The Tombs of Atuan
is a 1971 science fiction novel by the legendary American author Ursula K. Le Guin. First published in a 1970 issue of the periodical Worlds of Fantasy
, The Tombs of Atuan
is the second installment of Le Guin’s Earthsea series. The book follows the characters Ged and Tenar—the former a would-be thief who becomes trapped in the titular tombs after attempting to steal a valuable talisman, and the latter a child being groomed as a high priestess who falls under the sway of Ged’s unorthodox, rebellious ways.
Like the rest of the series, The Tombs of Atuan
takes place in a fantasy version of Earth, or an Earth-like planet that’s been flooded by a primarily uncharted ocean. The land of Earthsea is a group of small, closely connected islands called an archipelago. In ancient times, the archipelago is said to have been raised from the depths of the sea by a heroic god named Segoy. The setting is reminiscent of a pre-Industrial Revolution Western world populated by humans and dragons, while magic holds sway over many of the people and communities.
The population is divided into two major ethnic groups: First, there are the darker-skinned Hardic people, who live by magic and possess a culture similar to Native Americans. The Hardic make up the vast majority of the archipelago’s population. Second, there are the light-skinned Kargish people, who are modeled after Norse mythology. They are patriarchal, military-minded, and highly suspicious of magic and the Hardic, who they view as evil sorcerers. Meanwhile, many of the Hardic people view the Kargish as vicious barbarians.
The main protagonist of The Tombs of Atuan
is a young Kargish girl named Tenar. Because she was born as the previous high priestess of the Tombs of Atuan passed away, the Kargish believe that Tenar is the reincarnation of the priestess. (There are many high priestesses, and the priestess of the Tombs of Atuan is just one of them). Renamed Arha, which translates as “the eaten one,” Tenar is forcibly removed from her family at the age of five and conscripted into the society’s patriarchal upper caste known as the Nameless Ones. Though the house she is given to live in is tiny, Tenar’s status as the future priestess is very high in Kargish society. Meanwhile, a young eunuch named Manan becomes her eternal servant.
Although lonely, Tenar’s childhood is marked by friendship to some degree. She develops a very close bond with Manan, and another close bond with a fellow similarly aged priestess-in-training known as Penthe. The two priestesses charged with training Tenar are named Thar and Kossil. Thar is intensely stern but also fair. Kossil, on the other hand, is hateful and suspicious of Tenar’s growing power, and jealous of the esteem in which Tenar is held by the Nameless Ones. Through her training, Tenar learns to navigate the labyrinthine tunnels beneath the tombs, where it is said there is a highly valuable treasure that “evil” sorcerers of Hardic descent have sought for years. Part of Tenar’s duty as high priestess is to protect this treasure.
Another far more unsettling duty that Tenar must carry out is sentencing prisoners to die in the tombs. The culture’s preferred method of capital punishment is starvation, which amounts to a long, slow torture. Tenar is haunted by her role in sentencing individuals to such pain and torment.
Soon after Tenar reaches the height of her power and influence, she encounters a Hardic wizard named Ged in the tombs. She catches him trying to steal a piece of a talisman, the ring of Erreth-Akbe, which can be used to create peace in Earthsea, but which has been hidden away by the Nameless Ones to prevent peace from ever occurring. Intrigued by Ged, his story, and his rebelliousness against the Nameless Ones, Tenar—rather than sentencing Ged to death—keeps him prisoner in private, secretly bringing him food and water and having discussions about the problematic nature of the society Tenar serves.
After Kossil discovers that Ged exists, however, Tenar must choose to either kill Ged or escape with him. To buy time, Manan helps her dig a false grave and fake Ged’s death. But things come to a head when Kossil discovers the false grave around the same time that Ged discovers and retrieves the ring of Erreth-Akbe. At this point, Tenar realizes she must choose immediately, and she chooses to leave with Ged. They escape the collapsing tombs and locate Ged’s boat on the coast, charting a course for the Hardic island of Havnor.
While en route to the island, Tenar contemplates killing Ged for ruining her life. But at this point, she realizes that she no longer wants to be called Arha and only wants to go by her natural name, shouting, “I have my name back. I am Tenar!” Most significantly, this shift means that she no longer feels any loyalty to the Nameless Ones, described by Ged as “giving nothing and creating nothing in return.”
Upon its release, The Tombs of Atuan
was named a Newbery Honor Book. But over time, the book has been held in even greater regard. In a 2017 retrospective, for instance, Entertainment Weekly
described the novel as “a classic of stealth-missile literature, a fantasy adventure that’s actually a feminist horror thriller.”