Operating in the dark

Reconstruction of part of Knossos complex, Crete (Wikimedia Commons)

Ursula Le Guin: The Tombs of Atuan (1971)
in The Earthsea Quartet 1993 Penguin

Sequels are notoriously hard things to pull off; many authors struggle. Does one offer a second helping of the same ingredients on the grounds that readers seem to like more of the same, with just a few details changed for the sake of variety? Or does the writer go with something radically different and risk alienating fans of the original?

The second of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels goes with the second option, and certainly this is tough for some readers; but Le Guin is of that class of author who not only needs to challenge herself through her craft but to also avoid treading the same tracks as before. It’s a measure of her talent as a writer that she rises magnificently to the challenge while being a doggedly resolute pathfinder. So it’s entirely appropriate that much of The Tombs of Atuan involves the protagonists negotiating the complexities of a multicursal labyrinth with all its twisting passages and dead ends.

Tenar is not just a priestess of a temple complex on the Earthsea island of Atuan, she is the reincarnation of the priestess of the Tombs, identified from birth and dedicated to the service of the Nameless Ones. Other high priestesses of the God King and the God Brothers are subservient to her, even though they are her teachers and therefore much older than her. Much time passes in an unchanging succession of rituals and customs, the years blending one into another, until she — literally — sees the light.

While A Wizard of Earthsea journeys to and from the four compass points of the Earthsea archipelago, The Tombs of Atuan is much more circumscribed, and thus more claustrophobic in being confined with the walls of a sacred enclosure, the temenos called the Place. There is a limited cast of characters: the principal ones named are Tenar and high priestesses Kossil and Thar, the minor priestess Penthe and Tenar’s personal servant the eunuch Manan.

It is not until the arrival of an interloper — one familiar to readers of A Wizard of Earthsea — that circumstances alter and events move to startling conclusion. If wizard Ged is the catalyst, Tenar proves to be the matrix that allows the reaction to take place.

It is Ged’s wizard light that Tenar sees unexpectedly in the network of tunnels under the tombstones. After trapping the male violator in the labyrinth she has to decide what to do with him; ordinarily a man would be put to death, but Tenar hesitates. She finds herself curious, drawn to the stranger who seems to have an innate power about him at the same time as he remains helpless. The Tombs of Atuan thus turns into a fascinating portrait of a growing relationship between two people who appear to have nothing in common, and of Tenar’s gradual alienation from the people she has otherwise known almost the whole of her life.

This is a novel that works at many levels, as many great works of fiction do. As well as the psychological interest that resides in the relationship between captor and captive and between conflicting beliefs, Le Guin explores the nature of a particular polity. The dead hand of stultifying sameness and complacent certainty stifle freethinking and innovation in the Place. A system that requires compliance and obedience to the institution can only in time stagnate and collapse under its own reactionary weight: here the collapse that threatens the temple complex is not only metaphorical but physically very likely, especially where chthonic powers are involved.

As is frequently the case with Le Guin she draws not just from anthropology but from the deep wells of mythology. While she makes clear that Ged’s presence on the island is because he is on a quest, this is not the dominant motif of The Tombs of Atuan. However, it’s almost impossible not to be aware of the parallels with the tale of Theseus’ stand against the Cretan Minotaur. In considering the individual elements — the voyage to the island; the mysterious labyrinth; the Ariadne-type figure (Tenar, whose sacred name is Arha, like her Greek counterpart uses a thread or clew in her early explorations of the maze); even the Minotaur (here it’s the Nameless Ones who need to be confronted) — one can’t help noticing the similarities.

When there is a sort of homecoming to Earthsea’s Havnor we may be reminded of Theseus’ return to Athens; we even witness Ged saying his duties may require Tenar to be left behind, but whether it is to be as with Ariadne on Naxos a permanent abandonment on Gont or merely temporary Le Guin — for now — leaves the reader in limbo.

But the author’s skill is in convincing us that these are flesh-and-blood individuals she’s presenting, not mere mythic archetypes, that this is both a human and a humanising tale rather than a standard modern retelling of an ancient myth.

If A Wizard of Earthsea was principally Ged’s bildungsroman, is The Tombs of Atuan then about Tenar’s own coming of age? This is to some extent true, especially as our our focus is entirely on her. But this doesn’t explain everything. For me, in my third reading of the novel, what comes through strongest is a deeply honest portrait of a young woman caught in age-old conflicts: between duty and personal fulfilment, between blind obedience to authority and making one’s own moral decisions, between conformity and spontaneity.

They are choices we’ve all had to make at some time or other in our lives, experiences that make it possible to empathise with Tenar’s dilemmas even as we realise we all are operating in the dark, in life’s own maze.


In the 2018 Ultimate Reading Challenge this fits the category an award-winning book (it was named a Newbery Honor Book for being a runner-up in the Newbery Medal literary awards for 1972)

25 thoughts on “Operating in the dark

    1. I’m so impressed that each title in the series takes a different tack, Bart, and that there is no sense of things staying static in Earthsea — especially where individuals are concerned. The Fathest Shore is truly epic in the classical tradition and a superb contrast to Tombs. Hope you enjoy it!

      I’m aiming to reread all the Earthsea books before the end of the year — a reread I feel that’s well overdue.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. earthbalm

    You just know that I’m going to be compelled to reblog this post. I’ve been waiting patiently since you mentioned the review in an earlier UKLG post. Cheers Chris.

    Liked by 1 person

        1. earthbalm

          I’ve yet to read Atwood though I did catch a very short view of the tv adaptation of “Handmaid”. Still struggling with Masefield but completed Ransom Riggs which was enjoyable if somewhat derivative and purposely cinematic.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I’ve started the Atwood twice but anger and sadness stopped me going further. Some time I’ll finish it, perhaps when life stops imitating fiction. Couldn’t bear to watch the tv adaptation, seems like depicting gratuitous violence when the reading is painful enough. And a second series? Really?

            The Peculiar Children series is an interesting premise, but having read and reviewed the first instalment I have a few reservations. Still, I’ll try again with a collection of tales in the series and see if I want to persevere. The Tim Burton version looked a bit too technicolor for me.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. earthbalm

              I’ll not be reading the second Ransom Riggs book in the series. Too much of the narrative seemed contrived to ‘fit’ the photographs for my liking.

              Your comment about attempting to read “Handmaid” is one I understand fully. With regard to the TV series, it seems, in most visual media, that CG fx means graphic violence is mandatory.

              Perhaps I’m just getting old?

              Liked by 1 person

            2. The less CGI in a film, the more I’m happy: I find it unengaging, with no emotional punch. I know it takes great skill and artistry to produce these things, but my basic approach is — if I’m paying attention to how clever the graphics are I’m not paying attention to the story telling or engaging with the characters.

              And that applies equally to stories I find it impossible to suspend my belief over, as with the Riggs novel. (Hard to judge on just one sample, but I’m disinclined to try any more of the series.)

              If the corollary of getting old is to be less tolerant of gratuitous violence then, yes, I guess we’re both getting old.

              Liked by 1 person

    1. So sorry to keep you waiting over this, Dale! I had to collect my thoughts — such they were — and I couldn’t quite frame them the way I wanted until now. I think Shore will follow a bit closer on its heels than was previously the case! Thanks for reblogging, as always I feel it’s unmerited, but still very gratifying.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Operating in the dark — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

  3. This was my favorite of the books growing up. I gave it to a friend to read as an adult and she hated it – repelled by the darkness, I think. But it spoke to something in my deeply introverted soul, and gave me a guide to the inner journey. I’m always amazed at how much wisdom LeGuin packs into her narratives. She’s a true modern mythmaker.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The idea of being trapped in endless tunnels with little or no light is terrifying, and I can see how new readers would possibly find even contemplating that traumatic. But as a metaphor for a repressive society I think it’s as good as any.

      Sadly, we are all increasingly facing a hellhole like Atuan’s labyrinth, and what was a metaphor may soon become reality if minds don’t change.

      I think it’s a sign of a good fantasy (and even mythology) when we can see some reflection of the world we live in; in this Le Guin is, as you say, a true myth maker and — in the best senses of the word — fantasist. It’s why we love her.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I enjoyed your take on “Tombs…,” I guess a re-read awaits me 😉 I was reminded more of the Yin-Yang not-complete-dichotomy (light in darkness, darkness in light) than of Greek mythology when I read it last time, but the Ariadne lead is definitely worth considering!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think you’re right, Ola, she was of a Daoist persuasion so the yin-yang aspect is not really surprising. I ought to reread Gertrude Rachel Levy’s classic study The Gate of Horn which I suspect Le Guin was familiar with — it deals in great depth with rituals connected with caves, with carvings of maze-like paths, with prehistoric tombs from different cultures.

      Liked by 2 people

        1. Amazon is selling copies in hardback and paperback at silly prices, Ola. You might however find libraries still have it archived or available on interlibrary loan.

          Or simply read a full online synopsis!

          Liked by 1 person

    1. Better late than never, I always believe: I’m now enjoying so many authors new to me whom I’ve often felt I ought to have read but never got round to, whether from ignorance, an unfounded prejudice or just pure laziness. And Le Guin’s output is so much greater than the standout novels of hers that are usually touted.

      Liked by 2 people

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