Ritual Reality: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan

Worldbuilding is exhausting. It requires a massive amount of mental energy to imagine and then codify an entirely new world with all its nooks and crannies, its politics and customs. To expedite this process, many works of fantasy rely on familiar tropes as a shortcut, allowing vast institutions to be explained away by a few key words. When someone in Game of Thrones makes reference to the Seven or a character in an Elder Scrolls game screams, “By the Nine Divines!” we quickly learn a bit about the character’s culture without having to dig too deeply into the minutiae of lore. (In this case, they’re both polytheistic societies that must not be terribly devout since their gods’ names are constantly used in vain.) So when Ursula K. Le Guin introduced the Old Powers in A Wizard of Earthsea, that Cthulu-ish name takes advantage of just such a shortcut.

During Ged’s encounter with the Old Powers in A Wizard of Earthsea, they are little more than the mysterious, forgotten ancient power that their name—and the trope concerning such things—suggests. But when Le Guin revisits this ancient evil in The Tombs of Atuan, her approach changes. Setting the second Earthsea novel in an isolated, hallowed ground, Le Guin explores what day to day life is like under some of the Old Powers. Rather than explain who or what these godlike figures are—a common yet bland worldbuilding technique often used to fill out video game codices—Le Guin sets her story in the present with a character whose life is dictated by ancient customs that seem to lack any meaning.

atuan
It’s fitting that Tenar, the story’s protagonist, spends much of her time underground, in a literal labyrinth.

Le Guin’s focus on the mundanity of day to day religious rituals and the lives of those who must perform them humanizes her characters; it also shows the reader that religion in Earthsea doesn’t exist only for pithy one-liners and isn’t represented exclusively by creepy pseudo-priests. It’s one thing to say that an ancient deity is worshipped at a temple in the desert but it’s another to spend 50 pages getting to know the young women who live there, women who were stripped from their families and forced to carry out rituals that they don’t understand, who still feel hunger and jealousy, who still must navigate relationships with their friends and enemies. Shining a spotlight on these details makes everyone and everything involved—the world, the characters, the religion, the place—seem real and three-dimensional.

The Tombs of Atuan is a story about, among other things, the isolation and loneliness inherent to being young. As Tenar overcomes the feeling of being buried within her life and her mind, she struggles with the realization that she needs and deserves escape from the bonds that the world has set around her but also from those that she’s set around herself. It’s a telling that works all the better because Le Guin, through her remarkable worldbuilding, is able to turn a fantastic religious outpost into a real place with real people who have real problems. When I’m reading The Tombs of Atuan I may not want to visit the Tombs, but I have no doubt that they exist.

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