The Farthest Shore by Ursula Le Guin

The Farthest Shore, cover by David Smee

The Farthest Shore, cover by David Smee

This is a book that took me 34 years to finish. I’ve read and re-read the preceding two Earthsea books, A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan — both of them lifelong favourites — but after a couple of early, stalled attempts, The Farthest Shore remained on my ‘some day, one day’ shelf. Now, at last, I’ve read it.

Set almost two decades after the events of The Tombs of Atuan, Ged is now Archmage in Roke, and Earthsea is under a new unity, since the Sign of Peace on the Ring of Erreth-Akbe has been repaired and returned. But something is going wrong at the edges of the Archipelago:

‘There is fear. There is fear at the roots.’
‘There is a hole in the world, and the light is running out of it.’
‘The sense has gone out of things.’

Wizards forget their spells, singers forget their songs, people are ceasing to believe in magic. Young Prince Arren of Enlad comes to Roke asking for the Archmage’s help, and they travel to Earthsea’s outermost reaches to discover what’s behind it.

TFS_02So much about The Farthest Shore is different to the preceding two books. A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan each focused on a single young character caught in a life-defining coming-of-age battle with very real and dangerous forces of darkness; The Farthest Shore starts with only a vague sense of unease eating away at the edges of an otherwise placid world. ‘It’s time there was a king again on the throne of Earthsea, to wield the Sign of Peace,’ we’re told, though why this is, or what it’s got to do with the loss of magic isn’t clear. Prince Arren is obviously on the path to being that unifying king, but although he’s the narrative focus of the book, he starts out as a much more complete and educated character than the previous books’ Ged and Tenar. He will face darkness, but it is the world’s (or perhaps Ged’s), not his own. Unlike Ged and Tenar, I felt Arren could have lived just as happy a life had he never embarked on this quest. The personal need here isn’t Arren’s, so the tale, ultimately, can’t be his.

In fact, for a long time, the book itself doesn’t seem to know what sort of tale it’s set on telling. Ged and Arren have a few episodic adventures, mostly hints and reminders of the way the world is going wrong, but, so unlike the very lean and efficient stories of the previous two books, The Farthest Shore is mostly made up of delaying tactics. As Ged and Arren drift from place to place, I, as a reader, felt the whole thing was nothing but a way of holding back the proper next step in the story, which was a confrontation with whatever was causing this wrongness. In the meantime, with only the vaguest sense of what’s actually wrong, the book doesn’t get into a solid thematic groove, doesn’t explore the meaning of the wrongness, because we still don’t know what the wrongness is. It’s all, like Ged and Arren in their boat, drifting, waiting, observing.

cover illustration by David Smee

cover illustration by David Smee

And then come the dragons. The dragons aren’t key to the book’s story – you could take them out and the book would still say what it was trying to say — but they’re the only thing that’s really alive in the book. When the dragons appear, Le Guin’s writing wakes up:

‘All the glory of mortality was in that flight. Their beauty was made up of terrible strength, and utter wildness, and the grace of reason. For these were thinking creatures, with speech, and ancient wisdom: in the patterns of their flight was a fierce, willed concord.’

If only the book had been about dragons!

One aspect of the book is Arren’s relationship with Ged. The previous two books have occasional mentor or parent-like figures stepping in to guide their young protagonists, but ultimately Ged, in A Wizard of Earthsea, is facing something nobody else has ever faced, and so has no one to guide him (though he has company at the end, in his friend Vetch), and Tenar has Ged to prompt her to face the Nameless Ones, but he does not instruct her; rather, he trusts her, patiently providing her with an example of an alternative to the harsh world of her dark religion. But in The Farthest Shore, Ged seems explicitly parental to Arren’s eyes. At first, Arren is in awe of the wizard, willing to serve him in any way. At a mid point (perhaps as fed up of all the aimless drifting as I was) he experiences teenage bursts of doubt and fear about this rather inaccessible parent-figure, but they pass without any real consequences. By the end, though, Arren has witnessed Ged’s loss of power, and has in turn become his protector, like a grown child nursing an ageing parent.

Le Guin, The Language Of The NightIn her essay, “Dreams Must Explain Themselves”, Le Guin says ‘The Farthest Shore is about death’ (and goes on to add: ‘That’s why it is a less well built, less sound and complete book than the others.’). To me, the book’s idea of death seems confused. There’s a land of the dead that is hopeless, dreary and fearful, but Ged says the dead are reborn — so is this land of the dead just a kind of limbo? And the idea that death should be horrible and dreary runs against the grain of the Earthsea series’ usual acceptance of the natural flow of life-events as harmonious and right — so why should death be horrible? Rather, this aspect of the book seems to be about fearing death, and the despair fear engenders. The central conflict, of Ged versus the sorcerer who has broken the wall between life and death, comes down to that sorcerer’s rather Voldemort-like flight from death, through fear of it. It is clinging to life, to self, to power, that’s at the heart of this fear, and Ged, ever-wise, overcomes it through his willingness to relinquish his own power, perhaps his own life. If the book has a conscious message, it’s in this strand: that to truly live, one must accept the bounds of life, and so be willing to accept its end in death. Or, ‘Only what is mortal bears life’, as the book has it.

Although only the first book in the Earthsea trilogy has Ged as its narrative focus, he is the character that binds them all together, and his is the most complete story. In A Wizard of Earthsea, we see his rise to adulthood, individuality, power and wisdom; in The Tombs of Atuan we see him in his hero phase, self-realised and serving his society; in The Farthest Shore we have the end of his active life. The three stages of life: coming-of-age, action in the world, then renunciation and retreat.

the-farthest-shoreI found The Farthest Shore a far less satisfying read than the previous two books. It isn’t as tightly focused as A Wizard of Earthsea or The Tombs of Atuan, and perhaps that’s why it failed to grab me when I first tried to read it at the age of eleven. For too long the book seems to be trying to work out what it should be about, and rather too often the vague sense of unease (‘The sense has gone out of things’) seems to apply as much to the narrative of The Farthest Shore as the world it depicts. Le Guin has said the Earthsea trilogy is ‘about art, the creative experience’, and I found myself wondering if this book wasn’t about an artistic crisis, a scrabbling for something to say when nothing is coming.

But then along come the dragons, who bring the whole thing alive, even for just the few brief passages where they appear:

‘The dragons are avaricious, insatiable, treacherous; without pity, without remorse. But are they evil? … They are wiser than men are. It is with them as with dreams, Arren. We men dream dreams, we work magic, we do good, we do evil. The dragons do not dream. They are dreams. They do not work magic: it is their substance, their being. They do no do: they are.’

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin

The Tombs of Atuan, cover by David Smee

The Tombs of Atuan, cover by David Smee

However much I like A Wizard of Earthsea, I love The Tombs of Atuan. I suspect this is down to the accessibility of the central character. Though we follow Ged in the first book from childhood to adulthood, and through all his struggles against the darkest and most personal of enemies, there’s always something unreachable about him. The main character of the second book in Le Guin’s Earthsea series, on the other hand, is far more relatable, though much of her story is similar to Ged’s. Separated from her family at an even younger age than Ged was, five-year-old Tenar is taken to the Place of the Tombs of Atuan because she was born on the night the previous First Priestess, Arha, died, and so is declared to be her reincarnation. There, young Tenar has her name eaten by the Nameless Ones, and becomes ‘their servant and their voice and their hands’. Henceforward, she is not Tenar but Arha, the Eaten One:

‘All human beings were forever reborn, but only she, Arha, was reborn forever as herself.’

Thus begins a Gormenghast in miniature. Although, like Titus Groan in Peake’s novels, Arha is in a position of apparent power, the reality is that her life is stifled by meaningless rituals, and by the petty power-battles of her fellow priestesses, who are older, wiser, and more bitterly ingrained in the very limited life of the Place — most notably Kossill, who, though High Priestess of the GodKing, in reality holds ‘nothing sacred but power.’

Tombs of Atuan cover 02Part of the success of the book, for me, is that it’s almost all set in one small, well-defined location (and eventually moves to an even more limited sub-area of that location). Ged’s story takes him all over the Earthsea Archipelago, but Tenar’s takes place in the bounds of a single, walled compound in an out-of-the-way Kargish desert. Once at the centre of that Empire’s religious culture, the Place of the Tombs is now honoured only by being sent occasional human sacrifices — nobles who, by defying the GodKing, have earned deaths of as much political as religious value.

But this boundedness, this confinement, is the point of the tale. If the moral of Ged’s story was ‘you can run but you can’t hide’, particularly if the thing you’re running from is yourself, The Tombs of Atuan’s is ‘Alone, no one wins freedom.’ It’s about solitude, about entrapment within the bounds of one’s own self. Young Ged has to learn to turn and face the thing that pursues him; Arha, trapped not just in this life but in every life she has ever lived and ever will, has to learn to break out of the ‘labyrinth of her own self’. But, unlike the fearsome shadow-thing that pursued Ged, Arha’s relationship with her personal darkness has, at first, advantages. A little girl hemmed in by age-old ritual and priestly politics, she at first finds her only freedom in the darkness beneath the temples and tombs, in the one place that, as the First Priestess of the Nameless Ones, is truly and only hers:

‘She did not go far into it that first time, but far enough that the strange, bitter, yet pleasurable certainty of her utter solitude and independence there grew strong in her, and led her back, and back again, and each time farther.’

And then, one day, she finds a wizard wandering in that labyrinth, illuminating its sacred, ancient darkness with sorcerous light. At first incensed by this blasphemy, Arha’s reaction becomes increasingly complex. She’s fascinated with this stranger who is everything that she does not know — a foreigner, a mage, a man.

In her essay, ‘Dreams Must Explain Themselves’ (in The Language of the Night), Le Guin says:

‘The subject of The Tombs of Atuan is, if I had to put it in one word, sex. There’s a lot of symbolism in the book…’

Atuan_HBTo me, the book is about a far more fundamental aspect of human relationships: the moment when someone opens the essential solitude of their inner life (‘it was close, it was still, it was safe’) and for the first time learns to trust another human being. Arha, as Arha, ‘the one who has been devoured’, can’t trust anyone, because she’s not herself. She’s the servant of the Nameless Ones, and is meant to play her part; in addition, she’s surrounded only by other servants of other gods, whose only interest in life is retaining the status quo, and scoring points in meaningless power games. But the wizard Ged calls her by her true name, Tenar, the name she had as a child, and thus recalls her to her true, human individuality once more. The only way out of the dark labyrinth of her servitude to the Nameless Ones is to learn to trust another human being, but she can only do that by first being trusted, and this is what Ged does.

At the end of the book, freed from her old world, Tenar is not so much reborn as reset, back to how she was when she was last Tenar, the five-year-old girl who loved to run among her parents’ apple orchards. She is, at the end, not come of age, as Ged was at the end of A Wizard of Earthsea, but ‘like a child coming home’ — reset on the path of being able to relate to others, rather than being clasped in the silence, and the dark, of the ‘useless evil’ of the Nameless Ones who ‘are dark and undying, and they hate the light: the brief, bright light of our mortality.’ It is, as Ged points out to her, human relationships that make one fully human, and these are always two-way exchanges:

‘You could keep me a slave, and be a slave; or set me free, and come free with me.’

A Wizard of Earthsea feels, to me, like the story of a hero — the tale of a mage learning the wisdom necessary to wield the extraordinary power he was born with. The Tombs of Atuan, on the other hand, is the story of a human being learning to be more fully human, a process that means shucking off the pretences of power, and the protection of darkness. Ged, in this book, remains an interesting, living character, but also distant, because of his power and his wisdom. Tenar/Arha, with her occasional spitefulness, her pridefulness and fear, but also her innocence and her longing to be herself, and to be free, is a far more relatable character. By the end of the book, you feel you know her in a way you can never know Ged. It’s just as wise a book as A Wizard of Earthsea, but a little more human.