The Tombs of Atuan
By Ursula K. Le Guin
Current & Digital Publisher: Atheneum (Simon & Schuster)
Reading Level: Ages 12 & Up
William Alexander writes:
Living Speech, Written Ink, and Dragons
Ursula K. Le Guin knows exactly where to stand between living speech and written ink. Her books resist silence. They insist that we read them out loud, restoring the noise that was their source and origin.
“The sound of the language is where it all begins and what it all comes back to,” she writes in the very first chapter of Steering the Craft, a slim and essential book about writing. “The basic elements of language are physical: the noise words make and the rhythm of their relationships.”
This is the first page of that first chapter. Listen.
Le Guin's Earthsea novels began with A Wizard of Earthsea, continued with The Tombs of Atuan (a Finalist for the National Book Award in 1972), and temporarily concluded with The Farthest Shore (which won the National Book Award in 1973). This is a retrospective of Young People’s Literature honored by National Book Awards, so we should probably focus on The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore—but first pay attention to the very beginning. Here’s the first paragraph of that first book of Earthsea. Listen.
The novel begins with the high formality of a saga, the pseudo-history of legend, and with a historian’s seriousness it makes reference to known and official accounts. Then it offers itself as something else: a secret, a story otherwise left out. We all know the official songs and sagas. Of course we do. After reading this page it seems like any one of us could quote a verse from The Deed of Ged—even those of us who have never heard of it until just now. But come closer. This is something else. This whole book is a secret, something that the histories skipped.
Le Guin didn't yet know what an Archmage or a dragonlord were when she wrote that first page. “They sounded good,” she says in the afterward to the newest edition of Atuan. “I could find out what they meant later, when I needed to.” We find out about dragonlords in the second book—not in the high and formal diction of sagas but in casual conversation, a bit of dialogue novelistically transcribed. Sparrowhawk admits to being one in an embarrassed sort of way, not at all boasting. Then he explains. Listen.
I remember sitting up straight when I first read that bit. I was eleven years old. I had assumed, like most people, that dragonlords had power over dragons. But this is a different kind of power—not a lording over but an ability to speak, to be understood, to be more interesting than you are tasty.
The cover on the newest edition of The Farthest Shore shows a dragon’s eye. You shouldn't make eye contact with dragons, but it’s difficult not to. This one is watching us, considering whether or not we are worthy of conversation. Here’s another bit of dialogue, an immediate transcription of words spoken aloud inside that story. It flows into a formal, elegiac cadence. Listen.
All books should be read aloud from time to time. It lets them breathe. But not all books know how to insist on breathing. These do. And if I came to forget every other book I read as a kid, but still remembered the Earthsea novels, then I'd be content.
For more specifics about Le Guin's relationship to language and to various narrative traditions, read her collections of essays. She has several.
For more about the interfusional interplay between written and oral traditions, I recommend Thomas King's Massey Lecture. You can listen to it here.
William Alexander won the National Book Award for his debut novel, Goblin Secrets, and the Earphones Award for his narration of the audiobook. He isn't related to Lloyd Alexander, but he is happy that their novels sit next to each other on bookshelves.
Children’s Books Finalists That Year:
- Jan Adkins for The Art and Industry of Sandcastles
- John Donovan for Wild in the World
- Virginia Hamilton for The Planet of Junior Brown
- June Jordan for His Own Where
- Ursula K. Le Guin for The Tombs of Atuan
- Robert C. O’Brien for Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh
- Cheli Duran Ryan for Hildilid’s Night
- Marilyn Sachs for The Bears’ House
- William Steig for Amos & Boris
- Clyde Watson for Father Fox’s Pennyrhymes
Children’s Books Winner That Year: Donald Barthelme for The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine or The Hithering Thithering Djinn
Judges That Year: Paul Heins, Lore Segal, Jean Stafford
The Year in Literature: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh by Robert C. O’Brien won the Newbery Medal.
- Ursula K. Le Guin won the National Book Award for Children’s Books in 1973 for The Farthest Shore. She was nominated for the National Book Award for Fiction in 1977 for Orsinian Tales and in 1985 for Always Coming Home.
- Le Guin is one of the most highly decorated science fiction and fantasy writers today. She has received, among others, five Hugo Awards, six Nebula Awards, nineteen Locus Awards, and a World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995.
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