The Tombs of Atuan

Mike GristBook / Movie Reviews 6 Comments

I went into this book not knowing what to expect after A Wizard of Earthsea, which was quite a mixed bag. So much of it was narrative summary, and things only kicked off properly at the very end, as Ged went after the Gebbeth demon. Where would the Tombs of Atuan pick up, after all that was done?

Well, it picks up somewhere completely different- with a girl called Tenar, who is a kind of Vestal Virgin to the same dark powers that Ged faced down in the first book. She spends her days roaming Atuan’s undertombs, politicking for power with the other priestesses, living in constant fear and awe of the gods whose graveyard she lives upon. Then one day she sees a light in the darkness of the tombs, cast by a man with a wizard’s staff. On instinct she seals the entrances and traps him inside. Of course, it’s Ged, and he’s now at her mercy.

It’s not a book

My first thought about the Tombs is that it is not a book. If anything it’s a short story, padded and inflated far beyond the foot-note-sized dimensions it occupies. The first and most obvious reason for this is its length- at only 140 pages (around 50,000 words) it’s visibly thin. The second is that fully half of the book is back-story- the first half. A third reason, if we need one, is how little happens in it, and the almost complete absence of a climactic conflict.

I can’t imagine any book written in this style getting published today. For 60 pages we are learning about this young girl Tenar’s life. It is 60 pages of world-building, quite free of any meaningful conflict. Nothing is at stake for her but her freedom, and since she never seems bothered about chasing that down, we aren’t either. She is taken by the priestesses early (hunted out the same way the Dalai Lama is), given her role (patrolling the deepest mazes of the Tombs and executing the Godking’s enemies), and then just hangs out.

From the beginning I was antsy and waiting for Ged to appear. Around page 40 I was ready to give up, so started to skip. Ged finally appears around page 60, though we don`t get much more on him for another 20 or so pages. Instead we remain with Tenar, as she debates what to do with him. In the end- SPOILER- she makes some small effort to save him. I actually found that a little hard to believe. I rather think she would have let him die. But she doesn’t, and around page 80 we start to see what Ged is up to.

He’s in the middle of a quest. He’s been off fighting dragons to learn secret histories about an immensely powerful ring that might be buried at the Tombs of Atuan. So he’s learned to speak Tenar’s language, inveigled himself into the Tombs, then got himself lost. And that’s where we pick up with him.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

I don’t understand it. Why if Ged was doing all that interesting stuff- stuff that seems to be the main story here- have we been following Tenar in such detail? She’s not that interesting. She doesn’t do anything really. In fact this whole book feels like some kind of experiment in meta-fiction; like Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead. Le Guin is telling us the grander story (of Ged) through the much more limited viewpoint of Tenar. It grounds her, and him, in a different reality. By only hinting at Ged’s adventures between now and the end of Wizard of Earthsea, she shows us a different side to her world.

But at what cost? With Rosencrantz and Guildenstern we all already know the story of Hamlet. But with the Tombs of Atuan we have no idea. We have to slog through 60 pages of Tenar’s DM’s handbook to get to anything approximating kick-ass. And by the time we’re with Ged again, he’s already so knackered from fending off the dark forces of Atuan that he’s really not worth much at all. He can barely keep his staff light on.

Then, as Tenar decides to go all in to save him, the final battle takes place again in absentia, off stage, inside Ged’s mind. The dark Gods are assaulting him, it’s a tremendous effort for him to fend them off, oh gosh, and what do we see of it? He complains a bit, is pale, staggers about.

That’s it.

It’s almost as if Le Guin purposefully set out to cut every bit of the actual story out of this book, and then presented us with the trimmings that were left over. Hey, here are some pieces of paper with the shapes of figures cut out of them. The figures are off there in the distance somewhere, don’t worry about that. Just enjoy these outlines šŸ™‚.

Figure vs. figure-shaped hole.

Am I being harsh? Perhaps. There’s no doubt that this was an interesting experiment in fiction. I like the feeling that there are so many stories going on at once in Earthsea that Le Guin struggled to show them all to us. But I think it could have been done much better. She could have given us the paper cut out figures AND the trimmings they left behind. Like this-

We open on Ged. That is after all what we want, that’s why we’re reading the second book in a series about Ged. He’s off battling a dragon at the request of a King, seeking a fabled ring (the backstory he’s given in passing in the book actual). We watch him talk to the King and dubiously accept the quest- still haunted by his experience with the Gebbeth in the first book. He goes to the dragon and has to beat it with cunning and sleight of hand. He gets the knowledge he seeks, at the same time learning something about the nature of power. Perhaps he follows another trail for a while, but eventually he is led to the Tombs. First though is his training montage- he spells up, learns the language, studies up on the dark Gods.

Then he’s into the Tombs! It’s terrifying, he’s assaulted from every angle, barely able to stay conscious. He battles them in his dreams.

Then he sees a light, looking in on him from above. This is Tenar!

Switch to Tenar’s track. Condensed into a few pages we get her whole back-story, now that we’re invested in who she is. We follow her as she starts to help Ged. That part of the book can proceed as it does now. Then, as they come to their escape, we’re flashing between Ged’s head as he’s battling with the Gods and Tenar’s head as she strives to remember her path through the maze and come to terms with the betrayal she’s committing. In his battles Ged relives past nightmares, deals again with the soul of the Gebbeth he fought in the first book, and finally sets the matter to rest once and for all. In her striving Tenar has to push through all the childish beliefs she’s been raised on to a new and wiser adulthood. Finally Ged and Tenar emerge victorious, both reborn.

Boom. Wouldn’t that be better?

Lazy writing.

My feeling is that it’s lazy writing that prevented this from being the actual story. It’s hard to get inside Ged’s head and have him learn new lessons. It’s hard to dramatize a conflict inside his head. It’s much easier to pad a story with 60 pages of dry exposition and summary. I’ve been trying to learn this myself, with my Dawn books. In the first draft I was never inside Dawn’s head. In fact, the first 50-odd pages of my first draft were dry back-story. There were a lot of characters getting introduced, the world being explained, but nobody was doing anything, nobody was feeling anything. Anything that did happen was largely in narrative summary, whisked over and dealt with far too quickly for us the reader to invest in it. Like the Tombs.

So I rewrote it, going into the conflicts, going into the character’s head, stringing together the events into an actual story, with ups and downs, hopefully with the reader’s investment. I think it’s hugely stronger now.

I’d love to hear what any fans of the book make of this review. Would you like to read a re-written version that followed the outlines I gave above? Or would you fight for the original?

Next up, The Farthest Shore.

Comments 6

  1. I read this book a long, long time ago, so perhaps my opinion should be taken with a grain of salt – but I loved this book, and read it multiple times. By contrast, I remember almost nothing of the previous one in the series (except a vague sense that I never connected with Ged emotionally). As far as I remember, I never managed to finish the last Wizard of Earthsea book, or maybe never picked it up.

    Hang on, I remember now – I did read it, because there was a throw-away sentence at some point of it referring to Tenar (though not by name) that I do recall. But that’s actually the only thing about the entire novel that sticks in my memory, which tells you a lot about how interested I was…

    Reading this as another installment in the adventures of Ged is, to my mind, doing the book a disservice. Maybe it shouldn’t be placed in the context of the Ged books at all, strictly speaking, because it really is about something else altogether, and readers coming into it as you did are bound to be disappointed.

    This is not an action book. It is about atmosphere, characterization, and world-building, and on all of those fronts it succeeded very well with me. I thought Tenar was a fascinating character, and the backstory was necessary to get in to her mindset; she grows up in an alien environment that shapes her in an alien way. She is both incredibly powerful (though she is hardly aware of her power) and totally powerless; her world is tiny, closed and static, but ancient and fragile. Her view of the world is extremely limited and extremely alien to anything the reader knows, or anything other people in her world know, and I loved getting into her head, finding out who she was.

    I also loved the descriptions of her world, her way of life – I found it atmospheric, effective and fascinating.

    To me, Tenar was a very impressive and powerful character. I thought it was entirely believable that she chose to help Ged, and I admired her for her courage and strength; she destroyed the only world she knew, even her gods, with open eyes… because she recognized the limits of that world, despite having known nothing else, and despite having been trained from birth not to look beyond its boundaries.

    Ged is not important in this story at all, except as the factor that enters Tenar’s closed and static world from the outside – prompting a dramatic change in it, and in Tenar.

    So, to answer your question: “Boom. Wouldnā€™t that be better?”

    No, for me it would be much worse, because what interested me in the book would get extremely short thrift. It’s not an action book, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s not a book about Ged, but it doesn’t have to be that, either. It’s about Tenar and the ancient Gods; and that’s enough.

    1. Post

      Hi Sylvia- thanks for this very thoughtful reply- got me thinking again about what I think makes a good story, and why I judged Tombs so harshly. I think your point that it shouldn’t be considered part of the Ged series is key. He’s in it, but it’s definitely not about him.

      That ran totally counter to my expectations. I presumed I’d be getting more about Ged, more about his conflict with the dark forces that were only hinted at in the first book. So when I had to wait 60 pages for him to appear, then when he did appear all of his action was happening off-stage, well, you can imagine how much it infuriated me.

      I think the second book then suffered from the expectation that the first book set up. Not least of which was the blurb on the cover of the first book- ‘Before Ged became a mighty sorceror, he was a young punk kid…’ That blurb set me up, before I even started the first book, to expect some serious action and butt-kicking at least by the second book. So in some ways I not only waited all those 60 pages of Atuan until Ged arrives, but also the whole of the first book- which was basically his back-story.

      So, yes, that was frustrating.

      If I had come to Atuan cold, I might have enjoyed it better- though probably I would still feel it was hardly a book. As you say, it is world-building. You say suspense, but I didn’t feel any- though that could be just because I was coming to the book on a false promise. Either way though- there’s not a great deal of doing things. The only thing done is one choice Tenar makes- to help Ged. She makes the same choice several times, in increasing severity, but each time it’s the same thing.

      Add that to the 40 pages of back-story, and I fell it’s a long short story, maybe, perhaps a novella.

  2. Very interesting take on these books. I read them a few times during jr hi/hi school, and went back just a couple years ago to revisit them. Although I had a different perspective on them, my impressions did not change all that much. I felt very satisfied after reading them each time, so I didn’t go so much into interpretation as you have–I just took them at face value, assuming that this is exactly what a good author intended us to have. Perhaps that’s the case, perhaps not.

    At any rate, here’s my general analysis of the writing style.

    It is very sparse, and purposefully so. As opposed to an Anne McCaffrey or David Eddings story in which the reader is given a god’s view and knowledge of history of some incredible new world with dragons, magic, etc., in this cycle the reader just sees the world as the only thing ever known, with no knowledge beyond that of the character’s. Given that, the additional perspective of Tenar’s that shows us what Ged is getting into by journeying into her land improves the story by giving us an implicit understanding of the challenges he faces in having her as an ally while he’s underground.

    I’ll let you get into the third book on your own. šŸ˜‰

    As I saw it, the first two books attempted to show us a world–not an entire world from an author’s point of view, but the only world that a character ever knew.

    1. Post

      Hi Todd, thanks for sharing your thoughts- I’m actually wholly with you on this idea of showing only the amount of world that is known to the characters. I think that is the best way to reveal a world. I quite strongly dislike info-dumps of made-up stuff from the author, unconnected to character. Of course it’s all made-up, but if new info is tied to characters, then it becomes more real. It’s one reason I hardly read fantasy any more. It’s also the way I’m writing my own fantasy book- all from the eyes of he characters.

      I guess my problems with Tombs were that it so completely failed to deliver on what I felt had been the promise of book 1. Book 1 sets up Ged and a conflict with dark forces. Book 2 almost completely side-steps that conflict, having it only vaguely shoe-horned into a story about someone completely different, at a much lower level of threat.

      In that, I feel LeGuin (or the book-blurb makers, or the packagers who packed the books together in a series) failed. As separate books the two may be fine. But I came to them expecting a steady ramping up, as we would expect of a pre-planned series. There was none of that.

      Book 3 however, which I recently finished, is quite a different animal…

      1. Hmm. I guess the question is whether Tenar, or the knowledge she allows the reader, contributes to Ged’s journey of the hero as he goes underground literally and symbolically. If not then you have a valid complaint. I wasn’t thinking along those lines when I read it so I couldn’t answer one way or the other right now. What do you think?

  3. I have the chile citizenship , living once in Chile but now in Europe but my grandfather was buried in Chile. It is amazing to read the book to see why it was chosen really my family name. I will read this book as soon as I get it indeed.

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