Monday, June 24, 2013

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin

 Long ago, when I first read this book, I was horribly disappointed. I bought it to enjoy the further adventures of Sparrowhawk, and what I got for a hundred pages or so was absolutely no mention of Sparrowhawk, nor any other characters who appeared in A Wizard of Earthsea. Eventually, he did enter the story, and I finished it mildly mollified. This time, however, I knew what to expect upon my re-reading, and was more capable of simply enjoying the tale's beginning as seen from the POV of Tenar, aka Arha, the Eaten One, High Priestess of the nameless ones at the Tombs of Atuan.

It is believed, in the Kargish lands (though it may be more fair to say that orthodox theology states that, since I have a suspicion that the high priestess of the God King may have a more cynical view of the situation), that Arha is the perpetually reincarnated spirit of the eternal priestess of the Old Ones, born at the same hour that the previous holder of the office died, and she has merely to be reminded of the things she once knew. She was taken from her birth mother at age five, to be raised in the temple, taught her duties, and locked into a life only mildly better than that of her eunuch slave, Manan. She has even forgotten her true name since becoming Arha.

Like many teen aged girls, even those in religious institutions, she takes her pleasures where she can sneak them, indulging in minor curfew violations and wandering past the borders set her. She is taught the ways of the Undertomb, a vast catacomb of natural caverns and man-made passages where, in the portion called the Labyrinth, where only she can pass, many ancient treasures are stored. One of the legendary treasures kept there is one half of the broken Ring of Erreth-Akbe, a powerful magical relic, and probably the only reason any mage worth his salt would bother to make the journey to Atuan, hoping to regain the ring and once again unite the lands of the Archipelago in peace and harmony under a King.

And there, at last, we find Sparrowhawk, sneaking about in the dark, trying to find Erreth-Akbe's legacy, since he was given the other half of the ring on a desert island by an old woman (who turns out to have been Kargish royalty) while he was questing after his shadow. A little older, a little wiser, and yet curiously subdued and not nearly as powerful as we imagine he should be after his earlier successes - but there's a good reason for this, we learn eventually. Arha discovers Sparrowhawk and traps him in the maze, waiting until he has nearly died of thirst and starvation before spelunking on down and having Manan cart him off to a stony prison, where she does a reverse-Scheherazade, forcing him to tell her tales of lands far away, and prove that his magic exists.

If you've already read all the books in the series, you know that Tenar is crucial to the whole story, and marries Ged in the end, but for the rest of you, I'll just let you enjoy it as she finds her way to destiny. Like love is rumored to be, The Tombs of Atuan is much better the 2nd (or 22nd) time around.

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