Tuesday, November 05, 2019

The Farthest Shore, by Ursula le Guin

A few months after reading The Tombs of Atuan, I'm back in Earthsea for a third instalment. It's been "seventeen years, or eighteen, since the Ring of the King's Rune was returned to the Tower of the Kings in Havnor," at the end of that last book (p. 316). There's a brief reference to what the protagonist of that previous book is up to: having completed her training in magic, she's now, "the White Lady of Gont, Tenar of the Ring" (p. 309). But this is not her story.

A strange despair hangs over the islands, people losing their sense of magic and even of their own names. Ged, hero of the last two books, is now a distinguished old archmage who teams up with young prince Arren to venture out to the very edge of the world to confront an evil power hoovering up the sparkle of everyone else.

Told from Arren's perspective, this is a more conventional hero quest than the previous instalments, though for all Arren has a special sword there's little conventional bashing people. The one time he uses his sword to do someone a serious injury, it heals almost instantly - the weapon of no effect. Instead, he and Ged travel through a disconcerting wasteland, small communities sickening under the spell. Ged can help one old woman only by making her forget who she once was. Even dragons and Ged's heroes are caught in this fog - rendered unable to speak.

As before, a lot of the book is taken up with the ethics of magic. Arren is not magical but fascinated by the potential of spells, asking about the limits of what can be achieved. Fairly early on, he asks about the power to summon the dead back to life and Ged admits to having known "only one man" work such ancient, seldom-used power:
"He lived in Havnor. They accounted him a mere sorcerer, but in native power he was a great mage. He made money from his art, showing any who paid him whatever spirit they asked to see, dead wife or husband or child, filling his house with unquiet shadows of old centuries, the fair women of the days of the Kings. I saw him summon from the Dry Land my own old master who was Archmage in my youth, Nemmerle, for a trick to entertain the idle. And the great soul came at his call, like a dog to heel. I was angry, and challenged him. I was not Archmage then. I said, 'You compel the dead to come into your house. Will you come with me to theirs?' And I made him come, though he fought me with all his will, and changed his shape, and wept aloud in the darkness." (pp. 368-9)
This seemed an important moment in Ged's life and I flipped back through the previous two books to check it wasn't something described there, but it doesn't seem to be. Yet it is significant: the man in question turns out to be the villain of the piece, a wizard called Cob at least equal in power to Ged - if not more so.

Our first sight of Cob himself is a vision on a shore, as Ged explains:
"It was only a sending. A presentment or image of the man. It can speak and hear, but there's no power in it, save what our fear may lend it. Nor is it even true in seeming, unless the sender so wishes." (p. 446)
That made me think of Luke in The Last Jedi - though Ged tells us such visions cannot be sent across water. Like that film, victory seems possible not by force of will but the opposite, surrendering the spirit rather than clinging on. Cob is, in many ways, a mirror of Ged in the first book, too eager to dominate, to driven by his own fear. In facing him, Ged shows how far he has come - the farthest shore as much about the extent of his reach as it is the physical place where this occurs.

The result feels like a proper ending to a trilogy, though there's still a book to go in this collection...

1 comment:

Rob Stradling said...

Recently started reading the first of these.

I don't read much f̶a̶n̶t̶a̶s̶y̶.

Who am I kidding? I don't read much.

This does seem to be slipping between my neurons more easily than usual...