Saturday, September 15, 2012

Review of "Tehanu" by Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin, upset at herself for the lack of feminist representation, decided to revisit her beloved Earthsea setting and write a new tale after 25 years away from the trilogy.  Tehanu the result, readers who loved the first three books should approach this, the fourth, with an open mind.  Feminism, particularly family values and inner strength, comprises the strongest subject matter of the novel, making for a read that requires an emotional understanding of character interaction, male and female alike, the excitement and entertainment moved to the background.

Tehanu opens with Tenar (of The Tombs of Atuan fame), now in middle-age and living a domestic life on the isle of Gont.  Children grown, her life takes a new direction upon the death of her husband and the discovery of an abused child left for dead in a fire outside her village.  Taking the child, named Tehanu, under her wing, Tenar decides to visit her old friend Ogion.  After a long walk over the mountain, the pair find they are needed for more than just social reasons at the old hermit’s home.  While caring for Ogion and his home in his final days, a special visitor arrives in a fashion that resolves one point of ambiguity from The Farthest Shore.  The visitor likewise in need of care, a new round of concerns—far different than those of her domestic life—arise, throwing Tenar’s life into a turmoil she thought she’d left behind. 

The first three books of Earthsea, while containing a variety of moral and personal themes, featured elements of the fantastic in parallel.  Dragons, magic, spells, Old Powers, and the like all played differing roles in the development of of Ged, Tenar, and Arren.  Tehanu, however, is entirely different.  The novel realist save three moments of the fantastic, Le Guin shifts the focus of the narrative drastically in the direction of group interaction, in particular the intra-development of her protagonists.  The lessons the characters learn prove that humans never stop growing older and wiser.  Tenar, for example, must come to terms with the fears and limitations imposed by her previous choices in life as well as position in society.  Tehanu, due to her abuse as a child and subsequent deformation, likewise faces a host of discrimination that must be overcome if she is to find harmony within herself.  The strength and support they gain from within and each other is the message of the novel.

Therefore, it should be written clearly that Tehanu is unlike the previous three books in the Cycle.  Readers expecting a story in line with the bildingsroman pattern will be disappointed.  Those who have matured with Le Guin, however, will find a wealth of value in the strong individual and family focus of the new narrative.  Without spoiling the story, drama and tension do exist, but on terms infrequently used in fantasy.  It is fantasy of the bucolic, fantasy of the individual, and most importantly, fantasy of the nuclear group, with the ultimate statement by Le Guin that family is the building block of society.  

Faults, well, there are moments in the story that Le Guin seems to be trying too desperately to make up for what she perceived as a lack of feminist viewpoints in the earlier novels.  The moralizing over-handed or drama melo’, at times the message of a scene is forced, hitting the reader like a hammer rather than a pillow.  Little subtlety to the narrative, thematic material strikes at times perhaps harder than necessary.

In the end, Tehanu is sure to cause a reaction.  Those who loved the original series for its supernatural elements or usage of standard fantasy tropes may be disappointed.  In defiance of fantasy cliché, Le Guin has penned a story with family and women’s issues at its heart, trying to balance the male-centric nature of the earlier three books.  Thus, those who enter the novel without expectation and have an awareness for the manner in which social relationships are paralleled with personal development will feel rewarded.  Due to the novel’s abstraction from the familiar Earthsea setting—story focus unlike anything the archipelago has yet seen—comparisons to other fantasy novels is difficult.  In fact, Le Guin herself thought the book would stand alone, and titled it Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea. However, the premise and purpose proved so fertile that she has since written two additional books, Tales of Earthsea and The Other Wind, rounding out the Cycle at six total.  

(For those who have read the book and the Earthsea Cycle as a whole, you may be interested in reading a paper I wrote on its Daoist tenets and angles on contemporary theory called "Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle: Paralleling Contemporary Theory with an Eye to the Past".  Part I is here and Part II, here.) 

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