Book/page totals

Top 10 Lists

Sunday, April 22, 2007

cover of Tehanu

This fourth book in the Earthsea trilogy returns to the character of Tenar, formerly a priestess among The Tombs of Atuan, now much older and known to the villagers of Gont as Flint's widow, Goha. Tenar and an older, power-drained Ged finally get to be together, but the book is much more about gender issues and how we treat those who are different than us-- most particularly in the character of Therru, a child who has been abused and who bears the evidence of that abuse visibly in the burn scars that disfigure her face and cripple one of her hands, living in a society that figures she must be cursed or evil or in some sense deserve this terrible thing.

A fair bit of the book is about the differences between male and female power. Tenar gets to know one of the village witches, and learns from her some sense of how they are different-- the witch claims that her power is connected to the earth, and describes men as shells that contain great power. When Ged returns, completely drained of all his power (I vaguely remember that he used all his reserves of magic to save Earthsea in the last book), he does seem empty. He has to learn all over how to live, how to be-- as if he were a child again. Tenar also learns why she and Ged never consummated their love before (even though they were close)-- a mage is in some sense like a priest, devoted to the source of his power and unwilling to dilute or waste it on other ventures.

Another part of the gender roles in the book-- since Ged has lost his power he is no longer Archmage, and the other mages are trying to figure out who should be the next Archmage. They can't come up with a name, and the Patterner only comes up with "a woman on Gont." One of the mages talks to Tenar, and she realizes he can't even hear what she has to say-- he's so convinced that the woman on Gont is meant to lead them to a man, he can't see or hear the woman herself. Similar things happen at other times in the book: Tenar is the one present when the mage Ogion dies (he waited until she came), and he tells her his true name. The other mages who come later to bury him can scarcely believe that he would tell her, a woman, his name.

Therru is a very interesting character. Other people are afraid of her, and sometimes even Tenar wonders if she did right to save the child (since her life is such a misery, at least in the eyes of others). More than once, Tenar feels heat radiating from the child, and I think it's implied that it is some kind of effect of the burns-- but I suspected early on that there was something more to it. That, tied with Therru's love of the story about how dragons and humans were once the same people, and Ogion's sense of her power, made me somewhat less than surprised when it was revealed she was somehow a child of the great dragon.

Years ago I read one of LeGuin's essays on female archetypes, and she described the "space crone" as a strong female figure-- Tenar reminded me of this idea. Even though she's not a space crone exactly, I think she falls in that category. She's a mother and a grandmother, and no longer cares so much about what men think of her.

An interesting book, although more political and pointed in its views than I remember the other Earthsea books being (closer to the strong political nature of The Dispossessed). I think there are more Earthsea books now (in what was for a long time a trilogy); I'm not clamoring for more, but I am curious to see what LeGuin will do with the strange Therru.

Title:Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea
Author:Ursula K. LeGuin
Date published:1990
Series:The Earthsea Cycle
Number of pages:226


Google Search