The Tombs of Atuan

Opening line: ‘”Come home, Tenar! Come home!” In the deep valley, in the twilight, the apple trees were on the eve of blossoming; here and there among the shadowed boughs one flower had opened early, rose and white, like a faint star.’

Far in the desert is a cluster of temples to the Godkings of Kargad and the God-brothers; but the oldest of them all is the Temple of the Throne and the Tombs of Atuan. The throne is empty and the temple crumbling. While the other priestesses serve the living godking or the twin God-brothers, Arha — the First Priestess, the Eaten One — serves the Nameless Ones. Their domain is beneath the earth, in the Undertomb and the Labyrinth. Only their One Priestess may go beyond the Undertomb. But Arha’s faith in the Nameless Ones is shaken when an outsider steals into the Undertomb as if by magic. Who is he, and why has he come?

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin is the second in the Earthsea trilogy-turned-series. I read it for the third time this week; it is tied for my favourite in the series, alongside The Wizard of Earthsea. I love Tenar. I love the poetry of Le Guin’s writing, the grace with which she writes about a young girl chosen to serve terrifying and merciless masters, writing about fear, pride, and struggling with faith. The darkness of the Undertomb and the Labyrinth are tangible, palpable things. I feel Tenar’s fear when the Nameless Ones turn against her; I remember the hopelessness of the dark, the joy of coming up into the light.

‘Living, being in the world, was a much greater and stranger thing than she had ever dreamed.’

You don’t need to have read A Wizard of Earthsea to read The Tombs of Atuan — it stands alone — but if you have read A Wizard of Earthsea and enjoyed it, then you must keep reading. You won’t be sorry.

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