Tehanu by Ursula K. Le Guin
After the success of the original Earthsea trilogy, Ursula K. Le Guin moved her attention back to science fiction and left a series of veritable classics in her wake. That said, even classics can age in unfortunate ways. In the case of the first three Earthsea novels, the portrayal of women could be described as a little old fashioned from a contemporary point of view, but even at the time it wouldn’t have been unheard of for the work to be criticized as backward thinking. Le Guin was hardly one to shy away from debate. Still, it took seventeen years before she confronted the matter directly in a new instalment of the Earthsea saga. With this book, the girl who escaped The Tombs of Atuan would return to take the lead, and while the plot would be grounded in real-world questions, dragon’s would be woven into a story that was as deeply insightful as anything Le Guin had done before. Tehanu was the name of the fourth Earthsea novel. The title was almost abstract (one harsh t-sound and two soft breaths) yet it was fitting for a book that aimed to acknowledge the problems of its past, but also allow the solutions to remain as ambiguous as the nature of dragon’s themselves.
Tehanu brings us back to the island of Gont. This is where we first met Sparrowhawk, but at the beginning of the story it’s another familiar character who’s taken up residence there. Tenar, the priestess who escaped The Tombs of Atuan, has settled down to a normal life. Decades have passed since last we saw her and the first thing we learn upon meeting her again is that she’s now a widow. As a middle-aged woman, she has two grown children who have flown the nest and since her husband recently passed away she mostly lives alone. In general, Tenar has experienced all of the great joys and sadnesses a woman her age is supposed to have experienced. However, as she becomes the guardian of a girl who’s suffered horrendous attacks at the hands of her family, she discovers that there’s a lot more about her own identity that she has yet to unpack.
The girl Tenar adopts is named Therru. She was thrown into a fire by her father and bears the scars of that experience for all to see. Half her face is disfigured. One of her eyes was destroyed by the flames and her right hand can best be described as a claw. Most people on the island are uncomfortable around the girl, as if her deformity can only be explained by some evil she brought on herself. Thankfully, where most people see evil incarnate, Tenar recognises a victim that must be saved. Far from being made the villain, she believes the girl is entitled to a fulfilling life, so when she brings her on a visit to Sparrowhawk’s old master she’s intrigued by his remark that though, ‘They will fear her,’ she should, ‘Teach her all.’ Who ‘they’ are exactly isn’t made clear, nor is what Tenar should teach the girl, but the question only becomes more complicated when the elderly wizard is about to die and he whispers that, ‘All is changed.’
The words are certainly tantalising, but in general, Tehanu actually tends toward a much more subdued tone. A lot of the tension established early on comes from Tenar’s vulnerability as a woman and though a magical mystery is teased, it becomes clear that, in lieu of Le Guin sending us on another mystical quest, the groundwork is being laid for an outright course correction in the series.
All the way back in the first chapter of A Wizard of Earthsea, Le Guin invented a phrase common to Sparrowhawk’s land. One variation of it was, ‘Weak as woman’s magic,’ but there was also a more troubling version that went, ’Wicked as woman’s magic.’ Now to be fair, the people of the island were obviously a rustic group. They could be said to have reached a medieval level of development at best. So it isn’t surprising that women there were held in such low regard. But as the series continued and we were introduced to a prestigious wizard school that only boys could attend the phrase became a bit of a lightning rod for criticism among fans. Even the sequel, which was a compelling examination of Tenar’s development as a young girl, couldn’t appease the naysayers who pointed out that though she did rule a temple, it was only under the permission of a king, and besides all that she still needed a man to rescue her from her which arguably just made her a princess within the more exciting quest of a knight. By the third book, the status quo had been cemented. In a similar vein to the original story, Sparrowhawk was accompanied on his adventure not by Tenar, but by a boy named Arren who was destined to grow up and rule the kingdom. A Wizard of Earthsea was published in 1967. The Farthest Shore made a trilogy of the series in 1972. Given the times they were born of, it’s understandable that the books came under fire for propagating an antiquated worldview. Even so, while Le Guin would eventually agree that some of the criticisms were valid, there was a lot of depth to the issue that merited a much more complex conversation. And in Tehanu she opens up an avenue for just that. Which takes us back to that phrase, ‘Wicked as woman’s magic.’ Tenar herself refers to it with some disdain within the text which Le Guin utilised as a starting point for what to reexamine.
Witches, in the western tradition, generally live on the outskirts of society. Often they’re represented as eccentric or conceited. So too they’re thought of in the Earthsea.
On the island of Gont, witches serve their villages as healers and as pedallers of only the most commonplace magic. They’re usually reviled in public, but since they provide an invaluable service they’re tolerated by the community nonetheless. Overall, their knowledge is a noxious mix of superstition and genuine craft, but as Tenar begins to suspect, their failings aren’t the result of inferior capability, rather, because they’re women they’ve been denied the kind of education that wizards have enjoyed. As a woman who held some power in her previous life, Tenar is in a unique position to notice just how warped the situation really is. Back at the temple she was worshipped as a high priestess and when Sparrowhawk brought her to his island, she was even granted the unusual privilege of an apprenticeship under his old master. It was only because Tenar decided to marry and start a family that her education didn’t go further. And now, many years later, with the death of her husband she’s started to experience some injustice as a woman who’s required to face the world alone. Thugs on the road intimidate her. The men who come to pay their respects when they discover her old master has passed away don’t hear her when she tells them his true name. And the wizard to a local lord clearly despises her simply for the happenstance that she’s female. Worse still, all of this is in spite of the fact that she’s known to have helped inaugurate an impending golden age. The sheer level of disrespect would outrage anyone, but what frustrates Tenar the most is this idea that power in the Earthsea can only be embodied by men; something that even a witch she befriends seems to believe when she says that a man is like a nut in its shell, hard and strong but only full of himself. Of wizards, the witch insists, it’s all power on the inside and when the power is gone so is he.
Naturally, you might wonder if that’s how the witch describes a man, how would she describe a woman? Her answer is just as figurative. A woman has roots, according to her, and those roots go so deep they go all the way into the dark. Darkness in the Earthsea is practically taboo so it’s curious that the witch would be content with such a description, but, in any case, Tenar doesn’t think it’s entirely satisfactory. At the very least she echoes her old master’s words and says that a new wind is blowing – the world is due a change.
One way that Le Guin ushers in a new era for the Earthsea is with how Sparrowhawk is portrayed.
In The Farthest Shore, he expended all of his magic to defeat a great evil. Afterwards, the book offered two possible endings for the wizard. In the first, he sailed away with a small amount of magic reclaimed, while in the second he returned home to live peacefully among the trees. With Tehanu, Le Guin commits to the latter, except that his return home is anything but peaceful. Since he’s been sapped of all his power Sparrowhawk has become directionless and depressed. Moreover, as he experiences all of this we can only witness it from an exterior perspective. In the previous books, though characters like Tenar and Arren took the lead, their journeys were helped along by the wizard as their guide, and while they were often perplexed by his behaviour, we as readers were allowed a respite from it with glimpses into what was on his mind. Now, Tenar embarks on the journey alone. She begins it before Sparrowhawk arrives on the island and when he does, though she wants to help him recover from his mental fatigue, he’s often angered by her attempts and useless in just about every other regard. He almost seems ashamed at having given all of himself over to saving the world and now tries his best to hide away from anybody who could see him in his emptied state. It’s a pathetic turn for a character many fans would consider to be their favourite. At times it feels like our hero has become more of a nuisance than an aid, but, of course, it’s not without purpose, because though it can be difficult to accept Sparrowhawk’s sorry state of affairs, it also provides you with the opportunity to experience what Tenar claims to be her own source of power.
As a woman, Tenar feels like she has a strong inclination to listen and to learn. She exercised this talent to survive in the tombs and as an adult she’s been able to thrive in a foreign land because of her instinct to observe and to understand. This ability is what sets her apart from many of the male characters in the book and most fascinating of all, it might be the trait that allows her to speak with dragons, a plot point that is revealed to be of enormous importance.
At the beginning of Tehanu, Tenar is on an uncertain path. She knows she isn’t happy with the world in its current state but isn’t sure how it can be changed. Often she seems lost, though at one point she exchanges names with the dragon Kalessin and when she dreams of flying, she calls out for the dragon and is roused to hear her name called back in return. This is an extraordinary moment because traditionally dragons only speak to the strongest of adventurers. For example, Sparrowhawk earned his status as a dragonlord when he too spoke with a dragon in A Wizard of Earthsea and Arren confirmed his manhood and went on to become king when he did the same in The Farthest Shore. Now it’s Tenar’s turn to be bestowed with the honour, only rather than become a legend in her adopted land, she keeps the event to herself, tantalised by the possibility that there’s something important growing within her.
On the island of Gont, there are people who don’t recognise Tenar’s true worth. Likewise, she acknowledges the women around her who go unseen. The witches she befriends are wise but unappreciated. Even sadder though is that the disfigured girl she adopts seems to be destined for a life of isolation.
Therru is a cypher. At times, she seems to embody an otherworldly wisdom while at others she demonstrates all of the endearing naivete you’d expect from a child her age. She’s been through a terrible ordeal, so obviously she suffers a great amount of psychological problems, yet there remains in her a seed of happiness that would grow if only it were nursed back to health. Sympathy seems like the obvious response for Tenar, but for the many people trying to help the girl is an offence in and of itself. Even Sparrowhawk sees the same useless qualities in her that he sees in himself and declares that it probably would have been better to let her die. This is a comment worth remembering because as it so happens Therru is one of the most remarkable children the people of the Earthsea have ever ignored.
More often than not, the young girl slips into the background of the story. It’s impossible for anybody to see past the horrors she suffered and we as readers might even write her off as just a character to establish the moral dilemma with which Tenar has to grapple. But when the novel reaches its crisis point, it’s Therru who comes to the rescue by calling for the dragon Kalessin to protect them. Furthermore, she’s able to do this not because she’s a dragonlord, but because she actually ends up being what’s known as one of the wild ones, a race of creatures so deeply connected to dragons that some of them can actually take their form. This answers the question of where Therru might find a place for herself in the world and validates Tenar’s insistence that she has some worth. Obviously the girl didn’t need to call a dragon just to prove that, but it’s an impressive thematic payoff that also expands on the mythos of the Earthsea in a very purposeful way.
The origins of dragons in Le Guin’s fantasy series have always been inscrutable. Once upon a time, the first dragon Sparrowhawk met was said to have fathered a hoard so you’d expect them to have evolved through a process male and female reproduction. However, within the temple where Tenar was raised she discovered ancient paintings of winged humans. At the time the paintings were described as the birdlike souls of those who could not be reborn, but in retrospect they seem to foreshadow the revelation of the wild ones who in the years after were mostly shown in female form. What’s more, in The Farthest Shore, it was established that though many people assumed the most ancient dragon was male, it was actually impossible to distinguish whether he really was. All of this is to say, while initially the world of dragon’s could have been interpreted as patriarchal as that of wizards, Le Guin had been gently walking back their masculine traits in every story that followed the first novel. And with Tehanu, she goes further again to establish a firm connection between the women of the Earthsea and the dragons that inhabit the land which allows for a balance of power in a series that she herself once said was so lopsided it was like a table with only three legs. Of course, drastic changes to any series don’t come without any backlash and Tehanu was no different.
In the 2018 documentary Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, Le Guin states that at the time of Tehanu’s release there was some criticism from a section of the fanbase who felt that Sparrowhawk had been too degraded. At the same time, while it’s probably true that there were people disappointed by the wizard’s return, the book isn’t exactly short on other reasons to feel bewildered.
If there’s one quality that separates Tehanu from other entries in the series, it’s the relentless realism that underscores every scene. Tenar for the most part is just an ordinary woman. Many of the issues she has to contend with revolve around everyday affairs, such as her right to inherit property, the domestic tasks she has to perform, and whether it’s wise for her to go on a hike across the island alone. The threats she must face often come from men whose only power is that of a higher propensity for violence and cruelty. Even when the villain of the story is revealed to be another wizard who’s seeking immortality, the problem of misogyny is so pervasive that he punishes Tenar and Sparrowhawk in a way that’s fully intended to humiliate her for being a woman and he for respecting her as a human being. All in all, it’s a far cry from the mythic storytelling of the previous books especially when you consider that the saga ostensibly began life as a series for young adults. Yes, almost two decades had passed since The Farthest Shore was published, so while many readers might have welcomed this more mature take on a childhood favourite, it’s no surprise that there were some who would have preferred to find the fantasy land exactly as they left it. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Le Guin felt there were some mistakes at the series’ core and, in her own telling, if she didn’t confront them then she might not have continued to write at all.
In the time between The Farthest Shore and Tehanu, Le Guin continued to explore sociological questions. With The Dispossessed she published one of the definitive books on socialist utopias, part of which contrasted a society of complete equality between men and women with a more discriminatory one, but she eventually came to believe that even that story was too skewed toward the male perspective. And in The Left Hand of Darkness she anticipated complicated questions of male and female identity in a book that was arguably ahead of its time, but then went on to admit that the text might have been bent in favour of a male mindset thanks to the use of, ‘he,’ as the neutral pronoun. In short, she had already proven willing to challenge her readers and to reevaluate her own work before she approached the fourth entry in the Earthsea saga. At the heart of it all, it just wasn’t enough for her to find and replace male characters and pronouns with female ones. By the time she got to Tehanu, her desire was to create stories that stepped outside the paradigm of male protagonists and to figure out what it meant to write in a manner that was true to her experience as a woman.
If you prefer the earlier books, you might have preferred her to take a less subdued tone to accomplish this, but one way you can appreciate the direction she took is by acknowledging the safer route she could have taken.
Franchise fatigue is a common plight in the modern media landscape. Countless science fiction and fantasy brands have suffered from being reshaped and repackaged under the watchful eye of their corporate administrators and it would have been easy for her to erase the social issues of Earthsea in a similar style to a modern-day reboot. After all, the end of The Farthest Shore saw the completion of a prophecy that made Arren a king who could finally bring about the golden age. The details of what would make this age a golden one were always kind of vague, so Le Guin could have just chosen to overlook the specific nature of the problems in the series and instead wipe the slate clean by saying that women in this new era would simply be permitted the same power as men. Instead, she went to a great amount of effort to illustrate why the particular kind of power men hold isn’t necessarily what women want. As such, Le Guin doesn’t have Arren exercise his ability to command that women be allowed entry to the school of wizards. Rather, she has Tenar at first glance mistake him for her son and when she’s offered a favour from him she only asks that he take her home. It’s an appropriate error for her to make because it sets up Arren as the symbolic child of Sparrowhawk and Tenar. Indeed, it was together that the wizard and priestess fulfilled the prophecy that foretold the king’s coming. And because he utilises each of their definitive traits (Sparrowhawks appreciation of when to act and Tenar’s ability to listen) as he provides solutions to the problems at hand, it’s demonstrated how both the female and male qualities as outlined by Le Guin will have a positive effect on the world when they’re brought together. All told, while the story of Tehanu is extraordinarily complex for younger fans of the Earthsea, it’s a startlingly honest reflection on a series that eschews any quick fixes and digs deep to reevaluate what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a man, and what the benefits can be experienced when they learn from one another.
Towards the end of Tehanu, there’s an especially tense episode that does a lot to demonstrate Le Guin’s thoughts on the relationship between men and women and what they could mean for the series as a whole. In it, Tenar is locked in her house as the men who abused Therru attempt to break-in. There’s nothing Tenar can do to save herself or the child. She does manage to muster up the courage to open the door and confront the thugs, but at the moment of confrontation, it’s Sparrowhawk who appears from the shadows and lands the killer blow. His magic hasn’t returned though. It’s with a pitchfork that he stabs one of the men and rescues the day. As a turning point for the wizard, this actually helps him to recover some of the dignity he believes he lost and to embark on a romantic relationship with Tenar. Wizards, as it turns out, have always gone to extreme lengths to practice celibacy so as he fulfils this right of passage with the woman he cares about most, it’s no exaggeration to say that the victory over another man is what allows him to be reborn. True love notwithstanding, the newly formed romantic relationship between Sparrowhawk and Tenar is a bit surprising due to the large age difference between them. Sparrowhawk rescued Tenar when she was just a teenage girl and he was in his thirties. Thanks in part to his prodigious gift the balance of power between them continued to tilt in his direction, but as he clearly has a lot left to learn at this new stage in life, it’s she who finds herself in the position of mentor. Even so, considering the objection levied against the Tombs of Atuan that it was Sparrowhawk who rescued Tenar from her fate rather than any actions of her own, it’s essential to note why we might see a similar situation repeated when Sparrowhawk rescues her from the thugs at her door.
The journey Tenar embarked on in the tombs was an internal one. She overcame the most painful obstacles with the incredibly difficult choices she made and not by some amazing show of power and with the rescue of her from Therru’s attackers the point is made again.
Then, as now, Tenar opened the door to face the problem herself. Subsequently, she had the opportunity to learn magic from Sparrowhawk’s master but instead she chose a life dedicated to her husband and her children. The power that wizards demonstrate was not hers to copy. She said it was like a suit of armour that wasn’t her own. As such, the great acts she completes involve understanding the world around her and giving what she can of herself to the people that need it most, all the while doing it in a way that Sparrowhawk proved incapable of; with no remorse and no shame. For all intents and purposes, it’s evident that the strengths of men and women can bleed into one another, but as of writing the book Le Guin did think of them of separate entities, and the fact that Tenar never tells anybody about her exchange of names with the dragon Kalessin does invite comparison with another piece of fiction in which she drew a distinction between them. In a short story from Le Guin’s collection, The Compass Rose, a group of South American women became the first people to travel there. Interestingly enough though nobody celebrates their achievement because they never actually bothered to tell anyone they got there. Having their names in the history books was not the point of the challenge. Simply undertaking it was. Tehanu was supposed to be the last book in the Earthsea saga. As ever, Le Guin would find herself drawn back to it at a much later date and by the end of her life, she requested that if the books must have any designations, then the original stories should be referred to as the first trilogy and the later additions should be the second. Nevertheless, because Tehanu is in direct conversation with the books that came before it, it’s not as if there’s an impassable line between them.
More importantly, it’s a beautiful chapter in the lives of some beloved characters that allows them to experience the world in an entirely new manner. Sparrowhawk’s and Tenar’s master was right when he said that all was changed. Therru is in the best position imaginable for a wild one to learn from both the male and female viewpoints at a crucial point in the history of the land and what she carries forward from it will likely affect many people in the years to come. But as with most episodes in the series, the great happening at the centre of the story was only a shift of perspective rather than some monumental turn of events. And at the end of it all, the balance which Le Guin’s wizard’s so often profess is once again achieved when the Taoist-like philosophy that emphasises being overdoing is imparted from Tenar to Sparrowhawk, where once it was imparted from Sparrowhawk to Tenar.
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