The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Earthsea books are old. The Farthest Shore, third in the trilogy, was published in 1972. But they’re old like a healthy tree is old, like a house with character. You can tell their age in their strength, in the slow, steady pace of the language, in the deep rootedness of the characters. Le Guin writes in an age that harkens more to Tolkien and Lewis, maybe even Peake, than to Jordan or the guy who writes the Game of Thrones books. The pacing is slow, the action is sparse, and the world-building is one of scattered lands and horizons as opposed to complex politics or equally complex magical systems. They take a while to get into.
I found this to be true for all three of these novels. They don’t grab you in the first or even the second or the third chapter. You move into them, charmed by the language but perhaps a bit—not quite bored, but certainly not enthralled. But you’ve heard them spoken of before in the same sentence with Lewis and Tolkien, and you want to find out why. Le Guin sets the stage slowly, introduces the characters, paints a world that always smells strongly of the sea and feels of the vague presence of dragon wings beating just over the horizon. And then by about halfway through you’re hooked and the remainder of the book feels like a painting, like a journey, like the things that solid fantasy is supposed to feel like—not an action movie, not a soap opera. But a tale.
Ged, now the Archmage of Roke, is once again at the center of this third tale. (I assumed the last of Earthsea, as these books were presented as a trilogy. Checking Wikipedia, however, I see that apart from a collection of short stories set in Earthsea there are an additional two novels.) I’ve written on the previous two volumes before, where I stated the volume one, A Wizard of Earthsea, could be generalized as being about wisdom, about finding maturity and true friendship. Ged grows up. Volume two, The Tombs of Atuan, is about redemption and mercy. Ged saves a slave from a life of darkness and servitude. This last volume is about despair and faith.
I think I’ve also said this in writing about the first two volumes: these books are great books because they touch the springs of truth, of something deep and real and beautiful. The best fantasy, I think, tells us something about the real world. In this novel, Ged and a young servant set off to find the source of lifelessness and despair leaking into the land of Earthsea. They travel to islands where joy and art are forgotten, where the wizards no longer know the words of magic that give them their power. (Magic, for Le Guin in Earthsea, is knowing the true names of things.) They find a wizard whose lust for life unending has upset the balance between life and death and has dragged along others who follow out of fear of death.
And Le Guin uses this stage of magic and journeying to pose what may be one of the central questions in our own art and theology and philosophy: is life the source of meaning or is it all an illusion, simply words that we give to things because we cannot stand the idea that they may have no meaning at all? Ged’s servant faces this in the course of their journeying, and he lets the despair overwhelm him. The questions he ask are ones that we all face—if we’re truly awake—at some point in our lives:
“ . . . he knew in his heart that reality was empty; without life or warmth or color or sound: without meaning. There were no heights or depths. All this lovely play of form and light and color on the sea and in the eyes of men, was no more than that: a playing of illusions on the shallow void.
They passed, and there remained the shapelessness and the cold. Nothing else.”
Again this despair and this craving for safety and assurance, for life without end and without danger, the character of Ged is a voice of hope and faith. But this is not a pat, safe, Sunday-school answer. This is a realization that life cannot exist outside of the reality of death, that the two are opposite sides of the same coin, and that we cannot understand either apart from the context of the other. Ged’s answer to his servant’s fear is poignant and true:
“There is no safety, and there is no end. The word must be heard in silence; there must be darkness to see the stars. The dance is always danced above the hollow place, above the terrible abyss.”
But the word is spoken, and the dance is danced nonetheless. I’m reminded of Narnia again, of the incredulous question of whether you hoped to find a safe, tame reality in a Lion’s mane. Phillip Pullman wrote his Dark Materials trilogy as in some respects a secular answer to the Narnia books. But to me the Earthsea novels read as a classical Christian answer to contemporary Christian fantasy that would represent God as the ultimate safety net, as the overwhelming force for good that will erase or correct all badness and emptiness without danger and without cost.
These are good, old books. They read like old stories. You’re not going to find sharp, sparking dialogue. You’re not going to find a riveting plot in the first three pages. But you’re going to go places and you’re going to see things that shape you. You’re going to meet people you want to be like. You’re going to—if you stay the course—see at last the wings of dragons over the Isles of the West.