A Woman’s Worth: Ursula K. LeGuin – Tehanu

My very first Series Crackdown readathon is going quite well. I’m happy the prompts forced me to continue my Earthsea readthrough and I finally got to this highly acclaimed volume in Ursula K. LeGuin’s classic book series. I can see why opinions vary about this book but, for me, it was a stunning work of fiction that will leave me thinking for a long, long time.

TEHANU
by Ursula K. LeGuin

Published: Gollancz, 1990
eBook: 320 pages
Series: The Earthsea Cycle #4
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: After Farmer Flint of the Middle Valley died, his widow stayed on at the farmhouse.

In this fourth novel in the Earthsea series, we rejoin the young priestess Tenar and powerful wizard Ged. Years before, they had helped each other at a time of darkness and danger. Together, they shared an adventure like no other. Tenar has since embraced the simple pleasures of an ordinary life, while Ged mourns the powers lost to him through no choice of his own.
Now the two must join forces again and help another in need – the physically, emotionally scarred child whose own destiny has yet to be revealed…

This is going to be a tough book to review, not only because there are so many layers to it but also because it opens with something terrible. Tenar, who we met in The Tombs of Atuan, has chosen the simple life of a sheep farmer’s wife for herself rather than pursuing grand magical ambitions. She now lives as the widow Goha on Gont, with her two children grown, and her late husband’s farm to take care of. In the prologue, she is called to help a child who has been hurt… I say hurt, but what really happened is beyond horrible. A young girl is found lying half in the flames of a campfire. She has been beaten and raped and thrown into the fire to die. But Tenar and her friend Lark manage to save the girl.

Cut to a year later. Tenar has adopted the young girl Therru, who is scarred both phyiscally and emotionally. I found the way LeGuin described Therru incredibly believable – a quiet child with massive trust-issues who rarely speaks, hides the burned side of her face and won’t let men touch her. It’s difficult for me to talk about this because I have no experience (thank goodness!) with sexual assault or assault survivors. I don’t personally know anyone who has lived through something like that, so the only thing I can draw from is my imagination. I can use empathy to understand Therru but I also know I’ll never really understand Therru. All that said, from my very flawed perspective, I found her to be an amazing character even though – or maybe because – she speaks so little. Tenar’s love for her is visible on every page, in little gestures, in how she tells Therru stories, in how she cares for her. It both made me want to cry and warmed my heart.

But the plot isn’t just about Tenar trying to give Therru a fulfilled life. She is soon called to Re Albi where Ogion (remember him?) is dying. And of course this wouldn’t be an Earthsea book if Ged didn’t show up eventually, too. With him, we get another character who has lost something, who deals with depression and has to find a way to live without his powers. As much as I liked seeing Ged come to terms with this new life of his, this is really Tenar and Therru’s story and it was for them that I kept turning the pages. The moments when Therru’s assaulters are confronted had me hold my breath, not only because – like Tenar – I wanted to protect the girl from ever having to face them again but also because their showing up makes the horror of that night all the more real.

Another thread that runs through this book is the mystery of who or what Therru is. The village witch is afraid of her, not because of her scarred face and hand, but because of something else. It wasn’t super hard to guess what Therru is, at least somewhat, but that didn’t diminis the reading pleasure for me. And that plot thread manages to do something truly amazing by the end, which I can’t tell you because that would spoil things. Again, you’ll probably guess most of it before it happens but that didnt’ make it any less satisfying for me.

The most important part of this book – and the one that apparently got LeGuin a bunch of negative feedback when she first published it – is the question of a woman’s role and value. Over and over again, Tenar is looked down upon because  of her gender. What few rights she has were given to her by men and can be taken away by them too. When the wizards of Roke are looking for a new Archmage and someone suggests looking for “a woman on Gont” on this search, that idea is met with utter ridicule. Because of course women couldn’t possible master magic the way men can. Even Ged is guilty of large dose of sexism, despite his great respect for Tenar as a person. Again, LeGuin’s writing gets to shine in these moments because even though some characters are just plain despicable, the majority of them come in shades of grey. They are all a product of their time and upbringing and that usually means they think little of women and foreigners – both of which are combined in Tenar. Whether it’s comments on a widow not being worth looking at anymore (because if she’s not a virgin, who could possible want her?) or Tenar’s rightful anger at being dismissed at every turn, I shared that anger and I felt her helplessness.

Just like with the other Earthsea books, it’s more what’s between the lines than the actual plot that intrigued me. I don’t know that I would call this an enjoyable read because it deals with such difficult themes and puts its characters through horrible things, but the way these books make me think and stay in my mind after reading is definitely special. I’m almost sad I only have a little bit of Earthsea left, but I also need to wait a while until I pick up the next one. These books may be on the shorter side but they pack a punch. Ursula K. LeGuin was a brilliant writer and I’m glad she decided to share her stories with the world. What a treasure!

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

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