Book Review: Tehanu by Ursula K. Le Guin
When we last saw him in The Farthest Shore, wizard Ged was the Archmage and had just saved the world with the help of Earthsea’s young king. When we last saw her in The Tombs of Atuan, Tenar had just escaped from being the priestess and slave of a dark power, and had helped Ged restore a ring and a rune that kept the world in balance. Now he is a powerless shell of a wizard, starting over at middle age with no marketable skills except goat-herding. And she is a farmer’s widow, struggling against the powerlessness of women in a world where men might rape and beat a small girl senseless and push her into the fire.
Tenar takes her horribly scarred, adopted daughter Therru along when the mage Ogion summons her to his cottage high in the mountains. The wizard who once mentored both Ged and Tenar, Ogion is dying. But before he dies, he bears witness to the changing of the world, the result of Ged’s quest with the young king Lebannen. And he urges Tenar to teach the child everything but the magic of the mages of Roke, site of the all-male school of wizardry introduced in A Wizard of Earthsea.
Tenar and Therru stay for a while in Ogion’s house, caring for his garden and his goats, befriending the local witch woman, and nursing a broken and miserable Ged after a dragon delivers him to their doorstep. But soon they are all on the run: Ged, because the king’s men are looking for him, and he is ashamed to be made a spectacle of; Tenar and Therru, when one of the men who hurt the girl turns up, and when a local wizard puts a curse on Tenar. The former archmage goes into hiding in the high pastures, herding goats. The widow and the burned girl flee back to the farm. But the bad people who burned Therru are still looking for her, hoping to finish the job.
Even with friends and kindly neighbors surrounding them, Tenar is troubled by the superstition that when one is harmed by evil, it is a punishment for something one has done. She struggles with her conscience as to what to do about teaching the child, struggles to understand why Ogion told her that people would fear Therru. She chafes against the limits of a woman’s freedom and power, even while managing the farm that technically belongs to her son, who is away at sea. And she chafes even more when the son returns, and her prospects close in around her. But all the while, maturing slowly in the background is a touch of evil that will finally bring the swift and terrifying climax of this novel.
This fourth book in the Earthsea cycle was originally subtitled “The Last Book of Earthsea”—a none too accurate description, now that it has been succeeded by Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind. Like many of Le Guin’s other novels, it delivers the full, rich experience of a thick book within the physical dimensions of a middling-thin one. Either a marvel of word-economy or evidence that its author can bend space-time, this trick leaves me muttering, “How does she do that?” The answer may have to be that Ursula K. Le Guin is one of the best writers alive today. The evidence of that is powerfully displayed in this beautifully written book, a book that shakes you to your soul at its beginning and at its end, and that spends the between-pages touching your heart and challenging your mind.
Tehanu won the 1990 Nebula Award for Best Novel, an award Le Guin has won four times—more than any author. Her other books include the eight-part Hainish Cycle, beginning with Rocannon’s World, and including two more Nebula-winning titles; the Annals of the Western Shore trilogy, whose third book won Le Guin’s fourth Nebula; the Catwings quartet of children’s books; and many other novels and short stories for children and adults.