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)