Only in Silence the Word: Ursula Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore

Each Tuesday, in honor of The Center for Fiction‘s Big Read of Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic Wizard of Earthsea series, we’re posting a Jo Walton article examining the books in the series.

The Farthest Shore is the third in the Earthsea series, set years after the other books, when Sparrowhawk has become Archmage, head of the magic school on Roke.

In the Court of the Fountain the sun shone through young leaves of ash and elm, and water leapt and fell through shadow and clear light. About that roofless court stood four high walls of stone. Behind those were rooms and courts, passages, corridors, towers, and at last the heavy outmost walls of the Great House of Roke, which would stand any assault of war or earthquake or the sea itself, being built not only of stone but of incontestable magic. For Roke is the isle of the wise where the art magic is taught, and the Great House is the school and central place of wizardry; and the central place of the house is that small court far within the walls where the fountain plays and the trees stand in rain or sun or starlight.

Arren comes to Roke to report trouble, and finds the archmage, and more trouble than he thought, and a hard road to follow.

When I was a child, I didn’t understand this book, and though I wanted to love it because I loved the other two, there was always something in it that wouldn’t warm to me. I didn’t want to read about magic going out of the world and Earthsea becoming horrible. Ged being Archmage was good, going off on an adventure in Lookfar was good, a king coming back was good, and yay for riding on dragons, but there were two things in it I couldn’t bear. One was the bit which seemed to last forever and which is in sober count four pages, where the madman Sopli, the dyer of Lorbanery, is in the boat with Arren and Ged, and Arren is mad too and doesn’t trust anyone. The other is the moment when the dragon Orm Embar loses his speech. I don’t know why I found this so peculiarly horrible, but I did — worse than all the joy going out of everyone’s craft and names losing their power. I hated that, but I found the dragon without speech and reduced to a beast far worse. Probably I could understand that properly while the rest went over my head. I can remember thinking that it was too old for me and I’d understand it later.

Le Guin says this is about death, but it seems to me it’s about the way the fear of death sucks all the joy out of life. This is, to put it mildly, an odd subject for a children’s book — and it’s an odd subject for fantasy too. In some ways this is much more like a conventional fantasy novel than the first two, which are small scale. Here we have a dark lord promising eternal life and offering nothing but dust and ashes, but finding followers. The whole world is in peril, and is saved, and Arren is crowned at last. The message, that life is a word spoken in the darkness and to accept that and laugh is the only way to go on, turned out to be terribly useful to me a few years later when I had to deal with death close up. The Farthest Shore gave me far more consolation than religion when it came to it. So while I didn’t understand it at nine, it saved me from feeling suicidal at eleven. I don’t say it’s an unsuitable book for children, only an odd one. I can hardly think of any other books on this subject for people of any age.

So, I still don’t like the bit in the boat with Sopli, and I still hate hate hate Orm Embar losing his speech. I noticed again how beautifully it’s written. These books are gorgeous. There’s a bit near the beginning where the text lists the people who know Ged’s true name — or in other words, his friends. There are, after all this time, only seven of them, and two are dragons. As a child I was glad to recognise all of them. Reading this now, I think how terribly lonely he must have been. Arren is the viewpoint character, but he’s far less interesting to me than Ged — and this was also true when I was a child. I didn’t need a young viewpoint on the world, I’d have been happy in Ged’s middle-aged head. Arren’s a much less realised character than Ged or Tenar, he’s supposed to be learning to be an adult and a king, but he lets the plot push him around as neither of them did.

The book ends happily with magic restored, all the mages returned, Arren ready to be crowned and Ged gone to Gont on dragonback. I never questioned that this was the end of the story — we’re told it’s the end of the Deed of Ged, and it’s a very ending kind of end. Also, I had these three as a boxed set, and that’s all there was. Imagine my surprise sixteen years later when a sequel came along.

NYC-area residents, The Center for Fiction is doing a readthrough of Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea this Thursday evening at 7 PM, with Delia Sherman, Ellen Kushner, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Sarah Beth Durst, and more. Free food and drinks will be provided. The event is free. Details can be found here.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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