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.’

Comments (8)

  1. Neil Harvey says:

    Like you, I am working my way through the Earthsea books – the trilogy I read as a teenager in the 70s, the others I have yet to read. I think you have rightly identified that the first two books show the development of a person – Ged and Arha. This one eschews that – Arren’s development is minimal and Ged is fully formed as Archmage. For me, the success of the book seems to lie in exactly what is for you its failure – this notion of chaos steadily eroding the balance. I see the initial fits and starts of the book as a patterning – hinting at chaos but unable to define it exactly. I think these patterns coalesce just before the appearance of the dragon during the Long Dance among the raft folk, when the singer no longer knows his song. Just over half the novel is an attempt to define the nature of the catastrophe. The appearance of the dragon is deus ex machina, enabling Ged to get to the heart of the disaster quickly and resolve it. I saw the land of death as being a reflection of the land of the living where magic had been stripped away, where singers had lost their song. Or, as you put it, more a kind of limbo where death has been defied. I suppose all this rambling is to say that I did not find the book unsatisfactory at all. Certainly, it is focused differently from the previous novels but its portrayal of a society verging on entropy I found compelling.

  2. Murray Ewing says:

    Hi Neil. Thanks for that. I do wonder how much my feeling about the book was affected by my liking the previous two books so much — and my heavy familiarity with them, compared to this being a first reading. I have no doubt that, in a decade or so, I’ll re-read the series again, and maybe understand this book’s place in it all a lot better. I’m reading Tehanu at the moment, a lot of which seems to work in contrast to The Farthest Shore, so perhaps my view of Shore will be changed by that, too.

  3. Aonghus Fallon says:

    You got me thinking, Murray. I’ve just realised that I read the series out of sequence. I know this because whereas I have a very clear memory of the covers for both ‘Tombs of Atuan’ and ‘The Farthest Shore’ (the Puffin editions), the cover for ‘The Wizard of Earthsea’ looks completely unfamiliar. My gut instinct is that I read the series in reverse order, and that I actually read ‘The Wizard of Earthsea’ long after the first two – and as I only knew Ged as a grown man, this meant the first book was essentially an ‘origins’ type story to me.

  4. Murray Ewing says:

    Interesting, Aonghus! It must say something for The Farthest Shore, then, that it led you to read the others. I have to say, I love these covers by David Smee, even though they’re guilty of presenting all the characters as white. Even the illustration of Tenar (who is pale-skinned) on the back of Atuan gets her hair colour wrong!

  5. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Penguin issued the trilogy (ie, the first three books in the series) in a composite volume. This must have been the edition in which I read ‘The Wizard of Earthsea’ as the cover is very familiar.

    A quick google reveals a couple of other Puffin covers attributed to David Smee, books which I read but which I didn’t associate with him, maybe because his style in these instances is so different – ‘Blue Hawk’ and ‘The Dancing Bear’ are paintings rather than drawings. Also ‘The Crystal Gryphon’!
    Both ‘The Blue Hawk’ and ‘The Dancing Bear’ look so unlike his usual style I’m inclined to wonder if he provided the line art throughout each book rather than the actual cover illustrations. This wasn’t uncommon – for example, I remember Pauine Baynes providing the cover for ‘The Search for Delicious’ while a different (and no doubt, more affordable) illustrator provided the line art. Another reason why I suspect this might be the case is that ‘The Partisan’ ( came out only a year before ‘The Bue Hawk’ but has all Smee’s trademark style, so the switch to painting would have been surprising (if not out of the question).

  6. Murray Ewing says:

    Nice detective work, there! I love covers from the 60s and 70s, generally — no doubt because of growing up with them. But I do wonder if the artists of the time were, generally, allowed to be more individualistic, so the covers feel more like artwork, with the emphasis on the ‘art’. (Not to say there aren’t any good covers nowadays. There certainly are. But also a lot that look very much the same.)

  7. Aonghus Fallon says:

    A bloke in a cloak seems to the prevailing theme with most fantasy covers these days. Another issue is the use of photoshop – very tempting to the jobbing illustrator, especially coming up to a deadline!

  8. Murray Ewing says:

    A bloke in a cloak is probably an easy (and cheap!) way to get a moody-looking hero-type on a cover!

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