What makes something a classic – to have survived the passage of time and be judged (by rough consensus) to be outstanding in its field, to have a known value, to be considered of the highest quality of its time?
Is it a sense of being important in a genre’s history? Sometimes. Is it about being unusual, maybe seemingly unique for a bit? Sometimes. Is it about being championed by loud voices and lots of voices? Pretty much always.
Well. The Tombs of Atuan is important to the genre and what it does was very rare – and still is fairly rare – and I am here to champion the fuck out of it.
For once upon a time in Earthsea, a little after the events of A Wizard of Earthsea, there was a girl in Karg named Tenar. Shortly after her birth, the priestesses of Atuan identified her as the new incarnation of the High Priestess of the Old Ones. They take her and raise her to be that priestess again, dedicating her to the Old Ones at the age of six. Her name is forgotten, taken along with her identity. What is left is Arha – the Eaten One.
We see Arha grow up in the temple known as the Tombs of Atuan, shaped by its dynamics, learning about her and her politics. Arha might be High Priestess of the Old Ones but other gods are worshipped there too, the Twin-Gods and the God-King of Karg itself. Their High Priestesses wield power too; they are older, more educated women, and their faiths are backed by the powers of the land, powers that are happy to see rivals forgot.
So Arha grows up, near friendless, always waiting, grasping at tiny shreds of power, embracing the self given to her because it has pride and meaning and she knows nothing else. Until one day Sparrowhawk, the Wizard of Earthsea, comes to steal from the Tombs of Atuan and finally a meaningful choice is put in front of her. Arha – or Tenar?
The Tombs of Atuan is special to read, and I mean that in the most basic sense. The prose is hypnotic, dragging us into the two different places Tenar inhabits – the harsh, scrubby desert of Atuan, and the endless dark of the Old Ones’ tombs – and the worries and thoughts of one woman. There’s a huge number of fantasy books where the author wants you to live in the world they’ve imagined and a tiny, tiny amount of them that can drag you in just as deep.
It is special to think about. It is becoming less so, as more authors write of their experience of having no agency, no choice, nothing but the role assigned to them and then one day finding out that is not true – be that due to gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or any other reason – but it is still a rare narrative in mainstream Anglosphere fantasy. Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand is the only one I can think of off the top of my head like that. When I read that, at first I was unsure what I was reading, then it struck me like a hammer.
On this reread, I knew exactly what I was looking for (no small thanks to reading Empire of Sand and comparing the two). It’s so thematically compact – no line wasted – without ever detracting from its sense of wonder. Maybe it will even be too tightly focused for some. I might have found it that way if the book was longer, but it’s a fairly slim volume. I have to say, I kind of wonder what would happen if an author tried to write a book like today, post-age of the chonk and with all the expectations to fit a story the audience will recognise. Maybe the rise of the novella will give us more books like this (in fact, I suspect it’s starting to do so and I’ve yet to notice).
If it does happen, which I hope so, I don’t think many will end up with the reputation of The Tombs of Atuan. That’s partly because they won’t be as unusual. That’s partly because it is a crowded market place and it is hard to get championed like Le Guin.
It will also be partly because it’s very unlikely there’ll be as many as good. The use of language, of place, of character and history -it’s very difficult to get every element as good as this. This is a classic in my eyes, and many more.