Welcome to part two of the analysis for the third Earthsea novel, The Farthest Shore. In this entry, I would like to explore more thoughts and connections I had that were sparked by the narrative. They include society’s relationship with nature, the perils of greed and consumption, and qualities crucial to environmental leaders and educators.
A Divorce from Nature
I discussed the main villain of The Farthest Shore in part during the last entry, but I want to further explore his motivation. Cob, in his efforts to escape dying, opens a rift between the world of living and the realm of the death. He does so because he refuses to accept death as a consequence of being alive:
“…There I said to myself: I have seen death now, and I will not accept it. Let all stupid nature go its stupid course, but I am a man, better than nature, above nature. I will not go that way, I will not cease to be myself!” (Shore, p. 234)
Cob believes that as a mage with great power he is above and beyond nature. This mentality of attempting to divorce oneself from nature reminds me of an article written in the sixties called The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis by Lynn White. He argues that science and technology are not the solutions to saving the environment; rather it is the “superior, contemptuous” attitude western society harbours towards nature that must change. By denying the connections we have to the natural world, we become isolated and develop an “us versus others” mentality that is inherently self-destructive. Nature is part of us and we are part of nature. Dependence upon the non-human world should not be viewed as a bad thing: Accepting that we are fundamentally connected to nature is not an attack on the idea and identity of the Self. On the contrary, acknowledging dependence with others who are not like us can help to enrich our inner selves, enlarge our sense of the world, enable us see things from with new eyes, and foster the empathy and respect necessary to forge a more sustainable and peaceful world. Le Guin shares her perspective on the problem of alienation:
“It seems likely that our central problem would not be the one it is now: the problem of exploitation – exploitation of the woman, of the weak, of the earth. Our curse is alienation, the separation of yang from ying (and the moralization of yang as good, of yin as bad). Instead of a search for balance for integration, there is a struggle for dominance. Divisions are insisted upon, interdependance is denied. The dualism of value that destroys us, the dualism of superior/inferior, ruler/ruled, owner/owned, user/used, might give way to what seems to me, from here, a much healthier, sounder, more promising modality of integration and integrity.” (Dancing at the Edge of the World, p.16)
A Parable of Greed
The climax of the book has Ged confronting Cob in the Land of the Dead. By this point, greed has become Cob’s master and has reduced the once great mage to a dry husk. Ged chastises and pities Cob for escaping the cycle of life and death:
“You exist: without name, without form. You cannot see the light of day; you cannot see the dark. You sold the green earth and the sun and stars to save yourself. But you have no self. All that which you sold, that is yourself. You have given everything for nothing. And so now you seek to draw your world to you, all that light and life you lost, to fill up your nothingness. But it cannot be filled. Not all the songs of earth, not all the stars of heaven, could fill your emptiness.” (Shore, p. 237)
The Farthest Shore to me serves as a warning against unchecked greed; Cob’s unrestrained desire serves as an apt metaphor for the consumerism that pervades modern society. We eagerly look forward to the newest products which have been marketed and targeted specifically to our desires and tendencies, knowing with certainty that it will bring us happiness. But since it is the anticipation that proves most satisfying, the pleasure we derive from our purchases is ultimately fleeting. We start looking ahead to the next thing. We start back in the beginning, seeking, anticipating, craving for that next item that can make us happy. We become mired in a pattern of purchasing things we do not need, always returning to a point of being unsatisfied, empty, and hungry. We devote our time, money, and energies to a process that leaves us ultimately unfulfilled. In Shore, Cob becomes trapped and subservient to his insatiable greed for life:
“No one can set me free. I opened the door between the worlds and I cannot shut it. No one can shut it. It will never be shut again. It draws, it draws me. I must come back to it. Must go through it and come back here, into the dust and cold and silence. It sucks at me and sucks at me. I cannot leave it. I cannot close it. It will suck all the light out of the world in the end. All the rivers will be like the Dry River. There is no power anywhere that can close the door I opened.” (Shore, p. 238)
As with Cob, the feeling of emptiness and needing more continually gnaws at us. Many of us know that on some level that consuming things we don’t need or even want causes a whole host of environmental and social problems. The cycle of consumption can eventually make us blind to the damage we inflict upon ourselves, the people around us, and the surrounding environment. What’s worse is that being trapped in such a cycle can render the joys and wonders that do exist in the world – the experiences in life that can truly fulfill us – dull and uninteresting.
We must learn to recognize our habits of consumption and keep greed and desire in check if we wish to look beyond short-term pleasures. Instead of buying things we don’t need that won’t provide us with any lasting utility, we can slow down and practice mindful and careful consumption. What is needed? What is a luxury? What will endure and be useful for years to come? What really gives us long-lasting enduring joy?
The High Price of Materialism: A video that provides context to what I’ve just discussed.
- What is the single most memorable experience of you lusting after a product, and how do you feel about it in hindsight?
- What is an example of mindful consumption in your life, something that gave you continual satisfaction well after the shine has worn off?
- Is the lifestyle you live right now providing you with long-lasting enduring joy? Why or why not?
The Journey of a King
As Wizard of Earthsea was for Ged and Tombs of Atuan was for Tenar, The Farthest Shore is a journey of maturation for Arren. He arrives on Roke as a child untested by life. He is immediately awestruck by Ged, pledging his fealty to the Archmage without fully understanding the journey that laid in front of him. But he emerges at the end as a man capable of understanding himself and the complexities of the world. Like Ged before him, Arren displays or acquires the values and virtues that make him a resilient individual and a capable leader.
In his journey into and out of the realm of the dead, Arren comes to respect life, as well as death. He acknowledges his fear of death and does not let it rule him. He accepts that one day he will die, and with that in mind, he strives to make the most out of his time in the here and now. In so doing, he learns to live life for life’s sake, much like Ged did at the end of Wizard.
Another important virtue Arren displays is his ability to directly confront his weaknesses and failures. He makes significant mistakes throughout the course of the journey. He falls asleep on his watch to guard Ged in Hort Town. He gets captured as a slave. He abandons Ged after the mage was seriously injured. But Arren has the inner resolve to confront those mistakes, learn from them, and grow:
“Sparrowhawk was looking at him, and he had looked down to avoid that gaze. But there spoke in Arren unexpectedly a little voice of courage or of mockery: it was arrogant and pitiless, and it said, “Coward! Coward! Will you throw even this away?” (Shore, p. 158)
Arren is self-critical and accepts responsibility for his mistakes, no matter how difficult and terrible they may be.
Finally, Arren displays the ability to experience the world with an open mind. He encounters first hand the horrors of slavery, the awesomeness of dragons, and life with a seafaring people with different perspectives on life and time. His adventure with Ged broadens his thinking, deepens his senses of compassion and justice, and enriches his understanding of different cultures:
“The time might come, indeed, when he could, when he must, put on his father’s crown and rule as Prince of Enlad. But that seemed a small thing now, and his home a small place, and remote. There was no disloyalty in this. Only his loyalty had grown greater, being fixed upon a greater model and a broader hope. He had learned his own weakness also, and by it had learned to measure his own strength; and he knew that he was strong.” (Shore, p. 182)
The Roman poet Horace once stated that an exiled people can change their skies, but not their souls. Unlike them, Arren is able to draw wisdom from his journey and let it shape his worldview; he understands that his responsibilities encompasses not only Enlad, but the world of Earthsea itself. Arren also comes to know himself and what he is capable of. He emerges from his adventures as a stronger, more resilient individual, and one who was fit to lead. As Lebannen, he is more equipped to deal with people (and dragons) from different backgrounds and ways of thinking in his later life, as we will see in Tehanu and The Other Wind.
Ged of Many Roles
Throughout their journey, Ged acts as a listener, observer, mentor, companion, and follower to Arren. He perceives that Arren has potential for greatness from their very first meeting, but does not mistake him for “a wizard or a warrior or any finished thing” (p. 36). As he does with Tenar in The Tombs of Atuan, Ged offers Arren the opportunity to discover his own way:
“Your roots are deep,” [Ged] went on. “You have strength and you must have room, room to grow. Thus I offer you, instead of a safe trip home to Enlad, an unsafe voyage to an unknown end. You need not come. The choice is yours. But I offer you the choice.” (Shore, p. 36-37)
As a guide, Ged is non-judgmental; he does not praise Arren for his achievements nor punish him for his mistakes. He provides comfort when it was needed, but does not shelter Arren from the truth. Ged is delighted when Arren finally begins to challenge his ideas and way of thinking:
“Arren’s fencing-master in Berila had been a man of about sixty, short and bald and cold. Arren had disliked him for years, though he knew him to be an extraordinary swordsman. But one day in practice he had caught his master off guard and nearly disarmed him, and he had never forgotten the incredulous, incongruous happiness that had suddenly gleamed in the master’s cold face, the hope, the joy – an equal, at last an equal! From that moment on, the fencing-master had trained him mercilessly, and whenever they fenced, that same relentless smile would be on the old man’s face, brightening as Arren pressed him harder. And it was on Sparrowhawk’s face now, the flash of steel in sunlight.” (Shore, p. 178)
Ged is proud that Arren was beginning to think critically for himself, and takes great joy in that knowledge as a mentor. I am inspired as an educator and communicator to attempt to do what Ged does for Arren: to recognize potential, to convey knowledge without judgment, to comfort without coddling, and to accept challenge without dismissal. I believe these are important approaches to adopt when attempting to educate for ecological literacy. We need to foster the development of full-thinking, well-rounded, integrated individuals with the mental tools necessary to construct a better and more sustainable future.
I’ll move away from the Earthsea series for now, for there are other stories that I wish to share. I’ll return later to explore how Le Guin rethought the Earthsea universe in the latter books of the series, starting with Tehanu, then Tales of Earthsea, and finally, The Other Wind.
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Farthest Shore. New York: Simon Pulse, 2001.
Le Guin, Ursula K. Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women and Places. New York: Grove Press, 1989.