Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Book Review Ursula K. Le Guin's Tehanu

Tehanu by Ursula K. Le Guin
Published by: Saga Press
Publication Date: 1990
Format: Paperback, 252 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

Tenar didn't choose the life she was destined to live, nor did she choose the life that Ged and Ogion offered her, instead she chose her own life, marriage to the farmer Flint and two children, a son and a daughter. A life much like her mother lived in Atuan before Tenar was taken away to serve the Nameless Ones. The wizards might look down on her for choosing the life of a typical female, but it's a life she never thought was in her grasp. It's been twenty-five years since she made her choice, since she moved to Oak Farm on Gont and raised her family. Her children are now grown and gone and her husband is in the ground. But she has no regrets. She has made a life for herself as Goha, a pillar of the community, one whom others turn to. They turn to her when a young girl is left by vagrants badly burned and on the brink of death. Tenar helps save the child's life and takes her as her own. Therru is her third child and as she's so young she takes her to Re Albi when she gets word that Ogion is on his deathbed.

Ogion was like a father to Tenar and she wonders what her life would have been like if she had stayed, if she had learned magic. His final words to her though are in regards to the power residing in Therru and the change that has been wrought in the world. All has changed. Because unbeknownst to Tenar Ged has defeated the evil that was infecting the world, the evil that lead to Therru's disfigurement. There is to be a king in Earthsea again. A king that very much hopes that Ged will be at his side. But Ged has returned to Gont on the back of a dragon, powerless and ill. Tenar must return him to health and hide him from the crown. She had seen them all living at Re Albi, but evil magics push her and Therru away and Ged goes off into the mountains. Back at Oak Farm life returns to normal, or the new normal as it were. Though there is still danger. Those who attacked Therru want her back and other villains aren't very much in favor of the new king and his rule. Will Tenar and Ged be able to defeat the evil on Gont? Or will their age and diminished powers need help from another source?

Almost two decades after The Farthest Shore Le Guin came back to Earthsea with Tehanu. What's interesting in this is not the length of time she took to write it but in that it picks up Ged's story almost minutes after we last saw him. And yet, this isn't Ged's story. This is Tenar's. As a woman I felt far more of a connection to Tenar than I ever did to Ged. Tenar is his balance. The magic of Earthsea is all about balance and equilibrium so therefore it makes sense for Ged to have a strong female counterpoint. Yet I felt that by bringing these two characters together sexually as a couple it almost undid all that came before. It made Tenar's decisions to turn her back on magic and take on the traditional role of a female as just all backstory for when she finally got Ged. As for Ged, he's broken, so she's only allowed to have him because he can no longer be what he was? Yeah. Nope. While after I read The Tombs of Atuan I might have thought what if, sometimes it's far better to have that "what if" never acted on. How many times has the eventual consummation of a relationship destroyed a narrative Moonlighting style? The number is probably too numerous to count, so yeah, I just wish Le Guin hadn't gone there.

In fact, judging by her afterward I think there's a lot about this book she would second guess if she were to write it again. What I find interesting is that what readers seemed to object to most was the diminishment of Ged and the embracing of feminism. Firstly, this isn't Ged's story, so get over it. Secondly, I wouldn't call this book feminist, I would just say that it successfully shows a woman's POV, and given that this is Tenar's book, that makes total sense. I mean, yes, you could call any book with a female lead feminist, but what I particularly love about Tenar is that she embraces the true meaning of feminism, in that you don't need to be militant to be a feminist, you can be a warrior in your own way. You can be a feminist while still embracing the more traditional role of females of hearth and home. She's true to herself, and if that is feminism, well, I'm glad this book is such. Tenar gets the life she never thought she'd have by turning away from magic and that knowledge, and finding different knowledge and truth in herself while being vocal about what it is to be a woman.

The truth that's spoken about being a woman is that it is dangerous to be female. When people talk about living in a society that at this moment doesn't feel safe, the thing about being a woman is that you never really feel safe. And maybe it was being shown this truth that readers objected to. Yes, you can try to harness your power, marshal your resources, but any time you're out walking and you hear something or see someone coming towards you from a distance, you worry. You think, this is danger. With society taking more and more rights away from us and with danger lurking around an innocent looking corner, I think this book needs to be read by more people. It gets into the psyche of what it is to be female, but also, how to live if the worst does happen to you. If you're burned and raped and left for dead. Therru's journey is inspiring. She takes back her power and survives and, in the end, thrives. So once again, if this is considered "feminist" then so be it. This needed to be said, this needed to be seen. And if you're a reader who can't get past a label of "feminism" that doesn't really bring to the forefront the complexities Le Guin is dealing with, than I'm really sorry for you because you're missing out on so much.

Which brings me to Therru. Therru is awesome. But. Yes, you knew that "but" was coming. The problem is Therru's story feels only half told. She is a young girl destroyed by family through violence and fire. She is rehabilitated through Tenar's love. At the end she shows her true power, linking her to a story Ogion used to tell Tenar about a woman who was a woman and a dragon at the same time. Yet her backstory isn't fully explained and her future is left up in the air and is hopefully explained in the final to books in the Earthsea cycle. As for that left unanswered? Her father/uncle, the man who was the most concerned with her of her abusers keeps returning and trying to claim her. Why? Was it because he was drawn to her because of her innate power? Was it because he wanted to silence her forever? Was it because her power scared and thrilled him and that's why he would attack her but also wanted to be near her? The motives are NEVER explained. As for Therru and her relationship to Ogion's story... was she always part dragon? Hence the power drawing those to her? Or was her attack and near consumption by fire what gave her power? Made her have a new affinity for fire? I just feel that Therru even after a couple hundred pages is just as much a mystery as she was at the start and I NEED more of her story.

But then again, I've noticed that Le Guin isn't very deft with handling endings. She tends to rush straight into things and everything ends in a jumble. Here just a paragraph or three of degradation for Tenar and Ged at the hands of a wizard and then Therru and a dragon to the rescue. Literally this book is drawn to a rapid conclusion in only twenty-five pages! And also, I kid not, ends on a cliff. It's like, despite at the time calling this "The Last Book of Earthsea" she already knew there was going to be more and a cliffhanger might be funny. Yeah, cliffhangers are the last bastion of those who are a little bit lazy when it comes to being storytellers. They torture their readers by employing this device, so I guess the fact that she hinted at it but didn't actually do it should be considered a win for us readers? I think my main problem is that Le Guin has created this vast and complex world and yet likes to leave it a little messy and unresolved. Yes, this makes it more realistic, but this is fantasy. Fantasy is allowed to have everything handed to you on a platter with a nice neat bow. Her approach might not be as satisfying, but personally, I could have used a few more answers and a few less "until next times."


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