Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Damn you, Ursula K. Le Guin, for writing books that are so good, sometimes they hurt.
Like A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan follows a single protagonist over a long span of her life. Tenar, identified as the reincarnation of the First Priestess of the Nameless Ones, is taken from her parents at a young age. Her soul ceremonially consumed by the Nameless Ones, Tenar becomes Arha, "the Eaten One," and paradoxically nameless herself. She grows up among other priestesses and eunuchs. And she's a very bored girl. She goes through the motions of learning the ways of the High Priestess, sacrificing prisoners to the Nameless Ones, etc., but her heart isn't in it. Then one day, a wizard from the Archipelago shows up in the Labyrinth beneath the tombs, a place where only Arha is allowed to go.
This wizard is, of course, Ged, the protagonist of the previous book. I'm sure that if the entire book were from Ged's perspective the story of how he sneaked into the Labyrinth to steal something would sound a lot better; as it is, he comes off as a bit of a mysterious jerk. Yet Ged's arrival is the event that changes everything. Locked in the dark tombs with little light and precious little food or water, he does something that might seem meaningless to most of us, but to Arha, it is the most potent act possible: he gives her back her name. Taken from her by the priestesses, Ged divines it and utters it almost casually at a parting, and in so doing he returns to Arha her true identity as Tenar, setting her off on the path to liberation.
Now that I have re-read the first two books, it seems so obvious to me that the entire Earthsea series is about, among other things, identity. Generally, it is a world where identity is part of the fabric of magic: to know something's true name is to know the thing, to have command over it. In A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged finds out who he is even as he learns more about the gebbeth hunting him, a creature that almost is not. And thanks to his adventures and deeds during and after that book, he gets all these additional titles bestowed upon him—dragonlord, and the like—for which he never asked. It's the same in The Tombs of Atuan; if anything the motif is much more pronounced. Tenar's identity is stolen from her in childhood, and her relief to have it back came like a sucker punch to my gut:
It was not long past sunrise, a fair winter's day. The sky was yellowish, very clear. High up, so high he caught the sunlight and burned like a fleck of gold, a bird was circling, a hawk or desert eagle.
"I am Tenar," she said, not aloud, and she shook with cold, and terror, and exultation, there under the sunwashed sky. "I have my name back. I am Tenar!"
The golden fleck veered westwards towards the mountains, out of sight. Sunrise gilded the eaves of the Small House. Sheep bells clanked, down in the folds. The smells of woodsmoke and buckwheat porridge from the kitchen chimneys drifted on the fine, fresh wind.
"I am so hungry.… How did he know? How did he know my name? … Oh, I've got to eat, I'm so hungry.…"
She pulled up her hood and ran off to breakfast.
It is as if having her true name restored to her has re-awakened her entire being, given her a new life. Everything is fresh, more real—hence the hunger, the need for energy to confront this wonderful new world. Just like that, Le Guin smites us with a sense of joy that has heretofore been totally absent from Tenar's life.
A lesser writer might have ended the book after Tenar and Ged escape the Tombs of Atuan. Maybe there would be a coda explaining how they lived happily ever after, but that would be it. Le Guin, however, does not succumb to this temptation for the fairy tale ending. After they escape, their trials are not over. Tenar does not fall into Ged's arms, swooning over the hero who has rescued her from her spiritual imprisonment. Their journey across Atuan to the sea is slow, and at times it is as precarious as their time deep in the tombs. Tenar's trust in Ged is nascent and uneasy, made all the more difficult by psychic warfare on the part of the Nameless Ones. She comes close to killing Ged, but he responds to her only with kindness and reassurance:
"Now," he said, "now we're away, now we're clear, we're clean gone, Tenar. Do you feel it?"
She did feel it. A dark hand had let go its lifelong hold upon her heart. But she did not feel joy, as she had in the mountains. She put her head down in her arms and cried, and her cheeks were salt and wet. She cried for the waste of her years in bondage to a useless evil. She wept in pain, because she was free.
What she had begun to learn was the weight of liberty. Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not easy. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one. The road goes upward towards the light; but the laden traveler may never reach the end of it.
This is why Le Guin is so awesome: even though she's telling us a story, a work of fiction, she never lies to us. She shows us the joy, but she also shows us the sorrow that accompanies it like shadow accompanies light. And she does not cheapen the significance of Tenar's journey—whether it's the freedom she has gained or the life she has lost—by trying to simplify, to pander, or to sex it up.
Speaking of which, re-reading The Tombs of Atuan, even more than my re-reading of A Wizard of Earthsea, has only increased my ire toward the Sci-Fi Channel miniseries. The whitewashing of the cast is regrettable, but now I have a much better perspective on how they butchered the story. The miniseries uses material from both of these books, but rather than connecting them chronologically, which could make sense, the miniseries conflates them. Ged's battle against the gebbeth is combined with his search for the Ring of Erreth-Akbe. But Tenar's story is almost unrecognizable: everyone calls her Tenar, none of this "Eaten One" business, and she's treated more like an uppity novice than any kind of reincarnation of the High Priestess. And as the series draws to a close, Ged and Tenar meet up and reunite the two halves of the Ring and bring peace, etc., and there's no crying. There is no significance to Tenar's journey—pretty much there is almost no character development, aside from Tenar's change of allegiance. There is no depth, and if Gavin Scott had ever encountered the word "nuance" before, he certainly did not bother to look up its definition.
I did not remember this book as well as I remembered A Wizard of Earthsea, though I'm sure I've read it before. So I began re-reading it with the expectation that it would be good but not in the way its predecessor is. Instead, I find myself adding a third Le Guin book to my shelf of all-time favourites, an honour I do not bestow lightly. But The Tombs of Atuan is just that good. It's more than good: it's beautiful and poignant and strong. Shame on you, Le Guin, shame!