The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin
With the first two books of the Earthsea saga Ursula K. Le Guin proved herself capable of both deepening and respectfully subverting the fantasy genre. A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan distinguished themselves with protagonists who each experienced unique insights through their personal and spiritual developments. In the third book, Le Guin once again introduced us to a child who would undertake a heroic journey, but this bright-eyed, earnest young boy was a world apart from the troubled children who came before him. Nevertheless, because the book returned to familiar seas and because it echoed so many thematic elements, it arguably acted as more of a conclusion for what is often thought of as the original Earthsea trilogy rather than as an adventure of its own. Endings aren’t always welcome. We can become so attached to stories we might never want them to be finished. It’s fitting then that Le Guin chose to tackle the problem head-on. Death was subject of the third Earthsea novel and for reasons no mere sorcerer could understand, it was called The Farthest Shore.
Much like the book before it, The Farthest Shore is written in a way that makes it a comfortable read for people who aren’t already familiar with the Earthsea saga.
Right off the bat, in fact, we’re introduced to a new protagonist in the form of Arren, a boy who’s travelled hundreds of miles to warn the Archmage of wizards that magic is disappearing from the world. As it turns out, the hero of the first Earthsea novel, Sparrowhawk, is now the Archmage, but despite his impressive résumé he’s only able to say that there’s a lot more going on than the loss of magic. A prophecy that the land would enter a golden age simply hasn’t come to pass. Troubled by these strange developments, Sparrowhawk decides to sail across the Earthsea in search of answers and insists that Arren is the only person who should accompany him on the perilous quest.
Arren is an unusual choice of travel companion. As the son of a prince, he’s educated, trained in combat and will undoubtedly make a fine leader once he inherits his father’s throne. That said, he’s still barely an adolescent when he agrees to accompany Sparrowhawk and has never actually drawn his sword with intent to kill. To make matters worse, the first port they visit has fallen on hard times. Many of the people they meet there are not to be trusted, but the sole lead in their investigation comes from a disgraced sorcerer who’s lost his magic and has surrendered to the bonds of drug addiction. Arren is disgusted by the man. Sparrowhawk is too. Yet they have to follow him when he takes them to a land where only the dead can go. Once there, a shadowy figure tempts Arren with the promise of immortality and though he doesn’t understand the terrifying offer the first time it’s made, eventually his integrity is tested when he’s forced to choose between a life of undying and a life well lived.
For a book that deals with such abstract concepts, The Farthest Shore outlines its ideas a lot more comprehensively than others in the series. While A Wizard of Earthsea arrived at its meaning through a moment of pure epiphany and The Tombs of Atuan illustrated its own through the personal angst of Tenar, this episode of the saga repeatedly summarises its message in both passages and speeches that feature throughout the story. All the same, even though Le Guin leaves little subtext to discover she’s always able to offer thoughtful observations regardless of how directly she delivers them; it’s an impressive feat given just how much adventure she manages to cram in.
At the beginning, it’s clear that Sparrowhawk has grown secure in his position as one of the most respected wizards of the Earthsea. Whether he’s required to stun his enemies with a blinding magelight or to change his shape into that of an old man, where once he wouldn’t have given a care to how reckless his acts of magic could be, now he often knows exactly when to work a spell and when to tackle objectives the old fashioned way. The sheer fun in watching him flex like this is made all the more enjoyable because it’s usually from Arren’s perspective that we witness it. The boy is in awe of Sparrowhawk. A meditative moment in his presence is all it takes for him to swear his undying allegiance and when he does he has no doubt that this is the hero who will overcome any obstacles on the road ahead. Adding to the sense of fun, Arren’s naive outlook isn’t just limited to his view of Sparrowhawk, rather, it characterises his attitude to almost every encounter along the way. On the one hand, this works as a tidy little narrative trick with which Le Guin lets us view the Earthsea with a renewed sense of wonder. Like the first book, the journey is set on the tumbling waves of the archipelago and the multicultural world on show is more exhilarating to explore than ever. But innocence, as depicted in Arren, is also a part of the main theme of the book. At one point, we’re introduced to a group of nomadic people who live most of their lives at sea. The waters of Le Guin’s fantasy world are so big that this culture of raft people has only ever been considered a myth and when Sparrowhawk and Arren get to know them, they begin to appreciate just how far removed from civilisation they really are. The people in this floating village don’t care about any of the problems at land. Their concerns mostly regard the marriages, pregnancies and general trivialities that make up their day. It isn’t that the purity they represent comes from the fact that they’re unfamiliar with sorrow. On the contrary, if a storm hits they’re all too aware that countless among them will be lost. But the way in which they accept the reality of death is so peaceful that they can barely envision fighting against a threat like the one Sparrowhawk and Arren come to know.
It’s this contrast of life and death that’s at the heart of The Farthest Shore. The islands and the sea have always worked as a metaphor for it, and the raft communities place within the idea demonstrates just how much about a culture of people can be understood by examining their relationship with their own mortality. Afterall, they float atop an abyss that could kill them if the weather turned, yet they continue to exist as they do, content that no matter what happens things will unfold as they should. Of course, this mindset has been present in the series since the very beginning. It’s heavily influenced by Le Guin’s abiding interest in Taoism, a philosophy that emphasizes humility as a means of achieving harmony with the unpredictable rhythms of the universe, and you can see hints of it again in the growth of Sparrowhawk’s young companion.
For the chief protagonist in a coming of age story, Arren is remarkably lacking in any emotional baggage. He has no demons that haunt him. No family secrets to confront. Yet he does share one weakness with many people of the Earthsea; Arren is afraid to die. This is obviously a common enough fear, but it’s one that Sparrowhawk consistently forces him to grapple with, particularly when they begin to realise what kind of evil lays ahead.
As the story presses on, the sense of adventure that Sparrowhawk and Arren enjoy gradually gives way to a much more sombre tone when they investigate a number of towns that have fallen into various states of despair. While the people in these places continue to plod along, they only do so in the most serviceable way, motivated solely by the petty compulsions it takes to survive. More than once, Sparrowhawk notes how grey everything has become. The food is tasteless. Colours are less vivid. And with magic disappearing from the world, so too has the very spark that makes existence shimmer. What’s more, when they begin to meet more and more wizards who have forgotten their power, it seems clear that these men have allowed their knowledge to lapse in their attempts to find the shadowy figure who promises immortality, but who inevitably keeps the secrets of eternal life to himself alone. Ultimately, Arren’s instinct to escape death turns out to be the means by which they track the villain down, but when he’s actually faced with the offer to live forever, he’s able to draw his sword for the first time and plunge it into the man because of everything that Sparrowhawk has helped him to learn along the way. Namely, that death is the only thing that imbues life with any meaning. The way a river a runs, the way no two streams look alike, none of it would be possible if everything in the universe didn’t have a beginning and an end. The only alternative would be a world where nothing changes and eternal life is a form of oblivion all of its own. While the fear of death is perfectly natural, to make the fear a fetish is to forsake some of the most basic things that make living worthwhile. Yes, life can be full of misery and grief, but even in the realm of the Earthsea, humanity is one of the few creatures that has been gifted with the knowledge that they will die. By acknowledging this fact and not running from it, Arren is able to achieve a properly balanced sense of self and become an adult who isn’t ruled by fear — a virtue that earns him his selfhood and the privilege to complete the prophecy that has remained unfulfilled for so long. In the end, Sparrowhawk announces his true name, Lebannen, declares that he is to be the first real king that the Earthsea has had for centuries and that he will be the one to unite the isles and usher in the long awaited golden age.
Of all the Earthsea books, The Farthest Shore aligns most comfortably with Joseph Campbell’s idea of The Hero’s Journey which Le Guin presumably became familiar with after her first fantasy novel was published. Among the criteria it meets, when Arren leaves home he’s initiated into the realm of magic by a wise old man, overcomes his greatest fear to defeat a powerful source of evil, and returns to his country a king where he is able to bestow peace and prosperity on all the land. In general though, Le Guin didn’t particularly respect archetypal theories like the one Campbell put forward and even went so far as to call them fatally reductive. It isn’t surprising then that The Farthest Shore is often at its dullest when it sticks closest to the heroic tropes of its genre. The story only really feels animated when Le Guin turns her eye towards the multifaceted inner lives of her characters and how their identities are by shaped by the way in which they interact with the world around them.
Each episode in the original Earthsea saga features a child who has to acknowledge every part of themself in order to ensure they are in command of their life. To some extent, coming to terms with their mortality is how they do this, though in the first two books death is only a small part of a much broader revelation. For instance, in A Wizard of Earthsea Sparrowhawk does express some thoughts on the fleeting nature of life when he prepares to confront his shadow, but his arc is just as much about admitting his faults as it is about accepting death. Meanwhile, in The Tombs of Atuan, while you could sum up Tenar’s ordeal as abandoning the belief that she will be reincarnated, it’s also about how she can reclaim her identity from a society that wants to own her. The Farthest Shore, on the other hand, puts the emphasis entirely on the misguided desire for eternal life and even ties the message into an ending for a character who’s been through it all.
In the original Earthsea book Sparrowhawk was propelled to a showdown with the darkest aspects of his personality. To overcome them he had to recognise his demons as an inseparable part of himself. Though you could take it for granted that the events only left him wiser, here Le Guin emphasises that a coming of age story doesn’t necessarily end when the protagonist comes of age.
The villain in The Farthest Shore is a sorcerer named Cob who Sparrowhawk actually had a confrontation with a long time ago. As a matter of fact, this sorcerer may have become so powerful in the first place because of the humiliation he suffered when This is a crucial point, because it wasn’t out of respect for the balance of nature that Sparrowhawk interfered with Cob. Instead, it was the sheer offense to his ego that triggered his moral outrage and drove him to flaunt his superior power. In this way Sparrowhawk fundamentally repeated the mistakes of his past and actually created the terror that threatened to rob the Earthsea of all magic. Even so, just because Sparrowhawk and Arren spend the novel in search of Cob, it doesn’t mean that the confrontation with his shadow meant nothing and that he’s forever going to be ruled by his most damnable inclinations, rather, the corrupt sorcerer acts a mirror image for who he could have been if he didn’t attain that moment of enlightenment all those years ago. The darkness at Sparrowhawk’s core will never go away. It will always be something he has to contend with. But by knowing the specter for what it is, he’s able to recognise the evil in Cob and reject the notion that escaping death is a noble endeavour. What purpose does life have? That seems to be the question of the novel. When Arren and the other characters are at their lowest points it’s fair to say they’re overcome with all consuming waves of depression. Nothing can convince them to fight against the malaise that spreads like a cancer across the land or even that there’s any redeeming qualities in their fellow man. In these instances, it would appear that the purpose is only to survive, regardless of whether there’s any other reason to. Death is the one sure thing that needs to be avoided and when it becomes their primary focus everything else becomes just an expendable cost. More than that though, in the books message that living just because you’re afraid to die is an empty pursuit, so too it shows that power for the sake of power is a toxic, hollowing way to live that robs the world and yourself of any dignity or worth. You can see it in the disgraced wizard who cares more about his drug habit than anything else. You can see it again in the villagers whose pettiness and greed are their only notable motivations. And of course, you can see it in the ship of slave runners that our heroes meet halfway through the story and who treat other human beings like nothing more than livestock. There has to more to existence than the goal of personal gain. As Arren’s friend and mentor, Sparrowhawk doesn’t just help the boy to see the value of self knowledge and thereby complete the journey he himself went through as a child, but acts as a role model for how to continually embrace what truly matters as you progress into old age.
‘There is only one power that is real and worth having. And that is the power, not to take, but to accept. Not to have, but to give.’
After all is said and done, the victory over Cob leaves Sparrowhawk’s energy spent. He has marched across the land of the dead, sacrificed every ounce of his magic to destroy the gateway that allowed such evil to creep into the world, and returned to life no less happy for it because it was the most important show of power a man could ever choose to enact.
Though there are sequels beyond the original Earthsea trilogy, it would be another seventeen years before Ursula K. Le Guin set about writing them. In the time that followed The Farthest Shore’s publication, she was beginning to reconsider her views on feminism and how they were at odds with the choices she made in her fiction, so despite the fact that the saga would continue, it’s worthwhile looking at what made the book work as a conclusion. Coming of age stories are some of the oldest types of fiction. Whether they’re told in the form of an ancient myth or a modern superhero film, they often serve as a generations benchmark for what ideals a person should strive for. Still, rather than merely use the standard events of these stories as a means to give her wizard something to do, Le Guin once again created a layered fable that connected theme, plot and character to become more than just a superficial empowerment narrative. The lessons in The Farthest Shore’s pages bring out elements that were always present in the series, but never at the forefront, such that a reading of the book can help you to discover elements in the previous entries that might not have seemed so critical before.
Moreover, because what Sparrowhawk and Arren go through is drawn with such nuance, the journey is one that takes place inside of you, not just as a story to enjoy, but as a discourse that allows you to sympathise with both characters outlooks even when they’re at odds with one another. It’s the conflict of their perspectives that gives the story traction and allows you to feel the same revelations they do. Le Guin’s respect for writing was such that she believed by giving yourself over to a story, a fantasy story in particular, it could be just as meaningful as undergoing psychoanalysis. And though it’s certainly true that while the original Earthsea trilogy might not work as a magical cure for all a person’s ills, if you’re open to what it has to say then it can become an incredibly nourishing source of food for the soul. The stories of Sparrowhawk and his friends show that there is always a road map to inner peace and that if you’re willing to wait and to act, you can find the wherewithal to remain centred no matter what milestone you’re about to reach in life. Compassion is the key. The Earthsea is a place where words are magical devices used to outline the essence of reality and you can only really employ their power if you empathise with every race, person, animal and thing. Indeed, it’s this respect that allows a wizard to achieve their full potential in the first place. In the closing chapters, Arren is the beneficiary of everything that Sparrowhawk has learned in this regard which in turn allows his knowledge to benefit all the people of the world. Nonetheless, though a prophecy gets fulfilled, the underlying message for most of the story is that death is the only thing in life that can be certain. By books end Arren might not even be sure of what becomes of Sparrowhawk and for a time at least neither do we. Le Guin offers two possible outcomes for our favourite wizard. In one, we’re told of a song that recounts a tale in which he reclaims a small portion of his magic and sails away never to be seen again. In the other, he returns to the mountain island where his journey began to spend his time amongst the forest trees, ruling, as Arren says, a greater kingdom than he. Both of the endings are fitting. They each pay tribute to a noble aspect of Sparrowhawk’s character and allow the audience to decide which of them feels most true. But that’s beside the point because wherever the wizard decides to eke out his remaining days we do know one thing from everything Le Guin has taught us along the way: No matter where Sparrowhawk ends up, it will be exactly where he’s supposed to be.
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