Earthsea, Fiction
Comments 9

Freedom’s Burden: The Tombs of Atuan

As a ten year old boy reading The Tombs of Atuan for the first time, I felt tremendously let down. On the surface, it appeared to have little to do with its predecessor. I was crestfallen to discover that Ged didn’t even appear until a third of the way into the story. Why was there such a focus on this girl I couldn’t relate to? Why would a great wizard – my powerful wizard – the one with whom I journeyed to the ends of the world, require help from someone with no apparent powers or magical ability?

It was really all too much. I finished the story, shelved it away, and went on with the rest of my childhood.

I grew up. I came back to the austere desert-scape of Atuan, revisited Tenar, and understood her a little better. I came to admire her, in some ways more than Ged. I also came to understand the significance of Ged’s role in Tenar’s story. Within the claustrophobic labyrinths, I learned the importance of identity, the necessity for change and growth, and the meaning of freedom.


Tenar was ripped away from her family as a child to become the High Priestess in service of the Nameless Ones, unseen formless powers that inhabit the island of Atuan. Renamed Arha, or the “Eaten One”, she was taught to dedicate her life to the intricate ceremonies and duties of her position. Arha grew up and forgot there was ever a time where she was not Arha. Out of boredom, she would often journey into her domain, the maze-like catacombs of the Undertomb and the labyrinth, in solitude and in darkness. The future before her was static, numbing, and unchanging.

The monotony of her life is suddenly disrupted by Ged, the protagonist from the previous novel, as he intrudes into the labyrinth in search a long lost relic. Arha, frightened and wrathful, finds and traps the lost wizard in the catacombs, and considers killing him on grounds of sacrilege and defilement. But taken aback by Ged’s kindness, she brings him food and water, listening intently to his stories of the outside world. She is startled when Ged speaks to her in her true name: Tenar.

Now remembering the past, Tenar begins to question the only world she knows, eventually coming to the realization that her entire life has been wasted serving a master who has nothing to give but darkness and the dust. With freedom an option for the first time in her life, Tenar escapes from Atuan and abandons all she has ever known. She sails off with Ged with the restored Ring of Erreth-Akbe, the symbol of lasting peace, uncertain of what the future has in store for her.

Even More Non-traditional Fantasy

The Tombs of Atuan takes on a different tone than its predecessor and veers even more away from traditional fantasy. It features a new and unfamiliar female protagonist instead of focusing on the established and familiar male one. It shies away from much of the adventuring aspects of Wizard and much of the genre; there is no grand epic adventure, no dragons, and no sailing off into the unknown (until the end in a very literal sense). Everything is purposefully claustrophobic, restrictive, and intimate. Tenar is literally and figuratively suppressed, hidden away in the dark and beneath the identity of Arha, a persona forced upon her to bind her in servitude to an uncaring and unseen power.

Despite those major differences, the central conflict in The Tombs of Atuan is still internal. Tenar’s encounter with Ged serves as the trigger for Tenar’s growth. Once exposed to new possibilities, she begins to discover new ways of thinking and being. Similar to Wizard, The Tombs of Atuan is a coming of age story, a journey of maturation.  Towards the end, Tenar begins to understand the burden and responsibility associated with genuine freedom.

The Man and the Thistle

Tombs of Atuan - In the Desert

Escape, by Astrid Nielsch

With respect to attitudes towards nature, we see a glimpse of Ged’s relationship with a rabbit in a brief but revealing passage:

“I can call a rabbit,” he said, poking the fire with a twisted stick of juniper. “The rabbits are coming out of their holes all around us, now. Evening’s their time. I could call one by name, and he’d come. But would you catch and skin and broil a rabbit that you’d call to you thus? Perhaps if you were starving. But that would be a breaking of trust, I think.”

-Tombs, p.157

Ged, slightly older and wiser in The Tombs of Atuan, understands that just because his craft allows him to wield power over others doesn’t mean he should abuse it. He still has the same inherent respect for the non-human world; he knows to use his power ethically and to do only what is needful.

Although much of Tombs occurs underground and in the dark, there are depictions of nature that resonated with me. Le Guin was inspired by the Oregon deserts in her creation of Atuan, describing it as a similarly harsh and hauntingly beautiful landscape:

“It was evening. The sun was down behind the mountains that loomed close and high to westward, but its afterglow filled all earth and sky: a vast, clear, wintry sky, a vast, barren, golden land of mountains and wide valleys. The wind was down. It was cold, and absolutely silent. Nothing moved. The leaves of the sagebrushes nearby were dry and grey, the stalks of tiny dried-up desert herbs prickled her hand. The huge silent glory of light burned on every twig and withered leaf and stem, on the hills, in the air.

She looked to her left and saw the man lying on the desert ground, his cloak pulled round him, one arm under his head, fast asleep. His face in sleep was stern, almost frowning; but his left hand lay relaxed on the dirt, beside a small thistle that still bore its ragged cloak of grey fluff and its tiny defense of spikes and spines. The man and the small desert thistle; the thistle and the sleeping man…”

-Tombs, pp.153-154

I’ve always loved this passage. In my mind, it perfectly captures the quiet majesty of a sunset. The sparse and simple language portrays perfectly a desolate and silent landscape. When read aloud, the prose has the cadence or rhythm that borders on poetry. The second section has Ged, normally powerful but now defenceless, asleep and at peace with the desert thistle, usually insignificant but now on equal footing with the mage. It provides an interesting image of the relationship between humanity and nature.

The Tombs of Atuan also provides other, darker descriptions of nature:

“The Earth is beautiful, and bright, and kindly, but that is not all. The Earth is also terrible, and dark, and cruel. The rabbit shrieks dying in the green meadows. The mountains clench their great hands full of hidden fire. There are sharks in the sea, and there is cruelty in men’s eyes.”

– Tombs, p.129

The passage serves to remind the reader that it’s not a good idea to over-romanticize nature in his/her appreciation of it. Chaos, unpredictability, and death are intrinsic elements of nature. Natural environments aren’t all pretty picturesque forests and landscapes; they also encompass fire-ravaged wastelands, wind-torn hills, foul-smelling marshlands. Disturbances or disasters shouldn’t be viewed as something that’s outside nature or separated from equilibrium. Without decay and death there is no change, no life. This is something that is explored more in the third book of the series, The Farthest Shore.


  • What descriptive elements in nature resonate most with you?

Tenar’s Journey to Freedom

Tombs of Atuan - Tenar

Light Underground, by Astrid Nielsch

As I grew to understand the themes in The Tombs of Atuan, I began to realize the enormity of Tenar’s decision to break free from the stifling dogma that shaped her beliefs and understanding of the world. The action she takes to aid Ged and escape Atuan was, in my opinion, even more courageous than anything Ged does in Wizard.  Tenar rebels against the very society that nurtured her. She forsakes her entire belief system in the rejection of Arha. It is by her inner strength that Ged and her are able to overcome the Old Powers and escape the Tomb. Her choice, while necessary for self-growth and enlightenment, is nevertheless an act of courage.

But Tenar’s decision to be free of the corrosive influence of her masters comes at steep costs. She loses Manan, her old and faithful servant, in a struggle escaping the Tomb. She causes the destruction of the only home she had ever known in the aftermath. Most significantly, she loses her identity as Arha, the person she was for so many years.

These are real consequences to her life-altering decision. To Le Guin, freedom is not just about the ability to do whatever one desires. Taking it on, being truly free implies a commitment to personal change, growth, and responsibility. The two quiet and thoughtful final chapters, The Western Mountains and Voyage, serve to highlight the fear, uncertainty, and doubt associated with her new-found freedom. Rather than wrapping up Tenar’s journey, they suggest a new beginning for her journey in life. What she is or will become is not clear by the end of the book. It is true that she is no longer a slave to her old masters, but she is now no longer part of any culture, and doesn’t fully know who she is as Tenar. She begins to realize what freedom truly means in one of my favourite passages of the series:

“Now,” he said, “now we’re away, now we’re clear, we’re clean gone, Tenar. Do you feel it?”

She did feel it. A dark hand had let go its lifelong hold upon her heart. But she did not feel joy, as she had in the mountains. She put her head down in her arms and cried, and her cheeks were salt and wet. 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. Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not easy. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one. The road goes upward towards the light; but the laden traveler may never reach the end of it.

– Tombs, p. 173

Abandoning one’s identity to remake one’s self is a tremendously difficult task, for it is both an act of creation and destruction. As we see with Tenar, the process of discarding the one to make room for the new is a heavy burden.  This transition is not a journey everyone can complete, and is not one that can be made alone.

Ged’s Role as Guide

Ged was a key guide in Tenar’s journey. Upon their first encounter, he recognizes her potential as someone who was “never made for cruelty and darkness” (p. 178). Ged is able to see the good in Tenar even when she is unable to see it herself. He presented Tenar, who up until their encounter had lived a sterile and static existence, with an opportunity to expand and grow.

Ged exposes Tenar to the reality and truths outside the Tombs, but not from the position of authority – the powerful mage – but rather a position of powerlessness – a helpless prisoner. He practices kindness and patience, understanding that too much information can overwhelm Tenar and cause her to shut down in denial and fear. Instead of telling her what course of action to take, he offers Tenar the freedom of choice. He is aware that knowledge cannot be pushed upon people who do not want it and are not prepared to receive it.

In the bleakest hour, Ged offers Tenar his true name, the most precious gift one can give in the world of Earthsea, literally and figuratively placing his fate in her hands. This gesture of trust appeals to Tenar’s humanity, and saves them both from the anger of the Old Masters. After their escape, Ged helps Tenar grapple with the consequences of her actions in an exchange where Tenar confesses the crimes she committed in the name of her Masters:

“Listen Tenar. Heed me. You were the vessel for evil. The evil is poured out. It is done. It is buried in its own tomb. You were never made for cruelty and darkness; you were made to hold light, as a lamp burning holds and gives it light. I found the lamp unlit; I won’t leave it on some desert island like a thing found and cast away. I’ll take you to Havnor and say to the princes of Earthsea, ‘Look! In the place of darkness I found the light, her spirit. By her an old evil was brought to nothing. By her I was brought out of the grave. By her the broken was made whole, and where there was hatred there will be peace.”

– Tombs, p. 178

Ged is able to separate her actions from her person, allows her the time and space to grieve for the loss of her past, and supports her in her journey towards a new beginning.

To me, the darkness of the labyrinth in The Tombs of Atuan is a metaphor for ignorance, fear, and sterility. The light Ged brings into the tombs symbolizes knowledge, understanding, and change. As environmental educators, communicators, and leaders, we should attempt to do what Ged does: Strive to dispel the veil of ignorance, break down the walls erected by dogma, alleviate fear with knowledge from a place of kindness and patience, provide hope and trust in dark times, and help cope with loss and uncertainty.

Next up: My favourite book of the series.

Related Ekostories:


Le Guin, Ursula K. The Tombs of Atuan. New York: Aladdin Paperback, 2001.

Featured Image of The Tombs of Atuan – Artwork by Rebecca Guay at


  1. now, I really want to know the difference among wizard( with or without staff), sorcerer, mage, enchanter, and witch as we find them in Earthsea. You know I am translating it into Arabic which is a language that does not celebrate wizardry.
    Thanks a lot

    • Hi Mona,

      Le Guin does touch on the differences between those types of people. A wizard is generally one who has been trained on Roke and has received a staff as the symbol for that training. But in A Wizard of Earthsea and the Other Wind (the last Earthsea book), she introduces men of power which can be considered wizards who hail from other lands (Osskil and Peln). Sorcerers have no formal training but are born with the “gift”, usually seeing themselves as inferior to wizards. Alder in The Other Wind is a good example.

      In the first trilogy Le Guin regards witches as inferior unlearned and unclean dabblers of magic (like many conventional fantasies). But when she came to seriously contemplate why there are no female wizards in the Earthsea universe in later books, witches actually connect to the Old Powers and tap into a different type of power than wizards. I really have to reread them to explain more; it’s very complex and very interesting.

  2. Pingback: KokkieH Reviews A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K Le Guin | if all else fails…use a hammer

  3. I wonder why so many males have problems with this female protagonist and the fact she isn’t straightforwardly ‘badass’. It really does seem to be a male thing.

    • Sorry for the late reply! I think there is a notion that in order for a female protagonist to be strong, they need be “badass” in the same vein as as a traditional male hero – anything a man can do a woman can do as well. That is definitely understandable, given the traditional slotting of woman into meek and subservient stereotypes. We need more depictions of badass women.

      But there are other types of strengths that are not physical in nature. Not everyone is going to fit the mould, nor should they. As I wrote above, I think Tenar’s deeds are just as courageous as any Ged’s in Wizard. Le Guin also delves more into this issue in the second part of her Earthsea trilogy.

  4. Pingback: Historias de Terramar II. Las Tumbas de Atuan | Crónicas de Êrhis

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