Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea, the fourth book of Le Guin’s Earthsea series, takes up the story of the Earthsea characters after Ged/Sparrowhawk, the protagonist in two of the first three books, has nearly died, struggling with an evil wizard, who attempted to achieve immortality by breaking down the barrier between the worlds of the living and the dead. Tehanu deals with dark themes of child molestation and abuse and death. The book can be seen as a feminist coming-of-age novel, as the main female characters both discover more fully who they are.
Tenar, the main character, first appeared as the protagonist of The Tombs of Atuan, where she was rescued from a destructive religious cult and brought to the island of Gont by Ged, who has become the most accomplished wizard in the world of Earthsea. There she has lived a rich and mainly happy life as a farmer’s wife. Now widowed and using her Gontish name, Goha, she is called to assist in the treatment of a badly burned and sexually abused young girl, whom she adopts and names Therru. Later called to see the dying Ogion, Ged’s first teacher and their mutual friend, she learns that there is a powerful and dangerous presence in Therru. Another emergency then takes up her attention, the dramatic return of Ged. The dragon, Kalessin, brings him home to Gont, broken in body and having lost his vast magical powers. She and Therru undertake his care, nursing him back to health.
As Tenar gradually adjusts to the idea of Ged having lost his magical power, she begins to learn about a kind of magic that has been suppressed in Earthsea, the kind of magic that belongs to the feminine side of humanity. This leads to a startling discovery of great power in Therru, and the beginning of a restoration of balance and order in their world.
Since Tehanu is the last volume of a four-book series, some attention must be given to the earlier books, and the reasons why, after nearly twenty years, Le Guin returned to her fantasy series. In 1967, the publisher of Parnassus Press asked Le Guin to write a book for an adolescent audience, and she chose to do a fantasy about coming of age, a central concern of adolescents. Each of the first three volumes of the Earthsea series is a rite of passage story: in A Wizard of Earthsea the rite of passage is Ged's, the character who ties the whole series together, who learns the limits of his power as a magician; in The Tombs of Atuan the rite of passage focuses on Tenar, a character, like Ged, who is featured in Tehanu but who learns about life and death in Tombs; and in The Farthest Shore the rite of passage focuses on Prince Arren, a young man who will be overlord of the islands of Earthsea, but must learn the limits of magic and the necessity to face fear.
Tehanu too is a rite-of-passage story for its central characters Tenar, Ged, and Therru, who will become Tehanu. Tenar is a middle-aged widow with a grown, married daughter, Apple, and a seaman son, Spark. Since Tenar chose to marry Flint and live with him on Gont, she has lost the individuality she achieved in The Tombs of Atuan because of institutional sexual bias. Although she has caused Flint's farm to prosper, she and the women of Gont have no property rights. While Tenar knows her own true name, she is known by the people of Gont as Goha, the...
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