When You Eat Illusions You End Up Hungrier Than Before

Arielle Glatman Zaretsky '07 English 65, Fantasy, Brown University, 2003

In the Earthsea Trilogy, Le Guin repeatedly reminds the reader that nothing can be taken for granted. The eyes can easily be fooled, as can the mind, by simple spells or training. In The Tombs of Atuan, Tenar allows herself to have her name taken away and replaced with Arha, or the Eaten One, and becomes the Priestess Ever Reborn. She functions as the Priestess, the sole mortal able to communicate with the Nameless Ones, and lives her life as a continuation of those of the women who served as the One Priestess before her. Arha genuinely believes in the holiness of the Nameless Ones, never questioning her role or the sanctity of those she serves. Once she and Ged begin to form their relationship however, he causes her to begin to question these illusions she has so blindly believed.

She [Kossil] was there with a lantern. Scratching in the grave that Manan dug, to see if there was a corpse in it. Like a rat in a graveyard, a great fat black rat. And the light burning in the Holy Place, the dark place. And the Nameless Ones did nothing. They didn't kill her or drive her mad. They are old, as she said. They are dead. They are gone. I am not a priestess any more.

All along the corridors I kept hearing someone behind me. And I didn't know where to go. I thought I would be safe here, I thought my Masters would protect me and defend me. But they don't, they are gone, they are dead. . . . [128]

As Tenar begins to lose her faith in these nameless gods, she crumbles, "All at once she sank down to her knees, bowed over; and began to cry, with deep sobs that wrenched her body, but brought no tears" (126). Tenar starts to see the illusion she has been taken in by, an idea she had never before considered. Throughout the trilogy, wizards openly possess the art of creating an illusion, even here Ged shows the ease with which he transforms the appearance of Tenar's old black dress into "turquoise colored silk, bright and soft as the evening sky" (107) but these illusions lack truth, as he points out, explaining why he cannot create food for them, "that's illusion, and when you eat illusions you end up hungrier than before. It's about as nourishing as eating your own words" (157). Wizards have long been banished from the Tombs, so it would seem that the illusion would be gone as well, however the complexity of the illusion in The Tombs of Atuan far outdoes any illusion created by the wizards.


1. Does the illusion created around the Tombs provide any more satisfaction than "eating your own words" (157)? Who is fulfilled by the Nameless Ones?

2. How does Tenar deal with the loss of her beliefs? What effect does Le Guin's use of short clauses and sentences have on the passage?

3. How does Ged persuade Tenar to leave with him? Would she have made the same choice if Kossil did not present a threat?

4. What power do the Nameless Ones possess? Do they differ from those which they are said to have? How are they different from Gods?


Le Guin, Ursula K. The Tombs of Atuan. New York: Simon and Schuster, New York, 1970.

Victorian Web Overview Ursula K. Leguin Victorian courses

Last modified 10 March 2004