Monday, 22 August 2016

The Farthest Shore

Ursula LeGuin The Farthest Shore (1973)
My mother bought this for me one Christmas when I was a kid, specifically the newly published Puffin edition with a cover illustration by David Smee. It must have been 1976, I think. She was probably trying to expand my horizons a little, given that I'd been reading Target Doctor Who novelisations to the exclusion of almost everything else since 1973, but unfortunately it didn't work. I seem to recall liking the cover, but the story sounded old fashioned - as I probably would have described it at the time - and so I never read it; and then at some point down the line, I no longer had a copy.

Several decades later, I've read and enjoyed a couple of Ursulas, and enough so to want to read more and to wonder what The Farthest Shore was like. I keep seeing it on the shelves in Half-Price but my guilt over never having read the one I was given for Christmas is such that I really need that same Puffin edition; and to cut a needlessly long story short, I eventually found one.

The Farthest Shore was - at least at the time of writing - the third part of a trilogy, although a trilogy of three related books rather than a single sprawling saga split into smaller pieces, so my having read neither A Wizard of Earthsea nor The Tombs of Atuan doesn't seem to have presented any significant problems. Nor does the fact of it being a fantasy novel, which is nice, because it's a genre I usually dislike now that I've picked up enough to upgrade my definition from the simpler pejorative of old fashioned. The Farthest Shore, unlike most wizard-based fantasy fiction I've encountered, unfolds at a natural pace, to the rhythm of real life, you might say. Magic has lost its power at the far reaches of the realm of Earthsea, and so our two protagonists set out to discover why. They travel across sea, from island to island, and they encounter friends and foes as an inevitable consequence of their progress, and with none of the rigidly episodic feel I've noticed in lesser works.

That which happens may well happen for a reason, but we're never really sure if it's anything to do with the story or just part of the landscape. There's no suggestion of our needing to take notes because it will all add up to something or other in the climatic final chapter. There are no elves or dwarves or totemic sacred rings found mysteriously at the bottom of a judiciously purchased flagon of mead. Admittedly there's a wizard, a number of dragons, and persons returning from the dead, but LeGuin has made her own world here, which is nice because that's something at which she has always been exceptionally good. The magic of Earthsea - which is used sparringly rather than just splashed around for the sake of it - seems to contain a higher than usual philosophical content and concerns itself with ontological ideas of duality and balance, here specifically that magic is failing due to certain forces at large in the world of Earthsea, or because there's a disturbance in the force - if you prefer. There's a lot of it which puts me in mind of Mesoamerican lore regarding the workings of the universe, and specifically our binary concepts of good and evil simply being different points on a scale. Apparently though, this is a Taoist thing, and so the novel seems loosely pertinent to its time given the rise of the environmental counterculture in the sixties and seventies.

Anyway, as a novel The Farthest Shore seems possibly low on incident, but it doesn't really matter given the richly atmospheric texture; and its point is clearly communicated without anyone having to keep score of which goblins helped forge a mystic tampax from the sacred sheep of some place with a name containing no vowels. I'm pretty sure I would have enjoyed this had I made the effort to read it back when I was eleven, and it may even have sent me down an entirely different road, but I don't suppose there's much good to be had pondering over the what ifs.

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