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The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin
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's review
Jul 23, 10

** spoiler alert ** I loved the melancholy of this book. That's been astonishing to me thus far in the Earthsea series is how much Le Guin treats loss and dislocation as central features of coming-of-age. In my experience, this thematic move has psychological truth to it, and in her fiction, it correlates with an arc that both A Wizard of Earthsea and Tombs of Atuan share: a transition from home and hearth to filling a prescribed role in society and thence to exile, wandering, new discoveries.

I don't think this is as much a Joseph Campbell sort of thing (though it does have some of those elements) as it is a ruptures-of-modernity sort of a thing. Le Guin carefully establishes the map of Earthsea -- the various regions on the periphery and the central city in Havnor. The regional cultures have fables about the Inner Lands, but their discrete cultures also endure without the oversight of the developing cities with their towers and merchants. The movement of the protagonist (Ged in Wizard of Earthsea and Tenar in Tombs of Atuan) out of this local culture--a movement that turns out to be an irreversible--represents not only the losses of coming of age but also the erosion of the local by the movements of empires and history. (For example, in Tombs of Atuan, wizard Ged reports to Tenar that he came to her region because the kingdoms of the Inner Lands are experiencing strife and competition. He wants to bring peace to these competing countries with a talisman, half of which is buried in her kingdom.

Not only is the story situated in a larger global (Earthsea-an?) context of political strife and cultural competition, but Tenar's role in her region of Earthsea (the Kargo Lands) reflects religious turmoil, shifting gender roles, and political machinations. The Priestesses who guard the religious sanctuaries and rituals of Tenar's people used to hold ultimate power, prophetesses who would guide the political decisions of the state. The kings, discontent with this influence from without, declared themselves Godpriests, the representatives of the deities on earth (like pharoahs). Thus, the Priestesses have become vestigial remnants of a matriarchal religion, now serving a more or less ceremonial function.

What Le Guin does brilliantly here is dramatize the alienation of a young girl raised within the Priestess culture, chosen to be the Nameless One (insert word I don't remember) and serve the Dark Gods of the Tombs of Atuan. Tenar's indoctrination is total, and she has memorized the underground lairs that are supposedly her territory over generations. When Le Guin severs her from this dark womb to be reborn into the world, Tenar feels all the loss that a true believer would feel, jettisoned from faith into experience, tradition into uncertainty.

A very beautiful book about the consequences of narrow doctrine instead of capacious experience, enforced ignorance (reading is a sin in Tenar's religious) instead of a self-chosen spiritual path. This is my second time reading it, and I was really struck this time by how much of the book focuses not on the dramatic wizard-in-labryinth narrative (also a lot of fun) but rather on Tenar's feelings of loss and alienation.

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