The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Tombs of Atuan is the story of Tenar.  According to the Priestesses of the Tombs, Tenar was the reborn spirit of the First Priestess.  Tenar is taken from her family at five years old and sent to the Tombs, where no man, not even the Godking himself, can enter, to train to serve the Nameless Ones, to live the life she has lived hundreds of times previously.  After a year her name is taken from her and she is only ever to be Ahra, the Eaten One, from now on.

It is a cold and lonely life, full of ceremony and duty and very little else.  Ahra has two teachers, Kossil, who is jealous of the statues conferred by the title of First Priestess, and Thar, who is stern but fair; an eunuch, Manan, who is given into Ahra’s service and is devoted to the young girl; and one fellow student, Penthe, who is brave enough to be her friend.

Thar said to her, “It is not fitting that you be seen climbing and running with other girls, you are Arha.”
She stood sullen and did not reply.
“It is better that you do only what is needful.  You are Arha.”
For a moment the girl raised her eyes to Thar’s face, then to Kossil’s, and there was a depth of hate or rage in her look that was terrible to see.  But the thin priestess showed no concern; rather she confirmed, leaning forward a little, almost whispering, “You are Arha.  There is nothing left.  It was all eaten.”
“It was all eaten,” the girl repeated, as she had repeated daily, all the days of her life since she was six.

As Ahra grows up, little changes at the Tombs, except those things that isolate her further.  Thar dies, Kossil become more jealous, status separates Ahra from Penthe and the other girls of her age, and Ahra, a teenager like all other teenagers, chafes under the constant eye of the devoted Manan.  Ahra is almost choked by the boredom and loneliness sometimes but what other option is there?  She is the First Priestess, servant of the Nameless Ones, forever bound.  Nothing will ever change.

She was fifteen. It was over a year since she had made her crossing in to womanhood and at the same time had come into her full powers as the One Priestess of the Tombs of Atuan, highest of all high priestesses of the Kargad Lands, one whom not even the Godking himself might command. They all bowed the knee to her now, even grim Thar and Kossil. All spoke to her with elaborate deference. But nothing had changed. Nothing happened. Once the ceremonies of her consecration were over, the days went on as they had always gone. There was wool to be spun, black cloth to be woven, meal to be ground, rites to be performed; the Nine Chants must be sung nightly, the doorways blessed, the Stones fed with goat’s blood twice a year, the dances of the dark of the moon danced before the Empty Throne. And so the whole year had passed, just as the years before it had passed, and were all the years of her life to pass so?
Until one day it does.  Until one day, quiet Penthe, who alone was brave enough to be Arha’s friend, introduces the concept of unbelief to the never questioning Arha.
“Doesn’t the Temple mean anything to you?” she asked, rather harshly. Penthe, always submissive and easily bullied, did not take alarm this time. “Oh, I know your Masters are very important to you,” she said with an indifference that shocked Arha. “That makes some sense, anyhow, because you’re their one special servant. You weren’t just consecrated, you were specially born. But look at me. Am I supposed to feel so much awe and so on about the Godking? After all he’s just a man, even if he does live in Awabath in a palace ten miles around with gold roofs. He’s about fifty years old, and he’s bald. You can see in all the statues. And I’ll bet you he has to cut his toenails, just like any other man. I know perfectly well that he’s a god, too.  But what I think is, he’ll be much godlier after he’s dead.”
Arha agreed with Penthe, for secretly she had come to consider the self-styled Divine Emperors of Kargad as upstarts, false gods trying to filch the worship due to the true and everlasting Powers. But there was something underneath Penthe’s words with which she didn’t agree, something wholly new to her, frightening to her. She had not realized how very different people were, how differently they saw life. She felt as if she had looked up and suddenly seen a whole new planet hanging huge and populous right outside the window, an entirely strange world, one in which the gods did not matter.  She was scared by the solidity of Penthe’s unfaith.

And the one day things change again.  To the Tombs comes a man.  A wizard.  He is looking for a treasure hidden in the Labyrinth under the Tombs.  Arha sees him in the Undertomb, the entrance to the Labyrinth, where he as brought light, a forbidden thing.  Arha manages to trick him into the Labyrinth and lock the door, where surely he will die of hunger and thirst, for there is no way out.  But Arha is drawn to him and eventually, when he is near death, brings the wizard to a place where she can watch him through a spy hole after giving him water and her cloak to rest on.  And Arha goes back to see the man, the wizard, to learn why he has come to the Tombs, of the world outside, of magic.

I’ve read reviews that suggest that the wizard, Ged (hero of the first book in the series, A Wizard of Earthsea) is the impetutus for change in Arha, that he rescues her from the Tombs.  I say that it is much more subtle and layered than that.  Had Arha not learned of unfaith from Penthe, had she not had a heart filled with curiosity, had she not been horrified at the things done in the name of the Nameless Ones, Arha would not have sought Ged out, asked him questions about the world, about magic, about her gods.  She craves more than the emptiness she has been given and when the chance comes for more, she takes it.
I love this book.  I love the clear, spare writing that make it so easy to see the vast emptiness that surrounds young Arha.  I love the feminist themes, the imagery of finding your way out of the dark into the light that Ms. Le Guin invokes over and over again.  Most of all I love Tenar/Arha and her strength, her journey, her temper, the bright, shining light that even years in the darkness cannot disguise.  So if you haven’t, read A Wizard of Earthsea first because it is a lovely book, but then read The Tombs of Atuan and come worship at the alter of Tenar/Arha with me.
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