So remember when I wanted to read the “Where Are They Now” for Tenar, the young protagonist who escapes with Ged in the second book of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan? Well, it turns out, that’s what book 4 is about! Thanks Ursula K. Le Guin!
From Goodreads: “Years ago, they had escaped together from the sinister Tombs of Atuan — she, an isolated young priestess; he, a powerful wizard. Now she is a farmer’s widow, having chosen for herself the simple pleasures of an ordinary life. And he is a broken old man, mourning the powers lost to him through no choice of his own. Once, when they were young, they helped each other at a time of darkness and danger and shared an adventure like no other. Now they must join forces again, to help another in need — the physically and emotionally scarred child whose own destiny has yet to be revealed.”
Tehanu turns away from the epic adventure format utilized in the previous books in the series and refocuses back to the homestead on Gont and the social strata that exist of mages, witches, non-magical people, and lords. It’s Le Guin’s entry for young adult Earthsea fantasy readers into social consciousness and intersectionality. By including “magic” into the planes of identity, an additional dimension is added to class and gender as ways that people judge and sort each other. As a foreign woman with a mysterious aura of power over her (though she’s never cast an actual spell), Tenar is kept at arms’ length and mistrusted by most, though she usually doesn’t experience overt rudeness. The uneasiness that people feel around her is multiplied when she adopts a child, Therru, who was badly abused and nearly burned to death by a group of vagrants living in the woods outside of their town. Physically deformed by her injuries, but also apparently imbued with a sense of power, most people who meet Therru are straight-up frightened of her. Add in Ged, who in the previous book used up all of his power to repair the void that was draining Earthsea of magic, and so arrives back in their town broken. Without his power, he’s unsure of his place in the world and feels utterly useless. Together, the three become some sort of magic-ish family: one former power and two undefined powers, navigating through a community that fears the unknown and unfamiliar.
Le Guin doesn’t pull punches when describing the prejudices against Tenar and Therru as just plain misogyny. When asked why one particular sorcerer hates and mistrusts her, she replies “It’s because I am a woman.” There’s also much discussion about women’s power and magic, and questioning of why only men can be mages but women are relegated to village witches, and how male sorcerers stay celibate, thinking of women as literal succubi that can take their power from them if they couple. I was surprised to read these kinds of blunt questions and examinations in a book like this, but leave it to the brilliant Le Guin to use the context of fantasy to deconstruct these biases so well.
Tehanu was published in 1990, almost twenty years after its predecessor in the Earthsea cycle. It’s interesting to me not only that Le Guin chose to revisit these characters and this world, but that she had such a marked agenda in doing so. The story fit right in with my sensibilities, so I really enjoyed it, and I’m glad Le Guin took the opportunity to shift the conversation from male mages and kings toward the women. She’s truly one of the greats and this series has exemplified all of her strengths.