March 5, 2021 6:57 AM - by Le Guin, Ursula K. - Subscribe

Years before, they had escaped together from the sinister Tombs of Atuan—Tenar, an isolated young priestess, and Ged, 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 not by choice. A lifetime ago, they helped each other at a time of darkness and danger. Now they must join forces again, to help another—the physically and emotionally scarred child whose own destiny remains to be revealed. (Book 4 of the Earthsea cycle)

Welcome back to the Earthsea club! We’re picking up more or less where The Farthest Shore left off, but we’re in a whole different Earthsea…

Make sure you know your way around with this map of Gont. The main map of Earthsea is also useful.

Additional Reading
posted by Cash4Lead (15 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The book where LeGuin starts to unpick the tapestry she'd woven over the previous three books. As I recall not a lot actually happens, except at the end when everything happens.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 9:20 AM on March 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

I need to reread this, but in memory it's just a brutal, brutal (but beautiful) book.
posted by feckless at 7:38 PM on March 5, 2021

On first reading, back in the day, I found this book an extraordinarily bitter pill. But in the context of the short stories and the novel which followed it, more bearable (but just as necessary) on rereading. "Unpicking the tapestry"- so very apt!
posted by Coaticass at 7:46 PM on March 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'm so glad she didn't stop here.
posted by Coaticass at 7:47 PM on March 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

I need to reread this, but in memory it's just a brutal, brutal (but beautiful) book.

Brutal matches my memory too. This just gutted me when I read it. I'd read the original three ages ago, and wasn't prepared for what I was getting into.

I never read more in the series after this. Sounds like maybe I should?
posted by mark k at 11:02 PM on March 5, 2021

Yes, that will heal your wounds. So to speak.
posted by Coaticass at 2:52 AM on March 6, 2021

I love love love love this book. It's painful, but also reminds me of lancing a blister, in the way that the pain means the healing can come afterwards.
posted by dinty_moore at 8:37 AM on March 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

This book has such complex resonances and I don't know how to talk about any of them. I first read it when I was too young to appreciate Tenar's choices. It was hard to imagine chores or family life as stabilizing. But in a way they make everything else possible. And Tenar being all the people she is and has been makes everything possible, too. This book taught me something about labor and domesticity and community and selfhood and choices and power and trauma and (of course) dragons.

mark k, definitely read Dragonfly (the novella from Tales from Earthsea) and The Other Wind. It's very much worth continuing the story.
posted by Fish, fish, are you doing your duty? at 3:51 PM on March 6, 2021 [3 favorites]

This is my first time reading Tehanu, and I sort of got the idea that I'd love it, but oh my, I loved it, so very very much. It's exquisite, Tenar is impossibly brave and knows herself so well. I am just...breathing in her choices, both before the book begins and at the end, and what a happy, fulfilling life she has chosen over and over again, a choice that Ged is learning. I am very excited to re-read this again when I'm closer to Tenar's age, and likely get even more out of it. I don't think I'm putting it into words well, but I'm so glad I read this book. It's sweet and a bit slow and hard and painful and lovely all at once.
posted by kalimac at 7:07 PM on March 6, 2021 [4 favorites]

Some stray observations:
  • Reading Tehanu last year was what prompted me to start the Earthsea club in the first place. It was so incredible to see Le Guin unpick the tapestry, as mentioned above, of her previous books, which themselves were so subversive of the tropes of the fantasy genre to begin with. It's as if the same person wrote both Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea.
  • There isn't a lot of plot, but one of Le Guin's strengths is making atmospheric writing compelling to read. (The stories in Changing Planes are a lot like this, where a plotness, ethnological description of a particular kind of life is captivating almost in spite of itself.) It also enhances the conflict we do see between the life that Tenar has chosen and the life that Ged has lost. In contrast to the beginning of A Wizard of Earthsea, where the art magic is Ged's ticket out of a stultifying village life, here it feels more like an invasion.
  • I normally don't engage in shipping, but when Tenar says to Ged, "I have been patient with you for twenty-five years," I quietly did a fist pump and said, "Yes!"
  • The incel wizards are fucking terrifying. (I guess technically they're volcels, but Aspen and his crew give off big incel energy.)
  • I was initially nonplussed by the draco ex machina ending, but on reflection I think it helps underscore Le Guin's supplanting, in this and the later books, of the central mythos in Earthsea: instead of true names, we have the division between dragons and humans, the different worlds they inhabit, and how humans have perverted magic and true names for their own ends. Kalessin's return and the reveal of Tehanu as his daughter thus points to how this division will be dealt with in the later books.

posted by Cash4Lead at 10:04 AM on March 8, 2021 [3 favorites]

I also, on my first read, found it brutal and maybe over the top in its discussion of women and men, and the things men do to women and girls, but as I have become an older person it has become the pivot on which so many things rest.

The central discussion, for me, is the conversation with Aunty Moss when they are splitting reeds for baskets, where Tenar listens and rejects the idea that women's power is unknowable. It's not just gender, it's class too - who has ever asked Moss to be a scholar? Who has ever expected clarity of thought from a village witch?

I also love the moment where Tenar and Tehanu come to the king for sanctuary, and where Lebannen's kingship is defined, not only in his showing that pirates and rogues will be met with justice, but in his capacity for listening to many voices. Tenar speaks with Master Windkey and he does not hear her, but the king listens and hears.

Both encounters say clearly that knowledge and power do not inhere only to the learned and powerful. The trajectory of Tenar's life is that she chooses the ordinary over being the "cool girl" of Roke, and I love that for her. The scene where she cries over the failure to save her son from the ordinary trap of masculinity also hits hard.

This one might be my favorite one.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 12:25 PM on March 8, 2021 [3 favorites]

The quiet feminism of this book strikes me as very mature and readable. And meaningful. Finally we get to learn something about the role of women and magic. And Tenar's acceptance of a woman's life and finding strength in that is encouraging.

It's also so counter to the current female narrative in so much SFF. There we have characters like Xena or Captain Marvel, women who are just as strong and flashy and stereotypes as the men. I mean there's more going on in those narratives, they do find their way to some uniquely female stories, but it's a very different direction from where LeGuin went in Tehanu. I don't really know how to reconcile it.
posted by Nelson at 5:48 PM on March 26, 2021 [3 favorites]

I just reread this for the first time in at least a decade, and it surprised me how much I'd forgotten.

I also found that my understanding of witches like Moss and Ivy was really tempered this time around by being filtered through the lens of Pratchett's witches. The practical, sensible nature of witchcraft, compared to the esoteric and showy wizardry that men do, and scorn women as being incapable of (even though I know that it's precisely because of the attitudes of wizards in books like Earthsea that Pratchett arrived at his witches' conclusions). So I kept waiting for Tenar to at least learn some magic or teach Tehanu some magic, some practical magic, even if she didn't need wizardry. That "teach her all" had to at the very least mean to protect her by giving her the ability to cast spells. I didn't like how vulnerable Tenar was. I felt like I was supposed to believe that her powerlessness was a feminist choice, and that really rubbed me the wrong way - that those were the only two options.
posted by Mchelly at 1:31 PM on April 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

her powerlessness was a feminist choice, and that really rubbed me the wrong way - that those were the only two options.

Tehanu initially troubled me for the same reason. I couldn't understand why Tenar would choose to be powerless. How anyone -- especially a woman -- given the opportunity to have that kind of power would refuse it? And by "that kind of power" I mean not the power to hurt others, but the power to protect oneself. The power to be unafraid, the way Ged used to be able to move through the world unafraid. The power to walk alone and unafraid.

But I've been ruminating on this and the Tales of Earthsea thread, and I have a theory: Maybe Tenar has to choose between domestic life and magic life because the world is already so far out of balance. Tales of Earthsea talks about a time when power and domesticity coexisted, when magic was as much a part of life as learning a trade or building a community or managing a household. Only the really sketchy practitioners (e.g., the ones who ran with pirates or warlords) set themselves apart. And without getting into spoilers for stories in Tales here, the wall between "ordinary" life and magic life isn't there from the beginning; it's just been in place for so long that by Tenar's time it's taken as a given.

So Tenar doesn't choose powerlessness so much as she chooses domestic life. Maybe it's fair to say that she accepts the flavor of powerlessness, or disempowerment, that accompanies her choice too live "on the women's side." She doesn't like that part of it (who does?) but she chooses that community over membership in the magical class. While I don't know that I personally would have made the same choice, she had a real choice. And I don't think the feminism of that is in going against the grain or in embracing home life so much as it is in having a choice at all, and knowing what you want, and choosing that over what everyone else thinks you should do or want. Or put another way, Tenar knows what kind of power she wants, and how she wants to use it.

In a different generation, she might have been able to do both, to be both -- to practice magic the same way she practices parenting, and spinning, and farming. But the cumulative effect of the choices of men who craved and hoarded power (and who not coincidentally fear women and hate them for it) is an imbalance, a false separation that keeps power in the hands of men like Aspen and out of the hands of women like Tenar and Aunty Moss. And if those men's power is developed and held and defined by their fear of women (as Tenar and Lark recognize it is), then no amount of power or training for women will rebalance the world. The only resistance is to live and love and care in the face of that fear and hatred. To love and guard the burned child, to learn and speak the names of mages and dragons, to build and maintain community. To go back to The Farthest Shore: to dance the steps that are always danced over the abyss.

It's late, and this is a ramble, and I don't know if I'm making any sense.
posted by Fish, fish, are you doing your duty? at 10:09 PM on April 11, 2021 [4 favorites]

I have been rereading the Earthsea books for the first time in a number of years, and just finished Tehanu. I have always deeply loved these books, but I had forgotten, or perhaps had not yet understood, just how deeply wise they are. And Tehanu I think I finally understand and appreciate much more fully than I did when I was younger. As a teenager and then young adult, I think the feminism of this book spoke to me, and Tenar and Aunty Moss taught me a great deal about the complex web of power and sex and gender in our society (as seen in the mirror of Earthsea). Having lived a bit more and had some more experiences, I also find this chapter of Ged's journey speaks to me, of failure and of the loss of potential, of doors closing and learning to live with being small.

In the afterword of my edition of Tehanu, Le Guin writes that for many years before writing it she thought of the three Earthsea books she had written this far as like three legs of a chair. If that's so, they are the stable foundation for this spare but wondrous masterwork.

There is so much wisdom packed into these books; I wish we lived in a world where such works of wisdom were celebrated as much as the adventures of Harry Potter are, and the escapist power fantasies of the Marvel universe were an enjoyable but limited dessert to the main course of uplifting, mind-expanding, empathy-building literature like this. Alas.
posted by biogeo at 10:55 PM on January 17, 2023

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