A Heroic Journey Inward: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore

This week, Saga Press releases a gorgeous new omnibus edition of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Books of Earthsea, illustrated by Charles Vess, in celebration of A Wizard of Earthsea‘s 50th anniversary. In honor of that anniversary, this week we’re running a different look at Earthsea each day!

When we first began discussing a week-long celebration of Earthsea, I knew immediately which book I wanted to tackle. Depression is difficult to write about—if you want to capture it well you risk alienating your readers, and I’ll admit that there are a few points in The Farthest Shore that are hard to keep reading. But when I revisited the book I was reminded of just how perfectly Ursula Le Guin writes about the unwritable. What Le Guin does with The Farthest Shore is take the trappings and structure of a heroic quest narrative, and send her hero inward on a quest through his own mind and will. What results is one of the greatest portraits of depression that I’ve ever read, and I’ll attempt to talk about why it’s so great below.

Be warned this post talks about depression and gets pretty personal, so please duck out if you think this might pull any threads for you.

When I was just clear of college, and had begun to push myself out into life, I was suddenly hit with a despair the like of which I’d never known. I had a weird childhood, and my college career could probably best be described as “perilous.” I was familiar with different types of depression, stress, and mania. But this was a whole other animal. This was a bright despair that followed me everywhere I went. When I woke each morning it was waiting, perched on my chest, pressing the air out of me. When I saw friends it waited in the corner until it could come to me and remind me that everything was meaningless, that the friends I spoke to were rotting meat. It was death, I think. The knowledge that death would rob me of every hope and aspiration, or all of my friends, of every joke, it choked the joy out of me. Life crawled over the earth digesting itself, unthinking and uncaring and it scraped over my skin and bored into my thoughts, my dreams. It stripped every defense away from me and left me in constant, silent terror.

This went on for a while. The way I got through it was a slow, ponderous movement of going to work each day, and losing myself in the tiny mundane tasks I had to do until they let me leave. At night it was watching anime, weirdly, that soothed me most, and I would stay up as late as I could stand because it was waiting for me in the bedroom. And maybe you’re asking, “Why didn’t you go to a doctor?” and to you I say, “With whose health insurance?” and also, “And which day?” since I worked Monday-Friday, and also “How many lies would I have to tell my work, so they wouldn’t sack me?” since I worked, primarily, with children, for only slightly more than minimum wage, for an army of nice white southern ladies who already thought I was almost too weird to hire.

Of course, none of that’s even relevant because I didn’t think that far because to go to a doctor would have been to plan beyond an hour ahead, when even an hour ahead was a flat black nothing in my mind.

But I was saying, I got through it. I moved to New York, and the City distracted me with its sleight of hand until I was in love with it, and eventually I realized I was making plans again. I could write again. I had new friends who I loved, and I was able to talk to the old ones again. I was a different person, though—I have scars from that time, giant white ridges in my personality, and sometimes they ache, and sometimes if I look at them too much I can feel the despair waiting for me.

I have always assumed I’ll fall into it again.

That might be why I’m so attracted to stories that deal with depression. Everything from Artax’s death in the Swamps of Sadness to Kiki’s loss of magic to Infinite Jest to Joe Banks’ journey to Waponi Wu to Hamlet to Hill House—when a story describes my experience back to me, it helps me give it a shape. It becomes a sharp stone I can squeeze in my pocket when I feel it curling up on my chest again.

Which brings us to The Farthest Shore, which may stand as the single best depiction of depression I’ve seen in modern literature. The book begins cheerfully enough, with Arren meeting Sparrowhawk in the courtyard by the fountain in the center of the Wizardry School on Roke. For Arren it’s love at first sight; for Sparrowhawk, something a bit more complicated, as he seems to sense the young man’s destiny immediately. Arren comes with bad tidings, however: wizards and witches in his land are forgetting their magic—in some cases they realize they can’t remember the words they need for spells, and in others they can remember the word, but not the meaning of it; in all cases they soon fall into a malaise and don’t even care that they’ve forgotten. Sparrowhawk realizes that this confirms reports he’s hearing from other lands, and what may be even worse is that whole towns are now saying that magic never truly existed as all, it was mere trickery and fantasy stories. Sparrowhawk meets with the Masters of Roke and decides to set out on a quest to restore magic, taking Arren with him.

Much like Lord of the Rings, which fakes its protagonist out with a hint of adventure before revealing a dark and despair-filled quest, so The Farthest Shore gives us Arren the Prince, just starting to carry his sword on his hip, just coming to terms with the abstract idea that he’ll take the throne one day. None of it’s real yet—it’s just good manners and thoughts of honor and sacrifice.

And this plot I’ve just given you sounds like it will be a glorious adventure, doesn’t it? Sparrowhawk and Arren travel over most of Earthsea, and even into the land of the dead, and there are dragons and everything. But their tale is not grand; it’s a slow, dangerous trip, with moments that are genuinely terrifying, and far more that are just long and slow and sad.

The first town they come to on their voyage is Hort Town. At first it seems like a jolly place:

The houses were clay plastered in red, orange, yellow, and white; the roofs were of purplish-red tile; pendick–trees in flower made masses of dark red along the upper streets. Gaudy, striped awnings stretched from roof to roof, shading narrow marketplaces. The quays were bright with sunlight; the streets running back from the waterfront were like dark slots full of shadows and people and noise.

But we soon learn that all this frantic color and frenzied noise are a thin shell, a mock-up of a bustling port town; in reality Hort Town has no leadership and no law, the markets are unsafe, and most of the citizens are stoned on a juice called hazia because it gives them and illusion of feeling that has replaced true experience. On the isle of Lorbanery there is a similar sense of ennui—the people know that they used to be renowned for their dyes, but now their Dyer has forgotten his art. The blame other towns for abandoning them, they blame the youth for not learning old skills, they blame foreigners like Sparrowhawk and Arren for defiling their island, and they blame each other in weak little scuffles that never turn into real fights. Everything is too much of an effort.

Through all of this, Arren is mostly untouched—he’s nervous about being on a quest with Sparrowhawk, of course, but he’s basically optimistic. He knows who he is, he remembers that his parents are waiting for him back home and he believes that he is doing the right thing to help his world.

For some reason, though, things change after Lorbanery. Maybe it’s the conversation with the Dyer who can no longer Dye, maybe it’s time on the sea, who know why, but Arren succumbs to the same horrible nothingness that had infected the towns he’s visited. He suddenly and completely accepts the idea that there is a path to eternal life, and that wizards, in particular Sparrowhawk, are blocking that path to hoard the knowledge for themselves. “He meant to sail out onto the Open Sea beyond all lands until they were utterly astray and could never come back to the world, and there they would die of thirst. For he would die himself, to prevent them from eternal life.”

There are moments when Arren realizes that he’s being ridiculous. “He would look at his companion and see him, that hard, harsh, patient face, and he would think, ‘This is my lord and friend.’ And it seemed unbelievable to him that he had doubted.” And this is how it was for me, too. There were point when I bobbed up for air, enjoyed entire days, and looked back at months of pain like they were a swamp I’d just crawled out of. But then the muck would get me again, and it was the good days that seemed like an illusion.

But since The Farthest Shore is still an adventure story, Arren’s depression has to be broken—otherwise the story will come to a halt. But what Le Guin does is drag out the results of the depression for another ten pages, an eternity in a youth-oriented book. And best of all, Arren doesn’t suddenly snap out of it. He doesn’t realize what’s happening to him, or have any epiphany about honor or love. Sparrowhawk is grievously wounded, and Arren can barely work up the mental stamina to keep him alive. He lets the boat drift, and gives up because he know all of his efforts, like all of life, are meaningless. Finally all the love that Arren felt for Sparrowhawk is drained from him, and he looks at a face that used to inspire passion and loyalty, and instead:

His face was lined and old in the cold, shadowless light. Arren looking at him saw a man with no power left in him, no wizardry, no strength, not even youth, nothing…Arren looked at him with the clear eyes of despair and saw nothing.

No memory stirred in him of the fountain under the rowan tree, or of the white magelight on the slave-ship in the fog, or of the weary orchards of the House of the Dyers. Nor did any pride or stubbornness of will wake in him. He watched dawn come over the quiet sea, where low, great swells ran colored like pale amethyst, and it was all like a dream, pallid with no grip or vigor of reality. And at the depths of the dream and of the sea, there was nothing—a gap, a void. There were no depths.

The sight that used to inspire Arren’s highest self now has no meaning or color of life, because now that the despair has him, it leaves nothing untouched. There aren’t going to be any special exceptions, and for all that he’s a prince, and trained to be a courageous leader, there isn’t going to be some sudden flare of will. He can’t get out from under the cloud by himself, because he’s trapped in it.

I also think it’s worth noting that throughout this section we’re watching Sparrowhawk, beloved, cantankerous Ged, whom we’ve followed for two-and-a-half books now, die. He is gradually bleeding out from a wound he got protecting Arren. We can see it, and we’re maybe, screaming at Arren, “Do something! Row! Get water!” but Arren can’t rouse himself to do it. And we’re maybe wondering why Le Guin trapped us in Arren’s mind, rather than in the Archmage’s, as his life flows out one drop at a time.

But of course she has to. She has to make us feel Arren’s despair so we can understand just how difficult and brave his journey is, because this is his story, not Sparrowhawk’s.

Arren never gets himself out of his depression. The Children of the Open Sea rescue them (simply because they’re people in need, not because they know that one is Earthsea’s Archmage and the other a lofty Prince) and gradually he comes back to life. He leaves his trappings of royalty and allows himself to be a kid again, swimming and fishing with the rest of the community’s youth, and his spirit heals as Sparrowhawk’s wound closes. Once the Archmage is fully alive, Arren eases himself back into adult conversation, speaking with the people’s chief as an equal. He is abject in his apology to Sparrowhawk, but the older man waves this away and asks him to describe what was happening in his mind, and the boy stumblingly describes the how “the horror of death” infected everything in his mind.

In plenty of books, this is where the scene would stop. Sparrowhawk would offer some wise counsel, or comfort the boy, and the boy would resolve to do better. But here again, Le Guin makes us look at Arren’s pain from a much more complicated angle “…saying the truth aloud was unendurable. It was not shame that stopped him, but fear, the same fear. He knew now why this tranquil life in sea and sunlight felt like an after-life or a dream, unreal. It was because he knew in his heart that reality was empty: without life or warmth or color or sound: without meaning.”

Again, he isn’t healed. This isn’t some sort of mythical curse. There’s no cure for death, and there’s no cure for fearing it. Arren is a different person now than he was before, and if he thought he had entered manhood by offering his service to Sparrowhawk, he’s now learning that adulthood is a state that unfolds constantly, showing new facets of wisdom and joy, and yes, fear. Sparrowhawk allows him to spin through some emotions before he reminds him, gently, “to refuse death is to refuse life.” He goes on, relentlessly:

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 is it 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…That selfhood which is our torment, and pour treasure, and our humanity, does not endure. It changes; it is gone, a wave on the sea. Would you have the sea grow still and the tides cease, to save one wave, to save yourself?

Slowly Arren accepts that not even the Archmage can save him, and he commits to finishing the quest even though it turns out to be a far more harrowing journey than the adventure he’d hoped for. The pair finally travel over the low stone wall into the land of the dead, and even hear Le Guin has a few extra twists of the knife in store for her readers.

When they finally track down the wizard who has been draining the world’s magic, it’s on the rough and barren island of Selidor. Arren calls the land “dead,” and or the first time in a while arouses actual anger from Sparrowhawk:

“Do not say that,” the mage said sharply. He strode on a while and then went on, in a changed voice, “Look at this land; look about you. This is your kingdom , the kingdom of life. This is your immortality. Look at the hills, the mortal hills. They do not endure forever. The hills with the living grass on them, and the streams of water running…In all the world, in all the worlds, in all the immensity of time, there is no other like each of those streams, rising cold out of the earth where no eye sees it, running through the sunlight and darkness to the sea. Deep are the springs of being, deeper than life, than death…

And Arren, seeing his friend’s “grieving love,” feels that he sees him for the first time as a whole person, and he remembers the school on Roke, and the fountain, and remembers how much there is in the world to love and find joy in.

End of story, no? The boy has become a man, and realized that he has to find joy in the tiny fragmentary experiences of life, and in the love that ties them all togeth—

Wait, no?

Of course not.

In order to complete their quest they have to travel into the Dry Lands, and of course their quarry leads them deeper and deeper into that land until both are exhausted by the soft grey despair of death. They defeat their enemy, complete their quest, and save the world—but they’ve travelled too far, and way back into life is closed to them. They have to take the only path left to them, climbing the agonizing black mountains that separate the Dry Land from the land of the living. And when Arren, countless hours later, finally realizes that they’ve made it back, and finds a shard of black shale in his pocket, his sense of victory is a private, pained joy. No one bears witness to his triumph, there are no trumpet flourishes or bards to memorialize his deeds.

He knows he made it through, and he knows he’ll never be able to tell anyone what it cost him. But Le Guin tells us that sometimes the most heroic journey is one that no one else will ever see. Some of us recognize Arren’s story and slip it into our pockets.

Leah Schnelbach still hasn’t forgiven Le Guin for what happened to the otak in A Wizard of Earthsea. Come guess her True Name on Twitter!

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