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In "The Tombs of Atuan", how come that The Nameless Ones didn't punish Ged for his initial intrusion of the labyrinth, Kossil for lighting up a fire in the Undertomb (while uncovering Ged's supposed grave) and Manan for traveling into areas forbidden for anyone but the high priestess, yet they did try to hurt Arha and Ged during their final flee from the labyrinth ?

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The Nameless Ones were dark powers of the Earth. The religion built up around worshiping them was largely irrelevant to them; they did not care about their holy places being defiled by people entering where they were not "supposed" to be. They did, however, care about Ged's attempt to remove an item of great magical power from their possession.

From the moment of Ged's arrival in the labyrinth, the Nameless Ones had some sense that he was their enemy, but (with some effort) he was able to hold them off while he searched. However, once he had penetrated to the treasure chamber and then retrieved the lost half of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe, they turned their full wrath against him and Tenar (Arha) who was helping him.

In general, the dark powers of the Earth that appear in the early Earthsea stories do not act according to comprehensible human motives. They are evil, but their underlying motivations are never explained. These include the Nameless Ones (although whether there are really more than one separate entity under that name is ambiguous), the Terrenon in Osskil, and (according to Sparrowhawk) the shadow monster named Ged.

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  • The shadow monster was not a Nameless One of the earth (although its name was not known until the end of A Wizard of Earthsea): it literally was an aspect of Ged himself.
    – Lexible
    Jan 14, 2016 at 23:14
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    It's not clear what the shadow was. It shares a name with Ged, which is suggestive. Personally, I think the most likely explanation is indeed that it is part of Ged the wizard, but it's still a mystery. My remark was based on the fact that Ged (who is in the best position to know) tells Tenar that the shadow was akin to the Nameless Ones.
    – Buzz
    Jan 14, 2016 at 23:39
  • Excellent answer, thank you.
    – Fingolfin
    Jan 17, 2016 at 8:03
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    Buzz, you might want to reread the last few pages of A Wizard of Earthsea... seems pretty straightforward. In any case, nowhere in le Guin's work is Ged's shadow described as a Nameless One/one of the old powers of the Earth.
    – Lexible
    Jan 18, 2016 at 20:02
  • As I said, that origin for the shadow is the most likely one in my view. However, Ged straight out tells Tenar that the shadow and the Nameless Ones are akin.
    – Buzz
    Jan 19, 2016 at 14:52
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The Nameless Ones were only half-aware that Ged had entered the labyrinth, and probably didn't notice Kossil and Manan's transgressions at all.

'Because every instant since I set foot in cavern under the Tombstones, I have striven to keep them still, to keep them unaware. All my skills have gone to that, I have spent my strength on it. I have filled these tunnels with an endless net of spells, spells of sleep, of stillness, of concealment, and yet they are still aware of me, half aware, half sleeping, half awake.' - Chapter 9

Only when Ged and Tenar took the talisman from the treasure room did they truly begin to awaken.

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Since Ged had entered the Tombs, he had used his Mage skills to weave 'a vast network' of spells of concealment and sleep on the Nameless Ones- the powers of the Earth of that particular spot- for his own purposes. It was for that reason that Kossil's transgression of lighting the undertomb went unpunished, as well as Manans.
Well- not entirely unpunished. They did after all in the end, drive Kossil mad- just as Tenar said they would in retribution.... as well as, it could be argued, taking Manan's life.

I don't believe the Nameless Ones were inherently evil in the sense that we would traditionally describe or understand evil, though they certainly were dangerous and destructive. Going by what Ged described: They simply hated all light, and all life equally, and did not want it there, in its space. The plural, 'they', seems significant- both by the agelong tradition of the cult referring to Them as such, and the multiple tombstones themselves. But they were powerless to do anything positive or of benefit; they could only darken and destroy whatever crossed their path. And they were something different at an earlier time, hence the tombs... and were immortal and undying. Aside from this, we really don't know much else. Conversely, there were other places in Earthsea that were perhaps equally powerful but something of an opposite force, such as the Immanent Grove on Roke. But as Earth powers they were not, at least as it was explained, beings in a sense- but WERE inherent parts of the Earth, that could never be moved, or could move themselves from where they were located.

For some reason They made an exception for Arha, in some way grudgingly accepting her as a sort of guardian of the Tombs, but pretty much on a 'one strike you're out' basis. She was their hands they otherwise would not have, as Ged said. Whether this was because her soul indeed was the First Priestess endlessly reborn, or because the cult had coaxed Them into this sort of passive acceptance of one woman only, so anyone could play the role (provided they were a woman, this was for some reason required), was never entirely established imo. In the Tombs of Atuan, the suggestion is she was simply a girl picked through the rites of an archaic, age old cult and taught to be a slave of the Tombs- with her mind essentially being fogged and confused into believing it as she dwelt on in that space.

But in later books, LeGuin suggested something more. Even though Ged clearly stated to Tenar that Arha must die for Tenar to leave the Tombs and be reborn-- in the book Tehanu, Tenar makes several references to calling upon Arha to help and advise her in defense against Magery- even crediting Arha for defending her. Others who deal in magic as it were refer to her in several instances as a 'witch'- perceiving this about her- even though she herself by and large forsook her earlier life entirely, choosing instead to be an everyday farm wife. So in a sense, it is suggested she still had some sort of inherent Old power about her. This could be perhaps because she WAS in fact, the same soul who had inhabited the Tombs in earlier lives. It also clearly suggests that Arha did not die- as Ged had so gravely informed her would happen when he gave her the choice and decision of leaving the Tombs back in the Atuan book. A few strange lines in the Tombs of Atuan appear to support this also:

"Sometimes she thought she remembered. The dark places under the hill were so familiar to her, as if they were not only her domain, but her home. When she breathed in the drug-fumes to dance at dark of the moon, her head grew light and her body was no longer hers; then she danced across the centuries, barefoot in black robes, and knew that the dance had never ceased."

So what is the real answer? Was Tenar taught to be Arha, or was she in fact, Arha? I would say unless you had conversed with Leguin herself on the subject, the answer is well, a mystery.

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  • This looks like a very nice well reasoned first answer! The only thing that I would add is that you may want to edit a TL;DR section into the answer and editing in evidence such as quotes where appropriate is always a win-win!
    – TheLethalCarrot
    Mar 21, 2019 at 16:40

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