The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread

Tehanu: Le Guin’s Return to Earthsea — and Her Best Novel

The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread explores anew the transformative writing, exciting worlds, and radical stories that changed countless lives. In this final week, we’ll be covering Le Guin’s novel Tehanu (1990).

Last year I embarked on a quest: to reread all of Ursula Le Guin’s works, including story and essay collections, and write about them for Tor.com—a dream come true for any SFF critic. I’ve written about Le Guin for a year, covering her novels, stories, and essays from the beginning of her career (some truly just OK stories) to her first novel of the 1980s, the strange anti-Narnia novel The Beginning Place. That’s nearly two decades of powerful, inquisitive writing that racked up awards and made Le Guin into a household name, an undisputed master of the genre. 

And yet this last year has been hell and worse for us all; though I was able to keep up (sometimes just barely) for all of 2020, I’ve finally hit my wall and need, unfortunately, to step away from the reread, despite not yet having covered several decades of Le Guin’s writing. While I do feel I have let myself (and the few regular readers) down, I also need to safeguard what little time, focus, and emotional resources I can cobble together in the midst of the pandemic.

The question remained to me, then, of how to end the reread. I could drop Always Coming Home (1985) like the pound of intellectual bricks it is—it’s an important and moving novel that synthesizes Indigenous understandings of space, time, and history with the anthropological approach of Le Guin’s earliest Hainish novels, in a truly experimental masterpiece. But it didn’t feel like the best ending for this series. I could skip ahead to the three YA novels of Le Guin’s mid-2000s Annals of the Western Shore, which allowed the author to revisit her YA fantasy roots à la Earthsea, but in a new publishing market that had wholly redefined and revalued the YA genre. But I don’t enjoy those novels as much as her other work. Alternately, I could have gone with Lavinia, Le Guin’s incredible retelling of the title heroine’s story from Virgil’s Aeneid, providing a feminist rereading of Roman mythology that brings agency to the story of Rome’s founding but also highlights the patriarchal violences at that story’s heart. I could have, and almost did choose Lavinia…but then I couldn’t have ended with Tehanu—Le Guin’s best novel.

Initially subtitled The Last Book of Earthsea, Tehanu sees Le Guin return to the world that helped cement her name in the fantasy halls of fame, though it did not remain Earthsea’s “last book.” My writing about the original trilogy—A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore—has stressed how central the series is to the development of the fantasy genre. (I was tempted to write “modern fantasy,” but fantasy has always been modern and Le Guin’s entry onto the scene in the 1960s coincides with the creation of fantasy as a mass-market genre beginning in the 1960s with the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series and Ballantine’s mass-market republication of The Lord of the Rings.) Each novel deals with power and magic in unique ways and together they constitute a theorization of power on its own but especially within the generic tropes of fantasy, in conversation with Tolkien and so many others. The final novel was an argument for fantasy, I noted, as “critical work”—not just something to be read and enjoyed, but something with which to take action, to reflect usefully on power and responsibility, life and death, doing and being. 

Tehanu is a step beyond, the product of a writer willing and intellectually excited to revisit her old works and their assumptions, to show us the dark side of beloved characters, and to say, as empathetically as possible, “grow up and get your shit together.” The novel combines the reflections on power and its loss from The Farthest Shore with the emphasis on gender written throughout The Tombs of Atuan, all with the reflective distance of someone able to recognize earlier faults and to address them through new magics.

A literary critic’s job, as I see it, is to provide arguments about what a text means, but also offer aesthetic and political judgements about the text and its place in our world. If you haven’t read Tehanu, I won’t say stop here, go read it, then come back. That’s an annoying gimmick critics pull, and anyway you won’t need to come back: reading Tehanu is an intellectual pursuit of its own and I’d trust you to make equally insightful judgments of the novel because it’s the kind of novel that inspires people to think and feel something, especially if you were a Ged stan (I never was) or wanted more of Tombs (I did). But my job as a critic is to tell you something you might not have explicitly known or to otherwise to say provocative things to make you think, agree, disagree, get angry, or in any way feel something about the text. So I have two things to say about Tehanu and I can’t think of a better novel to end the reread on.

The first point: Tehanu is a redux of the Earthsea trilogy; or, if not a complete redux, then a pointed revisitation. 

What I mean by this is that the original Earthsea novels wanted to say something about magic, fantasy, and power, and that Tombs said something more by addressing gender and power. We’ve seen throughout her career that Le Guin is willing to hear where she went wrong and often addressed her shortcomings in writing; Tombs was one clear example of this, an attempt to address the complete oversight of a female protagonist for Earthsea. But she also famously wrote an essay titled “Is Gender Necessary?” which was essentially a knee-jerk response to critics who saw The Left Hand of Darkness as a major failure to (more) radically approach the question of gender, sex, and sexuality, and she even more famously wrote an essay of notes on that first essay—called “Is Gender Necessary? Redux”—in which she pointed out her many critical failures in that response.

In Tehanu, Le Guin returns to the question of power and women’s place in the world (the world of Earthsea, but by analogy also ours). While Tombs dealt with gender and specifically addressed the ways in which those with power (men, in Earthsea) provide women with the illusion of freedom and power over their lives (e.g., by offering them positions in the priesthood of the godkings), while in reality these are but symbols and hold, in truth, no material power. The same seems to be true across the Earthsea novels; women either hardly exist or, if they do, are ascribed one of two roles: wife or witch.

Le Guin was not particularly flattering with regard to the abilities of the witches—women who, not able to be trained on Roke as true users of magic by virtue of their gender, end up as local healers and love-potion dealers, much disliked by the local populace but required for the usual functioning of Earthsea’s societies. Le Guin’s one major female character in Earthsea, Tenar, was a similar figure imbued with social value by virtue of her position as the Eaten One, but feared by the other priestesses and utterly divested from the power structures of Kargad. Moreover, in Earthsea, while women have no major role to play in the grand adventures of archmages, even young boys like Arren in Farthest Shore are able to seize the role of protagonist, to do great deeds, to help restore balance to the world.

Tehanu, then, considers the obvious oversights of gendered and patriarchal worldbuilding from the perspective both of a writer who became an avowed feminist nearly a decade after writing the Earthsea trilogy, and a writer who is now significantly older, in her sixties. Le Guin picks up Tenar’s story not after her journey to the white harbor of Havnor, where she is greeted as a beautiful maiden alongside the triumphant archmage Sparrowhawk after his finding of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe, but instead decades later, with a middle-aged goatherd’s widow named Goha. It is perhaps a strange decision, at least from the perspective of a culture that has come to equate doing feminism with writing stories of badass strong female characters, for Le Guin to begin addressing her oversights with regard to gender in Earthsea by telling us that Tenar didn’t go on to, say, force herself into Roke, become a wizard, and do great magical deeds to rival Ged himself. Instead, Goha chose to become the wife of a goatherd, not even a particularly prosperous one, and to raise a kid and grow crops and see to the running of her house and to village life. It was a disappointment to Ged, we learn later, but it is something of an ingenious rhetorical move on Le Guin’s part.

For one, Le Guin herself was 61 when Tehanu came out, and depictions of older women have long been conspicuously lacking in both SFF and the wider culture, so it seems somewhat personally resonant for Le Guin to tell the story of a woman with feminist sensibilities, like Le Guin herself, who chose to be both politically strong-willed (i.e. to have political convictions) and to be a stay-at-home mother—the very thing, as Le Guin suggested (perhaps snarkily), that made feminists dislike her in the 1960s and 1970s. More than this, though, Tenar’s choice to become Goha is part of a larger critique raised by Tehanu about the pursuit of power and the structure of adventure stories, especially fantasy quest stories. 

Consider that while A Wizard of Earthsea is exceptionally well-written and reflects on the dangers of pursuing power for power’s sake or to show off to others, it is also an incredibly generic story about a boy who is too talented for his goatherders’ village, who must go on adventure, and who must gain power to suit his talents and protagonist-y specialness; yes, he learns a lesson about humility, but this just makes him a better protagonist for future installments of the Ged story. Tombs throws a small wrench in that hero-trilogy story progression by decentering Ged, but he returns to do a great deed, defeat an evil wizard, set the universe aright, and put the first king in centuries back on the throne of Earthsea.

Tenar, however, refuses the call to adventure—not the refusal that proves her humility and assures the reader that she’s really the hero, the one who will save Earthsea or whatever. She flat out refuses the patriarchal narrative and ironically this means she refuses the call to adventure to become a wife. On the surface, it’s perhaps anti-feminist: be a good woman and embrace goatherd-wifery. But Tenar escaped an oppressive situation in which her life was utilized as a pawn in the symbolic power games of self-proclaimed godkings, a life in which she was meant to be one amongst an eternal line of nameless women serving nameless dark powers, toiling away in obscurity under the illusion that they hold power, when in reality they simply dust a museum no one visit or understands. She escaped with Ged, chose to become uneaten, and entered into the world of her own accord. She saw what power does, how it corrupts, and even though she loved Ged to some extent for the help he gave her, she did not want the life of a person with power. She goes to Gont to live the normal life that Ged, our “hero,” couldn’t stand.

So she became a goatherd and, as Tehanu shows, she led a fulfilling life, one she enjoyed. And then came the death of Ogion, the burning of Therru, and return of Ged. These three events see Tenar/Goha return to a story “worth reading” from the perspective of a publishing industry that thrives on adventures and quests and great deeds. Only, Le Guin surprises us again by not really giving us an adventure; Tehanu is rather a serious examination of power and post-traumatic growth. 

In the background of Tehanu is a changing world: monarchical power has been restored to Earthsea by King Lebannen (Arren from Farthest Shore), magic is just recovering from Ged’s closing of the portal between life and death, and the ancient difference between human and dragon has been breached with the birth of Therru, daughter of the dragon Kalessin and a human mother. Yet as all these grand things are occurring and changing the world of Earthsea, the story Tehanu wants to tell is that of Tenar being a caregiver to Therru and a concerned companion of Ged, providing agency and heft to a role often relegated to the background of grand stories and described (usually rightfully) as a consequence of patriarchy. Tehanu is a story that recognizes the importance of the mundane and it is also a story that forces a powerful man to stop whining about the loss of his power, placing Tenar in the position Ged has previously occupied, instructing others that power isn’t the be-all and end-all of the universe, that it is not a thing to be sought, but should instead be divested.

The second point I want to make, here: Tehanu is Le Guin’s best novel.

There are many ways to define “best” and one could easily amass a list of Le Guin’s “bests” for XYZ categories, but more often than not, especially in the mouth of a critic, “best” just means “my favorite” but takes on the heft of a moral pronouncement. Tehanu is, then, my favorite of Le Guin’s novels, but I also think it’s genuinely her best and for a number of reasons. Firstly, I prefer fantasy, and she hasn’t written a better fantasy novel. Secondly, I like Earthsea better than Annals or The Beginning Place or her stories, and this is the best Earthsea novel. Thirdly, what matters most to me about Tehanu is everything described in my first point: Tehanu is a novel that bucks expectations, is quiet and thoughtful, and resists being drawn into the overwhelming epicness of so much fantasy. There are many quiet fantasy novels, but at a time when just about every fantasy novel that wins awards is The Next Big Thing and tries harder than The Last Big Thing to be huge, bold, gods-killing-gods, all-your-favorites-MURDERED! explosive, Tehanu is a breath of fresh air that is not only fresh because it’s Not Those Novels, but is fresh because it talks back to fantasy and says, “You don’t have to do this.” It slaps fantasy upside the head and says what the protagonists of so many EpIc FaNtAsY novels need to hear: power is not an end, but it will lead to the end. 

Of course, to each their own! This may not matter to other readers, and that’s okay; we all get our kicks when and where we like them most, and it’s okay not to want your fiction to be what Tehanu is or, at least, not to see what Tehanu does as the greatest expression of Le Guin’s ethos and career as a political writer. My job as a critic has been to guide the way to a sense of the text for my readers, but not necessarily to convince them or to establish the ultimate truth of things. This is what I see and feel, and I do so because of my experiences and training, but I welcome what you see and feel as an outgrowth of your own knowledge. This is what, I think, Tenar would want. Not an established fact of the matter, but a quiet chat over tea, the duties of goatherding and childrearing butting into the conversation as needed, returning to the big questions each new meeting. 

That is the lesson of Le Guin: a quiet contemplation in community with one another, not a bang and revolution—though that would be nice, too—but a meeting (and, if necessary) changing of minds. 

Great deeds through small actions. Power in people, in community. 

Thank you for the chance to read Le Guin with you.

Sean Guynes is an SFF critic and professional editor. For politics, publishing, and SFF content, follow him on Twitter @saguynes.

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