2. Religion

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Arha/Tenar is a high priestess of the Nameless Ones. How does her social role as priestess affect her story? How does religion fit into Kargish society?

The Kargs have religion, but use no sorcery. The Inner Lands use sorcery, but have no religion. How are they related?

Comments

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    One of the great sub-plots of this book is the way - at least to Arha's perception - her religion has been marginalised by the much more overtly political movement of the God-Kings. To me, there's a sense in which her faith is authentic both personally and in terms of its object (notwithstanding Ged's comments about how the Old Powers ought not to be worshipped by humans), whereas the replacement one appears rather nakedly self-serving. As she comes to realise, her position is actually quite precarious in Kargish society, for all its ancientry and such like.
    I'm not sure that it's fair to say that the Inner Lands have no religion - in the background to be sure, but in Wizard of Earthsea we met the lady Serret of Osskil, whose relationship with a certain stone there was not appreciably different from Arha's with the Old Ones. And certainly outside of the Roke wizard school there is a whole spectrum of more casual superstitions and practices. I do totally agree that there is a foreground / background issue but I'm not sure they are in total contrast.

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    We never really see Kargish society, so I guess that says something about how religion fits in: most Kargish don't particularly worship, or at least done worship the Nameless Ones. That's apparent from both the lack of outsiders in the story and the general decrepitude of the temple complex. This is definitely a dying aspect of that society. Despite that, I don't think it's too much to say that Tenar's life is utterly dominated by the religion she was inserted into.

    As for the lack of sorcery, the Kargish obviously have some power that can offset the advantage of sorcery, or else they wouldn't even be nuisance raiders of the Inner Sea. But we never see what that is, and that's fine: this is the story of Tenar's understanding of religion and sorcery, and it's not much concerned with the wider world.

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    Arha's role as a priestess seems to be a trap. Expectations and rules are laid upon her - she's not really free to break those. Is that intended as a comment on religion? I'm not so sure. Arha's faith is tested in the novel, but it doesn't take all that much to break it. Everyone else seems to be quite cynical about the gods. The Kargish are obviously using religion as a tool to promote the god-king to ultimate power.

    That said, Arha does seem to draw strength from her faith. She uses it to deny Ged's magic as trickery.

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    I think a theme running through a lot of LeGuin's work is an idea that growing up is taken as putting aside religion, and it is used here to drive the plot (Sorry @Apocryphal ). The Kargish are grown up in that they have put aside religion, and Arha herself is childish, and only grows up when she too has done so. Ged seems to suggest by omission that there might be a 'good' devotion when he says that the Nameless Ones are not worthy of human worship, but that said, the idea that the missing rune will make peace possible is nothing deeper than a superstitious confidence in technology. I don't think LeGuin has really got the religion / technology / magic arrows into her quiver yet. Conceptually I find this book more interesting as a stepping stone along her path to her later work, than as a worked out contemplation of religion.

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    Why are you sorry to me? This seems like a more clearly conceived version of what I was fumbing for.

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    @BarnerCobblewood said:
    I think a theme running through a lot of LeGuin's work is an idea that growing up is taken as putting aside religion, and it is used here to drive the plot ... Conceptually I find this book more interesting as a stepping stone along her path to her later work, than as a worked out contemplation of religion.

    I guess one can see her Taoist inclinations coming out - what she typically opposes is not religious sentiment but religious organisational structure. Acts of personal or communal faith are typically celebrated, so long as they do not turn into a compulsion to act in ways which are repetitive and forced rather than spontaneous. I realise it's from the next book, but her descriptions of the Long Dance (midsummer) are essentially affirmations of religious spontaneity. The event itself is astronomical and repetitive, but the human enactment is new every time.

    Here in Atuan, any sense of spontaneity is swallowed up but the complete dominance of repetitive ritual, and Arha's friend Penthe represents (I think) the inevitable trend that this ritual crushes individuality.

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    @RichardAbbott said:
    I guess one can see her Taoist inclinations coming out - what she typically opposes is not religious sentiment but religious organisational structure. Acts of personal or communal faith are typically celebrated, so long as they do not turn into a compulsion to act in ways which are repetitive and forced rather than spontaneous. I realise it's from the next book, but her descriptions of the Long Dance (midsummer) are essentially affirmations of religious spontaneity. The event itself is astronomical and repetitive, but the human enactment is new every time.

    Here in Atuan, any sense of spontaneity is swallowed up but the complete dominance of repetitive ritual, and Arha's friend Penthe represents (I think) the inevitable trend that this ritual crushes individuality.

    Thank you for your comments. A counter-point: There is dance and so forth in the Nameless One's religion, and Arha enjoys it. It is in her interactions with the God-king religion and its practitioners, the religion of politics, where difficulty arises. Arha is unskilled in the dance of competition, and winning and losing, which her 'religion' does not provide.

    There is something about the relation between a 'new' political power and 'old' forgotten power underneath the story here, but I think LeGuin has not yet mastered this material directly. She seems to be proceeding intuitively and through a feeling rather than being grounded in a systematic understanding. The tensions of religion are left aside by both the author and the characters to deal with individual freedom through rebellion against church, skilfully combined with an erotic love which must be repressed. That is straight-forward Protestant theology, 'natural' to her readers, and presumably sells better.

    There is a lot more to be said about dance, and play: the relation they articulate between rules, aims, and happenstance, but maybe someone else has something to contribute.

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    Well, it's interesting that we see the Kargs both use religion as a justification for political power (the God-Brothers overshadow the worship of the Nameless Ones, and are, in turn, overshadowed by the cult of the God-King), but they also compartmentalize it by having their priestesses and their high temple in the desert where nobody goes. That's kind of weird. If the God-King is holding onto power by proclaiming himself divine, then you'd expect he would want hosts of worshipers singing his praises.

    It's also interesting how we have this succession of beliefs piled one atop the other. The cult of the Nameless Ones venerate forces that are real, and supernatural, but utterly inhuman. The cult of the God-Brothers are a sort of ancestor-worship, and then the God-King is that merging of political and religious authority into one still-living man. It's interesting that none of these successor faiths goes so far as to completely wipe out the faiths that came before, but do whittle down their importance until the Nameless Ones are only worshiped by a single priestess and a single eunuch.

    Also interesting how the God-Brothers and the God-King are male, but all the priestesses are female.

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    @Michael_S_Miller said:
    ... If the God-King is holding onto power by proclaiming himself divine, then you'd expect he would want hosts of worshipers singing his praises.
    ...

    I think he does :smile: "His temple is painted fresh every year, there's a hundred-weight of gold on the altar, the lamps burn attar of roses"
    Like many other new or reformed religions, the God-Kings set up their place near enough the ancient one to, as it were, appropriate its sacredness, but far enough away that it can function and be built up separately.

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    edited 4:26AM

    Does it matter that the gods here are provably real? I feel like OUR ideas about religion are somewhat grounded in the concept that whether God exists or not is unprovable. Thus it requires faith for us to believe in a higher being. In this case we have essentially demons - old powers of the Earth - that are real within the confines of this fictional world. Is Tenar a priestess or a servant? Is she one of the faithful or a bound slave?

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    @Ray_Otus That's an interesting question. Are the Nameless Ones "real" in a way that you or I would perceive? Are they "provable"? Kossil doesn't think so. What do they do that objectively proves their existence?

    Well, they cause an earthquake. But, earthquakes happen in their own, too. Maybe it was time for the tectonic plates to shift. Ged says he held back the earthquake, but he also says he called a rabbit over by saying "Kebbo". Maybe he's crazy.

    I think Le Guin does a great job of skating that edge between objects of faith and real presences.
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