Recent Reads: Ursula LeGuin – “The Tombs of Atuan”

Finally, I have some time to tell you about the wonderful second book of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea cycle.

Year of First Publication: 1971


My Rating: 5/5

At age 6, Tenar was taken from her family and brought to the island of Atuan, where she is dedicated to the service of the dark and powerful gods of the underground known as the Nameless Ones. At her consecration ceremony, she is given a new name: Arha, or “the eaten one.” From then on, she serves as the high priestess of these powerful, malevolent beings.

Tenar’s childhood isn’t much of one. She rebels against “grown up” responsibility with lighthearted escapades and careless sass.  Eventually, she accepts her solitary role and the dark rituals she must perform as the One Priestess of the Tombs. She also begins to feel at home with the Tombs, an oppressive and unlit maze of tunnels and locked rooms.  This is her domain, the lair of the Nameless Ones, and the place where trespassers are sent to die a slow death.  As Tenar grows into a young woman, she visits the Tombs more and more often.  To her, the Tombs are an escape from the monotony of her life and the mounting political conspiracies she senses among the other high priestesses.

One winter’s day, Tenar traps a man she finds roaming the Tombs.  That man is Ged, the protagonist of “A Wizard of Earthsea,” now an older (by only several years) and wiser wizard.  Ged admits he has come to steal the greatest treasure of the Tombs – the Ring of Erreth-Akbe, an arm-band talisman that was broken in half centuries ago and must be mended and retrieved to restore peace in Earthsea.  Tenar knows that, as Priestess of the Tombs, she must sentence anyone who threatens the Tomb to death.  Yet, she’s intrigued by Ged’s stories of the outside world and the magical powers he harbors.  Thus, Tenar’s story is a struggle of duty and desire – the desire for freedom.

“The Tombs of Atuan” isn’t as chock full of fantasy elements as “Wizard of Earthsea” is.  But there is good reason for this.  Atuan is on the far northeastern reach of Earthsea.  No dragons fly there, and no wizards practice there, mostly because the Kargads (the natives of Atuan) have banned magic from their lands.  Ged does perform a limited amount of sorcery in this book.  And what’s neat about the experience of Earthsea magic in this book is that the reader experiences it through Tenar’s eyes.  You sense her fear when she first witnesses it, and then her awe and respect once she learns to trust the wizard.  It’s a logical transition of feelings, and because it’s so realistic I enjoyed Tenar’s reactions to magic very much.  My favorites include the rabbit, the dress illusion, and Ged’s “disguise.”

What I love most about “The Tombs of Atuan” is the relationship between Tenar and Ged.  It’s by no means romantic, since wizards of Earthsea must remain celibate.  It is, however, a bond that strengthens and transforms itself and both characters during the course of the book.  At first, Tenar fears and despises Ged, while he pities her and is at her mercy.  By the end of the book, they trust one another and depend on each other in order to survive.  Thus, their bond is an unbreakable trust, a reverence of sorts, that transcends both plutonic and romantic levels.  There is one spot where I think Tenar may be falling in love with Ged.  He is, after all, the first man she has seen alive in years.  She struggles a little to hide these feelings, but in time she accepts the fact that Ged cannot stay with her.

One more highlight of this book is its dialogue.  LeGuin knows there are two feats that good dialogue must overcome: It must capture the speaker’s personality, and it must contain some memorable lines.  Here are some lines from Ged as he explains – no, as he implores Tenar one last time to leave her priestess life and seek freedom in the inner isles of Earthsea:

“… You were the vessel of evil.  The evil is poured out.  It is done.  It is buried in its own tomb.  You were never made for cruelty and darkness; you were made to hold light, as a lamp burning holds and gives its light.  I found the lamp unlit; I won’t leave it on some desert island like a thing found and cast away…”

These are some of the most passionately written and (in my imagination) spoken lines I’ve ever read.  And being a writer myself, I wish I could have written lines like this.  When you find yourself saying this, you know it’s great literature.

I cannot say a single negative thing about this book.  I adored it from start to end.  It’s also a short book, so if you want to savor the story you’ve got to read it time and time again.  (I did – I’ve already read it three times in the past couple months!)  If you have read “A Wizard of  Earthsea” and haven’t gotten to the rest of the series, you need to finish it.  Start with “The Tombs of Atuan,” of course.  It’s a worthy continuation of the Earthsea stories that is dark, eloquent, and heartrending.  It’s also more character driven than the first book, but given the setting and culture of Atuan, it has to be this way.  I cannot wait to read the next two Earthsea books.  In fact, don’t be surprised if “The Farthest Shore” is my next recommendation.  😉

For more information on Ursula LeGuin and “The Tombs of Atuan,” visit Ursula LeGuin’s Website.

3 thoughts on “Recent Reads: Ursula LeGuin – “The Tombs of Atuan”

  1. I remember reading this book in 4th grade because of the cover page(My 9 year old self used to judge books on covers-literally:) Any way, I remember loving the book. One of the best pieces of literature ever written!


    • I used to do that with book covers, too. (Still do on occasion!!) “Tombs of Atuan” is probably my favorite Earthsea book. I highly recommend reading the other books in the cycle if you haven’t yet. 😉


  2. Pingback: Recent Reads: “Tales From Earthsea” by Ursula K. Le Guin | Sara Letourneau's Official Website & Blog

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