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Tehanu: Book Four (Earthsea Cycle) Paperback – November 23, 2004
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About the Author
Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018) has published twenty-one novels, eleven volumes of short stories, four collections of essays, twelve books for children, six volumes of poetry, and four of translation, and has received the Hugo, Nebula, Endeavor, Locus, Tiptree, Sturgeon, PEN-Malamud, and National Book Award and the Pushcart and Janet Heidinger Kafka prizes, among others. In recent years she has received lifetime achievement awards from World Fantasy Awards, Los Angeles Times, Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, and Willamette Writers, as well as the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Grand Master Award and the Library of Congress Living Legends award. Le Guin was the recipient of the Association for Library Service to Children’s May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Award and the Margaret Edwards Award. Her recent publications include the novel Lavinia, Words Are My Matter, an essay collection, and Finding My Elegy, New and Selected Poems. Her website is UrsulaKLeGuin.com.
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Speaking of The Tombs of Atuan, I was very pleased to be reacquainted with Tenar, some 25 years after we left her in that book. I was pleased to see that she found a simple life on Gont, away from the terror and blind fanaticism that was her experience on Atuan. In this, Tehanu is a different story. It is slower paced than the books preceding it, but I found that it didn't suffer for this. Quite the opposite. Tenar (as well as Therru, Ogion, Ged, and a few other side characters on the island) is interesting to read about whether she is escaping pitch black labyrinthine depths, or whether she is planting peach trees and sewing a new red dress.
Now, that isn't to say that Tehanu is without conflict; on the contrary the plot is engaging and wrapped up nicely at the end, satisfyingly, and with room for more stories (I'm especially looking forward to the Other Wind). And in true Le Guin fashion she raises many worthwhile topics of conversation in these pages.; especially the focus on a woman's 'place' in Earthsea. Things are changing in the islands of Earthsea, and as far as I can see, for the better. Her prose is as efficient as ever, and every once in a while she hits you with one of those short little passages that is so intricately beautiful that you can't help but stop and read it again. There are a couple of those throughout.
I like the exploration of identity and autonomy. Ged has lost his magic, so he has to shape a new identity for himself, and Tenar's life is changing. There is the idea of a person being shaped by the events around them and playing a role rather than being their own person. Tenar says, "I chose to mold myself like clay... I made myself a vessel. I know the shape. But not the clay. Life danced me. I know the dances. But I don't know who the dancer is." She is saying that even when she was given choices, she was only choosing a role for herself and that she didn't know who she was as a person.
I like that discussion because it eloquently lays out a question that many people have: who am I? Where does the individual begin and the social conditioning end? I disagree with the overall answer, though, because I don't think that there is a transcendent self separate from the person immanent in the world. As Chuck Palahniuk said, "Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I've ever known." In Tenar's analogy, the clay gains its meaning only as a vessel; the dancer is defined by the dances. The question shouldn't be trying to figure out who the dancer "really is" (as if there were some meaningful answer to that question) but rather to figure out the right dances to do. We shouldn't ponder on the nature of clay; we should make things with it.
The book has a focus on social structures. I remember reading some second-wave feminist writings by Catherine MacKinnon where she describes women as superior for reasons relating to their connection to the earth and bearing children and having periods and breastfeeding (if I recall correctly). Le Guin reflects, in her afterword, about a conversation. One character, Moss, says, "Who knows where a woman begins or ends?... I have roots... I go back into the dark!... Who'll ask the dark its name?" and the protagonist, Tenar, responds, "I will... I lived long enough in the dark." Moss' statement seems very much like MacKinnon's writing, and Tenar's response, very much in the theme of her explorations in the book, is an expression of dissatisfaction with the simple mysticism of second wave feminism. She feels as though other peoples' explorations of identity aren't helping her own search, and a reflection of the power structures and systemic injustices that she has experienced are more relevant to her than discussions of intrinsic identity.