Sunday, 28 July 2013

The Blog Fantastic 008: The Tombs of Atuan

Much like A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan is a story about growing up, about learning right from wrong and the importance of truly knowing yourself. The twist is that Ursula K. Le Guin tells the story from many different perspectives. The second book in the Earthsea series tells the story of Tenar, a young girl who is taken to the Tombs at the age of six to be the next reincarnation of the One Priestess in service of the Nameless One. The focus is on her, no characters or places from the first book make an appearance until nearly the hallway mark. Le Guin restricts our second stay in Earthsea to the grounds and undergrounds of the Tombs in much the same way Tenar, now known as Arha, is physically confined on this desert corner of the isle of Atuan.

Much less epic in scope, The Tombs of Atuan has a very different feel to it than the first book. Arha doesn’t seem to be destined for greatness and adventure. On the contrary, she seems to be condemned to the dark world of a cult to Nameless (and most probably faceless) powers. Her days are filled with dancing and sacrifice and countless hours of tedium. Once her duties as One Priestess led her to the Undertomb and the Labyrinth, she went on to explore these pitch dark passages in great detail until one day she encounters a wizard whose come to rob one of the greatest treasures in all of Earthsea. It’s at that point that the novel really kicks off into high gear and Le Guin entertained me endlessly.

This wizard, of course, is Ged from the first book. Now that he’s encountered and accepted the evil that is part of him, he’s become incredibly wise, patient and powerful. For anybody who’s read A Wizard of Earthsea, we know how this story ends but it doesn’t matter. Le Guin makes the events happen in such a beautiful and organic way that I didn’t care that I knew the outcome. Ged and Tenar’s interactions were a joy to read. How can she sacrifice such a powerful wizard from the outside world to the Nameless powers? She’s become far too bored and spiteful of her life as the One Priestes to ever entertain the thought for too long. Instead of ending in violence, their time together slowly built into a friendship based on trust and a mutual desire to be saved. Tenar is no damsel in distress. She’s a young woman who has been far too well protected to the point where it’s stunted her growth as a person. Her inquisitive nature and desire for freedom eventually resurfaced after years of forceful repression. What she learns in company with Ged is just extraordinary and Le Guin’s sure hand and masterful writing made it all feel, well, magical.

Ged and Tenar contrast in nearly everything,
even the colour of their skin which is
representative of their upbringing. One out
on the ocean at the mercy of the sun and
the other buried and hidden in the dark
of the Tombs of Atuan.
As I mentioned earlier, The Tombs of Atuan is an Earthsea tale told in a completely different perspective than the first novel. It’s not grand and mythic, it’s small and personal. There are no dragons in this book, but Ged defeats a foe equally powerful as a dragon (a bored Priestess) and he does it with style and a quiet confidence that was a sheer pleasure to read about. If you weren’t convince of Ged’s greatest and power at the end of the first book, seeing him through Tenar’s eyes will surely help in convincing you now.

Magic in Earthsea:
Le Guin gives us a different perspective on magic in Earthsea. It’s not just about names, that’s the basics of it but it’s by no means the source of a wizard’s power. That comes from trust, friendship and compassion. The greatest act of wizardry by Ged in Atuan was rescuing Tenar and in turn being rescued by her. It’s a beautiful journey of self-discovery by two strangers who, despite the evil that could be found in their hearts and in the land find a way to free themselves and each other of dark responsibilities. It means nothing that you know the language of magic if you don’t have the sense to use it properly.

Le Guin shares with her readers that magic in Earthsea is not about having the power to do anything. It’s about having the power to do anything and doing the best thing. When travelling through the mountains, half starved, Tenar asks Ged if he can conjure any food. He could, but it would be all illusion, leaving them hungrier than they were. What about real food? He could call a rabbit to them but using its true name but would you then be able to kill the rabbit and eat it if you called it by its true name? It would be breaking an important trust between the rabbit and the one who knows its name.

Magic isn’t really used for everyday things. Wizards and Mages do not go around unlocking doors with magic. Tenar says to Ged about magic: “‘Your Magic is peculiar,’ she said, with little dignity of equals, Priestess addressing Mage. ‘It appears to be useful only for large matter.’” That may well be true but Ged goes on to inform her that “large matters” can wary in size and form. Stopping an earthquake, defeating dragons, those are clearly large matters, but maintaining trust between two beings despite the difficulties they must face is another type of “large matter”.

Dave Sim once said that the essence of storytelling is two people talking in a room. I don’t recall that ever being presented so beautifully than by Le Guin in The Tombs of Atuan. She harnesses this idea by having significant portions of the book be Lenar and Ged talking in near complete darkness in the underground labyrinth. The things they discover about each other and about themselves by simply conversing were impressive to witness. A trues tour de force by Le Guin, she’s a master of her craft.

A Wizard of Earthsea was about discovering yourself by accepting who you are, the good with the bad. The Tombs of Atuan is learning to free yourself by discovering who you are through your interactions with someone else. It’s much harder to help someone out of their misery than it is to condemn them to it, but it’s much more rewarding for both parties involved, when you talk it out and decide to risk it all by trusting your enemy to be the one to help you through tough times.  


  1. Thanks, Arthur!

    I love LeGuin's Earthsea series. Superbly written.