Setting

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 389

Earthsea is a mythical world of many small island nations surrounded by an unknown sea. It has a border with the world of the dead. Earthsea's economy and politics seem medieval, with trade and barter between nations governed mainly by kings or ruling families. In a few areas magic substitutes for the benefits of modern technology, such as medicine and weather control. But such progress has not affected other social systems such as transportation, industry, or warfare; these remain medieval.

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Le Guin explains the creation and existence of this world in the first book of the trilogy, A Wizard of Earthsea, There Ged explains that the shining of the stars is the repetition of a long word of which the name of every essential thing in creation is a syllable. All of creation is contained in and made by words. Out of the darkness of nonbeing comes the light of being. Everything exists for a time, then returns to its source in nonbeing.

The raft-folk danced, using no drum or flute or any music but the rhythm of bare feet on the great, rocking rafts...
Because the cosmos is speaking a word that is creation, magic is possible. The wizard (or mage) can participate in and, to some extent, manipulate creation by learning the syllables of the long word and then speaking them at appropriate times. Magic in Earthsea essentially involves learning the words of the original language of creation. Learning these words does not confer simple power on the wizard, however, for it is possible to misuse magic words and upset the balance of creation. The magician might well produce the opposite of what he intends. Or a selfish man of power may destroy creation altogether while attempting to achieve something impossible, like immortality. Immortality, for any individual, is impossible in this world because it would interrupt the dynamic interchange between being and nonbeing, between light and darkness, that keeps the cosmos in motion and makes life and change possible.

Dragons are the oldest living creatures in Earthsea. They speak the original language of creation and usually do not concern themselves with human activities. However, when Cob begins to unmake the world, they too are endangered. The dragons call upon Ged to help them as they begin to lose their power of speech and their will to live.

Literary Qualities

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As in the other Earthsea novels, Le Guin sets up a thematic opposition between being and nonbeing. Arren must choose between serving being and serving nonbeing. His plight is similar to that of Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea and Tenar in The Tombs of Atuan. Although he wants to serve Ged, whom he loves, Arren is strongly tempted by the immortality that Cob offers. Ged's teachings in the course of their adventures help to make clear the values and ideas attached to these symbolic poles. Le Guin also infuses the landscapes of Earthsea with symbolic meanings, most notably in the "dry land," but also in almost every area the pair visits from Hort Town to the Children of the Open Sea.
The story is told mainly from Arren's point of view. This has the initial effect of obscuring the tenderness of Ged's feelings for the young prince. But as the love between the two matures, this early obscurity is dispelled by a moving revelation of their affection in the land of the dead.

Like most of Le Guin's work, The Farthest Shore is beautifully written and invites reading aloud. Her story of a young man's maturation through a physical and spiritual adventure makes this an especially attractive book for thoughtful young readers.

Social Sensitivity

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Though teachers play an important role in all three of the Earthsea books, this novel places special emphasis on the role of the wise mentor. Learning to overcome the fear of death requires a teacher steeped in the wisdom of the culture. In many ways Ged is presented as a model teacher, one who carefully chooses what to say, what to demonstrate, when to debate, and when to allow students the time to digest and test what they have learned.

This book suggests that teachers should inspire their students with love, but should also teach them the "hard words," the truly difficult truths painstakingly gathered by the wisdom of traditional culture. For Le Guin, the central truth seems to be that humanity must live and seek happiness in the world that is given. For her, human happiness arises from a freely chosen and social alliance on the side of creation. People are happy when they are creating the works and institutions that are essential for peace and well-being. In so doing, they oppose the natural forces of nonbeing that continuously break down what is made.

Though this world view will probably be unfamiliar to most younger readers, this should not detract from the book's interest or value. A teacher may avoid discussing the religious ideas raised in this novel, but a more creative approach would be to challenge students to understand these ideas and then to criticize them, consider alternatives, or even defend Le Guin's implicit world view. Such an approach should improve reading and thinking skills while encouraging students to examine their own values. Considering mortality is especially difficult for young people. This novel works much like traditional fairy tales in offering a gentle opening for thought and discussion about this central philosophical and moral problem.

For Further Reference

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Beacham, Walton, ed. Popular Fiction in America. Vol. 3. Washington, DC: Beacham Publishing, 1986. This essay contains a brief discussion of the Earthsea Trilogy.

Bittner, James W. Approaches to the Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984. This books analyzes Le Guin's themes and style.

Bucknall, Barbara. Ursula K. Le Guin. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981. This is a brief but useful survey of Le Guin's fiction with attention to her biography and major themes. It includes a good bibliography.

Cowart, David, and Thomas Wymer, eds. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 8. Detroit: Gale Research, 1981. Article on Le Guin summarizes her career and discusses her major science fiction.

Estes, Glenn, ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 52. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986. This article discusses Le Guin's fiction for young readers, with special attention to The Earthsea Trilogy.

Heller, Terry. "Ursula K. Le Guin." In Critical Survey of Short Fiction: Supplement, edited by Frank Magill. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1987. Includes a short essay that discusses

Le Guin's world view as reflected in her short stories. Le Guin, Ursula K. The Language of the Night. Edited by Susan Wood. New York: Berkley, 1979. This collection of essays is useful for understanding Le Guin's philosophical beliefs and the aims of her fiction.

Spivack, Charlotte. Ursula K. Le Guin. Boston: Twayne, 1984. Spivack discusses all of Le Guin's fiction, essays, and poetry published up to 1984.

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