Everyone Has to Be Beowulf Sometimes: The Farthest Shore

The Farthest Shore comic colour

If The Hobbit is basically Beowulf from the perspective of the thief who causes all the dragon problems, The Farthest Shore is Beowulf with a twist: though it ends with dragons, the dragons are helpful, whereas the real enemy is a human wizard. Tolkien lets the epic play out in the background of his novel while the thief and his companions run around fighting giant spiders and failing to liberate treasures from dragons; Le Guin puts the epic in the foreground but focuses on the humanity of her heroes.

The reason The Farthest Shore sends my mind to both Tolkien and Beowulf is that it has its roots in the traditions that inform both. It even ends, as I noted in one of my chapter comments, with a version of Tolkien’s helpful rescuing eagles (albeit in dragon form). But the Beowulf connection is the most interesting to me. Beowulf is the story of a hero who has three improbable adventures, two closely connected. In the first two-thirds of the epic, he defeats first Grendel, a troll-like creature who is terrorising a mead hall, and then Grendel’s mother, who is a little upset when her son dies. The third part takes place fifty years later in a different kingdom, of which Beowulf himself has become king. A foolhardy thief awakens the anger of a dragon, who ravages Beowulf’s land, and Beowulf, now an old man, puts on his hero hat again and sets forth to stop it. He takes a number of companions with him, but only one, Wiglaf, sticks with him until the end, and it’s Wiglaf who survives the adventure, as Beowulf succumbs to the dragon’s poison.

If A Wizard of Earthsea is, in a way, the Grendel portion of the story (with Ged confronting a dark version of himself, pretty close to what Beowulf is doing if you consider him part of the Bear’s Son folkloric tradition), and The Tombs of Atuan is the Grendel’s-mother portion (with Tenar playing the part of the formidable female figure who must be overcome in the underworld), The Farthest Shore gives us Beowulf’s fight against the dragon. Le Guin is following a common pattern, and the fact that it turns up both in Beowulf and here, even if she intends no reference, is a reflection of how powerful a part of our storytelling tradition this pattern is. Effectively, we’ve seen Ged’s coming of age, and we’ve seen him operate in the fullness of his powers. In The Farthest Shore, we see the part of the story that rarely makes it into fairy tales but turns up a lot in epics and tragedies: the mature hero’s containment.

As in Beowulf, we end up following a double act. A middle-aged Ged, now the Archmage of Roke, sets off with young Prince Arren to find out why the magic seems to be leaching out of Earthsea, leaving people no longer caring about their lives and succumbing to sloth and drug abuse. The gradual loss of faith in magic, which is accompanied by an obsession with living forever, makes a less physical threat than the dragon fire in Beowulf, but it effectively means the same thing: something is threatening the wellbeing of the land. Only Ged seems immune, perhaps because, as he explains to Arren, he has never wanted anything but his art. The two of them hunt down the origin of the loss of magic, an undead wizard who believes he has found the secret of immortality. While Arren needs help to get there, he’s ultimately the one able to finish the adventure, in the course of which Ged loses not his life but his magic. Arren ascends the long-empty high throne of Earthsea, mostly because the story tells him to: this is very much the story of the coming of the One True King, the hero’s journey played straight and without irony (unlike in Tolkien’s works, which tend to come at it sideways). Arren is patently Wiglaf, taking over at the fall of the previous generation’s hero, rising as his mentor descends.

The Farthest Shore won the National Book Award, and it’s not surprising that it did. Compared to YA novels today, it’s quite slow, even though—unlike in the earlier Earthsea books—the plot actually begins in the first chapter, not several chapters on. It’s also entirely predictable. However, the predictability is not a flaw. In one of my chapter comments, I noted the difference between this type of predictability and the type I was finding in another book I was reading (which will continue to remain unnamed, as I otherwise like it and don’t want to badmouth it). The latter falls into well-worn patterns without really saying anything about them. The Farthest Shore, on the other hand, gives us the familiarity of the hero’s journey but plays around with the heroes themselves. Ged and Arren’s journey is predictable; Ged and Arren aren’t. Yes, we have Ged giving wise lectures and Arren screwing up and gradually learning wisdom himself, and that’s all expected, but what’s unusual is that Ged is allowed to appear weak. He expresses doubts. He makes mistakes. Arren’s own mistakes all play into his growth, which revolves around his gradual realisation that death is a part of life and that he himself will one day die. The characters aren’t always likeable, but unlike Beowulf and Wiglaf, they’re more than archetypes.

The most wonderful moment in the book comes near the end, when Arren, who has just walked through the land of the dead and brought back a man who should have been trapped there forever, goes to get water from a stream and runs into Kalessin, the oldest of the dragons. Here is his reaction:

There was nothing he could do; so he stood up. If the dragon would kill him, it would; and if it did not, he would try to help Ged, if there was any help for him. He stood up and started to walk up the rivulet to find their packs.

The dragon did nothing. It crouched unmoving and watched. Arren found the packs, filled both the skin bottles at the stream, and went back across the sand to Ged. After he had taken only a few steps away from the stream, the dragon was lost in the thick fog.

At the peak of his story, Arren encounters a dragon and decides that water is more important. If he dies, he dies. This is the moment Earthsea is healed: when a boy on the cusp of manhood chooses the possibility of life over the obsession with possible death. At the same time, the scene tells us a lot about what Arren has grown into. His priorities have changed, and he’s become the person he needs to be.

The Farthest Shore was, for a long time, the last of the Earthsea books, and it provides a satisfying ending to Ged’s adventures, in a Beowulfian sort of way. The hero has always been a mixture of order and chaos, a character meant to expel monsters while also carrying a certain amount of monstrosity inside himself. At the end of his story, he is contained, his potentially monstrous side quelled. Ged follows Beowulf in this respect, not by dying but by losing his magic in the course of saving everybody else’s. It’s a good ending because it hurts a little bit, as many of the best endings do.

Next Up: I’ll introduce Tehanu tomorrow and start reading it on the same day.

Bookmark Showcase: This Harry Potter Hedwig bookmark is possibly the most infuriating bookmark I own. It would not stay in the book. It was continually falling out as I reached over to put the book on my coffee table. Sometimes, it would shoot out of the book and fly halfway across the room. I think it may have been trying to escape.

The Farthest Shore owl bookmark

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