Having finished the third installment and halfway point of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series, I feel I should look back through the books and record my thoughts. There are few fantasy books that have the same moral and philosophical horsepower, so the temptation to reflect is just too great.
The Farthest Shore (#3) is not as atmospheric and charming as A Wizard Of Earthsea, but neither is it as dark as the second book, The Tombs of Atuan. It lies somewhere in the middle. More adventurous, perhaps, than its successors, but the adventure is not the purpose of the book. Le Guin is often vague on details, and there’s hardly the suspense you’d normally associate with a fantasy like this. Rather, the focus is on the discussions of the characters and the sum total of their experiences that lead to a feeling more of spiritual/mental journeying than of physical, though I don’t think an allegorical hypothesis of the book would hold water.
There is great movement of thought and belief that in a way mirrors the movements of Sparrowhawk and Arren across the world of Earthsea, and this is probably a turnoff for some. The Farthest Shore seems a bit more of an indulgence of thought than her other two, and I liked it better when the adventure meant a bit more than just a vessel for those thoughts. Even more of a turnoff since the philosophy was beginning to turn stale toward the end of the book. After all, humanism can only get you so far, and when read in light of C. S. Lewis, Earthsea began to pale by the third book.
Why is that? In A Wizard Of Earthsea, main character and magician Sparrowhawk (Ged) learns his art and battles against his own pride, which is personified by shadow. Presiding over the book is the theme of light and dark – particularly as equal and opposing forces – but there is a good deal of wisdom here, and I could almost ignore the dualism by taking a Christian perspective throughout. The light and dark motif manages to remain fresh even with the dualistic, ying-yang coupling at the book’s conclusion:
“Light and darkness met, and joined, and were one.”
But it’s disturbing to think that Ged defeated the darkness (ostensibly his own pride) by absorbing it into himself.
Here I realized that simply disregarding the dualistic, humanistic values wasn’t possible, and it shouldn’t have been how I read the tales of Earthsea. I wanted to trap the themes I liked – the ones that fit with my worldview – and extract them and pin them up on my bulletin like dried out butterfly wings. I suspect Le Guin would’ve liked to hit me, and I’d deserve it. Instead, I started taking the books as a whole (I had to go back through them), and I found them more difficult to enjoy, yet more interesting to dialogue with.
First off, I think it’s important to read these books in tandem with Lewis’ Narnia series and probably even Pullman’s The Golden Compass. They lead to interesting discussions for both sides, and they help me articulate why I like one philosophy over another. But that’s not to say the humanistic side is entirely bad. In fact, Le Guin says a lot that needs to be said. Particularly in The Tombs Of Atuan and The Farthest Shore she presents a critique of religion that is more than fair.
The way she sees religion in Atuan is troubling and dark, and the priestess Tenar is saved by Sparrowhawk who says to her at the end,
“You were the vessel of evil. The evil is poured out. It is done. It is buried in its own tomb. You were never made for cruelty and darkness; you were made to hold light, as a lamp burning holds and gives it light.”
Brought out of the Platonic cave of religious darkness, Tanar’s escape is from the ignorance and cruelty of her religion. In that case, I must agree that this series offers a critique of what religion often is, but not what it was designed to be. Whether that was Le Guin’s intention or not, I don’t know.
This is interesting to think about especially since Le Guin has some things to say that direct us towards hope and are often neglected by Christianity since we are so bogged down by our ruminations on total depravity. Tinged with humanism that it is, I don’t think the books’ redemptive qualities should be ignored. There’s a lot of hope, and none of it lies in the upper floors of the tower of Babel.
Still, The Farthest Shore presents an interesting problem for Christians. The major theme is living a life full of color and accepting death when it comes. Easy for Christians to say with heaven around the corner and all, but the book makes it clear that Le Guin believes death the great anti-climax. End of the line. Not that I share the sentiment, it’s still an important thought. Sometimes we’re too focused on The Last Battle perfect ending, forgetting about all the rest. And The Farthest Shore’s answer to death is not hedonism, which is especially relieving.
The series’ hope is a down to earth hope, and there it remains, but that’s good for some thought. And as a critique of religion, it’s appears gentle and, to some degrees, necessary. Or at least not unreasonable. The wisdom of Earthsea is a human sort of wisdom, and I read it with discernment, but Le Guin’s style of writing is beautiful and her thoughts are worth pondering. As a fantasy, this represents some very powerful literature.