I love Ursula K. Le Guin’s first two Earthsea novels. A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan are among my two favourite fantasy novels, and together I think they form an essential duology that showcases some of the most compelling and truthful storytelling about identity and finding oneself. So it was with some trepidation that I read The Farthest Shore.
In the third Earthsea novel, magic is dying. Our protagonists are a much older, more experienced and more weary Ged, and the youthful and exuberant Prince Arren of Enlad. This contrasted pairing is interesting and the major source of suspense. But I also get the sense that Le Guin wanted to write about a wizard who was old but not necessarily—at least from his perspective—wise.
Le Guin makes much of the fact that magic does not lead to longer life or necessarily any power. Magic is a potent and omnipresent force in Earthsea—everyone keeps their true names hidden lest someone have power over them—but it is also underwhelming whenever it actually puts in an appearance. Arren’s reactions to Ged’s infrequent and unimpressive uses of magic testify to this, but on a wider note, the consequences of magic’s disappearance reflect this idea. Every time Ged and Arren visit an island where people have forgotten their magic, they react as if wizardry is and always has been chicanery. Rather than meet their challenges head-on by demonstrating powerful acts of wizardry, Ged shrugs it off and continues with his quest. Even at the climax, where he does some powerful magic, his most effective assets are his confidence and his powers of persuasion, which he uses to undermine their enemy. (A close third would have to be his faith in Arren and Arren’s importance.)
The importance of magic, and its inversely proportional profile, has been another long running theme of Earthsea. After all, the much younger and headstrong Ged gets into trouble all the way back in The Wizard of Earthsea for trying forbidden magic on a dare. (Turns out there’s a reason it’s forbidden!) The rest of the novel is quite literally him spending years travelling around Earthsea and cleaning up the mess he made. No wonder he spends the rest of his life, including his time as archmage, focused on maintaining the Balance.
Now, in The Farthest Shore, Le Guin takes the “magic is dangerous” stance to an extreme, playing with the possibility of extinguishing magic altogether. As much as it might be cool to be a wizard, I have to say, I’m glad we don’t have magic in the real world—people would keep messing with my stuff! Yet Le Guin rejects a magic-less Earthsea as hollow, a mere shadow of what it once was. Like Narnia or countless other fantasy worlds, Earthsea relies on magic as much as it does on wind and wave.
Ged understands what is at stake. Arren, however, doesn’t. He is much more like Ged from the first novel—albeit without the magic powers or the huge arrogant chip on his shoulder. Instead, he develops a bit of hero-worship crush on the much older archmage—but that infatuation is tempered by a nagging sense of doubt that only grows as the duo gets closer to the enemy behind their problem. Le Guin alternates between Ged and Arren’s perspectives to allow us to see two interpretations of the voyage.
By the end of the novel, it becomes clear that the entire adventure was for Arren’s benefit foremost, and Ged’s and Earthsea’s only secondarily. Arren’s prophesied role requires an understanding of the Balance and the dangers of magic, morality, and humanity that his youth precludes. One recurring lecture Ged gives involves the idea that humans are unique animals because only humans can do evil. Sharks aren’t evil; they kill because that is their nature as a predator. Humans, with their ability to work magic, can work great evil on each other and the world in their quests for immortality and power. (Le Guin views these two desires as two sides of the same coin: any quest for power ultimately becomes a quest to conquer death, i.e., to have ultimate power over life—likewise, any quest for immortality necessitates finding more and more power to stop death). And Arren and Ged only confront the evil man behind magic’s degeneration at the very end of the book—most of the journey is actually about how Arren reacts to the situations in which they find themselves and whether Ged uses magic in them.
Once again Le Guin impresses with her ability to insinuate philosophy into a low-key fantasy adventure. This is the sneakiest coming-of-age quest story I’ve read in a long time. But I think it would be a mistake to ignore this essential angle to the book. If you come at this looking for a “Ged/Sparrowhawk adventure” like A Wizard of Earthsea, you’ll be disappointed, because this is very much about Arren and the preparation he needs to assume his new position.
For Ged, this is in some ways a goodbye. Le Guin creates a fascinating triptych of Ged throughout these three novels. As I said above, the Ged of the first book is youthful and headstrong and basically has to learn patience and wisdom enough to manage his own great skill at magic. The Ged who puts an appearance into The Tombs of Atuan is more knowledgeable but not necessarily wiser—Le Guin actually portrays him through Tenar’s eyes as a pushy interloper whose presence was unasked for and whose arrogance is insufferable. I enjoyed this less-sympathetic portrayal of someone who was once our protagonist; in her typical style, Le Guin reminds us that those we view as heroic from one perspective could equally be seen as villainous or, in this case, merely unwelcome. This older Ged is incontrovertibly an adult, fully possessing his powers and in the prime of his adventuring life. Now, in The Farthest Shore, Ged is middle-aged. He’s not old, but his adventuring days are drawing a close, and his position of archmage restricts him and chafes him sometimes. He embarks on this quest with Arren a little too eagerly, and in some ways, he perhaps views the conclusion as the consequences of his old arrogance and impatience once again rearing its head. Le Guin demonstrates how a character can change over time, how event can temper their attitudes and reactions, but how stress and danger can sometimes cause regression.
On its own, then, The Farthest Shore is not that impressive. It’s still Le Guin, of course, and most Le Guin is better than the best of average writers. Yet it is underwhelming, in many ways, compared to the previous Earthsea novels. We don’t have the same connection to Ged that we have with him or Tenar in the previous books. Arren, while important, is annoying. The quest is subtler and less tense than the previous ones.
Viewed within the continuum of the Earthsea series, however, The Farthest Shore is more remarkable. Unlike the first two books, I don’t think I’ll be calling this one a favourite any time soon—those first two books hurt; it’s like Le Guin delivers back-to-back sucker punches to the gut. In contrast, this novel is far less emotionally wrenching but no less philosophically interesting. While you could do worse than just reading the first two books, I’d still recommend you read this one too.
I’ll close with a quotation, Ged admonishing Arren for thinking the archmage might possibly know how to cheat death:
Listen to me, Arren. You will die. You will not live forever. Nor will any man nor any thing. Nothing is immortal. But only to us is it given to know that we must die. And that is a great gift: the gift of selfhood. For we have only what we know we must lose, what we are willing to lose …. That selfhood which is our torment, and our treasure, and our humanity, does not endure.
Le Guin’s writing is always beautiful and always painful, for in that pain and beauty we find the truths of what it means to live and love and be human.