Magic, menace and the mundane

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.

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25 thoughts on “Magic, menace and the mundane

  1. Pingback: Magic, menace and the mundane — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

  2. earthbalm

    Great post again Chris. You’ve prompted me to re-read this book but first I must embark on my annual read of Rosemary Sutcliff’s “The Hound of Ulster”.

    1. Thanks again, Dale. 😊

      I never got round to The Hound of Ulster in my youth, but as it’s been some time since I read historical fiction (though this strictly is a mythological tale, albeit set in the Iron Age) maybe this should be the one to plug the gap.

      1. earthbalm

        It’s probably a very simplistic retelling for an adult read but it had a profound effect on me as a primary school aged child.

    1. Truncating the storylines made sense, but not gutting the character arcs, ignoring the dark skin of the archipelago’s inhabitants, slewing Le Guin’s message … I could go on. And where did the Wolves come from?! And why?!?! So much taken away and so little of worth or even sense added in. A crying shame Hayao Miyazaki left it to his son to direct.

  3. Tehanu left me with an impression of a slow burning anger, and the final catharsis was somehow too little, too late. To me, the problem with Tehanu lied with the almost 180 degrees change in tone – as you wrote, Chris, the menace in earlier books was definitely present, but as a distant background. Here I had a feeling that ideological choices ruled the storytelling – and, to a fan of earlier books, it couldn’t have been a good thing 😉 However, I’m glad you enjoyed it! I’m bound to do an Earthsea re-read soon 🙂

    1. I can’t say I disagree in essence with your criticisms, Ola, the motivation, the resolution, the tone. But it’s really interesting how that slow burning anger you describe struck me, on my second reading, as right — and particularly so for the present time when our consciousness is heightened by recent events. Of course, it has always been so — to women’s collective disadvantage and men’s collective shame — and what has come out through social media has only reflected the horrible and horrific treatment women have had to endure for far too long.

      But is polemic appropriate for fiction, even fantastic fiction? I suppose it’s a question of degree and of the reader’s capacity for accepting it. Far from fantasy being escapist — the unjust charge often levelled at it — I believe the best examples of the genre get us to explore deep matters, essential truths, social and philosophical realities.

      A Wizard of Earthsea explored in part pride, hubris, consequences, personal guilt and responsibility; in its own way Tehanu takes the path that Wizard embarked on (and the intervening novels continued) and follows it to a logical conclusion. What’s different is that Ged’s scarring was essentially self-inflicted; Therru’s decidedly was not.

      I’m not arguing against you, Ola, as I’m sure you realise! I’ve just viewing the novel from a different angle.

      1. Oh, in truth I agree with all you say here, Chris! I do believe this anger has its merits, and I am sure my view of this novel now would be a bit different than it was all those years ago… I’ll even fully and freely admit that le Guin had all the right to end it this way, or any other, as she saw fit – it’s her book and her world! I can only feel sadness that she had such abundance of the least savory of human traits to explore. Yet, as a reader who fell in love with the mythic quality of A Wizard of Earthsea I remain a bit unconsoled that what was supposed to be the last foray into this world traveled so far from its origins. I no way I think Tehanu is a bad book – to me it’s just not on par with A Wizard of Earthsea, and that’s my main woe, I guess 😉

        1. I’m now onto Tales of Earthsea, so maybe I’ll reserve final judgement when I’ve completed that; and I’m still mulling over The Other Wind as well…

      2. piotrek

        I’d really have to re-read to contribute to the discussion, but I remember being closer to Chris’ opinion on Tehanu, and it actually influenced my position on feminism. At this stage of my political development it was easier to digest it dressed in genre clothes 😉

        Shame about the Ghibli adaptation… I’d say it’s watchable, but the weakest of their films I’ve seen and, sadly, a wasted chance.

        1. More than the first three, Piotrek, Tehannu was definitely one I knew I’d have to read again: I’d say that this novel was the most relevant of the Quartet titles to our present situation, right now in the world today: not only about men’s inhumanity to women but on abuse of power generally, non-acceptance within a community and fear of difference. And its very domesticism calls into question the assertive questing of the first three titles, which is no bad thing, in my opinion!

          I hope the projected TV adaptation of the Earthsea will be a whole lot better than the Ghibli version—it couldn’t, surely, be worse?

            1. Yes, I read Le Guin’s response on her website and she didn’t pull any punches (did she ever? I don’t think she suffered fools gladly).

  4. Reblogged this on Lizzie Ross and commented:
    If you plan to participate in the Witch Week re-along but don’t have time to read the entire Earthsea series, you can find excellent reviews at this blog. Here’s Calmgrove’s review of Tehanu, which should help you better understand The Other Wind if you’re a new visitor to Le Guin’s fantasy world.
    WITCH WEEK IS COMING

    1. Thank you for this reblog. I was partway through Tales from Earthsea but am switching back to The Other Wind, partly for readalong purposes, partly to write a review.

  5. Tehanu is the most difficult Earthsea novel for me to read, because the terrors Therru and Tenar are subjected to are real-world terrors. Although I have emotional responses to the plights of characters in most fantasy fiction, I never see myself in those worlds. But I live in Tenar’s world, and it’s all too real. I’ll skip this 6th or 7th re-read and move straight into the Tales.

    1. I absolutely agree with you on this, a tough read for the reasons you give. But perhaps a necessary corrective to swords-and-sorcery fantasy: a parallel might be with superhero movies, so much CGI that I have no sense of connection with the characters, nor of real jeopardy, nor even care much about what happens because the narrative arc is so full of clichés I can guess what’s coming a mile off.

      In the previous three novels how the resolution was played out was not too obvious but one had a sense of that resolution coming; in Tehanu I was totally engaged with, particularly, Tenar and Therru, and feared for them right till the very end.

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