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When Andrew Ferguson came to campus to explore UO’s superb collection of feminist science fiction, he wasn’t expecting to uncover an original manuscript of Ursula Le Guin’s Tehanu hidden away in the archives. Ferguson, one of two winners of the 2014-15 Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction Fellowship, was in Eugene for ten days in early April 2015 to conduct research in the UO Libraries Special Collections and University Archives for the final chapter of his PhD dissertation.
Andrew Ferguson / Report on Le Guin Fellowship visit
Readers of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series have often remarked on a profound shift between the original trilogy and the fourth book, Tehanu, differences so marked that Darko Suvin hypothesized the latter book testified to “a womanist … [and] also a dragonist revision” in Le Guin’s work. With the support of the CSWS, I journeyed to the University of Oregon Special Collections and University Archives to seek out what traces remained of Le Guin’s own shifting thoughts about the Earthsea archipelago. I found both less, and much more, than I expected.
Going in, my fondest hope had been to find notes relating to the composition of Tehanu, or perhaps even early drafts of the novel. But, as I quickly discovered, Le Guin’s habit has been to destroy all initial or intermediate drafts, her husband Charles the sole reader before they are consigned to the flames. Only once a draft approached finality would Le Guin send it off to her agent, Virginia Kidd, who might make a few suggestions before selling the work; any further (and almost invariably small-scale) changes would be wrangled in copy-edits and galleys afterward. There would be no Le Guinian volte-face, spelled out on the page.
Instead, what I found was less an epiphany and more a process, documented fitfully throughout two decades of reflection on the shapes of myth and fantasy, and of Earthsea in particular. Le Guin’s fastidiousness in destroying her drafts was matched by an equal but opposite impulse toward saving correspondence—and her exchanges with Kidd and fellow SF writer Joanna Russ proved indispensable in considering the novel, and Le Guin’s work more widely. Though Le Guin had clearly been thinking about gender imbalances in myth and fantasy, and in Earthsea in particular, it was Russ who prompted her to put thought to paper in 1974 by critiquing the earlier Earthsea books while evincing a more general frustration about the lack of rites of passage for women in myth. At that time, Le Guin found “no archetype [and] no answer” to that question; it would take her almost a decade and a half to craft a response, in the form of a fourth Earthsea book bearing the tongue-in-cheek title Better Late Than Never.
Though no manuscript for Tehanu was listed in the collection’s finding aid, I was overjoyed to discover a draft filed away under this original title. Correspondence with Kidd helped explain the unlikely survival of this manuscript: after Le Guin finished a draft of the book, she told Kidd it would be on the way after another round of editing. Kidd convinced Le Guin, against longstanding practice, to send in what she had, so that preparation for sale and possible auction could begin. What survives is not this draft—both Le Guin’s original and Kidd’s copy would be destroyed, per the former’s instructions—but the subsequent, nearly final one incorporating a few of Kidd’s suggestions.
It is, however, a sign of just how highly Le Guin valued the book that she was willing to send Kidd an “incomplete” draft. Neither author nor agent was sure exactly how to market the book: the Earthsea setting seemed to dictate a children’s or young-adult market, but the content of the book—including the near-rape of the main character Tenar, and the off-page rape and mutilation of the child Therru she would go on to adopt—militated against that. Whatever the category, though, Kidd realized the importance of the book not only to Le Guin’s created world, but also to fantastic fiction more generally. It was a book in which, as Le Guin would later note in Earthsea Revisioned, “instead of using the pseudo-genderless male viewpoint of the heroic tradition, the world is seen through a woman’s eyes.” Better late than never, indeed.
The book would not keep that title; although Le Guin preferred it to alternatives suggested by agent and publisher, such as “A Woman on Gont” and “The Doorway Between Them,” she finally hit on Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea. Further correspondence in the Le Guin archive captures the response to the work, with letters from fans and fellow writers alike testifying to the book’s power and importance—while at the same time mystifying those who view books largely in terms of audience age. Also in the archive are a seemingly endless stream of requests to adapt various Earthsea stories in various ways; in particular, Disney seeking to license Tehanu: Kidd, following Le Guin’s wishes, shoots down every proposal.
Over time the fan letters for Tehanu slow to a manageable trickle, to be replaced by occasional letters from academics seeking comment on their theories. Le Guin is generally cagey in response, dismissive especially of arguments she finds overly abstruse or products of what today would be recognized as “mansplaining.” However, she is not shy about showing appreciation for those whose work she likes; one in particular provokes in her a thought about the dragon Kalessin, the great mysterious presence whose appearance leads to the final revelations of Tehanu. Though pointedly made neither male nor female, Kalessin is, to Le Guin’s exasperation and amusement, continually gendered by reviewers who apparently want to draft the dragon to one side or the other. But Le Guin wants to avoid the trap of essentialism: in Kalessin and Tehanu, she writes, her goal was to “ungender wildness.”
The radical impulse behind those two words resonates well beyond Tehanu, rippling outward beyond Earthsea, beyond the Hainish and Orsinian novels, beyond even the poetry and essays and picture books. That impulse establishes Le Guin as an author who shows us wildness—so often elsewhere feminized, and depicted only in relation to male conquest—in terms beyond the binary, as something that can be communed with but never conquered. The wildness of Le Guin’s imaginary exists beyond any reductive categories we might seek to apply—and through her books, as well as the boxes of archived material at Oregon, we are invited to explore.
My sincere thanks to the invaluable Center for the Study of Women in Society for supporting this research, as well as to the staff of the Special Collections University Archives at the University of Oregon for their dedication and kind assistance with the project.