Tehanu by Ursula Le Guin

Tehanu_1991After The Farthest Shore, Le Guin began work on a fourth Earthsea book. This one was to be about Tenar’s life after The Tombs of Atuan, but a chapter in, Le Guin came to a halt, ‘because I didn’t understand what was happening to Tenar. She had given up magic, she was a farmwife with a couple of kids. What was she thinking of?’ It took 17 years before Le Guin could answer that question, and the answer came in the form of Therru, ‘a young child who has been terribly used’.

As Tehanu opens, Tenar is a farmer’s widow, whose two grown children have moved out. Four vagrants — two men, a woman, and a child — have been lingering near the village, and one day, before they disappear, one of the men tells Tenar’s friend Lark that the child has had an accident and needs help. In fact, the girl (whom Tenar names Therru), has been thrown into a fire in an attempt to kill her off. Now she’s burned and scarred down one side of her body, the fingers of one hand welded into a claw, and she talks to no one. Tenar takes her in, because she sees something of her own story in the young girl: the only way Tenar, when she was Arha the Eaten One, could escape the dark labyrinth of her inhuman masters’ power, was to learn to trust another human being (Ged); now, she has to teach the badly abused Therru a similar lesson, though the girl will never be able to escape the pain and scarring, a sort of dark labyrinth burned into her very body.

The Tombs of Atuan, cover by David Smee

The Tombs of Atuan, cover by David Smee

The Earthsea series seems to have progressed by a series of self-corrections, or perhaps ‘balances’ is a better word, ‘the Balance’ being something Le Guin’s wizards strive to maintain. Each successive book can be seen as balancing or answering something in the one before. After the young man’s coming-of-age story of A Wizard of Earthsea, we get the young woman’s coming-of-age story of The Tombs of Atuan. (Which could also be seen as following a tale about learning to face darkness with one about learning to turn away from it.) Atuan left us with the question of why Ged went to such trouble to find the missing piece of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe and repair the broken Sign of Peace, and so, in The Farthest Shore, we learn about the wrongness in the world, and the quest to end it.

The events in Tehanu overlap those of The Farthest Shore (Tehanu begins while the ‘wrongness’ of the previous book still has hold), and balances that book’s epic, world-spanning quest with a scaled-down, domestic tale. The previous book’s pairing of the Archmage Ged and Prince Arren — the most powerful man in Earthsea, and the one destined to be — is here balanced by a tale of two of the least powerful: an ageing farmer’s widow and an abused, scarred ‘little ferret of a thing’ she’s trying to nurse back to trustfulness in a world of casual abuse, bullying, and day-to-day fears. The Farthest Shore was, in part, about power: Arren’s coming into power, Cob’s lust for power, Ged’s renouncing of power. Tehanu is about those who are powerless to begin with.

tehanuIt could also, in contrast with the coming-of-age themes of the previous three books (becoming oneself and righting the world’s wrongs), be said to be about the concerns of the second half of life: acknowledging the compromises and mistakes of one’s life, and learning to accept the world as it is, faults and all. The book asks a lot of questions (‘What’s a child for? What’s it there for?’, ‘Who are we? What is it to be a man?’, ‘Who knows where a woman begins and ends?’, ‘Who dares ask questions of the dark? Who’ll ask the dark its name?’, ‘Is power that – an emptiness?’), but rather than being there so the author can provide us with answers, these questions are rhetorical, as though, with age, the world only becomes more and more a mystery that’s never going to be solved.

Perhaps the most telling question of all, though, is ‘Why do we do what we do?’, which is what Tenar asks when first presented with Therru’s injuries. This is another part of Tehanu’s balancing out of the high fantasy of The Farthest Shore. There, power — in particular magical power — forced the powerful to do good or evil, but the battle was mostly among the powerful. Here, we get to see the petty uses of power — even the non-magical power of a man’s physical strength or higher social standing — and how casually it can lead to awful abuse.

Tehanu(1stEd)I previously read Tehanu when it first came out in paperback, but don’t remember what I thought of it. This time, I found it immensely moving, no doubt in part because I’m middle-aged myself. (Tenar, though presented as ageing — mostly through her own point of view, and perhaps her society’s, too — can only be middle-aged, if this book takes place two decades after The Tombs of Atuan.) It’s a far subtler book, with all the high magics, darknesses, nobility and world-spanning of the previous three toned down, though it is in no way less meaningful.

At the time it was published, Tehanu was presented as ‘the last book of Earthsea’, but it’s obvious from the ending that it leaves some very unrhetorical questions unanswered. Throughout the book, there are a few scattered stories about humans and dragons being, originally, one species:

‘But her song told also that then, in the beginning, dragon and human were all one. They were all one people, one race, winged, and speaking the True Language.’

In a way, the idea of unification is part of the series’ DNA. Earthsea is an archipelago — both a unity and a disunity, a series of separate islands that are also a single group, one world. Le Guin’s heroes and heroines are also in the process of self-unification: Ged with his shadow, Arha with her more human side. There’s always the search for ‘True Language’, true names, true natures, a balance, a unification. Is Le Guin about to perform her ultimate unification, between her magnificent dragons and her often very flawed, but always very human humans?

I haven’t read the remaining two Earthsea books before, but I’m certainly looking forward to doing so.

Comments (3)

  1. Neil Harvey says:

    I think you are spot on about this. I recall that, when it was first published, the book was attacked for taking Earthsea into feminist politics. Hopefully, that kind of brouhaha is over and the novel can be appreciated for what it is. Because this is not about “high magics, darknesses, nobility and world-spanning of the previous three”, as you so aptly put it, although they are still present. I had not read the novel until last week and actually found it a relief after the first three. There will always be people who won’t like it because it is not the Earthsea they are familiar with. Just as people hated Garner’s “Boneland” because it ain’t Brisingamen

  2. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Maybe I need to give it a second look? Some part of me would still have preferred a book about the travails and rise of a powerful sorceress – let’s call her Gedda – with a couple of harmless male secondary characters thrown into the mix.

  3. Murray Ewing says:

    Thanks Neil, and Aonghus both! It’s amazing how much enjoyment of a book can come down to knowing what kind of book to expect. Perhaps that’s why I prefer re-reading books: I know what the book’s going to be about, and I can set about enjoying it on its own terms, rather than trying to work out what those terms are. Perhaps it’s significant, then, that the only book on this Earthsea re-read that hasn’t clicked with me is the one I’ve only read the once.

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