The Tombs of Atuan is the second of a series of books written by Ursula K. Le Guin and set in her fantasy archipelago of Earthsea. It follows on from A Wizard of Earthsea and is continued in The Farthest Shore.
The story centers on a child who is taken from her family and dedicated as the high priestess in the service of the "Nameless Ones". Her true name is Tenar, but she gives up her name and identity to become Arha, "the eaten one", as all the high priestesses have done before her. Tenar is considered the reincarnation of Arha because she was born on the night the previous Arha died.
Tenar's youth is a haunting contrast between light-hearted childish escapades and dark, solemn rituals. Gradually she comes to accept her lonely, anonymous role, and to feel at home in the unlit underground labyrinth, the eponymous Tombs, where the Nameless Ones dwell. Indeed, as she becomes aware of the political machinations among the older priestesses, the Tombs become a refuge to her.
Ged, the protagonist of A Wizard of Earthsea, enters the story only as Tenar is coming of age. Tenar catches him attempting to rob the Tombs. To punish his sacrilege she traps him underground to die of thirst. Yet as he is dying, in her loneliness she listens to him. He patiently explains to her of a wider world, and intimates that she might lead a different life.
Tenar is eventually won over by Ged's kindness and patient instruction. She realizes that the Nameless Ones demand service but give nothing and create nothing. She trusts Ged's story that he is indifferent to the overflowing coffers of gold in the Tombs, and has come only to find the missing half of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe, an heirloom necessary to peace in Earthsea. Finally she helps him escape from the Tombs with the ring, as he helps her escape from the priesthood.
Tenar is arguably a more compelling character than Ged, the protagonist of the first and third books of the trilogy. The setting is less fantastic than the other books, and the issues are more directly relevant. Reflective readers may identify more with the theme of transcending a narrow indoctrination than with Ged's exploits of calling wind and fog from the heavens, talking with dragons, creating miraculous illusions at a word, etc. Tenar is a normal person in a confined world, and her triumph is coming to freedom, not coming to power.
Ged, while still a young man, is portrayed here as much wiser than in the first book. When Tenar asks him about the scar on his face, caused by the Shadow creature that he unleashed, he replies that it is the result of his foolishness in the past. His ambition has been tempered with experience, though, of course, entering the barbarian lands of Kargad and attempting to steal from the temples of ancient, dark gods is still somewhat foolhardy. Were it not for Tenar's change of allegiance, he would have failed. Tenar and Ged thus save each other.
Le Guin completed the trilogy in 1972 with The Farthest Shore, and didn't return to Earthsea until the publication of Tehanu in 1991. Apparently Le Guin came to see Tenar as more interesting and worthy of further development, because Tehanu once again takes up Tenar's story, and deals more explicitly with feminist themes.