A biweekly series, The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread explores anew the transformative writing, exciting worlds, and radical stories that changed countless lives. This week we’ll be covering The Farthest Shore, first published by Atheneum in 1972. My edition is Simon Pulse, mass market paperback, 2001, and this installment of the reread covers the entire novel.
In fantasy publishing, the joke goes, all is trilogies. You want to write a novel, better have an idea for the next two books if you want a contract for the first. That wasn’t so in the late 1960s when Le Guin wrote A Wizard of Earthsea—trilogies were quite rare and SFF books were often sold as separate set pieces, bound together occasionally as part of a larger storyworld. This carried on the tradition of pulp magazines, which saw in seriality the dollar signs promised by a regular audience. So we have John Carter and Conan by the dozen, Asimov’s robot stories by the far-too-many, enough Witch World for a lifetime, and not as much Jirel of Joiry as we need.
Le Guin intended A Wizard of Earthsea to be the only book of its sort: a tale of Earthsea, no more. But as I explored in my reread of The Tombs of Atuan, Le Guin was driven by the muses of Oregon’s desert mountains to return to that world, to rejoin the story of Ged and tell another song of his Deed. (An insistent agent probably helped, too.) So, another two years after Tombs, we come to The Farthest Shore, the end of an impromptu trilogy finished while modern genre fantasy was still in its infancy—two years before the end of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series and five years before The Sword of Shannara birthed the doorstop fad and solidified the 1980s rage for epic fantasy.
Like Tombs, Farthest Shore is part of Ged’s story, and it is also, like Tombs, not really about Ged. Le Guin continues her decentering of the great wizard-hero Sparrowhawk by focusing instead on a boy-prince of Enlad on the edge of adulthood: Arren (true name: Lebannen, “rowan tree”). Some twenty years after Tombs, Ged is now aged—in his forties or fifties, a student of Roke guesses—and has been five years on Roke as the Archmage, the Master among Masters of the Arts of Magic. But Ged is restless; he is not done with doing, and a great deed remains to be done, for magic is waning in the world. Arren brings news from the northwest that this is so, and after consulting with the Masters of Roke (who are as much in the dark as he is), Ged sets sail once again to track the source of the fear growing at the roots of the Immanent Grove, weakening magic and the trust of humans in one another.
Forgive me readers, for I have sinned. Doubly. First, I have to admit that the first time I “read” The Farthest Shore, I did not finish the book. In fact, I left off just after Ged and Arren left Wathort, after the hazia drug-den incident and after Arren was kidnapped by slavers. I was bored. It wasn’t the right moment for me to be reading Farthest Shore; I wanted more of Tombs and less of this angsty boy looking up to Ged, driven by chivalric notions of duty and love. It didn’t help that someone I quite dislike said it was the greatest fantasy novel of all time. As if! So I put the book away, read a summary, and moved on. Some months later I returned to Earthsea in the embrace of Tehanu, loved it more than any Le Guin book, and didn’t think Farthest Shore was worth returning to after that. It happens. Sometimes the context in which one reads is as important as the thing read.
As someone who has now written dozens of book reviews, more than a few out of duty rather than interest, I’ve learned how to finish a book that bores me—especially when I have the opportunity to write about it. Returning to The Farthest Shore was indeed a duty, but also after reading Wizard and Tombs back-to-back, having thought on them rather intensely, and having read all your many and insightful responses, it was not a duty that dismayed me. Moreover, my partner quite likes Farthest Shore, and her enthusiasm tempered my annoyance with Arren. On returning to the novel, however, I found Arren less annoying than simply a teenager struggling with what it is to meet ones heroes, find them all too human, to be roiled with anger and despair, and to finally come to terms with the idea that you might be more capable than the adult before you. Arren’s story, moreover, requires him to rarely draw a sword; he does no great deeds of fighting or magic except for the struggle that brings him and Ged out of the Dry Land. There are dragons, a focus on the growth through journey, raft-people, and a necromancer who, rather than battle to the end, despairs of the evil he has wrought and gives in. It’s great. It’s so…not what we expect of fantasy with wizards and dragons and king-prophecies.
My second admission is that in having not finished Farthest Shore in the past, I erred in claiming that Tombs’s end—when Tenar and Ged sail on Lookfar into the harbor of Havnor, a crowd gathered in exultation, the Ring of Erreth-Akbe held aloft—is the most Tolkienian moment in Le Guin’s Earthsea saga. Indeed, it is not, for The Farthest Shore is nothing if not a direct response to the concept of an abandoned throne, and of the testing of the king who returns. This is both Tolkienian and Arthurian, posing the question of who gets to be leader, of what virtues they possess, of how their time spent not as a leader prepared them to wear a forgotten crown.
Certainly, the scene of Tenar and Ged sailing into Havnor is easily pictured in the luminescent, moody, neo-Romantic paintings of John Howe or Alan Lee, artists who shaped our visual understanding of Tolkien’s Legendarium. But Farthest Shore enters into a discourse with Tolkien on a much deeper level—it is, I feel, a novel Tolkien would have greatly enjoyed; his novels had battles, but he was hardly interested in them for their own sake; Le Guin did away with them, and the result was a far greater characterization and tighter focus on the meaning of the quest than Tolkien achieved. For this, I won’t apologize even to the Tolkien stans (admittedly, though, Le Guin has no Tom Bombadil, nor that puzzled fox in the fir-wood of Hobbiton).
It’s fair to say, then, that the final half of Farthest Shore is by far the most Tolkienian part of the Earthsea saga. And why should this matter? Why is Tolkien a reference to point to, and to care about? In short: we’re talking about an American fantasy trilogy about power and wizards and rings in the decade after Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings became big in the United States. Tolkien is a major referent for readers, and was a clear starting point for Le Guin: What is the youth and training of a great wizard, like Gandalf or Merlin, like? A Wizard of Earthsea provides one possible answer. Moreover, Earthsea is a world very much like Arda, where magic and power are coterminous, where a great kingdom of humankind is without a king, where wizards are known far and wide for their magnificent deeds, and where death is but another side of life.
And both are worlds on the verge of change. As my colleague Farah Mendlesohn suggests in her book Rhetorics of Fantasy, Arda and Earthsea are quintessential immersive or “secondary-world” fantasy stories: power is waning, the world as it has been known is coming to an end, things are changing in incredible ways that threaten the lives of many good folk. This is the doing, in Tolkien, of Sauron, Saruman, and the simultaneous passing of the Elves into the West; humans are the predominant people of Middle-earth, and they are greedy, belligerent, foolish—but some rise from among the lot to lead. In so doing, however, they do not prevent the change of the world but rather shepherd it into a new age. So, too, in Earthsea, which stands on the precipice of the Unmaking thanks to the necromancer Cob’s selfish desire to conquer death. Here, though, one single foolish human’s ambition has wrecked all; by comparison, Tolkien’s world is a bit more resilient, taking centuries and a great evil to unravel. But is this not realistic? Has not the greed of a few wrought the pain and death of so many? And, as with The Lord of the Rings, The Farthest Shore operates as both immersive fantasy and portal-quest fantasy: Frodo and Arren both set out into worlds that are completely unknown to them, traverse great distances and dangers in search of a final goal, a final confrontation, and in meeting the end of their journey achieve a new ordering of things. Kings now sit upon thrones.
Of course, comparisons aren’t everything. Farthest Shore is alone a powerful novel. It is certainly the least appropriate of the Earthsea novels for the label of children’s fiction, though perhaps I underestimate children. Indeed, the world would be a far better place if we learned the lessons Arren does at his age and younger. Farthest Shore is something of a triumph of fantasy as “critical work,” with Ged as a regular mouthpiece—for pages at a time!—for musings about power and responsibility, life and death, doing and being, among other subjects. As with the previous novels I’ve returned to, there’s too much to be said here, in one essay, and so I hope to hear from you how you reacted to Farthest Shore now or in the past.
Though I leave the further depths of this novel to be plumbed another time, there is something to be said about The Farthest Shore as a response to Tolkien’s conception of the return of the king. I want to explore that a bit further, given some of its implications with other of Le Guin’s “masterwork” novels we have read.
A King in Havnor?
All is, between Making and Unmaking. The birth and the death, between them living and dying—doing and being. But as with all things, life and death, doing and being are but two sides of the hand: palm and opisthenar.
This is the lesson of The Farthest Shore, but it is not its only lesson nor the final truth of Le Guin’s Earthsea saga. It is, as much else Le Guin wrote in this period of her life, infused with Taoism—teaching that whatever power we humans might have, it should not be used to profane the binaries that structures meaning and life; that way lies evil—and with anarchism—teaching that to seek power over is always to corrupt life itself, it renders inhuman whoever would seek to dehumanize. Cob, who has no true name, has forgotten it and become like the Nameless Ones who pursue evil against others for its own sake, seeking to undo that which makes life life: death. In so doing, Cob commits a great evil against all by lighting the final spark that will consume the world without a king: society and order collapse, men throw spears at strangers, sacrifice babies, burn crops, murder and pillage, turn to slavery, and play with the dead.
At the same time, Farthest Shore is dedicated to the restoration of kingly sovereignty; the lack of a central ruler binding together the preordained order of all things in Earthsea is the cause, as we learned in Tombs, of political disorder, of tyrant-princes, of slavery, and so on. Where local governments proliferate by the hundreds, so does chaos without a king to bind them in unity. This is the very idea of “power over,” which Le Guin mentions with greater frequency in both Tombs and Farthest Shore, and which she identifies in both as a great evil—or, at least, as a thing which so often leads to great evil, if not necessarily an evil in and of itself. So while The Farthest Shore might seem to be a novel about stopping a necromancer, it is ultimately a novel about what danger an empty throne has done. Cob’s great evil, his opening of the way between life and death, his perforation of what should be an ineffable boundary, and his killing of death—however temporary—is only possible because the White Towers of Havnor are without a king, because assless is the throne.
Those of us who love Le Guin, who see in her a great political thinker, how are we to make this vision of medievalist monarchy restored fit with all we have (re)read so far? What to do with the King of Havnor?
Is this just the fulfillment of generic tropes? This seems hardly the case, both because Le Guin is not so easily canalized and because, although we can look back on The Farthest Shore with the hindsight of fifty years of fantasy fiction, Le Guin could not and so had little in the way of generic expectations to draw on at the time she was crafting this work. Myth, fairy tales, and some recent novels, yes, but Farthest Shore is hardly a continuation of any grand tradition. We might call out Le Guin for “failing” to imagine a fantasy world without kings and prophecies and magic rings, much as she failed to imagine that a woman could be a wizard. We might also look a little more generously at her work and the context in which it was written and note that in writing about kings and prophecies and magic rings, she might very well have been trying to say something about how those things had been done before.
In response to my post about Tombs, commenter Raskos observed that while Le Guin is not “enamoured with the idea of hereditary privilege,” she nonetheless “speaks well of natural aristocracy.” Raskos uses the example of both Arren (“King Lebannen of Havnor”) and the physicist Urrasti Atro in The Dispossessed, who has “an aristocrat’s contempt for money and demagogic power” shared by Shevek. I agree with Raskos that Le Guin is certainly interested in how some folks, freed from the tyranny of poverty and afforded the privilege of opportunities to lead, might hold “the attributes that we recognize as virtues in an ideal ruler.” Le Guin has never been interested in outright demonization of political systems she finds abhorrent.
I think, too, that Le Guin wanted to critique Tolkien’s framing of the throne of Gondor as Aragorn’s birthright, something he had merely to claim, as if the claiming of the throne were the thing that proved him worthy to lead. Certainly, Aragorn isn’t a bad man and he does not covet the Ring of Power (as Boromir and others do). But in The Farthest Shore, we meet a boy bound by duty to his father, who gives his loyalty to Ged and follows him across the world, into death, and back. Although Arren and Aragorn, aside from their similar-ish names, both have grand journeys across the world, Arren’s is one of self-discovery, of deep challenges to his personhood and his beliefs. I’m not interested in a one-to-one comparison of Arren and Aragorn (or any other characters), as I think these ultimately benefit us quite little and lead to a great deal of needless nit-picking. Le Guin, though, wrote a story of a boy-become-man who in the process of saving the world must learn what it means to be responsible to life itself, to do only when doing is needed.
It is significant that, although The Farthest Shore is technically the story of how a king comes to sit on the throne of Havnor, to rule and unite Earthsea, and is a coming-of-age story about that king, the book shows no interest in his crowning or in him as king (at least, not until Le Guin writes The Other Wind almost thirty years later). Indeed, that Arren will become king is only hinted at (albeit a bit obviously) before the end of the novel when Ged directs Arren to rule long and well. The Farthest Shore is a novel about becoming king, and it is a novel about giving up power, and about mortality as that which gives life meaning. It is also about duty: Le Guin provides an alternative to monarchic life in Earthsea when Ged and Arren visit the raft-people, who live a largely egalitarian life—they could choose to stay, but this would doom many.
Farthest Shore has a lot to say and Ged says much of it. I have said much, too. What say you?
With The Farthest Shore, Le Guin was done with the doing of Earthsea. Except, she wasn’t. Twenty-odd years later, she returned. With Tehanu. With The Other Wind. And with further tales aplenty. But unlike many writers who return to a successful “intellectual property” years after its popularity has faded into nostalgia, Le Guin returned to Earthsea with the brilliance of a sun rising on the shores of Selidor, its red-golden rays greeting the manling who would soon be king in Havnor.
But Tehanu and The Other Wind must wait. Having finished the reread of what I described in my initial post as Le Guin’s masterworks, her best-known contributions to SFF, we will now go backward in time and continue the Ursula K. Le Guin Reread chronologically, starting with three Hainish novellas. Join me then in roughly a month, on Wednesday, June 3, when the Reread digs into Rocannon’s World (1966)! Be seeing you.
Sean Guynes is a critic, writer, and editor currently working on a book about how the Korean War changed American science fiction. For politics, publishing, and SFF content, follow him on Twitter @saguynes.