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.