Tenar is the high priestess to the Nameless Ones who guard the Tombs of Atuan. She’s been chosen as a child for her role, renamed Arha and she’s always tried to do her best, even when her duties involved ordering the killing of prisoners. But one night, she finds a man, the wizard Ged, in the labyrinth under the tombs and traps him there. But she can’t bring herself to do her duty and let him starve. Instead they start to talk and Tenar starts to question the way things are for her.
The first of the Earthsea novels wasn’t really my cup of tea, and it was the second book of Le Guin’s that I didn’t click with, so it took me a while to get around to this novel. And much to my surprise, I actually … liked it.
It feels like the story of the Tombs of Atuan has been often copied in the almost 50 years since it was published. The young woman destined to fulfill a certain (sexist) role who starts to question if things really have to be the way they are. But it’s a story I like to read in its different versions, and Le Guin’s take may not be the first time this was done, but it was certainly done at a time when it was rarer.
But more importantly, she does it well: Tenar is a great protagonist whose development is believable, and the cult and her entire situation was really interesting to read about. The way the cult works and thinks and deals with her was so detailed and thought through, it was fascinating. Plus, it goes to show, how limiting and strangling a highly respected position can become, especially for women. Putting women on a pedestal and refusing their humanity, not because they’re seen as subhuman but as godlike, is absolutely problematic and ultimately misogynistic.
I also could take this Ged much better than I could take the Ged in the first novel. It’s a humbled Ged, bested by a teenaged girl, despite all his powers and knowledge. It’s a good look on him.
It definitely inspired me to not let that much time pass anymore before reading the next book in the series. Maybe my spell of not appreciating Le Guin is finally broken?
Summarizing: it’s good.