The Tombs of Atuan
January 3, 2021 9:53 PM - by Le Guin, Ursula K. - Subscribe

Tenar is chosen as high priestess to the ancient and nameless Powers of the Earth, and everything is taken from her—home, family, possessions, even her name. She is now known only as Arha, the Eaten One, and guards the shadowy, labyrinthine Tombs of Atuan. Then a wizard, Ged, comes to steal the Tombs’ greatest hidden treasure, the Ring of Erreth-Akbe. Tenar’s duty is to protect the Ring, but Ged possesses the light of magic and tales of a world that Tenar has never known. Will Tenar risk everything to escape from the darkness that has become her domain? (Book 2 of the Earthsea cycle)
posted by Cash4Lead (14 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Wow, Ged just makes allies and enemies, early mistakes haunting him, early, alliances of convenience refusing to let go. Ged is just Ged, tho. He will be going to be back to just Ged even as it's revealed he married a dragon, and she's pissed as all hell, and Ged is all like, please the dirt isn't so bad to lick up because I'm being made to by evil sorcerers who have a grudge, and the Dragon realizes she was the one protected all along, also he legit loves her. Fire and fury, she flames them good. My take on the series finale anyway. Better then season 8 of the GoT, at least.
posted by Slap*Happy at 11:10 PM on January 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

(well I'm confused)
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 12:04 AM on January 4, 2021

The Tombs of Atuan is my favorite book of the Earthsea Cycle.
posted by kyrademon at 5:59 AM on January 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

Thank you, Slap*Happy, for your Drunk History version of Tehanu. But let's stay on topic ;)
posted by Cash4Lead at 6:41 AM on January 4, 2021 [10 favorites]

I didn't love Earthsea but I love this book. 'Girl trapped in a labyrinth' resonates deeply.
posted by fleacircus at 6:55 AM on January 4, 2021

I came across the Earthsea Cycle pretty late and I read them in a row. This second book was so jarring in the sense that I expected to see Ged right from the beginning. Also this book also emphasises the vulnerability of wizards, and that there was a good chance that Ged would not have made it out of the tombs. The concept that using magic has a physical/mental cost is still radical even now, especially in comparison with Harry Potteresque magic where all you need to know is the right words, I suppose. My favourite moment was when Tenar 'sees' the labyrinth for the first time.
posted by dhruva at 7:18 AM on January 4, 2021 [4 favorites]

A single glance at those two maps and instantly more than four decades drop away, and I'm nine years old, devouring these books, hidden under a blanket with a flashlight in my upstairs bedroom, snow falling silently outside on a winter night.
posted by seasparrow at 8:02 AM on January 4, 2021 [10 favorites]

I love this book and the way it treats religion. So often it is approached as 'if gods exist/don't exist then religion is true/isn't true. This book is so much more complicated. In the end, it is shown that the nameless ones that were worshiped as gods do exist. And when Arha goes through the contents of the Hall of the Throne she finds plenty of evidence that when the nameless ones were worshiped, the priestess held great power, at least politically. So were the gods the reason the religion prospered? No answer given.

Maybe nowadays books that are marketed to young people give philosophical questions like this, but at the time I read it as a child I had never read anything like this book. I read and re-read the first trilogy as a child (that was all there was) and this one was always my favorite.
posted by Quonab at 10:25 AM on January 4, 2021 [5 favorites]

I love this book and the way it treats religion.

Me too! As a person who left the oppressive religion in which I was brought up, I felt “seen” in the way that Arha experiences doubt. The way that conflicting world views shift in and out of focus for her resonated for me.
posted by chrchr at 12:40 PM on January 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

I loved this so much. I loved Arha's prickliness, her growing up, her change of faith, I loved her story. I even loved Ged; he seems more mellow and gentler. It was striking, when he offered to stay in the mountains forever. I'm excited to read the supplemental essays, and honestly to re-read this book someday. Everyone felt a lot more real, somehow, and the world-building was fascinating.
posted by kalimac at 6:52 PM on January 4, 2021 [3 favorites]

I'm sorry you guys, I have been thinking about this book and the coup attempt this week has knocked my ability to comment all askew. I'll try again before the thread closes.

I've finished re-reading the original trilogy and as a comfort read have moved on to re-read The Telling, which is unsurprisingly appropriate to our moment.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 11:44 AM on January 8, 2021

Arha's experience of doubt resonated with me too, and it's only many years and re-readings later that I understand how she needed faith because there was no one she could trust. Manan loved her, and he and Thar were trustworthy in their own ways, but not in the way that a child needs: the trust that there are things a child must be protected from, the trust someone has the power and the will to protect you. That absence becomes the air the child Arha breathes, and in that vacuum her faith in the Nameless Ones, in being Arha, takes root. It's the discovery of trust that frees her from their service, that there are human realities she could rely on, in which she could be relied upon. It's taken me this long to understand, but her later choices trace back to this discovery - this is what is real, what you can trust, where you can be trusted.

I love that the Painted Room's images are significant later, and considering that neither Tenar nor Le Guin fully grasped that significance until they did.

I do hope things worked out for Penthe.
posted by Fish, fish, are you doing your duty? at 9:01 PM on January 9, 2021 [2 favorites]

What a lovely book! I'm reading the Earthsea books just now for the first time at the age of 48, and while it's a great pleasure to have these be new I sure wish I'd found my way to these books when I was much younger. I read plenty of other YA fantasy but I know LeGuin would have been better for me than Heinlein and Piers Anthony.

Tombs of Atuan is my favorite so far of the first three. What I like most is the inversion of the princess-in-the-tower trope, where the princess thinks she is in charge and ends up being rescued by her prisoner. It took awhile to build up but as Arha's character starts taking firm shape it gets great, then troubling, then horrifying, and then sort of sweet and romantic.

The edition I'm reading includes afterwords written by LeGuin, I think written not too long ago. I found them really helpful in considering the books from a contemporary context. Also explaining things I missed. This quote from them is particularly insightful
The word power has two different meanings. There is power to: strength, gift, skill, art, the mastery of a craft, the authority of knowledge. And there is power over: rule, dominion, supremacy, might, mastery of slaves, authority over others. Ged was offered both kinds of power. Tenar was offered only one. Heroic fantasy descends to us from an archaic world. I hadn’t yet thought much about that archaism. My story took place in the old hierarchy of society, the pyramidal power structure, probably military in origin, in which orders are given from above, with a single figure at the top. This is the world of power over, in which women have always been ranked low. In such a world, I could put a girl at the heart of my story, but I couldn’t give her a man’s freedom, or chances equal to a man’s chances. She couldn’t be a hero in the hero-tale sense. Not even in a fantasy? No. Because to me, fantasy isn’t wishful thinking, but a way of reflecting, and reflecting on reality. After all, even in a democracy, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, after forty years of feminist striving, the reality is that we live in a top-down power structure that was shaped by, and is still dominated by, men. Back in 1969, that reality seemed almost unshakable. So I gave Tenar power over—dominion, even godhead—but it was a gift of which little good could come. The dark side of the world was what she had to learn, as Ged had to learn the darkness in his own heart.
posted by Nelson at 11:42 AM on January 18, 2021 [3 favorites]

I have been thinking about the fact that Tenar loses her true name because she is given a title, and that the moment in the book where Ged restores it to her is Ged's big accomplishment in the narrative - without that, Tenar would not have been able to save them both. Arha is less a name than a loss, something taken away from her.

Names in the Kargad Lands seem to work fundamentally differently than they do in the Archipelago. Le Guin spent the first book establishing that logic - that a child is given a true name through an act of magic, that it represents the transition from childhood to adulthood. The Kargs use their true names, and it's only the accident of her birth that strips Tenar's name from her. In the ordinary course of her life, she would have used it openly and knowing it would not have given anyone any special power over her.

Rules change in the Reaches, I guess. Tenar's later life (Tehanu forward) is a chance for Le Guin to explore this problem, where fundamentally Kargish life is organized around different principles than Archipelagan, and the home truths that Ged knows and that underpin the first trilogy need to be interrogated and unpacked.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 12:59 PM on January 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

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