I recently read Ursula K. Le Guin’s magisterial The Tombs of Atuan. This slow, relatively simple story details the life of a young priestess, Arha, and how a wizard thief comes into her domain, changes her outlook, and helps her escape.
There’s not much of a plot to be spoiled—everything I just said is straight up on the back of the book—but the beauty of Le Guin’s writing and world building will draw you in.
As anyone who reads Le Guin knows, she draws from multiple cultural traditions to create Earthsea. I always associate her more with Asian traditions, since the concept of yin and yang plays so much into The Wizard of Earthsea. Yet The Tombs of Atuan moved me deeply because in it I saw my own tradition, my own story. I saw the rescue of a girl in darkness.
THE RESCUED ONE
Arha’s situation is deeply symbolic. She is the Priestess of the Nameless Ones, ancient forces that dwell in the deep darkness under the Tombs of Atuan. As the priestess, Arha has great power: she is “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” (27).
To become the One Priestess, she performs a ritual pageant of being sacrificed before an empty throne. Then others chant, “O let the Nameless Ones behold the girl given to them. . . . Let them accept her life and all the years of her life until her death, which is also theirs. . . . Let her be eaten!” (3).
And that’s what “Arha” means: the eaten one. The reason for her “power” is that the dark gods under the tombs have devoured her, taken her identity, and made her part of themselves. She loses her own name, becoming Nameless, like the ones she serves.
And who are these Nameless Ones, who “devoured” her, whom she must serve? The wizard thief knows:
“They are immortal, but they are not gods. They never were. They are not worth the worship of any human soul. . . . What have they ever given you?”
“Nothing,” she whispered.
“They have nothing to give. They have no power of making. All their power is to darken and destroy.” (129)
They are also merciless. One of the faithful cries in warning to Arha, “Oh little one, little one! They do not forgive!” (122).
Nevertheless, Arha is proud of her position, fierce in her conviction that what she does is important, exultant that her elders and tutors “feared those places, those powers of which Arha was part, to which she belonged” (31).
But Kossil, one of the tutors, gives lip service to her while still holding power for herself: spying on Arha, trying to trip her up. Like Faustus’s Mephistophilis, she pretends to serve while keeping most of the power firmly in hand.
And there’s one final detail. Though told she has power, Arha lacks one important ability: she cannot leave. She has no options. She is alone, blocked from companionship. She cannot show the little-girl vulnerability, or the terror of the dark, that she feels.
This is Arha: a slave with the illusion of being the master. Given just enough power to deceive her otherwise, she is a prisoner to the all-consuming dark. Her “control” as priestess barely masks her out-of-control inner world.
The wizard who comes to rob the tombs is the one who wins Arha out of her darkness. He is Sparrowhawk, and he has come to steal a talisman that holds the key to peace from the deepest, darkest chamber in the Labyrinth. When Arha first sees him, it is because he has brought light into the deep darkness of the Undertomb, where light is not allowed.
Already my Christ-figure senses were going off.
Arha challenges him and forces him into the Labyrinth, the underground maze only she has memorized. There, she strings him along, allowing him just enough hope or water to prolong his suffering in the inescapable maze. Eventually she has him chained in one of the chambers. He fascinates and appalls and threatens her. And she doesn’t respond very kindly to this, tormenting him: “You’ll die here in the dark, and those I serve will eat your flesh and eat your soul and leave your bones here in the dust!” (98-99)
In return, he always treats her respectfully. He is gentle with her, patient, enduring his suffering without complaint. Though she spits hatred at him at the ends of many visits, he always receives her next visit graciously, conversing with her as if she hadn’t been so cruel.
In other words, she treats him as an enemy, and he receives her as a friend, even while suffering at her hand.
This drives her absolutely insane: “A rush of hatred for him rose up in her, choking her throat for an instant. Why did he sit there so defenseless and so strong? Why could she not defeat him?” (105).
I’ll tell you why, little Arha! Because the Christ archetype that he is filling here is powerful, powerful magic. He has entered your darkness, suffering to bring you light and show you kindness. That stirs the same longing and fascination and insult to human sensibilities inside me.
Arha remains ambivalent, until her fear of Kossil makes her hide Sparrowhawk in the deepest, most inescapable chamber in the dark under the earth. As she leaves him there in that hopeless place, he meets her eyes. “Take care, Tenar,” he says (115).
He knows her true name.
She herself had forgotten who she was, but using his magic, he sees past what the darkness has made her. He holds her own self out to her, offering to restore it. Her gods stole her identity; he hands it back to her.
What’s more, this deepest prison happens to be the resting place of the key to peace. He finds it there, in the hopelessness and dark. And when he brings it out to benefit all nations, he brings Tenar out of her slavery too:
“I don’t know what to do. I am afraid.” She sat erect on the stone chest, her hands clenched one in the other, and spoke loudly, like one in pain. She said, “I am afraid of the dark.”
He answered softly. “You must make a choice. Either you must leave me, lock the door, go up to your altars and give me to your Masters; then go to the Priestess Kossil and make your peace with her—and that is the end of the story—or, you must unlock the door, and go out of it, with me. . . . And that is the beginning of the story. You must be Arha, or you must be Tenar. You cannot be both.”
“If I leave the service of the Dark Ones, they will kill me. If I leave this place, I will die.”
“You will not die. Arha will die. . . . To be reborn, one must die, Tenar. It is not so hard as it looks from the other side.” (139)
She makes the choice for Arha to die—so, Tenar lives.
And Sparrowhawk triumphs—through captivity, through defeat in the darkness. As they escape, the tombs crumble behind them in an effort to swallow them up. Death defeats itself. Peace now walks the earth. And the girl who was a slave to darkness is free. That is the beginning of her story.
There’s so much more, so many more meaningful conversations and symbolic tidbits, but just go read it. It’s short. Read it, and glory in the power that there is a real one who steals us from the tomb, who gives us our true names. Walk free of the darkness with him.
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Tombs of Atuan. Aladdin, 2001.