Early in Tehanu, Tenar (hello old friend!) muses about her friend Moss, the village witch: “She thought Moss was following her heart, but it was a dark, wild, queer heart, like a crow, going its own ways on its own errands.” I can’t think of a better way to describe this book.
In the last pages of The Farthest Shore, another mage says of Ged, “He has done with doing.” Tehanu is the story of what comes after The Doing. Ged leaves Roke and returns to Gont, reuniting with Tenar after decades apart. We find her much older now, a mother and a widow. Her biological children are grown, and she has adopted Therru, a child who was terribly abused and then abandoned by her parents. In the years since she and Ged escaped from the Tombs of Atuan, she has chosen a quiet, domestic life. But just as Ged was born to be a great mage, Tenar – perhaps – can’t walk away from history quite so easily.
And yet there’s very little adventuring. Le Guin isn’t concerned with plot, but with character, and especially how her characters deal with the echoes of huge, half-understood events happening around them. Ged and Tenar are no longer the swashbuckling action heroes cutting a swath through their enemies – if they ever were. They are a nexus, the fulcrum of a lever. Or, as Ged says of Lebannen, “only a beginning. A doorway… And he the doorkeeper, not to pass through.”
I first read Tehanu soon after it was published, in the early 90s. It is the first book I can remember reading that deals explicitly with gender. (Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet were the next.) Le Guin examines the particular roles of women and men in Earthsea, the limits and demands placed on them, and the power they are given or allowed. Men, and particularly mages, it is assumed, have inherent power. “‘Like a nut in its shell.’ She held up her long, bent, wet fingers as if holding a walnut…. ‘And that’s all. When his power goes, he’s gone. Empty.’ She cracked the unseen walnut and tossed the shells away. ‘Nothing.'” This is the problem Ged faces. Without his power, what is he? How can he be anything, now that he’s given away everything he was?
Women, in contrast, are considered to have no inherent power. As Tenar thinks: “And what power had she now? What had she ever had? As a girl, a priestess, she had been a vessel: the power of the dark places had run through her, used her, left her empty, untouched. As a young woman she had been taught a powerful knowledge by a powerful man and had laid it aside, turned away from it, not touched it. As a woman she had chosen and had the powers of a woman, in their time, and the time was past; her wiving and mothering were done. There was nothing in her, no power, for anybody to recognize.” Whereas men are taught to choose and to act, Tenar has learned to renounce, to wait, to endure – but her internal strength allows her to persevere until ultimately she has no other choice but to act. (In this she is as much a mage as Ged.)
Le Guin argues for a third path: potentiality. “So I imagined that, to have power, one must first have room for the power.” And that true power should be rooted in trust:
“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…
“No,” she said. “Trust is not what we’re taught.” She watched the child stack the wood in the box. “If power were trust,” she said. “I like that word. If it weren’t all these arrangements – one above the other – kings and masters and mages and owners – It all seems so unnecessary. Real power, real freedom, would lie in trust, not force.”
This is a much more mature book than the first three Earthsea novels. The danger and darkness comes not from evil wizards or ancient unnamed gods, but from people who abuse and rape simply to prove that they can.* It’s the same danger we face in the “real world,” and – for this reader at least – all the more frightening because of it.
Tehanu is a quiet sort of book, even more interior and philosophical than Atuan. Le Guin subtitled it “The Last Book of Earthsea,” but wrote another two Earthsea sequels 10 years later. It sits in a strange, littoral zone – neither fish nor fowl, subverting all the heroic tropes of the first three novels, a last book that definitely doesn’t feel like an ending. It’s unexpected and impossible to categorize, and I love it with the whole of my dark, wild, queer, crow-y heart.
*Note: it’s not an explicit book – Le Guin uses the word “rape” but does not elaborate. The assault has happened before the book begins, so it is mentioned briefly in past tense.
PS I’ve written this whole post and it just feels… so entirely inadequate. I mean I didn’t even mention Kalessin! Yes! Kalessin the gender-nonconforming dragon is back! And Therru! I should have written an essay on Therru and how Le Guin demolishes the fallacy that we are what is done to us, that an abused child is evil because she was abused, or was abused because she is evil, and the two are one and the same. I should have said that the glimpse we get inside Therru’s mind, in the very last chapter, is so intriguing that it makes me want to forsake all my plans today and just go straight on to the rest of her story in The Other Wind:
The one called Aspen, whose name was Erisen, and whom she saw as a forked and writhing darkness, had bound her mother and father, with a thong through her tongue and a thong through his heart…. He led them in and shut the door behind them. It was a stone door. Sh could not enter there.
She needed to fly, but she could not fly, she was not one of the winged ones…. She looked into the west with the other eye, and called with the other voice the name she had heard in her mother’s dream.
I should have composed another ode to Tenar and her fierce, funny, wise, witty human-ness. I should have said that the Tenar of Atuan feels like my little sister but the Tenar of Tehanu is the mother I’d want if I wasn’t blessed with my own dear mom. I should have just cut and pasted the entire 252 pages here. I should have —
Oh goodness, I give up. I should have come to your house – yes yours! – and sat you down with my dogeared copy of Tehanu and not let you get up ’til you’d finished it. Knock knock. That’s me at the door.