The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin
With her follow up to A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin had the opportunity to write another story for the wizard of her first fantasy novel. Sparrowhawk was a widely loved character — a hero who was positioned to take centre stage in an adventure of even greater scope. Instead, Le Guin centred the sequel on a new character, a choice that allowed readers who were unfamiliar with her work to jump right in. On the one hand, you could look at this as a way for Le Guin to return to her fantasy world free of the constraints of what was established by the previous episode, but there was a lot more to her change of protagonist than the chance of a fresh start. While the new book would trace the shadow of similar themes this time she decided to explore them from the perspective of a female character, a girl whose coming of age would entail a much murkier journey than that of the young wizard boy who set out ahead of her. It was called The Tombs of Atuan and fittingly for such a brooding title it would go far deeper than anything Le Guin had written before.
In The Tombs of Atuan we meet a girl named Tenar.
We’re told she’s doomed from the very first page. Her family have known for a long time that she’s to be sacrificed by the kingdom’s religious order, but since they’re so poor they’re incapable of doing anything about it. Saddest of all, because Tenar is just a young child when she’s taken from her family the one memory she retains of them is the strong sense of love she experienced around their kitchen fire. Many months later she’s forced to forsake this love when she’s put at the centre of a dark ceremony in which we discover she is thought to be a reincarnated high priestess. Her sacrifice, as it turns out, is to surrender her identity and to become known as Arha, the eaten one and ruler of the tombs.
Tenar enjoys little privilege in years that follow. Despite her hefty title she’s still at the mercy of a cult who treat her more like a puppet than the leader of a religious order. When they teach her their ways, she obediently fulfils her role in countless mundane rituals until the day she’s asked to choose the method of execution for a group of shackled prisoners. As a girl who isn’t naturally inclined to such acts of evil, Tenar undergoes a deep spiritual crisis after she declares that the prisoners should be starved to death. The one source of strength she’s been allowed to draw upon comes from the tombs. In there, the nameless powers she’s been taught to worship reside in a maze full of treasures that only she, the high priestess Arha, is allowed to enter. Even so, as a mere child, she battles with the knowledge that these nameless powers could demand such an awful sacrifice. She dreads the day she’ll be required to take part in murder of a another prisoner, but as it turns out it’s her next captive who helps her to put the crisis into perspective: Sparrowhawk, the hero from A Wizard of Earthsea, becomes trapped in her labyrinth tomb, and only through him does Tenar learn that the burning fire she remembers is of greater importance than she’s ever known.
A core theme of the book is indoctrination.
Tenar is less than six years old when she’s brought to the desert tombs, a deeply impressionable age when her sense of right and wrong is informed by the people around her. From the outset, the priestesses teach her to idolise an empty throne. They dose her with ceremonial drugs and tell her she’s lived hundreds of lives before. As high priestess, she should remember all that has happened in her past lives, but whenever she fails to do so she’s only reassured that the forgotten memories will come back to her eventually. At times, it’s clear that both Tenar and the priestesses are walking a thin line between make-believe and faith, but any doubts they foster are quickly squelched by the rare successes Tenar achieves. It’s these successes that warp her judgement the most because they’re only ever experienced when she demonstrates a capacity for vindictiveness or for hate. Day by day her adolescent urge to form an identity is corrupted to such an extent that she’s able to reject just about any concept contrary to the order’s beliefs. Inevitably, she ends up locked behind the walls of her religion and the conflict of the novel comes into view when she’s faced with the possibility that it’s the tombs that should be abandoned, not the world as a whole. It’s a hugely universal message. It could be applied to just about anybody lost in an overly zealous movement, but the tone that Le Guin uses throughout is a subtle and emotionally complex one, partly accomplished due to her change in writing style.
A Wizard of Earthsea utilised an omniscient narrative that allowed the reader a crow’s eye view of the land. In it, we were privy to a thorough look at its history and culture. It was definitely a personal story, but with The Tombs of Atuan, Le Guin often takes us closer to the reality of the place by constraining our view to that of a young girl.
When Tenar is introduced to the strange religious order, we experience the surreal aspects of the place as she does, a child who has yet to establish a comprehensive picture of the world and who is in danger of accepting disturbing behaviour as the norm. The exposition we do get is usually imparted from characters who are as limited as Tenar or who can just as easily lie or be mistaken. This means that at no stage can you say whether or not Tenar really is the reincarnated high priestess and that you might even doubt whether there are any nameless powers sitting on the empty throne. In fact, for much of the novel you’re left with the same confusion as Tenar when she’s faced with such questions. Even if you know from the previous book that magic does exist, it merely serves to add an extra layer of mystery that makes you wonder if she’s caught up in some malevolent witchcraft or if the religious order that stole her away is only performing a pale imitation of it. The mood that Le Guin manages to strike with all of this is one of genuine fear and insecurity, something that only doubles in intensity once the famous wizard Sparrowhawk is caught in Tenar’s domain.
As the protagonist in A Wizard of Earthsea Sparrowhawk went through an experience that left very few plot points unresolved. It begged the question, was there any real need to write a sequel when he’d already overcome his darkest hour? In The Tombs of Atuan Le Guin doesn’t just answer this by shifting the focus onto Tenar, she turns it on its head by making Sparrowhawk the young girl’s chief antagonist — one whose life stands in stark contrast to her own. Much like Sparrowhawk at the beginning of his story Tenar is a child taken from her family. Though Sparrowhawk was removed from a squalid life for the chance of something better, Tenar is taken from a loving mother to be sacrificed at the altar of something dark and mysterious. On top of this, Sparrowhawk’s spiritual growth on the wild open sea was a tremendous adventure compared to Tenar’s introverted descent into the tombs. And while it was Sparrowhawk’s task to face a great evil head-on, Tenar discovers that it’s hers to run as far from it as she can. The comparisons are rewarding to find in their own right. They all intermingle to help each book enrich the other. But where Le Guin’s true inspiration struck was in making Sparrowhawk as much of a catalyst for Tenar’s growth as his own shadow acted in A Wizard of Earthsea. As her prisoner, he’s often the victim of Tenar’s terror. She interrogates him for information about the wider world and lashes out when she doesn’t like the answers she receives. Sparrowhawk’s response is consistently humble and though at times you might only be treated to surface reactions you know that because he doesn’t accept viciousness as the girl’s defining trait she must be capable of becoming a better person. All things considered, it’s a credit to Le Guin that even for those who don’t know Sparrowhawk’s backstory it’s plain to see how he could become her salvation even when she perceives him to be such a threat.
Across much of the Earthsea saga, a major through-line for each character is the lessons they must face as a result of having been born with power. In the case of Tenar, it’s made all the more clear because in spite of being named Arha the reincarnated priestess, magic has practically nothing to do with her struggle, rather, the social structure that surrounds the tombs is what she has to fight in order to learn.
Tenar’s desert settlement is led by a woman whose innate cruelty creates an oppressive atmosphere for everyone who lives there. Though she isn’t necessarily a believer of the dark powers, she utilises their reputation to maintain her authority and to control the people around her. The only way Tenar can achieve any independence and come close to claiming her position as the true high priestess is by acting just as cruel as this de facto leader. You do see heartbreakingly poignant moments of friendship pass between Tenar and the other characters, but her confidence is so shaky that if anybody is ever clumsy enough to doubt her lineage as the reincarnated priestess, she’s just as likely to enact some childish revenge as she is to forgive. On a broader scale, these moments of retribution aren’t always a conscious choice but can be seen as the result of years of institutional conditioning. For centuries, generation after generation of girls have been brought to the tombs, initiated into their archaic ways and offered no means of escape other than advancement through the ranks. Tenar could easily justify her negative behaviour as the consequence of a damaged life, but to actually overcome her past and find a source of power that isn’t tied to her title, she’s required to take ownership of every aspect of her being. Again, you can see how The Tombs of Atuan has some parallels with A Wizard of Earthsea, but there are a number of key differences that come as result of Le Guin’s shift to a purely female perspective. After all, it’s not just for a change in scenery that the majority of the story takes place in a labyrinth. Tenar’s domain is as intricate as her fractured identity and reflective of the much more mysterious path to freedom she has to follow compared to what Sparrowhawk went through. Yes, the rooms are full of treasure, but because the tradeoff requires her to suppress her personality, no matter how much shes led to believe that she’s lucky to have them, the place ends up being a prison that has to be escaped rather than a hallowed ground that keeps her safe. As a novelist, Le Guin felt she spent the early part of her life writing like a man, if only unconsciously, and that if there was a heroic myth for women it would need to take the form of an inward odyssey rather than a trip across a dangerous land. Le Guin’s outlook on gender dynamics was something that continued to evolve throughout her career, but it’s clear from the Earthsea books alone that while she passionately valued her femininity, she also saw a huge amount of worth in combining these alternate mindsets. Nowhere does this interplay become as interesting than when you compare the abuse of power Tenar commits against her loyal servant, a eunuch who she constantly belittles simply because he’s so utterly incapable of regarding her as anything other than a rare jewel, with her relationship to Sparrowhawk, who through his practice of conscientiousness shows her that we can empathise with the people who hurt us and how what’s truly important is to be fully accountable for ourselves.
Names are magic in the Earthsea. They strike so close to the essence of a person that wizard’s can actually use them to cast their spells. Though at times, they’ll have to find a name in the pages of an ancient manuscript, others they’ll simply know it by instinct.
When Sparrowhawk is Tenar’s prisoner, he only realises her true name after he suffers under her care and sees the good in her nonetheless. At no point does he beg her for mercy or attempt to manipulate her into revealing a hidden part of herself. Instead, the quiet compassion he treats her with is what opens her heart to possibilities beyond her role as the high priestess, which in turn allows her to decide what the rest of her life will become. This is an act of immense importance for Tenar, but it’s also one that has extraordinary ramifications for the entire land of the Earthsea. In the previous novel, Sparrowhawk happened across a broken ring that was said to signal the inauguration of a golden age if only it could be united with its other half. As it turns out, it isn’t just Sparrowhawk’s fate to do this, but Tenar’s too. As the keeper of the other half, when she claims her freedom she’s also able to partner with Sparrowhawk to mend the ring and usher in a time when kingdoms will no longer fight, a time that is only brought about when both the masculine and feminine have been empowered.
Still, regardless of all the grand thematic elements on show, this is first and foremost Tenar’s story and a profoundly intimate meditation on personal exploration.It’s obvious to say that the defining step in Tenar’s growth is in her rejection of her identity as the high priestess. Whether it’s real or imagined, in that role she was essentially just a vessel for the idea of Arha, the eaten one, and for the warped beliefs of her religion. She had no ability to change the rigid customs that crystalised around the tombs. In point of fact she could only achieve a sense of security by reinforcing them. Even so, when she abandons the only way of life she’s ever known and helps Sparrowhawk to reforge the broken ring, she might be making the mistake of rejecting the demands of one society only to mindlessly fulfil the needs of another.
Tenar doesn’t know anything about the land that Sparrowhawk comes from and because she’s had such a sheltered existence she couldn’t possibly be concerned whether they’re at peace or at war. Nevertheless, it was by her own will that she abandoned the tombs and you can appreciate how real the freedom she experiences is through the pure terror she feels while delving into it. It’s in these closing events that The Tombs of Atuan offers some of the most sobering passages. Together, Tenar and Sparrowhawk trek across the bone-dry land of her desert and into fertile mountains at its edge. The trip is an exhilarating one, like that of a child granted the sight of colour for the first time, but it isn’t long before her expectations meet reality head-on. When Sparrowhawk achieved his own epiphany in A Wizard of Earthsea, the story drew to close as he fell into harmony with the universe. While it was an affecting moment, you didn’t really see what kind of change it provoked in his character. The wizard Tenar meets in The Tombs of Atuan is a much more solitary man than the one we knew before, if not in spite of his empathy than certainly because of it. Sparrowhawk sees himself as but a leaf on the wind, going wherever he’s supposed to be, not bound to anyone or anything. As Tenar realises that he has his own path to follow and that they can’t be tied to one another, the thought of it is a disturbing one – it would mean she’s going to be left alone. Understandably, she begins to question the wizard’s intentions. As he uses his magic to manipulate the world around them, it isn’t unfair for her to wonder just how much she can trust him not to have manipulated her too. When they prepare to disembark on Sparrowhawks boat and be rid of the land that enslaved her, he turns his back to her and exposes her choice for what it is. She has a knife in her hand. She could slit his throat if she wanted. He’d let her do that if it would help her understand. The decision she made to leave the labyrinth was hers alone and as they ready to set sail together it’s one she has to make again. In the tombs she might as well have been dead. Choosing life, Le Guin appears to say, is a purposeful act, and something you might have to do more than one time.
At the end of the day, if you count yourself among the people who adore this book, it’s probably not just for the lofty ambitions that shift it into the realm of literary fiction. It’s because it’s the soft-spoken story of a girl finding power in the wrong place, being brave enough to leave it behind, and eventually returning to a self-sustained source, nourished by her love for a world that’s bigger than she’s even begun to imagine. There’s a fire that burns for Tenar. She knew it first in her mother’s kitchen. Countless years later and a thousand miles from where she started she returns to it like a child who’s finally come home.
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