*SPOILERS* for The Tombs of Atuan and Till We Have Faces
I just read The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. LeGuin for the first time. It had been recommended to me before, and I have had my sisters’ copies of it (and Wizard of Earthsea and The Farthest Shore) on my shelves for years. My terrible neglect is finally ended!!
And good thing too. This book is fantastic in the simplest, quietest way.
The story starts with a little girl named Tenar, six years of age, taken from her family to be the “Eaten One”–now named Arha–at the tombs of Atuan. This means she is in service of the dark and nameless ones and the miles of labyrinth beneath the ancient tombs.
Her life is a dark and cheerless one and since she is the one priestess to the nameless powers, she has to sacrifice criminals to those powers–i.e. kill them or let them die–and she has given up her true name and her family and a great deal more than she realizes. She is a vessel and a symbol. She is cold and dark like that which she serves.
Then comes Ged, who the reader will know as a great wizard who fought and won against his own darkness in the previous book. Ged seeks a treasure in the tombs, but nearly dies at Arha’s hand. Eventually she allows him to live and they both escape the tombs together, the upper edifice of which collapses maliciously as they leave. Maliciously, I say, because the nameless ones were out to have their vengeance against the fleeing “apostate,” Tenar.
LeGuin sets up the atmosphere so well in this book. Tenar’s world is so bleak, everything about it is a concealed or muted horror. It is all so heavy and despicably dark on the page, even though nothing gory or violent or overtly horrific ever happens.
Tenar is hardened, but you see how conflicted she is. She speaks viciously in defense of her masters, the nameless ones, and she spews meanness and sharpness everywhere she goes. But when push comes to shove, you see how this is the way in which she has been cultivated, not who she really is. You wonder who she might be if she were to step out of the darkness.
But the darkness is all she knows. She reveres it. It is holiness and duty to her. She has been taught to serve and worship the dark.
When Ged convinces her to leave, it is only after she has repeatedly decided to leave him for dead, and repeatedly changed her mind (always trying to justify herself: “I’ll kill him later”). And when the time comes to break free, she resists again and again. The darkness has a hold on her. It is her cradle, her home, her master. Her body physically resists stepping out of it.
And even once she is free, she still struggles. She feels she does not deserve to live in the light. She does not deserve to go on.
This spoke so powerfully to me:
We have a hard time escaping an evil, an addiction, or a lie, especially when we don’t even realize that it is one of those three things. We think it is normal and natural and all there is to know. We have to see it for what it is first.
Those unwholesome things have claws. They do not easily let go of us, even after we have acknowledged the truth.
We usually resist at every step in the right direction. If what you’re doing is easy, and everyone around you approves, it may not always be right. Sometimes the right thing is swimming upriver of what EVERYONE around you (even those you love and respect and admire) is doing/saying/believing.
Even once we escape, we are not in the clear. Hope is hard to keep. Light exposes EVERYTHING, and that is scary. We don’t always like what light reveals. It isn’t always what we want to hear. It isn’t always what we want to believe.
Which brings me to:
Till We Have Faces
I mentioned before that I was re-reading this book and that it is one of my all-time favorites. I wrote about the first half of that book/re-read here and here.
But I never did finish up that analysis, so here you go.
Because the divine is not forever ambiguous as I mentioned in the last post. The numinous does eventually enter the picture, and it does so rather forcefully. There is a similar theme in Till We Have Faces of how we resist the truth because it isn’t what we desire or hope for, or pushing back against the truth because it requires something of us that we aren’t willing to give.
In Till We Have Faces, Orual doesn’t believe her sister Psyche when she says she has been wed to a God. She listens to the thoughts of the Greek Fox–who stands in for the philosophical skeptic–and to the warrior Bardia, who has the role of the devout, but distanced, believer.
But for half a moment she thinks she sees the castle that Psyche has described, which was heretofore invisible to her. But the seeing is brief, and she doubts her eyes and her judgement, and refuses to believe. She hates that this so-called “God” (who she believes must either be evil beast or filthy vagabond) has stolen her Psyche from her. She hates that Psyche is no longer hers, and seems to know and understand things that she, Orual, cannot.
So she forces Psyche to light the lamp and show the face of her husband-God (something that he had forbidden Psyche to do). Then, in the moment of betrayal and crisis, the God is proved to be real.
At the end of the book, Orual’s self-deception is laid bare, and so is the truth, and it is painful for her to hear. She had written a whole book to prove that she was right and the Gods were wrong, but all her words did was prove the opposite. The divine light on her own words exposed the truth.
The themes of the two books are somewhat different, but both have to do with the following:
Escaping the lie/self-deception
Acknowledging the truth
The ache and sorrow of exposing everything to the light and seeing what you’ve lost…and what you could have gained if only you had acknowledged the truth sooner.
Both characters–Tenar and Orual–seem to know the truth in a certain part of their being. A deep knowing, that they fight against. Tenar fights against her own sorrow and compassion. Orual fights against the fleeting visions and intuitions of the truth.
The truth is not always easy, it will not always be approved or popular, and fighting our way out of a lie, or some other misery that has its claws dug in, is going to take blood and sweat out of us. It’s going to leave a mark. But it will have been worth it.
Both of these books are highly recommended!