Ursula Le Guin’s “The Farthest Shore”

This is the third book from Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle, and also the third book of hers I’ve read. One particularity of Le Guin’s style that people seem to find sort of objectionable (on Goodreads, anyway) is how impressionistic it is. I wonder, though, if it’s because fantasy and science fiction tend to be such overwhelmingly male genres and Le Guin’s writing (to me) feels so essentially female. So yeah, there’s not a ton of physical description and there’s a lot of introspection. It gives the books this dreamlike quality that maybe is not for everyone. Personally, I don’t understand how anyone could prefer pages and pages of tedious description or impossible-to-remember fictional history (I am looking at you, Silmarillion), but to each his own, I guess.

In this particular book, Ged (who has been a main character for the two previous books) has risen to Archmage. All over Earthsea, magic suddenly begins to disappear. As magic drains away, a malaise spreads over the people, such that their lives are full of sickness, conflict, and a weird sort of resignation in the face of it all. I am not even going to feel bad about partially SPOILERING a book that was published in 1972, so I’m going to go ahead and say that the source of the problem turns out to be that one dark mage has unlocked the secret to escaping death, and become immortal. In opening a rift between the land of the living and the land of the dead, he causes the entire world to enter a state in which it can neither fully live nor fully die. Ged, along with Arren, a prince of Enlad, sets out to stop Cob. Mostly the book worked for me as a parable about the paralyzing effects of fear. In this case, a great fear of death prevents the full flourishing of life; by escaping death, the dark mage and those who follow him also essentially escape life. In the end, the plot of The Farthest Shore is the most traditional one Le Guin has come up with among the three books I’ve read. There’s even a prophecy about a great king and a solution that only comes at very great sacrifice. On the other hand, the book is basically the Tao of Earthsea. It turns out Le Guin was heavily influenced by the Tao?

Which gives me a great excuse to post a favorite passage from the Tao–one I think Ged would like–because why not?

“Therefore the Master

acts without doing anything

and teaches without saying anything.

Things arise and she lets them come;

things disappear and she lets them go.

She has but doesn’t possess,

acts but doesn’t expect.

When her work is done, she forgets it.

That is why it lasts forever.”

PS-I really love Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao (which is where this little excerpt is from).

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