Friday, December 16, 2011

Book Review: Tehanu

Ursula K. Le Guin
1990
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

SPOILER ALERT

Tehanu is the last book in Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle, a series of books set in a rural middle-ages-y fantasy land filled with mages and dragons.

With all due respect to Ms. Le Guin, who has written some complex and groundbreaking books, the Earthsea series is really not my bag. And Tehanu is no exception.

For one thing, there is not much of a plot. The main character, Goha, was tutored as a girl by a powerful mage (i.e. wizard) but left that life as a young woman to marry a farmer and raise a family. At the time of the book, Goha is somewhere in middle age. She has adopted a girl, Therru, who was so unwanted by her parents that she was permanently disfigured in a fire that they set to kill her.

At the start of the book, Goha and Therru travel far overland to see Goha’s old tutor, Ogion, who is dying. After he dies, Goha and Therru stay on in his house and are beset alternately by ruffians vaguely related to Therru’s parents and by Aspen, an evil, Wormtongue-esque rival mage, who has it in for Goha for some reason.

They while away the time at Ogion’s house amidst all of this until one day a dragon comes, bearing the half-dead body of Ogion’s other pupil, Ged, who was once a super-powerful arcmage but who lost his power defending his master in a terrible battle. Goha nurses Ged back to health and then they all make their way back to Goha’s farm, where they are beset by the same ruffians they were beset by at Ogion’s house.

Then, when Goha’s estranged son comes to claim the farm, they all decide to go back to Ogion’s place, where they again immediately run afoul of Aspen, who puts a spell on Goha and Ged and is about to drive them off a cliff, when Therru saves the day by calling the dragon to come back and rescue them.

I spent the whole book thinking something was about to actually happen but nothing ever really did. They mainly just travel back and forth between Ogion’s and Goha’s houses, and are only occasionally, and only briefly, in danger.

Le Guin’s treatment of women in this book is also frustrating, given how good she can be at representing the misunderstood or the different.

In Tehanu, only men can be mages; women with magical powers can only be witches. Mages are involved with big-time projects and politics; witches concern themselves only with small-time magic like healing illnesses or finding lost objects. In the plot, the men are the active elements and the women are the ones who are passively acted upon; the men either put the women in danger or save them – up to and including the male dragon at the end.

Goha’s life has been split between her unusual magical life under Ogion’s tutelage and her more ordinary human life with her husband and children. She never really comes to grips with either one or reconciles the two. She seems drawn towards magic, but never really accepts the power it would give her, and tends to want to go running back to the farm.

And, finally, the dragons in Tehanu are just too dreamy for me. With the exception of the dragon in Shrek, I like my dragons to be mean and uncompromisingly tough, fought by knights with swords or by men and women with bows and arrows.

1 comment:

Chris Hartman said...

On dragons: I read somewhere recently that the current thinking is that the dragon is a conglomeration of the big cat, the raptor, and the snake. The idea is that these were the animals most feared by early story-telling humans, so that when it came time to devise an überbeast, they combined the three and came up with a scaly cat-bodied creature with wings and talons.

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