Tehanu by Ursula Le Guin

I originally wrote this post in 2013, and then shelved it after some feedback led me to conclude it was fundamentally flawed. Its presence in my drafts folder has been nagging me for years. Following the recent death of Ms. Le Guin, I decided to finally revisit and complete it. It’s not exactly what I would have written today, but it completes the thoughts I wanted to share five years ago.

Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet, as it was known at the time, was one of the first fantasy series I read, after things like the Chronicles of Narnia (which always feels to me like something everyone must have read as a child, though I know that’s not true). I must have been only about 10 years old the first time. I read the four novels several times, and The Tombs of Atuan, for some reason, was always my favourite. I never quite got into Tehanu to the same extent; I think it bored me, in fact.

It was with those childhood impressions in mind that I decided to revisit the series for the first time in at least a decade. And I was a little surprised. You see, Le Guin stands as almost a mythic figure herself – one of the greats of science fiction and fantasy literature, known for works like The Left Hand of Darkness, which explores the idea of gender through a world where the binary does not exist. In that context, then, A Wizard of Earthsea struck me for one big reason: Where were the women?

That first Earthsea novel was surprisingly conventional, at least from the perspective of an adult reader in 2013. It deals with some interesting themes, particularly that of facing the darkness that exists within one’s own self, but these days the story of a young man learning to become a wizard is nothing exceptional. And the story is all about men. Ged, the apprentice wizard; Ogion, his first master; the Masters and Archmage of Roke; Ged’s rival, Jasper, and his friend, Vetch. There are, as far as I recall, five female characters in A Wizard of Earthsea. All are small parts, there for a chapter or so – some not even that – and then gone.

The second book, The Tombs of Atuan, goes some way to redress the imbalance. The main character is Tenar, known as Arha, Priestess of the Nameless Ones. She lives in an enclave of priestesses and eunuchs, where men are not allowed. Tenar is, technically, one of the highest authorities in Kargad, but she comes to realise she has no actual power, and the other two high priestesses only have power so long as the God-King chooses to keep to the old traditions. It is only when a man, Ged, arrives that Tenar is able to break out of the restrictions placed upon her. When Tenar, through Ged’s aid, ultimately departs from the Tombs, they are destroyed – along with what are seemingly the only positions of authority, however limited, for women in all of Earthsea.

The Farthest Shore once again gives Ged’s story, this time as an old man, as Archmage, as he sets out with the young nobleman Arren. They journey to investigate a dark power that is causing Mages to forget their True Speech, and to place a king on Earthsea’s vacant throne. The Farthest Shore is a story about confronting and accepting death, and it, too, is a story about men.

In those three books, what Le Guin created was a world in which men held all of the power; in which women could have some magic ability, but only as witches who were shunned, or sorceresses in service to dark powers. “Weak as women’s magic; wicked as women’s magic” is the saying on Gont. And she created a world where these things were seemingly unquestioned.

How did someone who is known as a feminist writer end up creating such a sexist world? As it turns out, this is something Le Guin herself was very aware of. This was a male dominated genre, one in which it was often felt that writers must centre male characters in order to sell books. She spoke a number of times in interviews about the slow process of learning how to shed this preconception, such as in this interview from 1994:

All my early fiction tends to be rather male-centred. A couple of the Earthsea books have no women in them at all or only marginal women figures. That’s how hero stories worked; they were about men. With the exception of just a few feminists like Joanna Russ, science fiction was pretty much male-dominated up to the 1960s. Women who wrote in that field often used pen names.
None of this bothered me. It was my tradition, and I worked in it happily. But I began coming up against certain discomforts. […]
I gradually realised that my own fiction was telling me that I could no longer ignore the feminine. While I was writing The Eye of the Heron in 1977, the hero insisted on destroying himself before the middle of the book. “Hey,” I said, “you can’t do that, you’re the hero. Where’s my book?” I stopped writing. The book had a woman in it, but I didn’t know how to write about women. I blundered around awhile and then found some guidance in feminist theory. […] It taught me that I didn’t have to write like an honorary man anymore, that I could write like a woman and feel liberated in doing so.

That’s the problem when you come upon the work of an established author long after they began their career – it’s easy to forget that decades of work was involved, and that their own understanding of their work may have changed in the process.

For the Earthsea saga, that’s where Tehanu comes in. Published eighteen years after The Farthest Shore, this is a very different book, and in many ways serves as a feminist response to the world that Le Guin had created.

In this slower, darker, and more domestic novel, we once again have the point of view of Tenar – older, and living on the island of Gont; a mother whose children have left, and a wife whose husband has died. Since she was last seen in The Tombs of Atuan, she’s lived an entire life.

At the opening of the book, a young girl is found beaten and burned, and is nursed back to health by Tenar and the witch Ivy. Tenar takes the child in as her own, and gives her the name Therru. Tehanu takes place at the time The Farthest Shore ended: In that book, we were told of how Earthsea still did not have peace because there was no king on the throne; now, a king has been found, but his influence is yet to be felt. Gont is no longer safe for travellers, as vagrants and thieves are on the roads. It was vagrants such as these – the girl’s own parents and one other man – who had beaten Therru and left her for dead.

Part of what makes this one book remarkable out of the four is Tenar’s position in the story: as a woman and mother with no special power of her own, threatened by men who wish harm on her and her child. When she travels, she is wary of every person she passes on the road. Her fears are not fantastic in nature – they are those of an ordinary woman faced with the abuses of evil men. The dangers she faces are mundane, and very real.

Much the same is true for Ged, when he returns to Gont. Having lost all of his magic at the end of The Farthest Shore, he is no longer a mage, but an ordinary old man, one who has never lived as an ordinary man before in his entire life. Accustomed to facing down dragons, now he is as helpless as Tenar. His loss of purpose serves another theme of the novel – that of what people do when what they believed was their role in life has ended. Tenar has been a priestess, a celebrated hero, a mage’s apprentice, a wife, and a mother; Ged has spent his entire life a mage. For both, these roles are behind them at the novel’s opening, and they must try to make a new life for themselves.

Most of all, though, the book talks about power. The men in this story almost universally hold power over Tenar and Therru. Some are friendly – the sorcerer of Valmouth is helpful; the King and Master Windkey from Roke offer her every courtesy thanks to her fame and her friendship with Ged. Ogion the Silent, mage of Re Albi, sees her like a daughter. The wizards who visit Re Albi at Ogion’s death, however, do not trust Tenar’s account of his last words; the Lord of Re Albi’s sorcerer, Aspen, in particular proves to be an evil and hateful man. The man who injured Therru may only be a vagabond, but he nevertheless holds power over them, through memory of the pain he caused, and the threat he poses later, when he gathers friends to attack Tenar at her home.

Along with sharing a position of power over Tenar, most are in some way dismissive of her, simply because of her womanhood. The Master Windkey is searching for clues as to who will be the next Archmage, following a prophecy that said only “A woman on Gont”. But neither he, nor any other Master of Roke, has considered that the woman in question might in fact be the Archmage. They believe the woman will guide them to the man they seek. While she talks with him, Tenar realises that the Master Windkey will never grasp what she tries to say. “How could he, who had never listened to a woman since his mother sang him his last cradle song, hear her?”

Ogion had told Tenar to teach Therru magic: “Teach her all. Not Roke.” Beech, the wizard of Valmouth hears this, and decides immediately what was meant. “‘He meant that the learning of Roke – the High Arts – wouldn’t be suitable for a girl,’ he explained. ‘Let alone one so handicapped.'” What Ogion must have meant, he says, was the same thing he had suggested: that Therru become a witch. “He pondered again, having got the weight of Ogion’s opinion on his side.”

It’s one of the book’s many examples of men mindlessly following what they know to be the way of things. “His kindness was, Tenar thought, innocent.” Even Tenar’s own son, Spark, when he returns from years at sea, immediately expects his mother to wait on him and defer to him as head of the household. “His father had always been waited on by his mother, wife, daughter. Was he less a man than his father? Was she to prove it to him?”

But women, too, have power. A story early in the book tells of Ogion’s meeting with an old woman who he first mistook for a dragon. This woman told him a story of a time in Earthsea’s beginning when humans and dragons were one and the same, and how they came to choose different paths and become separate beings. In this, and in the culmination of Therru’s story, it is women who hold a deeper understanding of the mysteries of the world. So too with the subtle implication that it may be Therru who is destined to be Archmage, the one who leads the wizards, the Masters of Roke – and her accession would be sign of a fundamental change in Earthsea.

There is a hint of gender essentialism regarding magic in the novel – particularly in a conversation between Tenar and the witch Moss, about the difference between men’s and women’s power.

‘Ours is only a little power, seems like, next to theirs,’ Moss said. ‘But it goes down deep. It’s all roots. It’s like an old blackberry thicket. And a wizard’s power is like a fir tree, maybe, great and tall and grand, but it’ll blow right down in a storm.’

On a certain level, such discussions of the difference in power seems to lend legitimacy to the model that has put wizards alone into the School on Roke, and confined women with power to petty witchcraft. But beside the rest of the novel, and coming from a character that has had to live within that structure as a witch herself, it’s easy to forgive.

Ultimately, Tehanu calls into question all of the patriarchal structures of Earthsea’s culture as established in the original trilogy, simply through its use of the perspective of an ordinary woman attempting to live an ordinary life. Tenar sees through the obstinacy and foolishness of the men around her, but it is only Ged, who has lost his former self and has to learn from nothing how to be a man, who is able to hear her.

In 2018, I finally completed the Earthsea saga by reading Tales of Earthsea and The Other Wind. With the short stories in particular, Le Guin expanded on these discussions of men and women’s power, of the exclusion of women from magic in Roke, and how the segregation of men and women in magic came about. The series concludes with events that turn the entire system of magic in Earthsea on its head, leaving the future unknown and open to all kinds of change. And it is women, and the men who are willing to listen to them, who are instrumental in bringing this about.

Tehanu no longer bores me. It is powerful, moving book, and my favourite of the entire Earthsea series. I’ll end this with a passage from late in the novel, a conversation between Ged and Tenar which I think exemplifies well what Tehanu has to say about men and women. I almost wish I could quote the whole few pages.

‘Haven’t there been queens? Weren’t they women of power?’
‘A queen’s only a she-king,’ said Ged.
She snorted.
‘I mean, men give her power. They let her use their power. But it isn’t hers, is it? It isn’t because she’s a woman that she’s powerful, but despite it.’
She nodded. She stretched, sitting back from the spinning wheel. ‘What is a woman’s power, then?’
‘I don’t think we know.’
‘When has a woman power because she’s a woman? With her children, I suppose. For a while…’
‘In her house, maybe.’
She looked around the kitchen. ‘But the doors are shut,’ she said, ‘The doors are locked.’
‘Because you’re valuable.’
‘Oh, yes. We’re precious. So long as we’re powerless… I remember when I first learned that! Kossil threatened me – me, the One Priestess of the Tombs. And I realised that I was helpless. I had the honour; but she had the power, from the God-King, the man. Oh, it made me angry! And frightened me… Lark and I talked about this once. She said, “Why are men afraid of women?”‘
‘If your strength is only the other’s weakness, you live in fear,’ Ged said.
‘Yes; but women seem to fear their own strength, to be afraid of themselves.’
‘Are they ever taught to trust themselves?’ Ged asked, and as he spoke Therru came in on her work again. His eyes and Tenar’s met.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Trust is not what we’re taught.’


With thanks to ussussimiel and LuciMay for their input; it took me 5 years to act on it, but I did listen.

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