The Farthest Shore is possibly the most complex book so far of the Earthsea cycle, and probably the most challenging. The first two books examined the search for the truth within oneself: Ged embraces his darkness, Tenar her light. Both had to forgive themselves and find their absolution while dark worldly powers sought to use their fears against them. For a change of pace, The Farthest Shore sees its protagonists more or less at peace with themselves, but the world around them is collapsing because of other people, and what do you do about that? Ged, despite being aged and rather weary at this point in his saga, recognizes an inner strength in the young Arren, prince of Enlad, that will make him a valuable companion on a journey to heal the ills of the world.
That’s not to say that Arren has no insecurities, but he has probably no fatal flaws — at least not in comparison to the kind of self-correction the heroes underwent in the prior stories. His main worry is not being sure of what Ged sees in him considering that he has no magical training and only a minimum of combat/sword training, but he’s loyal to Ged and in awe of him; quite frankly, he loves him.
The reason behind their great journey is reports coming from every corner of the land that magic seems to be going out of the world. Wizards are losing their power and forgetting the language of spells. People, both magical and non-magical alike, seem to have given up on living. It doesn’t take the questing pair long to discover that the apparent source of this mass ennui is that the weak minds of scores of people, fearing death, have been compromised by a wizard promising immortality. Some, attempting to seek him, retreat into themselves and take drugs to go into trances. They become obsessed and can think of nothing else but finding the wizard who can give them eternal life. Others, once they do find and follow him, find that eternity wasn’t exactly what was promised. In either case, what’s obvious to Ged and Arren is that the people are giving up on living an actual life to chase a phantom.
There also seems to be a tangible drain on magic in the world. In bridging the worlds of life and death, the bad wizard has created a rent that magic pours out of into a dark nothingness. Ged and Arren, then, need to find the wizard, stop him from his pursuit of living souls, and fix his hole in the world.
I mentioned earlier that this is probably the most challenging of the Earthsea books so far. Part of this is because of the (intentional) sense of interminable sailing beyond the end of the world — it’s in the title after all, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an occasionally dull trip. Mostly, though, it’s the murky ruminations on life and death. Though Le Guin’s absolute thesis seems clear — you only have one life, so don’t waste it — built into that fairly obvious statement are a lot of mixed messages and gray areas. For instance, there’s the idea that a fear of death causes people to become so invested in eternal life, or the idea of an afterlife, that they disregard the fact that they are currently living. With eternal life on the other side, what does this short existence matter? Well, Le Guin/Ged says, it matters a lot. If no one wants to live, the magic literally goes out of the world. On the other hand, though, a little fear of death IS a good thing, because if one doesn’t fear death, it becomes very easy to take life for granted. In talking to his young companion, Ged is very clear on this point: life is a precious thing, and you can’t appreciate the fullness of life without appreciating that death is what takes that precious thing away.