Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Review of "The Farthest Shore" by Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle is often downplayed as YA given the style of writing and relatively simple structure of the plots.  Entirely unfair, the novels’ thematic material is complex—far from juvenile.  Self-actualization and discovering personal freedom the subjects of the first two books in the Cycle, A Wizard ofEarthsea and The Tombs of Atuan, respectively, Le Guin returns for a third bildungsroman.  Coming to terms with death the theme this time around, with The Farthest Shore Le Guin continues to challenge readers, young and adult, with heavy yet poignant subject matter in a highly imaginative setting and story.

The Farthest Shore is the story of the prince Arren and his conquering fear of death.  Ged having risen to Archmage since A Wizard ofEarthsea and Tenar having helped bring peace with the ring of Erreth-Akbe in The Tombs of Atuan, things would seem settled in Earthsea.  But subtly a new threat sweeps the archipelago, and the king sends his son, Arren, to inquire of the Masters of Roke what is to be done regarding this elusive threat.  The Masters collectively indecisive, Ged sets out with the young man in his old sailboat Lookfar to discover the source of the malaise engulfing the land and stealing the spirit of the people.  Ged and Arren face many hardships tracking down this intangible evil, but the fate they ultimately confront challenges them like no other, altering their lives forever in the process.  

It’s no secret that The Darkest Shore is the heaviest of Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle.  This, however, should not put off readers.  Dialogue bursting with perennial wisdom regarding life and death, a profound wisdom is expressed in its pages that not only pushes the book beyond YA status, but makes for positive, worthwhile reading on a subject rarely broached by fantasy.  Readers will encounter a viewpoint they perhaps have never heard before and be richly rewarded for lending an ear.

But for all the meaning of existence discussed, the book is also chock full of fantastical imagination.  Le Guin dresses the theme of death in clothes that never shy from reality, yet soften the discussion in an engaging and interest-building tone.  Dragons play their largest role in the Cycle to date, not to mention a variety of unique cultures and living standards are presented in a style coloring what would otherwise be a dreary story; Ged and Arren’s adventures take them through more than just the dark side.  The raft people, for example, are a singular creation of fantasy that prove Le Guin is in her element when writing, their culture reverberating with theme every water dance they perform.  

In the end, The Farthest Shore is another great Earthsea novel.  It combines unique storytelling, imaginative settings, profound theme, realistic characterization, and perennial philosophy in mythic tones no other writer on the fantasy scene can.  Accountable to all ages, those who dismiss the book as YA have obviously not looked deeply into the dialogue between Arren and Ged or the symbolism quietly tucked away in the story’s setting and character behavior.  Delivering a message and telling a story, readers could ask for little more in this third bildungsroman rounding out the original Earthsea trilogy.

(For those who have read the book and the Earthsea Cycle as a whole, you may be interested in reading a paper I wrote on its Daoist tenets and angles on contemporary theory called "Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle: Paralleling Contemporary Theory with an Eye to the Past".  Part I is here and Part II, here.)


  1. Thanks for your interesting thoughts on the Earthsea Cycle. I always though that I'd read the whole cycle, but apparently there are other books in the cycle (it's not just a trilogy). I'll have to reread from the beginning because it's been so long that I hardly remember the first three! Your posts made me more interested in reading them. The first time I read them I was too young to understand any deeper philosophical meaning.

    1. And thank you for visiting my blog and commenting! Yes, there are three additional books, pushing the Earthsea Cycle to six total. Be warned, the final three are an abrupt change from the original trilogy. Instead of personal development, Le Guin shifts toward overt feminist material, as well as the development of family and society. While I personally find the latter books insightful, others have been more ambivalent in their opinion. If you care, I will be publishing reviews of those books in the near future.

      Regarding your last statement, without a doubt one of the reasons the Earthsea Cycle is so great is that it can be enjoyed by the young and appreciated by the old--or at least, older. :)