Monday, May 25, 2015

Tehanu: feminism, fantasy and dragons!

Title: Tehanu (Earthsea Cycle #4)
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Blurb: Years before, they had escaped together from the sinister Tombs of Atuan -- she, an isolated young priestess, he, a powerful wizard. Now she is a farmer's widow, having chosen for herself the simple pleasures of an ordinary life. And he is a broken old man, mourning the powers lost to him not by choice.

A lifetime ago, they helped each other at a time of darkness and danger. Now they must join forces again, to help another--the physically and emotionally scarred child whose own destiny remains to be revealed.


Can I say that I love this book more than the first three? Oh, of course I can. As a huge fan of the Earthsea Cycle, this reread only confirmed and deepened my love for the series.

This book has all the beloved characters and picks up the story that's left at the end of book three, The Farthest Shore, at another part of the world. I'm delighted to see Tenar back to the story. To some she may have never left, but to me not mentioning her in book three kind of made me think that Le Guin was going to just leave her there. That would be sad. In book two, she was a confused and scared teenager, while in this book, she's become a middle-aged woman. One of the main thing this book focuses on is Tenar--how she's changed from the priestess to a mother and a protector, how she lived as a woman in Earthsea world and her dealing with hostility from almost everybody else when it comes to her adopted child--Therru. I must say it's really interesting to see her change, the decisions she's made and the role she chooses to play.

So let's talk about Therru. She's the physically and emotionally scarred child with perhaps mysterious destiny mentioned in the blurb. She's the main character in this book. Though seemingly insignificant and small, she's the one that has the most impact on everything. It's strange that she rarely talks or do anything yet she's surrounded by most events happening in the book. She also reminds me a bit of myself when I was little--shy and quiet, mostly making observations and rarely talks, but I'm hella more privileged than her. Toward the end of the story I can see subtle developments of her opening up and becoming more trusting, but I'm glad that the author didn't rush it. She has a condition, and because of it people in the village despise her or are afraid of her, or even both. This is another issue that this book deals with, but strongly tied with gender inequality. More on that later.

As for Ged, remember when I said in book three that "he's in his fifties or so, with all the wisdom and none of the midlife crisis"? Ha ha ha. Guess what. In this book, he's still in his fifties or so, with ALL the midlife crisis and almost none of the wisdom. Isn't that ironic or what. Since he lost all his power to save the world, he becomes very weak, nearly dies, later on recovers but then becomes bitter, insecure, sad, scared, passive and just wallows in the corner. He's afraid to face people from his past who thinks he still possess the power of the Arcmage and that he could fix everything. He can't, and he's ashamed of it. In this book we see the process of him "recovering" from his emotional slump and learning to accept who he is, which is quite new and interesting to me because most of that kind of character developments are mostly depicted to happen to teenagers in young adult books. But. Awesome as he was, he still couldn't escape the misogynistic chauvinism (whoa big words).

And so let's approach the topic of feminism.

The Earthsea world, like others fantasy worlds, is a world of sexism. The most obvious indication of it is that only men are allowed to learn magic at Roke, only men are allowed to become wizards, while women with power are belittled as some invaluable witchery that does trivial stuff. I mean look, what comes to your mind first when presented the word "WIZARD"? (me: harry potter duh) Now what do you think when you see the word "WITCH"? At least, for me when I see "witch" the first image that pops into my head would be this:
yep, that's the witch in snow white. you have no idea how this terrified me as a child. (i nearly had a heart attack when i googled it a moment ago) image source

Though Harry Potter did a great job giving me positive images of witches (oh hermione! luna!) an ugly, evil old woman cackling and brewing poisonous potion with a crow is still my first instinct association with witches. As a female the idea of women with power is dangerous is still ingrained in my mind in a way. There's a point made in the book that goes like this:
“What is a woman's power then?" she asked.
"I don't think we know."
"When has a woman power because she's a woman? With her children, I suppose. For a while..."
"In her house, maybe."
She looked around the kitchen. "But the doors are shut," she said, "the doors are locked."
"Because you're valuable."
"Oh yes. We're precious. So long as we're powerless.” 
― Ursula K. Le GuinTehanu
And this:
“Why are men afraid of women?"
If your strength is only the other's weakness, you live in fear," Ged said.
"Yes; but women seem to fear their own strength, to be afraid of themselves."
"Are they ever taught to trust themselves?" Ged asked, and as he spoke Therru came in on her work again. His eyes and Tenar's met.
"No," she said. "Trust is not what we're taught." She watched the child stack the wood in the box. "If power were trust," she said. "I like that word. If it weren't all these arrangements - one above the other - kings and masters and mages and owners - It all seems so unnecessary. Real power, real freedom, would lie in trust, not force."
"As children trust their parents," he said.” 
― Ursula K. Le GuinTehanu
I also find this powerful as words in the story:
“She thought about how it was to have been a woman in the prime of life, with children and a man, and then to lose all that, becoming old and a widow, powerless. But even so she did not feel she understood his shame, his agony of humiliation. Perhaps only a man could feel so. A woman got used to shame.” 
― Ursula K. Le GuinTehanu
 (All quotes from Goodreads)

One of the things I like about this book is that although it's set in a world that's super sexist, it still manages to show how wrong and absurd it is. Heck, even Ged the almighty (or used-to-be-almighty) still holds this kind of views. Perhaps it's not so blatantly obvious in the world we live in and nobody really dares to say it out loud, sexism still exists. Just a few months ago when I was spending my new years holidays at my grandma's house, I've heard one of my relatives saying he will not vote for a female candidate for president no matter what. Just. Because. She's. A. Woman. Like what even. Let's just go back to the book review lest I start ranting all over the place. It isn't all that bad in the book: Ged, living with Tenar and Therru, actually does get better at understanding women and not discriminating.

Another obvious issue is victim-blaming. So Therru is seriously hurt in her childhood. She was thrown into a fire and possibly sexual abused, and to the time the story unfolds those people who hurt her from her past still keep looking for her, stalking her and Tenar, finding a chance to get her and destroy her. People around the village are afraid of her. Many believe that she was cursed and possessed by evil power, therefore having the scar on her face and having to go through all of those horrible things was her fault.

Le Guin kind of did them justice in the end, but I think ultimately the whole point of Tehanu is to show us the other side of Earthsea world that never really got explored in previous books. Looking through the eye of females gives a whole new perspectives.

To quote a review on Goodreads,
A Wizard of Earthsea and The Farthest Shore, you can take your dragons and shove em. Your wizardry's not wanted here. All your quests are just cruises and island-hopping, boys' own adventures. Fuck it all. This is the real story. The tedium and horror of regular life is more epic than your silly jaunts, and all your hoity-toity man's magic won't do nothing to save you here. 
This review is kind of epic, that's all I'm sayin'.

I wanted to end the review there, but there's still things I haven't talked about and my review wouldn't be complete without them, as in, the plot and the writing. As usual, Le Guin's writing is poetic and beautiful. However, there are parts that are a bit implicit, call me an literature-inept, but there are parts that I had to read several times on repeat to understand what she was talking about. There was little plot, which isn't a problem for me. I like to imagine the plot as a vertical line with descriptions and settings branching out horizontally here and there. This book kinda looks like this: least i tried.
It's ultimately about the society of the Earthsea world--a lot of setting, a lot of character development, a lot of description but little plot; the plot doesn't need to be really full anyway. My problem is the ending--way too abrupt, not fully explained and the big revelation is kind of predictable. (It still kind of reaches a satisfying level though. Kind of.)

Recommended to fans of the Earthsea Cycle, high fantasy, people who want to see the world other than adventure stories and those who want to see feminism in literature. Also, there are dragons. Yes, it's important. Dragons are cool.

Have you read the Earthsea books? It's been a long time since the last time I met someone who has. What do you think? Seen any feminism in literature? Tell me all about it in the comments!


  1. Hiya, I had an attempt at reading The Wizard Of Earthsea. That was about 14 years ago. I didn't like it. Thought it was too uneventful, and it had a weird sense of priorities. The book described things I thought were not relevant. With time, I got more and more reluctant to give Fantasy and Sci Fi classics a go. Unfinished books take a significant toll on my time(I don't like to waste it) and my spirits.

    I think the fact the characters age and evolve must not necessarily mean depth is being added to the story. Take any long running sitcom. Like, The Young and the Restless (1973– ). That's right. Well many actors from that series have continued playing their roles for decades. They change, their situations change, their appearances change. Their wrinkles are the real deal. They evolve. Does that mean the writing suddenly is good? You can analyse anything. I'm not saying the characterization in Tehanu is bad. I'm saying delving into details of a life can easily be taken as good writing. I've never completed a Le Guin book. But I read some opinions about The Dispossessed and it seems that many people, whether they like the book or not, concede that not much is going on in the book.

    I'd love to read about your top 10 Fantasy books. Hope you post it here, or even better, make it the subject of your next blog entry. Anyway I regret not adding much to the dialog, but I'm hampered by the fact that I didn't read Le Guin as her books are not compatible with me. Have a great day/night.:-)

    1. I haven't read a lot of Le Guin's books either--only The Earthsea Cycle, but yes, I agree that there isn't much happening and I feel that plot is Le Guin's weakness. On the other hand, her lengthy but detailed descriptions sets the atmosphere that I only fall deeper and deeper into, so I guess it just depends on who's reading the book and their reading habit. Then again, I haven't read her other books, so I don't want to judge too fast; plus, I've enjoyed her books so far, so I'll definitely give her other books a try and then maybe come back here and write a review! I can relate to feeling having time wasted when not finishing books though. A more intense version of this is me solving math problems during exams--I'm ALMOST through but I just can't come up with the final step to the solution. It's like all this way for nothing. (And then BAM. Time's up.)

      Erm, I'm guessing what you mean is time passes but there are some people that just don't develops internally/mentally? Well yeah, characterisation is a tricky thing. It's one of the things that's very important to me when reading, enjoying and reviewing books. I believe characters can make or break books. When I read Tehanu I could feel that (at least for me) the main characters are changing, not only on the outside, but deep inside; most important of all, the book made me feel things and connect with the characters and I think that's what's the most important, especially in young adult books because they're mostly about "growing up". But sometimes all I need is characters with strong personalities that keep the story interesting, such as Sherlock Holmes in BBC Sherlock. I wasn't quite pleased when he suddenly changed so much in season 3, I just want my cold-blooded, hilariously insensitive Sherlock back :P.

      Ahem. I rambled on. I haven't been reading as much as I did when I was younger, and back then most fantasy I read belong to the "children's book" genre, so I can't guarantee you'll be interested in them. Heck, I don't even know if there are ten! Maybe I'll do that someday. I need to go back and read little-me's reading log. That would be fun.

  2. You said :"Erm, I'm guessing what you mean is time passes but there are some people that just don't develops internally/mentally?"

    I'm referring to Le Guin reprising her Earthsea books after years and seemingly satisfying a core of niche readers, but not gaining a lot of new fans. When she wrote The Wizard of Earthsea, she kind of blew her soul into her characters. But when she wrote the 4th book after more than a decade, she had two choices. One, create foibles for her characters from her imagination so that they seem to have aged in a believable, logical direction and in an entertaining way. Two, draw from her own life's experience and infuse her personages with the direction she has taken in her life. Two is, I guess, she has taken. It's the easy way. Many aging authors take that route. Case in point, Cormac McCarthy with The Road. He wrote The Road, a hellish dystipian book, and infused the relationship between his him and his son in the main characters of his book. The book is a critical success. But since the boy in the book behaves like the real son of McCarthy in the face of danger, the characterization rings hollow. The boy does not behave like a kid used to death and hardened by experience.

    I'd be happy to know about your top 10 books generally, or in the genre you read most. I like Sherlock and the two best episodes in all three seasons are for me, A Study in Pink, and A Scandal In Belgravia. My favorite actor in the series is Andrew Scott, who blew my mind as Morirarty. His performance was better than Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, I daresay. Benedict Cumberbatch is a more faithful Sherlock than the Robert Downey Jr movies, which might as well be titled Kung Fu Sherlock and be done with. The writer of Sherlock, the guy who plays Mycroft Holmes, has written a few thrillers, e.g The Vesuvius Club. I have three of these on my Kindle, but have not yet read them. He's a better scriptwriter than a full-blooded author. I liked reading and replying to your post. Have a great day/night!:)

    1. guess that's often how it is with series? Satisfying a core of niche readers with sequels, I mean. It's like you won't understand a thing if you started reading The Half Blood Prince before reading The Order of the Phoenix (which, actually, I foolishly did years ago, ha.) Tehanu as a whole seems fine to me; I never thought of it the way you do, though, and it's quite interesting! If Le Guin did infuse her experiences over the years into the book, I'd say they blend well with it, but that's just me. These kind of things tend to vary from person to person :) .

      Andrew Scott is an AMAZING Moriarty isn't he! It's (relatively) easy to create a villain that people hate wholeheartedly but THIS Moriarty...he's got everything--sass, wit, style, and (so far inexplicable) evilness. The other shows or movies, I either didn't watch them or watched it long ago and didn't remember a thing. Eh. I don't know the writer of SHERLOCK plays Mycroft Holmes though! Oh gosh, now all I can think about is the scene where Mycroft walked on a treadmill wearing tights XD.

      Have a nice day too!

  3. Hahahaha! Well seems like our discussion is at an end for now. See you at your next blog entry. I'm going to sleep. G'night!

  4. Series that get better are so rare nowadays :( And gah, Therru sounds so awesome, and her character development as well as Ged's sounds amazing. And oh, feminism. That may have just won me over. (Also, MAGIC. MAGIC MAGIC MAGIC. Oh, and DRAGONS.) The plot might be something of an issue for me -- I love implicit plots, but I need TENSION and ENDINGS and MURDER. (Murder = plot element. Absolutely.)

    1. A lot of Thurru's character development was my guessing because she rarely talks throughout this book; I could only infer through her interactions with Tenar. I'm hoping I got that right :目. Ged's character development is definitely a lot easier to see and it's indeed quite amazing. There isn't a lot of magic in this book though. More magic can be found in A Wizard of Earthsea, I, even though described as "island hopping and boys' own adventures" in the review I quoted, is still fun to read, gives out an otherworldly atmosphere and definitely makes Ged's sadness in this book more understandable. I think this series is different from most series I've read, there's a pretty long time spam between every book (except between The Farthest Shore and Tehanu), and it gives me a feeling that most other series can--I can see how the protagonists' actions in the previous book affected the whole world and how they changed over the years in-between. Larger time scales tend to do that kind of things to me.
      Endings are crucial for a book and this one just didn't go well to me . *sigh* Maybe one or two murders can change things up XD.

  5. I've only read to The Farthest Shore as of yet, but this makes me want to read Tehanu so much! Though, mucI love the Earthsea books, I do agree that sometimes things can move rather slowly...
    Have you seen the Ghibli movie Tales From Earthsea? It's a sort of adaptation of the books (but not of the actual Tales From Earthsea). From what I've heard, it isn't a very good adaptation, but it picks up at Therru's storyline.
    The wizard/witch thing is so irritating. *sighs*

    1. I've heard about the movie but somehow I just thought they were not related at all despite the fact that EARTHSEA is right in the title. Clever me. I heard even Le Guin herself isn't happy with how the movie turned that's awkward. BUT Ghibli makes awesome movies all the time so maaayybe I'll try this one some time later. XD (Plus it picks up Thurru's storyline?! That sounds cool!)
      The books in The Earthsea Cycle tend to go rather slowly so far, but I'm thinking that the next two are more fast paced--I'm reading The Other Wind and there's quite a lot of plot developments! As for Tales from Earthsea, it's all short stories so it can't be too slow (I hope)!
      The witch/wizard thing IS frustrating, it's already deep in the culture AND the language (like witchery) it's just hard to change. Though I don't really know if with that in the language really influence how people think about it. But still.