The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin

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Review by Lory Widmer Hess

The Farthest Shore, third book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea sequence, was originally published in 1972. Picking it up for a reread today, in the splendid new Folio Society edition, I think how timely it seems, how close to our current condition, in the guise of a fantasy about a world that never existed. Can entering this world, through the bridge of imagination, art, and story, bring us any hope or guidance for our present dilemmas?

It’s a world in the grip of a strange malaise, slowly being drained of the magic and meaningfulness that had formed the ground of its existence. Wizards are forgetting their spells, artisans their craft; even the great, powerful and dangerous dragons are losing the language that is woven into their being, the creative words of the Old Tongue. The springs of life are running dry, and all is turning to dust.

Ged, whom we last met as a young wizard on a perilous quest in The Tombs of Atuan, is now Archmage, responsible for ordering and shaping the course of magic in Earthsea. Together with Arren, a young prince who has been sent to ask him for guidance, he sets out on another quest that will bring them both to the borders of life and death itself. 

We see mainly over the shoulder of Arren, who is instantly filled with a great devotion for the all-powerful mage who makes no display of power, and wants to follow and serve him. But his love is tested when their quest leads them only to scenes of ugliness, despair, and madness: people destroyed by the drugs they’ve turned to to soothe their anxiety and pain; islanders turned hostile and violent, against strangers and even each other. Wounded and adrift, paralyzed by doubt, they are saved by an encounter with a group of raft-dwellers, who rarely even set foot on the solid earth, and have not so far been touched by the malaise of Earthsea. 

The final scenes take place in the realm of the dragons, where the clues the pair have picked up along the way lead them to the source of illness, the vortex of fear and greed that must be healed if Earthsea is to be saved from falling into doom.

Like all of the Earthsea stories, it’s told in beautifully simple yet rich language, full of archetypal resonance and vivid, unforgettable imagery. I felt myself to be walking with Arren and Ged through the unsavory streets of Hort Town, witnessing the tragic undoing of the weavers of Lorbanery, floating on the rafts of the Children of the Open Sea — and their quest became mine, too, their questions my questions. With all the power we have gained over life and death in our modern world, all our efforts to control our environment and defend ourselves from danger, we seem also to be losing what makes our existence true and meaningful, the life that springs up within life. Could it be that the key is not power, but surrender, or offering? As Arren says, “I have given my love to what is worthy of love. Is that not the kingdom and the unperishing spring?” 

Seven illustrations are again provided by David Lupton, whose murky, moody images, selectively brightened with tones of turquoise and gold, capture the darkness and danger of Arren and Ged’s adventure. My favorite aspect of the design of this series, though, is the binding designs; now that there are three volumes, we can see how they complement each other with their monochrome images laid over three different background tones, enlivened with silver and gold metallic highlights. They are striking and beautiful, whether looking at the full covers on display together, or just the spines lined up on the shelf. The titles are set in Dulcinea Serif, an unusual typeface that merges two historical styles, calligraphic uncial script and a classic Roman chiseled font, and seems just right for the elemental magic of Earthsea.

In her afterword, Le Guin explains how the series evolved as she went along, finding her way: “I learn by going where I have to go,” she quotes from a favorite poem by Theodore Roethke. For many years The Farthest Shore was considered the final book of a trilogy, but after a long pause she returned to Earthsea with new discoveries and a shift of focus; I only hope that Folio won’t wait so long to bring us the rest of Earthsea.

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Lory Widmer Hess is an American reader and writer currently living in Switzerland. She blogs about life, language, and literature at enterenchanted.com.

Ursula K. LeGuin, The Farthest Shore, illustrated by David Lupton. (The Folio Society, 2022). 229pp., hardback.

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2 comments

  1. I have the first two volumes in Folio editions and the David Lupton illustrations have grown on me, although I was not initially enamoured. Those for The Tombs of Atuan definitely complement the text.
    I will be getting the Folio edition of this with my next order, but as I have only read the original trilogy over forty years ago I‘m not sure that I will continue. I await your next review!

    1. I hope you’ll go on to read the other books … though I confess that the change of direction in Tehanu baffled me a bit when it first came out. I seem to get along better with the second half of the series now that I’m older myself. I’m also looking forward to reading and reviewing them, if and when they come out.

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