Tuesday, 24 July 2001

Ursula K. le Guin: The Farthest Shore (1973)

Edition: Puffin, 1974
Review number: 883

The third, and for many years, final, volume of le Guin's Earthsea series is again a bleak novel. It is more explicitly about death than the earlier two - that is what the title refers to - though it is treated in a less personal way here and so The Farthest Shore may be a novel suitable for younger children than The Tombs of Atuan.

Sparrowhawk is now an old man by Earthsea standards (about fifty), and is Archmage of the wizard's isle of Roke. There, the wizards begin to hear rumours from the farthest reaches of Earthsea that magic is ceasing to work. A prince from the West Reach comes with a definite message to this effect, and Sparrowhawk sets off with him on a quest to find out what is happening.

This turns out to be, in fact, people giving up their power for a promise of eternal life. The life they then have is only a pale reflection of real living, and brings a grey world without emotion or joy - or magic. It is possible that there is a subtext here about the way in which Puritan Christianity suppressed the practice of magic, but this may be reading rather too much into le Guin's writing.

While The Farthest Shore was a satisfying conclusion to the series when it was a trilogy, the first two novels are more memorable; the characters of A Wizard of Earthsea and the setting of The Tombs of Atuan make each of these books stick in the mind. This is probably a reason behind the eventual composition of Tehanu, though that too has a lesser impact.

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