Le Guin is an unswervingly feminist writer who often uses science fiction or fantasy as her vehicle. The Earthsea novels illustrate her deepest concerns. Le Guin is not a militant feminist; she neither shouts nor confronts. Rather, she establishes her philosophical turf softly, resorting to reason rather than pyrotechnics.
In Tehanu, she demonstrates the special gifts women possess. Tenar, her protagonist, suffers the plight of many middle-aged women: She has lost her husband, and her children have left home. Tenar never demanded rights equal to those of men. Instead, when she first moved to Gont, she rejected the notion of learning some of Ogion’s special magic because, as a woman, she was convinced that her future roles as wife and mother would be the most significant in her life, an outlook that appalls some contemporary feminists.
Tenar fulfilled the roles she initially chose. At mid-life, however, she faces a future in which she has to discover and establish for herself different roles that hold meaning. Ever a caregiver, Tenar becomes a surrogate mother for the battered, insecure Therru, nurturing the demoralized girl into confident adolescence and finally into promising adulthood. She thus fills the void left by the departure of her children.
The void left by her husband’s death, however, remains to be filled. Le Guin skillfully brings a beaten Ged into Tenar’s life at a crucial moment. Ged feels completely defeated. He has lost his power and dwells on the loss of all he has strived for. Tenar, however, as Le Guin’s representative of all women, finds in the conclusion of every segment of life a new beginning. In the same way that she nurtured Therru, she now nurtures Ged to the point that he undergoes a spiritual rebirth. As she does the bidding of the dead Ogion, striving to teach Therru everything about the history of Earthsea, Ged comes back into her life to help her fulfill this obligation. Tenar is ever in control, yet she is never controlling.
Le Guin’s underlying argument in Tehanu is clear and persuasive. The book, executed with true elegance, directness, and a deceptive stylistic simplicity, might initially woo one into thinking that it is merely a fantasy written for adolescents. It is through her velvet approach, however, that Le Guin achieves her incredibly strong and memorable impact.