The High Fantasies of Lawhead and Kay, by John Doherty.

By John J. Doherty

This essay is part of a larger work by Professor Doherty, titled “Arthurian Fantasy, 1980-1989: An analytical and bibliographical survey”. It examines the development of the Arthurian Legend in fantasy literature during the 1980s. This essay, featured here with kind permission by Professor Doherty, is the third section of the paper. Professor Doherty contends that Lawhead and GGK were the first to introduce the concept of High Fantasy into treatments of Arthurian Legend.

The promise that Bradshaw and Godwin offered for the eighties (examined previously) had not been satisfactorily fulfilled by 1986, when two authors emerged with the first Arthurian High Fantasies of the decade. With High Fantasy entering into Arthurian works the concern over historical accuracy was no longer necessary, and the entire area of Arthurian fantasy was to develop along new lines, until David Gemmell came along and reasserted the need for history to complement the fantasy. I shall be returning to Gemmell later. Stephen Lawhead spent one year in Britain researching his Arthurian story that would become the transitional work of this period between the two genres of Low and High Fantasy. His Atlantis, his imaginary world, is destroyed in the first book of a tetralogy The Pendragon Cycle. [1] The Canadian fantasist Guy Gavriel Kay, with his debut series The Fionavar Tapestry, was writing at the same time as Lawhead. Kay has written with the Canadian fantasy tradition in mind, but he is notable because he is the first of the contemporary Arthurian fantasists to write solely in the High Fantasy genre, though he sacrifices a lot of the legend to make his novel work. Like Kay, Lawhead also writes within a tradition, that of religiousness, which has been used quite extensively by Arthurian authors throughout the legend’s long history. These traditions are all the more conspicuous because they are present in two such transitional series.

Religion has been a prominent part of SF and fantasy from the early 1960’s. That it took so long to develop into a major theme in these fields was due to the reluctance on the part of SF and fantasy authors to confront issues such as religion and sex. The relaxed atmosphere of the sixties was the ideal environment for the more audacious authors to approach these issues.

These authors display an inclination towards three features of “religious imagination”, defined by Adam J. Frisch and Joseph Martos as fundementalizing, or reducing reality to its “most essential features;” ultimatizing, or looking for and pronouncing upon “the bottom-line meaning and value of life;” and moralizing, or “the way religious imagination seeks to describe the ethically good life.” [2]

James Blish’s A Case Of Conscience (1963), the anthology Dangerous Visions (1967), the 1967 short story “Faith of Our Fathers” by Philip K. Dick, or Harlan Ellison’s Deathbird (1975), are among the pioneers in this growing area of SF and fantasy. All reflect the three features noted above, and Frisch and Martos conclude that:

If religious consciousness fundamentalizes reality, ultimatizes values, and moralizes about human behaviour, and if religious imagination pictures such realities, values, and behaviours in myths and parables, then it certainly seems that a good deal of science fiction is a product of religious consciousness and imagination. [3]

This would certainly seem to be the case with Lawhead. His two-part series Empyrion (1990), in which the apparent antagonists, the Fierra, are revealed to live every moment in the presence of God, is very hard to read. This is because of the constant religious symbolism that contributed to the overall lack of plot development and a narratorial ineptitude, for its existence is an indulgence of the author, who spends a lot of time in expanding them rather than getting on with his story. With The Pendragon Cycle this religiousness is slowly released on the unsuspecting reader: Taliesin (T), the first in the series, is a well written action fantasy and little else. However, by Arthur (A), the author’s use of religious symbolism brings the plot to a virtual standstill. The final volume, Pendragon, returns to the tightly plotted style of the original novel, but it is a re-hash of the story of Merlin (M) and Arthur.

Published over a three-year period (1987-1989), the first three novels are nearly 1500 pages long. As such they are notable as the longest of the Arthurian fantasies, though Nikolai Tolstoy’s Books of Merlin promise to be much longer. Unlike Tolstoy’s novels (the products of a lifetime’s study), Pendragon suffers from the same malady as Bradley’s Mists: unnecessary padding.

Lawhead’s novels, like the earlier Arthurian fantasies of this period, deal with destiny. Here, however, destiny is in the shape of an immortal Atlantean, born of the Princess Charis (a survivor of the destruction of the fabled continent) and the mysterious, otherworldly Taliesin. This instrument of destiny is Merlin, and the latter two novels are his story, with Arthur’s being told as an aside. It seems likely that the third novel of the trilogy, Arthur, had originally been planned as two novels: one telling the rise of Arthur to the kingship; the other telling of his years as king. This can be seen in the role of Merlin in the final novel, for he no longer seems to be the prophet that the earlier parts had portrayed him as; in this part of the series the destiny that Merlin was the instrument of has been fulfilled in Arthur’s realm. It would have made more sense in making this narratorial split between Arthur and Pendragon, rather than have them tell the same story from two narrative points-of-view.

Taliesin contains most of the High Fantasy of the series, with almost half the story taking place in a well-realised Atlantis, where the war leading up to the destruction is described in vivid detail. It is the story of Charis and her father Avallach. He is wounded in the war and left to die in a most horrific way which leaves him mentally and physically wounded for the rest of his life. Avallach thus becomes the Fisher King, the mystical guardian of the Grail in Arthurian legend. Here, however, he is a man haunted by his sins and totally committed to God in the way he had been previously committed to the war that had wounded him.

Charis is quite unlike her father. She is the narrator of the novel and will later assume the role of the Lady of the Lake, a figure from the legend as mysterious and mystical as the Fisher King. At the beginning, however, she is living an idyllic life that, with its constant mentioning of apples and apple-groves, evokes images of Eden. In a sense Charis is the Eve to Taliesin’s Adam, and Merlin, their offspring, becomes the “Soul of Britain,” (M, 273) the protector and conscience of all the people. The serpent of evil has already entered this Eden, and Charis becomes a victim of her father’s war, banished to another kingdom and forced to risk her life in the name of religion and entertainment in a bull ring.

Charis also tells of the finding of Taliesin and of his growth to manhood while learning of the druidic rites and the coming of the Darkness. These two characters are fated to meet, as Taliesin’s vision of her in the lake indicates. Apart, they are learning the lessons that they will need before they are finished with their battles against the Darkness. For Charis her lessons are much more harsh, much more realistic and true to life, for it is she, not Taliesin, who must carry the vision of the Kingdom of Summer through her long life and endure all the trials that God puts before her, her son, and the warriors who fight the Darkness. Taliesin’s lessons, on the other hand, are on the spiritual plane, where he is gifted with the vision of the Kingdom of Summer, and with the talent to be able to sing of it to others:

I have seen a land shining with goodness where each man protects his brother’s dignity as readily as his own, where war and want have ceased and all races live under the same law of love and honour. (T,468)

His death at the end of the first novel, when he willingly gives his life for his son’s, is, therefore, not too surprising. The vision has been called into being and his widow, Charis, has been prepared to teach it to the Champion who will work to make it a reality.

Taliesin has prepared the way for Merlin, the most enigmatic and fascinating figure from the legend. With its growing sense of turmoil and strife, the novel also prepares the reader for the total collapse of society, and for Arthur’s role in restoring order. Yet it also does one other thing: it has, to use the term adopted earlier, reduced the reality of Atlantis and, most especially, Dark Age Britain to its most essential features. Taliesin has fundamentalized or has defined good and evil in its most simple, mythopoeic terms and set the scene for their confrontations in the novels to come.

Merlin is, in every sense of the word, a transitional novel. It charts the life of the enchanter from his childhood at Ynys Avallach to the birth of Arthur, and the Sword in the Stone. All aspects of the Merlin legend have been included–his kingship, his madness, his battle prowess, his bardic talent, and his guidance to Aurelius and Uther that leads to Arthur’s birth.

Early in the novel, however, the words that Taliesin spoke on Merlin’s birth colour the reader’s perception of the enchanter’s role:

Look upon him, lords of Dyfed; here is your king! The Dark Time is coming, friends, but I hold the light before you. (T, 487)

The role that is later to become Arthur’s seems to belong to Merlin in this volume. The first part of this novel continues to uphold this suggestion, as we watch Merlin grow both spiritually and physically into a king with the power to scare the minions of the Darkness. Merlin’s legendary madness puts an end to these days of kingship and begin his days as counsellor.

Before he emerges from his madness, however, Satan himself approaches Merlin and tempts him in much the same way Christ was tempted in the wilderness just before He began His mission: Christ was offered all the kingdoms in the world in return for His homage (Matt. 4.8-9); Merlin is also offered this:

Come with me, Myrddin, together we could make you the greatest emperor this world has ever seen. You would be rich beyond all riches; your name would last forever. (M, 227)

Like Christ, Merlin does not succumb, and he returns from the wilderness of his madness to find his disciple, Pelleas, waiting for him. He is now ready to fight his battles; like Christ, he fulfils the words of Isaiah:

The people that lived in darkness
have seen a great light;
light has dawned on those
who lived in the land of death’s dark
shadow. (Matt. 4.16)

And, also like Jesus, he has a message to proclaim: the Kingdom of Summer is at hand. Merlin, once its Champion, is now only its prophet, as the title of the final part of this novel indicates.

These biblical allusions are indicative of the growing religious tone of this series. From the point when Merlin comes out of the forest where he had spent the years of his madness these allusions become more prominent, and the religious tone begins to take over the story. Merlin also realises the second of the features of religious imagination noted already: it has sought for, and pronounced upon, the basic meaning of life. Lawhead believes this to be faith in God and the ability to love in the face of great adversity. He illustrates this by showing Merlin keeping faith with God even in the depths of his madness, and retaining the love for his murdered wife as his guiding force. For Merlin, in madness, life became meaningful in that he once more learned that he was the instrument of God’s will. Destiny and fate, God’s plan, have taken over and the battle that is to come, the emergence of the Kingdom of Summer from the Darkness of strife, is God’s way of building a beacon of Light in a sea of Darkness, much as the sacrifice of His Son was a similar weapon in a similar battle.

Arthur begins with the fifteen-year old Arthur drawing the sword from the stone. The opening of Pendragon is intended to fill the gap between Arthur’s birth and this event that the last section of Merlin does so well. The other kings and nobles, however, refuse to believe that Arthur is the one chosen to be their High King, as happens in legend, and it is only Merlin’s intervention that gets Arthur elected as Warleader. Arthur, as the Warleader, has many battles to fight, but he does this in two stages–he first fights his fellow Britons and then the invading Saxons. This two-stage war is interrupted first by the breaking of the sword he drew from the stone, and then by a stay at Ynys Avallach, where he gets a new sword, and a vision to fight for:

You have given me a sword. . .And now you have given me the vision with which to use it. . .With the help of God and his angels, I will do it. I will establish the Kingdom of Summer. (A, 153)

When he takes up his new sword he first offers peace to all his enemies, and soon he has all Britain in his hand.

The plot, however, has slowed down somewhat. The early promise of the first novel, with its fascinating blend of High and Low Fantasy, of Atlantis and Dark Age Wales, has not been fulfilled here. The author has lost control of his narration and allowed the religious symbolism, that worked well for him in a more muted form, to dominate. For example, in the coronation scenes Lawhead has come up with a very interesting idea of having Arthur crowned twice: first in the north by the warriors who fought at his side; then in the south, the traditional heartland of British power. Yet, in both scenes the author indulges in long, convoluted sermons on the glory of God that only repeat what has been said many times already. The prolonged, involved passages describing the pomp and ceremony of both coronations are made all the more monotonous by the sermons of various figures, and by the religious commentary by the narrator. Neither scene contributes anything to plot development, and only one needs to be told for the purposes of the story, and even then in a much shortened form.

Religion also features in a lot of the battles–both magical and otherwise. We are told of Merlin being protected from Morgan’s magic fire by the wings of an angel; Arthur fights on Badon Hill only after building a wall of prayers to help his outnumbered men win the fight. Thus, Arthur, in a very real sense, fulfils the third of Frisch and Martos’s features of religious imagination: the way religious imagination seeks to describe the ethically good life.

Lawhead’s idea of the “ethically good life” is described by Taliesin’s vision of the Kingdom of Summer. Significantly, Taliesin concludes his bardic description of his vision by saying he sees:

A land where peace reigns in the hearts of men, where faith blazes like a beacon from every hill, and love like a fire from every hearth, where the True God is worshipped and his ways acclaimed by all. (T, 468)

This vision of Christianity is appealing in its simplicity, and it harks back to the early days of the Church, which, as evidenced in the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles, although marked by a fair amount of misbehaviour, may also have come close temporarily to the vision of heaven on earth that Lawhead quite naively portrays. Arthur’s kingdom, when established, is the realisation of this vision that is not to be sullied by incest or adultery. Both of these motifs have been abandoned by Lawhead in an attempt to moralise, or describe the ethically good life. This kingdom, however, has its flaws, and they are to be its downfall. The Kingdom of Summer, like Christ, has to be sacrificed in an effort to stave off the Darkness.

The Darkness that threatens the world of Fionavar must also be held back. In Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry, however, this Darkness is incarnated in the form of an evil god and in the Arthurian symbol of the Wasteland. Like Cherryh’s Port Eternity, this series is one of the few excellent pieces of Arthurian literature to be published in the eighties.

Kay was writing within the Canadian SF and fantasy tradition while all the other authors included in this study write in the Anglo-American tradition. Canadian SF and fantasy is relatively sparse in comparison to the more abundant and influential Anglo-American scene. David Ketterer says that this could be the result of a comparative lack of interest in research and development in the Canadian sciences. He offers a second and more plausible explanation to this:

blockquote>[T]he need for a colonial people to take imaginative possession of their own physical environment may have rightly pre-empted the development of a literature devoted to imaginative realms per se. [4]

Canada, however, has produced some of the most important authors of both SF and fantasy, and has begun, over the last thirty years, to develop its own tradition. Ketterer notes that:

Canadian SF draws on such soft sciences as sociology, anthropology, and psychology, and hence, it may be hypothesized, its tendency to exist on the borderlines of, or to mutate into, the “softer” genre or mode of fantasy. [5]

An important figure in SF is Canadian expatriate Gordon R. Dickson, who writes mainly adventure stories that adhere to the familiar themes of fortitude and persistence in the face of great adversity. As David Wingrove comments of Dickson’s contemporary novel, The Final Encyclopedia (1983):

[H]e has made eloquent use of genre conventions to create an imposing book out of material which might have proved intransigent to a writer more sophisticatedly literary. [6]

His Dorsai Cycle includes an examination of the Warrior, the Believer, and the Mystic aspects of Man. As such, Dickson is very clearly an important influence on Kay.

The Summer Tree (ST) is the first book of The Fionavar Tapestry. The most notable aspect of this novel is the amount of symbolism used, of which some is Arthurian. The most important Arthurian reference in this volume is to the Wasteland and the Wounded King, both elements from the Grail story. As previously mentioned, the character of Jennifer is revealed to be a reincarnation of Guinevere in the second volume, although her role in this novel is only of secondary importance.

The story of The Summer Tree concerns the attempts of five young adults, from contemporary Toronto, to aid the magicians and nobility of the High Kingdom of Brennin in Fionavar, “the first of all worlds,” (ST, 16) in their fight against the evil of Rakoth Maugrim, the Unraveller, who is causing the blight on the land. The central character is undoubtedly Paul Schaffer, who strikes up a friendship with the old and dying High King, and who learns the truth about the blight that has struck the land and endangers the harvest. He also learns that “when the land has need” a person of royal blood must be sacrificed on the Summer Tree of this novel’s title. (ST, 78)

This is a theme developed by many fantasy authors of recent years, and by many authors of tales throughout the history of the Arthurian legend. J.G. Fraser traces this ritual back through time to the early days of civilisation itself.[7] This adds to the primitive and sometimes violent atmosphere of the novel. Bloodmagic is very common in the world of this trilogy, and each volume tells of the sacrifice the characters must make to hold back the Wasteland, and give them time to form a strategy to fight the Unraveller. This violence and bloodthirsty primitiveness is due to the desperate situation in the story, and to the almost vain struggle to survive against superior odds, which in turn is probably a reflection of the influence of the Canadian tradition that owes a lot to the history of Canada itself: a nation that in its youth had to struggle to survive in a hostile, vast environment that is part polar Wasteland.

Paul chooses to die on the Summer Tree for the land, and he is hung upon it naked. He stays there for three days and nights, returning to earn the name Twiceborn, for he had died and been sent back as the instrument of the god of the Tree. The overtly Christian symbol of the crucifixion and resurrection of Paul helps to reinforce the Grail elements of the story, with the notable exception that is constantly reiterated throughout the series: the Grail in Fionavar contains not just the blood of God, but the blood of every character, Everyman, and the pain they must suffer to free the land from evil incarnate. Kay emphasises this point by showing the reader that the sacrifice of royal blood is not necessary to save the land, as the god of the Summer Tree takes Paul’s.

The battle that is begun in the first novel, however, needs a champion to fight the evil, and it is Kim, who has become a Seer in Fionavar and who wears the blood red Baelrath, or War Stone, who finds him in The Wandering Fire (WF). Kay, obviously influenced by Michael Moorcock’s creation of the Eternal Champion, [8] introduces the Warrior Condemned:

He had been young and afraid. . .Merlin’s prophecy had tolled a knell for the shining of the dream, and so he had ordered the children slain. . .so that his incestuous, marring, foretold seed might not live to break the bright dream. (WF, 34)

Kay has taken a very brief episode from Malory and damned Arthur because of it. Arthur, for the crime he had committed in fear, is doomed to live again and again, in a constant cycle of war and tragedy, until he has paid for his crime. And each time he awakes he has full knowledge of every other war he has fought and never lived to win.

The Arthurian symbol of the Wasteland, therefore, is suddenly overshadowed by the sudden arrival of Arthur himself. Yet Kay hints that this constant cycle of war is not Arthur’s only punishment, and these connotations are fulfilled when Arthur and Jennifer meet, and recognise one another. The tragedy of the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle is to be repeated also, for it, too, was responsible for the destruction of the “bright dream.”

At this point the series drops all pretence that it was anything but an Arthurian fantasy. Arthur and Jennifer are at the core of the story, and their doom and tragedy becomes the focal point of the tale. Kay, however, is at pains not to evoke the bright vision of Malory, or the dark tale of Stewart. He is telling a magical story of men and gods, and the very magic they use in their battles. As already mentioned, this is by necessity primitive, and Kay draws on the pre-Geoffrey-of-Monmouth Welsh tales for the symbols in his story in order to conjure up this atmosphere.

It is not, however, for any of the Arthurian characters or for the five Canadians to take the darkest road to victory. That falls to Darien, Jennifer’s son by the Unraveller. While Jennifer is involved in the renewed tragedy of her reborn lovers, Darien is assaulted by his heritage, and he goes to find his father. The meeting is not what he had hoped for and he kills his father, dying in the process, more blood to feed the Wasteland. The blood this time, though, is part human and part divine, bringing back the strongest image of The Summer Tree, however obliquely, of the death of Christ to redeem the Wasteland of human suffering.

Arthur, in the end, is released from his punishment. In this story he is, essentially, a warrior, or the Warrior aspect of Everyman, just as the five Canadians are the Believers, and Darien is the Mystic. The three Arthurian characters are no more than symbols, and it is only Jennifer who really evokes the tragedy of their situation with any sort of consistency. Lancelot is more of a stereotype than a character, and Arthur only rarely arouses the reader’s pity, in scenes such as when he calls on Lancelot sorrowfully: “Oh, Lance, come. . .She will be waiting for you.” (WF, 298) If Kay had allowed himself to use his characters beyond their values as ciphers the trilogy would have worked much better than it has. That he can do so has already been proven in Tigana (1990), an evocative, rich story that studies the seemingly incompatible themes of language, patriotism and revenge. The Fionavar Tapestry is a wonderful High Fantasy that has used the Arthurian legend well. The religious symbolism deserves comparison with that of Lawhead, if only to note that Kay is better, and more frugal, in his use of it.

It is the Arthurian symbols, however, that remain with the reader, and the terrible fate that Kay suggests is waiting for Malory’s Arthur beyond the grave:

When the babies died the Weaver had marked him down for a long unwinding doom. A cycle of war and expiation under many names, and in many worlds, that redress be made for the children and for love. (WF, 34)

It is love, at the end, that defeats the evil of the Unraveller. The Grail that all have searched for to defeat Maugrim, and to heal the Wasteland, is revealed to be, quite simply, love: Paul almost dies on the Summer Tree reliving his love for his dead girlfriend; Kevin, another of the Five, sacrifices himself to the goddess while making love to her so that the snows could be turned back; and Darien kills his father out of love for his mother and his foster brother. Kay has brought the Arthurian legend into High Fantasy in an astoundingly complex series of novels that admittedly have flaws, but which, with Bradshaw’s and Tolstoy’s works, could well be the prime examples of how well fantasy and the Arthurian legend work together.

Kay’s final novel of Fionavar was published in 1987, and Lawhead finished Arthur in 1989. Kay, unlike Lawhead, changed the face of Arthurian fantasy by showing his peers that King Arthur can be brought into a secondary world without destroying the legend in the process. One author, David Gemmell, was to follow them into High Fantasy, but he was to reassert the historical elements that Kay and Lawhead had for the most part discarded, and in the latter part of the decade a large number of short stories also appeared with Arthurian themes and characters used in unusual ways. These texts, however, while owing a lot to Kay’s example, also pick up on the Atlantean theme as expressed by Lawhead. They pay homage to the works that have preceded them, but also prepare the way for the next decade, and for fresher, more originally conceived, Arthurian epics.

End Notes

1. The 1988 Lion paperback for Merlin advertised a fourth volume in the series, Pendragon, due for release in  August of 1990. However, the third novel, Arthur, was promoted in 1989 as the last of the series. Pendragon was  finally published in 1994 and is basically a re-hash of the story told in Merlin and Arthur.

2.Adam J. Frisch and Joseph Martos, “Religious Imagination and Imagined Religion,” The Transcendant  Adventure: Studies of Religion in Science Fiction/Fantasy, ed. Robert Reilly (London: Greenwood, 1985) 11-12.

3.Frisch and Martos 24.

4.David Ketterer, “A Historical Survey of Canadian Science Fiction,”Science Fiction Studies 10 (1983) 88.

5.Ketterer 99

6.David Wingrove ed. The Science Fiction Source Book (London: Longmann, 1984) 136.

7.J.G. Fraser, The Golden Bough Abridged ed. (By Fraser) (1922; London: Macmillan, 1987) 264-283.

8.The Eternal Champion “is doomed to quest forever for a balance between freedom and stability in the intractable  flux of time and space.” Wingrove 204.

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