Earthsea is so Much Bigger: Ursula K. LeGuin – The Tombs of Atuan

I read A Wizard of Earthsea a few years ago and found it okay. Then I re-read it last year and found it quite good but was still not overwhelmed. However, the world of Earthsea and its magic intrigued me and I wanted to see where the series took it. After having read the second volume, I think I’ve become an Earthsea fan!

THE TOMBS OF ATUAN
by Ursula K. LeGuin

Published: Parnassus Press, 1970
Hardcover: 180 pages
Series: Earthsea #2
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: “Come home, Tenar! Come home!”

When young Tenar is chosen as high priestess to the ancient and nameless Powers of the Earth, everything is taken away – home, family, possessions, even her name. For she is now Arha, the Eaten One, guardian of the ominous Tombs of Atuan.

While she is learning her way through the dark labyrinth, a young wizard, Ged, comes to steal the Tombs’ greatest hidden treasure, the Ring of Erreth-Akbe. But Ged also brings with him the light of magic, and together, he and Tenar escape from the darkness that has become her domain.

What a sneaky little book! It starts out as a classic fantasy book would, with a young girl being taken from her family to fulfill her destiny of being the reincarnation of The Eaten One, a servant for the Nameless Ones, powers that dwell in the darkness. Her young life is dominated by ritual and loneliness. She learns what her role entails but she is also curious. So the Labyrinth under the temples and tombs and living quarters are not only her god-given domain but also where she spends most of her time exploring. Learning passages by heart, navigating in total darkness, that’s what Tenar – now Arha – is good at. But when a man suddenly appears in the place where no men are allowed, Tenar needs to take action. Whether that will mean having the man executed or learning more about him is the first thing in her life where she has to make her own choice…

I loved this book so much! The beginning is rather slow because, much like Tenar, we are thrown into a small world based on a religion we don’t yet understand. We have to learn the ropes and, in this case, the ropes are pretty boring. But when you take a step back and watch Tenar, you realize just how small her world really is but how it’s everything she’s ever known. Sure, Tenar has heard stories and knows there’s a bigger world out there, with people who look different fromher, with Mages even who can do magic at will. But her home remains the walled-in Place she grew up in, with only priestesses and eunuchs for company, over whom she holds the power.
But even in these early chapters where nothing much happens, LeGuin builds up tension for later events. Tenar learns from the High Pristess Kossil, a severe woman with a streak of cruelty, and receives kindness only from a eunuch and a young girl she befriends. So even if there isn’t much plot at first, the story is interesting because  of the character dynamics.

It doesn’t take too long until the actual plot kicks off, though. Once a mage, holding a stick that creates light, is discovered in the Undertomb, Tenar decides not to do what she is supposed to just yet, but to learn more about this stranger. To nobody’s surprise, this stranger turns out to be Ged, the titular Wizard of Earthsea from the first book, and Tenar soaks up everything he tells her of the world outside. But the pressure of having Ged killed becomes ever stronger. Tenar is battling guilt (she is betraying the Nameless Ones if she lets him live), duty (thieves must be killed), and her own, new feelings, her dreams and hopes of a different life.

I don’t want to spoil anything that happens later but this book is so full of beautiful scenes and conversations. Even without the action, I would have ended up loving it. It may start as a very quiet book and I think, at its heart, that’s what it is meant to be, but there are a few very exciting scenes if you need a little more action to keep you entertained. The setting, although small, was also an interesting departure from the sprawling oceans we have seen on our travels with Ged. The Tombs of Atuan are located in a desert but what’s really exciting is the Labyrinth itself. Its passages, its hidden chambers, its rooms whose meaning was lost centuries ago. The rules and rituals of The Eaten One and her Priestesses – for a book that’s shorter than 200 pages, that’s a lot of world-building.

The ending was a bittersweet thing of beauty. On the one hand, every bit of freedom Tenar can grab for herself makes me want to rejoice, on the other hand, things don’t always go smoothly or easily. Breaking free from one kind of thing means whatever comes next is the unknown, which can be more scary than staying in a confined world which you at least understand. LeGuin also ties together certain plot elements form the first book here. As she didn’t even intend to turn A Wizard of Earthsea into a series starter, I found this all the more impressive. Because whether it was planned or not, it reads like it was. Things come together organically and simply make this fantasy world a bit bigger, give it more depth and more layers,

I hate when authors write a book, then spontaneously turn it into a trilogy or series and clearly didn’t have a plan for the ending. It always shows, the sequels are never as good as the first book, and the endings are often a last-minute half-assed idea that leaves noone really satisfied. But if LeGuin can take random lines she wrote in the first book and then let them grow into something this great and make it feel like she had a plan all along, then I’m in for the whole ride.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

7 thoughts on “Earthsea is so Much Bigger: Ursula K. LeGuin – The Tombs of Atuan

  1. Heather says:

    I read AWoE for the first time this year and really liked it. I plan to keep going at some point. I’m glad to hear that the second book has made you a fan! That makes me want to keep going sooner rather than later.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. styleonfile says:

    I am in the process of rereading the Earthsea books for the first time in 35 years. I asked for the beautiful illustrated copy from my SO for Christmas last year, forgot about it, and was really happy to open the package. Now sitting at home I have plenty of time reading through it and I love it so much.

    Liked by 1 person

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