Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books, round 2


Twenty years later, more or less, Le Guin returned to her world of Earthsea with Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea, and The Other Wind. The short version of this review is: I wish Tehanu hadn’t been written–bluntly, it feels like revisionist screed, an apologia to all the strident feminists out there who tore at the first trilogy for its treatment of women. Or rather, the trilogy’s lack of treatment of women. Having read most of Le Guin’s other works, I don’t think she need apologize for her treatment of women in her body of work; she’s addressed gender issues far more completely and subtly in, say, The Left Hand of Darkness, and created believable strong memorable female characters in Odo, the inspiration for the anarchic utopia in The Dispossessed….but those are complex enough to warrant their own entries. No, the reason I think Tehanu needn’t have been written (though no one knew this at the time of its publication, least of all the author herself) is because Le Guin did a far better job of rectifying the sublimation of women in the wizarding culture in Earthsea in The Other Wind. But then in fairness, she’d had yet another decade of writing under her pen between the two.

Tehanu begins as The Farthest Shore is concluding, although the characters in Tehanu know nothing of what’s happening in the wizarding community; all they know is that mundane malice and petty evils are spreading throughout the community that they know. Tenar, now widowed, lives on her dead husband’s farm scraping a living out of it and wondering about her own future when she takes in the burned and abused child of gypsies, abandoned in the ashes of the campfire that injured her. Word comes to them that Ogion, mentor of the Archmage Ged, is dying and has asked for her. Tenar and the child Therru go to him, and move into his hut after Ogion dies. Ged arrives on dragonback, nearly dead and having lost all his wizarding powers as a result of events in The Farthest Shore, and the two attempt to piece their lives back together. The Other Wind picks up several years later, with a pot mender’s inability to sleep without dreaming of his dead wife’s existence on the other side of the wall dividing the living humans from the dead, and unable to leave over grieving for her when awake. He goes first to Roke and the Wizarding School, who send him on to Ged. Ged provides Alder with a kitten–don’t laugh, this makes sense in the context of the book–and refers him on to Lebannen, the King in Havnor, where Tenar and Tehanu have gone ahead to offer counsel in the matter of a princess sent to wed Lebannen to join the Kargish lands with the civilized world. Fear not: all these threads–the people, the cultures, the dragons and the land of the (human) dead–do all tie together.

Now for the official Literary Analysis: Here’s a review of Tehanu. Here’s a review of the series as a whole and another review here.

Overall, I’d say that the Earthsea books might be good for kids who’ve read, and more importantly outgrown, the Harry Potter series. The first three have nothing overtly offensive, although the themes might be a bit beyond the reach of younger kids–certainly I didn’t realize “Oh, he’s overcoming his fear of death leaving no deeds behind!” until I was much older–but read simply as a fairy tale epic fantasy, they’re fine as soon as kids are capable of puzzling out the words. I think The Other Wind is intended for adults, though I see nothing wrong with letting tweens loose on it if they want it; they may not identify quite as fully with the characters, being not their own age, but the themes and events are OK for reasonably mature kids. Tehanu, on the other hand, will almost certainly be triggering for anyone who’s been abused; I think revealing the vile nature of such treatment is rather what Le Guin was after, but not all readers want this in their literature.

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