Decades before The Wire‘s second season premiere made viewers yell, “Who are these people? Why are we at the port? Where is McNulty?” Ursula K. Le Guin begins her sequel to A Wizard of Earthsea by introducing us to Tenar of Atuan. Who? Where? It’s a powerful sense of dislocation. We’re in the Kargad Lands, the realm of pale barbarians referenced, but not explored, in Wizard. As the reincarnated First Priestess of the Tombs of Atuan, Tenar is taken from her family at the age of five and brought to the Tombs. Her name and identity are taken from her. Now known only as Arha – The Eaten One – she is consecrated in the service of the ancient Nameless Ones. We spend four full chapters with her before a familiar Earthsea face shows up: Ged arrives in search of the lost half of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe, buried in the labyrinth beneath the Tombs.
The Tombs of Atuan is my favorite of the original trilogy of Earthsea books. I read it in one or two great gulps, unable to put it down. In many ways, it is the inverse of A Wizard of Earthsea. Even the maps in the front of the book* are different: no expansive archipelago here, just a twisting labyrinth and a temple compound surrounded by a wall. It is a small, interior, powerful book. In Atuan, Le Guin takes the traditional elements of a hero’s quest and condenses them all into the mind of one woman. Ultimately, Tenar’s quest leads not to a tangible treasure, but to her own freedom.
There are an abundance of themes to explore in Atuan: Le Guin returns again to her argument that everything is connected, and that to be whole we must acknowledge our own darkness, neither embracing nor ignoring it. She touches on the idea that we cannot be free unless we help others to be free as well, and that in enslaving others we enslave ourselves. (That sounds like I’ve lifted it straight from a zen meditation tape.) And she examines the way power in closed communities can curdle and sour. But in this review I want to focus particularly on Tenar, who is my favorite character in all the literary world. She is young and wise and fierce and frightened and vulnerable and strong and very, very brave. She loses everything she believed, and she goes forward regardless. The passage that crystallized my love for her is this:
“No, I know we can’t stay. I’m merely being foolish,” Tenar said, and got up, scattering walnut shells, to lay new wood on the fire. She stood thin and very straight in her torn, dirt-stained gown and cloak of black. “All I know is of no use now,” she said, and I haven’t learned anything else. I will try to learn.”
Tenar’s journey is similar to that of Miranda in The Tempest: cloistered and hidden away from the world until she takes her first steps into liberty and discovers the brave new world. But whereas Miranda is a sheltered innocent, Tenar has an equal measure of Prospero inside her. She is powerful and bitter, raised alone in darkness. She has already seen and done and regretted too much in her short life.
The back of the book offers this synopsis: “This is the tale of the young wizard, Ged, who came to the forbidden labyrinth to steal its greatest treasure – the Ring of Erreth-Akbe – and stayed to set Tenar free and lead her out of darkness.” This is entirely wrong. I can only assume that whoever provided this back cover copy did not bother to actually read the book! Ged may be the catalyst, but make no mistake, this is entirely Tenar’s story, and it is Tenar’s actions that ultimately save both herself and Ged. But let’s back up a little.
Tenar is First Priestess, but the temple lies half in ruins, carpeted with centuries’ worth of dust. The people of the Kargad lands have moved on to revering other gods. No more pilgrims come to worship at the Tombs now. She lives alone, isolated from the other acolytes and novices by her status, and their envy of her power. But that power is useless, limited to commanding the slaves of the temple and ordering the deaths of a few prisoners sent as tribute and sacrifice. She didn’t choose her role; she was born to it. Her life is circumscribed figuratively, by her role as First Priestess and the endless, empty rituals she must perform; and literally, by the wall around the temple grounds.
When Ged arrives in search of the ring and loses his way in the labyrinth, she is fascinated by him. He is the first stranger she has encountered in a dozen years. Veering between rage – he is trespassing on forbidden ground and deserves death! – and restless curiosity, she taunts him and tells him to make an illusion, to prove that he is a wizard: “Show me something you think worth seeing. Anything!” They sit in silence, and eventually she concludes that he has no power. He’s no wizard, just a liar.
“Well,” she said at last, and gathered her skirts together to rise. The wool rustled strangely as she moved. She looked down at herself, and stood up in startlement.
The heavy black she had worn for years was gone; her dress was of turquoise-colored silk, bright and soft as the evening sky. It belled out full from her hips, and all the skirt was embroidered with thin silver threads and seed pearls and tiny crumbs of crystal, so that it glittered softly, like rain in April.
She looked at the magician, speechless.
“Do you like it?”
“It’s like a gown I saw a princess wear once, at the Feast of Sunreturn in the New Palace in Havnor,” he said, looking at it with satisfaction. “You told me to show you something worth seeing. I show you yourself.”
And there is the key to Tenar’s story. She’s not enchanted by the silk and silver and pearls – Le Guin isn’t interested in portraying her as a “silly” girl who wants to be a princess and would be distracted by baubles. What Ged shows Tenar is her potential: the possibility that she can be someone, anyone else. The possibility that she can be, full stop. She isn’t Arha, the eaten one, the empty shell decaying in the empty temple. She is Tenar. She can change. She can be more.
I was raised Catholic, and when I left the church I found myself thinking often of Tenar. My journey was far less dire and dramatic, of course. I didn’t have to battle nameless ancient powers or find my way out of a subterranean labyrinth when I left. I went to Mass one week, and I didn’t go back the next. But I had to remember that just because I had once believed something, I didn’t have to continue believing it. And if the rituals no longer served me, if I didn’t get anything in return, then it wasn’t worth my belief. But The Tombs of Atuan doesn’t have to be read as a repudiation of religion. Other readers may find Tenar reflected in their families, their relationships, their friendships, their passions, or a million other facets of their lives.
Every teenager in the world should read The Tombs of Atuan. (Everyone else should read it as well.) It speaks perfectly to that transition between the children we were and the adults we become, when we create ourselves, rejecting the old roles we grew in and trying on new identities one after another. And, of course, we never stop changing. We’re telling our stories and inventing our selves as we go, with every day and every step.
“You must make a choice. Either you must leave me, lock the door, go up to your altars and give me to your Masters; then go to the Priestess Kossil and make your peace with her – and that is the end of the story – or you must unlock the door, and go out of it, with me. Leave the Tombs, leave Atuan, and come with me oversea. And that is the beginning of the story.”
We are always at the beginning of the story.
*It appears that some modern editions don’t include the maps? (Or the beautiful woodcut illustrations that begin every chapter in my 1984 printing.) Simon & Schuster, WHAT ARE YOU DOING? This omission is the very height of folly.