Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Review of 'The Tombs of Atuan" by Ursula Le Guin

Having successfully penned a young man’s Jungian coming to terms with self in A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula Le Guin set out to write another bildungsroman.  This time a young girl’s coming to terms with herself as a woman in society, The Tombs of Atuan was published three years later in 1971.  Certainly not as strong a feminist statement as later stories of the Earthsea Cycle, Tombs is nevertheless squarely focused on a young woman’s coming of age, filled out with all of the wisdom and insight into religion and culture we’ve come to expect from Le Guin.

The Tombs of Atuan opens with a child being taken from her parents to live at the temple tombs on the Kargish island of Atuan (the Kargish are a white-skinned, war-like culture appearing at the beginning of A Wizard of Earthsea).  Too young to know better, Arha, as she is called by the all-female priesthood, is led through the initiation ceremonies of their archaic religion and raised amongst the decay and ruin of its temples and tombs.  External influence at their remote desert institution non-existent, the dogma of Kargish religion molds and shapes Arha into High Priestess as years of tradition have done her predecessors.  Everything goes smoothly in Arha’s education until a mysterious man—a forbidden man—bearing wisdom acutely opposite to what she’s been taught comes to their temple.  That he also seeks the other half of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe only deepens the intrigue.

Containing significantly less of the magic, spells, and wizards of A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan has its own identity as a fantasy novel in Earthsea.  The story of a young woman’s discovery of freedom, the narrative depends less on the supernatural and more on character interaction toward resolving the issues that arise.  A basic knowledge of ‘true names’, Earthsea cultures, and layout of the islands helps, but it’s not necessary to have read Wizard to appreciate Tombs.  

A great literary device as well as wonderfully described set piece, the pitch-black labyrinth which Arha explores beneath the temples is one of the most intriguing aspects of Tombs.  (Vital enough, Le Guin even includes a map of the maze-like tunnels.)  No stronger symbolism could be attached to the blinded manner in which the young ladies of the temples are led through knowledge regarding adolescence, sexuality, and men in general.  Without spoiling matters, Arha’s exploration of the labyrinth and her experiences walking the dark corridors make for great literature.  But how she unlocks the potential she finds there is the reason the book won the Newberry Honor Award. 

In the end, The Tombs of Atuan is Le Guin in full form, though she would later admit not having thought the entirety of Arha’s situation through.  (A certain channeling of masculinity stains what is otherwise a narrative of feminine discovery.)  Readers should expect a coming-of-age story, but one wholly different than Ged’s.  Elements of the supernatural do exist, but Le Guin uses them subtly, sending the characters out on stage for dialogue rather than magical pyrotechnics.  Like Wizard, Tombs is stuck somewhere between YA and adult, and can therefore be appreciated by both.  

(For those who have read the book and the Earthsea Cycle as a whole, you may be interested in reading a paper I wrote on its Daoist tenets and angles on contemporary theory called "Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle: Paralleling Contemporary Theory with an Eye to the Past".  Part I is here and Part II, here.)

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