Tehanu: So much misery

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsreview Ursula Le Guin Tehanu EarthseaTehanu by Ursula Le Guin

Hmmm. Where to begin.

First, a confession: despite my high marks for this and other installments of the Earthsea series, I never really warmed up to Ursula Le Guin’s masterworks. It’s like appreciating a painting by Picasso: I know that it’s a magnificent piece of art, but that doesn’t mean I’d want it hanging on my living room wall. Likewise, I can recognize the craftsmanship and skill that went into creating The Earthsea Cycle; there’s so much skill in the writing, in the detail, in the mythological resonances (everything from Carl Jung to Joseph Campbell). Le Guin also had a masterful grip on the nuances of her story, as in the subtle affinity Tenar shares with thistles. But something kept bothering me, and it wasn’t until this forth novel Tehanu that I realised what it was.

Set in the days just before Ged and Arren complete their mission as told in The Farthest Shore, a widow named Goha receives a summons to the wizard Ogion: he is dying, and he requests her presence. Along with her adopted child Therru, who was brutally beaten, raped and burnt by her family when very young, Goha makes the journey across the island of Gont. The woman is of course Tenar, now twenty-five years older than when we last saw her in The Tombs of Atuan, and she arrives in time to hear Ogion’s last words: to teach the child, and to wait.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsWhat she is waiting for is soon made apparent: Ged’s journey to the farthest shore is completed, and he is delivered in the talons of a dragon to his home-isle, a wasted and magicless shell of the man he once was. Despairing and empty, Ged seeks a level of healing and solace that he doesn’t believe can ever be found. But the question of Therru remains a mystery; avoided by most of the island’s inhabitants, Therru is a quiet and elusive child that even Tenar cannot fully understand. Between Ged’s misery and the reappearance of Therru’s family, Tenar struggles to balance out her life and keep those she loves safe from threats that are mundane in comparison to former enemies, but just as life-destroying as dragons, shadows and evil wizards.

Some credit must be given to the originality of the book; here is a fantasy story that has very little to do with the typical fantasy elements one would find in other books of the genre. With the exception of the imaginary setting and a few brief appearances from a dragon, Tehanu is a story that could be told in any context. Change around a few periphery details and Tenar and Therru’s story could take place in any setting or time period, even a contemporary one. Because it is primarily concerned with issues such as gender issues, cruelty toward children, misogyny and other social illnesses, there is not as much scope for imagination this time around. There is certainly no quest narrative: Ged attempts to find inner peace, whilst Tenar escapes the men that have utmost power over her adopted daughter.

Here is when I figured out what bothered me about this book (and to a lesser degree, the previous three in the series). Le Guin speaks a lot about the balance, or the equilibrium of the world: life and death, man and woman, order and chaos, and so on. Unfortunately, le Guin tends to concentrate more on the darker side of life, human nature and the world, with very little uplifting, cheerful or even tranquil moments to balance out the pain and horror that she fills this particular story with. Although Ged’s misery is eventually relieved through his late-blossoming relationship with Tenar, it is precious little light in a very dark novel.

For what it’s worth Tehanu is a remarkably original and painstakingly plotted novel – but the final chapters are filled with such sickening misogyny and sadism that it left a sour taste in my mouth. I have no desire to ever read this book again, and that’s something I hoped I’d never say about a Le Guin novel.

The EarthSea Cycle — (1968-2001) Young adult. Publisher: Ged was the greatest sorcerer in all Earthsea,  but once he was called Sparrowhawk, a reckless  youth, hungry for power and knowledge, who tampered  with long-held secrets and loosed a terrible shadow  upon the world. This is the tale of his testing,  how he mastered the mighty words of power, tamed an  ancient dragon, and crossed death’s threshold to  restore the balance.

The EarthSea Cycle Ursula Le Guin: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, THe Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea, The Other WindThe EarthSea Cycle Ursula Le Guin: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, THe Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea, The Other WindThe EarthSea Cycle Ursula Le Guin: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, THe Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea, The Other WindThe EarthSea Cycle Ursula Le Guin: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, THe Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea, The Other WindThe EarthSea Cycle Ursula Le Guin: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, THe Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea, The Other WindThe EarthSea Cycle Ursula Le Guin: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, THe Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea, The Other Wind

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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  1. I read this way back in high school and only vaguely recollect not really liking it. I’m still tempted to revisit the Earthsea trilogy as an adult, and if that goes well I might move on to this book, but I’m not overly enthusiastic about it. I have huge respect for LeGuin as a giant in the field of speculative fiction, but I still prefer her earlier classics The Left Hand of Darkness and The Disposessed.

  2. I felt much the same after first reading it, which I did immediately after the first three Earthsea books. When I came back to it years later, prompted by not being able to remember what it was about, I found it like a good slow-cooked meal, full of rich flavours to be savoured, if no great pizzazz. I wonder if I got on so much better the second time because I hadn’t preceded it that time with the other books, from which it differs greatly (and perhaps jarringly).

  3. Gerwyn /

    Rebecca Fisher’s review of Tehanu, my favourite Earthsea novel, is unfair on two counts. First, she refers to the “sickening misogyny and sadism” of the final chapters. But, in this most feminist of fantasy novels, Le Guin is depicting, not promoting misogyny: she’s revealing attitudes towards women we hardly suspected in the original three novels. And the misogyny is than balanced by the huge (but hitherto latent) female power revealed in the girl Therru.

    Ah, balance: that’s my second point. Fisher complains that, for all her touting of the Balance in her Earthsea books, there’s very little of it in Tehanu, saying that there’s very little that’s uplifting or cheerful. I have one word to say to this: Kalessin.

    • Rebecca isn’t suggesting that Le Guin was promoting misogyny. She is saying that the depicting of it made the novel feel too dark for her tastes, especially when unexpectedly encountered in this series. I recall having the same reaction when I read it many years ago.

      • Gerwyn /

        I expect Le Guin thought that depicting misogyny in Tehanu was a necessary contrast to the earlier books; maybe she even felt a twinge of guilt for inventing an Earthsea proverb “weak as women’s magic, wicked as women’s magic” without a little context.

        As for the novel being dark: well, bits of it are (but so are the earlier three), but any story that ends with a little girl summoning a dragon to crush evil is quite light in my book.

        • Rebecca Fisher /

          What Kat said. For what it’s worth, I read/reviewed this book literally decades ago when I was a young teen, and possibly wasn’t quite ready for some of its content (especially on the heels of the original trilogy).

          I may have a very different reaction reading it today, especially having read a lot of George RR Martin and Margaret Atwood in the interim (who also depict terribly misogynistic societies without – obviously – advocating for them).

          But even today, my clearest memory of this book was the “crawl” scene, and how deeply upsetting I found it, which is probably how younger!me ended up with this review.

          • Yes, I agree that youth has something to do with this. I read it when I was much younger and almost mentioned that in my comment above but thought it sounded like I’d become jaded and insensitive with age… perhaps I have. Thanks, GRRM!

          • Gerwyn /

            Well, I’ve never read George RR Martin, or seen Game of Thrones. But I found Tehanu a lot more believable than The Handmaid’s Tale.

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