Reviewing ‘The Tombs of Atuan’

Second review of Ursula K. Le Guin, aaaaaaand I still have to remind myself that this is first-wave feminism and they didn’t operate like the—what are we on by now? Third, fourth-wave feminism?

Here’s where I recognized the Jungian archetype, because again, Frank Waters’s People of the Valley. It’s the feminine one, if not exactly the maternal one, because we’re dealing with virginal priestess types, but it’s a whole lotta darkness and secrecy and conniving. To compare-contrast CS Lewis again, he used this kind of imagery-idea in Till We Have Faces, the Batta-like thing that nurtures and smothers all at once.

Of course, nowadays this is frowned upon because it associates femininity with bad-evil things, and that is not kosher for obvious reasons. But, it was one of the first time a fantasy novel had featured female main character and put femininity in the spotlight, as dark a skew as was put on it. Yay baby-steps, I guess?

But Le Guin is aware of this changing of the times—she commented as much in her afterword attached to this addition. And apparently the fourth book, Tehanu, is supposed to subtly address some of this issue with the difference between sixties’ first-wave and eighties-ish second-wave feminism. Another part of the problem is that the female character has to be rescued by a male, which is a difficult trope to parse out, but again, Le Guin is aware of this and explained in the afterword that she preferred to emphasize interdependence between the genders, and I’m kumbaya enough to find that acceptable.

Might I just say that it’s refreshing to find a genre author this aware of the conversation surrounding his/her work? Of course, she’s no stranger to the snobbish literary circle, but I can’t help but admire someone who has the versatility and skill to speak to literary snobs on their level and also have enough popular appeal to make actual money not dependent on English majors’ syllabuses. Not to mention, Studio Ghibli adapted her work into a movie, though it was a questionable adaptation. But it’s Studio Ghibli.

Anyway, the plot is about Arha, whose name—title, really—translates as the Eaten One, was taken as a five-year-old child to be dedicated to the Nameless Ones, ancient gods of the dark. Her name, Tenar, was taken from her, and she grows up in the temples the in the middle of the desert, never to leave or do anything but the same repetitious rites to the gods and learn the ways of the dark labyrinth under the gods’ stone monoliths.

Until Ged shows up. She traps him in the labyrinth, but something—curiosity, some uneaten pocket of humanity—keeps her from starving him to death, and he eventually convinces her to run away from the temples and the Nameless Ones and regain her life as Tenar.

Which is the sticky part for third-fourth-wave feminism, because we like empowerment and stuff, because being dependent pretty much sucks, which is why feminism happened in the first place. But interdependence, that’s a different ball of wax, something a little more…egalitarian, I guess. A little more levelling. But lemme tell you, if I had to depend on a man to pull me out of my funk last autumn, I would still be in a curled ball of fucked-upness. I mean, sure, my counselor is male and the doctor who prescribed my antidepressants is male and my dad whose job provides the insurance to afford this is male, but none of their help was contingent on gender. They would have done the same if I were male or if they were female. Or agender. Or wherever in the lumpy space generally described as trans* or queer.

But that’s also a nice example of interdependency, but I don’t think that’s contingent on gender, either. So let’s pull out the tie-dye and bell-bottoms and enjoy hippie-dippy kumbaya moment and don’t harsh the mellow.


4 thoughts on “Reviewing ‘The Tombs of Atuan’

  1. Another part of the problem is that the female character has to be rescued by a male, which is a difficult trope to parse out, but again, Le Guin is aware of this and explained in the afterword that she preferred to emphasize interdependence between the genders, and I’m kumbaya enough to find that acceptable.

    “I’ll give you traditional romantic tropes, and raise you first-wave feminism.”

    That always seems to be the best way to challenge and subtly subvert a trope or ideology. It grants all the conditions necessary for the trope, but then it demonstrates the other ideology to be superior. It’s the gambit at the center of Christianity, I think — God says, “I’ll let you kill Jesus, but then death turns into my best tool for bringing new life.”


  2. This was the first LeGuin book I ever read. I think I found it sometime in middle school or junior high when I was going along the YA SciFi/Fantasy aisle in my public library looking for books with female main characters.

    I love UKG, in fact I did my senior thesis in college over the Left Hand of Darkness (which is an awesome book, you should check it out–much more complex development of her ideas on gender and interdependency.)

    I don’t think I knew enough about feminism to really think about the story in those terms when I first read it. I loved it because it was mystical and exciting and from a female perspective, both in terms of character and author. The fact that Ged rescues Tenar didn’t bother me because Tenar also rescues Ged. Ged is certainly the wiser and more knowing character, but then again he is older and has seen more of the world than Tenar. For someone so young who has known nothing but a very limited world, Tenar is incredibly smart. I did have mixed feelings about the ending; I was disappointed that Tenar wasn’t going to go off and become a powerful wizard herself, but my 12(?)-year-old mind rationalized this by figuring that since Tenar had had such a negative experience with mystical powers it was probably fine for her to go off and have a normal life.

    I like what you said about various waves of feminism influencing different books in the Earthsea Cycle; I hadn’t thought about it like that before but you make a good point. I read Tehanu fairly recently, as well as a novella that is set in Earthsea (I forget the name of it, but I think it’s in the Dreamsongs anthology). Both of those stories take on the concept of traditional female roles and feminism in a more conscious/direct way.

    Tenar is a challenging character for me, both in Atuan and Tehanu. She’s a sort of feminist character who is empowered not by taking on traditional male roles but by justifying traditional female roles as being just as valuable. She’s like the housewife who just really wants to be a housewife and doesn’t see it as being inferior to other jobs. (All the women in my family work(ed) full time, including both grandmothers, so the concept of happy housewifing has always been a little strange to me.)

    PS, So glad you left a link to your blog in one of your comments…this is way more fun than yelling at Burnett. 🙂


    • Yay, you like me enough to follow me from another site!
      But yeah, I have a different perspective coming to this as a BA-in-English-holder than I would have if I actually did read Le Guin in middle/high school. It kinda feels existential. But I hear people raving about her on teh Interwebs, and it seems pretty justified. I just need to read more.


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