spReAd the love book challenge: Ursula K. Le Guin, The Tombs of Atuan

The 2015 spReAd the love challenge for fans of Richard Armitage continues all week — to donate, and hopefully write about, one of your favorite children’s books! If you would like to join the challenge, please let me know and you can use my blog for a guest post.

spread the love***

Why did I love this book so much? I had no idea at the time

200px-TheTombsOfAtuanWhen I was a kid, our local library had a summer reading program. I don’t remember that much about it except that you read books and then went to tell a children’s librarian about what you had read. They kept a chart for every kid and put a sticker on it for each book, and then at the end of summer, I think, we won a prize, maybe coupons to McDonald’s or something on that order. It wasn’t spectacular but that wasn’t why I was participating. I read a lot in the summer and we were there a lot because it was air conditioned and our house was not.

The library had this thing for Newbery Award Books. (For non-North Americans, the Newbery Medal is a prize given annually by the American Library Association for the book considered “most distinguished” published in the U.S. or a by a U.S. citizen in the preceding year. I understand that Obscura’s son has a theory about the books that get the medal or the runner-up “honor” designation, and I can’t wait to read more.) I think one summer, maybe, the library held a competition to see if you could read the whole list. That was optimistic since I’m not sure the library even had all of them, especially the ones that went back to the 1920s, but anyway, I did read a number of them that summer and during my childhood — and I am sure that’s how I stumbled over The Tombs of Atuan (1971) by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Mapa1I probably checked this book out once a month for a year and a half when I was about nine or ten. Le Guin tells the story of a young girl, Tenar, identified as the reincarnation of the previous high priestess and taken from her family to serve dark power called the “Nameless Ones.” She is renamed Arha, “the Eaten One.” Once mature, she consigns prisoners sent by the Godking, a competing, living authority, to die by starvation; she also is taught to carry out religious rituals. As she grows, she becomes involved in a power struggle with Kossil, one of her former teachers, a priestess of the Godking who is actually Arha’s subordinate. Still, Arha maintains power as the only one whom the Nameless Ones allow to walk through the pitch-black underground labyrinth unharmed — something she practices doing in total darkness with hands on the walls and an elaborate series of keys. The labyrinth holds various treasures, many of them long forgotten. Arha believes in the beings she serves; Kossil, it seems, does not.

One day, a wizard, Sparrowhawk, arrives searching for an object of power among the labyrinth’s treasures. The first seeds of doubt are sown for Arha when the Nameless Ones, who are supposed to destroy men who penetrated the labyrinth, do not destroy him. Ged is caught and imprisoned in the tombs, where Arha is supposed to starve him, as well, but he tells her of the outside world and she finds that she can’t. She hides him somewhere Kossil may not go — and is shaken when, in the way of wizards, he knows her true name — but is discovered. In a final confrontation, Kossil, who has used Arha’s apparent transgression to challenge her power, tells Arha that no one believes in the Nameless Ones; everything done in their service is a sham, and Arha curses Kossil publicly. After this, Arha fears for her life and decides to accompany the wizard when he asks her to leave. She helps Ged find the object he seeks and then escapes from the Tombs with him, using the knowledge of its darkness acquired earlier, and taking back her childhood name. Although the Nameless Ones try to pursue them, Ged and Tenar succeed in leaving Atuan, with the ring they take back from the labyrinth.

Incidentally, this book is the middle one in a trilogy, but I don’t believe I ever read either of the others, although their covers look familiar to me. Mom, who did not get rereading books, always asked me what it was about this book, and I couldn’t tell her. I loved the idea of the girl who had so much power that she could walk underground mazes blind; and I thought the maps in the book were cool. But I couldn’t have told you what kept me reading. I remember toward the end of college that my BFF the Anthropologist told me that she was just discovering Le Guin as a feminist author, and that I thought how odd, because the only thing I knew of hers was a children’s book that didn’t seem very feminist to me.

I couldn’t have told you when I was ten, but at forty-six, I think I can tell you now. I bought the book for my Kindle a few years ago. So many things were laid in my cradle with this book: the story of a girl who is schooled to conduct a detailed religious ritual and given a tremendous amount of responsibility but no power. The girl who is taught to believe by the way she is instructed to live, and indeed complies and embraces it. The story of a girl who is trapped on an island and longs, although she does not realize it, for the outside world. The girl who notices that the religious theory she’s been given to understand the world with has gaping holes in it. The girl who learns how to make decisions with someone who recognizes her and knows her true name. The girl who, upon hearing her true name, realizes that the Nameless Ones are not the powerful beings she thought they were …

What was it about this book? What about it was not going to appeal to young Serv? would be a better question.


indesxIn honor of the spReAd the love book challenge 2015, I have donated a copy of Not my Girl by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton to my friend’s school library. This is the story of another brave little girl who made a long, painful journey, a young woman of the Inuit who went to attend a Canadian school and came back and had to find her family all over again. My spReAd the love posts are made in honor of the Golden Learning Centre Library in Balmertown, Ontario, Canada. If you are looking for someone who needs a book, you can donate to this library from their amazon wishlist, here!

~ by Servetus on March 5, 2015.

10 Responses to “spReAd the love book challenge: Ursula K. Le Guin, The Tombs of Atuan”

  1. I loved that whole trilogy, Serv — A Wizard of Earthsea (Ged’s coming of age), The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore. It’s been a while since I’ve read them all, though.
    All of Ursula K. LeGuin’s stories have fascinated and challenged me. The Left Hand of Darkness left a permanent mark on me, making me look at the relations between male and female in a whole different light.


    • Obviously I should read some more of her stuff, lol. I can’t believe that I wasn’t curious until tonight about what happened to Tenar after this story …


  2. This post made me so happy! Not enough words to describe how much I love this author and how profound her impact was on my teenage years. ❤ I really hope you read the first two as well. Ged was one of the very, very few non-white protagonists in the whole fantasy genre at the time. She has several other amazing books like The Left Hand of Darkness as mentioned by Saralee, which boldly explores concepts of gender and identity, something that was nearly unheard of in the landscape of the science fiction genre in 1969. I highly recommend The Dispossessed as well, Lathe of Heaven, and her short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.


    • I did not know about Ged’s status … that is really interesting. Thinking back now this book seems really ahead of its time for 1971, I agree.

      I guess i have to read Dispossessed.


  3. Thanks so much for this post, S!


  4. I did read this book as a child but the preceding one A Wizard of Earthsea was much more important to me.


  5. Reblogged this on FunkyBlueDandelion and commented:

    Servetus talks about a book by Ursula K. Le Guin that she loved as a child.


  6. […] The Tombs of Atuan was one of the books I reread compulsively as a child. Thank you for everything you taught me, Ms. Le Guin. The bad news. […]


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