Three Glasses of Wine: The Accommodation of Culture in The Lions of Al-Rassan

by Dena Taylor

This paper, by Dena Taylor, is part of an upcoming book on GGK being published by NIMROD PRESS (New Lambton, NSW, Australia) in the BABEL HANDBOOKS series.

In The Lions of Al-Rassan, religion is highly politicized, with three religions modeled on medieval Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. The Kindath worship the white and blue moons, sister to the god; the Asharites the stars of Ashar; and Jaddites worship the sun-god. They transform our history’s patterns of subjugation and conquest, in the names of gods who are detached from the human condition, into an exploration of the distance away from their original mysteries religions can travel as they become politicized.

As in Tigana, a dispossessed culture serves as a reminder of the fragility and endurance of human endeavor in the face of tyranny. The Kindath, who call themselves the Wanderers, are subject to the same restrictions and prejudices, the same accusations of blood-sacrifice and greed as the Jews. They are tolerated by the secularized urban Asharites, paying heavy taxes and restricted to ghettos, but free to practise their religion and their trades. The Asharites of the Majriti desert tribes, however, are fiercely intolerant of both the decadent Al-Rassan city-kings and the infidel Kindath. In a similar vein, the Jaddites of Espera[n]a have slaughtered the Kindath through the centuries, forced them to convert, or enslaved them. Stateless, they are a people on whom a false identity is imposed by the cruelties of history and political expediency. No matter where they go, they are the marginalized culture.

So subsumed to the purposes of politics is religion in Lions that the true expressions of religious piety are generally made by characters who are naive, deluded, or both. For example, when the Belmonte family cleric, Ibero, betrays Rodrigo Belmonte’s psychic son to a Jaddite High Cleric who will want to use the boy as a tool in an expansionist war, he does so with innocent belief in the church’s “holy cause.” Miranda Belmonte tells the innocent cleric Ibero: “It is not a holy war. If it happens, this will be a Valledan campaign to take Fezana and expand south into the tagra. That is all” (383). Almalik II, ruler of Asharite Cartada is no less blunt in explaining why he incites prejudice against the Kindath in Fezana: “My father used to do the same. The wadjis need to be kept happy. They inspire the people. In a siege that will matter. And if they do push some of the Kindath out, or kill a few, a siege will be easier to withstand. That seems obvious to me” (415). In other words, the more fervently genuine their religious zeal, the more easily individuals and groups are manipulated into hatred and fear of the ‘other’, for what are ultimately secular political goals.

Lions is the most openly cynical portrayal in Kay’s historical fantasies of the ways in which political and cultural tensions interact with religious power. Rulers and clergy alike pay lip service to religion and use it to manipulate the people and to seize territory. In this respect, it is interesting to see the ways in which, in Sailing to Sarantium, Kay counterpoints the anti-spiritual morass of church politics by reintroducing to his secondary world a sense of the original mysteries and myths of the spiritual life.

In all of Kay’s novels, major events have their genesis in the freely willed actions performed by the protagonists, and here again his narrative features strong, sexually mature women whose actions determine major events. Like the Kindath Jehane of Lions, Dianora of the Tiganese swears that the enemy of her people will die by her hand. Like Dianora’s, Jehane’s oath of revenge is subverted, in her case by the poet-assassin Ammar ibn Khairan who, quite simply, beats her to it. Again like Dianora, Jehane is a powerful individual from whom all power is eventually stripped by the dominant culture, because of her gender and her membership in an outlawed culture. It is only her status as a physician, a male-dominated profession, that allows her the freedom she’d otherwise never have had. She uses her status as a sort of honorary male to keep herself free of the attachments of husband and children, to walk the streets alone at night, to gain entry into political circles where her opinions are valued.

But there is no denying that the framework of historical fantasy offers more limitations to a writer than the worlds of high fantasy in presenting the roles of women. Sharra, daughter of Shalhassan in The Fionavar Tapestry can expect to inherit her father’s throne and is trained for that role. But in the European and Middle Eastern history that establishes the parameters of the historical fantasies, it is a rare woman who can wield great political power along the lines of an Eleanor of Aquitaine. Looking ahead for a moment to Sailing to Sarantium, we see another young queen, Gisel, who, unlike Sharra, can expect only assassination or a forced marriage. Her only hope of retaining her throne is to enlist male assistance in the person of the Emperor of Sarantium. Just as typical of the ways in which women can influence power is the character Zabira in Lions, who uses her body as a commodity to hold the attention of King Almalik of Cartada, the father of her two sons.

In Lions, with its postmodern sensibilities that preclude both magic and the power of heroism alone to determine outcomes, resolutions are produced by both individual action and the whims of history. On the individual level, most notably, there is the crucial role played by Rodrigo Belmonte and Ammar ibn Khairan in determining, when they fight each other, who will rule a united Esperana and heal its religious and political divisions. On the other hand, it is only historical irony that allows the rebuilding of Kindath culture after its destruction in the Jaddite holy war: a sympathetic king in victorious Esperana and a Jaddite clergy that has suffered a political defeat at his hands and must make amends.

In Lions, the idea of cultures achieving accommodation with each other is an ideal running through the subtext. There are two crucial scenes here, one about halfway through the book, when news is circulating about the destruction of the only city where the Kindath could live freely, and prejudices are being fanned against them throughout Al-Rassan. In that scene, Alvar the Jaddite and Husari the Asharite see themselves, even in this dark hour, as “proof that men of different worlds can blend and mingle those worlds” (350), while Jehane has hope that the ideal may be actualized, that it is possible to make one world of “sun, stars and the moons” (367). The extent to which her hope is realized is symbolized by the epilogue, and the final image of the novel: Three full glasses of wine, intentionally left standing together in a private garden by the Kindath, Jaddite, and Asharite protagonists who live at peace in Sorenica, the rebuilt city of the Kindath. This happens on the day that word comes of the reuniting of Jaddite Esperana and Asharite Al-Rassan. Sorenica — serenity — is the culmination of the process of harmonization that is the foundation of civilized humanity.

© Dena Taylor

This entry was posted in Lions Scholarship, Professional Scholarship, The Lions of Al-Rassan. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.