Thursday, August 8, 2013

Tehanu, by Ursula K. Le Guin

So, I know I haven't talked about Le Guin's excellent Earthsea series before, but I read four of the five novels a long time ago when I was an undergraduate. Perusing Half Price Books some time ago I found a used copy of the fourth book, Tehanu, which I had not read and decided now was as good a time as any to really complete the cycle. Overall I feel kind of disappointed with this book in general. It certainly doesn't take anything away from Le Guin's excellent storytelling, but I feel like it doesn't really add anything either. Much literary analysis has already focused on this novel and Le Guin's stroing, anti-patriarchal viewpoints which are introduced in this much later sequel, and while I identify as a feminist I feel like the book really only goes halfway in addressing the problem. There are certainly worse books out there, but I feel it is very much the weakest of the Earthsea novels.

Tehanu follows Tenar, the heroine from the second book, Tombs of Atuan, about twenty years after her first appearance. In the intervening time Tenar has settled down on Gont with a farmer named Flint, raised two children, and has recently become a widow. Over the course of the book Tenar takes care of a horribly injured orphan, Therru, helps bury the great mage Ogion, and nurses Ged back to health after the events of The Farthest Shore. During the book Ged comes to terms with the fact that he no longer has any of the power he had as a wizard of Earthsea and Tenar tries to come to terms with her identity as a woman. The plot is nowhere as big or epic as the other Earthsea novels, but I really don't think that's a weakness of the story. If there was a lot of focus on the fate of the universe and wizards and dragons we would be distracted from the development of Ged and Tenar as characters. I'll admit I feel like the growth is limited, but there's at least an effort.

As I mentioned, I felt like this book really only went halfway with its feminist agenda. It certainly pointed out the issues of categorizing certain activities as women's work or men's work and how men who refuse to do women's work are actually making themselves dependent on a (much-derided) woman for food, clothing, and a number of other necessities. The book also certainly displays a highly sexist mindset within the world of Earthsea. There are several times where men pointedly do not listen to what Tenar has to say because she is simply a woman and therefore of no consequence. In addition there are plenty of incidents where men straight up state that women are worthless and inferior. The problem I have is that Tenar never really seems to fight back. Yes, she puts up a big show when she's safely back at home, determined to not let them make her afraid again and to stand up to her bullies, but when the time comes she runs away out of fear. It's rather frustrating that Tenar ends up having to rely on the help of other male figures to defeat her attackers.

The other thing that kind of bugged me that the book got into the differences between the power of a man and the power of a woman, and a sort of underlying assumption that on some fundamental level men and women are inherently different beyond just what happens to be in our pants. To be fair there are a couple of very specific things which research suggests are different about men and women, specifically men in general have better visual-spatial coordination while women, again in general, are better able to distinguish between shades of color. However these are very limited studies and should not in any way be assumed to be indicative. The problem I have with assuming men and women are somehow inherently different generally relies on "traditional gender roles" and how it's somehow natural for men to want to be hunters while women want to be nurturers. The simple fact of the matter is that research increasingly has indicated that gender roles are largely a matter of social construction rather than natural order, so I get a little antsy whenever someone starts poking around with how men and women are naturally different. I suppose I should give this book some leeway since it was published in 1990 and I'm not sure if the information I have now twenty years later was as available to Le Guin, but it still leaves me a little skittish.

Ultimately I feel like this book is an attempt to articulate feminist viewpoint to a fantasy audience, but it does so rather poorly, especially considering Le Guin's success in conveying Taoist philosophy in the other Earthsea novels. I would definitely recommend that people read the Earthsea novels if they haven't already because they're very good fantasy literature, but Tehanu is definitely the weakest of the series.

- Kalpar

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