When I look at my bookshelves, certain books stand out. Some of them do so simply because their covers or spines are visually alluring. They catch the eye without much effort and they immediately distance themselves from other books next to them. Some books practically leap off the shelf because the sight of them causes a flow of memories to rush into my mind. Feelings, passages of the book, memories of my time reading them, all appear in my head. Other books with a strong presence, perhaps the strongest, are the works I consider to be classic. The books I consider to be masterpieces and written by some of my favourite authors. I’ve reread them before and I’ll read them again because they’ve stirred something up inside of me.
Not all book lovers make lists about the best books they’ve ever read or who their favourite authors are, but I do. I’m one of those people. While I’ve admired Ursula K. LeGuin’s writing since I’ve read The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, Volume 1. While slowly reading my way through her Earthsea series she steadily made a place for herself amongst favourite authors. Reading her online blog made me like her as a person (and I’ve come to learn quite a bit about her cat in the process). After reading Tehanu, the fourth book in the series, I’ve had to shuffle around some of my best of lists. Earthsea is an unconventional, sometimes emotionally devastating, and always masterfully written fantasy series. Tehanu is one of the best fantasy book I’ve read in my life. I was so thoroughly impressed by LeGuin and this novel that I’ve been living in a state of deep thought ever since. Why don’t more people talk about LeGuin? Why doesn’t anybody mention Tehanu as one of her great works?
Several years went by between the publishing of the third volume of Earthsea and Tehanu, the fourth volume. The book’s subject matter makes this clear and so does LeGuin’s prose. It’s as tight and controlled as ever but it’s also grown in effectiveness. LeGuin’s prose is beautiful and simple. Every sentence is concise and it achieves a great deal. It’s as poetic as prose can be without breaking all of the laws of grammar. Consider the opening paragraphs:
“After Farmer Flint of the Middle Valley died, his widow stayed on at the farmhouse. Her son had gone to sea and her daughter had married a merchant of Valmouth, so she lived alone at Oak Farm. People said she had been some kind of great person in the foreign land she came from, and indeed the mage Ogion used to stop by Oak Farm to see her; but that didn’t count for much, since Ogion visited all sorts of nobodies.
She had a foreign name, but Flint called her Goha, which is what they call a little white web-spinning spider on Gont. That name fit her well enough, she being white-skinned and small and a good spinner of goat’s-wool and sheep-fleece. So now she was Flint’s widow, Goha, mistress of a flock of sheep and the land to pasture them, four fields, an orchard of pears, two tenants’ cottages, the old stone farmhouse under the oaks, and the family graveyard over the hill where Flint lay, earth in his earth.
“’I’ve generally lived near tombstones,’ she said to her daughter.”
Those paragraphs form the basic setup of the Goha’s life, once names Tenar in The Tombs of Atuan. The story is set several years after that story, long enough for Goha to have raised two children to adulthood and long enough for Ged to become an old man and travel with Arren to the Dry Lands in The Farthest Shore, the third volume in the series. LeGuin accomplishes so much with so little. She compresses over twenty years of a person’s life into a few sentences and the rest of the book focuses on how Goha has dealt with her past life and how she’s living today. It’s epic. Small scale epic, sure, but epic nonetheless.
Initially, Tehanu isn’t all that different from other Earthsea novels. That changes as the story progresses. You quickly realize that it’s not about a grand quest or large displays of flashy magic. The subject matter is on a much more personal level. It’s a story about ordinary, everyday pains and fears. It’s about power and how gender politics influence who has power and the kind of power they’re allowed to have. A woman can inherit a farm and become its owner and administrator. Yet, when her adult son returns home to find that his father has passed away, that ownership reverts to him as the male heir. The result is that the woman loses her agency, all power to administer and run the farm of her own volition. Her role is reduced due to her gender and societal hierarchy.
That is one of the simply examples of how gender and power can cause pain and fear in everyday life. Some more complex ones have to do with the magical powers of wizards versus the much humbler powers of witches. Men and woman can both have magic but the types of magic they employ are vastly different one from the other. A woman’s power is to heal; it’s more receptive and rooted deep in the earth and the fabric of reality. A man’s power is that of a secret language which can be used to dominate and orchestrate great changes in the physical world.
This volume of Earthsea, like the three before it, also deals with identity. Who are we as individuals and what defines us? The book’s main character is Tenar who used to be called Arha in The Tombs of Atuan but is now called Goha. Each of her names represents a different part of who she is. The same is true of every person and everything on Earthsea. For some, like Ged, better known as Sparrowhawk the Archmage of Roke, he is defined by his power. He’s been defined by his magic since the day he discovered he’s had talent for it. He is greatly changed after the events of The Farthest Shore and now he struggles with who he is. He gets lost in shame and self-pity and his struggle in Tehanu is one of identity and purpose. Another character, the strong and beautiful Therru is most commonly identified by her physical appearance. A victim of physical abuse as a child, Therru was rapped and burned, leaving her a shell of her former self, disfigured and handicapped for life. Her personal structure to identify as a person, rather than an object of violence and hate, gives her a unique outlook on life. Her self-discovery, aided by the love and care provided to her by Geha, Hawk, and Moss is one of the great pleasures (and hardships) of this novel.
This is a wondrous book. It’s not an action fantasy epic. It focuses on the daily lives of a farmer, her adopted child, and her friend the former Archmage of Roke who once had great power. In the wise and careful hands of LeGuin, Tehanu is an epic story that provides important lessons about what it means to be human. Pain and fear are used as tools for domination and control. Self-discovery and acceptance are used a magic to break free from oppression and self-pity. The magic of healing while much slower to take effect ultimately proves more effective and more powerful than the magic of destruction.
The thematic thickness of Tehanu surprises me. It seems impossible that so much content could exist inside a book just over 300 pages in length. This is especially true when you consider how it’s a simple and quick read. It’s effortless and that makes me appreciate this book all the more. Dense books have their place, even on my bookshelf. They can often be rewarding, but they can also taxing if the subject and the execution do not warrant the book’s density. With Tehanu LeGuin manages to be very accessible while also being very dense. It’s a paradox, but her writing seems to embody that very paradox. The writing style is a pure delight. It’s measured and very precise, but also very simple. Her execution, the clarity of this book is one of its greatest strengths. If it wasn’t clear, this book wouldn’t be successful. LeGuin deals with important and somewhat controversial subjects (depending on your personal way of thinking).
This novel is stupendous. An astonishing read from start to finish. I try to read LeGuin’s books slowly, both to really immerse myself in the story and to marvel at her economical prose which manages to accomplish so much with so little. I couldn’t do it with Tehanu. I devoured it in three sittings. My wife and I recently purchased new couches and I quickly established one of them as my new reading spot (a seat near the lamp, of course). Tehanu made sure I stayed put the first couple of nights after the new furniture came in.
I’m still having a difficult time processing how LeGuin continues to improve and one-up herself with each additional Earthsea novel. After reading and enjoying yet another book by LeGuin I have to remind myself that I have more of her work sitting on my bookshelves; books that remain unread. I have to fix that. Her books contain wisdom that is seldom found in other books, even when comparing to other great novels in the imaginative and thought provoking genres of science fiction and fantasy.
LeGuin will always be one of the masters in my mind. She’s easily earned her place among the pantheons of great writers. She adds humility, quick wit, and wisdom beyond words. It wouldn’t surprise me if in the Old Speech, in the language of creation, Ursula K. LeGuin’s name translates to writer of words, creator of worlds. Her ability to create such realistic characters, settings and situations in her books is nothing short of magical.