The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin: A review

Several months ago, I read and enjoyed A Wizard of Earthsea, the first book in Ursula K. Le Guin's "Earthsea Cycle." It seemed to be about time to move on to the second one, and after re-reading my review of that first book to refresh my memory, I did just that.

But the start of The Tombs of Atuan and the first several chapters were a disappointment. Reading about the young girl, Tenar, who is taken from her family at the age of five, in a process that is very reminiscent of the Buddhist search to discover the new Dalai Lama when the old one dies, is really tough going. There are no familiar characters here and there is really no satisfactory (to me) explanation of just what these Nameless Ones whom Tenar is destined to serve are and why we should care about them or her.

Tenar is transformed into Arha, the High Priestess who serves the Nameless Ones of the Tombs of Atuan. Serving them involves spending an awful lot of time underground in the dark. Light is forbidden and Tenar/Arha must learn to find her way around by touch. Why? Because that's just the way things are, I guess. The whole thing just made me feel claustrophobic.

It's all doom and gloom and there is no life in the darkness underground and no explanation of what it is that these Nameless Ones - the malevolent spirits of the place - represent other than the jealous guarding of the treasure that exists there. Where did the treasure come from? That was never really made clear to me, but for a thief to try to steal it means death.

By the time Arha has been in her position for several years and has forgotten her birth family, she has already had occasion to sentence three such thieves to death by starvation, but when she discovers yet another "thief" in her sacred Labyrinth, something makes her hesitate.  

And a good thing, too! It turns out this "thief" is the young wizard from A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged, aka Sparrowhawk.  He has come to find the lost half of the sacred ring of Erreth-Akbe, which is a part of that aforementioned treasure and which, when reforged by Ged's magic, will help to ensure peace in Earthsea. 

But first he has to retrieve it out of the darkness of the Labyrinth and Arha with it. He must convince her to leave the darkness and venture into beautiful, bright, and kindly light of Earthsea's day.
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 Princess 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.  
Can you guess which one she chooses? Here's a hint: This isn't the end of the story.

The action picks up considerably after the reintroduction of Sparrowhawk/Ged and the narrative is saved. Seen through his eyes and as a contrast to him, the reader learns more empathy for Tenar/Arha and wishes her well as she ventures into a world of light.  

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


  1. I'm glad the teenage wizard from the previous installment saved this book. I look forward to reading your reviews on the remaining entries to this series.

    BTW, it would be helpful if you include the link to the previous entry, to recap, since you referred to it at the beginning. ;-)

    1. Done! Thanks for the suggestion. I should have thought of it myself!

  2. I have loved every Ursula Le Guin novel I have read so far. The Left Hand of Darkness impressed me greatly. But I have not embarked on this series yet, though I get that many readers have loved it. I suppose I will get to these when I reach 1968. My goal presently is to finish my 1962 list by the end of the year. You know how us OCD readers work, I know.

    1. Of course! Books must be read in order. To do otherwise causes a tear in the space/time continuum.


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