“The Tombs of Atuan” by Ursula K. Le Guin is the second book of the Earthsea series. I normally do not gravitate towards fantasy novels. When I was first given this series by my husband, I placed it on the shelf with plans to read them someday. When the WSJ Book Club picked the first book in the series “A Wizard of Earthsea” I found myself enjoying it quite a bit and fully intended to read the rest of the series soon. All it took was three weeks at home recovering from knee surgery for me to actually pick up this series again! Warning – there are some spoilers ahead.
“The Tombs of Atuan” begins with a death. The high priestess to the Nameless Ones dies. Whenever she dies, she is reborn, and so a search begins for a girl born the same night that the high priestess died. After many months of searching, the wardens and other priestesses found Tenar. At five years old, she was taken from her home and brought to the Tombs to be Eaten. This ceremony stripped her of her name and any ties to her family, and she became Arha: the Eaten One.
Arha was an interesting character. On the one hand, she accepts what she has been told her whole life that she is the high priestess reborn, and on the other hand, she is a young girl learning about herself and the world. And instead of growing up with her family in a village, she lives the life of a high priestess in near-isolation. She was responsible for worshiping and honoring the Nameless Ones in various ceremonies and traditions, and the tediousness eventually gets to her. “Her boredom rose so strong in her sometimes that it felt like terror: it took her by the throat. Not long ago she had been driven to speak of it. She had to talk, she thought, or she would go mad. It was Manan she talked to. Pride kept her from confiding in the other girls, and caution kept her from confession to the older women, but Manan was nothing, a faithful old bellwether; it didn’t matter what she said to him.” (The Tombs of Atuan, pg 24). I like how Le Guin describes the boredom that encapsulates Arha and the struggles she faces daily as she forces herself to suppress her child-like instincts and be the high priestess.
There are moments when the serious façade that Arha wears slips. Most often this happens when she is socializing with the other priestesses at The Place, some of who are her age. “But there was something underneath Penthe’s words with which she didn’t agree, something wholly new to her, frightening to her. She had not realized how very different people were, how differently they saw life. She felt as if she had looked up and suddenly seen a whole new planet hanging huge and populous right outside the window, an entirely strange world, one in which the gods did not matter. She was scared by the solidity of Penthe’s unfaith.” (The Tombs of Atuan, pg 41). I liked this quote for several reasons. It illustrates well how Arha was raised to believe in one thing. She was told that she was the High Priestess reborn and she was told everything that she was required to do and to think. For the longest time, it never occurred to her to have an individual thought. She believed wholeheartedly in the gods and the faith and in her part of the worship, that to have someone else express doubt threw her off. She no longer was confident about everything; there was that shred of doubt that had seeded in her mind. You slowly see a change come over her where she stops being Arha and begins to rediscover Tenar.
It isn’t until about a third into the book that Gar, the Wizard from the first book, comes into the picture. It was interesting seeing him again and from such a different perspective. No one comes to the Tombs of Atuan – not even to worship, and so when the Wizard comes to the Place of the Tombs, he is not welcome. He forces light into the darkness of Arha’s world and it frightens and confuses her. He also ultimately helps her become Tenar.
Would I recommend this book? Yes, I think that Ursula K. Le Guin is a great writer and she creates a world that you love to get lost in. Her writing isn’t overly complicated, so I believe it would be accessible for a lot of people, especially those that tend to steer clear of anything labeled fantasy.