'Tehanu' - Book Review

by Ursula K. Le Guin

I consider the first Eathsea book (A Wizard of Earthsea) to be one of the greatest fantasy novels ever written, and the following two books (The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore) to be excellent and good respectively. In hindsight, I can see that the portrayal of women in these books is less than ideal (you don't notice that when you first read a book at the age of 13 or 14 ...). Not negative, really, but all the people of power are male. Le Guin apparently came to be unhappy with this, and decided to effectively rewrite the entire world in this, the fourth Earthsea book (18 years after the previous book).

It helps to have read her novella "Dragonfly" before reading this: it sets up the turmoil on Roke caused by Ged's adventures in The Farthest Shore, the dragons-are-people-are-dragons thing, and shows what a shitbag the sorcerer Aspen is.

While there were hints in the story, I found the ending very deus ex machina: our characters weren't saved by their own actions, but by a power far beyond them.

Wikipedia's description of the book on Gender Issues:

... Tehanu is written from a female perspective. The common saying quoted in A Wizard of Earthsea - "weak as a woman's magic, wicked as a woman's magic" - is shown to be untrue, an expression of narrow-minded male prejudice. The present novel makes clear that in fact women's magic is as strong as men's, the former being described by the witch Moss as being "deeper than the roots of trees, deeper than the roots of islands, older than the Making, older than the moon". Although it is less concerned with authority and dramatic action than male power, it is equally valuable. Wizards are portrayed as emotionally stunted, arrogant and detached. It is made explicit that wizards lead a life of celibacy to devote all their energy to their magic. These shortcomings are laid bare in Ged after he has lost his power. He is completely at sea and is described by Moss as having the emotions of a fifteen-year-old boy. He does not have the courage to face the King's men to tell them he can no longer be mage, and flees. He relies on Tenar to work out a solution for him, and find somewhere for him to recover his sense of identity. He goes back to being a goatherd. In so doing he reaches a new maturity and depth to his character, not available to him as Archmage. The dark wizard Aspen is portrayed negatively; his loathing of Tenar is plainly based on hatred and fear of her womanhood.

Ged has faced death multiple times in his life - he's walked into the land of the dead at least twice that we know of. So he can face death without fear, but he can't face life? Le Guin's turning the favourite hero of my childhood into a cowering idiot (in a way I find improbable ...) is something I don't think I can forgive her for.

Reading this book, I felt like Le Guin hated everyone, thought the human condition was intolerable, and that there was no hope for anyone. Women are weak and fearful and shamed, and men are ignorant, deaf to reason, and the cause of women's fear and shame. Her earlier Earthsea books got progressively darker, but nothing so miserable as this. For making us feel bad, she was awarded both the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel and the Nebula award - so other people apparently disagree with me about the book's qualities.

I'll let the writing speak for itself ... Quotes from the book:

And there in the Middle Valley, Flint's wife, Goha, had been welcome, all in all, among the women: a foreigner to be sure, white-skinned and talking a bit strange, but a notable housekeeper, an excellent spinner, with well-behaved, well-grown children and a prospering farm: respectable. And among the men she was Flint's woman, doing what a woman should do: bed, breed, bake, cook, clean, spin, sew, serve. A good woman. They approved of her. Flint did well for himself after all, they said. "I wonder what a white woman's like, white all over?" their eyes said, looking at her, until she got older and they no longer saw her.
... and she went on, pondering the indifference of a man towards the exigencies that ruled a woman: that someone must be not far from a sleeping child, that one's freedom meant another's unfreedom ...
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.
But because she was not a girl now, she was not awed, but only wondered at how men ordered their world into this dance of masks, and how easily a woman might learn to dance it.
"Tell Kalessin that," she said, suddenly unable to endure the utter unconsciousness of his disrespect. It made him stare, of course. He heard the dragon's name. But it did not make him hear her. How could he, who had never listened to a woman since his mother sang him his last cradle song, hear her?
If she took him into her bed, well, the appetites of widows were proverbial. And, after all, she was a foreigner.
The attitude of the villagers was much the same. A bit of whispering and sniggering, but little more. It seemed that being respectable was easier than Moss thought, or perhaps it was that used goods had little value.
[Of women:] "Oh, yes. We're precious. So long as we're powerless ..."
"Oh, yes," said Ged. "All the greatness of men is founded on shame, made out of it."