One of the reasons I like Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series is that she doesn’t spoon feed her readers. There has been an increasing tendency in fantasy literature to write huge, sprawling sagas that give the reader insight on every little thing that happens to dozens of characters during the entirety of an epic saga. I’m not too critical of it because of my limited experience with very long series but I have enjoyed it in small series. However, when I think of what the final two books of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the series has clearly changed from a detail heavy realistic approach to medieval fantasy to a travelogue for the various characters travelling around on the continents of Westeros and Essos. In that series, Martin seems to have become obsessed with the idea of subjecting his reader to every hour of his characters journey. I prefer Le Guin’s approach to her story. The first Earthsea book was written as if an ancient legend. The writing style played a big part in this but Le Guin also chose not to show the reader everything. Like the oldest of legends, we only have bits and pieces, not the whole story. In the second book, the feeling that the Earthsea series is the retelling of an old legend is somewhat lost because the story shifts focus to another character and the reader experiences the Deed of Ged. I’m not sure this approach would suit every fantasy story, but Le Guin uses it very well with this series.
What does this have to do with The Farthest Shore? In the third book in the series the reader encounters Ged, or Sparrowhawk, at another stage in his life. He’s no longer the young adult from the first two books. He’s now an older man and Archmage of Roke. There is at least 20 years of Ged’s life that we do not know about. Since I haven’t read the series in full, I have no idea if Le Guin revisits this period of Ged’s life in later books but I love the idea that we do not know anything about Ged for an extended period of his adult life. People who know the legend of the Deed of Ged know the beginning and know the end but we’re not privy to the details of a significant portion of his life and that’s fascinating because it gives the reader the opportunity to discover who Ged is a second time because the older man his is in The Farthest Shore is pretty different from the young man we met in A Wizard of Earthsea.
The main plot of the story is simple, perhaps even deceptively so. The son of the Lord of Enlad, Arren, journeys to the island of Roke to inform the wizards that magic is dying in the islands to the West. Sparrowhawk, who is now the Archmage of Roke, takes Arren on a journey throughout the Archipalego to discover the cause of the weakening magic and, if possible, bring magic back to Earthsea. That’s the foundation on which Le Guin builds a powerful novel that deals with such themes as death and power. During their travels, Ged (Sparrowhawk’s real name) and Arren discover just how important magic is to everyday life on Earthsea, so important that for some people who have lost it can only going on living by being heavily intoxicated. Some entire islands, such as the island of Lobarnery which has an economy based on the production and sale of silk is in a degrading state because of the loss of magic.
The World of Earthsea:
One of the reason I enjoyed The Farthest Shore so much is that Le Guin had her characters explore parts of Earthsea the reader hasn’t been to yet. One of the places the characters visit is one of my favourite world building elements in the book, the Children of the Open Sea. They are a society that lives on rafts out on the open sea. Some of the rafts are so large they have temples and other public buildings on them. Most of their tools, clothing and building materials come from the sea. They build ropes from seaweed and carve various tools and other objects from the bones of large grey whales which they also worship and call the Great Ones. Le Guin uses Arren’s interaction with the Children of the Open Sea to point on the differences of their cultures compared to the cultures of the other people we’ve already met in the series. I really like how Arren interacts mostly with the children. He’s new to this culture of living on the open sea and talking, playing and working with the children is the best way of learning the basics. I really like how the kids make fun of Arren for the way he swims. It only makes sense that the Children of the Open Sea are excellent swimmers since they live on open water. They are a bit rude to Arren but it’s the rudeness of children. They don’t filter what they say; it just sort of comes out. When Arren first responds to the children’s comments he does so while being “a little mortified, but polite; indeed he could not have been rude to a human being so very small.” Le Guin’s writing is filled with such truths of human interactions.
The other world building aspect that made a big impression on me was the dragons of Earthsea. We’ve encountered them before, notably in the first novel. I was blown away by Le Guin’s portrayal of a fantasy creature I thought I knew so well. Sure, there are many types of dragons in both real-world mythology and in fantasy fiction of all languages but Le Guin’s dragons are something altogether special. The most important dragon in The Farthest Shore is called Orm Embar. That’s his real name and it’s very important to point that out because knowing someone or something’s true name is to truly know that person or thing. It’s also the basis of magic on Earthsea. Orm Embar is a dragon so old and powerful that he doesn’t bother hiding his name. Dragons are the only animals able to communicate with humans through the use of language. They are beautiful and dangerous and Le Guin shows this balance by contrasting how they can at times be civilized and other times they can be incredibly animalistic and violently savage.
Le Guin uses words like Ged uses magic. That is, sparingly. “The first lesson on Roke, and the last is do what is needful. And No more!” I don’t want to talk too much about the magic that is present in The Farthest Shore, in part because I’ve talked about it in some of my previous reviews and also because it’s tied into the plot and I don’t want to ruin the story. Le Guin’s writing style feels a bit like magic. It’s an absolute joy to behold. She has such mastery and command of language that I’m truly in awe by some of the passages in The Farthest Shore. It’s simple, deceptively simple. Her writing is clean, economical and it speaks trues about life. For a series of books in which magic is the knowledge and use of true names for people and things, Le Guin demonstrates that she too is a wizard of great power.
I knew all of this before I began reading The Farthest Shore; after all, I read the first two books in the series. But this book gave me a new perspective on her writing. It’s theatrical and very dramatic. Not melodramatic but dramatic in the classical sense. Her characters feel big emotions; they have big dreams and face big dangers. There is gravitas in Earthsea and it’s contrasted by Le Guin’s cool and calm writing style. Each and every word appears in the right place and in the right order as if Le Guin is transcribing the true history of Earthsea as opposed to writing a book.
Of the tree Earthsea book that I’ve read so far, The Farthest Shore is my favourite. The story felt important and though I don’t agree with everything Le Guin writes about life, death and the abuse of power, I appreciate that she’s handling such difficult themes in fantasy fiction. The great evil of this book isn’t a mad overlord trying to take over the world. It’s human evil such as substance abuse and slavery. I really appreciated reading a story about an older Ged to counterbalance with the coming of age story that is The Wizard of Earthsea. Sparrowhawk’s reached an age where he can easily spend hours reflecting on his life and the decisions his made. Le Guin spends several pages writing about magic, life and death and if there’s one lesson to be learned from The Farthest Shore is that life is about dancing on the edge of the void without fear of falling in. It’s about accepting that one day you will lose everything that you consider valuable but that’s no reason to stop trying to achieve the greatest heights possible.