Like the first book of the Earthsea series, I had childhood memories of key figures and scenes from The Tombs of Atuan, but much of the story seemed new to me in this re-read half a century later. In particular, my recollection had falsely collapsed this second book into a simple sequel with Ged as its protagonist, when in fact it is Tenar who is the main character. Ged doesn’t appear at all until the fifth of twelve chapters, and even then isn’t positively identified until late in the sixth. Tombs is a girl’s magical bildungsroman as Wizard was a boy’s.
In her 2012 afterword, Le Guin admits that the story and its heroine fall short of ideals latterly promoted for feminist fantasy. Girlbossery is nothing admirable here, and women and men do rely on each other for fulfillment and freedom. This lesson is bluntly symbolized by the reassembly of the two pieces of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe (even pictured on the cover of the recent edition I read). Tenar faces far more adversity than Ged did. While he was allowed to win his own power, she was “given” an authority that bound her into a catena of oppression. His catalyzing of her liberation could be read as a “rescue.”
I have much more cultural context now than I did as a young reader to appreciate the Kargish religion that Le Guin presents. In particular, the tulku One Priestess Arha was a concept that was worked out in a convincing and intriguing way. The supernatural elements of the story are handled with a gentler touch than in the first book.
Where Wizard had Ged ranging from one end of Earthsea to another, this one takes place almost entirely in a single insular community, cut off from the larger culture and commerce of the world. Even so, some nested exposition allows Le Guin to considerably fill in the lore of her larger setting. Ged’s experiences have given him stories worth sharing. He observes, “Dragons think we are amusing” (135). It’s a natural outcome of the fact that the book was written in some measure to explore the throwaway allusion at the end of the first book to one of Ged’s later accomplishments in bringing “back the Ring of Erreth-Akbe from the Tombs of Atuan to Havnor.”