Mired in ideology, Tehanu captivates but does not satisfy

“… I went free, with you for a moment, and with Ogion. But it was not my freedom. Only it gave me choice, and I chose. I chose to mold myself like clay to the use of a farm and a farmer and our children. I made myself a vessel. I know its shape. But not the clay. Life danced me. I know the dances. But I don’t know who the dancer is.”

Tehanu, unique among Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books, does not have the wizard Ged as the driving force of its narrative. That role falls to Tenar, now known as Goha, the middle-aged widow of a farmer on Gont Island. The story is about how Goha rescues and nurtures a severely abused and abandoned child with the help of a powerless Ged, and a host of helpful women. It takes place almost immediately after the events of The Farthest Shore and we see a fundamental change in the order of things in Earthsea: There is no Archmage at Roke, but there is a King at Havnor. And the abused child, Therru, is possessed of a mysterious gift which means that she will play an important role in the future of Earthsea. [As usual, a spoiler warning is in order, for readers who plan on reading Tehanu in the future may not want to read the remainder of this post.]

My grudge is not against the book’s feminist politics, but against the vehemence with which it is expressed, and the obviousness of the symbolisms used for that purpose. The rape and burning of Therru in the beginning of the book, and the subsequent ruminations of Tenar would probably have been sufficient to make the reader think about the place occupied and roles played by women in society, and the injustices to which they have historically been subjected. But Le Guin does not stop at that point. She lands Tenar in too many situations in which her gender is accentuated; she invests a great deal in discussing the worth and the warmth of female friendships. All the villains are men, and there is not a single overtly evil woman in the book. Le Guin’s stories are said to be about people with real problems living in imaginary worlds: In Tehanu, the problems become all too real, and the world, almost entirely shorn of magic, is not imaginary enough.

I have expressed before, my appreciation about the fact that magic is at a premium in Earthsea. It shows that the writer wants not just to entertain but to say something about the exercise of power and the balance of Nature. But, when the stark reality of our world is forcibly thrust into Earthsea, it robs the fantasy world of its most charming characteristic: the delicate balance between the magical and the mundane. Tehanu is blunt and gritty and cannot allow the precarious fulcrum to remain horizontal. It is still interesting, but it is somehow not the Earthsea of old.

I think it was a bold but inevitable choice for Le Guin, that Ged should be shorn of his powers, having exhausted them in the climactic battle with the wizard Cob in the The Farthest Shore. Many readers have criticised Le Guin for taking away Ged’s powers, for bringing him down from the pedestal of Archmage to a lowly goatherd. I consider this criticism to be shallow and underserved. I agree with Le Guin, that Earthsea had to move on. Ged and Tenar had to move on, to deal now with the problems of age as they had dealt with the problems of youth. Besides, it would be wrong for Ged to continue as before, as if nothing had changed after he had fought the greatest battle of his life and installed a king in Havnor. The cup of his powers, Ged says, has run dry.

Kalessin turned aside to give that immense furnace blast of laughter or contempt or delight or anger – “Hah!”. Then, looking at the child, “It is well. Thou hast work to do here.”

When it is not overwhelmed by its feminist politics, Tehanu still captivates like its three beautiful predecessors. Nowhere is the signature calm and magnificence of Earthsea portrayed better than in the passages about the great dragon Kalessin. The passages in which the dragon is remembered, rank among the most wonderful fantasy fiction I have read. Even when it is not present, the dragon lurks ominously, mischievously, in the background. Earthsea has a lot of Taoism embedded into it, and the idea of dragons in Earthsea has repeatedly provided Le Guin with some wonderful opportunites to convey some of the notions of the Tao. Dragons are wise, but they are also wildly unpredictable. They speak the language of the Making, and generally mind their own business far away in the West. It is difficult to explain them; A dragon just is.

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