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The Tombs of Atuan
Earthsea Cycle #2
by Ursula Le Guin
Saga Press, 180pp
Published: 1970

I can't envy Ursula Le Guin's task in writing a sequel to a novel as fantastic and as well-received as 'A Wizard of Earthsea'. Indeed, she wrote that as a standalone novel, but it was soon clear to her that there were loose ends that deserved to be tied and so she continued the Earthsea Cycle for another couple of books. This first sequel wisely takes a completely different approach and, if anything, may resonate even more.

For a start, this novel does feature the mage hero of the first book, Ged, but not for quite some time and he's a supporting character here, even if he drives the second half. The lead is someone we haven't met until now but she's as much of a heroine as Ged was a hero, albeit in a very different way and perhaps a much truer one. There's a steep price on her heroism, while the only price on Ged's was his own doing.

She begins the book as Tenar, a young child in the Kargish empire, who was born on the day that the Priestess of the Tomb died and is gradually regarded as her latest reincarnation. At five, she's taken away from her family and transformed, through ritual, into Arha, the Eaten One, her entire identity taken from her and replaced by duties. She spends the rest of her youth in varying degrees of isolation, learning rituals, dances and the twists and turns of the labyrinth beneath the temple, to which only she and those she takes with her can go.

It's a wild understatement to suggest that the opening chapters are economical. Le Guin's prose is as memorable as in the prior volume, but it's condensed to an amazing degree without losing its power. The prologue lasts for little more than a page, but it tells us everything we need to know about Tenar's childhood with her family. This is masterclass stuff. By the time we've reached thirty or so pages in, Le Guin has provided us with more depth than can be found in many entire novels. These pages are almost a challenge to other authors: write your books, then go through them chapter by chapter, distil them down to their essence and delete everything that's redundant. I could see thousand page epics reduced by that method to the hundred and fifty or so page count that 'The Tombs of Atuan' runs.

We learn about ritual, about process, about background, mostly told in story form to Tenar as she learns too. We learn about who else occupies the hallowed grounds that Arha now walks, what their daily life is like and how they fit within the wider culture of the Kargish empire. We learn about what this place looks like, how much time it's endured and how seriously that's taken. We learn about the past and the future. And all of that is crafted into only thirty or so pages without ever seeming to be cramped. Every word matters and often in more than one way.

For instance, one scene involves Arha and a friend being disciplined. The friend is whipped with reed canes; Arha is not. She's told instead that, 'You are Arha. There is nothing left. It was all eaten.' Those lines are simple truths in simple words but they're much more than that too: they're ritual reenforcement; they contrast Arha's position with her friend's; and they highlight that she's untouchable, even by her temporary superiors. And this scene is but one of many in a set of chapters where many individual paragraphs could generate theses, all while written in simple words for an audience of children.

Of course, this is a coming of age story for Tenar, but a highly unusual one in many ways, beyond the idea that she's the latest reincarnation of a millennia-old priestess. Technically, she's the most important person anywhere in the Kargish Empire and the world has been defined for her in absolute terms. However, she gradually finds a different reality, in which her position has decreased in importance as the Empire developed. Kings and princes used to seek Arha's guidance in resolving conflicts, as the literal voice of the Nameless Ones, but many became few and priest-kings became rulers of entire islands and eventually godkings of the entire Kargish Empire. For generations now, the Godking has been able to settle quarrels himself without need of the ancient gods because he's one himself. After Manan, her warden, explains that to her, she suggests that, 'The powers of the Godking are much less than the powers of the Ones I serve.' Manan's deceptively simple response is: 'But one doesn't go about saying that to a god, little honeycomb. Nor to his priestess.' And again, there's a paradigm shift.

On the face of it, this is a quest, but it isn't Arha's, it's Ged's. He's a tomb raider here, seeking the other half of the fabled Ring of Erreth-Akbe, because if he can combine it with the half that he owns, he can restore the lost rune of peace and bring an end to war between men. Usually, an author would follow Ged on this quest, detailing the many adventures he goes through to get to his goal, but Le Guin does none of that. Instead, she places us at the end of that quest, where the lost half of the ring happens to be, and constructs an empire around it, a history and a culture and a mindset. And, at just the right moment, she has Arha discover Ged inside her labyrinth, where no man should be. She traps him there and decides his fate. What she decides changes everything.

I have dim memories of reading the original Earthsea trilogy as a child. I know I enjoyed them but details are long gone. I remember the Tombs of Atuan in suitably mythic terms, vague impressions that may or may not be true. Re-reading, I see what would have impressed me at the time but also so much more. This is very much another novel for children, but it's one that they can grow with. If they read it at ten and then revisit it with each decade that passes, they'll find each time that it's more than they remembered and it'll have a new resonance.

Frankly, it speaks powerfully to the revolution of the time. Le Guin wrote it in 1970, when the US was dealing with a number of paradigm shifts in American culture: the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, the counterculture, even the demise of the production code. None of that is visible in 'A Wizard of Earthsea' but it's here in abundance. As Tenar becomes Arha, she's reborn into a black and white world in which she's told everything that she knows. Only with the advent of Ged does she experience something different. That experience changes her and, in turn, she changes her entire Empire. Given the ethnicities, cultures and histories of Earthsea that we learned in the first book, there are many ways we can read this sequel as commentary on our own world but, if we so choose, we can leave it in the abstract. It works that way too.

However we read it, and I'm reading it right now mostly as a commentary on organised religion and what that means to different people, both inside and outside of its hallowed walls, it's magnificent. Le Guin's prose is of such quality that it could inspire authors to greater things or make them quit in despair. The depth is incredible. Tenar/Arha is a dream of a character. There's nothing here that won't impress and, like its predecessor, it really is a must for any new generation. Once I've followed up with 'The Farthest Shore', I'll be lending these to my eldest granddaughter in an attempt to pass it forward. I hope, in the future, that she'll do likewise. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For other Earthsea titles click here

For other books by Ursula K Le Guin click here

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