“As long ago as forever, as far away as Selidor…”
It’s fitting that Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore has its own vernacular for “once upon a time” because, of all of Le Guin’s heroic tales, The Farthest Shore is perhaps the most archetypal. The story traces the arc of young Arren, a rural prince who finds himself wrapped up in a great adventure that eventually results in his being named the king of all lands, the very king whose prophesied reign will bring peace to a troubled world. It’s a fairy tale, pure and simple. Except that there’s nothing pure or simple about The Farthest Shore or Arren’s journey through it.
In any heroic tale, the manner of the telling is crucial. The reductive but true axiom that it’s not the destination but the journey that matters holds firm in heroic literature more than maybe any other because the dictates of the genre—a hero rises from anonymity to battle a terrible evil and save the day—are so firmly entrenched. (Fittingly, it was Le Guin herself who may have stated this proverb best when, in The Left Hand of Darkness, she wrote, “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”) And so the author’s ability communicate the hero’s internal growth and their developing relationship with the world at large are of the utmost importance in heroic fantasy.
Le Guin, of course, is one of the greatest authors to ever tackle such stories and The Farthest Shore is incomparably rich because of it. Arren’s growth tracks an engaging path from the safety of his home through bustling port towns, across the sea and, eventually, through the very land of death itself. Doubts and even bouts of depression lend complexity to his adventures and make his eventual victory all the more satisfying for feeling earned through hardship.
And yet, what truly sets The Farthest Shore apart from other heroic adventures is its ability to utilize a secondary character outside of the hero: Ged, the hero of A Wizard of Earthsea, is now weathered and experienced and he acts as the antithesis of Arren’s heroic arc. As Arren unknowingly rises from nothing to kingship, Ged deliberately drives himself down a path that reduces him from the greatest hero and mage in the world to a lowly, powerless goatherd at the brink of death. That sacrifice, so powerful in The Farthest Shore as a standalone text, is further deepened for readers who have spent time with Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan, who have seen him struggle with pride and recklessness only to now have the wisdom to willingly relinquish the power that he has spent a lifetime developing, the power that is the heart of his life.
Guided by Arren’s ascent, The Farthest Shore is undoubtedly heroic, a fairy tale worthy of the genre’s lineage, but by layering Ged’s abdication on top of Arren’s maturation, Le Guin has crafted a story that goes well beyond the confines of the genre, whose endless themes of friendship, sacrifice and balance stretch back as long ago as forever and as far away as Selidor.