Review

The Tombs of Atuan (The Earthsea Cycle, Book 2)

by Ursula K. Le Guin

In the second book of the Earthsea tetralogy, THE TOMBS OF ATUAN, Ursula K. Le Guin momentarily shifts her focus from the wizard, Ged, to Tenar, the solitary high priestess of the "Nameless Ones." Ged doesn't appear in the novel until page 58, and he is primarily a catalyst for Tenar's spiritual transformation and liberation from the Tombs of Atuan.  

Le Guin sets the series in Earthsea: a vast and bright world, swathed with uncharted seas and islands. The islands are sparsely populated by primitive communities of fishermen, goatherders, craftsmen and the occasional fire-breathing dragon. The light of Earthsea is balanced by the claustrophobic, almost tangible darkness of the Tombs and labyrinth on the remote island of Atuan. The Tombs are the eternal resting place of the "Nameless Ones" --- "the ancient and holy powers of the Earth before the Light, the powers of the dark, of ruin, of madness." Two priestesses select Tenar as the reincarnation of the Priestess of the Tombs of Atuan (Arha) when she is just an infant. At 5, Tenar (renamed Arha according to thousands of years of tradtion) leaves her family to live among the Tombs and to protect its treasures and immortal inhabitants from intruders.  

Hoping to retrieve the powerful Ring of Erreth-Akbe from the Great Treasure room and restore peace to Earthsea, Ged sneaks into the labyrinth with only his staff's light to guide him. Tenar is walking through the black tunnels, where light is forbidden, when she sees the young wizard trapped in the Undertomb. Ged's presence constitutes sacrilege against the "Nameless Ones," since only a few women and eunuchs are allowed to wander the labyrinth. Although Tenar knows that she must kill him to avenge her masters, she is gradually seduced by Ged's kindness and the promise of life outside of the Tombs.

Le Guin's writing is concise and straightforward, but she manages to introduce complex themes in THE TOMBS OF ATUAN and to elaborate on the characters and mythologies she introduced in A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA. Her storytelling is incredibly efficient and she has admirable control over the complicated saga of Earthsea. But what makes THE TOMBS OF ATUAN so instantly engrossing, even to readers who are not fans of science fiction and fantasy? Le Guin starts with a believable character, Tenar, who is proud and arrogant, but worthy of compassion and capable of change. When Tenar discovers Ged in the Undertomb he awakens her (on at least two levels) to the possibility of liberation from servitude. Not only does Ged help Tenar escape from the tunnels of the Tombs, he enables her to acknowledge her sexual identity. Ged is actually the first man Tenar has ever seen since she was raised by and with women and eunuchs. The fact that Ged breaks into Tenar's labyrinth is Le Guin's not-so-subtle way of foreshadowing Tenar's transformation.  

Le Guin's development of the "Nameless Ones" is what ties A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA and THE TOMBS OF ATUAN together. Until Ged and Tenar begin discussing the history of the "Nameless Ones" in the Tombs and labyrinth, it is difficult to imagine that they even exist. Although Tenar lives to protect and worship them, she doesn't really know what they are or why they are powerful. She believes that they can kill intruders, but she has never seen them do it. Ged explains that "they have nothing to give. They have no power of making. All their power is to darken and destroy. They cannot leave this place; they are this place; and it should be left to them." Once Tenar realizes that the "Nameless Ones" are an oppressive presence and that they can kill her, THE TOMBS OF ATUAN becomes truly scary. But, as usual, Le Guin never reveals more about the "Nameless Ones" than she has to.

While A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA takes place on the open seas and during the day, THE TOMBS OF ATUAN explores the oppressive darkness of Atuan. Both novels, however different, follow the gradual enlightenment of a young person surrounded by darkness and confusion. For Ged and Tenar, the path to liberation involves self-knowledge and the ability to confront and embrace their greatest fears.

Reviewed by Allie Cahill on June 1, 1984

The Tombs of Atuan (The Earthsea Cycle, Book 2)
by Ursula K. Le Guin

  • Publication Date: June 1, 1984
  • Genres: Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult 12+
  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Spectra
  • ISBN-10: 0553273310
  • ISBN-13: 9780553273311