Ursula K. Le Guin: Tehanu

Rebecca Swain wrote this review.

Tehanu is the last book in Le Guin’s Earthseatetralogy. It was published in 1990, considerably after the first three books. Although this book, as with the others in the series, has been classified as a children’s/young adult book, make no mistake: this is a mature book about grown-up subjects, and it is a beautiful ending to the Earthseasaga.

Tehanure-acquaints us with Tenar, from The Tombs of Atuan, now a middle-aged widow on Gont, who is viewed with suspicion by many of her fellow villagers because she looks and acts differently than they do. Most of them don’t know about her youth as a priestess or her friendship with Ged, the archmage. As the story opens, she is called to help a burned and abandoned child, and ultimately adopts her. When Ogion, Ged and Tenar’s former teacher, calls her to his deathbed she takes the child and goes to him, living in his house after he dies.

One day a dragon lands on Gont with Ged, unconscious, on its back. Ged is returning from his adventures with Aren, chronicled in The Farthest Shore. He has spent all his wizardry on conquering evil, and is now simply a man, bewildered at what he has lost. He has to start his adult life over again, this time without magic, and he isn’t sure how to do it. Tenar tries to help him, and, inevitably, they fall in love.

They are not allowed to love in peace, however. Strange men roam Gont — evil men looking for Therru, the burned child; and messengers from the new king, sent to take a reluctant Ged to the coronation. Tenar, Therru and Ged move back and forth through the countryside trying to avoid these men and fighting off attacks when necessary.

The big mystery in the book is who Therru is and what she will become. The answer is foreshadowed throughout the story, although you might still be surprised. This brings me to my one quibble with the book. The ending is too abrupt. We spend so much time wondering who the child is, suspecting, finally discovering — and the book is over. Many questions are left unanswered. How did she come to be what she is? What is the significance of her identity? What power does she have, and how will she use it? None of this is explained. I found the ending disappointing in that respect.

The story itself, however, is not a disappointment. As usual, Le Guin tells it cleanly, clearly, with understated language and deep emotion. Her major concern this time is with the power of women. She contrasts the power of both sexes, illustrating how men traditionally label women’s power as foolish superstition or as meaningless domestic drudgery. Tenar’s enemies disregard her because she is female. What power can she have against unhearing, dismissive men?

The point of the story is not the inevitable triumph of Tenar, Therru and Ged over their enemies. The point is that prejudice and contempt are universal enemies, specifically, in this story, against women, but more generally against anyone perceived as weak. Le Guin explores the idea of weakness and strength, power and helplessness, magic and what magical things can be done without it. It is not a simple theme, and Le Guin handles it with her usual grace and complexity.

If you don’t want to delve that deeply, then read the book for the story of how a middle-aged woman, an ugly child, and a confused ex-wizard achieve their happy ending. There is action in this book, and suspense; also interesting characters, and a dragon, if you require dragons. It is a very enjoyable book, and ends the Earthseaseries on a triumphant, satisfying note.

Editorial note: it didn’t end here as you can see by reading this review and also this review.

(Spectra, 1991)

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