The Earthsea cycle reread: The Tombs of Atuan

This is the second entry in a series of blog posts I’m writing as I reread my favorite fantasy series, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle. Entry #2 mostly concerns the series’ second book, The Tombs of Atuan, though bits of The Farthest Shore creep in as well.

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A striking feature of the original Earthsea trilogy is that we experience its hero mostly secondhand. Ged is the trilogy’s main character, yet only Wizard is told from his perspective. Though the second two books recount Ged’s most famous exploits, he is not their focus. The Tombs of Atuan follows a young priestess, Tenar, escaping the bonds of a repressive religious order; The Farthest Shore shows Arren, a young prince, maturing into a king. Their journeys take place during Ged’s adventures, but he is their catalyst, not their cause.

The more I think about this choice, the stranger it becomes. I can’t remember another fantasy series that does this. Why tell the hero’s story, but keep him out of it?

I believe the answers are several, though I only have time for two.

The first comes out of a conversation I had with my partner the other day. Reading the jacket copy for Wizard that advertised it as a “breathtaking high fantasy masterpiece,” he asked, “Would you call this ‘high fantasy?’” I said no, immediately. Earthsea is not high. Though the Archipelago has princes, we never meet them; Tenar is the priestess of a crumbling, forgotten temple; and even Arren, technically royalty, spends all of Farthest Shore among common people who do not know who he is. In interviews and essays, Le Guin had repeatedly explained that she intended Earthsea as an alternative to the usual fantastic obsession with nobility. According to Charles Vess, illustrator of the latest omnibus edition, her notes requested “more chickens.”

In a similar way, Wizard, the only book we spend in Ged’s head, opens by informing us that it tells “of the time before his fame, before the songs were made” (1). But by Atuan, we have entered the time of the songs. Were the series to have remained behind Ged’s eyes, it would have had to consciously inhabit the space of high fantasy: the story of a hero who knows he is doing something heroic, and who is accountable to the sort of nobles that govern worlds like Earthsea, the sort of nobles Le Guin wanted to avoid.

So instead, she shifts perspective. Ged’s recovery of the ring of Erreth-Akbe happens halfway through a novel about a stifled young woman who sits with her friend on a desert wall, eating apples and dreaming. In Atuan’s final scene, Ged and Tenar sail into Havnor Great Port, seat of Earthsea’s kings. But they never dock. Tenar raises her hand, the ring flashes, and the curtain falls. Following Tenar as she weaves into Ged’s story and back out of it lets Le Guin strain the high fantasy from his deeds. And it leaves her more time for the kinds of earthy details that make me love this series: the smell of sage on a mountain hillside; milch-goats escaping to head-butt a priestess; bread that is “tough, and sour, and very good to eat” (127).

The second answer concerns the second type of love-story Earthsea is good at telling. The first of these is friendship (as I said in my earlier blog post). The second is mentorship.

In Wizard, after returning to his master Ogion, Ged kneels and exclaims,

“I have walked with great wizards and have lived on the Isle of the Wise, but you are my true master, Ogion.” He spoke with love, and with a somber joy. (129)

Likewise in The Farthest Shore, Le Guin describes Arren meeting Ged:

“Go on,” and he pushed Arren lightly between the shoulder blades, a familiarity no one had ever taken before, and which the young prince would have resented from anyone else; but he felt the Archmage’s touch as a thrill of glory. For Arren had fallen in love. (7) 

Le Guin shies away from using the word “love” with Tenar and Ged, perhaps because it might have been too loaded in 1971, when the book was first published.* More likely, it’s because Tenar is fond of Ged, but not smitten, like Arren. She is already, as Ged admits, “too wise” (145)—which is why after their voyage to Havnor ends, he offers to bring her to live with Ogion (in the wider context of the series, this seems like Ged’s ultimate compliment). Yet it’s because of this complexity that their relationship becomes the trilogy’s most thoughtful portrait of what it means to love a mentor: someone who commands your affection but who eventually leaves you to a freedom that feels, at first, terrifying in their absence. As they are sailing towards Havnor, Tenar reflects,

“He had made her follow him. He had called her by her name, and she had come crouching to his hand, as the little wild desert rabbit had come to him out of the dark. And now that he had the ring… now he didn’t need her, and went away where she could not follow. He would not stay with her.” (139) 

“She cried for the waste of her years in bondage to a useless evil. She wept in pain, because she was free. What she had begun to learn was the weight of liberty... It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one.” (141)

Tenar loves Ged, but it’s a complex love, filled with justifiable resentment. He has helped her free herself, but he does not know what to do with her after she’s freed—literally, since he has taken her away from Atuan, the only home she has ever known. Though the choice must be hers, he has forced it on her without sufficient preparation, a good illustration of how even well-intentioned mentors can be irresponsible.

It’s a testament to Le Guin’s thoughtfulness that between Wizard and Atuan she has Ged evolve from mentee to mentor, and between Atuan and Farthest Shore from a poor mentor to a better one. More to my original point, I think it helps explain why only Wizard is told from Ged’s perspective. The Earthsea trilogy is a triplet of coming-of-age stories, and they are centrally concerned with what we learn (and how we learn to learn) from the mentors we love. By Atuan, Ged is an assured hero. While he still learns, it is from experience, not other people. Not until Tehanu, after Ged loses his power, does he take on another mentor. Fittingly, it’s Tenar (but that’s spoilers).

Because I need to go to bed, I’m going to wrap this post up. But I’ll end by noting that when I was younger, I identified with the trilogy’s mentees—Ged, Tenar, Arren. Now I identify with (and judge) their mentors. I’m sure it’s entirely unrelated that among my many duties as a professor, my favorite by far—by which I mean, the one I spend the most time worrying about screwing up—is teaching.

*Though his relationship with Tenar is as platonic as his relationship with Arren, Le Guin seems only worried about readers misconstruing the former. Among many other problematic things, this underlines the utter absence of queer people, or even the notion of queer people, in Earthsea.