Tuesday, February 28, 2017


Over a 37-year period, Ursula Le Guin used her Earthsea series to state and refine her concepts of the nature of being and doing, living and dying, mostly through the embodied voice of her character Tenar. As a child, Tenar is stolen from the Kargad Lands, a bit more primitive than the evolving islands of Earthsea. Tenar is dedicated as high prietess on the Island of Atuan, where she is made complicit in the service of the “nameless ones,” ordering people to die by starvation.

When Ged, an archmage, comes looking for the other half of the ring of Erreth-Akbe, he wins Tenar by his kindness. Tenar spares him, bringing him food and water. They escape from the Tombs where she has hidden him and Tenar renounces her role as priestess. Ged takes her to the island of Gont, to live with Ogion, one of Ged’s teachers. Though she is a woman, Ogion offers to teach her magic, but Tenar refuses. She wants a man, children, an ordinary life. She marries Flint, who owns Oak Farm, and they have two children.

When Flint dies, Tenar is left with the farm. She takes in a child who has been abused and burned by her family. Ogion sends for her when he is near death and she brings the disfigured child with her to the edge of the sea, the Overfell where Ogion lives. Ogion sees something in the child, and sees a change that is coming, but he is not able to state things clearly.

Tenar stays on and one morning the dragon Kalessin brings Ged to her, half-dead. He has lost his powers in closing up the breach between the worlds of the living and the dead. Tenar nurses him back to life. When the soon-to-be king of Earthsea comes looking for him, Ged cannot face the fact that he is no longer a powerful archmage. Tenar sends him to Oak Farm where he becomes a goatherd, the job he did as a child. She tries to remember what it was like to have been powerful and then to lose that, throw it away, become only Tenar, only herself. “A woman got used to shame,” she thinks.

Tenar is caught between Aspen, an evil magician who is able to cast a spell upon her, and the family of the child who maimed her. They escape on the Dolphin, the ship of the king of Earthsea. He agrees not to demand Ged’s presence until Ged is ready, and takes Tenar and the child back to Oak Farm. But the child’s family finds them, Ged injures one of them and they are brought to justice. Tenar suspects that the change Ogion predicted is that magic will become less important once there is a king in Earthsea, who establishes the rule of law.

Tenar takes Ged as a partner, in her bed and in her farm. Together they teach the burned child and talk, especially in the winter when the harvest has been good and there is not much to do but stay warm. In the spring, Tenar’s son, the owner of the farm, returns. Tenar does not like how Spark treats her and she and Ged plan to leave, to go back to Ogion’s cottage. They are intercepted by Aspen, the evil magician, however, and the burned child must call the dragon Kalissen to rescue them, revealing her own dragon nature, and her real name, Tehanu.

Ursula Le Guin thought the series finished when she described how Tenar and Ged became ordinary people in Tehanu [1990], the fourth book of the series. In 2001, however, she published The Other Wind. Here Tenar is called upon to counsel the king of Earthsea, as there is a dispute between dragons and men, as well as some threat from the people of the Kargad lands. We see Tenar’s importance as an older woman to the young people who need courage to take up their roles in life: A Kargish princess is terrified when she is brought to become queen. Tehanu is shy and dependent, but it is she who is able to speak to the dragons. In the end, men and dragons meet to restore the balance of the world, Tehanu takes her true form and Tenar is able to return at last to live a quiet life with Ged on the island of Gont.

In spite of the fact that she consorts with dragons and kings, gardens, meals, goats, sewing, hearthfires and stories in winter, and occasionally a very good wine make up Tenar’s life. They restore and maintain Earthsea’s equilibrium as well. When she wants to go back to Ogion’s cottage Tenar thinks: “They would have to replant Ogion’s garden right away if they wanted any vegetables of their own this summer. She thought of the rows of beans and the scent of the bean flowers. She thought of the small window that looked west.”

It is this down-to-earth and intimate description which made me love Tenar. Le Guin recently said here: “I’ve always been grateful for having a family and doing housework, and the stupid ordinary stuff that has to be done that you cannot let go.” Le Guin doesn’t hesitate to take up questions such as the value of death and rebirth as opposed to immortality, and trust as the basis for relations between men and women. Nevertheless, juxtaposing domesticity with magic and adventure; and finding common ordinary life more valuable is no mean feat!