The Tombs of Atuan


Ursula LeGuin


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

February 27, 2022

t has been many decades since I first read LeGuin's marvelous trilogy of Earthsea (way back then, there were only the three books of the original trilogy. The next three volumes of the "second trilogy" did not appear until I was much older). I clearly remember drawing my own maps of archipelagos, populating a sea with imaginary islands where I tried to imagine great adventures could be had. I wasn't so great at dreaming up fantastic tales, but I did have plenty of islands on my map, ready for exploration. LeGuin's Earthsea, of course, is set in an archipelago of a watery world. I always expected that at some point Ged would sail so far he would discover an unknown continent, but that did not happen.

LeGuin crafted a fully formed world on the islands of Earthsea. Remarkably, she constructs this fascination fantasy culture in a novel that is just 146 pages long in my paperback edition. The Tombs of Atuan is set on an arid desolate island. An ancient, crumbling temple stands there; harboring a dark cult of priestesses and their minions who still worship the dark brooding gods. Most don't even believe in these ancient dieties, but the ceremonies and rituals must be performed. The temple must have a high priestess, and the belief is that when one high priestess perishes, she is reborn again somewhere on the islands. That young girl is taken back to the dark temple and initiated into the dark rites - losing everything, her name, her future, her dreams - she assumes the role of the high-priestess Ahra, the Eaten One.

Tenar is a cheerful young child in a loving family when the dark priestesses come searching for the next Ahra. After close examination, and querying about her birthdate, Tenar is taken from her family, never to see them again. Tenar becomes Ahra, and we learn of her bleak existence amongst the dark tombs. As the high-priestess, Ahra must be obeyed, but the maleovent Kessil can manipulate the temple staff to serve her will.

Beneath the ruined temple is a vast, unmapped labyrinth - the Tombs of Atuan, where the power of the forgotten Dark Gods is strongest. No light is ever permitted in these underground chambers. Only Ahra is allowed to explore this vast and forbidding dark maze - and she must do so relying only on her sense of touch and memory. Should Ahra become lost, she would surely perish in the unending darkness. The Tombs contain hidden treasures that no one can see. An occasional daring thief will enter into this maze in search of treasure, only to inevitably suffer the wrath of the Dark Gods and die in the dark.

LeGuin does such a marvelous world building that it is hard to believe Tombs of Atuan is so short. Even though this was a re-read for me, I stayed up late to finish it. Of course, Ged, the hero of the first book, A Wizard of Earthsea, makes an appearance in dark, evil place. He is searching for half of the amulet of Erreth-Akbe. Should the missing half be found and joined to the half Ged already possesses, then peace will be brought to the Earthsea archipelago. Ged is such a marvelous character. He is a powerful mage, yet he is kind, calm and helpful. Rereading The Tombs of Atuan, LeGuin again impressed me with her depiction of Ged and his wizardly adventures. This is a great fantasy story, I enjoyed it as much as the classic A Wizard of Earthsea