends quite a long time sunk in despair because he doesn’t know who he is without it. It’s only later in the story that he stops mourning for who he used to be and begins groping his way towards a new identity. He’s described a few times as basically being a fifteen-year-old boy. Oddly, middle-aged, grey-haired Ged truly comes of age only in Tehanu, as he goes through his first crisis without magic and has his first sexual experience. Ged is now thoroughly likeable, as he wasn’t in A Wizard of Earthsea. We’re frustrated with him early on in Tehanu because Tenar is frustrated with him, but we also know her frustration is a bit unfair because unlike her, we’re aware of what happened to him in The Farthest Shore.
Getting to see what happens to Beowulf after he has lost the ability to be Beowulf is not something we get to do very often in stories. Le Guin writes in her author’s note that some readers were angry at this portrayal of Ged; they thought she’d “betrayed and degraded him in some sort of feminist spasm of revenge.” She points out that this is really the opposite of what she does. She instead allows him to become a person. Various writers have done similar things, taking well-known hero stories and delving into the humanity of the lofty, exalted hero, but most of these writers examine the hero’s humanity while he’s doing grandly heroic things. Le Guin takes us past the end of the hero’s story, into the bit of it we’re not supposed to see. Ged only becomes more than his power when he doesn’t have it any more, and for the first time, we learn that Ged is a good person: a kind man who respects Tenar, is one of the few men trusted by Therru, and is capable of attacking three younger men with a pitchfork when the people he cares about are in danger. He isn’t fearless, and he makes mistakes, but he can still act without his magic, and he can still make a difference in the world.
The third angle of the triangle is Therru, the abused little girl with the dragon kinship. We know from near the beginning that Therru probably has some relationship to the dragon woman whose story Tenar tells early on, though it’s not until the very end of the novel that Therru has her dragon moment. It’s Tenar, in Chapter 4, who gets to talk to a dragon, an encounter that she keeps coming back to throughout, as she sees it as relating to Ged’s definition of a dragonlord (in The Tombs of Atuan) as a man dragons will talk to. Tenar clings to the knowledge that she is a woman dragons will talk to. Women’s power, in this book, tends to be secret, hidden, suppressed; Tenar never discusses her encounter with Kalessin with anyone, but just the fact that a dragon has addressed her and given her its name keeps her going. Therru is a little different. We don’t see inside her head until the final chapter, but we know she’s matter-of-factly interested in dragons, and at the end, we see why: she’s had a connection with them all along, and she’s quite capable of calling Kalessin on her own.
Therru seems the most helpless character in the book, a damaged child who can’t look after herself and who is reduced to near-catatonia every time she’s frightened by the approach of Handy, one of the men who raped and abused her in her old life. However, the pervasive cultural idea that an abused girl is “ruined” and better off dead is subtly refuted here. Therru has disabilities that will never be healed or cured, and she has emotional wounds as well as physical ones; many of the people around her wonder why Tenar didn’t just let her die (including Ged in an early moment of weakness, though he eventually comes around). However, Therru mirrors the peach pit she plants at Ogion’s house; she’s fragile, but as long as she’s nurtured, she is not “better off dead.” She needs to be allowed to grow into her own value, not be dismissed as “ruined,” her value gone forever. One of the most touching moments of the story comes in the last chapter, when Therru casually thinks of Tenar and Ged as her mother and father. Then she calls a dragon to save them. Ogion’s prophecy that “they will fear her” has nuances; Therru is going to be powerful, and she definitely has the potential to be too powerful, but “they” will fear her. Not Tenar, and not Ged, who instead will love her. Therru has a chance, but not if everybody assumes her scars are emblematic of deserved punishment.
Altogether, Tehanu is very different from the previous Earthsea books. Le Guin mentions in her author’s note that its focus is small, not large and sweeping. The people it follows are, for the most part, currently ordinary, even if some used to be extraordinary and one promises to be extraordinary in the future. What we get here is essentially the story of three lost people finding each other and becoming a family. It’s not an “important” story, but perhaps its importance lies in that very lack of importance. In the previous Earthsea books, Le Guin gave us a hero and heroine we could look up to. Now she gives us those same characters, but as human beings, as weak and helpless and frightened as the rest of us, but with a power of their own: one profoundly accessible to the rest of us.
Next Up: I’ll introduce Tales From Earthsea tomorrow and start reading it on the same day.
Bookmark Showcase: This frustrating little Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland bookmark is one I’ll never use again. It chewed up the first page of just about every chapter. I think sometimes people get a bit too ambitious with their bookmark designs. Listen up, people: we want something that will go between two pages of a book. It doesn’t have to be complicated. If you need something dangly, you need something dangly, but there doesn’t have to be any gripping. Gripping is just not necessary. Ye gods.