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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Ursula K. Le Guin's The Tombs of Atuan: Musings

 Ursula K. Le Guin's The Tombs of Atuan was a Newbery Honor winner.

Tombs is a story of redemption. As in the first book in Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy, the central character is not yet an adult. She is redeemed by choosing to reject the evil beings that she has worshiped, and served, for as far back as she can remember. The person who places that choice before her is Ged, who was the central figure in A Wizard of Earthsea. Ged is important in this book, but the story is told, in the third person, about Tenar, who was Arha.

Arha means "eaten one." Arha was taken from her parents at about age six, to be the new high priestess of the Tombs of Atuan. She was chosen because her time of birth corresponded to the time of the death of the previous high priestess. The beings she is consecrated to are Old Powers, which are apparently potent evil spirits, immortal, which are centered on some of the localities in Earthsea. Ged encountered one of them in Wizard. There are three religions, intertwined, in The Place, the isolated area where Arha lives, and will live for the rest of her life, if she remains in service to the Old Powers. There is a temple, usable, but fallen into disrepair, for her religious rites. There are also two other temples, to the twin gods, and the god-king, which latter is the emperor of the Kargad lands. The people of the Kargad lands live on four islands, Atuan being one of them. They are fairer-skinned than people living elsewhere in Earthsea, and speak a different language, and engage in worshipp of these gods.

In Wizard, Ged was given an old piece of metal, apparently half of an arm-ring. In Tombs, he has come to steal the other half from the treasures in the labyrinth of tunnels under the temples and other buildings of The Place. He is trapped there. Arha discovers this, and visits him, more than once, in the tunnels. Ged, who has wizardly powers, and has been trained to discover the names of things, tells her her true name, Tenar. Tenar tells Kossil, the high priestess of the god-king, that there is a man in the labyrinth, which is forbidden. (Kossil, by the way, does not believe in any supernatural power or being. She just respects power. So she serves the god-king.) Ged tells Tenar that she has a choice. She can leave him to die, or kill him, Or she can let him escape The Place, and go with him. She decides to go with him, because she has come to realize that the Old Powers are evil:

"Did you truly think them dead? You know better in your heart. They do not die. They are dark and undying, and they hate the light: the brief, bright light of our mortality. They are immortal, but they are not gods. They never were. They are not worth the worship of any human soul."
She listened, her eyes heavy, her gaze fixed on the flickering lantern.
"What have they ever given you, Tenar?"
"Nothing," she whispered.
"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. They should not be denied nor forgotten, but neither should they be worshiped. (p. 106.)

Ged uses the magic of Patterning to join the two pieces of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe, and places the whole on Tenar's arm. The whole Ring shows nine runes, one of which had been lost to the mages of Earthsea. It is the rune of Binding, and Ged, and the other mages, hope that its re-forming, and their knowledge of it, will allow a king to rise again over all of Earthsea.

Ged and Tenar escape. The Old Powers, angered, cause the tunnels to collapse, killing Kossil. (Ged has held off the earthquake that the Old Powers have been trying to release, until he and Tenar escape the area.)

Ged and Tenar go to Havnor, the center of the islands of Earthsea, and the book ends. Having summarized the book, I'll muse a bit. (The Wikipedia article on the book has an even better summary.)

LeGuin pays attention to nature in her writing: And Tenar listened to the sea, a few yards below the cave mouth, crashing and sucking and booming on the rocks, and the thunder of it down the beach eastward for miles. Over and over and over it made the same sounds, yet never quite the same. It never rested. On all the shores of all the lands in all the world, it heaved itself in these unresting waves, and never ceased, and never was still. The desert, the mountains; they stood still. They did not cry out forever in a great, dull voice. The sea spoke forever, but its language was foreign to her. She did not understand. (138) And she knows how to describe!

The book is well written. Although her writing is not showy, Le Guin is a master, or mistress, of language. As in Wizard, the book is rich in anthropological insight, in this case about the priestesses and their life and practices. And they are, to Le Guin, and to Ged, who knows the secret names of pebbles, rabbits, and small plants:
He was one whose power was akin to, and as strong as, the Old Powers of the earth; one who talked with dragons, and held off earthquakes with his word. And there he lay asleep on the dirt, with a little thistle growing by his hand. It was very strange. Living, being in the world, was a much greater and stranger thing than she had ever dreamed. (p.126)

So, in the end, Tenar is redeemed from enslavement by evil spirits, to freedom. We are not told more. But it is probably meant to be a freedom like Ged's, a freedom to act by his own choices, for the good of Earthsea and its people, as he understands it, not guided by any sort of religion.

Thanks for reading.

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