Mon
Feb 1 2010 3:48pm

A woman on Gont: Ursula Le Guin’s Tehanu

Seventeen years after The Farthest Shore (1973) came Tehanu (1990). In that time an awful lot happened. One of those things was second wave feminism, and Le Guin, always a feminist, always ahead in thinking about gender issues, looked back at Earthsea and feminist criticism of Earthsea, and saw that she had done a lot of things without thinking because of the way the weight of story pulled her. I’m pretty sure that she wrote Tehanu to try to address some of this directly, not to revise but to revision Earthsea, to give women a voice. If the first trilogy are, as Le Guin said, male and female coming of age and death, this is being a woman. (Calimac suggests The Farthest Shore is the book of the old man, and Tehanu is the book of the old woman, but I don’t think so. Ged is 50 in The Farthest Shore and Tenar is in her early forties here, and not even at menopause.)

Another thing that changed between 1973 and 1990 was the existence of genre fantasy. In 1973 there was really nothing but The Lord of the Rings and the scattered predecessors Lin Carter published as the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series. Genre fantasy was created by people reading and reacting to Tolkien. Lester Del Rey published The Sword of Shannara (1977) as “look, we have more of this stuff”. By 1990 there was a lot of it. Le Guin had written the earlier Earthsea books for children, giving them young protagonists as viewpoints. Now she didn’t need to, there were adult readers who would buy fantasy. She could write an adult fantasy novel, and she did.

I gnash my teeth when I see Tehanu published in a children’s book line and a matching edition to the others, and in children’s libraries. I think it quite right that there be stories written that are aimed at adults, I don’t think everything should be or can be accessible to children, and I deplore the use of “adult” and “mature” to mean “with sex”. Children will generally roll their eyes at “kissing books”. But I don’t see much point in putting a book on children’s shelves that’s so very much one with genuinely adult themes—seeing your children grow up, coping with a child who has been abused, finding a way to live your daily life.

The other thing that happened was that I’d grown up. I was nine when I read the first three and twenty-five when I read Tehanu. I read it while about as immured in femininity as it is possible to be, lactating and with a small baby in a sling either sleeping or failing to sleep as I read. I read some of it aloud to try to soothe him to sleep. (It reads aloud beautifully. All Le Guin does.) I should have been sympathetic to what she was doing. I certainly wanted to be. I noticed that everything in Tehanu was implicit in the last paragraph of The Farthest Shore. But I didn’t want Ged to have lost his power, and I didn’t think domesticity was any replacement for it. I didn’t quite believe in Tenar’s life as a farmwife on Gont—there’s something false about it. I suppose I had, between nine and twenty-five, imagined things Tenar might have been doing.

I also felt, and still feel, that Le Guin is speaking with a double tongue in this book. On the one hand she’s saying very clearly that women’s domestic lives are central and important, and on the other the force of story is bending everything to have an actual plot, which needs an evil wizard and men and the world of action. The burned child Therru, who has been raped and survived, calls the dragon to the rescue. It’s too easy an answer, as well as being a nice trick if you can do it. And it denies the centrality of the importance of the well lived life. She says that women’s lives matter, but she shows that they don’t, that what matters is magic and power and calling on dragons. This is a restless book with very strange pacing.

Tehanu is a very problematic book for me, one I’ve thought about a great deal. Even when I don’t enjoy reading Le Guin she always makes me think. I’m much more sympathetic to what she was trying to do in Tehanu than before I’d tried it myself—there’s a whole weight of expectation to do with the way stories go that she was trying to roll uphill singlehanded to make this book work, and it’s amazing it works as well as it does. But if you want a feminist fantasy about small scale domestic life, I recommend Phillis Ann Karr’s At Amberleaf Fair. And if you want Le Guin telling confident fantasy stories set in worlds where women are people, I recommend the Western Shore trilogy.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

32 comments
Tudza White
1. tudzax1
I thought the whole point of Tehanu was to emasculate the greatest wizard of Earthsea because, well, he was a man.

Utter crap and I'm glad you gave me more reasons to totally hate this book.
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
Tudzax1: I don't think "emasculate" is the word you're looking for, as Ged finds love and sex for the first time in this book. If he was emasculated it was before. I'm not entirely happy with the examination of celibacy -- I was perfectly fine with "nobody has sex because it's a children's book".
Tony Zbaraschuk
3. tonyz
I wasn't happy with the book, since it was so different from the earlier ones. This is always a problem when an author re-visits a previous work after a gap; the readers are looking for "more of the same" or "the continuation" and are often very unprepared for what the author actually wants to do. But there is often a very substantial clash with the previous body, and I have a theory that the decline in quality is roughly proportional to the gap in time. The longer the wait, the worse the book, and I don't think it's just a decline in expectation.

I thought that the ending was a major cop-out (what, abused women are dragons and get to burn/eat people they disagree with? That's... not a feminist message, to say the least. And it rather violently clashes with the portrayal of dragons in The Farthest Shore, where their fates and nature are not the nature and fate of humankind.)

And I'm looking at Tehanu's life going "I didn't buy this book to read 'and she lived unhappily ever after'". There were things of value in the book (Tehanu didn't have a fairy-tale princess-ever-after ending, Ged's reaction to the loss of his power, things didn't instantly become perfect with the crowning of a king), but so much of the book seemed -- to my eyes anyway -- unmitigated annoying misery that it was hard to care. (I suspect I might read it differently now many years later, just as I suspect the same about The Mists of Avalon, but in neither case am I really interested in going back and revisiting the annoyances.)

The thing about wizard's celibacy is a bit out of left field as well: there were certainly romantic hints earlier (the story of Morred and Elfarran, for instance, and their son), and while it would have been nice to have a story integrating things, I don't think this was it.
Calimac
4. Calimac
Correction: I didn't suggest the young/old man/woman patterning of the four books. Le Guin said it.
Jo Walton
5. bluejo
Calimac: Where did she say it? Anyway, I still disagree, unless she's using "old" to mean "grown up".
j p
6. sps49
I remember this as a well-written book that I didn't like. Jo, you are very articulate at the whys.

I did appreciate that the price Ged paid lasted; this and Gwen Stacy seemed to be the only permanent bad events ever.
Calimac
7. Calimac
She said it at the World Fantasy Convention in 1989. The con report I wrote at the time says "she read a selection from her upcoming novel Tehanu, the fourth and last Earthsea book, the tale of Tenar (the priestess heroine of The Tombs of Atuan) in her old age in the same way that The Farthest Shore is the tale of Ged's old age."

And I recollect further that she described the previously-existing trilogy as a four-pointed set with one point missing, which Tehanu was intended to supply.

What part of Tehanu Le Guin read on that occasion I do not recall, but I was well familiar with The Farthest Shore and did not consider it odd to call it "the tale of Ged's old age." The book has a very elegiac tone as far as Ged is concerned, and reads differently without Tehanu and The Other Wind to show what happened next. True, I don't have her exact wording, and she did not repeat the four-pointed symbolism in her 1992 essay "Earthsea Revisioned" (even though there she writes "From 1972 on I knew there should be a fourth book of Earthsea, but it was sixteen years before I could write it," which she'd also said at WFC), but the four-point opposition of male/female, youth/X, of the four-book set is real (and the subtitle of Tehanu shows that the author meant a four-book set at the time) regardless of whether "old age" is the most felicitous way of describing the X that puts The Farthest Shore and Tehanu together or not.
Calimac
8. Calimac
PS: I had forgotten that I'd written another con report of the 1989 WFC that went into a little more detail on Tehanu:

"She began it over fifteen years ago, soon after writing the first three books, but found herself unable to complete it at that time, so she saved the idea until she felt completely ready, and began anew a couple of years ago. The book is the tale of Tenar (the priestess heroine of The Tombs of Atuan) in her old age in the same way that The Farthest Shore is the tale of Ged's old age. The four books, Ursula feels, go together like the four legs of a chair; one story each about a young man, a young woman, an old man, and an old woman."
Paul Jessup
9. pauljessup
Personally? I loved this book. It does a lot of the same stuff that McKillip's (spl?) Forgotten Beasts of Eld does, but does it in Gont rather than anywhere else. personally, I loved the laid back, rambling feel. She made the characters far more real in this book than in the past, and the only book of Earthsea I love more than this one was Tombs of Atuan.

Then again, I read all the books together, one right after the other, and didn't have that 20 year break between them
JS Bangs
10. jaspax
I think it'd be very helpful to (re)read and talk about the novella Dragonfly from the collection "Tales from Earthsea" before tackling Tehanu. Or at least before The Other Wind. Are you planning on doing so? Are you planning on talking about "Tales from Earthsea" at all?

I definitely agree that this is the most difficult of the Earthsea books, and it's the only one that I don't really care for. My initial reaction after reading it was "That was so boring." Like you, I wanted Ged not to have lost his magic, and I wanted something more interesting to happen. Even the climax fell flat for me. In retrospect, I see better what LeGuin was trying to do, but I don't think she quite pulls off the "importance of domesticity" theme. The other major theme, that of losing rather than gaining power, is handled better in the final book.
Jo Walton
11. bluejo
Jaspax: Tehanu has grown on me somewhat.

Posts on Tales From Earthsea, including "Dragonfly" and The Other Wind coming soon. I do not like them, so they're miserable grumpy posts, but they are written and you'll see them soon. Watch this space.
Calimac
12. Foxessa
JW -- Do you really equate a woman's giving birth and lactation with 'femininity?'

"I read it while about as immured in femininity as it is possible to be, lactating and with a small baby in a sling either sleeping or failing to sleep as I read."

With your sex, as female, yes, but 'femininity?'

Do we use that word differently down here in the U.S. than you in Canada, perhaps?

Whereas, I, on the other hand, found Tehanu rather puzzling as a young woman, found it a far more interesting book later. I certainly find it more interesting now than Tombs -- but I have personal issues with the dark and underground, and always have.

A few more years down the road that the author didn't automatically have 'heroes and heroines' have their lives consist merely of Big Win and Glory, that the author recognizes that as the world changes so can the circumstances of the lives of those who once were the Big Winners, as they age with their world -- that is so not the trajectory that genre and Hollywood allows. I admired that a lot.
Jo Walton
13. bluejo
Fozessa: What can I say -- I do indeed believe that pregnancy and lactation is ineluctably feminine. (I had no idea this was controversial.)
Calimac
14. hapax
Of all the Earthsea books, this is the one I admire the most (for what the author attempts) and like the least (for the actual reading experience.)
Calimac
15. rxa
Of all the Earthsea book, images from Tehanu have stayed with most strongly. I grew up reading fantasy with wizards and dragons and quests, but what stayed with me long after reading are the domestic scenes. In many ways, Tehanu has become my favorite of them, not for the grand story, but for the mundane parts in between.
C Smith
16. C12VT
I think what foxessa is saying is that "feminine" is sometimes used to refer to culturally female things, rather than biological - someone can be very female but not all that feminine. I don't know if this is official usage or not - my dictionary doesn't make this distinction.

Domesticity in fiction is something I really struggle with - I want to see it, I want it to be more valued than it typically is in our culture, but how to make it interesting?

BlueJo: I was wondering which of your works you were thinking of when you wrote "I’m much more sympathetic to what she was trying to do in Tehanu than before I’d tried it myself"
Calimac
18. John Moran
> Another thing that changed between 1973 and 1990 was the existence of genre fantasy. In 1973 there was really nothing but The Lord of the Rings and the scattered predecessors Lin Carter published as the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series. Genre fantasy was created by people reading and reacting to Tolkien.

er... what?

What about:

Fritz Lieber
Edgar Rice Burroughs
HP Lovecraft
Robert E Howard
Henry Kuttner
Catherine Moore
James Blish
Roger Zelazny
ER Eddison
CS Lewis
William Morris
Lord Dunsany

and others, potentially including Homer, the mabinogion, Shakespeare, Bram Stoker, Beowulf, The Brothers Grimm and Lady Gregory if you want to make the category wide enough.
Jo Walton
19. bluejo
John Moran: None of them published by 1973 as genre fantasy, because there wasn't any. Of your examples I can see some of the predecessors Carter was reprinting under the interesting name of "Adult fantasy", Lewis, published as children's books, and Zelazny, as SF -- you can add Pern and Darkover, as SF, if you squint hard. There was fantasy, but there wasn't a publishing genre of fantasy.
Calimac
20. John Moran
(Bluejo) ... I don't understand. The line I was responding to was:

>In 1973 there was really nothing but The Lord of the Rings and the scattered predecessors Lin Carter published as the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series.

Are you saying:

a) The only fantasy readers could find before 1973 were the Lord of the Rings or the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series.

... if so, my response is that many authors on the Ballantine list only had a minor subset of their works on there (eg HP Lovecraft), and loads more were writing what we'd call fantasy before 1973 (eg Robert E Howard and Fritz Lieber).

Or are you saying:

b) The word "fantasy" wasn't used in relation to those works pre-1973.

... if so, my response is that the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction was created in 1949.

Or are you saying:

c) There wasn't a publishing category called "genre fantasy" pre-1973 that was used to label books, because that came into existence in response to Tolkein.

... if so, then I'm sorry I misread what you meant. I guess that's fair enough.
Jo Walton
21. bluejo
John Moran: I meant C.

Dunsany and Eddison and Morris were also published in Carter's Adult Fantasy line, incidentally.
Calimac
22. Darwinista
If you want a novel that values domestic life, read Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Not fantasy, though!
Calimac
23. Calimac
And if you want a fantasy novelist who values domestic life, try Patricia McKillip, as pauljessup suggested, though some of her later books are stronger on this than Forgotten Beasts of Eld, good as that is.

Bluejo is right about adult fantasy. There was adult fantasy in 1973, but it was difficult to market, because there was no publishing genre of it, and it often got labeled as children's fantasy. (I used to see The Silmarillion in children's sections.) The main point is that it was easier for casual observers to see what Tehanu was in 1990 than it would have been 17 or 18 years earlier, and that's certainly true.
Calimac
25. P y r e
"She says that women's lives matter, but she shows that they don't, that what matters is magic and power and calling on dragons."

In addition to the three Earthsea novels preceding Tehanu, there was an Earthsea story in the collection The Wind's Twelve Quarters, which established that a dragon could live in human form among human beings and not be detected -- which story, if read before Tehanu, might raise the reader's suspicions a bit earlier.

But this leads into the idea that human lives -- both men's and women's -- may all of them ultimately be dragon lives, too; that the two very different-seeming species may actually be one at the root, sundered only in their paths.

So if "what matters is dragons", then of course "women's lives matter" and "men's lives matter" as well, because we're all part of the same species.
Calimac
26. sarah roselyn
This one was by far the best one in my opinion too I absolutely LOVED IT!!!
Calimac
28. samadhi
I hate Tehanu probably because i loved the original trilogy so much.

What was Leguin thinking? That because she created a story where woman lacked the magical power of men. That male readers would view woman differently in the real world. What bullshit: its fantasy! If a man reading Earthsea thought ok this settles it, im better than women then he should be committed.

Leguin should be ashamed of herself, she scarred something beautiful and precious in the name of polictics.
Calimac
29. andr01d
samadhi: "Leguin should be ashamed of herself, she scarred something beautiful and precious in the name of polictics."
I agree! I don't read fantasy novels to hear women sitting about gossiping & griping about inequality. Hardly fantasy, that's unfortunately reality! A good deal of my fellow ladies sit idly wasting their time with such harping and whining, as I wasted my time reading about it.

Still this book is worth a read for the recurrence of some excellent characters (Arren, Ged, Kalessin) and we get to meet some new ones as well.
Calimac
32. Louise Wilders
I have read Earthsea perhaps 5 times - over many years. I am now 66. I do not read "critics" very often ! (I write poetry - have for last 20 years )
I googled Tehanu because I hoped to find insightful thought ! but instead found these peevish and unimaginative ones !
For me Leguin delivers profound philosophical messages in little packages hidden in the fabric of her stories ! and these commentors missed them completly !
Ogion said "all changed" and Tehanu agreed with Segoy (surely the female creator of life) that she had "work to do" That work was surely not "domestic" but the re establishment of women at the centre of power ! The re balancing of the world ! "Ged" overcoming the humiliation of being "only" a man and not superior to women at all ! The old finding contentment in living and joy in loving but not turning their backs on nurturing a future generation with the "power" to build that future !
Tehanu is about potential. How could Leguin do more than give that message ? She is honest. She does not answer a question that history has not yet replied to !
I am a survivor of horrific child abuse. I found Tehanu expressed very well the double sided nature of the wounds we bear. I was uplifted by the message that evil perpetrators may cause us disfiguring injuries but they also give us the potential for great strength far beyond what "those of another kind" may imagine we possess. Justice is done but not vengence. It is the "maker"/ "unmaker" - surely the long lived process of history - that destroys evil. It is not the act of one man or woman.
"I will give you my child, as you will give me yours" Segoy says. Confirming the cycle of life and the role of young and old, men and women in that process. Domesticity ? Look again ! Hear Segoys ironic laugh !
Wildsage
Calimac
33. Samadhi
If people cant see! The tragedy of Leguins detioration from Toaist mindfullness and facinating exploration of the consequences of actions in the original trilogy.

To Tehanu,s blunt object rant about men oppressing women.

And the shocking betreyal of Ged, who in the Farthest Shore gladly spent his power to save the world. Knowing also that now he was free of power and could live as he pleased free of responsiblity.

But in Tehanu he was a was a shivering one dimensional after thought
Calimac
34. Pippi
The conversation in this thread amuses me, because you can see how the men react to the book (God forbid Le Guin write anymore of this feminist harangue! or Where's the fantasy wtf?), and how women respond to it (some conflicted over the perceived message, some love it to bits).

I read Tehanu when I was in my early twenties (probably before I was twenty, but I can't be bothered to remember). Like other people in this thread, I first found the book a let-down, after what had been a thrilling journey that the first three books provided. Now, a decade later, I find myself more in love with Tehanu than the three books.

There's this world that the three books alluded to, but never completely described—a world of nonmagic that lives side-by-side with magic, supporting, complementing, overlapping each other. And I love how Le Guin gave voice to that other world, and by doing so, completes our picture of the world of Earthsea. And I love the fact that Ged's loss of power is showed side-by-side with Tenar's ordeal with men of power: both are grievous things, yet, Tenar asks, what is Ged's suffering compared to the suffering that women endure every day of their lives?

I love how she wrote it with a mature woman's POV, because that's what's lacking in the world of Earthsea—a woman's voice. A woman can be important, too, keeping the balance, in her own way: for herself, fighting her own battles (dealing with men who belittle); an abused girl (god knows if the hurt done to her will ever heal, but Tenar does what she can); and a man born into power and from whom skill was lost (but not self, for he remains Ged).

Last thought: It's funny to think that some readers complain about Tenar's "harping and whining", and this is exactly the thing Tenar was "whining" about—people who can't (or won't) bring themselves to listen and understand a woman's concerns. But, I guess, the disappointment most readers have is over expectations of genre over anything else.
Calimac
35. samadhi
The genius of the Trilogy!!! is that she says so much with so few words. Isnt that the essense of writing at its best. Tehanu lacks that elegance.
Calimac
36. Sharna Pax
I have a problem with the celibate-wizard thing, because I think it leads the Ged/Tenar relationship into a Moebius strip of self-contradiction. Why do we want them to end up together in Tehanu? Because they've had terrific chemistry ever since Tombs of Atuan. If you try to tell me that what drew the two of them together in Atuan had nothing to do with sexual attraction, because that would be magically impossible, then you're denying something that you're also trying to build on. And suddenly my suspension of disbelief is totally gone.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment