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Ursula Le Guin Reading Notes: The Tombs of Atuan

Reading Notes returns! This month, I’ll be looking at assorted books by Ursula K. Le Guin. The first post on A Wizard of Earthsea, is here.

tombsThis post is quite late now, mostly because Real Life Things have gotten in the way recently. But also: I’ve been struggling with my reaction to this book, both with identifying it and putting it into words.

It’s easy in one way to look at A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan as a fairly deliberate mirroring. The Wizards’ school is a male place; the Tombs are a female one. Ged is overflowing with power and pride; Arha has both, but in a very different way. The attitudes towards magic and the old powers if the earth are also pretty much opposed.

This is an interesting and bold choice on Le Guin’s part. This second book opens with an entirely different setting, culture, and characters than the first book in the series. In fact, Ged doesn’t even appear until the book is over halfway done.

Instead, we are given the story of Tenar, who becomes Arha, the Eaten One. She is taken from her family and has almost no memory of who she was. Instead she grows up in the holy compound of the Tombs of Atuan, learning the rites she must perform.

Arha is a fascinating character to me, because she is so lost to herself for much of the book. She’s not uninteresting at any stage, but I always felt a shadow of what she might have been. Whereas Ged is pretty brash, even after he begins to learn the limits of power, Arha is much more compressed. Rather than learning the limits of power, her journey is learning to break free of the patterns of a wrong belief.

And we see her begin to do this, slowly and gradually, even before Ged shows up. But, in keeping with Arha herself, this process is understated, even hidden. It takes place in dreams, in refusals rather than in positive action. Arha cannot admit that the system in which she believes, which affords her even the small amount of power that she has, can be wrong. The moments when Penthe, her friend and narratively speaking her foil, shows her another perspective are powerful but also deeply upsetting to Arha. She reacts with puzzlement and even anger.

I wanted to talk a little bit more about the way the system is shown on Atuan, because this is the heart of my discomfort with the book. As I said before, the Tombs of Atuan are a place for women. No men can step into the Tombs themselves, although they can visit the Temple (they mostly don’t; part of the tension of the book is between the power of the new upstart male rulers of Karego-At, who have their own gods and don’t worship the Nameless Ones as much). The eunuchs who serve the priestesses can enter, but even they are limited in where they are allowed to go.

So, this is a primarily female society. And this is good in one sense, because it gives us a sense of different characters. Kossil is pretty malicious and awful, but on the other hand, we also have Thar, who is mostly kind and wise. And there’s also Arha, and Penthe, both of whom are their own people and who have personal and complex reactions to the world.

This is all much better than A Wizard of Earthsea, and at first I felt pretty relieved about that. But then I started considering the fact that “not literally all the female characters are evil!” is not actually a super high bar. And that this place that is from the very beginning of the book shown to be specifically a place for and run by women turns out to be kind of evil–it is the thing Arha has to win free of. So I have a pretty complicated reaction to the last part of the book, beginning when Ged shows up.

On the one hand, Arha’s disenchantment with the cruelties of Kossil and the demands of the gods she worships finally breaks free. She cannot do what she should and simply have Ged killed. She cannot decide what to do with him, but her decision to let him live, at least temporarily, is her own decision, based on her experience after the robbers earlier in the book died. This is one of my favorite moments in the book.

And I found it believable and compelling that, having made this decision, she didn’t simply keep going on that trajectory. Humans don’t simply make decisions and stick to them, most of the time; her conflictedness and contradictions not only keep the plot moving, they show her as a real person.

On the other hand, I remain uncomfortable with two and a half things. First: that it takes the appearance of Ged, who naturally knows everything and can teach Arha how to be good for this to actually be set into motion. I keep going back and forth here–Arha decides of her own self to save his life, but then the real resolution, her escape from the Nameless Ones and their hold over her is all led by Ged.

This includes even the half thing, which is one of the most powerful moments in the book, at the end of the “Ring of Erreth-Akbe” chapter, when Arha dies and Tenar is reborn. It’s a lovely scene, and yet–and yet I wished that a little more of it had come from Tenar herself, and a little less from Ged. It’s a good case of liking the individual thing and at the same time being aware of the pattern it’s a part of.

The second thing I remain uncomfortable with is the extent to which the book sets up female society=bad and rotten and male society=good and salvific. Granted, in this book Gont and its surrounding country isn’t coded quite so explicitly For The Men, it certainly is coded that way in the first book. And while Tenar hopes that not everyone died in the earthquake that follows their escape, again this seems like kind of a low bar.

I suspect that had the emphasis been slightly different–had Thar still been alive, had there been one woman who Tenar truly loved and respected and did not want to lose–I would feel better about this. As it is, I think that the overall effect of The Tombs of Atuan is a very mixed one for me: it’s more generous to women than A Wizard of Earthsea, and there are parts of it that I find beautiful and genuinely moving. At the same time, I can’t excuse the issues that still run through it, because they are still present, and still troubling.

Finally, I will mention that Tenar’s story, far more than Ged’s, feels unfinished. A Wizard of Earthsea was fairly self-contained, although there were hints of things Ged had not yet done. I wasn’t originally planning to re-read Tehanu, but I may do so anyway, just to feel that the story actually has a real conclusion. (I’m still going to be doing Voices and Lavinia for the last two posts in this series.) This isn’t a criticism so much as a realization that it might be part of my discomfort with the ending of the book: that it feels so unresolved.

Book source: personal library

Book information: 1970, Atheneum Books; adult/YA fantasy


By Maureen LaFerney

My name is Maureen. I currently work as a library assistant in a public library in the Indianapolis area, and also just so happen to be a voracious reader. I frequently end up under a cat.

7 replies on “Ursula Le Guin Reading Notes: The Tombs of Atuan”

Very thoughtful responses. I hesitate to re-read because these are part of the bedrock of my imagination. I read them when I was somewhere in the 10-15 y.o. range.

I just finished re-listening to this – well, now i don’t know that I need to write my own review because yours echoes my own thoughts so precisely! I loved these enough to reread them several times as a teen, but I had such a hard time getting past the female, and especially dark, unknowable female religion is bad, as opposed to rational, male belief systems. Still trying to decide if I want to go on to Tehanu or not.

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