Studying a great poet like Dante Alighieri has made me realise that the seeds of genius are always present in the work of a great artist, but they take time to mature. Dante's masterwork, the Divine Comedy, was the product of years of undeveloped thought -on love, philosophy and politics. It was only by the time he wrote and later revised the Divine Comedy, that these thoughts could finally crystallise, around an epic yet utterly humane vision. In many ways Dante had renounced some of his earlier beliefs, but this did not make all his works jarring, or inconsistent, it just showed that he had come to master himself and his beliefs.
The original Earthsea trilogy was an engaging enterprise that nonetheless set itself largely within a tradition of "fantasy". 'The Wizard of Earthsea' was a typical 'bildungsroman' i.e. the story of a young man on a quest. But within this set of conventions - the pride, the error, the journey, the temptress, the old master - lurked something deeper. Le Guin posited ideas of how one really understands the nature of power, by using the allegory of magic. To be honest, whether this was 'Taoist' or not, as has been alleged, is immaterial to me.
It is immaterial because Le Guin then went on to forge her own philosophy, which was and continues to be compelling. Tenar in 'The Tombs of Atuan' faces her own challenge; a different yet parallel fate to Ged's awaits her. In 'The Farthest Shore' Ged has his own apprentice to educate, yet the mission and conclusion are different: a King is sought to rule, not a Mage, and magic is ultimately subordinated to this new hope.
It was an end, of sorts. But clearly Le Guin then felt it necessary to understand, as a person herself, what she felt over 10 years later about her creations, and what she thought still needed to be said about the radical conclusions she had already drawn within the conventions of Earthsea. In subjecting the trilogy to a new, more objective analysis in 'Tehanu', I do not believe that she has broken the 'rules' of fantasy. Instead within her Earthsea - still a world of power, of men and women, of great deeds set against the fragility of the human spirit - we now learn of loss and acceptance, of the power of love set against that of magic, and of the fate of men and women. It is a powerful message which, while it does reflect a change in Le Guin's perception of her old trilogy, is nonetheless a change that I think should take her audience along with her. To understand 'Tehanu' is not to understand it as a 4th part of the trilogy, but as the inspiring result of a critical self-examination, and one that ultimately makes the whole Earthsea output all the more rich and intruiging.
Sadly, "Tehanu" is a major disappointment and the poorest of the Earthsea books. The idea sounds interesting: exploring Earthsea from the point of view of a non-sorcerer woman. But Le Guin fails to create an even remotely interesting story around Tenar -- actually, there is hardly any story at all. Tenar stays on the farm, makes a few trips, and takes care of herself and Therru, the strange girl she adopted after Therru was abused and badly burnt. Ged returns abruptly, his magic gone, and the king's men are searching for him. It appears possible that a narrative line will develop from this, but none does. The book plods through unconnected scenes and talky dialogue until it abruptly ends.
I'm at a loss to explain Le Guin's narrative failure here. Perhaps, in feeling that she was achieving a great character study, she felt the book would carry itself without a spine of a story, but it doesn't. The problem doesn't lay in what the author says or how she says it -- I'm fine with the female slant to the book -- but how she chooses to frame it. The reader must have a reason to continually turn the page, must want to know how the characters will struggle to overcome their problems and why they must be overcome. Without such a structure, the reader will have a difficult time investing him or herself in what happens, and that is exactly the case here. For an example of Le Guin doing this correctly, read her brilliant novel "The Left Hand of Darkness." She set out to explore an issue of sexuality, and achieved it through the device of adventure and political turmoil. "Tehanu" lacks any cohesive device like that; the book merely 'continues' until it is done.
Le Guin's writing style and sense of her characters do keep "Tehanu" from being completely unreadable, but it is slow going. People who have read the first three books should definitely read this because of what it reveals about Tenar and Ged, but they shouldn't go into it expecting the epic grandeur and sweeping power of the first three novels. "Tehanu" remains frustratingly earthbound and static.
Which would be fine, except why bother writing a novel set in Earthsea about such people? The charm of the trilogy was that it was Ged's odyssey through a pivotal time in the history of a remarkable world and how he contributed to it. Tehanu shows us nothing new about Le Guin's magical world, and has little interesting to say. It's at its worst when the musings about "mens' work" vs. "womens' work" and "men's power" vs. "womens' power" comes out; Le Guin has nothing provocative or excitings to say here, and no conclusions - satisfying or otherwise - are reached. It's as if Le Guin felt self-conscious that the trilogy was so male-centric and wanted to rectify that. But it comes at the expense of the wonder that made the trilogy great fantasy. It's a small book about small people.
Worst of all, the book falls completely apart at its climax, as the narrative becomes muddy and rushed, with a finale which has little meaning in the context of the rest of the book.
Tehanu shows that you can't go home again; the trilogy was 20 years in her past when she wrote this, and Tehanu neither extends nor expands on it. If you loved the trilogy and want to read more like it, look elsewhere.