The Tombs of Atuan (Earthsea Cycle #2) by Ursula K. LeGuin.
My edition Aladdin Paperbacks, New York, 2001; originally published 1970.
Middle grade fantasy, 180 pages.
Lexile: 840L .
AR Level: 5.9 (worth 7.0 points) .
NOTE: Second book in the original Earthsea trilogy.
Young Tenar has become Arha, the Eaten One, servant to the highest powers of her land. Solely in charge of rites to infrequently-worshiped deities, she is set apart, both the most powerful and powerless priestess. Shortly after accepting her full powers, she faces an unexpected challenge – a Havenorian wizard entered the sacred labyrinth and walks where none but her must tread.
All of the books in the original Earthsea trilogy are said to be variations on coming-of-age, and I’d have to agree. Although set in the same world as A Wizard of Earthsea, Tombs of Atuan is told entirely from Tenar’s viewpoint, and it isn’t immediately clear how the two connect. Back when I first started reading LeGuin, I read this before either of the other Earthsea books, which don’t seem to have been obviously numbered in most versions.
While the final book of the original trilogy contains spoilers for the two previous books, the first two could be read in reverse order. Only two spoilers for A Wizard of Earthsea are in The Tombs of Atuan – a character lives who might have died in the earlier book, and the outcome of one of Ged’s minor adventures is told.
Tenar’s Dalai Lama-like selection process probably seemed exotic in 1970. Personally I found that aspect confusing since in other ways the Arha role was definitely NOT Buddhist. Much as Ged’s story follows him from the first blossoming of his magical abilities, this story follows Tenar from the time she followed the rites to join the priestesses. Her early life and the selection process come up later.
Arha’s life is in some ways even less interesting than that of a magically gifted young goat herder. She learns and performs rituals, and otherwise performs tasks with the rest of her community, separate yet equal in most aspects of daily living. Tenar is literally untouchable, and as her duties as a high priestess take over she withdraws more and more. She’s spoiled, as expected from growing up without loving boundaries, and I suspect some readers will dislike that, yet it fits very reasonably into her circumstances.
The readers don’t know exactly how old Ged is now, but past 19 since that’s where the last story ended. We can safely assume that he’s taken at least a year to learn a new language, collect information, and make his way to Atuan, and probably longer.
One passing criticism I’ve seen is that Tenar is too passive or dependent on Ged. I personally disagree, but see how events could be read either way. There is at least a five year age gap, not large for two adults, but a major difference in the teen years. Tenar drives large portions of the plot both by her actions and, in some cases, by her inaction. She is drawn to the novelty of Ged and a bit of hero-worship.
Looking at this novel with modern eyes, there are also some major missteps. LeGuin’s references to weight are frequently off base. One of the main characters is heavyset and seen as weak. Main character Tenar is accustomed to long periods of fasting for both religious and practical reasons, but the descriptions could be triggering to people who struggle with food or weight.
The area where Tenar lives is for priestesses and lower female trainees only, and the few outsiders are typically high-born women on pilgrimage. However, many eunuchs serve the community. Only one is developed as a character. Manan uses male pronouns but is not referred to as a man. I don’t think it would affect appropriateness for young readers since the novel handles it obliquely, but could be distressing for transgender youth.
I’m torn about this part. Traditions in several religions and cultures treat transgender people separately or recognize additional genders beyond the binary most Western readers know. The eunuchs are clearly such because of their position in the religious community, but their aspect of choice is not clear. Certainly Manan and the other eunuchs are under Tenar – but she’s a high priestess and their place in the overall hierarchy isn’t clear.
I distantly recall that this might be mentioned in the further adult Earthsea books. LeGuin did seem to consider feedback about her books and work to keep her gender reflections accurate, so I’m inclined to feel she’d handle this differently if she were writing today.
While I’m giving trigger warnings, parents, teachers, and sensitive readers should be aware that this book is considerably more violent. Multiple characters die, and in more distressing ways than the last book. Our main characters’ lives are also at risk, and at one point by considering suicide. I personally read this book young and found the resolution to that scene cathartic, but your experiences may differ.
While the first book I felt confident recommending as a family read-aloud despite dark spots, this one falls solidly into the MG and up category. Negative actions such as murder and a suicide attempt are shown as influenced by the presence of evil. However, we are also shown that people can resist those actions, especially by working together.
Even if she’s white, still nice to read a early 1970s fantasy novel about a female coming-of-age. Recommended with some reservations.