Righting the balance

Ursula Le Guin: The Farthest Shore
in The Earthsea Quartet
Puffin Books 1993 (1973)

When one comes to the end of a planned trilogy one always hopes for a sense of closure. But when I first read this there was also a sense of profound disappointment: yes, wrongs were righted, evil was overcome, but at what a cost! And yet, on a second reading and armed with hindsight, that disappointment was transmuted into acceptance as I started to understand the narrative arcs that applied to the whole trilogy.

With that understanding I think that the author’s intended ending was perfectly logical and absolutely in harmony with the preceding two novels. Because it also functions well enough as a standalone novel I can see how a new reader (and that was me, once upon a time) might feel bereft in the concluding pages; but Le Guin, in running counter to our expectations of a fantasy universe, showed what an original thinker she was and how her approach both overturned and reinvigorated the epic fantasy conventions of the time.

In Tolkien’s wake came, as we know, many lesser imitations, picking up on the clichés of Dark Lords, wizards, elves, quests, magical objects and so on. Set-piece battles, end-of-chapter cliffhangers, unpronounceable names, monsters of every shape, size and species — what fun so many authors had, all hoping for a front-cover imprimatur along the lines of “comparable to The Lord of the Rings“.

Earthsea was different. Yes, there is an invented secondary world, with even its own map; we have made-up names, luckily very pronounceable; here are wizards and quests and the occasional magical object. But gone are the opposing hosts and bloody battles; missing are the interminable cliffhangers, hooks to keep us reading; apart from dragons (yes, epic fantasy almost always requires dragons) the only monsters we meet inhabit not Earthsea but the human minds.

Thus it is that A Wizard of Earthsea focused on Ged, on the shadow he’d foolishly conjured up and on his personal quest to first escape and then heal himself. The Tombs of Atuan had Tenar as the protagonist confronting the role society had allocated her, with Ged only in a supporting role — her shadow in some respects. And now, in The Farthest Shore, we are introduced to a young prince called Arren who volunteers to aid Ged against a force that is upsetting the balance of life in Earthsea. Three protagonists with three different tasks, tasks that call upon each to exert courage in the face of adversity and to exhibit other personal qualities: not just overcoming fear but also showing compassion, and demonstrating a loyalty born out of love.

The figure of Ged is the thread running through Le Guin’s trilogy, and his evolving role emphasises her insistence on balance. Occasionally the balance will tip overmuch and threaten chaos. The cause might be personal — it can be Ged’s unleashing of the shadow, or an aggrieved mage seeking vengeance against Ged and a selfish immortality — or it can be societal — a patriarchal theocratic regime in one part of Earthsea, or a land missing part of a symbol of wholeness, a yin without a yang.

The Farthest Shore is both a melancholy and a life-affirming tale. Following Ged and his young companion Arren we share their highs and lows as they travel around Earthsea’s archipelago in Ged’s sailboat Lookfar, searching the source of the malaise in the world. There is danger and succour, of the human as well as the magical kind. We contemplate the folly that is the search for immortality and the confusion and despair that comes from the loss of certainty; we share the exultation of swimming in the open sea and the breathtaking moment of meeting the dragonkind.

One final point about this haunting novel: Le Guin explores the nature of Ged and Arren’s homosocial relationship. Not quite master and disciple, nor officer and batman (as with Frodo and Sam in Tolkien’s trilogy). Each one relies on the other for support, advice, insight; and there is love here, certainly, though of a different nature from that in the author’s 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness.

But Le Guin’s male-focused trilogy, made manifestly clear by this final novel, ultimately led her to begin righting the gender balance twenty years later, starting with the heart-achingly intense Tehanu (1993). With The Farthest Shore we may achieve a closure, but there are other issues yet to address.

6 thoughts on “Righting the balance

  1. Pingback: Righting the balance — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

  2. Great review, Chris! I agree with you on all points – almost 😉 I always felt that Tehanu was somewhat incongruous with the earlier, Ged-centred trilogy – which I deeply admire. To a teenage and twenty-something me it felt forced, a righteous righting of the balance, and much needed in the male-dominated fantasy world, and yet lacking something profound in the department of storytelling 😉 I enjoyed the subtle yin-yang harmony of The Tombs, and Ged’s secondary role as a catalyst of somebody else’s transformation. In this context Tehanu seemed an excessively strong – and in a few instances even snide – statement on gender inequalities. But this was then and now I wonder how my perception has changed over time… I guess it’s high time for a re-read! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m only part way into my reread of Tehanu but am really enjoying it. Yes, there is indeed the “forced, righteous” righting of the balance which can be (and has been) seen as jarring and preaching; Interestingly, though, in the era of #MeToo and and all the other awareness-raising movements (and with alt-right and incel abominations rearing their ugly heads) it almost seems, dare I say it, mild by comparison. The domesticity that we’re faced with at the beginning is deliberate, forcing us to consider its role and its intrinsic value against the busy, thrusting nature of Ged’s quests; and I’m curious to see how the rest matches up to my memories of first reading this a quarter century ago.

      Yes, Ola, high time for a reread for all of us!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. piotrek

        But, the reread queue is so long…

        Le Guin is certainly on it, and this part I remember the least out of the four. I’ve always thought of the Earthsea as a quartet and Tehanu is probably my second favourite, after the Wizard… it’s a strong statement, yes, but that’s what was needed to influence the teenaged me.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Oh, that queue, we all have one of those, don’t we, trailing along after us, reminding us, recriminating… 😁

          The ‘problem’ for me with Earthsea is that each volume is my favourite at the time of reading, Tehanu for now, but I also have fond memories of the collection of short stories. What I love about the series is that each volume has its own identity, a particular ‘friend’ among a group of friends that one hangs out with, a companion with whom one has an especially intense conversation. Like you, though, I found Tehanu sufficiently different for it to make an impression on me, and only now am I starting to work out the ramifications.

          Liked by 1 person

Do leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.