And Then I Read: TEHANU by Ursula K. Le Guin

From “The Books of Earthsea” with color paintings and black and white
illustrations by Charles Vess.

Continuing my reading of the complete Earthsea in one new hardcover edition, the fourth novel was published in 1990, eighteen years after the third one, “The Farthest Shore,” but in the story it follows almost immediately after that book. The viewpoint character is Tenar, as in book two, “The Tombs of Atuan,” now a much older woman living on a farm on the island of Gont. She had been brought here by Ged after they escaped the Tombs and returned with the Ring of Peace to Havnor. For a while she lived with Ged’s old master, the wizard Ogion, but as she grew to womanhood she decided she wanted a more normal life. She moved down from Ogion’s cliff house to Middle Valley, where she met and married a farmer, Flint. He has died, but she continues to manage the farm with help from a few farm workers. As the story begins, Tenar is brought to see a terrible thing, a young girl who has been thrown into a campfire. One side of her face and one arm are badly burned, but somehow she’s alive. Tenar takes her in and nurses her back to health, but the girl, Tehanu as she comes to be named later, is as emotionally scarred as she is physically, and the occasional presence of her torturers, a group of two men and a woman (her mother) living rough in the woods, keeps Tehanu terrified. To escape this, Tenar and Tehanu flee to Ogion’s house and take up residence there, but soon another threat surfaces nearby, a wizard who works for the local landowner who seems to wish both of them harm.

While at Ogion’s house, the dragon Kalessin arrives with the barely alive Ged, back from his harrowing journey through the land of death, as seen in “The Farthest Shore.” Tenar and Tehanu gradually nurse him back to health, but he has lost all his magic. When the new king of Earthsea, Ged’s companion in the land of the dead, sends some of his men to find the former Archmage Ged, he flees into the mountains, unwilling to be found. To escape the malice of the local wizard, Tenar and Tehanu return to the farm in Middle Valley, but more trouble finds them there. Will Tehanu’s growing power and courage be enough to protect them?

This book is very different from the first three. It’s written for Le Guin’s adult audience, not necessarily just for young adults, and includes difficult issues like rape and torture, as well as mistreatment of women as a theme. At times we feel the powerlessness and terror of the main characters. Like the first three books, the writing is superb, and perhaps the maturity of the author gives it more depth. There is magic here, and dragons in unexpected places, but much of the story focuses on the characters and their struggles in a difficult time. Highly recommended.

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