When the High Priestess dies, the lesser priestesses leave the Tombs of Atuan and go in search of the newborn she has become. If she grows healthy and unblemished, she is fed to the Nameless Ones, keeper of their rituals, heir to their secrets. Could such a child ever turn her back on the Dark?
After visiting Earthsea earlier this year, it was a foregone conclusion I’d be back for more. The Tombs of Atuan was always my favourite – another coming of age novel about difficult decisions – and once again I find myself blown away by the book itself and my childhood adoration of it. My only criticism back then was that it (mostly) wasn’t about Sparrowhawk, but I soon latched on to Arha/Tenar.
We meet her as Tenar, a carefree child running in an orchard. She has the mark: she is the child – but her mother loves her, however much her father disapproves. He wants no emotional ties to a child he will be paid to give up. It’s a very grown-up prelude. As a child, I was probably heartless enough to breeze straight past it; as an adult, I read it as a microcosm of world-building. Economic disparity, the unimportance of daughters, the power of the state – it’s all here.
Fast forward, and Tenar has become Arha, the Eaten One. She is the only priestess of the Nameless Ones; the most senior priestess at the Temple, although the youngest. Only she can pour the goat’s blood on the stone and dance the rites before the empty throne; only she can venture through the Undertomb and into the Labyrinth. We glimpse the rituals only through asides, but the overpowering impression is how alone she is, set apart even within the isolated community of the Temple.
Consequently, Arha grows up fierce and heartless, as self-absorbed as any teenager who has been told she has the great Powers at her beck and call, as sulky as one who lives a sparse life in the desert and rules an empire of dust.
“Well and you’re mistress of all that,” he said. “The silence and the dark.”
But Arha is too clever to be entirely beguiled by the rituals. She gets worn down by the grinding sameness, clinging to her prerogatives to satisfy her pride and pushing the boundaries of her privileges in search of novelty. She’s a stroppy teenager, regularly engaging in a battle of wills with Kossil, the Priestess of the Godking who rules the compound in all but name (and who will surely be reluctant to surrender that influence when Arha is fully-grown). Kossil is a dangerous enemy to make, but the thought is slow to occur to Arha.
It’s Arha’s arrogance that prompts her most dangerous choice: rescuing a stranger she discovers in the Undertomb. She’s heard tales of the dark-skinned demon wizards from across the sea; now she finds one in her own domain. She wants to punish him – but she hesitates. He’s the most exciting thing that has ever happened to her. For once, her power of life and death is tangible – he is entirely reliant on her good will to stay alive. She repeatedly assures herself (and her faithful servant, Manan), that she is simply drawing his death out to ensure he suffers enough.
For return readers, this can only be one man, but le Guin keeps us waiting for confirmation. After all, Arha has no interest in names. She simply wants to assert her dominance. Instead, she finds herself beguiled with stories – although she routinely dismisses them as lies, offended by her own ignorance. She tries hard to break his spirit, but when she finally scores a point it’s entirely inadvertent – it’s an accusation of bragging that cuts him to the quick. The old scars on his spirit are as revealing as the scars on his face: of course this is Sparrowhawk.
Like Wizard, in the end Tombs is about personal growth and life-changing choices. Now, Sparrowhawk is the mentor, albeit one who has sneaked into a forbidden domain to steal a longlost relic of Erreth Akbe. But he has had years as a master mage, and it’s evident he has learnt his hard lessons of patience and compassion. In Wizard, we were told ‘it is very hard for evil to take hold of the unconsenting soul‘ – in Tombs, the question is whether Arha consents or whether Sparrowhawk can persuade her to turn her back on the Nameless Ones. Will she kill him or release him? Can a soul that has been bound since birth fly free?
“To be reborn one must die. It’s not as hard as it looks”
I’m not crying, you’re crying. Who am I kidding? I’m crying just writing it down. The second half of the book goes from strength to strength. The focus shifts from Arha’s flaws to Tenar’s potential and Ged’s compassion. Nobody can stand alone against the Nameless Ones – and the emotional hits just keep on coming. It’s FEELINGS all the way down – and intensely grown up feelings at that. Most of the final act must have flown over my head as a child; as an adult, it’s devastating.
Aside from the enormous emotional arc (which I’m rapidly moving on from before my floods of tears wash away my keyboard), I particularly enjoyed the vibrancy of secondary characters such as Penthe, a cheerful young woman who manages to be plump in spite of the sparse Temple diet. Penthe is earthy and casual, unbelieving in the Godking’s godhood; but even she is cowed by the Nameless Ones, afraid of the dark. Yet this – and a childhood of being bullied by her – never stops her from visiting with Arha. We only see her briefly, but she’s a delight, a bright, uplifting note.
Even Kossil, seen only through Arha’s jaded, paranoid gaze, provoked my sympathy and curiosity. As an adult (never as a child) I can understand why she is short-tempered, sometimes brutal with the stubborn little upstart who will one day usurp her dominion. Hating her, Arha comes to believe that Kossil is as much an atheist as Penthe, dedicated only to her own ambition; while there’s evidence to support this, it’s never quite confirmed. In the end, regardless of whether Kossil believes in anything but power, even she fears the Dark.
Is Tombs a children’s book? I loved it as a child, but I’ve found this even more rewarding than I found Wizard as an adult read (and that works perfectly well). Does it answer criticisms of Wizard being light on female characters? It does for me. The Temple is an all-female world, where the eunuchs and temple guards are practically invisible. Certainly it’s a bastion of ignorance, but I read Tombs as a criticism of organised religion. There’s no accident in the suggestion of Kossil’s faithless ambition. Regardless, here we get a strong, vital heroine in the central role; it is her coming of age that matters. Sparrowhawk may show her possibilities, but Arha must make her own decisions and weather her own crises. Only she can set herself free.