Tehanu, the fourth entry in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle, is difficult and, much as it pains me to say this about anything Le Guin wrote, often unenjoyable. Trading in the adventure and excitement of its predecessors, Tehanu focuses not on large-scale, world-altering conflicts but instead on the small, mundane acts that shape a life over time. For all the wonder of Le Guin’s skillful prose, the story is sometimes boring. And, in a way, that’s the point.
In a world rife with wizards, Tehanu features very little magic. After three books spent tracking the triumphs of Ged, the greatest wizard of his time, Tehanu finds Earthsea’s erstwhile hero stripped of all his power and reduced to a type of commonality that is utterly foreign to both him and to readers of fantasy adventure stories. This abdication of power, in which gender roles play a sizable part, is meant to show the power and importance of everyday work. To manage a home, to feed and protect your children, these things, Le Guin seems to say, are meaningful and necessary, even if they don’t directly shake the foundations of the earth. They are long and slow, diametrically opposed to the quick brilliance of magic, and yet no less powerful in the end.
A father now, I understand some of Le Guin’s intent better than ever before. I am beginning to learn first hand the importance that small moments can have for a child, to see with adult comprehension the world through the eyes of a child to whom everything is new and wonderful and perilous. But these lessons are generational, not meant for the young or for the old who hope to escape their burdens in a make-believe world of dragons and magic. And Tehanu‘s plot, in which the story’s heroes are ultimately rescued by a dragon in dramatic fashion, somewhat undercuts the book’s thematic emphasis on the inherent power of everyday actions.
Through all that, the book remains valuable because of the unwavering mastery of Le Guin’s prose. But the awkward union of its themes, plot and setting do make me wonder if the points Le Guin was making with Tehanu might have been better served in a different fictional universe, one where she would have been less constrained by the histories that she had already written.