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.

Thursday Linkdump

That time again. Running through them quickly.

1. Why I Will Never Return to the USA
A Dutch man’s experience trying to cross the US border.

2. Female in Public

3. Why an Attack on Sexism in Tech is NOT an Attack on Men

4. Matt Fraction on Suicidal Thoughts
Very good, honest post.

5. Race and the Changing Face of Geekdom

6. Nicola Griffith on Characters’ Sexuality

7. The Blog Post That Lost Me Half My Audience
Kameron Hurley on including men in feminist conversations.

8. Writing is not Breathing
On those old cliches about writers needing to keep writing.

9. “Keep Your Politics Out of My Video Games” (video)

10. You Have Body Issues
Excellent short comic about body issues. I’ve decided to end this list by talking a bit personally on this subject.

Whenever I’m not at work, I wear polo shirts. Several years back, I used to wear t-shirts all the time – now I never do. What changed? I started noticing my chest.

If I put on a t-shirt now, all I can see in the mirror is my slightly flabby chest sticking out. Polo shirts, with the buttons and collar, seem to distract from it. I know its irrational, and there’s actually very little difference, but I can’t bring myself to go outside in a t-shirt any more. I get way too self-conscious.

So yes, we all have our body issues.

Thursday Linkdump

Quick one this time. I don’t like that these are all I’m posting lately, so I’ll try to write some new posts up over the next week.

1. Amplituhedron
As someone who studied physics, I find this stuff pretty fascinating. A new geometric shape that can be used to describe particle interactions in a much more efficient way. Read the original on Quanta Magazine if you want the full story.

2. Designing Cities with Women in Mind
This article in the Atlantic talks about how the city of Vienna in Austria is using “gender mainstreaming” to improve city planning. The idea is simple: they survey the people about how they use the city to determine what changes to make, and by deliberately looking at gender in the process, they can make it better for everyone. It’s not about designing things for men and designing them for women, it’s about remembering to take all activities into account.

3. Do Gamers Need Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminism
Here’s a video that talks about why Feminist Frequency, and the reactions to it, are important.

4. “Racists React To [thing]” posts are just passive white supremacy
In this post of the above title, David Brothers talks about recent trends of articles talking about all the racist reactions online to things like Nina Davuluri winning Miss America, and how by focusing on the extreme reactions and not the achievements of the person being reacted to, they amount to little more than an exercise in self-congratulation for not being as racist as those people. Further, he points out that constantly highlighting these extreme racist reactions serves to reinforce the idea that this is all racism is, and doesn’t help when it comes to recognising racism in its more subtle or institutional forms.

Thursday Linkdump

Time for my weekly post of interesting links. This is mostly just to make me post something at least once a week even when I have no ideas.

1. Guantanamo Again
Artist Molly Crabapple returned to Guantanamo Bay for a second visit, this time to tour the prison, and wrote up another excellent piece for Vice.

2. Batwoman Won’t Get Married
…As a result of editorial decisions which led to the writers quitting the comic. i09 talks about why DC’s explanation of the decision is bullshit.

3. Men Entering Traditionally Female Fandoms
Kameron Hurley wrote a piece talking about the entrance of men into My Little Pony fandom, and how men becoming fans of something somehow legitimises that fandom, while also marginalising women who had been in the fandom before them.

4. What Editors Really Think
…About your manuscript, but won’t put in the rejection letter.

And not a link I was saving, but: Are you listening to Welcome to Night Vale? No? Well go get on with it, then!

Thursday Linkdump

Another week, another load of links I’ve collected – a short one, this week. I’m trying to make sure I post at least one other thing in between these posts, so the blog’s not just a load of links.

Online Harassment

First up, here are a set of excellent talks on online harassment by Anita Sarkeesian, Kate Miltner and Laurie Penny.

Hating Female Characters

Anna Gunn talks about the online hatred directed toward her Breaking Bad character, then Maureen Ryan at the Huffington Post takes her point further, to talk about the way the creators failed in their use of the character in early seasons – and the same mistakes being made on other shows, and how it seems like things are finally changing.

Gender Disparity Among TV Writers

This piece discusses a comprehensive look into the number of male and female writers on major TV series in the US and UK in recent years. It highlights the lack of female creators in the industry on both sides, but in particular shows up just how much worse things are in the UK.

These linkdump posts are tending to focus a lot on gender and sexism. I do think it’s important to read and discuss these things, but I think I’ll try to pick up more light and fun links for next time.

I’ll have another post up soon talking about Elysium, which I saw on Sunday.

Thursday Linkdump

Another week of interesting links I’ve pulled from Twitter and elsewhere. Turns out I read a hell of a lot of things about feminism, sexism, and racism.

1. SFWA Again
I’m a little surprised looking back to find that I never mentioned another of the controversies that happened around the SFF genre fandom a little while back. I may have intended to include it in one of my older posts but decided it didn’t quite fit. The summary is this: author N K Jemisin made an excellent speech at Continuum about reconciliation in the genre, and a certain somewhat-notorious individual responded with some incredibly racist comments about Jemisin, which were promoted in an automated SFWA twitter feed.

Now, the individual in question has been expelled from SFWA, but it’s clear progress still needs to be made within this fandom. Jemisin spoke out again in this blog post about the changing culture and how the SFWA will have to either respond or die.

2. Strong Female Characters (Again)
Following up from the “I Hate Strong Female Characters” article in last week’s links, Seanan McGuire talks about the ways female characters are judged differently from male characters.

3. Angry Black Women
And there are similar cases of double standards going on with real people as well – take a look at this article Am I A Bully? One Angry Black Woman’s Reflection, which discusses the way a black woman responding strongly to discrimination can be dismissed by labelling her with the “angry black woman” trope, and how women and people of colour taking an assertive stance are called out as bullying.

4. Exotification
Discrimination can also disguise itself as a positive, too, as you can see in these two accounts of exotification of asian and black women. Sich fetishisation of race is most often dehumanising by associating race with stereotypical traits.

5. You May Benefit from Discrimination Even if You’re Not Discriminating Yourself
Of course all men don’t hate women, writes Laurie Penny, and Even if you’re not racist, you are still a product of a society that is, Mary Robinette Kowal reminds us. These two links tells us very similar things: That racism and sexism is a societal issue, not just a personal one, and we all may benefit and participate even if we don’t think of ourselves as a racist or sexist.

6. “Reverse” Racism
Ha. No. Just, no. At this link, Jamie Utt responds to the increasing number of claims from white and/or straight and/or male persons that they are now being discriminated against by increasing equality, bringing it down to a problem of language where people lose perspective on levels of discrimination.

6. Slut-shaming
In The Truth About Being a Slutty Slut, Stefanie Williams talks about the way our culture treats women who are open about enjoying their sex lives.

7. The Internet is Changing Everything
In this excellent piece in Medium, Quinn Norton begins by talking about whistleblower Chelsea (formerly known as Bradley) Manning then moves into a discussion of the increasing conflict between the mechanisms of the traditional state, and the networked communities of internet culture. Very much worth a read.

8. The Mako Mori Test
In the wake of Pacific Rim’s success, fans suggest a new test to stand alongside the Bechdel Test: the Mako Mori test, which asks whether a film grants a full narrative arc to at least one female character. It’s easy to see why: Pacific Rim had a very strong female character in Mako Mori, but nevertheless would fail the Bechdel Test on female-to-female interactions.

As is often pointed out, the Bechdel Test does not show whether a film is sexist or feminist, but simply indicates a wider trend in our culture; this new test arguably asks for more from those few female characters that do appear, but one has to hope that it doesn’t lead to studios thinking they need always only have one well-written female character in a film to pass muster with the fans.

9. Collateral Damage in Film
On an entirely different subject, this is an issue which I myself have noticed and commented on recently. This post on Tor.com discusses the massive (and mostly unaddressed within the films) collateral damage in Star Trek Into Darkness and Man of Steel, and how this reflects the changing way war is being waged.

10. Writing May Be Good For You
And finally, given my recent post on my anxiety issues, I have to mention this article on the BBC about writing for health and happiness. It’s an interesting discussion of studies that have looked into whether writing about your problems in a public format like this can help you to be healthier and happier. I certainly think it can help.

Thursday Linkdump

Turns out these link posts aren’t so quick and easy to put together when you’ve spent a full week collecting interesting things instead of a few days. Anyway, here are a bunch of links I’ve seen this week that I think are worth sharing.

1. Breaking Bad
Breaking Bad started its final run of episodes this week (and I signed up to Netflix just to get to watch them), and considering this is one of the best television shows ever made, everyone is talking about it. Among all the rest, this article stood out on the “mighty whitey” trope as it relates to the show and other media, and on the idea that the hero always has to be the best at what he does.

2. Maps
Interesting if you like statistics and/or maps, here are 40 maps that explain the world.

3. Star Wars
Remember the Star Wars prequel trilogy? Yeah, I kinda wish I didn’t either. Over at this link are two videos where Belated Media lays out how he would have fixed the plot of the first two films. Now I wish these actually existed.

4. Writing & Publishing Advice
Over on Chuck Wendig’s blog, Delilah S Dawson tells us 25 Steps to Being a Traditionally Published Author. I am, of course, stuck between points one and two.

5. Minorities in Fiction
Hal Duncan delivered a talk at Nine Worlds Geekfest which points at the limited range of roles given to minority characters in fiction – the gay best friend, the “magic negro”, for example – and how these things are in fact the continuation of a form of segregation (read it first!). You can read the text of his talk at his blog.

6. Violence in Fiction
Here’s a short piece from Warren Ellis on Why We Need Violent Stories.

7. Female Characters in Comics
There was some fuss among comics fans earlier this week after some notable comics creators made comments about why they don’t make more comics with female heroes, and got it mostly wrong. One comment in particular suggested that comics with a message – particularly a feminist one – have not historically been successful; this response offers a good rebuttal of that claim.

8. Women’s Interview Questions
When women writers get interviewed by the media, there’s something different about the types of question they get asked from interviews with male writers. Here at Whack! Magazine, Lela Guenn interviews authors Chuck Wendig and Stephen Blackmoore, asking them the questions usually given to female interviewees.

9. Strong Female Characters
And here’s an excellent piece about what’s wrong with Strong Female Characters. Personally, I tend to use the word “strong” for all good characters, in a general sense of being well put together, much like a story could have strong writing or a writer a strong voice. Nevertheless, the points made here are valid.

10. WoW
Finally, and on an entirely different note, today saw the release of the trailer for the next raid instance in World of Warcraft, the Siege of Orgrimmar. I’m mostly quit from the game now, but this is really a great example of Blizzard’s storytelling and how they occasionally get it very right.

If you don’t know World of Warcraft, all you really need to know is that the big ugly orc in this clip is Garrosh Hellscream, current leader of the Horde – one of the two player factions in the game – and he is not a very nice guy. It’s finally time for the players to get rid of him.

Watch it here.