The Tombs of Atuan is the second book in the Earthsea series that began with A Wizard of Earthsea. Wizard is a true classic, and it wouldn’t be much criticism to say Atuan doesn’t match it. It’s true, but The Tombs of Atuan is still well worth the read, quite strong in its own right.
The Tombs of Atuan is a near complete shift of character, setting, and style. Ged, the protagonist of Earthsea, is present, but mostly off-stage for much of the book, giving way to a young girl called Tenar. The setting, rather than an episodic tour of the Earthsea archipelago, is much more narrow, taking place on a single island, in mostly two very limited areas — Tenar’s priestess palace and the labyrinth below it where Ged is trapped. And the pace is much slower, with less action and magic, with more of a focus on introspective analysis of character.
Tenar was taken from her family while still quite young, seen as the reincarnated Priestess of the Tombs of Atuan, where the Nameless Ones dwell. She is now known as the Eaten One, and she is indeed for her life is to be completely dedicated to the rites of her job. We follow her the slow swallowing of her life and feeling by the dark cult of the Nameless Ones, aided by an older, harsh priestess.
Ged makes his way into the story via his attempt to find the second half of a magical amulet important to the unity and peaceful progression of the archipelago. The Nameless Ones are more powerful than he had expected and Tenar comes across him weak and lost in the labyrinth. Rather than reveal his intrusion, Tenar imprisons him. At first he is a plaything, one of the few things she has “power” over. But as her conversations with him continue they move from mocking self-assurance to self-doubt — about her religion, about her role in it, about her own sense of self and morality. In the end she must choose, in a slanted echo of Ged’s dilemma from book one, between the darkness and the light, between life and death, between power and freedom.
As in A Wizard of Earthsea, the choice is not as simplistic as it seems on the surface and as is so often portrayed in fantasy. Tenar’s confusion and misery, her sense of being torn between what she has been living her whole life and what she is now learning about herself and the outside world, is nicely conveyed and while Ged takes on a more active role toward the end, his role is mostly as catalyst for Tenar’s coming-of-age.
The language, as one expects of Le Guin, is spare and precise, beautiful in many places, efficient as always. The issues are, as in book one, larger and more human than the story’s surface plot. The Tombs of Atuan is a very character-centered book, with its focus on Tenar’s internal conflict and the slowly evolving relationship between her and Ged. It is a much quieter book, a more slowly paced book than A Wizard of Earthsea, with less action, much less overt magic, few characters, fewer peaks and valleys, but while it may surprise those who enjoyed A Wizard of Earthsea, it should still please in a different way all but those who are more “action”-focused. Strongly recommended.
The Tombs of Atuan is very different from A Wizard of Earthsea. It focuses on a young woman who has spent her life cloistered in the tombs of gods who she serves but doesn’t know. Just as the reader feels completely miserable at the state of this disillusioned young lady, Ged (who nobody would describe as particularly cheerful or up-beat), arrives and brings with him a much-needed ray of sunshine, even though he spends most of the book under the earth.
After Ged’s arrival, things start to slowly make more sense to Tenar and it is interesting to watch her well-developed character gradually move from darkness to light.
The Tombs of Atuan is a slow-paced story. There’s not a lot of action until the end, but Ged’s quest in the tombs is related to the rest of the Earthsea series, so it’s valuable in that sense. And, of course, an Ursula Le Guin novel is almost always a pleasure to read, and this audiobook version is a nice format.
This is the second book in Ursula Le Guin’s EARTHSEA series, but I would hate anyone to think that these books are meant to be read in any particular order. True, the character of Ged ages in each one of them and Tombs was penned by author Ursula le Guin after A Wizard of Earthsea, but… these books are unique. Like THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, many make a big deal about the correct reading order when in fact it’s not that big a deal. Think of it like Diana Wynne Jones’s CHRESTOMANCI series or even George Lucas’s Star Wars trilogy and its prequels. Sometimes things are better when they are read out of chronological order. And sometimes they aren’t. That’s the best part about EARTHSEA — it doesn’t really matter.
As a young child Tenar is taken from her home to serve as “Arha” (or, “The Nameless One”) in the Tombs of Atuan, identified as the reincarnated One Priestess. Her name is taken from her, she is now known as “The Eaten One”, servant of the Nameless Ones, subjected to repetitive ritual and ceremonies, revered as a holy being and yet alone and friendless. Amongst the desolate tombs and stone buildings of the desert, Tenar lives out a meaningless existence in the service of speechless, invisible gods.
Her only solace is in the underground labyrinth, a place where light is forbidden and where only she dares tread. Somewhere in the twisting tunnels is the great treasure room, where a priceless artifact lies. It is for this that the wizard Ged (now middle-aged) secretly enters the labyrinth so that he might restore its power to the world above. But he has underestimated the difficulties of the labyrinth, and now lies at the mercy of the Arha. Fascinated by this traveling wizard, she is loathe to have him executed — not when he is incapacitated by the labyrinth and thus completely in her power. A battle of wits emerges; with the Arha gradually becoming aware of life beyond her service to the Nameless Ones and Ged desperately bartering for his life.
The desert, the tombs and the underground labyrinth are all detailed and descriptive — in fact, it can get a little claustrophobic down there in the labyrinth! It’s not quite as vivid as Alan Garner’s descriptions in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, but the detailed descriptions of the pressing darkness and the twisting tunnels certainly made me sigh in relief every time Tenar emerged once more into the sunlight.
Many fantasy stories cater to a quest motif, and although this is partly the case here, what with Ged searching for the ring of Erreth-Akbe, the fact that the story is told entirely from Tenar’s point of view makes it quite different.The Tombs of Atuan is best described as a character study of a young woman who has been raised in extra-ordinary circumstances. How many other fantasy books can be described thus? Rather than the quest for the ring (I couldn’t help but toy with the idea that le Guin chose a ring as the McGuffin so that it would be purposefully contrasted with THE LORD OF THE RINGS) the author concentrates solely on the thoughts and experiences of her detached and proud protagonist, in whose young hands lie the power of life and death. For this reason, many readers may be put off. There is very little action throughout the course of the book, and the pacing is almost excruciatingly slow. But this is precisely the point: it is the best way to convey the monotony and misery of Tenar’s life.
The loss of faith, the shock of freedom, the loneliness of power, the terror of being responsible for another’s death — these are the hefty issues at the forefront of The Tombs of Atuan, and ones that are handled brilliantly by the author. It’s not an easy book to get through, and perhaps not even a re-readable one; but for anyone claiming to be a fantasy-fan, or even someone who claims to be a reader of all the classics, it is essential.
The EarthSea Cycle — (1968-2001) Young adult. Publisher: Ged was the greatest sorcerer in all Earthsea, but once he was called Sparrowhawk, a reckless youth, hungry for power and knowledge, who tampered with long-held secrets and loosed a terrible shadow upon the world. This is the tale of his testing, how he mastered the mighty words of power, tamed an ancient dragon, and crossed death’s threshold to restore the balance.