The Themes of Fate and Free-will in the Fionavar Tapestry

by Shelley McLennan, 2002

The struggle between fate and free-will is a fundamental theme in Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry. The ability of people to change their destiny by the exercising of their free will is most clearly shown in his inclusion of the figures of King Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot. Arthur is cursed to repeat his actions again and again throughout time, but yet at the end of this story his curse has been lifted by Prince Diarmuid’s shouldering of his burden in an anarchic act of free-will. The ability for characters to shape their own destiny is of the utmost importance to Kay. Kay does not give us a complete re-imagining of the Arthurian legend in The Fionavar Tapestry. Although Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot are major figures in the work, this is not a tale of Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table. Instead, Kay uses the notion that the legend of King Arthur is true in our world, occurring in the past. Arthur has been called, as the “Once and Future King”, to aid the battle against Rakoth Maugrim in the first of all worlds, Fionavar. Arthur has been condemned by the Weaver (the Supreme Being) to have his actions repeated again and again in many worlds, as he is needed. “…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” (285).

Kay uses as his primary source Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. In Malory’s work Arthur tries to avoid his fate as prophesied by Merlin: “‘…ye have lain by your sister, and on her ye have gotten a child who shall destroy you and all the knights of your realm'” (30). Arthur tries to avert this fate by ordering the killing of all young children:

Then King Arthur sent for all the children born on May-day begotten by lords and born of ladies, for Merlyn had told the king that he who would destroy him and all the land would be born on May-day: wherefore he sent for them all upon pain of death. So many lords’ sons and many knights’ sons were found, and all were sent unto the king; Mordred as sent by King Lot’s wife. All were put to sea in a ship, and some were four weeks old and some less. So by fortune the ship drove into a castle and was all shattered and for the most part destroyed, save that Mordred was cast up and a good man found him and fostered him till he was fourteen years old. (38).

Although Arthur tries, he is unable to kill the infant Mordred. Mordred fulfills the fate that has been prophesied to him, striking Arthur’s death blow. Kay uses this rash act of a young Arthur as the basis for the curse that is laid upon him, although Kay does show sympathy for Arthur’s plight:

[Arthur] had been young and afraid, the dead father had said – and the dead spoke truth or lay silent -Merlin’s prophecy had tolled a knell for the shining of the dream, and so he had ordered the children slain. Oh, how could one not weep? All the children, so that his incestuous, marring foretold seed might not live to break the bright dream. Little more than a child himself he had been, but a thread had been entrusted to his name, and thus a world, and when the babies died… (285)

While Arthur was unwilling to accept Merlin’s prophesies in Le Morte D’Arthur, he accepts that he has been called to “the last battle” in Fionavar with a “mild affirmation” that makes Kimberly, his summoner, weep (286). He is also aware of the fate that is awaiting him in Fionavar, when he asks of Kimberly “‘Are they there yet, the two of them'”, referring to Guinevere and Lancelot. He answers his own question though: “‘They always are'” (286). Arthur also knows what events lie in wait for him. He is destined to repeat many of the events from his first incarnation. The major destiny that Arthur believes he cannot change is that he will not live to see the end of the battle:

“‘I die before the end.’ [Arthur] said it quite matter-of-factly. ‘I think it best you understand that now. I will not be here for the ending – it is a part of what has been laid upon me” (335).

This sense of the inevitability of the events in his life is a main character element in Kay’s Arthur. Even when Guinevere argues that their fate has changed, as there is no Lancelot in Fionavar, Arthur disagrees with her: “‘It cannot be so,’ he said. ‘I killed the children, Guinevere'” (420). Kay uses events from Arthur’s “original” life that occur again in Fionavar to reinforce the concept of Arthur’s unchangeable fate. The first event that Arthur re-enacts is the quest for a magical cauldron. In The Spoils of Annwn, a poem attributed to Taliesin, Arthur sails on the ship Prydwen with the son of Pwyll to the otherworldly island of Caer Siddi. The purpose of the journey is to rescue Gwair, a renowned prisoner, and to obtain a magical cauldron that can bring the dead back to life. Of all the warriors that sail, only seven return (19-20). In Fionavar the magical cauldron is being used by the evil mage Metran to create an unnatural winter. The good mage Loren declares that he will sail to the enchanted island of Cader Sedat in order to stop the killing winter. Arthur realizes that he will have to relive this journey when he learns the name of the ship that is sailing:

‘Has your ship a name?’ [Arthur] asked. Coll flushed suddenly, as if conscious for the first time of where he was, ‘None that will mean anything,’ he stammered. ‘It is a name in no language that I know, but my mother’s father said it was a ship’s name in his family far back. We called it Prydwen, my lord.’ Arthur’s face went very still. Slowly the Warrior nodded, then he turned from Coll to Aileron. ‘My lord High King,’ he said, ‘I have kept my peace for fear of introducing myself between you and your First Mage. I call tell you, though, that if your concern is only for finding Cader Sedat – we called it Caer Sidi once, and Caer Rigor, but it is the same place I have been there and know where it is. This may be why I was brought to you.’ ‘What is it, then?’ asked Shalhassan of Cathal. ‘What is Cader Sedat?’ ‘A place of death,’ said Arthur. ‘But you knew that much already’ (418-419).

Kay leads the reader to believe that “the mage Metran will lower his shield to kill Arthur, and that thereby victory will be gained at the price of Arthur’s life” (Thompson). He does this by, in his own words, “[making] use of the sense of predestiny and doom that’s lying in wait for him” (Thompson). Although Arthur does accept that he is fated to die before the battle is complete, he does have a slight hope that his doom will not be eternal. He expresses this hope to the dog, Cavall, before facing Metran: “‘There…may yet come a day when we need not part'” (460). Even though Arthur survives the battle with Metran there is another aspect of his fated doom that comes to bear at Cader Sedat. Arthur knows that Cader Sedat is the resting place of the greatest heroes of all the worlds, and he realizes that Lancelot is lying dead there, waiting to be called back to war. Diarmuid lets Arthur know that “it is neither written nor compelled” (465) that Arthur awaken Lancelot. Arthur has accepted that his grief has been willed long ago by the Weaver, and will not value his needs above the needs of the forces of good in Fionavar. As he simply states, “‘[Lancelot] will be needed'” (465) and with that Arthur brings Lancelot to life, and so again forms the love triangle.

The love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot is fated in their original lives to bring down the glory that is Camelot. Arthur is warned by Merlyn about the fate that is set for the three of them before his wedding to Guinevere: “Merlyn warned the king covertly that Guinevere was not wholesome for him to take as wife; he warned him that Lan
celot would love her, and she him in return” ( 62). Again, Arthur does not heed Merlyn’s warnings, for he is deeply in love with Guinevere. Although it was Arthur’s killing of the children that resulted in the doom being laid upon him, he is not the only character who is fated to have a role in fulfilling the curse. A central part of the curse is the presence of both Guinevere and Lancelot. These two characters also have their own fated actions to perform again in Fionavar.

In the “Lancelot and Guinevere” section of Le Morte D’Arthur Guinevere repeatedly sends Lancelot away after they have an argument. In Fionavar, Lancelot and Guinevere first meet on the beach after the ship Prydwen has crashed onto the shore. Even though Lancelot is described as being the other half of Guinevere’s soul, she sends him away on a distancing quest: the guardianship of her son Darien. Guinevere is following the pattern set for her in her original life.

While Lancelot is on this quest he encounters Leyse, a member of the Lios Alfar. Leyse falls in love with Lancelot immediately upon meeting him, although she realizes that he loves another, for in his eyes she sees “over and over, endlessly, …Guinevere. And the irrevocable finality, the fact of his absolute love” (668). The love that Leyse has for Lancelot is a replaying of the love that Elaine, The Fair Maid of Astolat, had for Lancelot in his original life. Elaine wills herself to death when she realizes that she will never have Lancelot’s love, and requests that her body be sent by barge down the River Thames. After Lancelot leaves Leyse’s company she “hears her song”, which is a form of death for the Lios Alfar. Leyse finds a boat along the shores of a river and sets out in it to leave the world of Fionavar and sail to a world shaped by the Weaver for only the Lios Alfar. In this way she echoes elements of Elaine’s death.

Other elements of Guinevere’s first life are also replayed in Fionavar. Before Jennifer Lowell realizes that she is Guinevere she is abducted and raped by Rakoth Maugrim, a deliberate echo of the abduction of Guinevere by Meliagaunt in Le Morte D’Arthur. This event is not as closely replayed as the sailing to Cader Sedat, or Leyse’s love for Lancelot. At this point in the story it has not been revealed that Jennifer is Guinevere, and Lancelot is not yet available to rescue her. So it is that Kimberly must pull her out of Maugrim’s stronghold. The most important change to the original story is that Jennifer is raped, and thus bears Maugrim a son, Darien. At the end of the tale Darien kills Maugrim by sacrificing himself on the magical dagger L√∂kdal.

Jennifer/Guinevere is not as bound by fate as Arthur is. She allows herself hope to believe that Arthur’s “doom is not irrevocable” (558) after she is told the story of the origin the Wild Hunt by Taliesin “‘The Weaver wove the Hunt and set them free on the Loom, that we, in our turn, might have a freedom of our own because of them'” (558). The reader is lead to believe, along with Guinevere, that her and Arthur’s fate is not completely set. As Guinevere says, “‘There is no one here who was Lancelot in the way that I was Guinevere, waiting to remember my story. I told [Arthur] so. There are only the two of us this time'” (558). But when Lancelot is discovered and awoken by Arthur the concept of unchangeable fate is reinforced to the reader.

The final battle between good and evil is the climactic moment of the story. As the armies of good are arriving on the field Uathach, a lieutenant of Maugrim’s, calls out a challenge for single battle. Uathach lays claim to Guinevere in the name of Rakoth Maugrim. When Arthur hears Uathach’s challenge he asks what the name of the battlefield is, only to be answered it was once called Camlann. This is a direct reference to the ancient document The Annals of Cambria that mentions “The Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut both fell” (Wilhelm 6). Arthur knows immediately, as does the reader, that this battle with Uathach is meant to be his last. He says this explicitly:

I told you all a long time ago, on the eve of the voyage to Cader Sedat, that I am never allowed to see the end of things when I am summoned. And the name Loren spoke has made things clear: there has been a Camlann waiting for me in every world. This is what I was brought here for, High King (700-701).

Arthur is once again willing to accept his fate, and to die in battle with Uathach. Guinevere is not as willing though. She requests Lancelot to take the battle upon himself, even though he has been injured in his quest to protect Darien. While Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot are arguing over who shall battle Uathach Prince Diarmuid claims the battle for himself:

It was for Arthur and Lancelot, and for Guinevere, that Diarmuid, in all the wild anarchy of his nature, had claimed this dance as his own. It was against the weaving of their long doom that he had defiantly rebelled, and had channelled that rebellion into an act of his own against the Dark. Taking Uathach unto himself, that Arthur and Lancelot, both, might go forward past this day (705).

Instead of Arthur being slain in battle with Uathach Diarmuid makes the ultimate sacrifice. The characters and the reader both are expecting to lose Arthur, but instead lose the character who is the “most charismatic and sympathetic and glamorous” (Thompson). Diarmuid represents the “possibility of human free will in the person of an anarchic spirit” (Thompson).

By Diarmuid’s act both Arthur and Lancelot are alive at the end of the battle at Camlann. The price at this point has been paid by Jennifer’s suffering at the hands of Maugrim, by Diarmuid’s death, and by Arthur’s continuous re-enactment of his original life. Since the price has been paid, his fate can be changed. Arthur is summoned to glory at the Weaver’s side, along with Guinevere, Lancelot and even the dog Cavall. All four sail west with Taliesin to the “Summer Stars” (755). Although the fate that was expected for Arthur did not come to pass, the sailing away of Arthur at the end of the story still has echoes of fate in it, as Arthur’s body was originally borne on a barge that sailed to Avalon.

Instead of this tale of Arthur ending in sorrow and death, there is a joyous ending in the release of Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere from their long, unchanging doom. Kay has taken a story that seems to be fated from the very beginning and inserted a thread of free will that makes it possible to avert the coming downfall. Kay himself says this best: “I have changed the message of the story to one in which even the most apparently inexorable fate, the most preordained doom, is not and need not be forever fated and doomed. There are outlets and escapes where joy can infuse itself into tragedy” (Thompson).

Works Cited

Bollard, John K. “Arthur in the Early Welsh Tradition.” The Romance of Arthur. Ed. Wilhelm, James J. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1994. 11-23.

Kay, Guy Gavriel. The Fionavar Tapestry. Toronto: Harper Collins Publishers Limited, 1995.

Lumiansky, R. M., ed. Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte D’Arthur. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1982.

Thompson, Raymond H. “Interview for the Camelot Project.” Bright Weavings. 30 July 1989. Deborah Meghnagi. 11 Feb. 2002

Wilhelm, James J. “Arthur in the Latin Chronicles.” The Romance of Arthur. Ed. Wilhelm, James J. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1994. 3-9.

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