The Farthest Shore – Platonists and Sophists…again

As I have plugged away through the Earthsea novels, I have honestly become increasingly disenchanted. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why reading these novels felt like such a chore, like I was making myself work through them so I could get onto other, more interesting books. I spent a lot of time discussing my feelings about the novels with my intellectual partner Ben, who long ago got used to me talking my way around some issue before coming to some kind of conclusion, usually preceded by the phrase “I know what it is!” I couldn’t tell if it was just my perceptions of the issues with gender in the novels that were making me so grumpy about them or if I disliked them for other reasons. It wasn’t until I read blurb on the front of on of the paperbacks — “The Classic High Fantasy Series” — that I realized what was going on: I don’t like high fantasy. I never really have. I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was younger and enjoyed them to a certain extent, but I only got halfway through the Silmarillion before deciding I couldn’t take it anymore. I just get impatient, and more so as I’ve gotten older. I say this now in order that readers may take my comments on the Earthsea novels with an appropriate grain of salt.

The Farthest Shore seems to mark the end of the first series of Earthsea books while Tehanu marks the beginning of a new era, at least in terms of Le Guin’s thinking about the novels. As such, it wraps up the story of Ged rather nicely with him embarking on a final quest in which he uses all of his magical power to save Earthsea from an evil sorcerer before secluding himself to a quiet retirement (though he returns in Tehanu). On this final quest, he takes young prince Arren, the boy destined to take the throne as the first king Earthsea has had in many, many years. I was upset by this book almost from the get-go: when Ged, now the Archmage of Roke, tells his fellow mages that he intends to take Arren with him on his quest, the mages ask why he takes a companion, since he went on his previous quests alone, and why his companion is this boy with no magical power instead of another mage. Rather than correcting the mages and reminding him that he always had help on his quests, Ogion on his trip to the ends of the sea and Tenar on his visit to Atuan, Ged just agrees that he did usually go on his quests alone. From that point on, I was just really annoyed with Ged, which was easy considering that Arren is the primary point of view for this novel and he often gets rather annoyed with Ged too, but when he’s not annoyed he’s preoccupied with hero worship. But, of course, Ged is a mage, is the mage, so who are we to question his methods?

What I did find really interesting about The Farthest Shore is the way it deals with the relationship between word and meaning, signifier and signified. In fact, the problem that is presented at the beginning of the book is that words, magic words, are losing their meanings. Arren’s father, a small-time wizard in his own right, says the spells for the Festival of the Lambs, but then tells his son, “I said the words, but I do not know if they had any meaning” (5). And, indeed, the lambs were being born deformed, indicating that the words had lost their meanings, their power. Notably, this loss of meaning is a geographic specific phenomenon; Ged and Arren travel to places where the words have lost their meanings while in other places the words still work fine (of course, Ged can always use the words, but what kind of Archmage would he be if he could not). In their time with the Children of the Open Sea, Ged and Arren witness the loss of meaning as the singers fail to finish singing the Long Dance because they cannot remember the words. So, there are two ways that the words are lost: when they are forgotten and when they are remembered sounds without power/meaning. What replaces the words is an extreme distrust of wizards which often manifests itself as either denial of wizardly power or a denigration of wizards are lazy or manipulative. Arren himself falls into this mindset for some time, thinking to himself, “That’s wizard’s talk, making things seem great by great words. But the meaning of the words is always somewhere else” (125). Mages, it seems, are reduced to sophistry to the islanders as the veil of illusion is lifted from their eyes.

Harkening back to my post on Anathem, I call attention to the Platonic/Sophistic debate that continues to play out in this text. I find the clear lines of the debate in this text interesting, given that Le Guin continues working in her theme of dualism: the recurring image of life and death as both sides of one’s hand emphasizes the argument that life is only recognizable because of death, light is only given meaning by darkness, etc. However, Le Guin does little to complicate the Platonic/Sophistic divide, and instead the onslaught of meaninglessness, or perhaps multiple meanings, is part of an undeniable evil.

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