Ursula Le Guin: Tehanu: the Last Book of Earthsea
in The Earthsea Quartet
Puffin/Penguin Books 1993 (1990)
As a fantasy novel Tehanu is a tough read: it touches on child abuse, rape, misogyny, prejudice, paranoia, xenophobia, torture and psychopathy. But against all these evils we also witness loyalty, support, care, consolation, compassion and love. Does magic come into it? Well, a bit. And let’s not forget dragons, or at least one particular dragon.
This instalment of the Earthsea series is set immediately after the events in The Farthest Shore. That ended with the promise of a crowning and Sparrowhawk’s return to his place of birth, the island of Gont. Great events had shaken the archipelago, but one might have hoped that the overthrow of one evil would have returned Earthsea to some stability. Much has happened in the twenty years since Tenar was rescued from the Place of the Tombs on Atuan: the former child priestess has married a Gontish farmer, had children, and has lately been widowed. But things remain awry; indeed, they may be getting worse.
There was always a hint of menace in the original Earthsea trilogy — Sparrowhawk’s shadow, a likely slow death in the confined spaces of Atuan’s Labyrinth, the gradual leaking away of magic in the archipelago and its consequences for the inhabitants of that world — but in Tehanu that menace is less a plot-driver than a reflection of the ill-will of human individuals, in particular certain men. Tenar is the main focus of Tehanu, as she was in The Tombs of Atuan, but here she lives the lowly life of a farmer’s widow on Gont; and in fact, unlike two of the earlier books which ranged more widely, all the action is set in and around this island, including a short sea journey. Things start to change when she rescues a young girl who has been horrifically abused, leaving the right side of her face and hand and arm badly burnt.
In this era of #MeToo, of gender imbalance and of misogyny both insidious and invidious we are only too aware of a gross societal injustice being met upon a good half of the global population by too many of the other half, an injustice that has gone on for far too long. How can things be different in an Earthsea which has so much in common with our own world? Up till now we have largely been aware of male wizards, male adversaries, male rulers, male movers and shakers. As witness to Earthsea being no idyllic example of an utopia, it’s widely accepted that no witch can be a wizard. And what kind of men would leave a child to die in the remains of a camp fire? And then stalk the rescuer and the rescued?
There is light, however, amidst the doom and gloom. Sparrowhawk, who has succumbed to that familiar male angst and shame when his ability to fill a role (for him, as Archmage) becomes redundant, slowly starts to lose his listlessness and self-pity when he finds there are compensations for relinquishing his power. Tenar, who has taken responsibility for the hurt child whom she calls Therru, finds an unexpected reward for that selflessness when she is at her lowest ebb. And Therru, scarred and damaged by fire, is able to call upon unforeseen resources when she and her adoptive parents are rescued by fire of a different kind.
Without us needing to be told, there are clear signs here that in the years between the original trilogy and this book Le Guin had reconsidered the basis of the secondary world she had created and had found it wanting: we can see it in the discourse between characters, in the apparent mundanity of Tenar and Therru’s lives for most of the narrative, in the almost peripheral appearance of magic in Earthsea.
To readers wedded to sword-and-sorcery scenarios this may well have been a disappointment, even a betrayal; this is to assume that fantasy must stick to conventions, conform to expectations — to me, that way lies moribundity. But, far from disappointing the perceptive reader, who might possibly have expected more of the same — the basic premise of fantasy being that magic pervades everything — I believe that Tehanu goes to the heart of what all true narrative is about: what it is to be human.
And what about dragons? Why our fascination with them? Are they not an aspect of what we perceive to be latent within us? If in this novel dragons are associated more with the feminine principle, then that may only be right and apt: Le Guin is after all trying to redress the balance that has gone awry in her world and — clearly — remains to be righted in ours. It can’t come soon enough.
The first three Earthsea books were first envisioned as a trilogy: A Wizard of Earthsea was followed by The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore (links are to my reviews). Tehanu, completed a score of years later, was originally subtitled ‘The Last Book of Earthsea’ but, as we will see from The Other Wind and Tales from Earthsea, this wasn’t quite the case.
2018 Ultimate Reading Challenge: a book that became a film. Tales from Earthsea was purportedly based on the first four Earthsea books (excluding The Tombs of Atuan) but completely distorted Le Guin’s narrative and intentions, sadly. A real disappointment too for Studio Ghibli fans: this rates as one of their least satisfactory offerings in terms of movie-making.