Thursday, January 12, 2017

Book Review 2016 #6 - Ursula K. Le Guin's The Tombs of Atuan

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin
Published by: Houghton Mifflin
Publication Date: 1971
Format: Hardcover, 422 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Tenar doesn't remember her life before. A life filled with love and apple trees. She has even forgotten her name. She is the One Priestess of the Tombs reborn in the service of The Nameless Ones. She is now Arha, "the eaten one." Her life of abnegation began at six. Lonely and cold and devoid of friends her days are filled with worship and dark rituals to The Nameless Ones, who dwell beneath the hall of the throne in the place of the tombs. Each day is much the same, passing in routine and ritual in windowless rooms. When she is fifteen, a year after crossing into womanhood and coming into her full powers, she is finally permitted into the undertomb. What should be a wonderful experience, entering her true domain of the tombs and the labyrinth that follows becomes one of her worst memories as she was brought there to punish prisoners of the Godking. Prisoners she leaves to starve to death.

This memory is like ashes in her mouth and she withdraws from the world above of petty conflicts and power struggles seeking comfort in the tombs and in the labyrinth beyond. It is there that her endless days of monotony suddenly change. For it is there she sees a Wizard! She knows instantly what he is and that he is there to steal from her, seeking the long-lost half of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe. The magical ring which, once whole, will bring peace to all of Earthsea. But for now he has brought light into the darkness, her darkness, and she traps him behind the iron door at the start of the labyrinth. Yes, the Ring is in the labyrinth but only Arha can navigate it. So the labyrinth shall be the wizard's tomb, if Arha decides to let him die. She is oddly fascinated with this man. She has lived all her life in seclusion with females all with only one point of view. Here is an outsider who has a different viewpoint and who might just open her eyes. But has Tenar lived in the dark for too long?

There are books that you struggle with initially but eventually pay off in such spectacular fashion that all that you went through was worth it. The Tombs of Atuan is just such a book. Reading the Earthsea series consecutively like I did The Tombs of Atuan is a drastic shift from A Wizard of Earthsea. It's far more formal with a dense backstory about Godkings and Nameless Ones and religion. Not to mention that Arha is hard to initially relate to. She's very standoffish. But you just have to get under her skin, get past all her training that stripped her personality away and watch as she struggles to become someone she can like. As many have pointed out, this is basically the companion story to Ged's journey to becoming a Wizard in A Wizard of Earthsea, what with shifting from a male to a female protagonist. But I think it's so much more. Yes, you could say it's because I'm a girl so that I could relate more, but I felt like Le Guin took Tenar on a greater journey than she did with Ged. Yes Ged traveled and ran from his mistake, but Tenar was there day after day facing her mistake and working out who she was. It was a far more satisfying journey. Sometimes it's about inner change more than anything that makes a story work.

What also helped was that while Ged was important, he was put on the back burner. He wasn't the focus at all just a conduit for Tenar's change. What I find fascinating with this decision of Le Guin's is that she takes a character that we know well after reading A Wizard of Earthsea and makes him mysterious again. Yes, some time has elapsed and he has aged, but he's still Sparrowhawk. Seeing him though Tenar's eyes makes you feel like you're seeing him for the first time all over again. While I do love series where I can follow the entire journey of the characters I love from beginning to end, this time lapse that Le Guin utilizes makes this second book so fresh that I actually heart it way more than the first volume. You could guess what Ged was up to down in the labyrinth and all his plans, but in the end, everything that happened to him hinged on what Tenar did. Seeing her fascinated with and then eventually coming to trust Ged makes you, as a reader, more fascinated with Ged than you ever have before. It's interesting that in stepping back you see more clearly. Personally, I didn't want this story to end. They could have stayed in that maze forever just talking.

Yet it wasn't just the change in perspective that made The Tombs of Atuan so compulsively readable, it was that the location changed and with it the style. Earthsea is basically a generic fantasy land that is predominately water. Yes, it's kind of an unfair generalization, because each island is so unique, but as a whole it's built from the blueprints of other fantasy stories. Here the basis is less fantasy and more adventure. More H. Rider Haggard and Elizabeth Peters. Dusty old cultures whose bloodthirsty customs are a danger to the more enlightened times we are now in. Once I realized and embraced this I came to adore this book. I think this was where I had problems initially connecting. This book is SO different from it's predecessor that it's kind of a culture shock. But what makes it amazing is all the ways it's different from A Wizard of Earthsea. I felt like I was reading some of my favorite Egyptian stories about gods and temples and a plucky heroine. Add to that an underground maze that is so awesome and has so many connotations from all different mythologies and made me think of everything from Labyrinth to Jim Henson's The Storyteller and this book appealed to both the child and the adult in me. I only wish I had read it sooner.

Though the reveal of the connection between Ged's and Tenar's stories is what just blew me away. I have to fully admit that I was reading these books while sick so I might have been a bit slow on the uptake, but when I realized who exactly were Tenar's Gods I was in awe. Yet again did Le Guin make the known mysterious. In A Wizard of Earthsea Ged is fighting an Unnamed force. Victory is achieved by naming it. Tenar is in service to The Nameless Ones. In other words, literally, another way of saying Unnamed. Please do not mock my inability to connect them immediately, as I said, I was sick, but also I think the way the story is written it's made to ingeniously hide something in plain sight. None of Tenar's beliefs seem evil or dangerous at first, so why would her Gods be dangerous? It's only as she grows and learns that it becomes obvious that her Gods might not be kind ones. To then learn they are the world destroying evil that Ged faced? Epic reveal. Plus, it's rather an indictment on religion. To learn that you are serving the forces of darkness? That could quite mess with your mind.

Which leads to the message of The Tombs of Atuan, the very heart of it's maze. This book is all about guilt and redemption. Tenar, in sentencing those prisoners to death set herself on a path. A path she didn't like. The way she takes care of and treats Ged, keeping her prisoner alive and eventually freeing him breaks her chains. She is able to redeem herself through doing an act of kindness, by doing good. While she didn't know that the forces she served were malign, she was able to search her own conscience and realized that what she did didn't make her feel good. Think of the power this book would have on a young reader. If you are trapped in a bad situation there is always hope. There is always a chance to make tomorrow better. I know it might be trite, but it's so true that reading opens your mind. Reading makes you more empathetic, more able to feel and understand and just get it. That's why I never trust people who say they don't like reading. They are shutting themselves off from feeling from becoming the best human being they can be. Read this book and I dare you not to be moved to be better to do better to question everything and to find the right path for yourself.

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