DRAGONS!: The Farthest Shore

The Farthest Shore oval

I’ll be starting to read The Farthest Shore today. It’s thirteen chapters long, so I’ll do it over thirteen days. See the comments section of this post for my thoughts on each chapter.

My ridiculous predictions for this book:

  1. There will be dragons. This is not a difficult prediction to make.
  2. We are going to return to the all-male atmosphere of A Wizard of Earthsea. No smelly girls allowed.
  3. Things will happen, and they will be symbolic. Symbolism in general will be everywhere.
  4. “Young Prince Arren,” who is mentioned on the back-cover blurb, will go through some kind of coming-of-age journey.
  5. Ged will demonstrate wisdom. Arren will screw this up somehow.
  6. Whatever crisis has overtaken Earthsea this time, it’s going to be the dragons’ fault.

Aaaannnnd…onward…to adventure!

13 thoughts on “DRAGONS!: The Farthest Shore

  1. Chapter 1: The Rowan Tree:

    We’re back in Roke again, but time has passed. Though it’s unclear how much, Ged is “not young” and has become Archmage. The conflict is set up right away with the arrival of Prince Arren: Earthsea is beginning to lose its magic.

    This is the first of the Earthsea books in which the plot has started in Chapter 1 instead of holding off for a few chapters. The novel thus has a different, more urgent feel to it. Arren feels different too; his motivation (sudden fierce love of Ged, on top of his devotion to his father and his land) is revealed almost immediately. The change in writing tactics gives the story a sort of nervous energy, despite the fact that Ged falls asleep at the end of the chapter.

    Things will undoubtedly get very learned in Chapter 2: The Masters of Roke.

  2. Chapter 2: The Masters of Roke:

    Belated realisation: Chapter 1 (“The Rowan Tree”) is named after Arren, whose true name means “Rowan Tree.” I don’t believe that information is revealed in Chapter 1. Le Guin is being sneaky.

    Arren’s profound crush on Ged is getting worse. The story seems, so far, to lean towards Arren’s perspective rather than Ged’s, so my prediction that this will be another coming-of-age story seems pretty solid. It’s also a we-must-restore-the-rightful-king-to-the-empty-throne story, and I’m betting Arren himself is the rightful king, so the coming of age will, as in a proper fairy tale, be accompanied by the attaining of the kingship. Perhaps Le Guin has been a wee bit influenced by THE LORD OF THE RINGS, as the names “Arren” and “Aragorn” do bear a certain resemblance to each other. Still, there’s a difference. Aragorn is in his seventies when Tolkien’s story takes place (no, really…but he’s from a long-lived race, so to us, he would seem to be in his thirties or forties); Arren appears to be in his late teens. As well, Tolkien focuses not on the king-to-be but on the humbler characters, the innocuous little hobbits who will pave the way for the king to regain the throne. Le Guin takes us instead straight to the Chosen One himself, the boy who doesn’t feel special but is destined to achieve great things. Ged’s role is that of the supernatural aid, the otherworldly mentor figure who will usher the boy onward to his destiny.

    Next up, we have Chapter 3: Hort Town.

  3. Chapter 3: Hort Town:

    This is one of the longest chapters I’ve read in any of the books thus far, and it has a dragging, hopeless feel to it, which is probably appropriate, considering its setting. Clearly, something very bad is about to happen. Hort Town is not a nice place. Arren’s crush on Ged is being tested by Ged’s disguise and behaviour, which suggests that Arren’s crush is on Ged as an idea.

    This chapter reads as a preparation for the Very Bad Thing that is doubtless about to occur. I’m not sure whether I’m looking forward to it or not. Also: Le Guin is Saying Things About Drugs with the introduction of hazia, which offers release while slowly, inevitably poisoning the addicts.

    Tomorrow, everything gets terrible with Chapter 4: Magelight.

  4. Chapter 4: Magelight:

    Ged is uncommonly lecturey in this book. This is at least the second chapter in a row where he’s sat in a boat and imparted wisdom to Arren. Before that, of course, we have an exciting chase and a slave episode, and Ged gets to be wise at some former pirates.

    The “let’s have a lecture about right and wrong, etc.” angle continues to confirm my suspicion that Arren is the One True King Come Again, and Ged is preparing him for his new role. It’s been interesting to watch Ged grow from the more or less heroic role he had in the earlier books into mentorship here. Le Guin knows her story patterns, and we’re right smack in the middle of the hero’s journey. Watch for some sort of underworld descent later on, perhaps.

    Next up is probably a lot more sailing in Chapter 5: Sea Dreams.

  5. Chapter 5: Sea Dreams

    The structure of this book continues to differ from those of the others. There, the conflict comes late, after extended introductions full of development and atmosphere. Here, the conflict is revealed immediately, but since the characters are now on a long sea voyage, the development and atmosphere have made their appearance. The main thing that happens in this chapter is foreshadowing. Arren has what is probably a prophetic dream, and Ged tells a story that probably has something to do with the problem he and Arren are trying to solve. The chapter reads as if everything in it is meant to be echoed later on.

    We’ll meet more people who have forgotten what magic is in Chapter 6: Lorbanery.

  6. Chapter 6: Lorbanery.

    Even though THE TOMBS OF ATUAN has a fairly grim atmosphere, it’s also somehow clean and weirdly comforting. Tenar’s familiarity with her world makes the darkness seem familiar. The Labyrinth is dry and dusty and empty, but it can be explored; the way Tenar holds back from an examination of the treasure room makes it seem like an enticing mystery to be solved. Even in the stifling confinement of the Tombs, there are discoveries to be made, and there’s also beauty, as Tenar realises when Ged brings light into the Undertomb.

    THE FARTHEST SHORE, on the other hand, combines its own grim atmosphere with a sense of grubbiness. Everything in this world is soiled and neglected. As wizardry has drained out of the world, it has taken beauty with in. By the end of this chapter, Ged and Arren have invited a madman onto their boat, and even Arren’s crush on Ged has been tainted. It makes for an unpleasant reading experience, though one that is still pushing the reader onward; the unpleasantness seems something that needs to be purged, and only following Ged and Arren into the west can lead to the cleansing of the story.

    Next up is Chapter 7: The Madman.

  7. Chapter 7: The Madman:

    Things continue to get worse. Arren, who has clearly been influenced by whatever is slowly poisoning Earthsea, has descended into despair and hatred. So much for his crush on Ged…for now, at least. Ged just took a spear to the shoulder, so his week isn’t going well either. Sopli has jumped into the water and drowned. Now Ged and Arren are floating helplessly out into the open see. Everything is absolutely terrible.

    I’m trusting all the grimness is here for a reason. You can definitely see how Le Guin’s writing is mimicking the poisoning of Earthsea, making everything seem mundane and unmagical. It’s not yet clear how the unmagic is connected to everybody’s obsession with living forever, but I’m sure we’ll get there eventually.

    Tomorrow, Arren and Ged will, with luck, climb away from their low point in Chapter 8: The Children of the Open Sea.

  8. Chapter 8: The Children of the Open Sea:

    At last, just as I’m about to lose my mind from all the grimmity grimness, we get a break. Arren and Ged, drifting on the water, are rescued by the Children of the Open Sea, who live in a sort of raft city and are just generally kind of awesome. Arren finally gets over his not-quite-natural sulk and admits that he has been overcome by a sort of madness, and Ged has time to heal. This is all doubtless the calm before the storm, but it’s nice to have a chapter where people are kind to each other and no one is going around trying to avoid both living and dying.

    We’ll see if things go back to being terrible in Chapter 9: Orm Embar.

  9. Chapter 9: Orm Embar:

    As I suspected, Chapter 8 was just a brief respite from the gloom. The unmagic has found even the Children of the Open Sea, and the dragons are asking for Ged’s help, which is basically unheard of. While Arren is definitely in a better place now and is slowly learning from Ged (who really likes spouting bits and pieces of wisdom) why the yearning for immortality is a bad thing, there’s a definite feeling that Arren and Ged are headed towards an almost impossibly hard encounter. The idea of an “Anti-King” is interesting; it seems the set-up for the coming of the One True King.

    We also finally get to see what’s happening back on Roke, and it’s not good. Even Roke is beginning to succumb to the unmagic. The Roke sequence pulls us away from Ged and Arren but allows us to contextualise their journey; it’s becoming clear how desperate the situation is.

    There may just be more dragons in Chapter 10: The Dragons’ Run.

  10. Chapter 10: The Dragons’ Run:

    There’s a definite “here at the end of all things” feel to this chapter, what with the feral dragons and Ged’s little soliloquy (in which he basically confirms that Arren is the One True King but also expresses a desire for his own retirement). We get the sense that if most of the dragons are lost, Earthsea itself is nearing the crisis point. The dying dragon that has been cannibalised by the others stands in parallel to the baby Orm Embar has witnessed humans sacrificing. Nothing means anything any more; the world has been turned upside down.

    Ged and Arren will (probably) begin their final confrontation with their undead antagonist in Chapter 11: Selidor.

  11. Chapter 11: Selidor:

    Selidor is creepy. The Anti-King has surrounded himself with legions of the dead, and his power seems endless; he even takes Orm Embar’s voice, and Ged seems almost powerless before him. I’m getting a “harrowing of Hell” vibe, what with the enslaved dead people and the final entry into the dry land. Arren is, I suspect, going to have his moment very soon.

    I realised as I was reading today that if you count A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA and THE TOMBS OF ATUAN, we’ve now seen Ged sail to most of the farthest reaches of Earthsea. He’s been quite far to the north, very far to the south, past all land in the east, and now to the farthest westernmost island. I’m not sure this means anything (beyond that Ged works to protect the whole of Earthsea, not any one part of it), but it’s interesting to think about.

    Tomorrow, Ged and Arren brave the land of the dead in Chapter 12: The Dry Land.

  12. Chapter 12: The Dry Land:

    The first time I read the Harry Potter books, I started counting the underworld descents. I realised quickly that there was one in every book (and something like three in the final volume), and why not? The hero’s journey is all about the underworld descent. THE TOMBS OF ATUAN does it too, albeit from the perspective not of the journeying hero but of the woman he meets in, and liberates from, the underworld. THE FARTHEST SHORE gives us a more literal and, in some ways, more conventional underworld descent, with Ged and Arren actually descending into the land of the dead to confront Cob and heal the world. It does buck the familiar narrative in one important way: Ged and Arren are both integral to the confrontation. Instead of a young hero guided by the wisdom of a mentor who doesn’t survive to the end of the story, we have a double act. Ged saves the world, and Arren saves Ged.

    Also, I’ve just got to say: I think some of my students would have a conniption at the idea this book was for teenagers. It deals with extremely complex ideas. (Personally, I believe teenagers can, and should, handle complex ideas, but my students have odd notions about the “simplicity” and “innocence” of children.)

    We’ll finish the book off tomorrow with Chapter 13: The Stone of Pain.

  13. Chapter 13: The Stone of Pain:

    All is well: the eagles have arrived and borne Frodo and Samwise from Mordor! Er…I mean…the dragon has arrived and borne Ged and Arren from Selidor! Er…

    The end of THE FARTHEST SHORE does bear a certain resemblance to the end of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. The two heroes have descended into the underworld and solved the problem that is blighting their world. In the process, one of them has been forever changed. The other returns to a life of contentment with the help of a magical flying creature. The crowning of the One True King represents the healing of the damaged world. (Okay, yes, the Scouring of the Shire is a thing too, but work with me here.)

    I think the similarity is really due to the fact that Tolkien and Le Guin are both following the same common mythic pattern. Very little about what happens in the broad plot of either story is surprising, but that’s part of the point; these characters are going through the hero’s journey, walking a well-worn road we see again and again in stories because it’s such an important road. I’m reading another book right now (I won’t name it because I do basically like it, and I’m going to seem to be complaining about it in a second), and everything about it is predictable. I’m pretty sure I know exactly where the plot is going and how the characters are going to react to everything. (If I’m wrong, I’ll happily eat my words. Again, I do basically like it.) It’s a good story, but it feels…tropey. THE FARTHEST SHORE doesn’t, even though it is, in its own way, far more predictable. I think the difference is that it’s consciously positioning itself as part of a particular tradition.

    In the next couple of days, I’ll put up a reaction to the book as a whole. Then it will be onwards to TEHANU.

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