Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 17, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 931

The story is told from the point of view of Tenar, one of the dynamic characters along with Ged, who must find a life apart from magical power. Therru, who seems to be a small girl, was raped, burned, beaten, and left for dead by her young, shiftless, and perverted parents and their friends. There is some question as to what she will become. While the novel is dominated by the middle-aged lives of Tenar and Ged, each of whom is facing a crisis of self-definition (triggered in Tenar's case by her husband's death and in Ged's by the loss of his power), Therru's nurture and growth are important to the novel's action.

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Among the static characters are two classes of villain, Therru's parents and their friends, and Aspen, a local wizard. Her parents, Hake and Senini, as well as their friends, Handy and Shag, are a physical threat to Therru whenever they appear; the men's attempt to rape and mutilate Therru and Tenar is one of the more frightening parts of the book, and yet their threat is less frightening than that of Aspen, who uses power to dominate and destroy those he hates. He hates Tenar particularly because she is a woman who challenges his will, and he believes what his society believes, that women are inferior to men.

Ged, with a pitchfork, not magic, and Tenar, with her anger and a knife, are more than a match for Handy, Hake, and Shag. However, Aspen's threat is dealt with by Therru, who uses her innate knowledge of the old language of creation to call on Kalessin, a powerful dragon. Kalessin destroys Aspen and his cronies who have been humiliating Ged and Tenar. Although Therru acts like a child in the rescue of her loving guardians, her potential power as a dragon/human is foreshadowed in her call to Kalessin. While the story of Ged and Tenar features melodramatic action and a plot focusing on personal growth, involving adjustment for both, the character Therru, or Tehanu, introduces heroic romance to the novel, although it is more muted than in earlier Earthsea volumes.

The helpers, victims, and victimizers are static characters. Chief among the helpers are Ogion, a wizard of Gont who helped to raise Tenar and Ged in earlier Earthsea books, and Lebannen, King of Earthsea, whose coming-of-age story and adventures with Ged as mentor structured The Farthest Shore. Ogion's home is the site of much significant action in Tehanu, and his fragmented vision of the future, given at his death, provides Tenar with hope and some direction. Lebannen, whose name was Arren in The Farthest Shore, provides a temporary refuge for Therru and Tenar from Handy and Aspen. Lebannen's own reason for traveling to Gont is to have Ged crown him in Havnor, the city at the heart of Earthsea. Ged's humiliation in his loss of power, his masculine shame, causes him to hide from Lebannen, his friend and king, who shows his wisdom in not trying to force Ged to carry out a role that Ged sees as a display of his own weakness.

The witches, Ivy, who lives near Tenar's farm, and Aunt Moss, who lives near Ogion's home, are helpers to the extent that they recognize Therru's potential in magic, but for the most part they are victims because of their place in Earthsea culture and particularly in their education. As Tenar ponders what to do in bringing up Therru, Ivy, and especially Aunty Moss, are useful in discussing women's marginalization through educational and social biases orchestrated by men. Although the culture is Earthsea's, clearly the problem Le Guin is addressing through these characters is institutionalized sexual bias on Earth.

While Aunty Moss and Ivy are victimized, the greatest victims are Tenar and Therru, whose resistance is dramatized in the novel. Becoming Flint's wife on Gont is a choice Tenar made that had its consequences. Social respect comes through male attachments and is not conferred on women individually. When Tenar's husband dies, she "owns" his farm only until Spark, her son, returns from his career as a seaman. While Spark's honor hangs by a dishrag he thinks only women should use, Ged shares the housework with Tenar in their life together.

The threat of physical violence against women is an even greater problem. Therru is a victim of rape, torture, incest, and burning, and these crimes occur through the agency of those she ought to have been able to trust. Worse still, these terrors are not simply a part of Therru's past; they are a threat to her as soon as her father and his male friends realize she is still alive. And, instead of feeling gratitude to Tenar, who attempts to raise the girl on her own, these worthless young men seek only to rape and to injure Tenar as well. While the cruelty of these men is awful, still worse is the cruelty of Aspen, who denies Tenar's humanity, robs her of language, and gives her a dog's commands.

As strongly feminist as Tehanu is, Le Guin still endorses male and female relationships, and love is still a source of joy. Where Ged waited for Tenar to become a person on her own in The Tombs of Atuan, Tenar leads Ged to a sexual love denied him by his priest-like role as a wizard and Archmage in Tehanu. Although the joys of young love are denied these lovers, they share their work, reflect on their pasts, and enjoy their lives together. Youth's spring is past, but their autumn is a celebration of its own.

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