The Farthest Shore by Ursula Le Guin

(major spoilers)

I am not quite sure where to start with this review, so I will start with a warning. It will be long, it will ramble, and it will talk about the philosophy of liking books as much as The Farthest Shore itself. You see, this third book in Ursula Le Guin’s legendary Earthsea series brought me a lot of mixed feelings, and I didn’t want to do the review without going deep on them, as much as anything because I ultimately wasn’t sure I could make sense without doing so. And partly because it’s forcing me to rethink how I think about books.

Last year, someone introduced me to the idea of phatic books, an idea she’d taken from eluki bes shahar/Rosemary Edgehill, those being books that align with and reinforce with the reader’s worldview (and in some cases, made it the true way with those disagreeing proven wrong by the narrative) and are thus extra enjoyable. The obvious corollary is books that very much clash with the reader’s worldview will be less enjoyable. I thought it smart and made sense but on some level, I think I disliked it. It makes readers – and I am a reader – seem shallow.

At the end of The Farthest Shore – which I picked thinking it would be a fast enjoy read, and finished thinking it a grind – there’s a little afterword in which Le Guin describes herself as a “irreligious puritan” and a little light flickered on in my head. Le Guin’s puritanism is very much stamped on this book. My worldview is an inconsistent, poorly defined thing, sometimes made of mutual contradictions, sometimes as open minded as can be without surgery (thanks to Pratchett’s description of Magrat) but it does have a beef with a few things and fixed loud puritanism is one of them. So this book sails right into the headwind of my phatic ideas and I’ll struggle to like it as a result, right?

Yes and no. A lot of Le Guin’s ideas aren’t a million miles away from my own. The following Sparrowhawk quote:

“Do nothing because it is righteous or praiseworthy or noble to do so; do nothing because it seems good to do so; do only that which you must do and which you cannot do in any other way.”

Is something I mostly agree with. Yet something here isn’t working for me here, something that made me go “aha” at something tickling my phatic senses. Is it the mostly?

There seems to be no mostly about Le Guin’s worldview here, and not much hiding either as the book can be summarised as “blank slate of a kid goes on a dangerous journey with the mage he worships and in doing so learns to agree with Le Guin’s worldview and become king as a result”. Arren, our blank slate of a kid, exploring Le Guin’s worldview and philosophy is the whole point of the book and a huge amount of what happens. Physical conflict plays very little part; spiritual and verbal conflict between Arren and Sparrowhawk comes and goes. Honestly, part of me loves that. I love the simplicity and boldness of this book, and the belief that a story about the mental transformation of a man is worth telling like a tale of old. But I don’t love it with all of me, and the nature of the beast means there’s no way to avoid where it actively rubs me up the wrong way.

To what extent do we see books through one lens? How many prisms does it pass through before we try to bring all the thoughts back together?

Calling Arren a blank slate is slightly unfair. He is a prince from an old and revered bloodline, a singer and a swordsman, with the dreams and expectations that come with it. But only slightly because there’s not much more, and there isn’t a great deal to mark him out from any other such person. He feels more like an archetype from medieval myth than some character of today, some quester whose interior life and experiences is assumed to be the same as any other quester and doesn’t really matter for the purpose of the adventure.

Now I’ve read my share of myth and legend, and literature from the beginning of fantasy. I prefer more developed characters but straight up archetypes have their place. For them to work for me though it requires memorable deeds and lines. His story is deliberately bare of deeds and all the good lines belong to Sparrowhawk, as too is the dignity of being made from his experiences. Archetypes work better too when they don’t have direct comparisons to more rounded characters and Arren suffers here, both from the direct comparison with the old Archmage and the indirect, subconscious one with Le Guin’s earlier heroes. Sitting Arren next to Tenar is like setting a plastic Christmas tree in an old forest. I love old Sparrowhawk. I love the decision to show him through the young eyes of hero worship (and possibly romantic love/crushing too). But Sparrowhawk can’t carry the show when he’s not the PoV character and the eyes could have done with being attached to something more interesting.

When I find myself disliking multiple elements in a work, I wonder to what extent it’s interlinked, as I know I nitpick more when I’m not enjoying myself. Do I find this book anti-phatic because I dislike Arren and am over-critical? Or am I over-critical of Arren because of the former? Or do I just straight up dislike both and am overthinking it? When I can’t find obvious answers I settle for “partly yes to all” and view it as a vicious circle, but I can see something here. The book’s messages don’t require Arren to be flat, but flatness can really effect how I view a book’s messages.

It always strikes me as interesting how many fantasy fans profess a hatred of preachiness when so many of our greatest authors have worn their hearts on their sleeves. The latter makes sense if you buy into phatic books. But what’s the line between preachy and inspiring? Is it just “I don’t like it, I like it”? “I inspire others, you are didactic, he is a condescending preachy arse?” For me, a lot of it comes down to presentation. It’s the difference between obvious and there if you want it, supporting the story and being the story, characters talking to each other and characters talking to the reader. The thinner the character, the less story he has other than hearing the message, the more it will feel like preaching to me.

The thinner too the story. I have mixed feelings about simple stories that focus on psychological transformation over the doing of deeds – sword-deeds, speech-deeds, sorcery-deeds, stealthy-deeds, any-deeds. To no small extent I am a genre fan because I like to have my cake and eat it; transformation and deeds please, with extra transformation and extra deeds. Yet I like to have books that do things different in the genre. I like ambition and daring; I like being in a broad church. I like the embrace of simplicity too, the idea that not every must have bells and whistles (although I do really enjoy bells and whistles). Even when they are things I might otherwise shy away from.

My taste, as much as my worldview, is inconsistent and sometimes mutually contradictory.

The best way to explain it I suspect is that there is a like this is Super Smash Bros. There’s a long list of things I like that will show up as damage done for Player One; a long list of things I dislike for Player Two. The scoring will sometimes be additive; sometimes the author will score a combo and the points will accumulate quicker. Most battles end fairly quick when Like or Dislike launches my opinion of the book decisively one way or the other. Sometimes though the battle continues on and on until both sides are battle worn.

The Farthest Shore is one of these.

I think, in being so, it has irritated me enough that the very strong messaging is more of an issue than it would otherwise be. I think the strength of the messaging has made me more critical than I would be otherwise too. The negatives column has got its combo game going.

There are a great many positives to this book. Le Guin’s prose is as beautiful as ever. Seeing the Sparrowhawk built from the two previous books is very cool. The exploration of the world and the nature of dragons is very enjoyable. Some of the set-pieces in which Sparrowhawk uses his magic, particularly in confrontation with the villain (whose name I can’t recall which is a criticism in itself) are excellent. But none of these strengths build off each other. There’s no combo game.

As such, despite this being an excellent book in many ways, I disliked The Farthest Shore on this read. On another day, in another mood, perhaps I’d feel different – but now that the combos have revealed the weaknesses, there are no unseeing them for me, even if in future the combos don’t build. And shame as it is for me to say this, I doubt there’ll be another day for Le Guin’s third Earthsea. Not for me anyway.

6 thoughts on “The Farthest Shore by Ursula Le Guin

  1. “Sitting Arren next to Tenar is like setting a plastic Christmas tree in an old forest.”
    I love this quote!
    As usual, I don’t remember much of this book, but of the 4 stories, I know my favourite were the Tombs of Atuan…

    I also love how you do such indepth reviews, and get so much out of books: the ones who get that emotion in me have been few and far between lately… I need to get a good run…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I can never pick between Wizard of Earthsea and Tombs of Atuan; I could never get into Tehanu. I had vague, fond memories of this one, but alas not so much.

      And thank you! Although I hope your next read doesn’t provoke this sort of reaction.


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