Tehanu: A Return to the Source

This chapter on Tehanu is from a doctoral dissertation by Sharada Bhanu. Entitled, “Not Two: An Indian Perspective on Western Fantasy Fiction for Children,“ and supervised by Dr. Susan Oommen, Reader and Head of the Dept. of English, Stella Maris College, this thesis was successfully submitted to Madras University, 2007.

Sharada Bhanu writes from an Advaitist position, and as this spiritual philosophy is not widely known in the United States, I asked her to provide a brief description of it, which she kindly did.



The Indian philosophical system known as Advaita is usually translated as nonduality. Advaita literally means “not two” and states that reality is one and this One (Brahman) is not different from Atman, the Self. Brahman has no name or form and nothing can be predicated about ‘it’ than that it is enduringly reality, consciousness and joy. All language is inaccurate in describing Brahman, and can do no more than gesture towards it. Thus, Brahman cannot be called ‘he’ or ‘she’ but neither is the term ‘it’ correct. The universe arises owing to a mysterious power that Brahman possesses, a creative illusion called maya. Advaita is not a dead philosophical system; it is a living mode of spiritual practice, which attempts to teach the sadhaka, or spiritual aspirant, the way to jnana, or wisdom. The goal of all spiritual aspiration is to recognize the identity of oneself with transcendent Brahman. This state is called ‘realisation’ or ‘moksha, ’ liberation from successive states of birth and death. However, since Brahman is the very self of the spiritual seeker, it cannot be said to be ‘attained.’ The unillumined individual, known as jiva, is subject to maya because of a wrong identification of oneself with the body. Under the guidance of a guru or wise teacher, the jiva discards this mistaken assumption and recognizes a oneness with Brahman, which constitutes moksha.

— Sharada Bhanu

Tehanu: A Return to the Source

Sharada Bhanu

Eighteen years after The Farthest Shore, Tehanu: The last Book of Earthsea appeared taking from the former its power to conclude and the finality of its ending. The subtitle of Tehanu in turn proved false when Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind appeared, each succeeding volume altering not merely adding to the whole. The three later works constitute a second trilogy, different in many ways from the first. Sexual experience, at least overtly absent from the first trilogy, finds place in the second; but this is not the primary reason by which a change of address is implied. Each of the first three featured an adolescent coming of age; the middle- aged protagonists of Tehanu and its one silent child observed till almost the end of the novel from the outside, constitute a change of focus and provide a different emotional tone. All the novels, individually and serially, present an evolution in understanding. The second trilogy enlarges, interrogates and deconstructs the first; a feature that not all readers have appreciated.

Tehanu is adapted to the older reader partly because the text has emerged from a growth in consciousness on the part of the author and a changed cultural ethos, in particular the feminist movement. ‘Weak as women’s magic; wicked as women’s magic’ goes a saying in Earthsea, the school of Roke admits no women. Women, particularly in Wizard and Shore are weak, wicked, marginalised, missing or dead. Tehanu redresses the balance by presenting a woman’s world, interests, magic and problems, through the perspective of Tenar the protagonist of Tombs now a middle aged widow. Women of various ages and professions are pictured, all portraits (including that of the witch Ivy who dislikes Tenar) are sympathetic. The men on the other hand seem weak and limited in vision even when well meaning, misogynistic, depraved and vicious when given up to positive evil as in the case of Handy who has raped and burnt his own daughter and Aspen the wizard, who sadistically tortures both Ged and Tenar.

Where the first three novels place at stake the peace and safety of the whole of Earthsea, Tenar’s problems in Tehanu are how to protect a Ged now powerless without his magic and a burnt, abused child Therru from the continued threat posed by her abusers. In Shore, in spite of the despair that pervades the novel, the plot supplies at different points all the varied arts that the School of Magic preserves and teaches. Ged works weather by supplying his boat with a magic wind whenever needed, he creates illusions, changes shape, reads the pattern of events in the past, present and future, knows the true names and above all heals by keeping open the door between life and death. Cob and Thorion summon and Arren and others chant the old songs.

In Tehanu Tenar makes one attempt to teach Therru the language of the Making and gives it up; it seems wrong. She teaches her more successfully how to spin, cook and a number of other domestic tasks. “Teach her all Ogion said, and what am I teaching her? Cooking and spinning?” Then another part of her mind said in Goha’s voice, “And are those not true arts, needful and noble? Is wisdom all words? (Tehanu 133)

Through much of the novel Tenar is nursing back to physical and emotional health Ged and Thenu, imparting a sense of self-worth to each, ensuring physical and emotional security and attempting to provide for both a future. All this demands tact, wisdom, courage, patience and unremitting work, day after day. This is the kind of magic women do that goes under the name of ‘caring for a family and domestic work.’ Lightning results are of course not possible and the work of weeks may show no overt results as with Ged, or be undone by the vicious intervention of men as with Therru, or only help someone die, as with Ogion. Even when there is nothing she can do “ there was always the next thing to be done.” (44)

Tenar attends to the endless succession of chores as well as her family and through it all enquires into her own identity, determined not only by her true name, Tenar, but also the ‘Arha’ of her past girlhood and ‘Goha,’ as wife to Flint. Tenar draws wisdom from all her roles and experience but refuses to be limited by any. She is not only all her roles, she accesses the wisdom of her friend Lark, her daughter Apple, the witch Moss, the old weaver Fan and Lebannen, who is in a sense the son she ought to have had. Tenar, Ged and Tenar for Thenu are all in quest of identity. For Tenar identity is constructed through recognising self in multiple contacts with the other. When Tenar does not see why “power, should be different for a man witch and a woman witch. Unless the power itself is different. Or the art;” Moss’s answer is Advaitic — the power, the substance is always the same, the receptacle is different. “A man gives out dearie. A woman takes in…our…power…goes down deep. It’s all roots.” (109-110)

Since the spiritual journey of birth begins inside the woman’s body, and women’s labour constantly nourishes, heals, supports body and spirit; and since it is so often women’s care that makes dying a little easier, women may be seen as symbolising the ever- present source. Doing justice to women is not just a matter of correcting an imbalance in the first trilogy, it is a conscious return to the origin which is always there but its importance is so overwhelming. so obvious that it passes unperceived. Tehanu rises from the awareness that when all power is gone, there is yet the source from which the power came. Ged has lost magic and with it has gone his position as Archmage, the whole world of Roke, the role he once dreamt of as advisor to the king he has shaped - Lebannen, everything, in short, that had given significance to his life. He can now no longer defend himself from the most negligible sorcerers; his powerlessness as several critics have pointed out, puts him at the level of women.

The celebration of women and women’s power in Tehanu is only one mode in which the text attempts an Advaitic journey — a return to Source. Such a hunger for the origin can never be dismissed as meaningless or impossible. The quest ends only when recognition arrives that one can never be alienated from the source. It is the Self and therefore not an object that can be gained or a space outside that can be reached. Till this moment arrives, a search for the source is always valid.

Ogion the wise mage of Wizard, perhaps the figure who best expresses the values of the first trilogy, dies on the exulting cry “All changed! Changed…” ( Tehanu 26-6). Yet the artistry of the Earthsea cycle is such that every change in the second trilogy can be seen as stemming from what is implicit in the first. The emphasis on the woman’s perspective, as seen in the preceding analysis, has led to Tehanu being generally perceived as a feminist work; a critique of male dominated perspectives in the genre of fantasy. Susan Mclean states of Le Guin in ‘The Power of Women in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Tehanu, “ In Tehanu she attempts to change the whole system by exposing the dark side of patriarchy…and by postulating an alternative women’s power…” (110). Yet Le Guin’s protagonist is Tenar from Tombs, older now, but not severed from the girl she was in the past. In a persuasive article ‘Unlearning Patriarchy: Ursula Le Guin’s feminist Consciousness in The Tombs of Atuan and Tehanu’ Holly Littlefield claims that the early novels, including the first trilogy, exhibit “the author’s early feminist leanings” (245) and in the Tenar of Tombs Le Guin created “a female character that ran counter to nearly every feminine role model that her genre had produced up until that time.”(249-50).

Tehanu interrogates the very basis of male magic by celebrating female skills which are imparted with few or no words; in keeping characters in long periods of silence, in rejecting book learning in the uselessness of Ogion’s books. However silence is movingly evoked as early as Wizard, through the figure of Ogion. The subtext of Shore, as indicated earlier, prepares the way for the liberation of the dead in The Other Wind. Le Guin may have a point when she claims “The second trilogy changes nothing in the first. It sees exactly the same world with different eyes. Almost, I would say, with two eyes, rather than one.” In her technique, as well as thematically, Le Guin returns to the source, and as she has stated in this interview. she expands and re-visions rather than invalidates, retracts or revokes her earlier writing.

Through another interesting device and in a movement fundamental to the process at work in the writing of the cycle, an understanding or development that occurs in the later novels is presented as belonging to a time earlier than that described in the first trilogy eg. gender justice in Roke is not merely the product of the later evolution of Earthsea’s society but shown to be a feature of its past in Tales from Earthsea. So if Earthsea is moving towards greater freedom for women in the last novel of the cycle, it will only mean a return to its own source. Similarly the Old Powers of the earth worshipped by the Kargs, seen as evil in Tombs, are re-visioned as originally, and in themselves, good in Tales. In the tale ‘The Finder’ set three hundred years before the events of Wizard it is stated that at the time of the founding of Roke “men and women, had no fear of the Old Powers of the earth, but revered them, seeking strength and vision from them. That changed with the years.”(70) So the cycle presents the discovery in the later trilogy of the sacredness of the earth as a return to the values of the early years of Earthsea’s history.

Le Guin’s Foreword to Tales reveals the author’s nondualistic vision. Distinctions between the alternate world of Earthsea and the world of the author and the reader, fictional time and real time, the writing of history and the writing of story, author and reader, all collapse. Jean Paul Sartre in ‘What is Literature’ states that an author can never perceive his (sic) own work as a reader would. ‘When the words form under his pen, the author doubtless sees them, but he does not see them as the reader does, since he knows them before writing them down…The writer neither foresees nor conjectures; he projects …Thus the writer meets everywhere only his (sic) knowledge, his will, his plans, in short, himself.”(1338). Either Sartre took too simplified a view of writing, or women create differently, or Le Guin functions as author in a manner that Sartre cannot account for. In her foreword Le Guin refuses to separate the world of Earthsea from “the so-called real world” and explains that she could not go on with Tehanu because the story had arrived at precisely the point of time at which the author was situated. “I didn’t know what would happen next. I could guess, foretell, fear, hope, but I didn’t know.” She sees Earthsea as not just coexisting in the author’s time but as a place existing outside and independent of her knowledge, will or plans, to use Sartre’s terms. She confesses “A good deal about Earthsea, about wizards, about Roke island had begun to puzzle me.” In order to clarify both the gaps in her knowledge of Earthsea as well as to understand the present of Earthsea, which is not separate from the time in which she lives, she had to research into the “Archives of the Archipelago.” The manner one researches into “nonexistent history is to tell the story and find out what happened. I believe this isn’t very different from what historians of the so-called real world do.”

The alternate world of Le Guin’s fiction has as much weight and solidity for the author as any real world; its future as well as its past is unknown, mysterious and it unfolds in the very act of telling/experiencing it, as that of the ‘ real’ world does. With such a nondual approach it is not surprising that distinctions between author and reader break down. Le Guin acknowledges that both author and readers have changed in the three decades over which the Earthsea cycle has been making its appearance. It is inevitable that a return to Earthsea should result in a discovery that this world is both familiar and changing. “…people aren’t who - or what - I thought they were, and I lose my way on islands that I thought I knew by heart.” (xv). The author approaches the world as a reader would, and her researches, extensions, and further explorations are consistently in the direction of a more rigorous nonduality.

Another element of continuity and change is in the figure of the dragon, which for Le Guin, symbolizes magic and the genre of fantasy itself. Robin McKinley comments in a review ‘The Woman Wizard’s Triumph’ that the rich humanity of Tehanu works within the genre of fantasy, “for here there be dragons, and Ms. Le Guin’s dragons are some of the best in literature.”(38) They are also consistently present with important roles in all the novels of the cycle except Tombs. As reptiles in terms of this world and as the first created beings in the world of Earthsea, they are creatures close to the source and threatening enough to symbolize the end. Impossible to classify as good or evil, both beast and supra-human, imbued with connotations from both Western and Chinese myth, they are seen as wild and dangerous, but also winged creatures of the higher elements - air and fire, the only beings of Earthsea who use the original Language of the Making for the purposes of ordinary communication. The first trilogy holds them in awe and at a distance. Ged chases away the dragon Yevaud from the isle of Pendor. In Shore they are found spatially on the edge of the world, at Selidor; and only the extremity of Earthsea’s predicament makes them belated allies, at the very end of the novel. As Meredith Tax puts it in her review ‘Fantasy Island’ Tehanu is “about the common heritage and the uncertain borderline between humans and dragons.”(75) For the first time we learn that people and dragons were once one species and there still exist those who are both dragon and human. Iterative images of fire, associated with the dragon, are linked with not only Tehanu who turns out to be dragon- born, but also Tenar. The dragon Kalessin appears at the beginning and end of Tehanu but the interrogated borderline forces the reader to understand that dragons are no longer far away in space and time but present as people and present (as in Tenar’s courage, laughter and anger) as inspiration and a latent potential within people.

In erasing the difference between dragons and people, nature is discovered to be magic and the seemingly realistic novel may also have the wonder of fantasy. Therru/Tehanu the eponymous child protagonist, burnt by her own father, has lost one eye and one hand is a claw. She is a special-needs child, scarred, physically and emotionally sub-normal. But such children can sometimes show abilities that are vastly beyond the capacity of ordinary children. She is seen differently by those who encounter her and often the assessments reveal more about the perceivers than the child. She is perceived as a talent that needs education by the wise Ogion, with revulsion by Tenar’s son Spark who decides she has deserved her misfortune, with fear by the witch Ivy who can sense her power, compassion by Ged, Tenar, Lark, Moss and Beech, hatred by the misogynistic Aspen. That Therru’s unseeing eye looks into an alternate reality, that her silent voice can speak in the language of the source cannot be guessed even by those who are most hopeful on her behalf. According to McLean, “she can integrate wisdom and power, reason and feeling action and caring …because she is part dragon… a symbol of nature, of wildness and freedom and anger” (113). At the conclusion of Tehanu when Therru walks carefully to the edge of the cliff and summons the dragon Kalessin to the rescue, at the level of realism the act is, for a disabled child, a triumph of physical co-ordination, memory, speech, rational analysis and conquest of fear. At the level of fantasy, the child accesses the latent potential of her origin to bring a dragon and defeat evil. The wonder lies in neither one nor the other perspective, but somehow in a combination of both. It is, in the final analysis, impossible to say whether Therru’s victory at the end of the novel springs from her mysterious birth, her being a child and female and therefore closer to the source, the abuse that has left her handicapped but ‘special’ or the love, training and support she has received from principally, Tenar. Magic has merged with the source, culture and nature are one.

As pointed out earlier the novel’s theme is profoundly Advaitic — it is an enquiry into what constitutes the self. Tenar has the task of finding herself as well as helping both Ged and Therru reach a positive sense of self. Where the first trilogy provided stories in which protagonists came of age, in Tehanu they access inner resources when more superficial powers, abilities, family, profession, name, language and flesh itself drop away. If hole and sea are the governing images of Shore. root, bone and fire are the central images of Tehanu. Therru, so badly burnt that the bone has been laid bare on her cheek, plays silently with two figures of bone, one might be an animal, the other represents a human figure of indeterminable sex. The text reveals a process of stripping of inessentials to arrive at a core. Ged has surrendered magic and power, Tenar had earlier refused magic and the language of the making; now she surrenders son, farm, possessions, reputation; and is stripped of part of her memory, speech and free will by Aspen. She and Ged nearly lose their lives but are saved by the child that they have cherished and risked their lives to protect. At the point of greatest danger they literally do nothing; they can neither think nor act; but a process, a power seems to work in their favour, protecting them. Therru is not a normal child but as the only child in the text, she represents in some sense, childhood. The child functions as the source that protects because it is children who have ready access to the dragon that symbolizes the privileged world of fantasy and its truth-telling. Le Guin has remarked:

“The strength of fantasy is the strength of the Self… In the creation and preservation of fantasy worlds, the role of the child seems central. Jesus…remarked that access to it was limited to those willing to become little children. The kingdom of God is within you; the burning ground where the goddess dances is the heart.” (‘Do-It-Yourself Cosmology’)

Numerous images of fire permeate the novel; the fire in which Therru is burnt, the sparks that fly from the hair of Tenar, the inner fire of the dragon and the child born of the dragon, the fire of the hearth by which food and warmth are generated, and the fire in which the dragon returns to annihilate evil at the end. Fire symbolizes the anger with which Tenar faces the worst marks of patriarchy, as well as the primeval fire of the star Tehanu, the Arrow in the sky. It is both the fire that fosters life and the stripping of inessentials, the via negativa, the method by which the seeker reaches the self, the method the Upanisads call neti, neti usually translated as ‘not this, not this.’ In the Katha Upanisad the boy seeker Nachiketas is taught by the god of death that “That fire which is the means of attaining the infinite worlds, and is also their foundation, is hidden in the sacred place of the heart.”(56) This is the fire of creation and the fire of the sacrificial altar and the fire of Brahman, pure spirit. “The whole universe comes from him and his life burns through the whole universe.” (65)

The novel celebrates not the special relationships of master/disciple, the self/shadow, protagonist/antagonist that the first trilogy examined. Instead we have the bond between spouses and the love that knits a family together, brought into focus. Tehanu does not sentimentalise. As Goha, the wife of Flint, Tenar could achieve so much and no more; her son Spark is selfish, possessive and sullen. Yet Ged, Tenar and Therru represent the achievement of a family at the end of the novel. These structures are what permit other relationships to evolve. Tehanu celebrates the ordinary world of Earthsea and its small concerns. It is this world that permits wizardry to rise, the norm against which magic makes a difference.

Ged regrets for a while his lost power, after the encounter with Handy and his associates is over, dealing with a set of ruffians would have presented no problems at all had he still been a mage: “They’d never have known what hit them.” (203). But as Tenar points out, they have no clue now either; he was once a mage with a staff but he is respected now among the farm workers as a man who is “useful with a pitchfork”(203). He has lost magic to recover manhood. In Tehanu Ged actually goes through another coming of age that does not involve becoming a wizard but the completely traditional “St(icking) another man full of holes, first, and l(ying) with a woman, second.” (212). However this too is not the full truth; Tenar adds “It’s not a weapon or a woman, can make a man, or magery either, or any power, anything but himself.”(212). This is a novel that resolutely affirms the Advaitic theme of a search within, in order to arrive at the Self as true source.

As pointed out in the discussion of Wizard silence in the Earthsea cycle functions not as the mere opposite of speech but as the source from which speech takes its origin and the background against which speech must be heard in order to exist. Advaita teaches that the self can be reached not through speech or learning but only through silence. Tehanu, more than any other text in the cycle, honours silence. Therru, for the most part, lives in a silence occasionally punctuated by monosyllables; unable even to communicate to Tenar her own name. Ged, recovering from exhaustion, again physical, emotional and spiritual, spends much of his time in silence. He has been emptied of the words of power. A moving scene shows him trying vainly to call hawks; an ability which as a child got him his own usename, Sparrowhawk. In a sense the connection between him and his own name is gone. In Wizard everything depends on correct naming, Ged’s final triumph lies in the naming of the shadow. Here Tenar is frequently querying the use of and need for magic and words of power(as in the decisions she makes about Ogion’s books). Aspen’s curse deprives her for a time of both speech and thought. Silence may be deprivation of language, loss, the result even of abuse. However it is silence that enables Ged to heal, silence that seems more valuable than spells, in silence that the seed is planted and the skills of women are taught and it is within silence that Therru’s call to Kalessin has such tremendous effect.

In Wizard the idea that the shadow may have no name reduces Ged to despair; control is possible only through knowledge of the name. In Tombs the evidence that Tenar serves evil is simply in the powers being called The Nameless Ones. Shore combats the possibility of name and form vanishing. In Tehanu while the naming of Therru as Tehanu is significant, it is seen as what she has always been, Therru means fire, while Tehanu is the name of a star. Through the rest of the novel names drop away, recede and with it the idea of magic as something done by men through a special language that is acquired.

In Tehanu, the cycle has progressively moved towards increasing nonduality in that the source, as represented by women, dragons, by the child, the sacred earth and by silence, is no longer seen with fear. It is a space from which both life and death, good and evil arise but which itself transcends both, an emptiness, a freedom. In Shore the sea as it poured through a cave near Selidor the farthest isle of all makes a noise that Arren identified as ahm the sound that is the beginning and which Ged hears as ohb the sound that signifies the end (151). The source from which the beginning and end come is seen as something to be kept at bay, a door to be held shut, old powers that are evil and threaten to collapse the dungeons of Tombs which Ged is holding up with all his magic at his command. In Tehanu it is a place to which one can return, when power which arose from it has again receded into it. All such returns however are to recognize that one has never left it as it is inalienable, being no other than one’s own self.

Magic is by definition a transgression of the laws of nature. To do magic it has to be perceived as different from nature. Now that magic has gone, the text invites the reader to a recognition that nature, as a source of magic, is itself wonderful. In Shore Ged closes the mysterious breach in the boundary between life and death, with all his wizardly power and the rune Agnen, the rune of ending. In Tehanu when Handy and his associates attempt to break into Tenar’s farmhouse and find the broad unshuttered kitchen window Tenar defeats them by opening the front door, a butcher’s knife in her hand. In Wizard Ged’s transgression begins with a forbidden peep into Ogion’s books. In Tehanu Ogion’s books lie unheeded; they are of no use to Ged. Tenar has refused magic long ago and at the end of the novel, realises she has left the books behind in her house. It does not seem to matter. Therru, who is perhaps the future Archmage, wishes to plant a peach.

The novel closes on the simple tasks that need to be done to keep life going. Planting a vegetable garden is more important than learning spells. Yet the critics who see Tehanu as a realistic novel are surely incorrect. The novel sees the so-called real world as magic. The wizard’s staff has become just the thick wooden stick that Tenar cuts to help her walk the long distance from her farm to Ogrion’s cottage. The magic staff has merged into its source. But the secret springs of life that make the peach tree bear fruit are also magic.


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