Thursday, 5 July 2001
Ursula K. le Guin: The Tombs of Atuan (1972)
Review number: 860
Of the three novels making up the original Earthsea trilogy, The Tombs of Atuan is most obviously aimed at children. This is not so much because of its content (like the others, it's unusually dark for a children's story) but because of what might have been its content; if it had been written for adults, there are several areas which le Guin would probably have explored more thoroughly.
The central character of The Tombs of Atuan is a young girl, believed to be the reincarnation of the Priestess of the Tombs, a centre for the power of primordial dark spirits, the Nameless Ones. At the age of six, she is taken to the Temple where her name is ceremonially taken from her (names are of extreme importance in the trilogy), so that she becomes Arha, the Eaten One. After some years, she suddenly discovers that a man has broken into the Labyrinth beneath the Temple, the place where no one but her is permitted to go. This man is Sparrowhawk, the central character of the trilogy, who is searching for a lost magical item.
The depiction of the ritual of the Temple an the dark fear which is the general attitude to the Nameless Ones is an important part of the novel, and the former clearly owes something to anthropological descriptions of rituals and Jungian ideas about them. (Le Guin's father was an anthropologist.) It is all very convincing. This could have been more developed in an adult novel, whose readers would be less impatient to move on with the story. The political rivalry between the various priestesses is another area which could have been made more of; Arha is nominally most important, but the middle-aged High Priestess of the newer cult of the Godking is a more dominant personality, and it is her temple, of the deified ruler of the empire in which the island of Atuan is situated, which receives rich gifts and patronage.
The obsession which Arha feels about Sparrowhawk definitely seems to have a sexual side, the fascination of a young teenage girl for the first man she has seen since she was brought to the Temple except her eunuch slaves. This is hinted at quite clearly, but it is another aspect of the novel which might have been made more explicit if it had been aimed at adult readers. In fact, it is picked up in Tehanu, the novel later added to the trilogy, which is meant to be read by adults.
It is common for the middle volume in a trilogy to be the poorest; though this is true of The Tombs of Atuan it is not for the usual reasons (and is, of course, a judgement only relative to the others). Still an excellent young adult fantasy story, it could have formed the nucleus of a greater adult novel.