The Earthsea cycle reread: The Farthest Shore and Tehanu

Opinion is divided on the later Earthsea books, those written after the first trilogy (in order of publication they are: Tehanu [novel], Tales from Earthsea [short stories], and The Other Wind [novel]). Some readers love them; others hate them; and others are simply bewildered by them.

It’s true that they are, in some ways, very different from the original trilogy. For one, the later Earthsea books reflect Le Guin’s encounters with second- and third-wave feminism. Those encounters utterly reshaped how she saw the series. Their effect is most obvious in Tehanu, whose efforts to carve a place for women in a previously-patriarchal world read as clunky—speeches about “women’s magic” vs. “men’s magic” and so on—until you recognize the magnitude of the task Le Guin had set herself. She was not satisfied with merely retconning Earthsea to fit her new, more progressive ideals (I’m looking at you, J.K. Rowling). Instead, Le Guin forced her whole universe to grapple with the implications of what she’d learned. That universe changed as a result. But like our own, it did so slowly, reluctantly, with a lot of missteps and griping. Ged, for all his wisdom, spends most of Tehanu sulking because losing his magic has forced him to see power in places he would have never acknowledged it before, from the joyful power of reliance on loved ones to the terrifying power of systemic sexual violence. Similarly, Earthsea’s slow turn away from patriarchy begins with a reductive, essentialist celebration of “women’s magic” (Tehanu) before dropping the gender-coding for a far more interesting new ontology—one that involves dragons, of course (The Other Wind).  

This isn’t a post about Earthsea and gender, though. (I want to save those reflections for when I’ve finished The Other Wind, and right now I’m only halfway through Tales from Earthsea). Instead, I’m here to make the case that Tehanu actually fits better into the original trilogy than its final volume, The Farthest Shore. 

In my post on The Tombs of Atuan, I’d argued that Earthsea is not high fantasy. I still endorse that view, in the sense that Earthsea does not focus on noble characters. However, The Farthest Shore does take on a high fantasy trope that Wizard and Atuan do not. In Shore, for the first time, the story’s stakes are universal, not personal.

Wizard and Atuan were bildungsromane whose journeys had no urgency for Earthsea generally. Ged’s quest to fix his stupid teenage mistake, as Le Guin tells us, does not even make it into the songs about him; Tenar does not know enough to care about the significance of recovering Erreth-Akbe’s ring, so Le Guin’s readers need not care, either. But Shore begins by informing us that magic is draining out of the world. While the novel’s narrative throughline is still the growth of its POV character, the young prince Arren, we know from the outset that the stakes are much higher. Shore is the first Earthsea book to use an intimate character journey as the lens for a world-changing quest. Le Guin manages it, but clumsily.

Don’t get me wrong: I love The Farthest Shore (I’ve even written about how it mashes up two of my favorite poets). But it’s a book groping for narrative balance. Le Guin has not yet gotten the knack of telling an epic fantasy story through small character moments. That struggle is evident in the novel’s length—it’s the longest of the original trilogy—and its talkiness. Shore proceeds by a series of set pieces whose primary purpose seems to be giving Ged a chance to explain why his enemy’s desire to live forever threatens Earthsea’s magic (it’s also the first Earthsea book that celebrates benevolent monarchy as a panacea, and you can feel Le Guin’s discomfort with this trope, too*). The novel is full of speeches, and though they’re all lovely, by its conclusion they start to drag.

Tehanu does not have this problem. Yet its stakes are even higher than Shore’s. Where Shore is a story about restoring a universal status quo, Tehanu is a story about upending one. Tehanu sets up revolutions the two final Earthsea books will consummate: people and dragons were once one species, but mages created Earthsea’s afterlife, the desolate “dry land”, to separate them; the only way forward is to destroy these artificial boundaries. At the same time, Tehanu is still an intimate character study. In it, Tenar, now a widow living on Gont, nurtures her adopted daughter Therru, who was raped and burned as a child, as she comes into her power as a dragon. The novel’s plot-points are all individual: Tenar and Therru visit the mage Ogion to help him die; learn to live in a new town; and fight off bandits who invade their farm. The book’s wider stakes are always apparent, however, drifting through the action on the words of an old song, or Tenar’s memories of the dragon Kalessin, or the heat of Therru’s burned skin. And unlike in Shore, those stakes never stagnate into speechifying. Le Guin’s writing is clearer, more confident, her character work more exacting. In Tehanu, Le Guin has mastered the art of telling a big story through a small lens.

It helps that Tehanu is the first Earthsea novel to seriously attempt systemic critique. Therru’s rape and burning is a consequence of patriarchal violence; Ged’s moping, a consequence of his shame at flubbing a rigid gender binary. Systemic critique requires the ability to see how intimate griefs stem from society-wide problems. Fantasy has improved as a genre, I think, as more writers have incorporated such critiques into their worldbuilding. Doing so is not just ethical. It actually creates better stories, since it offers a visceral blueprint for how epic stakes can drive individual character development.

To return to my point: Tehanu fits better into the original Earthsea trilogy than The Farthest Shore because Tehanu, unlike Shore, strikes a confident balance between the intimate story told by Wizard and Atuan and a fantasy with world-altering stakes. Shore aims for this balance, but falls short. The novel feels as if Le Guin is trying to go big while still going home. Wizard and Atuan, for all their seafaring, are books that remain comfortably at home. The brilliance of Tehanu, and what makes it a clearer heir of the first two books, is that it too stays firmly at home—but shows us why home is the place where wider change begins.

  

*Shore struggles to maintain its faith in the fantasy trope of a king whose consolidated rule will solve everything. Even as Ged makes this claim repeatedly, you can feel that his writer does not believe it. Le Guin wrote The Dispossessed two years later, and I wonder to what extent its strong case for anarcho-socialism reflected her frustrations with what she saw as a limitation of fantasy as a genre. Her later fantasy novels drop this monarchical paradigm, because like all mature writers, she realized that generic limitations are in fact only authorial limitations. Fiction is the power to write what you damn well please, no matter what your genre tells you.