The Farthest Shore: Confronting Darkness and Death

The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin published by Folio Society and illustrated by David Lupton
GenreHigh fantasy
AuthorUrsula K. Le Guin
LanguageEnglish
Number of Pages272
Release Date1972

The Farthest Shore is the third novel of the Earthsea cycle and combined with A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan make the so-called original Earthsea trilogy.

The world is in danger. People are losing their will to do anything, wizards are losing their power to practice magic and forgetting the old language. Archmage Ged and young Arren, who came to Roke Island for help, start an epic journey to find the source of the problem and make things right.

World of Earthsea in crisis 

It is not unusual in high fantasy books that the (imaginary) world is in crisis at the beginning of the novel. The danger that threatens the world initiates the action. The whole story is literally about trying to solve the problem. That’s the case with the most famous high fantasy novel – The Lord of the Rings. Sauron is waking up and something must be done about that. Same thing in Game of Thrones when the threat of eternal winter comes from the North. In The Farthest Shore, Le Guin does the same as Tolkien and Martin.

Strange news comes to Enlad. Fishermen talk about the island where people are getting sick, and their animals are dying, but they do nothing about it. Prince Arren’s father, who has the ability to practice magic, senses that something bad may be happening. He sends his son to Roke Island to ask wizards for advice. 

When Arren gets there, he finds out that the same news from distant parts of Earthsea has already come to the Isle of Wise. However, the source of the problem is unknown. No one is even sure If something should be done about it. Strange rumors spread across the world and verifying news is difficult. Besides, they come from the areas where the magical power weakens or disappears anyway. The wizards who went that far know that. But the news from Enlad and from none other than the prince make the masters from Roke worried. Although Enlad is far from Roke, it seems that the “disease” is spreading.

Map of Earthsea from the Ursula K. Le Guin's book The Farthest Shore published by The Folio Society
Map of Earthsea with all areas and islands from Ursula K. Le Guin’s book The Farthest Shore published by The Folio Society

Arren and Ged on an epic journey

After long discussions, Archmage Ged decides to leave Roke. He believes that the source of the problem can not be found on the island. He asks Arren, who previously offered to serve him, to come with him. The young prince accepts the offer and they start a long search in Ged’s boat named Lookfar, familiar to the readers from the first novel. By following this adventurous journey, we explore new areas and people of Earthsea.

Hort Town

Ged and Arren sail to the West and the first land they visit is Hort Town on the island of Wathort. It’s the main port of the island and Ged believes that it’s a good start for the search. It’s the place where people from different parts of Earthsea come for trade. The wizard recons they could hear something useful to help them decide where to go next.

Things look strange in the Hort. Many people just lay on the streets. It turned out they are addicted to a certain drug. A wizard called Hare is among them. Ged decides to try to speak with him. Although he knows it’s a risky move, he accepts Hare’s offer to come to his room and follow him wherever he goes when he uses the drug, just refuses to use it himself because Ged was able to follow without it.

The meeting was a trap. While Hare and Ged were in some kind of a trance, unknown people show up and Arren runs away from them trying to protect Ged that way – If they chase him, they would leave Ged. The plan worked, but Arren ended up on the boat that transports the slaves for sale. Here we find out that there is slavery in some parts of Earthsea. Arren would be sold If Ged didn’t find the boat and saved him.

Island of Lorbanery

Ged did figure something out following Hare. All those addicts from Hort Town are under the influence of someone who promises them immortality.

Ged sails to Lorbanery where everything looks wrong. It was an island known for producing dyed silk. However, it seemed that everyone forgot their skills. Also, people looked like there was no life in them.

On this island, they meet a woman who had the ability to practice magic, but now she was just waiting for the one who promised eternal life. Unexpectedly, her son Sopli asks Arren and Ged to come with them. He says he knew where the powerful wizard they were looking for was and promises to take them to him.

Arren is against taking this man who looked insane as her mother with them. Still, Ged allows Sopli to sail with them, not because he trusted him, but because he wanted to follow every clue. That man may not take them to the man they were looking for, but he will take them somewhere, closer to the right place.

The third book of the original Earthsea trilogy, The Farthest Shore.

Obehol

On their way further to the South-West and Obehol where Sopli said they should go, Arren starts to feel the influence of evil. He begins to see the Archmage he loved and respected as an insane man who puts him in danger for nothing. On the other hand, the man from Lorbanery he avoided and didn’t trust at all, he now sees as someone close to him. During the first part of the trip, Arren reminds us of Sam who doesn’t trust Gollum and keeps an eye on him all the way to Mordor to protect Frodo. Arren does the same to protect Ged from Sopli, but then he starts to consider Sopli a friend while Ged becomes the one he doesn’t trust.

When they get close to Obehol, Sopli is certain that they came to the right place. He draws trying to reach the coast. Ged gets severely injured by a spear thrown from an island. Arren barely does anything to save them both. He behaves like all those people he heard about and saw them. The young prince is apathetic. He just sits and does nothing while the boat with him and dying Ged floats around in the open ocean.

The Children Of The Open Saa

In The Farthest Shore, the readers meet quite interesting people who live on the open ocean. They rarely go to the land, only to repair their wooden rafts, so they barely know anything about people from the islands of Earthsea and their cultures. The only thing they have in common is the story about the creation of Ea and the costume of dance on the shortest night of the year. These people have their own religion and unique way of life connected to the nature of the ocean.

When they find Ged and Arren in their floating boat, they help them, but only to some extent. They help Ged recover from injuries, give them food and water, and allow them to stay on rafts until they get ready to sail. However, they don’t want to take part in Ged’s and Arren’s search.

While they are recovering on rafts, the dragon Orm Embar comes to Ged. He says that the evil wizard is on the Selidor, the Island far to the West where dragons live. The old creature asks Ged for help because dragons are losing the power of speech. It destroys them and they can’t beat the wizard responsible for it without Ged’s help. In The Farthest Shore, we see for the first time in the Earthsea cycle that humans and dragons work together to restore the balance in the world. 

The Farthest Shore, third book of Earthsea cycle and the last of the original Earthsea trilogy by Ursula K. Le Guin

Dragons’ Run and Selidor

The area of small islands south of Selidor is called Dragons’ Run. When Ged and Arren get there, they see dragons behaving unusually. They are aggressive and attack, even kill each other. Losing the power of speech makes them mad, they are not wise creatures anymore.

On Selidor, Orm Embar waits for Ged and Arren. On this island at the western end of the world, they find the door made of dragon bones and meet the dark wizard. It’s the one we thought it may be when Ged told Arren the story about the wizard who used to call the dead often. 

Ged remembers this wizard and talks about him after he met Hare in Hort Town. He said that he lost his nerves when this wizard called Nemmerel, Archmage at the time when Ged came to Roke and who lost his life to save him. Ged dragged the wizard to the Dry Land. He thought he could give him a lesson that way. But while he’s recalling this event, we realize that the one they are looking for could be that wizard, Cob, and that, in a way, Ged pushed him over the edge. Cob was so terrified of what he saw in the Dry Land that he dedicated his life to finding a way to avoid death. In The Farthest Shore, Cob is for Ged what The Shadow was in A Wizard of Earthsea.

Dry Land

Cob has opened a passage between the worlds of the living and the Dry Land of the Dead. By doing this he was able to go between worlds instead of staying in Dry Land after his death. But an open breach between the worlds of living and dead disrupted the balance of Earthsea. The result was sucking the life out of the world of the living. Now Ged and Arren must go to Dry Land, defeat Cob and close the passage.

Some critics find in The Farthest Shore the elements of Climate Fiction or Cli-Fi. Nature is of huge importance in the Earthsea cycle, as in many other high fantasy novels, starting with Tolkien’s books. Here, some saw magic as a metaphor for technology. As we, in the real world, make huge damage to Earth when experimenting with technology, Cob destroys the Earthsea world by experimenting with magic. There’s a good reason why practicing magic follows strict rules. Every time someone neglects these rules, there are consequences. But Cobe wants immortality so desperately that he forgets the rules of magic and the balance of nature:

“I said to myself: I have seen death now, and I will not accept it. Let all stupid nature go its stupid course, but I am a man, better than nature, above nature.”

Sounds familiar? It does remind us of the real world people’s thoughts and behavior.

But Ged knows better. He says to Arren:

“To refuse death is to refuse life. Listen to me, Arren. You will die. You will not live forever. Nor will any man nor anything. Nothing is immortal. But only to us, it is given to know that we must die. And that is a great gift: the gift of selfhood. For we have only what we know we must lose, what we are willing to lose…”

Arren understands these words and both are ready to confront darkness and death in Dry Land to stop Cob from destroying everything by making people desire (false) immortality.

Dry Land looks like a dark city. There are buildings and roads, but no light. It reminds us of the eternal darkness from the mythology of Mayans and Incas while floating souls recall the description of the underground world in Greek mythology and literature. But people in Dry Land have physical shape too, however, they don’t move and look like they are being punished.  This reminds us of one more familiar description from mythology and classic literature – Dante’s Inferno.

To find the passage, Arren and Ged climb the Mountain of Pain in Dry Land. Ged kills Cob and closes the passage, but after that, he’s so weak that it’s on Arren to get them out of Dry Land. He carries the wizard all the way and successfully gets them out. But he can do nothing to help Ged get better. He also can’t leave the island. Once more, a dragon shows up to help. Orm Embar is dead, but Kalessin is here to carry Ged and Arren on his back all the way to the Roke where he leaves Arren and flies with Ged to Gont.

The Fartest Shore, third book of Earthsea cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin.

The main character of The Farthest Shore

Aren, or Lebannen (his true name) is the main character of The Farthest Shore. However, as some critics claim that the main character of The Tombs of Atuan is not Tenar but Ged, there are those with the opinion that in this novel Arren is not the main character and that the story belongs to Ged.

As we mentioned in the article about The Tombs of Atuan, Ged is the main character of A Wizard of Earthsea, while in other novels different characters are in the focus while we still follow Ged alongside them.

The Farthest Shore is the story of Arren’s development from a young prince to a strong adult man. The main story is about him getting ready to become a king. At the beginning of the novel, when he comes to Roke, we read about the prophecy that the new king will be the person who goes to the Dry Land and back. Somewhere in the middle, Ged says to himself that he will be the one who recognized the king the moment he saw him. In the end, the wizard bows to the king Lebannen before going to Gont.

Ged is an important character, but Arren/Lebannen is the hero while Archmage is his mentor – a common duo in high fantasy novels. In the beginning, the young prince is surprised by Archmage’s behavior who is quiet and doesn’t use magic, just like Ged once wondered about Ogion. Ged has changed a lot since he was young. He became the mentor instead of having one and taught Arren important things, while the main conflict prince had with himself, just like Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea.

Arren’s way of finding his strengths

The most important lesson that Ged gave to Arren is about recognizing the kind of strength that one person possesses.

Arren is not sure why Ged decided to go with him on the journey. It took time for him to find out why he was worth the attention of the great wizard. 

When he thinks he let his teacher down because he could not resist the evil influence, Ged explains that Arren had to get through temptation and that he didn’t fail in the end. 

Le Guin masterfully wrote the part where Arren fights with himself. By using first-person narration she allowed us to “hear” Arren’s thoughts.

“I could have been at home by now, at home in the Hall in Berila, in my room with the carven walls and the red rugs on the floor and a fire in the heart… Why did I come with him?… This is mere folly. He is mad himself.”

By reading this, we understand Arren’s emotions much better than we could If it was said: “Arren thought that he could have been at home by now, etc.”

From that moment on rafts, where Ged shows he was not disappointed in Arren, the mutual trust is complete. 

Without Ged, Arren would end the journey as a slave. On the other hand, Arren did save Ged in Hort Town. Finally, without Arren, Ged would stay in Dry Land where he lost all magical powers and physical strength. Furthermore, Arren is rational, while Ged’s nature is connected to magic and mysticism mostly. So, Archmage didn’t want by his side someone similar to him. He needed someone with different kinds of strength so they can support each other. Arren figures all these things out eventually. The young man who doubted himself learns that he was a brave and persistent active participant in saving the world.

A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore - the books of the original Earthsea trilogy by Ursula K. le Guin

Return of the King – Le Guin’s Way

The end of the first Earthsea trilogy is similar to another, probably most famous trilogy – The Lord of the Rings. Both writers finish their stories with the return of the king who will sit on the long-time empty throne. However, Le Guin makes some differences, as usual.

Although Arren is the descendant of the kings, that’s not what qualifies him to become a king himself, which is the case in many other fantasy novels. It’s what he has done – went to the Dry Land and came back. The last king of the Archipelago said many centuries before the events in The Farthest Shore: “He shall inherit my throne who has crossed the dark land living and come to the far shores of the day.” The prophecy doesn’t mention bloodline, only doing something that seems impossible.

In later novels, we found more differences related to what happens after the coronation.

The Farthest Shore is about a young man without magical power or any other special characteristics (he will not live longer than others and be handsome as an 80-year-old like Arragon)  going through temptations, learning, and fulfilling the prophecy.


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