Alice's Academy

Magic, Trust, and Choice in the Escape from Atuan

Graham St. John Stott

G. St. John Stott has a Ph.D. from Brigham Young University, and taught American Literature in Tunisia and Palestine for thirteeen years. For the past decade, however, Graham has been publishing as an independent scholar, and is currently working for a joint-venture bank in Saudi Arabia.

But listen there's a moon out there
and I don't want sex and I don't want death
and I don't want what you think I want
only to be a free woman

(Le Guin, "Werewomen")


Ursula K. Le Guin began to explore the fantasy world of Earthsea in two short stories published in 1964. It was, however, only in 1967 when she was commissioned by Parnassus Press to write a series of novels for children that this world really took shape in her imagination. It was an archipelago, with a medieval social structure and a pre-industrial economy, and it was a world in which the ultimate power was that of magic. The moral center of Earthsea was the Island of Roke, with its school of wizardry—and the power of Roke (moral and magical) could provide a thematic center for the stories she was to tell. It would be a center to which Le Guin would return over the next thirty-three years in five novels and five short stories.

The Tombs of Atuan (1972) is the second of the Earthsea novels, and it is surprisingly different from the other works in the series. Although in some ways a continuation of the story of Ged, the young boy from Gont with the power of wizardry, that is found in the first novel (A Wizard of Earthsea, published four years before), it does not, as we might expect, focus on Ged or his powers. Like the first novel, it is a story of adolescence, maturation, and accepting the responsibility for the consequences of choice, but unlike Wizard, the story does not present the protagonist with choices that involve the use of magic. The choices faced by Tenar, the principle character of Tombs, revolve instead around trust—and with hindsight the irrelevance of magery to her choice can only seem surprising. As the matter of Earthsea grew, it soon became clear that Ged was not Le Guin's primary interest. Although he was the subject of the first novel, the later novels would be as much—or more—about Lebannen, Tehanu or Alder as about him. He would not even appear in the collection of short stories about Earthsea that Le Guin would publish in 2001.[1] However, although there could be other narrative centers to these works, the world they described was still one defined by magic. Tenar's world remained unique in that—from the protagonist's perspective—it was not.

It could, of course, be argued that Tenar's non-magical perspective was inevitable. Her people—the Kargs—have not institutionalized magic in the way that the Archipelagans have. And yet it might still be wondered why Le Guin would set the novel in a land outside the influence of Roke, or why, even allowing for this cultural blind spot when it came to magery, Tenar is unaware of her own spiritual power. Taken to the Place of the Tombs when five years old, and told that she is Arha, the Eaten One, the former priestess reborn, Tenar serves in the temple of the Nameless Ones without sensing any giftedness in herself—even though, in Tehanu (1990), the fourth Earthsea novel, Ged will remember her as being unmistakably gifted (559). Needless to say, we should be cautious in reading Ged's memories back into the earlier novel. By the time she wrote Tehanu Le Guin was concerned with drawing attention to other forms of power than the male wizardry of Roke that Ged represents, and Ged's reminiscences are to be set alongside Ogion's discovery of the woman who revealed her dragon nature in "a blaze of fire and glory" (491). Nevertheless, it seems clear that Tenar did have power in her realm. Even in Tombs we read that she is, for Ged, "like a lantern swathed and covered, hidden away in a dark place" (267). Her light shone in the undertomb and labyrinth beneath the temple complex, despite the malevolence of the Old Powers.

Tenar, in short, lacks self-awareness. But this is not all that should be noted. In Tombs and Tehanu Tenar's light is contrasted with the darkness of the powers she serves, and, that being so, what is more significant than her failure to know herself is her failure to recognize the presence of the numinous in the cult she serves. She does feel not the power of the Nameless Ones—or at least does not feel it in ways that could not be explained away as natural weakness, fatigue and fear—until she is about to leave the undertomb for the last time. It is only then that the weight "of a blind and dire hatred came pressing down upon her" and a dark power speaks through her (279). It is only after her escape that she can marvel that Ged "held back the earthquake, the anger of the dark" (280). While Ged, the stranger, is a believer in the reality of the Old Powers from the first, Arha is not, or at least is not a believer in any experiential sense.

This lack of belief was perhaps only to be expected. There is no witness to the chthonic in the cult of the Nameless Ones. The day of the Remaking of the Priestess, the day of Tenar's consecration as Arha, was filled with the chanting of an "empty word," Le Guin writes (179), and although the Tombs themselves, megaliths standing since the time of the land's first inhabitants, were said to be full of meaning "there was no saying what they meant" (187). Over the years Arha learns pride rather than awe from her mentor Thar (the High Priestess of the Twin Gods), and is pushed towards unbelief by both the cynicism of her friend and fellow acolyte Penthe, and the obsession with power of Kossil, the Priestess of the God-King. Not surprisingly, therefore, although her conscious denial of faith only follows the failure of the dark powers to punish either Ged or Kossil for the sacrilege of making a light in the realm of dark—"Why did the Nameless Ones not strike him down? . . . What were they waiting for?" she despairingly asks after discovering Ged in the undertomb (225)—she had always functioned without an active belief. She had explored her realm of darkness not out of reverence, but to achieve mastery, to demonstrate control.

For Arha, in short, Atuan is characterized by an absence of spiritual power: "Even in the heat of noon in the desert sunshine there was a coldness about [the Tombs]. Sometimes the wind whistled a little between the two stones that stood closest together, leaning together as if telling secrets. But no secret was told" (188). Arha is not, as Suzanne Elizabeth Reid would have it, the female acolyte "who knows the dark, emotional mysteries of the inarticulate subconscious" (38). Prior to her escape she only speaks in rapture, "as if in a trance," when thinking of the treasure hidden in the Labyrinth, "[the] gold, and the swords of old heroes, and old crowns, and bones, and years, and silence" (Tombs 196)—and of these aspects of her birthright the most significant is the last. Arha is, as her eunuch Manan reflects, "mistress of . . . [t]he silence, and the dark" (196).


Most critics have thought of Tenar as being overly passive (see, for example, Reid 39)—as someone who, subject to others, "lacks power . . . [and] is unable to show initiative" (Molson 141; cf. Nodelman 187). She has been characterized as a figure from Ged's monomyth (Thompson 189-90); as his anima (Crow and Erlich 203, 216); even, more prosaically, as an Ariadne figure, helping a hero to find the way through a labyrinth, less important in terms of plot function than the person she helps (Sobat 28). However, although understandable given the importance of Jungian ideas to Wizard, such characterizations do bear scrutiny in the case of Tombs. As Holly Littlefield has stressed (248), Tenar plays an active part in what happens in the novel; it is a mistake to think of her as passive, or even to think that Ged rescues her. He and Tenar need each other to be able to escape from the Place of the Tombs. Although Ged's magery is needed so that he can hold off the earthquake until he and Tenar are ready to pass through that red gate, and indeed to break through the rock door into freedom, it is Tenar (as Arha) who knows both the ways from the undertomb and the paths of the labyrinth where Ged is a prisoner. Without that knowledge the escape would have been impossible.

However, for knowledge or magic to come together in this way, there must be mutual trust. Arha has to decide to trust Ged: to commit herself to someone who is from the Inner Lands and therefore, by definition, an enemy to the God King and Kargad Empire, and who has, besides, violated the holy place of the Nameless Ones. At the same time Ged has to believe in her, and assume that she will not betray him to Kossil and the Temple guards. We can perhaps see trust demonstrated more obviously in Ged's actions. He tells her his true name—something that requires him to "trust utterly" (267, 273)—and he gives her the half of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe that he found in the Great Treasury (273; cf. 269). But Tenar too shows trust, even though Ged came as thief and enemy (273), and through his presence in the underworld threatened everything she had been taught. Years before, shocked when Penthe offered a new and frightening perspective, "an entirely strange world . . ., in which the gods did not matter," Arha had struck back (209). Yet now, with Kossil aware that Ged was still alive, and the temptation to punish someone who threatened her world therefore compounded with the need to protect herself from the vindictiveness of a rival priestess, Arha reacts differently. Rather than handing over the alien wizard to the Priestess of the God-King she asks Ged to let her trust him (256). He does. As Le Guin would put in Tehanu (645), leaving Atuan, Ged and Tenar are "leading each other, following each other" to freedom.

Significantly, this reliance on trust can be seen elsewhere in Earthsea fiction. Ged's situation as a prisoner in the labyrinth beneath the Tombs bears comparison with that of Festin in "The Word of Unbinding" (published in Fantastic in 1964) and Medra in "The Finder" (Tales from Earthsea [2001]), and the differences between the situation in these tales and that in Tombs can help us better understand his and Tenar's escape from Atuan.

"The Word of Unbinding," Le Guin's first venture into Earthsea, anticipates much in her later work. Voll's use of magic to achieve absolute power will be a familiar theme in her stories of wizardry, as will the wall of stones that serves as a barrier between the world of the dead and that of the living. Given these continuities, it is interesting that Festin escapes from Voll's enchantment-sealed dungeon through the exercise of the most fundamental magic known in the archipelago: the word of unbinding. This will lead to his death and allow him—in the land of the dead—to force Voll to return to his body and die. The situation is reprised in The Farthest Shore (1973), where Cob refuses to accept his death, except that there Ged and Lebannen return to the land of the living; in "The Word," however, Festin remains beyond the wall of stones to prevent any further violation of the border between life and death.

In Tombs the escape is managed differently, of course. Although Ged uses magic to hold off the Old Powers and ensure his survival, magic is not instrumental in his escape in the way that it is in that of Festin in "The Word." As noted above, Ged is only able to leave the realm of the Powers because of Arha's knowledge of her subterranean world, and because of their mutual trust. The difference is significant. Whereas at the beginning of her exploration of Earthsea Le Guin looked just to magic for the plot device she needs, by the time she came to write Tombs she has decided that magic is not enough—that there needs to be something else.

Over the decades following the publication of Tombs, Le Guin would increasingly emphasize the need for this something else, this something other than magic, but nowhere would she do so more than in "The Finder." There Otter (whose true name is Medra, and who is also known as Tern) is trapped in a cavern underground. He is there because he has spoken a word of making to escape magical pursuit, but once there he is powerless, and it is Flag (Anieb) who guides him out. Anieb, however, is not using magic when she is "in" Medra's mind guiding him to freedom, any more than she had been when, speaking through Medra, she enabled him to trap the wizard Gelluk. "[T]hough there was a great magery in her, which had brought her with him every step of that strange journey into the valley and tricked the wizard into saying his name, she knew no arts or spells" (42).[2] Further, when Otter makes his escape from the cavern underground there is no summoning, just a simple appeal for help. " 'Anieb,' he said, 'can you come back this far? I don't know the way.' " And though there is no answer, he trusts. "He saw darkness, heard silence. Slow and halting, he entered the passage" (101).

The differences between the situation here and that in Tombs are at once more obvious. Unlike Ged, Tern finds that in his labyrinth his magic does not work—all he has is the belief that Anieb is with him, guiding him to freedom. Unlike Arha, Anieb knows the reality of the Old Powers and their strength. Nevertheless, despite these differences, there are clear similarities between the situation in the story and that in the novel, for in both a young woman leads a man of power from a labyrinth without using magic art or spells—for in both cases the key to the escape is trust.
Of course, trust cannot be fully divorced from magic. A wizard "spends his life at . . . finding out the names of things, and finding out how to find out the names of things," as Ged tells Tenar (Tombs 267; cf. "The Rule of Names" 83), and inasmuch as trust underlies the sharing of names it is the foundation for the ideal use of magery. Yet, despite this overlap, it should be noted that in "The Finder" the trust that leads to Otter's escape is something other than the overt use of magical powers. Although at one point in the story, when both were prisoners of the wizard Gelluk, Otter had used a word of summoning to bring Flag to him, when he had reflected that in Gelluk's presence he would not be able to summon her, she had simply affirmed that she could help him without any need of spells—and so it is. So it is too with Tenar and Ged. Although Ged needs his spells to keep the Old Powers at bay, and uses words of summoning to deliver Arha when darkness possesses her, he needs more than magic to escape. It was "By [Tenar] an old evil was brought to nothing," he affirms. "By her I was brought out of the grave" (299). Yet Tenar, foreshadowing Anieb, uses no magic, no words of power.

Rollin A. Lasseter is wrong, therefore, to argue that the "only power that can call [Tenar] forth from imprisonment is eros, love for another, for a man, for an 'alien'" (100), for it would be more accurate to talk here of pistis (trust) than eros. That is not to deny the importance of Tenar's discovery of a sexual identity in Tombs: in that sense the novel is about sex, as Le Guin noted ("Dreams" 55). Gail Sidonie Sobat goes too far, however, when she sees Tenar's sexual awakening as the magic that saves both her and Ged. What Tenar discovers by the end of the novel is not so much the ability to love, but the capacity to trust in another—and allow him to trust her in return.[3]


At this point, we can return to our question as to why Tenar's story is one without magic, or more precisely, since there is no Kargad magic, why Arha is unaware of the power of the Place of the Tombs. The short answer is that knowledge of the Nameless Ones would have destroyed her.

It has been tempting for feminist critics to see the labyrinth and undertomb as representations of the feminine unconscious, and to claim the dark powers for women.[4] The project has even seemed to receive validation from Le Guin herself, who in 1983 told young women graduating from Mills College, "darkness is your country" ("A Left-Handed Commencement Address" 117; Sobat uses this affirmation as a hermeneutic key in her reading of Tombs). However, when Aunty Moss (a village witch) similarly argues in Tehanu that a woman's power "goes back into the dark" (528), we would not take this reflection as an identification of women's power with that of the Dark Powers.[5] Neither should we, faced with Le Guin's words of seven years before. Starting from the inevitability of failure, of "meet[ing] disappointment, injustice, betrayal, and irreparable loss," of finding oneself "in dark places, alone, and afraid" (116), Le Guin challenged her Mills College audience by linking darkness with hope. It is in darkness, she suggests, that one takes responsibility "for helplessness, weakness, and illness, for the irrational and the irreparable, for all that is obscure, passive, uncontrolled, animal, unclean" (117), for it is in darkness that these are found. This is not a call to prefer these aspects of life but one to acknowledge them, to accept them as part of the whole[6] — a familiar theme in Le Guin's Earthsea novels, where she seeks balance and reconciliation (Wytenbroek 174), not a celebration of darkness per se.

Balance, in short, is all. But if Tenar is to find this balance she has to leave the Place of the Tombs. Balance requires an awareness of alternatives, and there are no alternatives open to her in Atuan. Whereas Ged had learned about the Nameless Ones and the magic of Roke when young, Tenar had just learned about the rituals of the world of the labyrinth (Spivack 33; Slusser 40). Unlike Anieb, who is schooled in the lore of village magic and can contextualize the Old Powers, Tenar has only been instructed in the religion of the Tombs. That being so, for her to be conscious of the Gods she serves would have been to have an incomplete awareness of their place in the world—and would have only served to validate the cruelty inherent in their religion. The Nameless Ones are a reality that cannot be ignored; indeed, as we have seen, Le Guin would insist that they are to be acknowledged and accepted as part of one's self (Wind 218, "Finder" 68). But they can destroy any individual who opens herself to them without a larger sense of reality (Tombs 271), and indeed even their worship can be dangerous when undertaken in a moral vacuum. "The Earth is beautiful, and bright, and kindly, but that is not all," Ged explains to Arha. "The Earth is also terrible, and dark, and cruel. . . . And when men worship [the Old Powers] and abase themselves before them, there evil breeds" (266).

Arha is danger, therefore, for as long as she remains in the world of the worship of darkness—the labyrinth, the undertomb, and the temple complex—without any countervailing sense of light. As Sobat notes (30), Arha faced the very real possibility of becoming like Kossil: cruel, vindictive, and obsessed with power. We see this when, given by Ged's arrival "the opportunity to act out . . . the sadism that has been taught to her" (Clark 188), she is more than half-willing to accept the chance to hurt another. "Arha . . . rocked her crouching body back and forth, biting her lip as if to bear some dreadful pain," we read. "She would not give [Ged] any water. She would not give him any water. She would give him death, death, death, death, death" (Tombs 238-39). This is, as yet, just the cruelty of adolescence: the cruelty that would lead her to daydream of new ways to dispatch any new prisoners that might come her way (206). As we have seen, Arha does not yet know "the powers of dark, of ruin, of madness" (266), and despite these fantasies of dispensing ingeniously cruel justice she retains enough sympathy for others that the deaths of the three prisoners sent by the God-King haunt her dreams. Her unconscious rejects what fascinates her conscious mind. Nevertheless, her willingness to dream up ways of torturing her prisoners suggests that had she known the powers she serves, she would not have escaped their control. Le Guin had explored the possibility of evil taking possession of a person in Wizard with the idea of the gebbeth, "an unreal flesh clothing the shadow that is real" (102), and even before then with its possession of Voll, "more than wizard yet less than man" ("Unbinding" 72). Possession could have been Arha's fate as well.

There is arguably an irony here, in that the magical lore of Roke—Ged's context for choice—is itself a denial of mortality and at some level akin to the power it opposes. "They have no gods," Kossil tells Arha. The wizards of the Inner Lands "work magic, and think that they are gods themselves. But they are not. And when they die they are not reborn" (Tombs 218). Kossil's comments seem petty and misinformed when we first encounter them, for everything we know about life and death and magic in Earthsea at this point has come to us from the Inner Lands. However, what seems misinformed speculation in Tombs is presumed to be accurate description by the time we reach Wind, where Tenar tells the Summoner: "You are not immortal. . . . We are! We die to rejoin the undying world. It was you who foreswore immortality" (222-23, Le Guin's emphasis). The fear of death that drives Voll, the commodification of life that underlies the actions of Cob in Shore, both lie at the heart of the magic that opposes them.

Nevertheless, given the need for balance in the universe of Earthsea, without some knowledge of light, even the partial light of Roke, an individual is in danger. In Atuan, Patricia Dooley notes (referencing R. D. Laing), Arha was a dissociated personality, captive to "a distorted, one-sided view of life" (108). In the Place of the Tombs, Barbara J. Bucknall has observed, Arha "never learned to be free" (54). That being so, although Arha gradually outgrows the worldview inherent in her training, and moves from the belief that she can categorize everything without reflection to a genuine curiosity about the world (Tombs 190, 218, 247), she must leave Atuan to find alternatives and complete the process of maturation. Her journey takes her to Havnor, the political center of the archipelago, and then to the island of Gont where, spending time with Ogion (Ged's first teacher), she finds the knowledge that she needs.

Some have suggested that this ending reveals a failure in Le Guin's imagination—that having created a woman, she was unable to imagine a place for her in the hierarchical, male world of Earthsea (Cummins 156; cf. Littlefield 249-50)—and to some extent this is true. Underlying the ending of Tombs we sense the problem that would be addressed in later Earthsea fiction: the place of women in a world of male magic. However, although problematic in this sense, the ending also points to Le Guin's conviction that for Tenar the need to enter a world of choice is just as important as the need to adopt a particular social role. As Ogion's ward and pupil she learned both "how to be an Achipelagan" and "the way she wanted to follow for herself as a woman grown" (Wind 84-85) and, with hindsight, it is significant that in choosing this when and where she does, Tenar becomes the second of three women in Earthsea fiction who are called a "woman of Gont."[7]

The first of the three is Serret (in Wizard), the daughter of the Lord of Re Albi whose mockery had led the young Ged to seek to summon the spirits of the dead. She marries Blenders, the Lord of the Terrenon—a stone that offers the one who can master it all imaginable power: "foresight, knowledge, wealth, dominion, and . . . wizardry" (Wizard 111)—but neither she nor her husband can master the stone, and when years later Ged comes to their keep she tries to seduce him into using his powers to subdue it. "You will be mightier than all men, a king among men," she whispers. "You will rule and I will rule with you" (112). However, in actively seeking to master the Old Powers she is destroyed by them. [8]

Serret's opposite, the third "woman of Gont," is Tenar's adopted daughter Tehanu, who, by the end of Wind, transformed into her dragon nature (the antithesis of the dark powers of the earth), "flies golden on the other wind" (241). Tenar, the second of the three, is the middle term: not consciously embracing anything other than ordinary human nature and eventually deciding not to study Ogion's lore books but to value (like her friend Penthe) everyday pleasures instead. Of course, had Tenar chosen otherwise and opted for an apprenticeship in magery it might well have been difficult for her to follow her vocation. The wizards of Roke would not have welcomed a woman into their number (Tehanu 500; cf. Lefanu 132; the situation would be dramatized a decade later in "Dragonfly"). But as Le Guin would note in Earthsea Revisioned, Tenar "didn't want their kind of power"—male power, the kind of power that comes from "bossing people around" (18). Instead, she chooses the pleasures and limitations of everyday life. Years before, her friend Penthe had sworn in desperation that she would rather "'marry a pig-herd'" than remain "'buried alive'" as a Priestess of the Place (Tombs 208). Tenar, escaping Atuan, chooses to marry a farmer, and move out of the world of myth and legend into the ordinary world of life and death. "What did I want with [magic] books?" Tenar reflects after Ogion's death. "What good were they to me? I wanted to live, I wanted a man, I wanted my children, I wanted my life" (Tehanu 527, cf. 545).

Tenar's choice, we might suspect, is central to Le Guin's later vision—in a recent poem we read of the power in mortality to captivate those who dwell in faery[9]—but be that as it may be, it remains a fact that Tenar is only able to make her choice when she has left Atuan. It is only away from the temple complex that she can find knowledge and balance and be, in the words of the epigraph, "a free woman" at last (cf. Earthsea Revisioned 26); only when she had fled from the Old Powers, and been given the chance of mastering the powers of learning and skill offered by Ogion, that she could freely choose "the other room, where the women lived, to be one of them" (509, cf. 530). That being so, it is entirely appropriate that Tenar's escape from the Place of the Tombs comes not through an apprenticeship in magic, but through the exercise of trust. That, after all, is what makes everyday life and everyday pleasures possible.


1. The Other Wind. Similarly, Ged had not been in the two short stories ("The World of Unbinding" and "The Rule of Names" [1964]) in which Le Guin had begun to explore the archipelago of her fantasy world.

2. In one of Le Guin's earlier works, Planet of Exile (1966), mindspeech is "a skill that one can learn" not magic; it is only those who know nothing of it who think of it as witchcraft (44; cf. "Vaster Than Empires" 184-85; "A Response" 46). There is no reason to think that Le Guin's thinking had changed by the time she wrote "Finder," or with the shift from science fiction to fantasy.

3. Pistis can refer to trust (or faith) in a person—such as that Ged and Tenar have in each other—but it also can reference acts of intellectual assent. In Plato's discussion of the divided line, pistis is contrasted with eikasia (perception). The latter "takes sensible appearances and current moral notions at their face value" (Cornford 222); the former involves conscious assent to their truth or reliability after questioning the standards entailed.

4. Doing so has not led to an endorsement of the temple cultus; that, even if served by a female priesthood, is seen as a creation of a patriarchal society (Littefield 248).

5. In Tehanu, it is a woman, Tehanu herself, who is instrumental in breaking the power of darkness.

6. See, for example, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" (published in New Dimensions in 1973—the year after the publication of Tombs) for the refusal to accept a utopia premised upon the need for suffering to be ignored. Unlike Frederic Jameson, who thinks it a "nasty little fable" (293n11), I see it as a key expression of Le Guin's integrative vision.

7. In what follows I bring together references to the "woman of Gont" and the "woman on Gont," as Ged does in talking of Tehanu (Wind 55).

8. In seeking to escape the Court of the Terrenon, Serret is confused by the Old Powers so that she cannot see the way (Wizard 114), a situation that we will meet again in Tombs when Tenar cannot remember the way through the maze (276).

9.". . . my mortality / would strike him to his heart's socket, / till glad of grief he grasped at life / and left his kingdom for my quick lands. . ." ("The Girl at the Gate of Fairyland").

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G St. John Stott

Volume 10, Issue 3, The Looking Glass, 2 October, 2006

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