tehanu review

jan 18 2022

I found Tehanu to be fantastic. Sexism has always been deeply ingrained in Earthsea, and has gone mostly unchallenged because most books are told from the perspective of male characters. Even Tombs of Atuan, which has a female main character, is not really a story about misoguny and challenging the patriarchy— it's a story about abuse and childhood trauma that just happens to be experienced by a female character. The story is not about Tenar overcoming misogyny, but about Tenar escaping from her abusers and coming to terms with who she is and what she's done, while learning that she is not an unforgivable evil person. The story is about the impact genuine and unselfish platonic love can have on a person's life.

Tehanu is much more explicitly about women and is an outright feminist narrative. Tenar has been living as a regular middle aged housewife, and has experienced the tedious everyday sexism that every woman in Earthsea likely faces. Such a powerful moment is Tenar realizing she's raised her son to be dependent on the labor of women, and he's too old for her to teach him not be a misogynist anymore— she realizes she has made things worse for whoever marries her son, who will have to be both his wife and mother. The whole story is like this and doesn't shy away from realistic, casual misogyny. The wizards who come to bury Ogion, who is like a father to Tenar, don't believe that he would possibly trust a woman with his real name. The wizard at Re Albi believes he could just kill or ensorcel Tenar on the street and nobody would care. The casual and horrific abuse Tehanu goes through, and the dehumanizing way she's treated by everyone except Tenar and Ged is another stark reminder that even children aren't spared from misogyny and ableism.

I found online reviewers getting mad at this book for being "all about feminism" and "too sad" and "forcing the message." This shocked me. The book is about feminism, yes, but it's skillfully integrated. Like I said, sexism has always been a part of Earthsea, but now it's being challenged. Why are people okay with misogyny being present, but not it being challenged? Tenar is not a little boy like Ged or a little girl like she was in Tombs of Atuan. She is a middle aged woman who, over the course of the novel, grows and wants better for herself and her female friends and her daughter. The novel isn't sad, it's realistic. It presents a balance between showing the realistic ways disability will affect Tehanu and the ways sexism impacts women in Earthsea, while also being slightly positive and highlighting the small and quiet acts of female friendship and resistance. Tenar refuses to just give up on Tehanu even though she knows her life will be hard and people will be unkind to her. The story is about so much more than misogyny. It's also a wonderful study on the lifelong impact of trauma.

Tehanu has been through horrible abuse and slowly makes progress with the patient and loving support of Tenar. When her abuser shows up again for five minutes and just barely touches her, all that progress is erased for a while and she has a hard time speaking or showing emotion. This is incredibly realistic. Trauma recovery is not linear, and relapses can happen because of relatively "harmless" contact. When Tenar is threatened in her own home, she has a panic attack and can't think of how to properly defend herself, and is frustrated with herself later for not fighting back. Under traumatic circumstances, especially for a victim of childhood abuse like Tenar, it is very difficult to defeat the "freeze/flee" impulse. I found these complaints to be from people who had seemingly missed the entire point of the novel, and of the first three Earthsea books. The first three Earthsea books are dated in ways and are more classic "coming of age adventure novels" than Tehanu, Tales From Earthsea, and The Other Wind, but they're still much more than just meaningless quest stories. A Wizard of Earthsea is a coming of age story about accepting the dark parts of yourself and not letting them overwhelm or frighten you. Tombs of Atuan is about childhood trauma, abuse, neglect, and power. The Farthest Shore is about trust, love, strength, and heritage. People who were upset that Tehanu wasn't a fun romp about wizards took the first three novels entirely at face value, which does them a major disservice.

Overall, this was an excellent novel. Tenar is such a wonderful character and one that I personally love a lot and see myself in. I loved the themes and plot of this novel and think it's one of my favorites in the series.

Original trilogy ranking: Tombs > Wizard > Farthest Shore

Second trilogy ranking: Tehanu > Tales > Other Wind