The Tombs of Atuan

(Yes, I know I am really behind on my Shadow of the Torturer series, but I want to write about this while it is still fresh in my mind)

I’ve mainly known Ursula K. Le Guin more for her science fiction than fantasy, but this year I’ve been filling in the gap by reading her celebrated Earthsea cycle. I’m in the middle of The Farthest Shore at the moment. One thing I am grateful for about her style is that, unlike most fantasy author’s, Le Guin is not given over to prolixity – these stories are short and to the point.

The second book, The Tombs of Atuan struck me as being a surprisingly subtle examination of religion, politics and power, or at least more subtle than it initially appears. It tells the story of Tenar, who assumes the role of Arha, a high priestess of gods called the Nameless Ones. But what seems to be a position of immense power is actually a sort of spiritual and physical enslavement; Tenar is kept in a cloistered existence more or less against her will, serving powers which do not seem particularly loving.

It is possible to see this as an indictment of the cruelties of religion as such, but note a particular speech given by Ged Sparrowhawk, Earthsea’s hero par excellence:

“Did you truly think them [the Nameless Ones] dead? You know better in your heart. They do not die. They are dark and undying, and they hate the light: the brief, bright light of our mortality. They are immortal, but they are not gods. They never were. They are not worth the worship of any human soul.”

She listened, he eyes heavy, her gaze fixed on the flickering lantern.

“What have they ever given you, Tenar?”

“Nothing,” she whispered.

“They have nothing to give. They have no power of making. All their power is to darken and destroy. They cannot leave this place; they are this place; and it should be left to them. They should not be denied or forgotten, but neither should they be worshiped. The Earth is beautiful, and bright, and kindly, but that is not all. The Earth is also terrible, and dark, and cruel. The rabbit shrieks dying in the green meadows. The mountains clench their great hands full of hidden fire. There are sharks in the sea, and there is cruelty in men’s eyes. And where men worship these things and abase themselves before them, there evil breeds; there places are made in the world where darkness gathers, places given over wholly to the Ones whom we call Nameless, the ancient and holy Powers of the Earth before the Light, the powers of the dark, of ruin, of madness…

In addition to giving  the Earthsea mythos a bit of a Lovecraftian spin, this is an indictment of the pagan mindset: to take one aspect of creation and elevate it to the level of a god will result in evil and perversion, because there is always a dark, cruel side, to that one thing, and because to elevate a finite thing from its proper place in existence creates a distortion – other things, perhaps essential things, become sacrificed on the altar of your god when they conflict with it. Of course, I think Le Guin would agree with Schopenhauer that all worship is a form of idolatry, and there we part ways in thought.

The closest thing the novel has to a human antagonist – Kossil, High Priestess of the Godking – represents political power, in particular a Hobbesian form of it:

“Long ago,” he said, “you know, little one, before our four lands joined together into an empire, before there was a Godking over us all, there were a lot of lesser kings, princes, chiefs. They were always quarreling with each other. And they’d come here to settle their quarrels. That was how it was, they’d come from our land Atuan, and from Karego-At, and Atnini, and even from the Hur-at-Hur, all the chiefs and princes with their servants and their armies. And they’d ask you what to do. And you’d go before the Empty Throne, and give them the counsel of the Nameless Ones. Well, that was long ago. After a while the Priest-Kings came to rule all of Karego-At, and soon they were ruling Atuan; and now for four or five lifetimes of men the God-kings have ruled all the four lands together, and made them an empire. And so things are changed. The Godking can put down the unruly chiefs, and settle all the quarrels himself. And being a god, you see, he doesn’t have to consult the Nameless Ones very often.”

It is implied here that the emergence of the God-King empire is one of sheer might imposing its will on what would otherwise be a state of war, similar to Hobbes’ self-declared Sovereign. The deification of this sort of rule is a logical consequence of the fact that its authority derives only from its own brute force. And Kossil herself represents the human cost of a cynical mindset that views relations with others entirely in terms of power.

Ged Sparrowhawk is able to save Tenar, not through forcibly removing her from the situation, but by placing himself at her mercy. His helplessness forces her to confront both her ability to make free ethical decisions, and to love. Only with this realization is Tenar given the tools to achieve her own freedom.

About Josh W

Scribbler and doodler
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1 Response to The Tombs of Atuan

  1. Isaac Yuen says:

    I wrote in my blog that Tombs was a book that I just plain didn’t get as a kid, but as I grew older, I grew to appreciate the subtle themes and threads that are woven into it. All in almost a novella length young adult story.

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