Analysis

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Ursula K. Le Gum’s Tehanu is her fourth book to take place in the fantasy world of Earthsea, a large group of islands in a primarily oceanic world. In A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), Ged learns the magic arts of his world through error and suffering. In The Tombs ofAtuan (1971), Tenar is persuaded by Ged to abandon her service to the nameless gods of nonbeing on the island of Atuan. In The Farthest Shore (1972) Ged, now Archmage of Earthsea, finds and defeats Cob, a renegade mage who has found a way to become immortal at the cost of destroying creation.Tehanu begins about the time Ged is fighting Cob, with Tenar as the protagonist.

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On the island of Gont, Tenar has lived for twenty-five years since Ged persuaded her to leave Atuan. Though Ogion, Ged’s friend and teacher, befriended her and attempted to teach her magic, she rejected this teaching for what she felt was her woman’s power and destiny, to marry and bear children. Now, after her children have grown and left home and her husband has died, she finds her function in life at an end. She has learned, however, that such endings are not final, that there is always a new beginning in every ending. This beginning comes to her from two directions:

a child snatched from death and a man who is also at an ending.

The child is Therru, a little girl whom, Tenar believes, her parents and uncle raped and beat nearly to death and then threw into a fire to destroy the evidence of their crimes. Tenar takes Therru into her home when it appears that she will survive her wounds and burns. Therru’s face is severely scarred, one eye is lost, her voice damaged so she can only whisper, and one hand is reduced to a thumb and a finger. The relationship between Tenar and Therm grows closer as Tenar’s love learns to transcend pity and as Therru learns trust and love. Tenar, however, becomes increasingly aware of the limits of love, which cannot heal Therru, restore her outward beauty, or protect her from more harm.

The man who is also at an ending in his life is Ged. He has been the Archmage of Earthsea, the most powerful man in his world. He has heroically sacrificed all of his magical power in a successful struggle to defeat Cob. The Farthest Shore ends with his victory over Cob and his rescue from death by Lebannen, who is destined to unite all Earthsea under his kingship.

The novel opens with Tenar taking in the wounded Therru. When the girl has nearly recovered, Tenar is summoned to Ogion’s deathbed. There she learns that Therru has a special destiny and that everything has changed. Wise Ogion has sensed that Ged has overcome Cob, and he has glimpsed the form of the new age to come. He asks her to wait at his home. This waiting ends when Kalessin, the dragon who carried Ged and Lebannen away from the island of Selidor at the end of The Farthest Shore, brings a badly wounded Ged to Ogion’s home. Tenar nurses him back to health with the help of Moss, the kindly and eccentric local witch.

Having lost his mage’s power, Ged is in despair about how to live. When Lebannen sends a delegation to invite Ged to crown him, Ged flees to avoid contact with his old associates. Tenar protects him, sending him back to her farm, where he begins to heal spiritually in a long period of isolation as a goatherd in the mountains. Aspen, a wizard corrupted by Cob and the local lord, drives Tenar away from Ogion’s cottage. Trying to return to her farm, she encounters one of the men who hurt Therru. She is rescued by Lebannen, who has come in search of his old friend, Ged. Lebannen travels in the company of a master of the Roke school of wizards, who is seeking the new Archmage.

Having returned home, Tenar begins to teach Therru the history of Earthsea, following Ogion’s injunction to teach her everything. Threatened again by the family of Therru, she is helped by Ged, who had returned from his isolation with renewed self-confidence. He is now ready to make a new life, and Tenar becomes his teacher. He enters into the family, becoming Tenar’s partner and lover and one of Therru’s teachers. When their life seems to have settled into happiness and order, Tenar’s son, Spark, returns from the sea to claim his father’s farm. Tenar finds that she cannot live with him once he is master of the farm.

In the meantime, Aspen has been gathering power to oppose the new order. Planning to dispose of Tenar and Therru, he draws them back to Ogion’s home. Having discovered her identity, Therru is able to rescue Tenar and Ged from Aspen’s trap. The novel ends with the family making a new start in Ogion’s old home.

The central theme of the novel concerns how to enter a new age. Ged, for example, does not know how to find a new beginning in his ending. From Tenar’s point of view, which eventually becomes his own, he ceased growing when he became a mage. All mages are men; only men are taught the “high arts” of magic that can be used to manipulate the world on a large scale. Women’s magic is considered weak and is relegated to witches, who serve mainly in domestic affairs such as minor healing and spells for the home. Thus, men and women are strictly separated with regard to magic, and mages never marry or take lovers.

Ged, therefore, does not know how to begin again because he does not know women, for whom beginning again is enforced learning. As Moss says, men are enclosed within themselves, like nuts in shells, while women do not know where they begin or end, where their boundaries are. When a man loses his work in the world, as Ged has, he is no longer alive. When a woman loses her work, she moves into another of her sets of connections and begins again. By learning to know Tenar, Ged learns how to be a new kind of masculine self and shows men the way into the new age. Ged learns to be strong in human weakness, unprotected by super power, and to be dependent upon others.

Ged’s personal problem exemplifies the problem of Earthsea, which has come through a long age of disunity and decay. During this time, it was mainly male heroes such as Ged who, through great actions and sacrifice, could preserve order and being. As a result, a strong division was created between male and female power and the latter, which sustains the world almost invisibly by maintaining the daily process of producing and caring for families was devalued. The culture has thus grown to fear the deep, mysterious, almost forgotten sources of that power in nonbeing. Nonbeing, which is the potential to be, has seemed threatening during the age of declining order, but must become one foundation of a new age of creative and dynamic order.

Ged’s final heroic struggle against Cob has resulted in a new age of political unity in Earthsea. When the mage masters on their island of Roke try to discover who should be their new Archmage for the beginning of the new time, they are cryptically sent to Gont in search of a woman. Because they are caught up in the old order, they assume that this woman will lead them to the Archmage. They are unable to see that the political king, who rules benevolently over all, must be balanced by a female mage who will be the voice of creative spirit in their world.

The new age of Earthsea, then, seems destined to restore a lost balance between masculine and feminine powers. Just as Ged must return to his youth to learn to relate with women, so must his world open itself now to understanding and accepting the importance of feminine power.

Le Gum connects this power with dragons. In the beginning of creation, humans and dragons were one. Gradually, those who preferred doing to being developed into humans; dragons became wild embodiments of creative potential. One of the important differences between dragons and humans in the present is that the dragons speak only the absolute language of the creation, in which names are the same as the things they name. Humans speak other languages that are not absolute, languages that have helped to imprison women in their domestic roles and make them invisible. Tenar encounters her invisible status every time she deals with the powers of the old order. Only Ged and the new king really listen to her.

Feminine power, in the world of Earthsea, is associated with the fundamental categories of nonbeing and being, with the roots of being in nonbeing. This association derives at least in part from a woman’s power to bear children, to actualize potential by acting as a window between nonbeing and being. Women’s experience of bearing children is a foundation for an understanding of endings and beginnings that males deny themselves when they set themselves apart and impose silence upon women. The most extreme expression of this masculine stance is Cob, who nearly destroys creation in attempting to escape nonbeing. The most extreme expression of female power is the maze of the tombs of Atuan, where self may be surrendered utterly to darkness and where creation is denied. In the dynamic balance between these two is the promised human order of peace and comparative fulfillment.

Though subtitled The Last Book of Earthsea, Tehanu is by no means the last story that can be told in this acclaimed fantasy series. This book makes the reader wish for more, to understand more fully the world Le Gum envisions to follow the end of the age of the exclusively male mages in Earthsea.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVI, March 1, 1990, p. 1277.

Chicago Thibune. July 8, 1990, XIV, p.6.

The Horn Book Magazine. LXVI, May, 1990, p.338

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, May 20, 1990, p.38.

The New Yorker. LXVI, July 23, 1990, p.88.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVII, January 19, 1990, p.110.

School Library Journal. XXXVI, April, 1990, p.142.

The Washington Post Book World. XX, February 25, 1990, p.1.

Wilson Library Bulletin. LXIV, June, 1990, p.124.

Women’s Review of Books. VII, July, 1990, p.40.

The Plot

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Although Tehanu carries the subtitle The Last Book of Earthsea, more Earthsea books could follow. Tehanu contains no definitive endings to the themes of Ursula Le Guin’s earlier Earthsea novels, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs of Atuan (1971), and The Farthest Shore (1972), all three collected as Earthsea (1977).

Tehanu’s protagonist is Tenar (Goha Flint), also protagonist of The Tombs of Atuan. Tenar, at the urging of Ged, the Archmage of Earthsea, has left her native Atuan. Now in her forties, Tenar has lived for twenty-five years on Gont, where she married a farmer and suffered through his death. Their two children, now grown, have left home.

Ged’s friend and teacher, Ogion, tried to teach the young Tenar some of his magical powers. Tenar, however, resisted. She strove only to be a wife and mother, roles she thought defined her power as a woman. With her husband dead and her children gone, she appears to have reached the end of the existence that is meaningful to her. Unlike the book’s men, who view endings as final, however, she ferrets out from this ending a new beginning. The first element of it is Therru (Tehanu), an eight-year-old girl raped by family members, beaten badly, then thrown into a fire meant to destroy the evidence her body bore of those familial misdeeds.

Therru narrowly escaped but received burns that scarred her face extensively, badly injured one hand, destroyed one of her eyes, and left her with almost no voice. Once Tenar overcomes her pity for Therru, she is able to show the child the love she has never before known.

Ged also figures in Tenar’s new beginning. He has been locked in mortal combat with Cob, a mage run amok, who, in Faustian fashion, barters for immortality, which he is offered at high cost: the destruction of all creation. By the end of The Farthest Shore, Ged has prevailed over Cob, but so intense was their engagement that Ged exhausted his magical powers on it. His reign as Archmage, most powerful of men, ends.

Shortly after she assumes the care of Therru, Tenar is called by Ogion, who is now dying. He tells Tenar that Therru is preordained for some special destiny. Tenar, following Ogion’s instructions, remains at his home, to which the dragon Kalessin brings Ged, seriously wounded in combat. Tenar, assisted by Moss, the witch healer, saves him. Once recovered, Ged cannot adjust to the loss of his power. Tenar sends him to her farm, where he begins to regain his spirit, eventually becoming a goatherd in the mountains.

Aspen, the malevolent wizard who has assisted Cob, routs Tenar from Ogion’s house. When she tries to return to her farm, she is accosted by one of the people who raped Therru, but Lebannen, the king of Earthsea, intervenes and rescues her. At her farm, following Ogion’s dying admonition, Tenar begins to teach Therru the history of Earthsea. Ged, now revitalized, returns to help her, becoming her lover and Therru’s teacher.

Tenar’s son returns to claim his father’s farm. Tenar and Ged, unable to live with him as master, are lured back to Ogion’s cottage by Aspen, who plots their destruction. Therru, however, discerning Aspen’s plans, intervenes. Employing her special powers, she saves them. The three embark on a new beginning in Ogion’s house.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVI, March 1, 1990, p. 1277.

Chicago Thibune. July 8, 1990, XIV, p.6.

The Horn Book Magazine. LXVI, May, 1990, p.338

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, May 20, 1990, p.38.

The New Yorker. LXVI, July 23, 1990, p.88.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVII, January 19, 1990, p.110.

School Library Journal. XXXVI, April, 1990, p.142.

The Washington Post Book World. XX, February 25, 1990, p.1.

Wilson Library Bulletin. LXIV, June, 1990, p.124.

Women’s Review of Books. VII, July, 1990, p.40.

Setting

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Earthsea, a group of islands forming an archipelago, is an imaginary world similar to western Europe's middle ages. In place of the church and clerics holding western Europe together, magic and magicians bind Earthsea. The magic of Earthsea, however, is much like science. The quest of the magicians seems to be to discover the true names and behaviors of objects in nature. On knowing these a still more important goal presents itself, maintaining the balance or equilibrium of the world. True or good magic then only seeks to maintain the natural order and not wantonly to exercise power over it.

Gont, the setting of Tehanu, is the island home of Ged, one of the great mages of his culture. Poor and rocky, the island's economy is supported by seafaring, farming, and grazing. Like the rest of Earthsea, Gont has a preindustrial craft culture. Tenar, who was a priestess of the Nameless Ones in The Tombs of Atuan, has settled down to a life as a farmer's wife, now widow, in Tehanu. She is uncertain how to live the rest of her life. Should she become a nanny to grandchildren and join the household of her daughter, or should she continue living on the farm of Flint, her deceased husband? Ged, too, is waiting, but his waiting is tormented and a denial of life. Therru learns from both adults, and is in part, the catalyst that brings them together.

Literary Qualities

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Several motifs help structure Tehanu: the education or growth plots of Tenar, Ged, and Therru; the heroic romance of Therru's assumption of magical dragon-like power; the political melodrama involving women as victims and men as victimizers; and the romantic comedy of the mature love of two middle-aged characters from earlier novels.

As usual with Le Guin, political reform and healing through love occur together. Tenar's decisions regarding Therru, Ged, her son, and her enemies place Tenar in a position of having to make decisions through which ideological themes are debated. Tenar's motives for her choices are consequently springboards for the novel's thematic interests.

As cunningly as the action and narration are rendered, Le Guin's artfulness is in the richness of her symbolic language. This richness is more difficult for Le Guin to achieve than for many writers because she chooses not to rely on cultural master texts such as the Bible or classical mythology to promote symbolic resonance. Instead, she generates symbols and figurative language sequences by the repetition of descriptive features of actions. Early in the novel, for example, Tenar tells Therru one of Ogion's stories of a woman/ dragon who sings a song to Ogion describing a time when dragons and humans were the same in Earthsea, a dragon/human androgyny. In subsequent descriptions when Tenar is angry or when Therru is frightened or upset, the rust color of the dragon and fire are associated with both, subtly connecting the dragons, the language of creation, and women.

Le Guin's use of naming also is significant in the novels. Just as the North American Indians studied by Le Guin's father created "use" names for everyday reality and revealed true names only to intimates, Le Guin's characters have both use names and true names. Ged's use name, Sparrowhawk, or Hawk, reflects his spirit. For Therru, her true name of Tehanu is again tied to fire, because the name Tehanu in Atuan, Tenar's home, is the name of a star. This figurative density in Le Guin's writing is what many of her readers enjoy about her work.

Social Sensitivity

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Clearly Le Guin has done what she could do to make Tehanu a feminist novel. Just as a thinker such as Plato could win an argument with an allegory before opposition to the argument could arise, so too does Tehanu persuade its audience about discrimination and crimes against women. The discrimination and crimes against women occur in the imaginary culture of Earthsea, but the legalized discrimination and crimes of violence against women that occur in Earthsea also occur in our world. As polemical as this fantasy is, it is doubtful that Le Guin's imaginative arguments are going to outrage many readers.

As strong as Le Guin's indictments are, she never denounces relationships similar to marriage. The love of Tenar and Ged is beautifully handled. Le Guin may argue for equity in her imaginary land, yet this equity does not destroy the family but negotiates new roles for family members. In Le Guin's discussions of male and female identity, largely through the conversations of Tenar and Aunty Moss, there is much discussion of male strength and weakness. Ged's challenges to find a life without power, as well as a love long past youthful attractions, are legitimate challenges for men. Ged's ability to defend Tenar and Therru with a pitchfork, in homely rather than heroic terms, is a part of his education about power and manliness. Using Aunty Moss's metaphor, men need to be more than the tough shell of a walnut, with manmeat inside, Aunty Moss's links women with creation, the dark, and the Earth through the image of a blackberry thicket. Men, as Le Guin portrays them, need to discover more fruitful selves. Although Tenar, along with other women in the story, attempts to discover the nature of women's power, it is not clearly defined, perhaps because Le Guin herself has not yet completely defined power in women. What is clear is that the power of women is connected to other women, not isolated, or dependent upon men.

For Further Reference

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Barrow, Craig, and Diana Barrow. "Le Guin's Earthsea: Voyages in Consciousness." Extrapolation 32,1 (Spring 1991): 20-44. This essay was published just as Tehanu appeared, so most of it focuses on the first three parts of the Earthsea series. The authors spend some time connecting native American folkways to the Earthsea series.

Bittner, James W. Approaches to the Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1984. This is a revised dissertation, but it is a fine one suggesting many ways to analyze and group Le Guin's novels.

Bucknall, Barbara J. Ursula K. Le Guin. New York: Ungar, 1981. This book in Ungar's Recognitions series is similar to a reader's guide to Le Guin, but it is insightful and well done, tying Le Guin's speculations in The Language of the Night to Le Guin's work up to 1980.

Cummins, Elizabeth. Understanding Ursula K. Le Guin. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1990. Cummins has devoted more than a decade to studying Le Guin. Her descriptions of Le Guin's imagined worlds followed by her analyses of characters' actions in them is particularly useful.

Le Guin, Ursula K. Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places. New York: Grove, 1989. These essays are not central to knowledge of Earthsea, but one can see Le Guin's increasing feminism in them.

—— . The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Edited by Susan Wood and Ursula K. Le Guin. Rev. ed. New York: Harper-Collins, 1992. Le Guin's essays "The Child and the Shadow," "Is Gender Necessary?" and "Dreams Must Explain Themselves" are particularly helpful to readers of the Earthsea series. They help gauge Le Guin's politics and some of the forces helping to shape her imagination, such as Jungian psychology.

Le Guin, Ursula K. and Brian Attebery, eds. The Norton Book of Science Fiction. New York: Norton, 1993. Le Guin's introduction, about 40 pages, is a good overview of her notions of science fiction and fantasy.

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