the only way people can escape the darkness is by holding each other's hand tightly ...never alone.... we need to trust and we need to be loved in order to see the sky kinder......weeping crying throwing shit
If you like Harrowhark Nonagessimus and you have not read The Tombs of Atuan, you really need to read The Tombs of Atuan. Our heroine is, you guessed it, a traumatized and superficially haughty teenaged goth whose life and identity are pledged to the service of unspeakable, dead, deathless powers that dwell in lightless places beneath the earth. Then she discovers a world beyond whispered prayers in dead tongues and nameless rituals.
Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not easy. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one. The road goes upward towards the light; but the laden traveler may never reach the end of it.
“They have no gods. They work magic, and think they are gods themselves. But they are not. And when they die, they (…) become dust and bone, and their ghosts whine on the wind a little while till the wind blows them away. They do not have immortal souls.”
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Tombs of Atuan
So, I’ve decided to set myself a reading goal of 26 books. And to hold myself accountable, and perhaps to try to get a bit more out of what I read, I’ve decided I’m going to review those 26 (hopefully) books.
I finished up A Wizard of Earthsea just before the New Year, and that was wrapped up in my childhood memories: both of the terrible TV mini-series that had led me to read it in the first place, and remembering just how many little things inspired my own writing.
By contrast, The Tombs of Atuan felt like a fresh start. My only memory from the mini-series was Isabella Rossellini as Thar (the mini-series botched this story to make it in service of the wizard Sparrowhawk, but that’s another story).
In summary, Tombs tells the story of a young girl who is raised to be the First Priestess of some dead old gods: an important position, nominally, but one without real power. The first thing that happens is that her name is taken from her, and she is called Arha “Eaten One”. She learns the rituals of devotion, walks the Labyrinth below the Empty Throne, and tries to not be a puppet of the older priestesses. She has no company but for the priestesses, the other girls, and some eunuch guards.
That changes when she finds the wizard Sparrowhawk in her Labyrinth, seeking to fix the Ring of Erreth-Akbe. This triggers a power struggle between Arha & the priestess Kossil, between Sparrowhawk and the Nameless Powers, which results in Arha regaining her name (Tenar) and following Sparrowhawk to a new life.
As a trans woman, I can’t help but relate to Tenar in this way. Near the climax, Sparrowhawk discovers her true name which was taken from her—names are the core of magic in Earthsea—and gives it back to her. The narrative starts calling her by this name immediately. After they escape from the Labyrinth and Tenar is freed from the Nameless Powers, Sparrowhawk says that she is truly reborn. Tenar was taken from her family at age 5, and forced into a life that was never truly her own, no matter how much she tried to lean into it.
Halfway through, there is a point where she learns of “unfaith”: she realises that one of the girls just doesn’t believe in any of the gods they worship. To me, that feels the same as when I realised that people could change from their assigned gender. Her eyes are suddenly opened to a whole new world of possibility. Tenar never truly stops believing (especially when the Nameless Powers try to kill her and Sparrowhawk), but she stops feeling the need to worship them as she has done her whole life.
The Tombs of Atuan is a very contemplative book. There isn’t much action. This is standard for Ursula K Le Guin, but it feels refreshing in a world where swords define the fantasy genre for many. A Wizard of Earthsea feels a little clumsy (it was Le Guin’s first YA story), while this has poise right from the get-go. It also centres women, where Wizard centres men, which is the kind of narrative I needed right now.