Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018) is perhaps best known for her science fiction, which included such classics as ‘The Left Hand Of Darkness’, but for me her crowning achievement remains the first three volumes of the ‘Earthsea’ series, which earn her a place among the great masters of alternative fiction – Tolkien, Garner, Pullman, Pratchett, Gaiman – in what has surely been a great age of that genre. And for me the most profound and resonant of those three volumes is the third, ‘The Farthest Shore’. Much later she came back to ‘Earthsea’ with a fourth volume, ‘Tehanu’, but sadly the magic was gone, her previously unfettered imagination too obviously subordinated to her ideological concerns – worthy concerns to be sure, but still… as Keats observed in one of his letters: ‘We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us’. .
‘The Farthest Shore’ tells the story of the wizard Ged’s last and greatest quest, to find and destroy the evil that is draining power from the world and destroying the Equilibrium. Accompanied by the young prince Arren, he journeys across the archipelago that is Earthsea and finally crosses the land of the dead. This passage, which I think exemplifies Le Guin’s unshowy but beautifully rhythmic prose, is taken from near the end of the book, when the quest has been fulfilled but all Ged’s power is spent, and Arren is left to save both of them.
‘He was not downcast. Though very tired. and grieving for his companion, he felt not the least bitterness or regret. Only there was no longer anything he could do. It had all been done.
When his strength came back into him, he thought, he would try surf-fishing with the line from his pack; for once thirst was quenched he had begun to feel the gnawing hunger, and their food was gone, all but one packet of hard-bread. He would save that, for if he soaked and softened it with water he might be able to feed some of it to Ged. And that was all there was left to do. Beyond that he could not see; the mist was all about him.
He felt about in his pockets as he sat there, huddled with Ged in the fog, to see if he had anything useful. In his tunic pocket was a hard, sharp-edged thing. He drew it forth and looked at it, puzzled. It was a small stone, black, porous, hard. He almost tossed it away. Then he felt the edges of it in his hand, rough and searing, and felt the weight of it, and knew it for what it was, a bit of rock from the Mountains of Pain. It had caught in his pocket as he climbed or when he crawled to the edge of the pass with Ged. He held it in his hand, the unchanging thing, the stone of pain. He closed his hand on it, and held it. And he smiled then, a smile both sombre and joyous, knowing, for the first time in his life, and alone, and unpraised, and at the end of the world, victory’.