Tue
Oct 25 2011 4:00pm

A Woman on Gont: Ursula K. Le Guin’s Tehanu

Each Tuesday, in honor of The Center for Fiction’s Big Read of Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic Wizard of Earthsea series, we’re posting a Jo Walton article examining the books in the series.

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 two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. 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.

15 comments
Craig Ranapia
1. Craig Ranapia
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.
Quite - and Le Guin isn't only trying to re-vision her own work, and square a lot of epically gendered circles, in a way that's perhaps just not possible. On some level, I think she puts Tenar in the same "domestic" bind as Penelope at her loom or the Lady of Shalott or any number of Disney princesses who may wander the world but with the aim of finding their prince (and a split-level castle in an exurban pocket kingdom) at the end of it. Saying that there's more to life than slaying dragons and having the biggest wand in town is a worthy thing, but it's not an unproblematic one where women in genre fiction are concerned.
Craig Ranapia
2. LizardBreath
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.

This drove me nuts: that in the first three books magic is a matter of years of labor and scholarship. But in this one if you're an abused child, it just comes naturally. That was a 'throw the book against the wall' moment for me -- it seemed so cheap, and somehow so disrespectful of what the character had gone through.

I loved the original trilogy (although I can see the basis for feminist criticisms of it), but Tehanu I try to forget I ever read.
Tudza White
3. tudzax1
Ugh, a bit of rubbish that should not have been written.
Craig Ranapia
4. Petar Belic
Such a disappointing book. And so bad, it put me off reading the any more LeGuin for a long, long time. It was so disrespectful to the character of Tenar we witnessed earlier, a person who rebelled against order to now live in such an ordered, BORING situation... I really thought another person had written this book.
Craig Ranapia
5. Michael S. Schiffer
LizardBreath@2:
This drove me nuts: that in the first three books magic is a matter of years of labor and scholarship. But in this one if you're an abused child, it just comes naturally.

Wait-- this gives me a brilliant idea: if we could harness the magical power of just one such child, we might be able to use it for the benefit of an entire city!
Claire de Trafford
6. Booksnhorses
Thanks for articulating why I couldn't like this book even though I wanted to, Jo.
Craig Ranapia
7. EdgarThorne
Jo:
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.

LizardBreath:
This drove me nuts: that in the first three books magic is a matter of years of labor and scholarship. But in this one if you're an abused child, it just comes naturally.

Eh? Did both your editions of Tehanu have some pages missing?

*Massive Spoiler*:
Tehanu/Therru is half-dragon and Kalessins child. This is pretty explicitly stated and also the reason why some people feel uncomfortable around her and why she was abused in the first place. So I don't see what it is that you find so objectionable about her calling her father for help. It's an unexpected climax, yes (for me at least), but in retrospect it was well set up during the course of the book.
Craig Ranapia
8. Goljerp
Michael S. Schiffer@5:
Wait-- this gives me a brilliant idea: if we could harness the magical power of just one such child, we might be able to use it for the benefit of an entire city!
Great idea! But we need to give that city a unique name. Oh... mmm... alas... I don't think I'm coming up with anything.
Craig Ranapia
9. lampwick
I can see all the problems people have with this book, and agree with them to an extent, but it's still a book I love and re-read every so often. I love the way it shows you what it's like to live in Earthsea -- how to herd goats, and make clothing, and go on a trip, and all the homey details every other fantasy leaves out. I too was surprised at what Tenar had become in seventeen years, but I liked the character so much I was willing to go along with it.
Craig Ranapia
10. pauljessup
It's actually one of my favorite out of the series. I liked it way more than Furthest Shore, way more than the first Earthsea. The only one I liked more than this was the Tombs of Atuan. I loved the quiet, meandering nature of the book. It was far more like a literary novel and far less like a fantasy novel, and I thought it was great for that reason alone. Even the way she wrote this was different- the other books had a high diction that was very archiac and Lord Dunsany.

Tehanu had a very leisurely voice, relaxed, moving with the story.
Craig Ranapia
11. Scarlet
When I met LeGuin at the Northwest Bookfest in the late 1990s, I asked her why Earthsea was such a sexist place, given her views on gender equality. First she said, "Have you read Tehanu?" and then she basically said that it was the way fantasy was written then, and she didn't really think about it. She said she wrote Tehanu to try to address some of the issues that had come to bother her about Earthsea in the intervening years.

So yes, you are right about why she wrote Tehanu. I would have preferred that she try to address some of those issues by having Tenar revolutionize Gontish society instead of meekly adapting to it. Her supposed yearning for a quiet domestic life doesn't ring true to me. Someone who had been raised with the expectations of power and authority, and who uses them as she does, wouldn't have thrown them all away.
William S. Higgins
12. higgins
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.

It strikes me that this same tension exists in your own novel Lifelode. Did you have Tehanu in mind as you were writing it?
Jo Walton
13. bluejo
Bill: Yes, very much. I'm actually much more forgiving of Tehanu since I have tried to do it myself and discovered how difficult it is to make it work. The world is Lifelode was inspired by a conversation about Vingean Zones of Thought, but the story was inspired by reading Tehanu and Rumer Godden's China Court one after the other and noticing that Godden had written a book where women and women's lives and homes are central and made it work.
Nancy Lebovitz
14. NancyLebovitz
Edgar, thanks for the details-- I remembered that Tehanu was half dragon, but not that she called her father. I'd completely missed hints that her being half-dragon was part of why she was abused.

As for why people are finding the end objectionable (I'm one of those who was angry), it's necessary to look at it from the point of view of someone who either has been abused or feels that they were at risk for it. In that case an otherwise rather realistic story where the solution to having been abused is "Be half-dragon!" is less than satisfactory.

It seems like it could be a good revenge fantasy, but it didn't work that way for me.
Craig Ranapia
15. Roop
Well, this is what I find it hard to come to grips with. Clearly, the first three books are not about being masculine, at least not in a very traditionally western way. We have a brown skinned protagonist, scar on face, acknowledging that power is not something to be wielded as per one's whim and fancy. That it is often hard to know what is the right choice to make, because things are interconnected in ways not easily fathomable. When Ogion tells the young Ged, "What, after all, is the use of you? or of myself?" it conjures such a Taoist image, something not just to be appreciated by teenagers in a coming-of-age book. And then, to throw such philosophy and sensibility out the door, to spread a message about feminism, and how the working of pots and pans from home is more important than choosing to follow a subtle, Taoist path to in dealing with the world's affairs, is a bit of a let down. Not one male character in Tehanu is portrayed in a favourable light. Why only portray all men negatively, and domesticated women favourably? Why not have Ged bring about a change in which women can also practice magic? I have a suspicion, that this may have to do with Le Guin turning her back on magic altogether.

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