Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

1020fc97c32fa54abaef5fad900f7cdbLet’s start by adding that this is not the last book of the Earthsea cycle, it is book four of a six book series. It is also the first time I have swum in the waters of Le Guin’s masterpiece, and I was worried I would drown.

My previous experience with Earthsea was the Studio Ghibli film Tales of Earthsea which was a complete departure from the books, and a review by Le Guin herself can be found on her website. As a result, I initially found Tehanu confusing, as I recognized the characters and locations, but the chronology and events otherwise had no continuity to the film. After I had read a few chapters, shrugged off the weight of the film in my memory and started reading the book no preconceived images in my head, it took on a new life of it’s own and became something most excellent.

The book centres around Therru – a young girl who is violated, burnt and left for dead, who is rescued and healed by our other protagonist, Tenar. This book is an epilogue for her series up to this point; time has moved on, Tenar who was once a powerful figure, is now a widowed farm woman raising a scarred and frightened child. Another central figure of the series – The Archmage Sparrowhawk – has not aged well; having returned from death he has no magical powers left and struggles to find his purpose in life.

The series is noted for it’s High Fantasy elements – dragons, wars, magic and sorcery. Tehanu, however, has glimpses of these things, but is a much more sedate story. It is a story of accepting oneself and looking forwards to the future, not dwelling on the past. The book feels like an autumn evening (which many different versions of the cover mirror in their colour schemes) – things are changing and fading, time is moving on. All things must end, and this book makes endings feel like a warm embrace instead of a frightening and cold experience.

“It isn’t because she’s a woman that she’s powerful, but despite it.”

Le Guin’s early career is often labeled as Feminist Science Fiction because of the ideals presented and the way she deals with sociological imbalances. I wouldn’t say her books should be classified as Feminist, but rather that Feminism is a strong and determining theme within her stories. Tehanu carries a lot of these themes with it. The closest we get to Feminist rhetoric is when one Tenar tells Ged, “If women had power what would men be but women who can’t bear children? And what would women be but men who can.” 

When Ged returns to the land of living, and finds himself powerless when once he was Archmage, he battles with his shame and humiliation and feelings of worthlessness now that he has lost his identity and purpose.

Tenar reflects upon Ged in these circumstances: She thought about how it was to have been a woman in the prime of life, with children and a man, and then to lose all that, becoming old and a widow, powerless. But even so she did not feel she understood his shame, his agony of humiliation. Perhaps only a man could feel so. A woman got used to shame.

Le Guin doesn’t try to force Feminism in your face, instead, she adds it into her writing and into her characters and world: it is as natural and as welcoming as the wind on your face on a hot afternoon, or the crackle of the fire on a winters evening. And in this, I think is one of her biggest successes; she has made feminism accessible to men and women, adults and children, irrespective of their culture or creed.

Hopefully, the continuing love for Earthsea for generations will see these ideals help fuel society shift into one that is more trusting and caring.

“Haven’t there been queens? Weren’t they women of power?”
“A queen’s only a she-king,” said Ged.
She snorted.
“I mean, men give her power. They let her use their power. But it isn’t hers, is it? It isn’t because she’s a woman that she’s powerful, but despite it.”

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