Confused by Ursula K. LeGuin's Tehanu


New Member
Mar 6, 2019
Hey, I'm currently reading all of the Books of Earthsea and, while I've moved past it now, I am still v v confused by a particular chapter in Tehanu. In chapter 8, the witch Moss and Tenar have a conversation that confuses the hell out of me. It eventually leads into a discussion about love spells and the division between wizards and witches but it's the initial conversation that is never cleared up and I'm still annoyed by how odd and indecipherable it is to me. I'll just quote it:
"It's a queer thing for an old man to be a boy of fifteen, no doubt!"
Tenar almost said, "What are you talking about, Moss?"--but something prevented her. She realized that she had been listening for Ged to come into the house from his roaming on the mountainside, that she was listening for the sound of his voice, that her body denied his absence. She glanced suddenly over at the witch, a shapeless lump of black perched on Ogion's chair by the empty hearth.
"Ah!" she said, a great many thoughts suddenly coming into her mind all at once.
"That's why," she said. "That's why I never--"
After a quite long silence, she said, "Do they--do wizards--is it a spell?"
"Surely, surely, dearie," said Moss. "They witch 'emselves. Some'll tell you they make a trade-off, like a marriage turned backward, with vows and all, and so get their power then. But to me that's got a wrong sound to it, like a dealing with the Old Powers more than what a true witch deals with. And the old mage, he told me they did no such thing. Though I've known some woman witches to do it, and come to no great harm by it."
"The ones who brought me up did that, promising virginity.
"Oh, aye, no men, you told me, and them yurnix. Terrible!"
"But why, but why--why did I never think--"
The witch laughed aloud. "Because that's the power of 'em, dearie. You don't think! You can't. And nor do they, once they've set their spell. How could they? Given their power? It wouldn't do, would do, it wouldn't do. You don't get without you give as much. That's true for all, surely. So they know that, the witch men, the men of power, they know that better than any. But then, you know it's an uneasy thing for a man not to be a man, no matter if he can call the sun from the sky. And so they put it right out of their mind, with their spells of binding. And truly so. Even in these bad times we've been having, with the spells going wrong and all, I haven't yet heard of a wizard breaking those spells, seeking to use his power for his body's lust. Even the worst would fear to. O' course, there's those will work illusions, but they only fool 'emselves. And there's witch men of little account, witch-tinkers and the like, some of them'll try their own spells of beguilement on country women, but for all I can see, those spells don't amount to much. What it is, is the one power's as great as the other, and each goes its own way. That's how I see it."

When I read this the first time, I was completely bewildered and had to put the book down and go to sleep I was so mad that I didn't understand what was happening. After reading it over maybe 5-6 times and writing out the dialogue here, I think it's clearing up for me. These women are talking about a binding spell that wizards and diminutive sorcerers place on themselves so that they don't feel any lust and aren't distracted by women or any sexual feelings. I still think it's odd for Moss to v randomly say that Ged is a "boy of fifteen" though that's in character for her, and that line is explained later when Tenar mentions it to Ged and he agrees that without his powers, he does feel quite new and like he has to discover himself anew, but boy did this line throw me off. I thought for a second that Ged had managed to disguise himself as a young boy. And now I think I understand completely those half sentences spoken by Tenar. A recurring thought for her was how odd it was that she had never, in all her time of knowing Ogion and Ged, touched them in any intimate way. Odd that they knew each other so well and had never touched, odd that she hadn't noticed this oddness. I get it now wow. She only kissed Ged's face after he had lost his powers and, beforehand, felt moments with Ged where she wanted to touch him but refrained from doing so for unknown, now known, reasons. Okay. I think I answered my own question lol. I'll still post this in case someone else has the same confusion.

The Judge

Truth. Order. Moderation.
Staff member
Nov 10, 2008
nearly the New Forest
Yep, when she says "to be a boy of fifteen" she means inside -- ie his hormones raging all over the place and not able to look at a pretty woman** without getting aroused and wanting to get hot and sweaty with her. (I've never been a boy of 15 so I can't say how accurate that is!)

** in this case, or presumably, a handsome man in others