The Tombs of Atuan

When I finished A Wizard of Earthsea, I concluded that it was a good story, but clearly geared toward a younger audience. Friends on Twitter convinced me that I should keep reading and, in short, I never should have doubted Le Guin.

The Tombs of Atuan is an old temple complex in the Kargish lands (a region left unexplored in A Wizard of Earthsea). The complex contains multiple temples, including for the Godking and the God-brothers, but the oldest is the Place of the Tombs, a sanctuary dedicated to the Nameless Ones. According to tradition, the priestess of the tombs is forever reborn, her essence transferred into a new body born at the moment of the old priestess’ death. That child becomes “The Eaten One,” her soul consumed by the Nameless Ones and her body raised by the temple as the new priestess.

Year by year, Arha (formerly Tenar) learns of her charge. The eunuch Manan is her faithful companion and the older priestesses of lesser gods see to her education, teaching her the lore of the Tombs and about the soulless magic-users of the western lands. But the rest are forbidden from entering the Labyrinth beneath the tombs, so the most important parts of Arha’s training must be self taught. She must discover the secret paths and the long-forgotten offerings for herself––and, equally important, Arha must see to the appropriate sacrifices. Human sacrifices.

Arha’s youth puts her at a disadvantage to the other priestesses. Her primary rival is Kossil, the priestess of the Godking, who regards the Tombs as a forgotten relic of little consequence. Arha has to tread carefully, lest Kossil have her killed and conveniently forget to replace the priestess.

The arrival of a stranger, a thief from the Western Islands trapped beneath the labyrinth, disrupts their tenuous balance of power. That stranger is Ged/Sparrowhawk, come to steal the greatest treasure held in the Tombs: half of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe, which, when joined with its other half, promises to reveal a rune that could bring peace to the world. Curiosity stays Arha’s hand, but this initiates a dangerous game with Kossil, who demands his execution.

The Tombs of Atuan is a brilliant novel, and a leap in complexity from the youthful coming of age story in A Wizard of Earthsea, despite the latter’s subtle sophistication.

(As a note, I cannot recommend the new afterwords Le Guin wrote for the series enough. They combine reflection on the process of writing, reflection on development of the genre, and a keen eye for literary analysis.)

Le Guin comments in her afterword how The Tombs of Atuan is, in some ways, a direct inversion of A Wizard of Earthsea, much of which stems from the protagonist’s gender. She writes:

Be that as it may, when I wrote the book, it took more imagination than I had to create a girl character who, offered great power, could accept it as her right and due. Such as situation didn’t then seem plausible to me. But since I was writing about the people who in most societies have not been given much power––women––it seemed perfectly plausible to place my heroine in a situation that led her to question the nature and value of power itself.

The word power has two different meanings. There is power to: strength, gift, skill, art, the mastery of a craft, the authority of knowledge. And there is power over: rule, dominion, supremacy, might, mastery of slaves, authority over others.

Ged was offered both kinds of power. Tenar was offered one…

In such a world, I could put a girl at the heart of my story, but I couldn’t give her a man’s freedom, or chances to equal a man’s chances. She couldn’t be a hero in the hero-tale sense.

And it is true. Tenar is the protagonist in The Tombs of Atuan, but Ged is the hero. That is, Tenar undergoes the emotional journey that drives the story, but her evolution is contingent on Ged as the doer of great deeds.

Le Guin rightly and astutely comments on the issue of gender in her afterword, but makes no mention of a second issue that features prominently in the book: the power of belief. This power forms the basis of the conflict between Kossil and Arha/Tenar in that Kossil is an ardent non-believer (though her non-belief may itself be corrupted) whose interests lie in the exercise of power over the younger priestess.

Despite the sinister overtones of human sacrifice, severe routines, and an indoctrinated child, the circumstances could be set for a more benign sort of story. In Arha/Tenar’s privileged position, this cult and culture is not inherently evil. Her charge simply is, so her questioning of the power is caught up in her struggle with Kossil. Only when Ged arrives does Tenar begin to question what she had been taught about the “soulless” westerners and the very nature of the religion.

Fantasy worlds allow for primordial and magical powers to exist, but the power of belief is no less real in life than it is in books. Tenar’s struggle for liberation from the only life that she has ever known elevates The Tombs of Atuan into a masterpiece and reduces Ged’s quest for an artifact that promises to bring good governance, a worthy ambition in its own right, to just a McGuffin.

In short, I loved this book. Simon and Schuster markets it as a teen fantasy, but in Le Guin’s masterful hands it is a brilliant sequel to A Wizard of Earthsea and I look forward to reading the next book in the series with eager anticipation.

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Work and travel have interfered with regular updates. The ship may have sailed on a full writeup A Long Day’s Evening, a philosophical novel by the Turkish novelist Bilge Karasu, though I still hope to write some notes. I have also finished Tana French’s The Witch Elm and have a full post planned about that one. I am now reading The Lies of Locke Lamora, the first book in Scott Lynch’s The Gentlemen Bastards series. I’m enjoying its cleverly interwoven origin and heist stories, but a small part of my brain is hung up on aspects of the world building that so far are a little too on the nose for Renaissance North Italy and Germany.