The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin

The Tombs of Atuan, cover by David Smee

The Tombs of Atuan, cover by David Smee

However much I like A Wizard of Earthsea, I love The Tombs of Atuan. I suspect this is down to the accessibility of the central character. Though we follow Ged in the first book from childhood to adulthood, and through all his struggles against the darkest and most personal of enemies, there’s always something unreachable about him. The main character of the second book in Le Guin’s Earthsea series, on the other hand, is far more relatable, though much of her story is similar to Ged’s. Separated from her family at an even younger age than Ged was, five-year-old Tenar is taken to the Place of the Tombs of Atuan because she was born on the night the previous First Priestess, Arha, died, and so is declared to be her reincarnation. There, young Tenar has her name eaten by the Nameless Ones, and becomes ‘their servant and their voice and their hands’. Henceforward, she is not Tenar but Arha, the Eaten One:

‘All human beings were forever reborn, but only she, Arha, was reborn forever as herself.’

Thus begins a Gormenghast in miniature. Although, like Titus Groan in Peake’s novels, Arha is in a position of apparent power, the reality is that her life is stifled by meaningless rituals, and by the petty power-battles of her fellow priestesses, who are older, wiser, and more bitterly ingrained in the very limited life of the Place — most notably Kossill, who, though High Priestess of the GodKing, in reality holds ‘nothing sacred but power.’

Tombs of Atuan cover 02Part of the success of the book, for me, is that it’s almost all set in one small, well-defined location (and eventually moves to an even more limited sub-area of that location). Ged’s story takes him all over the Earthsea Archipelago, but Tenar’s takes place in the bounds of a single, walled compound in an out-of-the-way Kargish desert. Once at the centre of that Empire’s religious culture, the Place of the Tombs is now honoured only by being sent occasional human sacrifices — nobles who, by defying the GodKing, have earned deaths of as much political as religious value.

But this boundedness, this confinement, is the point of the tale. If the moral of Ged’s story was ‘you can run but you can’t hide’, particularly if the thing you’re running from is yourself, The Tombs of Atuan’s is ‘Alone, no one wins freedom.’ It’s about solitude, about entrapment within the bounds of one’s own self. Young Ged has to learn to turn and face the thing that pursues him; Arha, trapped not just in this life but in every life she has ever lived and ever will, has to learn to break out of the ‘labyrinth of her own self’. But, unlike the fearsome shadow-thing that pursued Ged, Arha’s relationship with her personal darkness has, at first, advantages. A little girl hemmed in by age-old ritual and priestly politics, she at first finds her only freedom in the darkness beneath the temples and tombs, in the one place that, as the First Priestess of the Nameless Ones, is truly and only hers:

‘She did not go far into it that first time, but far enough that the strange, bitter, yet pleasurable certainty of her utter solitude and independence there grew strong in her, and led her back, and back again, and each time farther.’

And then, one day, she finds a wizard wandering in that labyrinth, illuminating its sacred, ancient darkness with sorcerous light. At first incensed by this blasphemy, Arha’s reaction becomes increasingly complex. She’s fascinated with this stranger who is everything that she does not know — a foreigner, a mage, a man.

In her essay, ‘Dreams Must Explain Themselves’ (in The Language of the Night), Le Guin says:

‘The subject of The Tombs of Atuan is, if I had to put it in one word, sex. There’s a lot of symbolism in the book…’

Atuan_HBTo me, the book is about a far more fundamental aspect of human relationships: the moment when someone opens the essential solitude of their inner life (‘it was close, it was still, it was safe’) and for the first time learns to trust another human being. Arha, as Arha, ‘the one who has been devoured’, can’t trust anyone, because she’s not herself. She’s the servant of the Nameless Ones, and is meant to play her part; in addition, she’s surrounded only by other servants of other gods, whose only interest in life is retaining the status quo, and scoring points in meaningless power games. But the wizard Ged calls her by her true name, Tenar, the name she had as a child, and thus recalls her to her true, human individuality once more. The only way out of the dark labyrinth of her servitude to the Nameless Ones is to learn to trust another human being, but she can only do that by first being trusted, and this is what Ged does.

At the end of the book, freed from her old world, Tenar is not so much reborn as reset, back to how she was when she was last Tenar, the five-year-old girl who loved to run among her parents’ apple orchards. She is, at the end, not come of age, as Ged was at the end of A Wizard of Earthsea, but ‘like a child coming home’ — reset on the path of being able to relate to others, rather than being clasped in the silence, and the dark, of the ‘useless evil’ of the Nameless Ones who ‘are dark and undying, and they hate the light: the brief, bright light of our mortality.’ It is, as Ged points out to her, human relationships that make one fully human, and these are always two-way exchanges:

‘You could keep me a slave, and be a slave; or set me free, and come free with me.’

A Wizard of Earthsea feels, to me, like the story of a hero — the tale of a mage learning the wisdom necessary to wield the extraordinary power he was born with. The Tombs of Atuan, on the other hand, is the story of a human being learning to be more fully human, a process that means shucking off the pretences of power, and the protection of darkness. Ged, in this book, remains an interesting, living character, but also distant, because of his power and his wisdom. Tenar/Arha, with her occasional spitefulness, her pridefulness and fear, but also her innocence and her longing to be herself, and to be free, is a far more relatable character. By the end of the book, you feel you know her in a way you can never know Ged. It’s just as wise a book as A Wizard of Earthsea, but a little more human.

Comments (2)

  1. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I couldn’t agree more, Murray re Tenar being a more relatable character and the book having a more human touch (although I still enjoyed the other two books in the trilogy). You spotted some things I never noticed – ie, the corollaries between Ged’s induction and Tenar’s. The analogy with Gormenghast is particularly apt.

    Re-reading it, I particularly liked how the cult is shown from Tenar’s perspective. Although there are many things about it that are questionable, it is not presented as inherently evil. Not at first. Tenar has been indoctrinated at an early age and it takes an outsider to give her (and the reader) a sense of perspective and to set her free.

  2. Murray Ewing says:

    Yes, the Kargad Empire’s perspective, thinking itself the most important and powerful part of a world that in fact doesn’t know much about it, or care too much about it, is very well-done — and, now I write that, it parallels the child’s (Tenar’s, or any child’s) tendency to think that what they know, and the culture they’re brought up in, is the ‘right’ way, the only way, and everyone else has got it wrong!

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