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.
So 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.
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.
In 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.
I 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.’