On Sailing to Sarantium, by Dena Taylor

by Dena Taylor

This was first published as a review in TransVersions 10, Toronto: Orchid Press, 1999

In Sailing to Sarantium, Volume One of The Sarantine Mosaic, Guy Gavriel Kay moves east in his secondary world and three hundred years back in time to write “a fantasy upon themes of Byzantium” (author’s preface). He has found in Byzantium at its height — both the historical city and the one William Butler Yeats imagines in his poem “Sailing to Byzantium” — his vehicle for exploring the intricate relationship of art and myth to Empire and religion.

Kay’s use of the historical Byzantium allows him the same accomplished examination of politics and religion that characterizes his first set of historical fantasies. But what distinguishes Sarantium is what he has drawn from Yeats’s vision of Byzantium, the poet’s sense that the mystery of the cosmos and the power of imagination infuse the human world and raise it above the mundane but deadly realities of history.

In the larger scheme of the Sarantine diptych, this volume focuses on one man’s voyage to Sarantium [G. Kay, personal communication, Sept.15/98]. Crispin of Rhodias, artisan and mosaicist, leaves a life devastated by loss to answer the summons of the Emperor Valerius II, who wants a mosaic to cover the great dome of Jad’s Holy Sanctuary in Sarantium. The transformative moment in Crispin’s long and difficult journey comes in an ancient wood, where he is confronted but spared by the zubir, the great beast form of the primal oak god. His arrival in the city plunges him into a political maelstrom that he survives only through his quick wits and the power and creativity of his artistic imagination.

The title refers to the fact that “To say of a man that he was sailing to Sarantium was to say that his life was on the cusp of change: poised for emergent greatness, brilliance, fortune — or else at the very precipice of a final and absolute fall as he met something too vast for his capacity” [39]. Crispin’s voyage, thus, is not only physical but spiritual, an arrival at the edge of the cliff, poised like the Fool of Yeats’s tarot for flight or death.

The novel is grounded in a very Blakean tension between the forces of order and energy. On the one hand are Empire and religion, the forces that restrict imagination and freedom. The emperors of Sarantium use military might, bureaucracy, laws, and taxation to subjugate whole peoples, trying to rule the whole known world. And the Jaddites, as in Lions, use the divine to rationalize cruelty and prejudice, and to extend their political power. On the other hand, the forces of energy and imagination, always threatening to spin off into chaos, are represented by the half-million citizens of the city and beyond them of the fragmented Empire. Both forces are essential, not only for their intrinsic values but also to keep each other in check. And the bridge between them is shaped by art and myth.

Yeats speaks in his poem of the transformative nature of art, its ability to capture what endures beyond the transitory beauties of roses and birds. In the novel, at a mundane level, a golden rose captures the beauty and danger of the Empress Alixana; mechanical birds capture song for the amusement of emperors.But on a higher level, the mosaic Crispin designs captures the light of eternity and uses it to elevate the soul.

There are levels of magic in the novel as well, an element that was absent from Lions. For the citizenry, with their factions and colours, their ghosts, demons, and curse-tablets, magic is the way an intimate relationship and communication with the otherworld is conducted. They see no contradiction with their belief in Jad and his Holy Church, which tolerates what it knows it can’t change. Then there is the pagan ars magica of the alchemist Zoticus, who transmutes souls and contains them within bodies of wood. His is the same magic practised by Yeats (though never with such spectacular results) for the last forty-five years of his life. And here there is indeed conflict with the hierarchy of Jad — Zoticus’s arts have become another in an ever-expanding list of heresies.

As a first volume, Sailing to Sarantium establishes the parameters of major conflicts, particularly those pertaining to empire and religion. Here is Kay at his most historical, reshaping the reign of Justinian and Theodora to express his reflections on the development of Western culture. For Kay as for Yeats, Byzantium is the place where “imagination and history [are] at home together” (author’s preface). What redeems Empire and religion is their generous patronage of the arts — not just in finance but in spirit. They appreciate and foster beauty, excellence of creative endeavour, and the connection to the larger meanings of the cosmos. Art, myth, empire, and religion come together in the novel’s climactic scene, when Crispin’s drawings for the mosaic are unveiled. The Emperor and the Eastern Patriarch respond equally to the overwhelming power of the design, which captures both the light of eternity and — through Crispin’s inclusion of the figure of the zubir — the dark, disturbing forces of primal myth. Thus, as art and myth elevate the soul, empire and religion provide the framework for their expression. At the end of the novel, with Crispin’s designs accepted and his journey to Sarantium completed, the stage is set for the complexities of the second volume. If Kay proves true to form, readers can expect politics in all its forms — religious, sexual, artistic, and state — to shape deadly intrigues and powerful resolutions.

© Dena Taylor

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