Oct 18 2011 3:00pm

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 by Ursula K. Le GuinThe 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.

Christopher Johnstone
1. CPJ
This is an interesting, elgant and (somewhat) difficult book to categorize in places. It might even mark the switch from the more straight-forward (though still complex, Jungian) ideas in the first two books, to a far more nuanced, perhaps more involved view of Earthsea?

I agree with everything you've written above. As a child, I don't know whether I even fully read all of The Farthest Shore (I've suspect I skimmed the bit with Sopli: I reread the Earthsea books last year and I didn't remember the Sopli bit at all).

I'm also uncertain that I deeply understood The Farthest Shore when I first read it, though maybe I did? It's difficult to look back at a childhood experience and really know what sank in or didn't.

Orm Embar's loss of name has a profound sadness to it, though I think it achieves what it is intended to achieve, which is to make it clear what is deeply at stake here. It's an emotional punch, well placed--it's not that the world will go on without magic, but in a very real sense, the world of Earthsea itself is about to end.

Le Guin's short story "The Word of Unbinding" was mentioned in the thread on The Tombs of Atuan. It's interesting for comparison to look at that (much earlier) treatment of the same theme that recurs here in The Farthest Shore (handled slightly differently--the wizard in The Word of Unbinding comes to a realisation why Voll the Fell is unkillable, then has to accept and face his own death in order to defeat Voll).

Also, finally, on the heels of having read Sara Douglass's post on how modern society deals so poorly with death, the fear of death and everything about death...


... I can't help but think that we ought have more children's stories about how it is better not to fear death, but it is the the fear of death itself we ought be wary of.

This all reminds me that I must get around to sending a fan letter to Ursula Le Guin. I'm sure she could build a house out of the fan letters she's recieved over the years, and I suppose I'd be writing the letter more for myself, but still, I think I ought to.

Melita Kennedy
2. melita
I had the same feeling--that I was a little too young for the book--when I first read it, but I still found it very powerful. I was probably 12 or 13 at the time.

Several years later, I did one of those guided visualizations ('you are walking along a path. Describe it...') where each thing you encounter is supposed to symbolize a life milestone. At the end, you reach a wall. As I described the wall and what was on the other side, I realized that I was channeling the Dry Land. I thought to myself, yes, this is what I think death and the afterlife is like.

I'm not sure that I would have the same visualization if I retook the path today, but the previous time was so strong, it would likely overwhelm any changes.
3. skinnyiain
I think there are more children's books that deal with the fear of death as something that removes the joy from life, or is in other ways corrupting. Harry Potter is probably the most notable example, Voldemort being driven above all by the desire to stay alive. His Dark Materials also deals with this, arguing that it is better to truly die that to endure a kind of life-after-death that I found strongly reminiscent of Le Guin's land beyond the wall.
I've also argued here in the past (although I know Jo disagrees) that dealing with the fear of death is a major theme in The Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion.
4. rea
"I've also argued here in the past (although I know Jo disagrees) that dealing with the fear of death is a major theme in The Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion."

Well, but of course. The desire for immortality brought about the fall of Numenor.
5. Plarry
I have to say that I have a different interpretation of these books than I've seen given here, a "systems" approach. I've always felt that the EarthSea books were very much like Science Fiction wrapped up in Fantasy in the sense that Le Guin has constructed a magical system for her world and is examining the implications of it - a very SF thing to do. Without going far into it, of course, one could argue the converse for the first three Hainish novels.

The magical system is that names are unique to things (there's a one-one mapping) and knowing the name gives you power over the thing. I don't believe this magical system is necessarily original to Le Guin. The novels are thus amplifications of The Rule of Names and The Word of Unbinding that had appeared earlier. Wizard looks at the implications of two things having one name; Tombs looks at the possibilities of one thing having two names; Farthest Shore looks at the implications of the relationship between names and things becoming broken. This systems approach is wrapped in Le Guin's masterful storytelling, prose, and her penchant for looking at culture. I don't know how Tehanu fits into this interpretation of the Earthsea books - I think she was trying to do something different - but, one could perhaps argue that The Other Wind looks at the effects of attempting to immortalize things (names) through writing, and what effect that has.

I read the original trilogy as a kid, but it was only on several re-readings and thinking about fantasy and SF worlds from a crafted perspective that I came to my present understanding of them. They are some of my favorite books.
6. a-j
Like the rest, I read this as a child and did not fully understand it. Re-reading it recently, I found it almost unbearably sad until the redemptive ending with Ged, like Shakespeare's Prospero, looking forward with a degree of uncertainty to a life without magic power.
Reading this post, I was also reminded of another children's book with a very adult see, Tove Jansson's Moominpapa at Sea. Children's books about the male menopause might be two a penny these day, but not in the early '70s which was when my mother read it to me. And the insights it gave me, although not understood at the time, also turned out to be useful later.
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
And today is sunreturn, the day the light turns back, and we still remember the songs.
8. Phylos
"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."

I'd say both, and add the balance between life and death. Remember that the epigraph includes "Only in dying life."

These themes are also among the subjects of the current British TV series "Being Human" (there is also an American spin-off). The main characters are a werewolf, a vampire, and a ghost, each trying to live a real life. This premise seems rediculous, but works amazingly well.

Its relevance to this thread for me comes from a plot incident in which a terminally ill woman rejects transformation into a vampire as a way to escape her fate. She choses death over being turned into an animated but unchanging photograph of herself. I can't recall this device ever being used before, but it perfectly plays out Le Guin's theme.

I read this series as an adult, so I don't know how I would have reacted as a child. I haven't re-read it for a long time; perhaps I should revisit it.

p.s. I've always thought of the word as in silence, not as in darkness.

p.p.s. Having seven you'd trust with your name seems a realistic number; I suspect few have many more. I'm don't think I have that many.

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