The Farthest Shore is my favourite story of the Earthsea series.It is also one of my favourite novels of all time. While I loved Wizard more growing up, Shore is the book I come back to as an adult. The prose is graceful and fluid, written by someone with mastery of the language. The exchanges between the characters are honest, heartfelt, and thought-provoking. It is a story that tackles the one theme we all must face: Death. I have taken both meaning and solace from its pages during times of loss and grief.
The exploration of Shore will be split into two parts; there’s simply too much material to cover in one entry. I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time with this book, so it’s no surprise that I have forged many connections with it. Let’s get started!
A malaise has fallen over Earthsea. Magic is being drained out of the world, and even the skills and knowledge that make everyday life possible are being lost. Arren, the young prince of Enlad, was tasked by his father to bring the issue to Ged, now middle-aged and the Archmage of Roke. Together, they venture forth to the farthest isle and into the land of the dead to stop Cob, the mage responsible for the plague. Over the course of their journey, Arren learns from his failures, discovers his own inner strengths and weaknesses, and gains the wisdom to become Lebannen, the next King of Earthsea. With Arren’s help, Ged is able to restore the world, but at the cost of his powers that defined him as an adult. Finished with doing, Ged goes back home to Gont to walk amongst its forests.
Of silk worms and bats
Like in Wizard and in Tombs, the reader is again provided with a brief glimpse of how inhabitants of Earthsea perceive their relationships with other creatures:
“Seen across ten miles of sunlit water, Lorbanery was green, green as the bright moss by a fountain’s rim. Nearby, it broke up into leaves, and tree-trunks, and shadows, and roads, and houses, and the faces and clothing of people, and dust, and all that goes to make up an island inhabited by men. Yet still, over all, it was green, for every acre of it that was not built or walked upon was given up to the low, round-topped hurbah trees, on the leaves of which feed the little worms that spin the silk that is made into thread and woven by the men and women and children of Lorbanery. At dusk the air there is full of small grey bats who feed on the little worms. They eat many, but are suffered to so and are not killed by the silk-weavers, who indeed account it a deed of very evil omen to kill the grey-winged bats. For if human beings live off the worm, they say, surely small bats have the right to do so.” (Shore, p.100)
In this context, steps taken to control the bat population for the purpose of increased silk production would not only be unwelcome, but viewed as acts of evil. The villagers of Lorbanery believe the environment does not exist for the sole use of humanity. They have an innate empathy for the Other; there is room in their world for other living creatures to live their lives.
Mindfulness and appreciation
There are several passages in Shore that move me deeply. One occurs near the end of a long voyage across Earthsea. Arren complains about having to traverse across the remote island of Selidor. Ged reminds him with a heavy heart to be mindful and appreciative of his surroundings. Realizing that they are embarking on a journey without certainty of return, Arren looks around and truly sees his environment for the first time:
“They went on in silence. But Arren saw the world now with his companion’s eyes and saw the living splendour that was revealed about them in the silent, desolate land, as if by a power of enchantment surpassing any other, in every blade of the wind-bowed grass, every shadow, every stone. So when one stands in a cherished place for the last time before a voyage without return, he sees it all whole, and real, and dear, as he has never seen it before and never will see it again.” (Shore, p. 218)
I read that passage just before flying back to Hong Kong for my grandfather’s funeral. I returned to his home, an island called Cheung Chau, and a place where I spent my childhood. At the time, I thought it would be the last time I would ever return, and set about to explore the island one final time. As I walked the beaches, hiked the mountains, and stared out at the sea, I began to see what Arren saw. I became mindful of the beauty of the place. I saw it finally whole, and real, and dear, as I never saw it before and will never see it again.
So often in our lives we rush through it. That specific passage is a reminder for me to be more mindful of life itself. It urges me to take a moment to notice my surroundings with a different mindset, whether I am in the middle of an old-growth forest or navigating a busy city street in the urban jungle. It prompts me to take a deep breath and recognize that the life on this world created the oxygen I require to live. It hints that I should be mindful of the natural and human processes that made the glass of water I drink potable. It reminds me that I should appreciate the skill, energy and life processes that is used to create each bite of food I eat.
Being mindful allows us to notice and appreciate the connections that permeate every part of our lives. There is a reason that “stopping to smell the roses” is one of our culture’s most popular clichés. With that awareness of connections comes a sense of inner well-being and centeredness that we crave and need. I believe that being mindful and developing appreciation are critical ingredients for a workable environmental ethic.
- What events and experiences in your own life have caused you to stop, think, and appreciate things in a different way?
The essence of dragons
“We men dream dreams, we work magic, we do good, we do evil. The dragons do not dream. They are dreams. They do not work magic: it is their substance, their being. They do not do; they are.” (Shore, p.48)
Like the Immanent Grove, the dragons of Earthsea represent a primordial essence of nature. They are intelligent, awesome, and terrifyingly real creatures, but they are also mysterious beings that are the antithesis of humanity, and the ultimate form of Otherness. In Shore, Arren’s initial encounter with dragons left him in breathless, wordless wonder:
“As Lookfar approached the islands, Arren saw the dragons soaring and circling on the morning wind, and his heart leapt up with them with a joy, a joy of fulfillment, that was like pain. All the glory of mortality was in that light. Their beauty was made up of terrible strength, utter wildness, and the grace of reason. For these were thinking creatures, with speech and ancient wisdom: in the patterns of their flight there was a fierce, willed concord.
Arren did not speak, but he thought: I do not care what comes after; I have seen the dragons on the wind of morning.” (Shore, p. 193)
Ged shares a similar experience:
“And though I came to forget or regret all I have ever done, yet would I remember that once I saw the dragons aloft on the wind at sunset above the western isles; and I would be content.” (Shore, p. 49)
Their experiences are quite similar to my own personal experiences in nature untamed: Seeing a red rusty vast wind-carved canyon for the first time, catching a momentary flash of vivid colour from the plumage of a rare bird, watching the shifting purple hue of an evening sunset. These events evoke in me a sense of deep wonder and contentment that is beyond language, defies description. Those experiences remind me, on some unconscious level, of the kinship that exists between humanity and the natural world. No words are necessary.
It’s also interesting how Dragonlords are defined in the Earthsea universe. A Dragonlord is not someone who is able to harness the power of dragons, as in most depictions in the fantasy genre; Le Guin makes it clear that no one can do that with her dragons. Even Cob, the main villain of Shore, merely robbed them of their speech. In Earthsea, a Dragonlord is defined as a person who can talk to dragons and have them answer in return. To be a Dragonlord is to able to converse with a dragon, to have a relationship with one. The title is borne not out of dominance, but rather of reciprocity.
If Earthsea dragons can be interpreted as a manifestation of nature and the other, this element of reciprocity could be taken into the real world. A Dragonlord is one who does not desire to control or tame nature, but is one who is attuned to and can communicate with it. In my opinion, the equivalent of a Dragonlord in our world would be a great gardener, someone who is mindful and respectful of his/her environment and can deftly negotiate between the boundaries of nature and culture. The qualities of a good gardener and his/her role in nature and culture will be explored more in depth in a subsequent entry.
- Can you think of the most significant life experience you have had with the natural world, and can you shape it into a story to share with others?
Humanity’s place in the world
Shore also has something important to say about humanity’s role in the environment. In a heartfelt exchange with Arren after being saved from certain death, Ged talks about the great gifts given to humanity:
“…But only to us is it given to know that we must die. And that is a great gift: the gift of selfhood. For we have only what we know we must lose, what we are willing to lose… That selfhood which is our torment, and our treasure, and our humanity, does not endure. It changes; it is gone, a wave on the sea.” (Shore, p. 160)
Ged points out that humanity is unique and special: We alone out of all the species in this world are able to know ourselves and recognize life as precious patterns which end but are perpetually reborn. However, that knowledge comes at a cost: We are burdened with morality. We have to decide what we should and should not do while other creatures (and babies) simply are. The Earthsea novels are all about exercising the choices we do have with care; they passionately appeal for humanity to behave as responsible stewards of the world. Shore reiterates that core idea in one of the most powerful passages in the entire series:
Presently the mage said, speaking softly, “Do you see, Arren, how an act is not, as young men think, like a rock that one picks up and throws, and it hits or misses, and that’s the end of it. When that rock is lifted, the earth is lighter; the hand that bears it heavier. When it is thrown, the circuits of the stars respond, and where it strikes or falls the universe is changed. On every act the balance of the whole depends. The winds and seas, the powers of water and earth and light, all that these do, and all that the beasts and green things do, is well done, and rightly done. All these act within the Equilibrium. From the hurricane and the great whale’s sounding to the fall of a dry leaf and the gnat’s flight, all they do is done within the balance of the whole. But we, insofar as we have power over the world and over one another, we must learn to do what the leaf and the whale and the wind do of their own nature. We must learn to keep the balance. Having intelligence, we must not act in ignorance. Having choice, we must not act without responsibility.” (Shore, p. 86-87)
Actions in Earthsea: A Taoist worldview
As mentioned previously in Wizard, Taoism is a common influence in many of Le Guin’s works. Taoism to her does not consist of the beliefs and rituals associated with the religion, but rather the philosophy that stresses introspection, simplicity, appreciation for the natural world, and an understanding of the relationship between opposites. A key idea of Taoism is wu wei: The knowledge of knowing when to act and when not to. In Shore, Ged conveys the concept of wu wei to Arren:
“… But if there were a king over us all again and he sought counsel of a mage, as in the days of old, and I were that mage, I would say to him: My lord, 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.” (Shore, p.87)
Ged’s advice stems not out of a criticism of action, but rather thoughtless action, of action borne out of desire and greed. Cob, the main villain of Shore, is the prime offender in this regard: He is clever, powerful, and motivated by greed and fear. In his arrogance and pride, without respect for the world and regard for potential consequences, his actions nearly brings about ruin to Earthsea.
In contrast to Cob, Ged exercises proper and necessary action: He does only because he must do. He acts with knowledge of his consequences and acts with proper timing. He saves his power for when it is needed most. For much of Shore, he appears to do little but observe his surroundings and follow random guides. But when need arises, he is in a position to act and act decisively. Because he practices wu wei, action from stillness, he is able to use his skills in a timely fashion (but at great cost to himself) to bring the world back to balance.
Many of the great environmental problems we face in the world today have their roots in the efforts the well-intentioned people trying to make the world a better place with an incomplete understanding of the potential ramifications. In Taoist thought, this can be seen as a result of too much thoughtless action. The notion of proper action reminds me of the Precautionary Principle: Act only when you understand the consequences and can live with the risks. Shore’s narrative conveys a vital lesson: We must strive to understand the world from a host of perspectives so we can properly assess the potential consequences of our actions. But if wisdom reveals that need to act is urgent and the timing is critical, we must act and act decisively.
Next entry: Part Two of The Farthest Shore.
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Farthest Shore. New York: Simon Pulse, 2001.