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Monday, April 26, 2010

Tehanu by Ursula K. Le Guin

As I have indicated previously, the first three of the Earthsea books, by Ursula K. Le Guin, are among my favorite works of fantastic literature, and Le Guin is perhaps the finest author of fantastic literature in the English language. See here, here, and here for the Wikipedia articles on these books. The last of these three, The Farthest Shore, was published in 1972. These books, written for young people, are equally attractive to adult readers. They are notable for their portrayal of some human societies, presented sparely, but with an eye to anthropological detail. They are also coming of age books, of the young mage, Ged, the young priestess, Tenar, and the young person who is to be the young king, Arren.

I recently re-read Tehanu, published in 1990. This work is meant as a sequel to the previous three books. In this, Le Guin re-visits an adult Tenar. Ged is also a character in the book, and so, for a briefer time, are Ogion, Ged's original teacher, and Arren, now king. (Tehanu is the name of a star, visible from the island of Gont, in Earthsea, where all the action takes place.)

As the Wikipedia article on Tehanu says, Le Guin seems to have written the book partly to address gender matters. The Mages that have power in Earthsea are exclusively male, trained by males, and living with males during their training. From all indications in the three previous books, and from Tehanu, they are celibate for life. In Tehanu, Tenar complains about male insensitivity. For example, she tells her son that he should wash up his own dishes, and not expect her to have his food on the table when he wants it. For another example, the Master Windkey, one of the Master Mages, does not really understand Tenar, because she is a woman. (Ged and Arren do listen, and do treat Tenar with full respect.)

Another theme of the book is aging. Ogion dies, of old age, and Ged has lost all powers as a mage.

The last theme I wish to address is the question of dragons. Dragons are important in Earthsea. They are intelligent, beautiful, and can be terribly destructive. They also speak the original language, used to create the world and its contents. (Mages learn part of this language during their training.) In this book (and there are also hints in other parts of the Earthsea novels, and in short stories written in that setting) it appears that the dragons and humans stemmed from one and the same source. They are kin.

This is my favorite quotation from the book:
". . . She obeys me, but only because she wants to."
"It's the only justification for obedience," Ged observed. Ursula K. Le Guin, Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea, New York: Bantam, 1991, p. 209 (Tenar is first speaker, ellipsis in original). (Also New York: Simon Pulse, 2001, p. 233) This is in the chapter entitled "Winter."

Thanks for reading.

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