The Farthest Shore is the third book in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series, and the concluding one for several decades. Since it’s highly recommended to have read the first two, I’ll work on the assumption that the reader has. If book one, Wizard of Earthsea has the most action/magic and book two, Tombs of Atuan, is the slowest and most introspective of the opening trilogy, then The Farthest Shore is a nicely-balanced blending of the styles.
We return to many of the basics from Wizard. Ged is once again the main character instead of a side character as in Atuan, the setting once again moves island to island throughout the archipelago rather than being limited to a single place as in Atuan, magic is much more present than in book two, and there is an actual villain in opposition to Ged unlike the more abstract problems in the previous book. All of these will probably be welcome changes to those who found Atuan too slow or limited in place and character. Shores shares with both Wizard and Atuan a coming-of-age theme, in this case it is Arren, a young prince who has come to Roke to tell Ged and the Master Wizards that magic is bleeding away in his land only to learn that the same is true all over Earthsea. Arren joins Ged in the quest to find out what (or more accurately who) is causing magic to die away, and why/how.
The broadening of characters that began in Atuan continues in Shore. Though Ged is once again the main character, he is not the sole focus as Le Guin gives considerable attention to Arren’s growth as well as, though to a lesser extent to the other Masters of Roke. In fact, the small scenes involving the Masters are some of the most exquisite and most moving.
Much of the same personal reflection and introspective nature of Atuan is also present in Shore, mixed in nicely with more dramatic, action-oriented scenes. Ged is an old man at this point, and mortality is an issue as it really hasn’t been before. Death and its flip side Life are in fact, the a major subjects of the novel, and as we have in the past, we cross over that stone wall separating the land of the living and the land of the dead, though in this book we go much farther. While the first two books dealt with larger themes through the focus on a single individual, this one deals with its themes both individually and socially as well. Much more than the other works, Ged deals here with a problem that has an impact that affects the greater society more deeply and broadly than other obstacles he has overcome.
The book is darker than the first two, but also more moving, more achingly beautiful, more poignant. Ged’s age and sense of caution are artfully counterbalanced by Arren’s youthful innocence and impetuosity, the more philosophical discussions nicely balanced by the more dramatic action scenes. And the ending, as one should expect by now, is not nicely wrapped up in sweet, comforting fashion.
As always, the language is sharply vivid, highly efficient and beautiful; the world-creating sense of history and backstory is quickly yet fully conveyed; the characters are fully fleshed out and utterly believable. Wizard may be the most “fun” book of the series, Atuan is certainly the slowest and most introspective (simple description, not criticism), but in many ways, The Farthest Shore is the strongest, a judgment I think holds true considering the books that come after as well as those that come before. Highly recommended.
This installment takes place a number of years after A Wizard of Earthsea (in which the character Ged was a boy) and The Tombs of Atuan (in which he was a grown man). Now he is edging into late middle-age as the Archmage of the Wizards, and a much younger man has come to the island of Roke, seeking his aid.
Arren is a young prince of the isle of Enlad, eager to serve and awe-struck at the great wizard Ged, but he comes with sobering news. Magic is leaking out of the world, leaving imbalance and chaos in its wake, news that matches reports that the wizards have been receiving from all over Earthsea. A wizard council is held, and Ged announces that he will go forth to find the cause of the magical entropy, and stop it if he can. The untried Arren pledges himself to Ged and his mission, and — despite the trepidation of the other wizards — the two set out to find the symptoms, effect and cause of the plague upon Earthsea.
What they find is sobering. Without magic (defined in this fantasy world as knowledge of “True Names” for people, places and objects) all meaning and purpose is draining from the world. Wizards are going mad for want of their true identities and spells of all kinds are being forgotten by those who have used them for countless years. People are suffering from a lack of interest in living; and as the mage and prince gather clues to the mystery, Ged decides that the problem must be centered on an individual with an unnatural desire for immortality. But where to find such a man? The two must travel to the Farthest Shore — into death itself to defeat their foe and restore the balance to the world.
The Farthest Shore is generally considered the best of the EARTHSEA CYCLE (although le Guin continues to surprise her readers by churning out another novel set in this fantasy-world just when we think she’s done), an accumulation of all the themes and plot-points established in the first two installments. Her established mythology concerning both the history of the islands and the workings of magic are used to excellent effect, and elements that were left upon in the previous books (the empty throne in Havnor, Ogion’s prophecy, Ged’s relationship with the dragons) are all brought to their logical conclusions.
Le Guin’s language is beautiful, effortlessly evoking the cultures of each island, life on the open water and the dull dreariness of the realm of the dead, where “those who had died for love passed each other in the streets.” Likewise, her imagination seems to know no limits; my particular favourite was her depiction of “the children of the sea,” a community that lives entirely on floating rafts, coming ashore only once a year to replenish their wood supply.
Ged is now beginning to show his age; no longer being the prideful and impetuous youth he was in A Wizard of Earthsea, his hair is graying and his physique weakening. But with age comes wisdom, and in many ways we are seeing Ged in his prime, especially when compared to the impatience and inexperience of Arren. I cannot bring to mind any other fantasy series that follows our protagonist from youth to old age (the great percentage stop when the hero reaches maturity, leaving the aging process as part of the “happily ever after”) and it is for that reason I find the EARTHSEA cycle so unique. This is a person’s entire lifetime we are experiencing, not just their youth; making it a much richer and deeper reading experience.
Anyone who considers themselves a fantasy connoisseur should pick up The Farthest Shore, as well as A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan. Though not my favourite of all the fantasy series ever written, it is refreshingly unique and beautifully told.
The EarthSea Cycle — (1968-2001) Young adult. Publisher: Ged was the greatest sorcerer in all Earthsea, but once he was called Sparrowhawk, a reckless youth, hungry for power and knowledge, who tampered with long-held secrets and loosed a terrible shadow upon the world. This is the tale of his testing, how he mastered the mighty words of power, tamed an ancient dragon, and crossed death’s threshold to restore the balance.