Arha is the reincarnated Priestess of The Tombs, delivered into the world by the power of the Nameless Ones and brought to the Kargish island deserts in Atuan to preside over her underground domain. She is watched over by others: eunuchs and other Priestesses more knowledgeable in the dark powers of The Nameless Ones than she. Arha, whose name means “the eaten one,” spends her time dancing before the moon, thinking of punishments for the Godking’s sacrificial prisoners, and paying obeisance before the Empty Throne.
She does not remember who she used to be or more than fragmented whispers of memories from a time when she was very little and lived a very different life with a mother, a father, and many brothers and sisters. She does not even remember her true name until a strange man enters the Undertomb, a place absolutely forbidden for men to enter. Arha is curious about him and the weird little light on his staff, the sorcery often scoffed and spoken ill of by the other women. She watches him in fascination, trapped as he is, until she discovers what he’s really after. He is there to steal the greatest treasure of Atuan, the thing which must never be taken from the tombs, let alone out into the world, but he is determined and cannot do it alone.
In The Tombs of Atuan, Le Guin has switched entirely from writing a book about Ged’s coming of age, to a series that explores the development of females as well. Arha is apparently outmatched by her cohort of adult priestesses who have mastered the fine arts of their profession and dole it out in pieces to Arha. Her reincarnation perpetuates a cycle of power that lays largely with the likes of Thar and Kossil, whom must always “remind” Arha of things she said in the past—in her previous lives—and of the ways of the labyrinth and tombs she now rules over. There isn’t much self-exploration since the nature of Arha’s destiny lays within the hands of older women. Any initiative or independent action on her part would undermine the tradition. Her interest in Ged is therefore compounded by the scale of her actions: helping him stay alive is tantamount to treason. The Nameless Ones will and do become angry, but Ahra is very brave to continue despite their displeasure.
She’s very young—about as young as Ged was when we were first introduced to him in A Wizard of Earthsea. Ged, by comparison is no longer a boy, but a fully grown and competent wizard. As an aside, I found it interesting that any earlier distinction that may have been drawn between wizards, mages, or sorcerers have lost all meaning. All are one in the same profession with the terms being exchanged loosely to describe all wielders of magic trained in the ways foreign to the Priestesses of Atuan. In any event, Arha is young; Ged is not a child anymore. She is frequently referenced in in terms of her childlike nature and her naivete, especially in comparison to Ged’s experience as a sea-salted wizard.
Their relationship develops sweetly. Arha is unable to overcome her curiosity, even as she attempts to assert the duties of her profession—she cannot bring herself to punish or even kill Ged, whom she knows as Sparrowhawk. Seeing Ged so much more seasoned than when he was last seen at the end of A Wizard of Earthsea, combined with Arha’s wavering confidence in the face of his perseverance I began to understand that he was yet another figure of power in her life, even one whom could call the Priestess of the Tombs out from her domain by discovering her true name.
But Arha saves Ged just the same. She nurtures him in the dark womb of her tombs underground, caring for him as she listens to his stories. In the end it is both that are freed, both that escape, but only one is reborn and brought into the world renewed with the knowledge of her true name and the refreshing, frightening feeling of the light after so long being kept in the dark. While I feel Arha ultimately replaced several figures of authority for another (and this, a man), it’s very telling that Ged reveals he cannot stay with her forever. What he brings Arha is true freedom. She must discover independence on her own.
Ged also brings Arha, a light-skinned young girl, into the larger ethnic world, away from the sheltered life and orchestrated beliefs of the priestesses. They would have Arha believe in the wrongness of wizards, throwing epithets to the profession as easily as they do their darker skin. Aligning the two (profession and skin tone) is quite monstrous, but Ahra comes to understand the limitations of others like Kossil, even warming to Ged’s comforting darkness not for the sake of darkness, but as a part of Ged, whom she comes to trust. His example is much more powerful than any uneducated warning the priestesses may have given her before.
One last thing I want to mention, but am unsure where to best place it, is a brief discussion of the tombs as a metaphor for the female womb, and even as the female body. There is a sacredness there that Arha is warned must be untouched by a man (eunuchs, castrated, are fine). It’s also presumed that anyone seeking entrance who is not permitted does so to steal or harm the great treasure hidden at the end of the labyrinth. I may be reading a bit too much into that, but I felt it was something to be noted. Ged (a male) rescues Arha (a female) not just by successfully making it to the treasure, but by having her lead him to it. They work together. And he even proves his good intentions by showing her that he only wants to make things whole again: to make as one that which has been hidden away for so long in the care of and separated by the miles between this male and that female. I think whether I make a successful case or not, it’s an interesting avenue that I know I’ll be thinking about even now, after the book has been closed and put away.
As the second in the series, I think The Tombs of Atuan did well. While a large part of Ged’s life is still a mystery, I ultimately found myself not minding the in between. Yes, Ged’s story is and probably will continue to be told in a detached manner, one befitting the oration of a man as a legend handed down through generations, but for whatever reason, that doesn’t bother me. Arha’s point of view was personal and welcome enough change for me.
Release Date: June 25, 1970 originally; September 1, 2001 Simon Pulse edition; January 1, 2005 SFBC edition
Reviewed Format: SFBC hardcover omnibus
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Topics for Discussion:
- How did you feel about the switch in perspective—from Ged to Arha—especially since we are far more in Arha’s mind than we ever were in Ged’s?
- Do you think The Tombs of Atuan shows a natural progression for Ged as a wizard or was the jump in years and experience too much distance between this and what we read in A Wizard of Earthsea?
- What do you think of Arha and the role she may or may not play in the future? Do you think freeing her was an example of Ged’s talent as a wizard (calling forth a human being from her domain, beneath the surface of the earth, by deriving her true name), symbolic of something else, or just a gesture of a kind heart?
- What did you think of the presumption that anyone who wants to go into the tombs is there to steal or do harm to the treasure? Is this metaphorical to you or easily dismissed as something else?