Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea

Ursula K. Le Guin

Victor Gollancz 1990
A book review by Danny Yee © 1996 https://dannyreviews.com/
Warning: there are spoilers in this review

Written some twenty years on, Le Guin's Tehanu is an addition to her classic Earthsea trilogy, albeit with a subtitle which suggests no more will follow. Tehanu is a rather different work, however: the effects of Le Guin's "feminist conversion" are quite obvious here.

At one point in A Wizard of Earthsea we read of Ged: "There was a great wish in him to stay here on Gont, and forgoing all wizardry and venture, forgetting all power and horror, to live in peace like any man on the known, dear ground of his home land". In Tehanu Ged achieves this. Having lost all magical power through his exertions in The Farthest Shore, he has been brought back to Gont by the dragon Kalessin.

The central protagonist of Tehanu is, however, Tenar. In the twenty five years since The Tombs of Atuan she has married, raised two children and been widowed. In Tehanu she adopts a maltreated and scarred child called Therru and journeys to the side of the dying mage Ogion.

The Earthsea trilogy featured magery, dragons, journeys to far lands, and a visit to the realm of the dead. Though magic and kings and dragons do appear in Tehanu, they have only bit parts. In Tehanu the central battle is a defence of a farmhouse against three vagabonds. Where power in the trilogy is something to be treated with respect and handled with care — magic is subject to a Taoist conception of Balance — in Tehanu power is, if not actually bad, simply irrelevant. At least, that is, the power to hold back earthquakes and to raise winds, the magery of the trilogy, where all wizards are male. Tehanu glorifies more humdrum skills, such as the ability to look after goats or to wield a pitchfork. As in Always Coming Home, however, renunciation of power is not easy to preach consistently. In Tehanu a happy ending is only achieved by a draco ex machina: since none of the protagonists, not even archmage-to-be Therru, can resort to violence, Kalessin must arrive in the nick of time to save them.

Tehanu also offers a radically different conception of good and evil to that of the original trilogy. Aspen and Handy are evil, evil in a way that even Cobb in The Farthest Shore or Kossil in The Tombs of Atuan are not. Tenar and Ged and Lebannen are good, good in a far less equivocal fashion than in the trilogy. Here too Taoist ideas of balance and ambiguity have been abandoned: light is no longer the left hand of darkness. Indeed the combination of black and white moral judgement with stress on the renunciation of power and salvation from outside gives Tehanu a very Christian feel — consider Kalessin as God and Therru as Christ.

Change is inevitable, but I sorely miss the old Le Guin. While I enjoyed Tehanu (I have read it twice now) and it is better crafted than the earlier volumes, it fails to touch me in any substantial way; it will never have the place in my heart that the Earthsea books have.

Note: Therru didn't end up becoming archmage. But then Tehanu isn't the "Last Book of Earthsea", either, with the publication of The Other Wind in 2001.

June 1996

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%T Tehanu
%S The Last Book of Earthsea
%A Le Guin, Ursula K.
%I Victor Gollancz
%D 1990
%O hardcover
%G ISBN 0575048700
%P 219pp