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.
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.
Next up: An emotional narrative from an unlikely medium.
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.
Ged and Lebannen, artwork by Rebecca Guay at http://www.rebeccaguay.com
Thanks for including the video. It provides great real-world context to the parable.
Also, I love, love, love the line “All that which you sold, that is yourself.”
I started this book ages ago but never got into it so I set it aside and never went back to it. This has given me a whole new perspective and I am going to give it another try.
You’re welcome! I really admire people who can draw their ideas coherently and attractively, and so decided to share the video.
Hi Isaac, I recently (about two years ago) also re-read the EarthSea trilogy and enjoyed it much more than I had as a younger person. I wish you good luck with your writing and your website! (And thanks for letting me know that you liked my latest post today.) –Gary
Thanks very much for your well wishes!
Excellent comments on consumerism and emptiness. Interesting resonances with a piece I wrote about the empty self. Interesting that one can arrive in the same place: http://shaunlambert.co.uk/2012/08/02/rediscovering-christian-contemplative-practice-part-2/
I don’t really have much to say except that I was looking for dragon pictures and found this, and well, love what you’ve done here. Thanks. 🙂
Thanks for the compliment. Always appreciate new people reading.
I stumbled on this when trying to find the quote of Ged talking to Tenar about nature being beautiful and kind and terrible and horrifying.
I feel like you have taken all the lessons I internalized from The Farthest Shore (which was also my favorite of the three) and put them into words.
I can’t wait to have children to share the three books with and ask them questions as they read, so they can learn the same lessons. When I work with people, teaching them and such, I try to be like Ged, getting them to ask and think themselves. Although, unlike Ged, I do give praise as they improve, although not I’m not quite as effusive as other coaches and teachers I observe.
Anyways, thank you for putting all these things into words for me, so that it helps me put it into words for future generations.
I remember that quote from the Tombs of Atuan: ““The Earth is beautiful, and bright, and kindly, but that is not all. The Earth is also terrible, and dark, and cruel. The rabbit shrieks dying in the green meadows. The mountains clench their great hands full of hidden fire. There are sharks in the sea, and there is cruelty in men’s eyes.”
I’m glad you found this piece useful – I reread The Farthest Shore regularly, and it still holds a special place in my heart.
I hadn’t actually really thought of thinking about Cob in terms of a mundane greed for more life but your quote “As with Cob, the feeling of emptiness and needing more continually gnaws at us. … The cycle of consumption can eventually make us blind to the damage we inflict upon ourselves, the people around us, and the surrounding environment [which in Earthsea is manifest as the destruction of magic via Cob’s actions]” is great. Both parts of your analysis of “Shore” make me appreciate that book even more.
I would add though that I think there is more to say about Daoism in “The Farthest Shore” & how it relates to death in that novel.
I think that the general bleakness of Earthsea’s afterlife serves to underscore the point that the original trilogy AND “Tehanu” makes about the value of everyday life. The fact that the afterlife looks bleak makes life all the sweeter, all the more precious in all of its aspects such as planting peaches, drinking wine, & watching the weather.
But in the original trilogy Le Guin is not actually committed to the Dry Land being Earthsea’s equivalent to the ancient Greek & ancient Hebrew idea of Hades/Sheol.
The Dry Land is Earthsea’s equivalent of Hades/Sheol only from the view of those who fear death & do not understand life & death. Life is change & interconnection with the world. Living things are changing, evolving things that are interconnected with other living things. You cannot have life without change & what Cob wants in “The Farthest Shore”–eternal life for himself as an isolate individual–is not really life at all.
Le Guin gives a Daoist interpretation of Hades/Sheol & thereby removes the utter bleakness of it.
This why in the original trilogy neither Ged nor the other mages of Roke fear the Dry Land. The immaterial ghosts that have a name & nothing else in the Dry Land are not to be pitied or feared because that isn’t our fate in the truest sense when we die. This is why Ged talks about the real Erreth-Akbe, Morred, & Elfarran being upon Earthsea. Their bodies fed the animals and decayed in the soil, nourishing plants while their children grow up–the interconnectivity of life is endless.
To be sure, some sense of meaning can exist even when a creature dies or a thing is destroyed–we can still talk about my grandmother who is dead or the Lighthouse of Alexandria that was destroyed long ago– and this what the Dry Land is, but concrete
meaning, true naming can only ever refer to the changing world here & now .
(The above is also why despite it’s profound literary beauty, I think “The Other Wind” is a a deeply philosophically inferior work compared to the original trilogy + “Tehanu.”)