THE TOMBS OF ATUAN – Ursula Le Guin (1971)

The Tombs of AtuanA 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.

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17 responses to “THE TOMBS OF ATUAN – Ursula Le Guin (1971)

  1. I really love this trilogy. The rest of it,not so much.

    Do you think you’ll end up reading Tehanu, the 4th book?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I must confess, Wizard of Earthsea is IMO one of the best fantasy book ever. Tombs of Atuan are good as well, but nowhere near the mastery of Wizard. Though I also think I liked this book much more the second time around – there are some issues and problems hidden deep within, that I noticed only later on.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I should have made it a bit more clear that I agree 100% with your first sentiment: Wizard simply is in a class of its own, Tombs doesn’t come close indeed. Let me see if I can rewrite the review a bit.

      Can you write a bit more about what you noticed the second reading?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Man I watched the movie Earthsea forever ago and loved it, and when I found out there were books I meant to get them. Completely forgot about it. Thanks for reminding me. And I’m glad to hear they’re rather good books.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t know they were made into a movie, thanks for the pointer!

      Liked by 1 person

      • From what I can tell about the books it’s all of them kind of mashed into a 3 hour movie. Like I said I loved it, but it may be different for people who know how it originally was.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I watched the Studio Ghibli film Tales from Earthsea with an open mind a while ago, having heard that it was not only subpar for the studio’s output but also misrepresented its source material.

        I have to say that as a film it was OK but that I wouldn’t watch it again; and as an adaptation of some of Le Guin’s short stories in her own Tales from Earthsea (2001) it is so loose as to bear little relation to the originals.

        Interesting only if you’re curious, Bart; better to watch Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro or Princess Mononoke as representative of the studio’s output.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I guess I’ll pass in that case.

        I’ve seen the other titles you mention, as well as Howl’s Moving Castle. My first exposure was Spirited Away, which I actually saw when it was released in a theatre while I was in London for a few days, and afterwards multiple times on dvd. Simply brilliant.

        Liked by 1 person

      • It is exactly as you say. Yes, don’t watch the Earthsea ‘adaptation’!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I somehow missed a Wizard of Earthsea when I was a kid. I recently listened to the audiobook and really enjoyed it. I’m hoping to get to this one before long.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m ashamed to admit I still have not read anything by LeGuin, so I must change this state of affairs soon….

    Liked by 1 person

  6. You’ve provoked me to buy ’em both. Didn’t Studio Ghibli do a film version?

    Also: How would you define secularization?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hope you won’t be disappointed, I’m looking forward to read your thoughts on them.

      I didn’t know anything about a Ghibli version, but indeed, they made a film in 2006 losely based on book 1, 3 & 4, “Tales From Earthsea”. It’s the only film adaptation as far as I can tell, but in 2004 SciFi made a 3 hour version for TV as well, losely based on book 1 & 2, “Legend Of Earthsea”, but Le Guin has distanced herself strongly from that one, her words: “I wonder if the people who made the film of The Lord of the Rings had ended it with Frodo putting on the Ring and ruling happily ever after, and then claimed that that was what Tolkien “intended …”[,] would people think they’d been “very, very honest to the books”?”

      Viz. secularization, I just used it in the broad, dictionary definition sense here, something like “the transformation of a society from close identification and affiliation with religious belief”. In the case of ‘Tombs’, it’s mainly about the main character losing her faith.

      Liked by 1 person

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