After the glory that is The Tombs of Atuan (for me at least), The Farthest Shore comes as – well, “disappointment” isn’t the right word, because I am always thrilled to return to Earthsea. But it’s less of a revelation, perhaps, and doesn’t touch me as deeply as Tenar’s story.
Which doesn’t mean that it’s a bad book. Far from it! The Farthest Shore features Ged, now Archmage, in the role of a mentor to young Arren, a prince of Enlad. It has been years since Ged and Tenar escaped from Atuan, and returned the Ring of Erreth-Akbe to Havnor, ushering in a new age of peace and prosperity in Earthsea. And yet, that new age hasn’t arrived. There’s still no king in the great palace on Havnor. And from the far reaches of Earthsea there come troubling rumors. Spells no longer work, songs are no longer sung – as if magic and joy are draining out of the world. Ged and Arren set out to find the source of this loss, in a journey that takes them beyond the borders of Earthsea, and beyond the borders of life itself.
The Ged of this book is far more mature than the Ged we meet in the first two books. He is worn and wise; he knows what he knows and, more importantly, what he doesn’t know. Decades have passed since we met him in A Wizard of Earthsea. Le Guin glides over the intervening years in a few evocative sentences: “The Archmage: the greatest wizard of all Earthsea, the man who had capped the Black Well of Fundaur and won the Ring of Erreth-Akbe from the tombs of Atuan and built the deep-founded sea wall of Nepp; the sailor who knew the seas from Astowell to Selidor; the only living Dragonlord.” This description hints at stories we haven’t read, and perhaps will never read, if Le Guin doesn’t write them. But it’s not meant to be a tease. I prefer to think of it as an insistence that Earthsea goes on even when we’re not paying attention: we dip in every so often through the novels, but the world continues beyond the frame of these novels.
And as Ged ages, moving toward the end of his story, Arren is at the beginning of his, ascending to his power as the future King. When we first meet him he is full of the confidence of youth, a good-hearted boy who’s had an easy life. He knows responsibilities wait for him, but he’s never had the opportunity to truly challenge himself. And so he leaps at the chance to travel with Ged: “So the first step out of childhood is made all at once, without looking before or behind, without caution, and nothing held in reserve.”
Thematically, The Farthest Shore returns to and deepens the Jungian themes explored in Wizard: there is no life without death, and to reject one is to reject the other. There is also plenty of sword-and-sorcery-and-dragons, and Le Guin brings us to unexplored corners of Earthsea; the Children of the Open Sea, who live on huge rafts far beyond the isles of the South Reach, following whales on their annual migrations and coming to land only once a year, to cut trees to repair their rafts, are a particularly imaginative delight. But as in Atuan, the true journey is interior. Arren must learn to face and accept the possibility of his death, not in the abstract but in actual, immediate fact. And he must find the strength to press forward even through pain and doubt. “A voice in the darkness said, ‘You have come too far.’ Arren answered it, saying, ‘Only too far is far enough.'”
Arren and Ged are ultimately successful, of course, but Le Guin eschews a simplistic happy ending. Ged has spent all his power to save Earthsea, and returns to Roke barely alive and no longer a wizard. The coda muddies the waters, bringing up the possibility that Ged has withdrawn entirely, disappearing into the forests on Gont, alone. And Le Guin’s description of the dry land, Earthsea’s afterlife, is deeply troubling:
It seemed that they walked down the hill-slope for a long way, but perhaps it was a short way, for there was no passing of time there, where no wind blew and the stars did not move. They came then into the streets of one of the cities that are there, and Arren saw the houses with windows that are never lit, and in certain doorways standing, with quiet faces and empty hands, the dead.
The marketplaces were all empty. There was no buying and selling there, no gaining and spending. Nothing was used; nothing was made. Ged and Arren went through the narrow streets alone, thought a few times they saw a figure at the turning of another way, distant and hardly to be seen in the gloom. At sight of the first of these, Arren started and raised his sword to point, but Ged shook his head and went on. […] Instead of fear, then, great pity rose up in Arren, and if fear underlay it, it was not for himself, but for all people. For he saw the mother and child who had died together, and they were in the dark land together; but the child did not run, nor did it cry, and the mother did not hold it or ever look at it. And those who had died for love passed each other in the streets.
How horrifying, for a world in which balance and rebirth and the cycle of life and death and life again are so vital. Here is an afterlife in which everyone has simply stopped, sapped of energy and emotion and any connection to their past. Can this really be the way things are meant to be?
One stray thought: There are some truly excellent dragons in Earthsea, and I always love reading the bits they’re featured in. This time, I noticed something which I must’ve ignored the first million times I read this book: “Kalessin turned and looked at them sidelong; the ancient laughter was in its eye. Whether Kalessin was male or female, there was no telling; what Kalessin thought, there was no knowing.” And what do you know, Le Guin has been using “it” to refer to Kalessin all along, and I just assumed a default male dragon without even thinking. [shakes fist at patriarchy] Well played, Ursula! Henceforth I shall assume that Kalessin is female.