Book Review: The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin

The next book for my Readings in the Genre: Fantasy Classics class for my Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University is the Tombs of Atuan (Fantasy 180 pages) by Ursula Le Guin.

One of the key themes of this novel is the idea of identity. The novel starts out with a prologue that echoed throughout my head during the entire time I read this book. Right there on page VIII: “COME HOME, TENAR! COME HOME!” The novel starts with the main character’s identity, but then erases it two pages later. Tenar becomes Arha, the Eaten One. She’s taken from her mother who clearly loves her and given to training for a task designed to make her cold, hard, and distant.

It really felt to me as though the first half of this book was devoted solely to empty darkness, so much so that I felt individually burdened by how few opportunities were available for Tenar and Penthe and the other little girls taken into service for a religion that required the participation of no one else. For 68 pages, until the arrival of a mysterious light in the dark caverns that govern Tenar’s life, I felt the darkness at the edge of my vision. Not just a physical darkness, but a darkness of the heart, mind, and soul. In my opinion, the enforced darkness of the heart, mind, and soul is far more terrifying because it is a behavior that is not only taught, but strongly encouraged in Tenar’s position as the One Priestess.

From the day she is taken into service at the temple and her real name eaten on page 7, to the authorized death of the three prisoners on page 40 to the confusion of her faith on page 48, Tenar is discouraged from being anything other than a vessel. She started to have inklings about her true personality and her true self when she has nightmares about the men she left in the Undertomb on page 44. I was actually kind of happy for Tenar that she was able to feel guilt for having left them there to die. And she gets more of her own personality back when she speaks with Penthe and realizes that people are very different, and that some people are capable of seeing the world in entirely different, and pleasant, ways. But until she is faced with a catalyst in the form of light in her caves on page 69, she lives the shell-live she is required to in order to be the One Priestess.

She attends the services as she’s required. She memorizes the routes through the Labyrinth. She learns and performs the required rituals at the required times, but not even she believes in her own religion. She learns the steps to the dance, but they have no meaning for her. This is how her entire life is, where she is only allowed to participate in those things which apply directly to her ability to perform her duties.

On page 78, she really starts to wonder about her life, though it’s only said: “There she lay long awake in the wind-loud darkness, seeing always before her the crystal radiance that had shimmered in the house of death, the soft unburning fire, the stones of the tunnel walls, the quiet face of the man asleep.” For the first time, she sees not decaying beauty, like the old dresses, but real beauty. She saw the tombs where she spent so much of her time though her eyes and it impacted her ability to define herself by the darkness. As humans are very much visual creatures, this was really the point in the story where Tenar starts to realize that the world doesn’t have to be cold and dark, and that there is beauty for her to find.

Tenar’s discovery of her identity is done very artfully. She didn’t go from a quivering person filled with fear to a woman ready to stand on her own in the span of two paragraphs, which I have seen done fairly often in some of the stories I read. Instead, it was one step at a time. Encouraging Penthe to climb the wall and hide with her, then trying to get guards stationed around the tombs, then step-by-step with Ged as she first worked to keep him alive and then worked with him to flee the tombs. I think that’s what made the idea of Tenar’s change in identity so believable and kept me moving forward. She didn’t have a drastic change overnight.

The end of the story comes not with a typical marriage, but with Ged preparing her to be on her own. I think I liked that the best in this story. Sure, Ged coaxes her along through the Labyrinth, but he has no intention of just dropping her off before she is prepared, or even of marrying her off. Tenar ends the story not quite as a whole person, but as someone capable of searching out her true identity. She’s going to be apprenticed to Ogion, who “lives in a small house on the great cliffs of Re Albi, high over the sea. He keeps some goats, and a garden patch. In autumn he goes wandering over the island, alone, in the forests, on the mountainsides, through the valleys of the rivers” (page 179). So Tenar doesn’t quite know who she is at this point, but she’s being given into the care of someone who will *teach* her about her true identity, but without normal marital ties for that time. And that, to me, is huge. It’s realistic. It’s not a perfect ending, but it’s a perfect ending for Tenar in this story. And most of the time, real life doesn’t have a cookie-cutter ending. Tenar was put into a position to create her own home, on her terms.

Overall, I’d say this book is probably a solid three on my rating scale. I’m glad that I own it and I’m sure I’ll reread it again at some point.

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About C.A. Jacobs

Just another crazy person, masquerading as a writer.
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One Response to Book Review: The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin

  1. asthaguptaa says:

    Just discovered your blog as I’m researching for my MFA applications.. your posts are turning out to be very insightful and helpful 🙂

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