The Equilibrium in The Tombs of Atuan

Carole Ann Penney '07 English 65, Fantasy, Brown University, 2003

In Ursula K. Le Guin's The Tombs of Atuan, Tenar, a young girl, must leave her home to become the Priestess at the Tombs of the Nameless Ones, taking the new name Arha, or "The Eaten One." As she learns more and more about her duties as the High Priestess, she explores the labyrinth of her dark masters, memorizing its many curves, rooms, and paths, often in total darkness. During one of her excursions in the underground world, she discovers a wizard who entered in search of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe, the great treasure hidden in a secret underground room. Arha struggles with her duty to kill the wizard as a sacrifice to the Nameless Ones, and her strange instinct to help him. She goes to the wizard secretly, and treats him with both cruelty and wonder. He gradually tells Arha of wizard magic and opens her eyes to the reality of the dark powers.

"They have nothing to give. They have no power of making. All their power is to darken and destroy. They cannot leave this place; they are this place; and it should be left to them. They should not be denied nor forgotten, but neither should they be worshipped. The Earth is beautiful, and bright, and kindly, but that is not all. The Earth is also terrible, and dark, and cruel. The rabbit shrieks dying in the green meadows. The mountains clench their great hands full of hidden fire. There are sharks in the sea, and there is cruelty in men's eyes. And where men worship these things and abase themselves before them, there evil breeds; there places are made in the world where darkness gathers, places given over wholly to the Ones whom we call Nameless, the ancient and holy Powers of the Earth before the Light, the powers of the dark, of ruin, of madness. . . ." [The Tombs of Atuan, 129-130]


1. The wizard, Ged, explains to Tenar that the Nameless Ones "are" the Tombs of Atuan, and cannot leave the Place. Why does Le Guin limit the dwellings of the dark powers to a single location in her fantasy world? How do the Tombs differ from Mordor in The Lord of the Rings or the forest in Phantastes?

2. Le Guin emphasizes the Equilibrium of dark and light forces throughout The Earthsea Cycle. Does Le Guin justify Ged's argument that the dark powers should not be "denied or forgotten?" Why must they be equal with the light powers? What do the sentences that describe the small evils that exist in the world add to this argument?

3. Why does Le Guin make her dark forces nameless in a world where magic and power revolves around names?

4. Does the reader come to understand the nature of the Nameless Ones or does Le Guin intentionally make this unclear? Why would Le Guin describe the dark powers as "holy Powers?"

5. What does the ellipsis at the end of the last sentence add to Ged's argument or tell about his character?


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

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Last modified 9 March 2004