Review – The Tombs of Atuan

Posted January 25, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Books of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin and Charles VessThe Tombs of Atuan, Ursula Le Guin

Again, I read this in the version illustrated by Charles Vess, this time. I noticed fewer corrections/changes in the text for this one, but perhaps I know it a little less well — though the opening chapter with the ceremony where Arha is ‘eaten’ has always stuck in my head (the drum beating at heart-pace, the ritual word that has lost all meaning) and the descriptions of the Labyrinth, the treasures of the temple… these have made a really big impression on me. As a kid, I think it was my favourite.

And that impression pretty much stayed with me. I love learning more about this part of Earthsea, seeing a whole other perspective. Though she didn’t know it yet, according to her own discussions of her writing process, so many foundations for the later books were laid here, asking new questions of what was established in the first book.

The only thing disappointing about this reread was reading Ursula Le Guin’s afterword, which feels like such an odd thing to say — but I so often agree with Ursula Le Guin that it really pulls me up short when something strikes such a discordant note for me. Here it is:

When I was writing the story in 1969, I knew of no women heroes of heroic fantasy since those in the works of Ariosto and Tasso in the Renaissance. These days there are plenty, though I wonder about some of them. The women warriors of current fantasy epics — ruthless swordswomen with no domestic or sexual responsibility who gallop about slaughtering baddies — to me they look less like women than boys in women’s bodies in men’s armor.

It sort of depends exactly what heroines Le Guin had in mind with that, but “no domestic or sexual responsibility” rings horribly to me. I enjoy the attention to domestic tasks in Le Guin’s work (Yarrow making the wheat cakes in A Wizard of Earthsea; the endless work of spinning and weaving at the Place in The Tombs of Atuan…) — and I certainly wouldn’t want Tenar to run around in armour with a sword. I think it’s important that Tenar, with those skills and her later trajectory, is a heroine… but she’s not the only kind of heroine there can be. (And a woman who wants to have “no domestic and sexual responsibility” is no less of a woman for it.)

Bit odd to end on that note, given that I dearly love The Tombs of Atuan. Still a great read.

Rating: 5/5

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