While The Wizard of Earthsea is in many ways a quest narrative that follows Ged, a young wizard who must hunt down the dark shadow that he has loosed into the world through his own act of foolish pride, most of The Tombs of Atuan is not about a physical journey. Although Ged himself is essentially on another quest in this novel, he only plays a secondary role – the book is centered on the Tenar, a young priestess who guards the treasure that he is seeking.
Tenar was taken from her family when she was only five years old and trained in the ways of the Nameless Ones. The dark forces whom Tenar serves are silent rulers of not only their ancient above-ground temple, set in the midst of a religious complex, but also rule the mysterious underground labyrinth of which Tenar is put in charge. Because she has been separated from her parents and raised by other priestesses and religious acolytes, this dark world is all that Tenar knows – and so she eagerly accepts the labyrinth as her own domain. When the wizard Ged violates the sanctity of the underground caverns on his quest to regain possession of a powerful amulet, she is furious that he desecrated the sacred domain of the Nameless Ones. But she is also fascinated by Ged, whose presence makes her realize that there is more to the world and to life than just the darkness that she inhabits.
I could sympathize with Tenar more than I could with Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea, although that had little to do with the characters themselves or the situations that they were in. Le Guin’s writing style is different in The Tombs of Atuan than in A Wizard of Earthsea and readers are given a lot more insight into Tenar’s emotional state and thoughts than they are given in The Wizard of Earthsea. Therefore, Tenar is a very sympathetic character despite the fact that her plight as a young, isolated priestess will be initially unfamiliar to modern readers. It soon becomes clear, though, that her position amongst other priestess who are vying for political power in the religious compound is comparable in many ways to other forms of isolation and competition amongst females. And because Le Guin’s writing illuminates the emotions of her characters in The Tombs of Atuan, even Ged becomes a more sympathetic character than he seemed in A Wizard of Earthsea.
As Le Guin explores Tenar’s isolation and confusion, the narrative becomes a distinctly feminist tale – something else that appeals to me personally. The young priestess is given no choice as to whether or not she will serve the Nameless Ones; she is trapped in a role that should theoretically give her more power than the other women in her society and even the other priestesses, but her position has become merely a formality. The god-kings of Kargad no longer truly believe in the power of the Nameless Ones and so they do not bother to consult with the high priestess regarding warfare and other matters of political importance. The god-kings and their acolytes only worship and honor the Nameless Ones through traditional rituals but are not spiritually devoted to these dark powers, and so the idea that Tenar has any real power of her own is an illusion. She is at the mercy of the priestesses of the god-kings.
The Tombs of Atuan is not, however, about debunking the existence of spiritual forces in a Fantasy setting. The Nameless Ones, though virtually silent for many generations, show themselves to be very real at the end of the novel. The major truth that Tenar must realize, then, is not that dark forces are false, but rather that she does not have to be trapped in the role that society has placed upon her – she does not have to serve the Nameless Ones and can choose another path for her life.
I found the underground setting of The Tombs of Atuan to be a fascinating way to articulate the ways that society can isolate women and turn them against each other as they vie for any power that might allow them a bit more freedom than is traditionally afforded to other women in their society. Tenar’s complicated relationship with the labyrinth itself gives the reader a lot to think about, as does the surprising revelation that despite their silence, the Nameless Ones remain an incredibly powerful force. The decisions that Tenar eventually makes near the end of the novel give an empowering but realistic picture of the challenges that women face when they decide to reject traditionally acceptable roles. But rest assured that despite its feminist storyline, The Tombs of Atuan remains a very entertaining novel as well. The conflict between darkness and light, as well as Tenar’s more personal inner conflict, will draw any reader into the story and keep them engrossed until the last pages.
Additional note: after this novel, I have no doubts that I want to continue reading Le Guin’s other books – so come back for reviews of the next several Earthsea novels, as well as several others that are sitting on my shelf.
This review participates in my Focus on Fantasy Reading Challenge. To find out more about the reading challenge and contest, view my original Focus on Fantasy Post.