The Tombs of Atuan – The Damsel in Distress

I waited forever for my copy of Ursula Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan to come in the mail, but now I can finally continue with the Earthsea novels.

The Plot: After she is determined to be the reincarnation of the Priestess of the Nameless Ones, Tenar is taken away from her family and raised in the Tombs of Atuan, the center of Karg worship. Her name is taken from her and instead she becomes Arha, the Eaten One. As Arha grows, she is initiated into the rituals and secrets of her position by the two high priestesses of the Godking and the Twin Gods, Kossil and Thar. Many of these secrets are somewhat humdrum: ritual dances, chants in words whose meanings have been forgotten, blood sacrifices, etc. At the end of her training, though, Arha is allowed to enter the Labyrinth, a maze that stretches under the tombs and temples above. Arha learns her way through the Labyrinth by memorizing directions given to her by Thar and Kossil, which were taught to them by the previous priestess, or Arha in another body. Arha continually explores the Labyrinth until one day when she sees a man there, a stranger and a mage (Ged from A Wizard of Earthsea of course). She traps him in the Labyrinth and tells Kossil of his presence (by this point Thar has died and Arha has realized that Kossil is not a true believer, only a woman in search of a little power). By law, Arha must be sure that the stranger dies, but instead she saves him from dying of thirst and brings him food and drink in his prison in the Labyrinth and talks to him. This goes on for a couple of days until Arha realizes that Kossil has been spying on them, at which point she has Manan, her eunuch servant, move Ged to another locked room, then bury a coffin in the ground. She tells Kossil that Ged has been buried alive, but soon Kossil is actually checking to see if it is true and Arha realizes that she is pretty well screwed. Meanwhile, Ged has been trying to tell her that the Nameless Ones are not gods and are instead quite evil, and that he has been using all of his magical power to keep them at bay while he is there. He calls Arha by her true name, Tenar, and convinces her to leave with him and they narrowly escape while Kossil and several others are crushed when the temple of the Nameless Ones collapses. As they travel across the island to Ged’s hidden boat, Tenar quickly realizes that she has no useful skills, that she does not even know the language of the lands to which she will be traveling with Ged. Additionally, the Nameless Ones still have some kind of hold over her, and though they try to make her kill Ged, she instead leaves the island with him and he promises that she can go live with his former master who lives quietly and simply.

On the one hand, I felt like this book continued in the same somewhat sexist train of the previous: it’s a damsel in distress story, except that in this case the damsel didn’t even know she was in trouble until the man came along to tell her so. And perhaps one of the saddest parts of the book is Ged insisting that Tenar learn the language of the islands when she wants to learn the old language of the dragons, the language of power. At the same time, I think this novel says something about the power of enculturation and predetermined roles: Tenar’s struggles with the expectations placed on her as Arha really take center stage. Additionally, the moment at which she realizes that she has no skills outside the temple is especially notable because she is female; to a certain degree we come to a similar question as the one presented in P. D. James’s The Children of Men: what happens when the roles that women have been raised to occupy no longer exist for them? This novel did not have a happy ending for me. Oh sure, Tenar gets to go to Havinor with all the cheering people, but what she’s really probably going to end up doing is cooking and cleaning and making tea for Ged’s former master. And all because the power that she had was power derived from evil in some form or fashion. I’m left feeling a little heartbroken for Tenar and ambiguous about the novel as a whole.

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