Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Tombs of Atuan, by Ursula Le Guin

The prologue to The Tombs of Atuan (1971) is barely a page long and utterly devastating. In a valley of blossoming apple trees, a mother calls one of five children in from outside, and the little girl's father chides his wife.
"Why do you let your heart hang on the child? They're coming to take her away next month. For good. Might as well bury her and be done with it. What's the good of clinging to one you're bound to lose? She's no good to us. If they'd pay for her when they took her, that would be something, but they won't. They'll take her and that's an end of it." (p. 175) 
The mother can't help herself, and the father, too, is grieving for the loss to come. Their bravery, their acceptance, is awful.

The girl has been identified as the reincarnation of Arha, the priestess ever reborn. In the book proper, we follow her in her new role, carrying our rituals and devising painful death for those who have broken the rules. She has a rival in the temple, and a friend who - shockingly - is not a believer. Arha also explores the labyrinth under the temple: a complex system of tunnels in total darkness, reliant solely on memory if she's not to get lost or fall into traps. We feel the strangeness of it, the danger she's in by exploring ever further. Pushing on into the darkness is as haunting as that prologue.

Then, in chapter 5, Arha is startled by a light in the darkness, cast by a mysterious man. We quickly realise this is Ged, the Wizard of Earthsea from the first book in the series. From Arha's perspective, he's dark-skinned - a detail I missed in the first book but mentioned several times here. Having been given one half of a magical ring or bracelet towards the end of that book, Ged has come to look for the other half, sneaking into the labyrinth and all set to steal it.

Arha, outraged, traps him - but she's also intrigued. She wants to know who he is, what he wants, how he casts his werelight, but the longer she keeps this heretic intruder alive, the more her own position is at risk. Ged also tells her that they're not alone in the darkness; down here, they are prey for evil somethings related to the shadow he battled in the first book.

Arha's predicament is compelling and whatever decision she makes will come at terrible cost. Le Guin is brilliant at making nothing too easy or neat in this simple-seeming story. At one point, Ged is attacked by a character close to Arha and we totally understand why. Ged defends himself and the character is lost to one of the labyrinth's traps. We feel the shock of it, the horror to Arha of losing this loyal figure and her remorse for how she treated them before. In this labyrinth of horrors, with a wizard at her side, it's completely, terribly real.

Without giving away the ending, I felt a pang for the girl's parents. She barely remembers them and doesn't spare them a thought. But surely they'd soon hear of what happens in the story, to the daughter they lost all that time ago. They'll have lost her again, because no one has thought to tell them the truth.

No comments: