Sunday, September 14, 2008

'Tehanu' and defining ourselves as we grow older

I just finished reading Ursula LeGuin's "Tehanu" tonight, the fourth book in her "Earthsea" series.

Previous books in the series have followed Ged, a wizard from a cluster of islands similar to Polynesia, where magic derives its power from learning the true names of things. The books rely on Jungian archetypes, and it's significant that naming a thing indicates authority over it and effectively neutralizes the power it has.

In "A Wizard of Earthsea," Ged comes not only into his power but into his weakness when he discovers the name of his greatest foe. In "The Tombs of Atuan," naming allows him to free a young woman whose identity has been consumed by a malicious cult. In "The Farthest Shore," it also helps him to repair tremendous damage done to the natural world by a man who sought to best death and make himself immortal.

"Tehanu" has a markedly different writing style from the earlier Earthsea novels, which undoubtedly reflects LeGuin's growth as a writer and the life she has lived since she wrote the original trilogy. While the earlier books showed us a hero who was balanced and in tune with himself, "Tehanu" shows us that balance lost.

This book deals with how identity -- our very selves, what might be the truest name for ourselves -- changes as we age, and yet remains tethered to who we were as children, quite apart from all the things we thought provided our identity in our adulthood.

"Tehanu" isn't about Ged, or at least, not primarily. He's a supporting character in this book, which centers on Tenar, also called Arya, whom Ged rescued from the cult in "The Tombs of Atuan."

In Ged's case, his sense of self is in jeopardy because he lost his wizarding abilities after the events of "The Farthest Shore," and he's been a potent wizard since he was an adolescent. For Tenar, the loss is that she is a widow with grown children, and her own childhood was taken from her by the priestesses of the Nameless Ones in "The Tombs of Atuan."

The struggle for both of them is to redefine themselves, to find their own new names in a world where they either have no names or the world insists on calling them by names that no longer have meaning.

Along on this journey with them is a child whom Tenar has cared for, for the past year, a girl whose parents pushed her into a fire and left her there to die. This girl's identity is unknown to any of them, and she is known only by the name Tenar gave her, Therru, a name that means fire.

It's been a long time -- nearly 20 years -- since I read LeGuin's "Earthsea" novels, but this has been a welcome return, both for me and for my wife, who read them only in the past 12 months. Perhaps because I'm 38, and I'm already seeing how my own identity has begun to shift as I've become first a husband and now a father twice over, the disorientation that both Tenar and Ged experience is something that I understand.

After all, when we're children, we identify ourselves by what we do. In early adulthood, we find our identities in who we are. In adulthood, we finally understand that our identities are something that exists not in isolation, but in our relationships with one another.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

No comments: