A Wizard Of Earthsea is one of my favorite books regardless of genre. Absolutely mandatory for any serious fantasy reader, a small, delightful gem in the midst of heaps and heaps of cheap trash. The Tombs Of Atuan is the second of the Earthsea series, but should you be weary of starting yet another long fantasy streak, don’t worry: this book is its own, with a storyline that wraps up neatly. Both novels can be read independently.
Just as the first installment, it is a short book: only 130 pages. These books were originally intended as children’s literature, but easily defy and bridge whatever YA vs. grown up distinction.
Much to my surprise, Sparrowhawk, the Wizard of Earthsea himself, only appears halfway in this book. The protagonist this time around is Tenar, a child believed to be the incarnation of the high priestess to ancient, dark gods – serving temples, tombs and a subterranean labyrinth on Atuan, an desert island.
Again this is a bildungsroman. In A Wizard Of Eartsea the most important lesson was that one should acknowledge your negative sides, and accept death and darkness within. Le Guin this time serves us a journey out from darkness, but it is not so much a lesson for us readers, as the description of secularization growing. Tenar’s coming of age, her enlightenment, comes with the loss of superstition and faith.
And whereas Le Guin at time uses words that make it seem like Tenar makes deliberate choices, the opposite happens: Tenar is is guided, and goes with the flow – at times not even knowing why she does certain things. When she makes so called ‘choices’, it’s always the logical thing to do, and more importantly, it’s what her emotions want: these are not deliberate actions, but hunches followed, curiosity satisfied. It’s interesting that a few of the key moments are simply the result of vanity triggered, a basic desire to experience beauty, or the lonely need for companionship. Free will has nothing to do with it, but humans being humans has.
For these and other reasons I would not call this a feminist novel. Picking a female lead may have been unusual at the time, and Le Guin’s pick has merit as such, Tenar remains dominated and guided by males throughout the book.
Tombs is no sermon, and less message oriented as Wizard. Yet if I had to distill one lesson from its pages, one thing Le Guin did want to communicate, it would be that trust and cooperation go a long way – we are a social species.
Anyhow, ideological underpinnings aside – how does this compare to the first book?
Well, I enjoyed reading this too, a lot even, but it did not click as The Wizard Of Earthsea clicked. Then again, Wizard resonated so deeply with me, I’m not expecting to read an as good a book soon – it might not happen for a year or years, who knows? Wizard is a rare 5+ stars, while Tombs gets 4 out of 5. The prose in Tombs is less sparse, less poetic, less mythical. On the other hand, this story is more condensed and a lot more limited in scope, so it has a certain sparseness too.
That clicking is a taste thing, and I’m sure people that loved Wizard will find lots of things to love in Tombs. Some might even find more.
I’m curious how The Farthest Shore will continue the Earthsea sagas. Le Guin could have done the obvious thing, and just continued Sparrowhawk’s bildung. The fact that she chose to write about something that’s just a small scene in his life, seen from a different point of view, shows Le Guin is an author carving her own path. While doing so, she unearthed yet another gem. The carat’s not as high, but it’s beautiful nonetheless.