“You are like a lantern swathed and covered, hidden away
in a dark place. Yet the light shines; they could not put out the light.
They could not hide you.”
The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin
In this second novel in the Earthsea series, Tenar is chosen as high priestess to the ancient and nameless Powers of the Earth, and everything is taken from her — home, family, possessions, even her name. She is now known only as Arha, the Eaten One, and guards the shadowy, labyrinthine Tombs of Atuan.
Then a wizard, Ged Sparrowhawk, comes to steal the Tombs’ greatest hidden treasure, the Ring of Erreth-Akbe. Tenar’s duty is to protect the Ring, but Ged possesses the light of magic and tales of a world that Tenar has never known. Will Tenar risk everything to escape from the darkness that has become her domain?
After adoring nearly everything about A Wizard of Earthsea — the characters, the writing style, the plot — The Tombs of Atuan was a serious let-down. I had gone into it expecting the same elegant, myth-like writing style utilized in A Wizard, but instead found the writing to be simplistic, as if it had been “dumbed down” for young readers; the assumption that it’s necessary to talk down to a young reader has always been my largest pet-peeve with young adult fiction, and the reason I skipped the entire genre as a kid.
Arha serves dark gods of a similar nature to the shadow encountered in A Wizard. They are nameless, formless beings of immense power who Arha, groomed from a very young age to be the high priestess of the Tombs of Atuan, reveres unquestionably, until the day she realizes that some others don’t believe, that it’s actually possible not to believe in or respect the gods. Part of Arha’s coming-of-age includes finding out that things she believed to be inherent truths are actually things she is able to have opinions about and, if she dares, disagreements with. This aspect of the book I found very compelling, and I have to commend Le Guin for her skill at developing Arha’s character and describing the internal journey we all go through when we reach that point of challenging everything we’ve been told is true. I closed the book feeling like I could relate very strongly to Arha, and as if I had made a “book friend.”
Unfortunately that’s all it is: a coming-of-age story. Where A Wizard of Earthsea was high fantasy with a story of self-discovery quietly and deftly woven in, The Tombs of Atuan is solely about Arha’s growth and internal dialogue. The bland, simplistic writing style and a plot that bored me bring this book down to 2 out of 5 buried treasures.
Cleanliness & Content Advisory: Despite religion being a central theme of the book, The Tombs of Atuan is considerably darker than A Wizard of Earthsea. Because human sacrifice and death are mentioned but never explicitly shown, I give it a PG rating and recommend it for 10-12+, depending on the maturity level of the young person.
Read my reviews of the other books I’ve read in the Earthsea Cycle:
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (Earthsea Cycle #1)
The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin (Earthsea Cycle #3)