The Tombs of Atuan: In Which I Venture into the Unknown

The Tombs of Atuan oval

I survived (and enjoyed) my reread of A Wizard of Earthsea. Now I’m striking off into the wilderness. The Tombs of Atuan is the second book of the Earthsea Cycle and the first of the cycle I haven’t read. I know nothing about it beyond what the back-cover blurb says. It will be fun to see Ged through someone else’s eyes. I hope Tenar is a good character.

Starting on Saturday, February 17, I’ll read a chapter a day (though I’ll do the prologue and Ch. 1 together, as the prologue is very short) until I reach the end. This one is a bit shorter than A Wizard of Earthsea, but it has more chapters (12). I’ll post my reaction to each chapter in the comment section of this blog entry, then finish off with a full review post.

Some questions I have going in:

  1. Does Tenar get to be awesome, or is she merely a weak, foolish woman?
  2. Now that Ged has finished his initial symbolic adventure, is he going to relax and have a bit of fun?
  3. Is Vetch in this one? I wanted Vetch to be my best friend until he cheerfully put down his sister and gave her name away to Ged, but even though I’m disappointed in him, I still like him. I’m going to guess he’s not here.
  4. Are there dragons in this story? It just feels as if there should be dragons. I know there are dragons in the next book because its cover features a giant dragon eye.
  5. This book won the Newbery, which makes me very optimistic. (This isn’t a question, but ah well.)
  6. Could someone please teach me how to make shiny book covers?

That’s it for now. Heeeeeeere we goooooooo…

12 thoughts on “The Tombs of Atuan: In Which I Venture into the Unknown

  1. Prologue and Chapter 1: The Eaten One:

    Just as Ged’s story begins in the familiar pattern of the hero’s journey (the boy raised in obscurity sets out into the world), Tenar’s begins in the familiar pattern of the heroine’s journey (the girl is imprisoned, forced to flee into the Other World, or both). It’s always interested me that men’s and women’s stories, no matter how they continue, often begin in these two distinct ways. There are exceptions, of course, but in fairy tales in particular—including fairy tales with very active female protagonists who possess plenty of agency—men strike out on their adventures, while women are forced into theirs. While many assume the women’s version is inferior or implies inferiority in the female characters, that’s actually not true at all. The “heroine’s journey” opening does something the “hero’s journey” opening can’t: it puts the protagonist immediately at the mercy of forces that seem more powerful than her. These forces are not on her side. She has to rise to the occasion instead of automatically being destined for, and entitled to, greatness.

    The tiny prologue and the short first chapter of THE TOMBS OF ATUAN give us a portrait of helplessness. The nameless man and woman are helpless to save their daughter from the lonely fate that has been chosen for her. The little girl goes seemingly passively through the ceremony that takes away her name and identity. The ritual itself drives the participants in a certain direction. Only one character in this section of the book makes a choice: the girl’s mother. She chooses to love the daughter she knows will soon be taken from her. Her husband characterises this as the wrong choice, but I’m wondering if this is the last time we’re going to hear about it.

    So far, colour me intrigued. Next up, we have Chapter 2: The Wall Around the Place.

  2. Chapter 2: The Wall Around the Place:

    This chapter is about half description of the temple complex in which Tenar (now Arha) lives. The rest is devoted to Arha, who grows in the course of the chapter from about six to about twelve. Le Guin gives us a character more sympathetic than Ged was at the beginning of A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA; though Arha isn’t particularly likable—we see her mock the kind old eunuch who looks after her and cause another girl to be whipped when she knows she herself won’t be punished for the same transgression—the reasons for her unpleasantness are also clear. She is rebelling against her imprisonment, even though she knows there’s no use in it. The final scene of the chapter, in which Arha weeps in Manan’s arms after declaring that her special status as the Eaten One means she can’t be punished, highlights Arha’s loneliness and helplessness. Her rebellion has hurt her friend without affecting her situation, and there’s nothing she can do to change that.

    We also get a little glimpse of the outside world in Penthe’s story of her childhood by the sea and the time she saw the ships pass by. The temple is on an island in the Kargad Lands, which means the story is set amongst the white barbarians who acted as alien invaders in the early chapters of A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA. Now perspective has been shifted; Arha and Penthe see the “sorcerers’ islands” as a place where “all the people are the color of dirt and they can cast a spell on you as easy as winking.” When Ged does eventually turn up, he’s going to be the alien invader.

    Tomorrow, I’ll tackle Chapter 3: The Prisoners.

  3. Chapter 3: The Prisoners:

    So far, THE TOMBS OF ATUAN has been quite a claustrophobic book; like Arha, the reader is confined to the temple. Chapter 3 takes this to extremes as Arha ventures for the first time into the Undertombs, where light is forbidden, to decree the fates of three prisoners held there. This chapter gives us a good idea of the rituals that govern Arha’s world, as well as some hints of rules and bits of knowledge that are doubtless going to become important in later chapters.

    Le Guin is letting us get quite a bit closer to Arha than we ever did to Ged. It’s easier to feel for this trapped, bored, furious girl than it was for the child wizard with the arrogance problem. It’s also interesting to remember that the first three chapters of A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA are quite wide-ranging, with Ged travelling to Ogion’s house and then to Roke, whereas Arha has been confined in the same place throughout the early chapters of her book. Even Ged’s studies, which all take place at the same school, expand his mind and his powers, while Arha’s world is cramped and motionless.

    We’ll see if this will change in Chapter 4: Dreams and Tales.

  4. Chapter 4: Dreams and Tales:

    We can see that while Arha is still confined, and still unhappy about it, she is beginning to work within her confinement towards a sort of freedom. While her memory of the prisoners haunts her, she is able to return to the Undertombs and begin to master them. She enters the Labyrinth for the first time and starts to learn its twists and turns. Her imprisonment is tempered by the fact that she alone has the right to explore in full the dark world under the temple. It’s not freedom, but it’s a certain type of power.

    We also get a different sort of hint of potential escape here as Thar tells the story of Erreth-Akbe and his battle with Intathin. It’s an infodump that will doubtless become important soon, but it’s also an opportunity for Arha to become acquainted with the idea of wizards and magic. Unlike in the last chapter, when she refused even to think of the people from across the sea, here she eagerly takes in the story.

    The chapter ends with Manan crying, “A half for me, a half!”, a statement related to the game he is playing with another servant; however, the word “half” has already been important in the chapter, as Arha has just learned that the treasure of the tombs includes half of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe. The other half is missing. Arha herself is somewhat of a half-person, discontented without knowing why, longing for power and importance but confined forever to the temple. I’m suspecting that in the course of the book, half will become whole.

    Tomorrow, I’ll read Chapter 5: Light Under the Hill.

  5. Chapter 5: Light Under the Hill:

    People giving advice to writers today often emphasise that it’s necessary to start the action as soon as possible. Forget a slow build-up; plunge right into the story, or your readers will lose interest. I think a lot of readers have now been conditioned to see this as the only proper way to begin a book. They get confused or impatient when the protagonist isn’t running up a mountain, pursued by trolls, by the end of Chapter 1. On the other hand, I’m a little bit older and sometimes find that books now begin too abruptly. If I’ve only had a few pages to get to know the protagonist, why should I care that she’s in danger?

    Ursula K. Le Guin is old school, and I appreciate that. It’s not until the middle of Chapter 5 that this novel’s plot truly begins. And you know what? Good. By this point, I’m completely invested in Arha as a character. I care about her. I know the intruder in the Tombs is Ged, and I care about him too, which means I get one of my favourite reading sensations: seeing two characters pitted against each other and not knowing which one to root for. I mean, clearly, I’m ultimately rooting for Ged, as Arha’s belief system is flawed, but I’m also rooting for Arha to figure stuff out without destroying herself in the process. In Chapter 5, Le Guin gives us a layered character conflict before the characters in question say two words to each other, and she wouldn’t be able to do that without the slow, claustrophobic build-up. Here’s to slow-played plots. *Raises a defiant glass*

    Next up is Chapter 6: The Man Trap.

  6. Chapter 6: The Man Trap:

    Le Guin is here giving us the third-person equivalent of the unreliable narrator, and it works beautifully. This chapter is all Arha behaving in ways she thinks she understands perfectly but pretty clearly doesn’t. She tells herself that she is tormenting Ged, giving him the cruel death he deserves, yet she acts to preserve, not end, his life, and she goes out of her way to have contact with him. She is also motivated, though she never acknowledges it, by her memory of the three prisoners and the death by thirst and starvation she decreed for them. We can see the fascination behind her anguish and anger at this intruder in her domain.

    I am looking forward to Chapter 7: The Great Treasure.

  7. Chapter 7: The Great Treasure:

    I am very much connecting with this book, even though it also gives me the slightly uneasy feeling that Ged is here to Teach the Foolish, Naïve Woman How to Feel. Some of the dialogue in this chapter nudges me in that direction. On the other hand, Arha’s point of view is still very absorbing, and her reaction to Ged, with her inability to understand her own motives colouring everything she does, makes her seem more and more human. The way she saves his life by taking him to the treasure room he’s been seeking seems like the height of naivety, which it probably is, but it also works symbolically: this strange man from the outer world has become a treasure of sorts to her, something that is wholly hers and that gives her a connection to the world outside her domain. This is reinforced by Ged’s electrifying final line of the chapter, in which he calls her by her original name. Le Guin is not really a “cliffhanger at the end of every chapter” person, but this is the end-of-chapter cliffhanger to end all end-of-chapter cliffhangers. Now I really want to read on, though I won’t until tomorrow.

    Next up: Chapter 8: Names. Ooooooooh.

  8. Chapter 8: Names:

    This tiny chapter propels Arha towards the crisis point. Everything is coming to a head: a dream featuring her mother’s voice has confirmed that Ged did know her old name, she has cursed Kossil in the full hearing of many other priestesses, and she has made the decision to go back into the Tombs at a moment when her fascination with Ged is likely to spell disaster for her. It’s interesting how even though she doesn’t make a huge deal of the remembered name, it affects her behaviour. She has made a choice, though she never truly expresses it aloud. Le Guin only very rarely calls her “Arha” after the dream sequence; she is mostly “the girl” or “she.” Something has shifted inside her, and inside the story.

    Things are bound to get even more intriguing in Chapter 9: The Ring of Erreth-Akbe.

  9. Chapter 9: The Ring of Erreth-Akbe:

    It’s interesting to think about how little is actually happening in this novel. The entirety of the plot so far has been: girl claimed by temple, girl grows up and learns about her domain, man tries to steal treasure, girl traps man in underground labyrinth but refuses to kill him, priestess gets suspicious, man finds treasure. The story is as claustrophobic as the setting, the opposite of A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA, where Ged sails all over Earthsea in pursuit of the shadow. In this chapter, we’ve been driven to the most enclosed space of all: the treasure room at the heart of the labyrinth. As in the last book, however, the climax (or, at least, the beginning of the climax) comes when Ged says his name. This series could be subtitled “Everything Changes When Ged Says HIs Name.”

    Cringey gender roles check: “When she was quiet he lifted her, and set her like a child on the great chest where he had lain.” Otherwise, we’re doing much better this time around.

    It may all get a bit murdery in Chapter 10: The Anger of the Dark.

  10. Chapter 10: The Anger of the Dark:

    I predicted that things would get a bit murdery in this chapter, and indeed, they did. Rundown of the murdery bits:

    1) Manan tries to murder Ged (via shove).

    2) Ged murders Manan (via wizard light).

    3) Kossil tries to murder Tenar and Ged (via locking them forever in the Tombs).

    4) The Nameless Ones try to murder Tenar and Ged (via earthquake).

    5) Tenar and Ged probably murder a bunch of priestesses and eunuchs (also via earthquake), though it’s not clear how true that is.

    All this happens without much actually, well, HAPPENING. Tenar spends this chapter paralysed and unable to make decisions without Ged basically ordering her to do so. It does get a little irritating, though realistically, any teenage girl under the sway of powerful forces she has until recently thought were gods would probably react like that. Le Guin allows Tenar to be weak in this chapter, and maybe that’s okay.

    We’re finally out of the Tombs, so return tomorrow for Chapter 11: The Western Mountains.

  11. Chapter 11: The Western Mountains:

    If you don’t count the prologue, this is the first chapter that takes place outside the temple walls. It’s all a little more complex than it could be. In a lot of books, this would be the chapter where, metaphorically speaking, the music swelled, signifying the completeness of the protagonist’s happiness. Instead, everything is a little flat and anticlimactic. Tenar is free, but she’s discontented. She doesn’t fit anywhere any more. Though Ged has plans for her, she doesn’t feel she fits into them either. Nothing is pat or satisfying here. The story has ragged edges.

    The end will come tomorrow with Chapter 12: Voyage.

  12. Chapter 12: Voyage:

    The end of this story is bittersweet, which makes a good contrast to Ged’s complete triumph in A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA. Tenar is both free and not free, gone from the temple but still nursing her memory of the three prisoners she killed, not to mention the death of Manan. Le Guin mentions in her afterword that in 1969, the idea of a woman as a competent epic hero was beyond imagination, and you can see that element in this chapter as Tenar is unable to imagine herself as not deserving punishment. She even wants to be left alone on a desert island to atone for her old life. However, I think I prefer the complexity of the end of Tenar’s story to the simplicity of the end of Ged’s. Ged has to come to terms with his own dark side; Tenar has to come to terms with the fact that she’s not ALL dark side. It’s understandable that she’s not wholly successful.

    That’s it for THE TOMBS OF ATUAN. In a day or so, I’ll post my thoughts on the novel as a whole, then, a day or two after that, move on to THE FARTHEST SHORE. I liked TOMBS a lot, so I’m sure I’ll have much to say about it.

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