Ursula LeGuin

Let’s Discuss — The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula LeGuin

The Earth is beautiful, and bright and kindly, but that is not all. The Earth is also terrible, and dark, and cruel. The rabbit shrieks dying in the green meadows. The mountains clench their great hands full of hidden fire. There are sharks in the sea, and there is cruelty in men’s eyes. And where men worship these things and abase themselves before them, there evil breeds… (118)

The majority of this short book is dedicated to introducing the character, Arha, the High Priestess of The Nameless Ones in the Place of Tombs. She is a living artifact of a somewhat forgotten religion that is less relevant to the kingdom of the Godking that rules. Ged/Sparrowhawk, the protagonist from A Wizard of Earthsea, enters the book much later.

The worship at the Place of Tombs is very dark in nature. It involves frequent human sacrifice and trips into a labyrinth of tombs and treasure, where no light is permitted. Arha learns how religion means different things for different people. For some it is a pathway to power. For others it’s a way of life. And for many it’s something to do because there is nothing else to do. Gradually, Arha forms opinions on the hierarchy she participates in, and one by one divides friend from foe.

Arha inadvertently discovers Ged in the tombs one day. Ged is an outsider, a nonbeliever and heathen wizard. His presence defies everything Arha has been taught–he lights the darkness. Ged shows her there’s more in the world than what’s suppressed in the dark labyrinth.

I didn’t enjoy The Tombs of Atuan as much as A Wizard of Earthsea. I found Ged’s origin story to be more compelling than Arha’s…she comes across very self-righteous, condescending and self-centered. But this is a side-effect of her upbringing. As The Eaten One, she is placed on a pedestal and told the darkness is her domain. Sequestered at the Place, she only knows what the other priestesses have taught her. Yet she is just a girl, young and dumb, with no grasp on how vast and different the world is.

So by the end, Arha still has much to learn about herself, whereas, Ged had matured substantially by the end of his origin story. However, Ged also had the freedom to go on a journey of self-discovery. Thanks to Ged, Arha is just now finding this freedom and perhaps in the third book of the Earthsea Cycle, Arha will experience something more.

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Let’s Discuss — A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin

…a man: who, knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself, and whose life therefore is lived for life’s sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark (195)

A Wizard of Earthsea is a fantasy bildungsroman* and origin story of Sparrowhawk (also known as Ged) the greatest voyager of Roke. Readers follow Ged from his humble beginnings as a nobody to his first adventure as wizard.

Ged, is very interesting character; he’s the last born and a natural loner. Left to his own devices in a small village, he finds creative ways to cultivate his mind. His magical roots begin with learning charms from his witch-aunt: calling goats, healing spells, patching leaky roofs etc.  However, simple charms aren’t enough for Ged, future dragonlord and Archmage. Eventually he takes up an apprenticeship with a Master Wizard, but impatience and immaturity rule over him. The Master Wizard sends Ged to the Roke School of Wizards, famous throughout all of Earthsea.

Ged begins his adventure talented but immature and flawed. Along the way, he learns the importance of balance, not letting one side overwhelm the other.  He develops the courage and wisdom to finish what he started. Major conflict starts when ego leads Ged to summon a power he doesn’t understand and cannot control. He creates a gateway for a shadow to enter the world. But this is not just any shadow–it’s everything dark. On his journey to understand the shadow and his connection with it, he matures greatly. What begins as a source of self-inflicted damage and destruction of Ged becomes a passage to wholeness and adulthood.

There were many elements and little details in this book that intrigued me. I like the idea of limits; knowing them and testing them–be it the power of a spell, or sailing the seas to the edge of the world. This is relevant because Ged is a wizard, but he is also human with weaknesses. I also like the dark invitations: the elder dragon on the isle and the stone that was before all things. Both had knowledge of the shadow (knowledge that Ged needed) but their power was sinister and untrustworthy. I also like the importance of names. Knowing someone or somethings true** name grants one the ability to speak to, connect with, and in certain instances control them. I’m looking forward to the next book in this Earthsea series by the always impressive, Le Guin.

* I don’t know why I didn’t just say Coming-of-Age…

**Ged is Sparrowhawk’s true name.