- Reinventing the Past:Gender in Ursula K. Le Guin's Tehanu and the Earthsea "Trilogy"
The publication of an unexpected sequel to a novel or series of novels, always disconcerting, is especially so when it occurs some years after the appearance of the original. What seemed complete for so long turns out not to be, and, inevitably, the events of the new story change the meaning of what went before.1
So it is with Ursula K. Le Guin's novels about Earthsea. For almost two decades after The Farthest Shore appeared in 1972, they were widely known as the Earthsea Trilogy. Then, in 1990, Le Guin published Tehanu—a fourth member for the former trilogy, teasingly subtitled "The Last Book of Earthsea." In continuing her story past the now only apparently concluding events of The Farthest Shore, Le Guin clearly signaled that she had new thoughts about her old conclusions, and that she wanted readers to reconsider their understanding of what they had read earlier.
In "From Master to Brother," Len Hatfield describes how a perceptive reader can read the former trilogy in terms of its new addition. He argues that the difference between The Farthest Shore and Tehanu mirrors Le Guin's espousal, in articles and speeches, of the feminist analysis of patriarchal assumptions that emerged in the years between the appearance of the two novels, and "marks a similar movement from a representation of patriarchal structures of authority to a critique and displacement of them by means of a 'mother tongue,' a phrase Le Guin has usefully borrowed and developed from feminist theory" (43).
Hatfield does not see this movement as representing the abandonment or even the revision of old ideas; for him, Tehanu merely acknowledges openly what was hidden in the earlier books: "Implicit subversions of patriarchy become explicit" (61). Hatfield appears to have done exactly what I assume Le Guin wished: he has [End Page 179] reinterpreted the old story in the light of its new ending—and done it persuasively.
Nevertheless, my first response, both to the existence of Tehanu and to Hatfield's reading of it, was deep suspicion. I found myself unable to forget the almost 20 years in which there was no explicit subversion of patriarchy in the Earthsea books. I found myself wondering if, before Tehanu, it would have been possible to notice—or, having noticed, to see as important enough to concentrate on—the implicit subversion the later explicit statement now makes so obvious. Is Le Guin engaged in reinventing the history of her own attitudes? Is Hatfield helping her to blot out the past?
But then I remembered the unsettling transformations that had occurred in my understanding of the Earthsea books long before Tehanu existed, as I first read them some years ago. Just as Tehanu influenced Hatfield's understanding of the former trilogy, my own reading of the second book, The Tombs of Atuan, had significantly changed my original understanding of the first book, The Wizard of Earthsea. It had been clear to me then that Le Guin had wanted me to experience this transformation, to understand Wizard first one way and then the other: she had taken advantage of the fact that new events change the meanings of old ones in a particularly pointed and clever way. Furthermore, the way Tombs of Atuan changed my reading of Wizard of Earthsea related specifically to questions of gender—just as Hatfield suggests the move from Farthest Shore to Tehanu does.
Apparently, then, Tehanu is not so much an attack on history as a continuation of it. It merely repeats what was always true of the Earthsea books: although each book always could—indeed must, for new readers—be read and understood without knowledge of its sequels, the new information provided by the sequels always forced readers into a revised understanding of what went before.
Nevertheless, I still feel a little unease about what Le Guin tries to do in Tehanu, and the way in which Hatfield has responded to it. Eighteen years is a long time between books; and in the history of North American ideas about gender, they were busy years. If we allow...