Jan 28 2010 12:11pm

Let her be eaten!: Ursula Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan

Le Guin has said of the first three Earthsea books (in The Languages of the Night) that they concern male coming of age, female coming of age, and death. Presumably it was the realisation that most lives contain other things in between that prompted her to write the later books. The Tombs of Atuan has long been a favourite of mine but reading it this time I kept contrasting the male and female coming of age in the two books.

The Tombs of Atuan is about a girl who is the reincarnated One Priestess of the Nameless Powers. She lives on the Kargish island of Atuan in the Place of the Tombs, and is mistress of the Undertomb and the Labyrinth. She dances the dances of the dark of the moon before the empty throne, and she negotiates a difficult path with the other priestesses, who are adult, and adept with the ways of power. It is a world of women and girls and eunuchs and dark magic, set in a desert. A great deal of the book is set underground, and the map at the front is of the Labyrinth. It couldn’t be more different from the sea and islands of A Wizard of Earthsea.

Again, I may be too close to this book to see it clearly. When I was a child I used to play the sacrifice of Arha, putting her head on the block and a sword coming down, to be stopped at the last minute, while the priestesses chanted “She is eaten”. Sometimes I’d be Arha and sometimes I’d be everyone else, but it never failed to give me a thrill. I’m not sure what it was in this dark scene that made me re-enact it over and over, but it clearly didn’t do me any harm. It was also my first encounter with the concept of reincarnation.

We’re told at the end of A Wizard of Earthsea that this story is part of the Deed of Ged, and that one of his great adventures is how he brought back the Ring of Erreth-Akbe from the Tombs of Atuan. But the story it isn’t told from his point of view but always from Tenar’s, Arha’s, the One Priestess. She’s confident in some things and uncertain in others, she has lost her true name. I’ve always liked the way he gives her name back, and her escape, and the way she and Ged rescue each other.

What I noticed this time was how important it seemed that she was beautiful, when really that shouldn’t have mattered at all, but yet it kept being repeated over and over. Also, A Wizard of Earthsea covers Ged’s life from ten to nineteen, and at the end of the book Ged is a man in full power, having accepted his shadow he is free in the world. The text at the end describes him as a “young wizard”. The Tombs of Atuan covers Tenar’s life from five to fifteen. At the end, when she gets to Havnor with the Ring on her arm, she is described as “like a child coming home”. Tenar is constantly seen in images of childhood, and Ged in images of power. If this is female coming of age, it’s coming out of darkness into light, but not to anything. Le Guin does see this even in 1971—a lesser writer would have finished the book with the earthquake that destroys the Place and the triumphant escape. The final chapters covering their escape through the mountains and Tenar’s questioning the possibilities of what she can be do a lot to ground it.

This is also beautifully written, but it isn’t told like a legend. We are straightforwardly right behind Tenar’s shoulder the entire time. If we know it’s part of a legend, it’s because we’ve read the first book. There’s none of the expectation of a reader within the world, though she never looks outside it. Earthsea itself is as solid and well rooted as ever—we saw the Terranon in the first volume, here we have the Powers of the tombs, dark powers specific to places on islands, contrasted to the bright dragons flying above the West Reach and the magic of naming.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

2. DBratman
When Le Guin published Tehanu, she said that Wizard had been the young man's story, Tombs the young woman's story, and Shore the old man's story. She just hadn't been ready to write the old woman's story yet. (Of course, that leaves open the question of what Wind is.)
Ryan Buller
3. tidfisk
Very few books (if any) have described the total and complete immersion into darkness better than Tehanu.
JS Bangs
4. jaspax
@DBratman, Wind is the dragon's story, of course :). We can talk about this more when we get to The Other Wind, but I actually like the "improved" version of death in that story less than the one we get in the first three.

I think that the differences between Ged's story and Tenar's story are largely due, not just to the male/female dichotomy, but to the specifics of their backgrounds. Tenar is much more stunted in many ways than Ged, and the story ends with her beginning to be free, with the beginning of the process of really growing up. Ged, on the other hand, has learned the hard lessons and become a real adult by the time that the first book ends.
Jo Walton
5. bluejo
DBratman -- still, in most people's lives there's something in between growing up and being old.
6. DBratman
bluejo @5: You think Le Guin doesn't know that? (I'm quoting her, not propounding my own idea.) The way she spoke, it gave me the impression of marking out four of the corners of life.
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
DBratman: I think, as I said, that's why she wrote the other three books.
8. JoeNotCharles
What a horrendous cover. Did you choose that image just to be perverse?
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
JoeNotCharles: It's the version that's in print. I agree it's vile. Though they've never had covers I've liked.
Robert Barrett
10. rwb
Rebecca Guay's covers (originally for the Aladdin imprint version of the series) are still in print, I believe. At least they were when I ordered the books for my class.
11. DBratman
bluejo @7: At the time, she thought she was done. That's why Tehanu is subtitled "The Last Book of Earthsea." Obviously she changed her mind, but that was later.
12. lampwick
The cover's from the truly execrable SciFi version.

I didn't like _The Tombs of Atuan_ when I first read it but it's become one of my favorites of the series. To me it's about a woman growing into her power, and making some bad mistakes along the way (understandable, considering the way she was raised).
Daniel Longwing
13. dlongwing
Why is there a white guy dressed like Sparrowhawk at the top of this otherwise lovely article?

Ursula K. Le Guin had something to say about "Syfy"'s treatment of her work. It would seem respectful of that work to link to a less horrible cover.
brightening glance
14. brightglance
I think policy here is to show the, or a, currently available cover. Makes sense on a practical level.

This is a more faithful cover image:
Alison Sinclair
15. alixsin
Jo pointed to the importance of names in her post on Wizard, and Tenar's regaining her name is essential for her existence in this world. The book also dates from 1971, when one of the debates around female identity centred around what a woman should call herself - whether a husband's surname was preferable to a father's.

What a difference there is in coming of age for a man and a woman in this world. Ged has to face his own shadow, his own capacity for evil. Tenar has to throw off oppressive adult and religious authority before she can even begin. Hence the underground setting, the relentless claustrophobia, and the child imagery. As a young teenager, I found it the least comfortable of the 3 books.

On the subject of covers, my original copy, a Puffin edition from the early 70s, had Ged on the cover, not Tenar.
Jesper Svedberg
16. vodalus
This is my least favourite of the Earthsea novels , (with The Farthest Shore being the favourite), but then again I'm a guy. I really liked the atmosphere in this book and that might be the most memorable and original part of the whole series, but the actual story never captured me.

When I reread it a couple of years ago, it struck me how passive Tenar is. She's not out on an adventure like Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea, instead she IS the adventure. Ged has to walk her windings as much as he has to walk the windings of the labyrinth in order to succeed. And that aspect was really interesting (if not engaging), especially in the light of what Le Guin said about her motives for writing Tehanu.
Agnes Kormendi
17. tapsi
One of my favourite books ever... And it's one of those books (they're one of those books) that have a marvelous Hungarian translation and speak on my own mothertongue to me. It's funny how I don't even know most of the English names.

I think Tenar is not passive, it's just that her "adventure" is completely different. It's not externalised the way Ged's is. She decides to oppose everything she is supposed to stand for, and does so knowing that the forces she opposes are real and cruel. And she is very young, inexperienced and incredibly ignorant. I think she's extremely brave because the only thing she knows is the dark force she has to fight - but she doesn't know what she could gain except that it would be wrong to feed them yet another man. Nobody's ever taught her mercy, but she still knows it.
18. Joel Polowin
I'm fond of the Bantam covers illustrated by Pauline Ellison. This page has links.

When I read Tombs of Atuan when I was young, I found it wonderfully frightening and rich. I reread the trilogy every year or two.
Nancy Lebovitz
19. NancyLebovitz
There's a lot to like in Tombs (the underground maze, the scariness for Ged of being subject to Tenar's choices, the young woman who just doesn't buy into the religion and wants to be a dancer in her next life (this is from memory and may not be exact)), but the gender politics might be even creepier than in Wizard. It seems to me that the social nastiness of the religion is attributed to it being all women.

By contrast, the all-male school at Roke isn't fouled up to nearly that extent, though when I reread them, I'll see if I can find clues to why Ged doesn't associate himself with it as an adult. Is it just bad memories and/or having something else to do, or is there something wrong with the place?

I think I'm a little disappointed at the religion in Tombs being simply and completely bad. I would have wished it to be a remnant of something better, rather than simply a fraud from the beginning.

The destruction of the labyrinth is satisfying in some ways, and a little too simple a moral lesson in others. I don't feel that way about the destruction of Mordor, and I'm not sure why.

Maybe, in LeGuin, the Tombs collapse because they're bad more than for more explict causes.
Jo Walton
20. bluejo
Nancy: They're not a fraud from the beginning, the actual Powers are real, Ged just feels they're not worth worshipping.
21. a-j
My least favourite as a boy, but I've come round to this one. I agree with tapsi@17 that the story is internal and alixsin@15 pretty much hits the nail I reckon. As it happens, the '70s Puffin editions were the ones I read originally and are still my favourite covers despite le Guin herself complaining about them (in an interview on this site if memory serves). With their portrayal of the characters as white European and as alixsin notes, Sparrowhawk on the cover of 'Atuan', I really shouldn't but I plead nostalgia and imprinting.
Vicki Rosenzweig
22. vicki
As Jo said, the religion of the Tombs is not a fraud: Ged isn't an atheist here, he's an anti-theist. The position there (I'm speaking for myself, not him or Le Guin) is that power does not equal goodness, and the mere existence of a supernatural entity is not reason to worship. (This is in a bunch of Terry Pratchett, as well, though outspoken atheism is dangerous on the Discworld because the gods get peevish. And lots of places outside genre, outside fiction altogether, of course.)
Nancy Lebovitz
23. NancyLebovitz
I didn't mean that religion was a fraud committed by the humans, I meant that the gods presumably implied there was some good reason (in human terms) to be devoted to them, and there wasn't any such reason.
Nancy Lebovitz
24. NancyLebovitz
On the other hand, maybe it was a sort of self-scamming-- people notice these big scary gods, think they need to do *something* in response, and invent a miserable life-sucking religion because it seemed like a good idea at the time.

One of the common human delusions is that things are worth what they cost, so that sometimes people crank up the cost of something (sometimes the cost to themselves, sometimes the cost to other people) to make the thing seem more valuable. Sometimes it's just concealed sadism, sometimes it's an effort to coerce the universe.

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