3. Womanhood

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The options available to Tenar are shaped by her gender. What do you think about the book's handling of gender roles?

Comments

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    There were some mentions of Tehanu in the le Guin documentary I mentioned the other day. Le Guin said that Wizard of Earthsea was "a wash" when it came to feminism and issues, and that it took her twenty years to find Tenar's story. It's quite clear to me that gender roles are important in this book, even though they were elided in the earlier books.

    I think there are two parts to gender roles. One is the restriction of what women can do, as represented by Aspen (the lord's mage) and Spark, as well as how Moss is pushed to the outside of society. The other is the growing partnership between Tenar and Ged, who both share all the roles needed to run a farm (and similar to how Ogion did "women's work" to maintain his house while living alone).

    Back to the documentary, there were some clips of le Guin and her husband. They seemed like a deeply loving couple who had enormous respect for each other. I think le Guin drew on that for how she described the partnership between Tenar and Ged.

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    I think the status quo of women is portrayed here much more than the potential of women. It’s even pointed out by one character that political and magical power are the concerns of men, but that ‘nobody knows what women’s power is’. And I’m not sure the novel ever really come to a conclusion on that matter.

    The role of men in society gets much more treatment in this book, as were exposed to men of power who seek to use that power, men who have lost their power, men who held power but never exercised it (Ogion) and men who never had power but now seem to want it. What is left for women but to navigate this world? Only Tehanu transcends by virtue of her not being a woman at all.
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    Probably also worth mentioning the role of Spark, who presumably represents the male norm of much of the world of EarthSea.

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    Yes, I meant to mention him. A man who takes his power for granted, maybe doesn’t even know he has it.
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    @Apocryphal said:
    I think the status quo of women is portrayed here much more than the potential of women.

    This is very true. The world, and the power structures in it, are shaped by men. The malign power of Aspen, Handy and Spark. The benign power of Ogion and Lebannen. There's nothing in the book to suggest that this will change, only that women should be accommodated within those structures. Ged and Tenar only achieve happiness by effectively removing themselves from that society, making a home in Ogion's distant old home.

    Talking of Handy, he's portrayed as a major menace throughout the book, but it's never quite explained.

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    “Mr Hands” is a nickname for menaces worldwide - might that be implied here?
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    It was more his role in the book. Handy was involved in the initial attempted murder of Therru, but he's the one who tried to get help for her. And why was he trying to kill an infant dragon in the first place? He spends the rest of the book pursuing Therru, but we're not sure why: there doesn't seem to be huge malice in him when he finally catches up with her, even though Therru is terrified. When Handy touches Therru, just a touch is enough to cause injury.

    Unless I missed something (entirely plausible) I don't think we get a good explanation for those facts.

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    @NeilNjae said:
    Unless I missed something (entirely plausible) I don't think we get a good explanation for those facts.

    My feeling is that it's a kind of shadow side to Ged's ability to turn up where and when needed. Both men display a kind of synchronicity, but exercised in opposite directions on the help-harm axis. We re explicitly told that Ged's ability here is nothing to do with his former talents as a mage, so presumably the same is true of Handy.

    Or it might be a (presumably unconscious) reaction to the fact that Tehanu's true nature is not human. When Ogion met the dragon-woman (we learn this only in related storytelling) he immediately perceived her true nature, and was deeply shocked... but in his case the matter intrigued him and drew him into relationship. It seems entirely plausible that Handy might have had an equally spontaneous but malicious reaction.

    @Apocryphal said:
    “Mr Hands” is a nickname for menaces worldwide - might that be implied here?

    I had never come across that expression before... is it a Canadian thing?

    Regarding Handy's name, which I assume is a use-name as opposed to true name, I have always taken that at face value - a handyman (at least in the UK) is someone who has no particular skill but makes a living carrying out odd jobs here and there. This seems to describe his itinerant lifestyle, at least until it turned to more criminal pursuits, and on that basis seems an obvious nickname. A bit like Oddjob in Goldfinger maybe?

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    I've just heard it used informally as a nickname among women for a man who can't keep his hands to himself. Maybe its a north american thing. Unfortunately a story about an equestrian sex offender drowns out internet searches for it.

    In any case, I don't think an aimless and gormless man who gets talked into doing stupid shit by his pals is all unrealistic. Also, how would he know she was an infant dragon? It's only revealed to us at the end of the story, and seems a surprise to most people.

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    I definitely agree that the book deals more with the status quo of women, rather than women's potential. It's implied that there will not be a new Archmage of Earthsea until the masters of Roke can confer with "a woman on Gont." Does that mean the role will remain vacant until Tehanu grows up? (Disclosure: I don't know. I haven't read the rest of the books.)

    The name "Handy" reminded me of the adjective "handsy", meaning "tending to touch other people, typically in a way that is inappropriate or unwanted," according to Oxford. It seemed entirely fitting.

    Handy's dogged pursuit of Therru makes perfect sense within the context of domestic abuse. (Disclosure: my wife and I were foster parents for 12 years. We learned a lot about abuse, both from the classes we had to take and the reality of caring for kids who'd been abused.) Handy isn't Therru's father, but he seems to be part of the extended family or clan. He likely believes that she still belongs with them. That whatever happened wasn't abuse. That it was just something that got a little out of hand, or her own fault for being clumsy. He did go for help, and probably think that washes away whatever responsibility he may bear for her being abused in the first place. He may even tell himself that he loves Therru as a niece or whatever and that entitles him to take her back by force.

    Okay, I'm gonna stop. I'm projecting far more onto his motivation than the text gives us for support. But it is all part of a certain mindset I've seen in many abusers.

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    That interpretation of Handy seems entirely consistent with what's in the book. It could well be the interpretation we're meant to have.

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