Guy Gavriel Kay and the Psychology of History

by Christopher Cobb

First published in Foundation, Summer 2005. Reprinted by permission of the author. All rights reserved. Christopher Cobb is an assistant professor of English at North Carolina State University. His research interests include Shakespearean romance, Renaissance literature, modern fantasy, and the literature of agriculture. His book The Staging of Romance in Late Shakespeare is forthcoming from The University of Delaware Press.
A huge thank you goes to Alec Lynch for typing up the article!

The parallel-world fantasies of Guy Gavriel Kay, like much historical fantasy, stand in ambiguous relation to the genre of alternate history and its growing body of criticism. On the one hand, insofar as historical fantasies represent clearly counter-factual versions of the past, they resemble alternate history. On the other hand, insofar as they use magic and/or magically accessible parallel worlds in the construction of these counterfactual histories, they differ from alternate history. An alternate history constructs its counterfactual history by a strategic change of one past event, so that its story diverges from actual history and can be understood as a possible replacement for it. By diverging from history according to accepted principles of historical change, the alternate history is conceptually similar to the science fiction thought-experiment story. A historical fantasy, rather than constructing a past that might have existed, constructs a past, similar in some respects to an actual past, that could not have existed. The elements that set its story apart from the actual past – magic, fantastic creatures, and so forth – also set it apart from possible pasts.

Recent critics of alternate history have used some version of the disjunction between the impossibility of fantasy and the “what if” question of alternate history to steer clear of considering the significance of historical fantasy for alternate history. Both Robert B. Schmunk and Karen Hellekson exclude fantasy texts from their understanding of alternate history. Hellekson notes that “linking fantasy and historical concerns brings up a whole new set of questions” with which she chooses not to engage.1 Robert B. Schmunk excludes Kay in particular, from alternate history: “he frequently draws from the history and cultures of places on Earth to create entirely new lands and worlds.” 2 Amy J. Ransom, in a study of the definitions of alternate history and uchronia, cites approvingly Carl D. Malmgren’s description of alternate history as standing between science fiction and fantasy as a hybrid form:

Malmgren defines sf as a genre that accepts the principles of the scientific method and the existence of certain natural laws. Works that contravene those natural laws become pure fantasy. Works of AH, however, straddle the fence, both accepting the rules of sf, while at the same time introducing as the point of speculation a purely fantastic contradiction. 3

Each of these critics sees the difference between historical fantasy and alternate history as more important than the two forms’ shared historical concerns and non-realist methods; the questions raised by applying the methods of fantasy to historical concerns remain, therefore, unexamined.

This essay does not set out to re-define the relationships between alternate history and historical fantasy: that relationship is productively unstable. Rather, it studies the place of history in Kay’s work in order to grasp its historical concerns and its means for engaging its reader with the subject of history. These concerns, in turn, reveal some of the consequences of focusing exclusively on the “what-if” question as the basis of alternate history. Focus on this question presumes that the value of an alternate history lies in the progress it makes towards a rational mastery of the historical process, analogous to the rational mastery of nature obtained through scientific experiment. Readers of alternate history can obtain similar mastery and an empowering awareness of their agency within the historical process. Hellekson is explicit upon this point:

I find the alternate history a rewarding genre to read because it reinforces my historical knowledge – it is always fun to recognize a nexus point. But more important, readers of the alternate history come away with the enriching realization that history is something that it is possible for an individual to shape. The psychological effects of reading the alternate history are important: it could have happened otherwise, save for a personal choice. The personal thus becomes the universal. 4

Kay’s work offers an enrichment for its readers that is primarily emotional rather than rational. It helps them deal with the burden of history in their memories and turn those burdens into opportunities for oblique interventions in present events. Kay’s treatment of history in his fantasies rejects the idea that human beings can ever by their own rational ingenuity escape subjection to the weight of their personal and cultural pasts: the forces of historical change are more powerful than any person. However, when individuals learn to deal with the burden of their history, they may find that they are not helpless before the contingencies of historical change. Kay’s representation of the psychology of history supplements and critiques the rationalist premises of “what-if” alternate histories and criticism.

Despite this claim, the lack of critical engagement with historical fantasy like Kay’s is not a product of simple negligence. The idea that historical fantasy can have a serious engagement with history is far from obvious, and Kay’s own recognition of this potential develops slowly during the course of his career. A survey of this development reveals how he himself has gradually recognized possibilities for historical engagement that have emerged, sometimes inadvertently, in the course of his novels.

Kay’s construction of the emotional significance of his alternate histories begins with the design of their worlds. All his novels are set on other worlds whose histories correspond to some degree to our own, because they all stand, as does our Earth, in a partly derivative relationship to Fionavar, “the prime creation”. 5 This parallel-world arrangement resembles Roger Zelazny’s Amber more than it does the typical sf construction of parallel worlds on the basis of quantum theory. In quantum parallel worlds, the events on one world have no influence on events on the other worlds. In theory, every possible combination of events exists within an infinite set of parallel universes. Characters master history by crossing through time between worlds, using their knowledge of events in one world to influence the course of events in others. 6 In Kay’s multiverse, events on Fionavar are echoed on all the other worlds because it is the primary world closest to the dwelling of the Creator, just as changes in Amber, the one true world, are followed by related changes in all the other worlds, which are its shadows. In Kay’s novels, crossings between the worlds are rare and difficult. They are possible only in his first high-fantasy trilogy, and even there they do not provide the characters with any control over events. 7

Kay develops this multiverse in his first fantasy work, the Fionavar Tapestry trilogy. In it, characters from our reality – from Toronto, in fact – are transported magically to Fionavar, where they become key players in an epic struggle of Light against Dark. In addition to these modern characters, the three central figures of the Arthurian legends – Lancelot, Guinevere, and Arthur himself – are drawn there also, and it is their presence that makes the Fionavar Tapestry a type of historical fantasy. It is not a re-telling of the Arthur legend but a new history that gives the Arthurian characters the opportunity to live out their love-triangle differently and so at last escape from the burden of repeating their tragedy again and again in various forms on all the worlds. In Kay’s vision, that endless repetition has been their punishment for Arthur’s slaying of children in his youth in an attempt to destroy Mordred, and for the betrayals of love. 8 The historical characters are fully aware of their past history, although they may be doomed to repeat its emotional contours. A reader interested only in analysis of the historical process might doubt the seriousness of Kay’s engagement with history, since no scientific insight based on counterfactual thought-experiments can take place under these conditions. However, Kay’s use of history brings out other values that may inhere in a counterfactual history.

His exploration of these values begins with Tolkien’s idea of the highest value of the fairy story: the consolation of the happy ending, or eucatastrophe. 9 When Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot are released from their doom at the conclusion of the Fionavar trilogy, this release functions as a eucatastrophe for the story. 10 In an early interview, Kay himself makes the connection to Tolkien’s concept:

The Fionavar Tapestry was a deliberate attempt to work within the traditions of high fantasy, which incorporates the idea, in Tolkien’s word, of the eucatastrophe, the reverse of the catastrophe. The resolution of the Arthurian love triangle, the unbinding of that curse, would be central to the eucatastrophe at the end of the book. 11

The undoing of the past’s consequences through an altered repetition of that past, which Kay’s parallel-world conceit makes possible, resembles the altered repetition of history in an alternate history story, but Kay’s version, instead of functioning as an imagined replacement for that past, stands as an imagined supplement to it.

In the Fionavar Tapestry, the parallel-world story’s resemblance to an alternate history story is largely coincidental. Kay sets up the parallel worlds to provide a mechanism for eucatastrophe, not for historical exploration. Kay’s choice of the Arthurian legend for eucatastrophic revision suggests, nevertheless, that one may choose to revise history not out of intellectual curiosity but out of passionate desire to have it turn out differently. Such a desire could inform an alternate history, but the author might not acknowledge such a motive because of its apparent self-indulgence. Kay’s fiction can acknowledge the desire for revision because it does not pretend to undo the past. Indeed, the emotional power of the eucatastrophe depends on the readers’ and the characters’ awareness of the full weight of the past. Revising history by repeating it, rather than by retrospectively altering it, allows emotion a central place in the fiction’s engagement with history.

Fionavar’s eucatastrophe emphasizes the importance of emotional engagement with the past: the passion to change history becomes the revisionary force that ends Arthur’s doom. Prior to the last battle against the forces of the Dark, Arthur is preparing once again to meet his inevitable death in single combat against the Dark’s champion Uathach, when a prince of Fionavar takes his place in the duel:

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 channeled 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. 12

Diarmuid’s choice depends upon the knowledge of history’s pattern, but his capacity to make that choice – and it is a choice that will mean his own death – depends upon his anarchic nature and the depth of his feeling for the three bound by this harsh doom.

Diarmuid’s intervention suggests that Kay’s revisionary repetition of history offers readers a lesson similar to the one Hellekson finds for readers of alternate history: “history is something that it is possible for an individual to shape”. Another character explains the matter to Arthur: “‘We are not slaves to the Loom, not bound forever to our fate. Not even you my Lord Arthur. Not even you, after so long.'” 13 Kay’s representation of the effort and the sacrifice required to alter the course of events, however, does not make personal choice into the universal mechanism of historical change that Hellekson perceives. The weight of history gives events momentum and psychological inevitability – Arthur repeats his history in part because he expects to repeat it and can imagine no alternative to repeating it – that can be re-directed only by extraordinary action and sacrifice. Freedom is achieved not simply by making choices.

Although Kay’s engagement with history in the Fionavar Tapestry seems almost accidental, it is the element from his first trilogy that he builds upon most systematically in all of his later novels, in which his engagement with history becomes progressively more direct and more complex. His early single-volume fantasies Tigana and A Song for Arbonne make the change from historically-inflected epic fantasy to the distinctive style of parallel-world historical fantasies on which his current popularity chiefly rests. With the multiverse conceit of Fionavar placed discreetly in the background as a justification for the existence of parallel worlds, Kay constructs cultures that closely parallel historical periods in our own reality but that depart from our history in ways that turn tragedy into eucatastrophe. In Tigana, a culture much like Renaissance Italy escapes political domination and cultural degradation at the hands of the larger empires surrounding it. In Arbonne, a culture much like that of the medieval Provence of the troubadours escapes destruction at the hands of an equivalent to the Albigensian crusade. These novels, like Fionavar, are centrally concerned with fantasy’s capacity to create eucatastrophic narratives that turn tragic endings into triumphant ones. Rather than drawing on myth and legend for the tragedies to be revised, however, Kay draws on European history. Thus, these novels have much more in common with alternate history than does Fionavar.

They continue to treat the individual’s intervention in the historical process in a fashion quite different from the “what if” scenarios of alternate history, however. Kay continues to explore the burden of the past for individuals caught up in a tumultuous history, as Tigana shows in striking fashion. It focuses on a small band of revolutionaries from one province of the Peninsula of the Palm (the world’s equivalent of the Italian peninsula). This province, like the rest of the Palm, has been conquered by a tyrant backed by military might and devastating magic. But the army of this province slew the tyrant’s son in battle, and so he has taken a devastating vengeance on the province and its people. First, his soldiers brutalized the cities of the province, destroying their art, their architecture, their libraries, wiping out the tangible evidence of their culture. Second, and more devastatingly, he has crafted a spell that will erase the province from history. Only people born in that province before the casting of the spell will be able to hear, or to see in writing, the name of the province and its two cities. All others will know them by the names the tyrant has given them. Unless the spell is broken, when all the people who remember the name of the province have died, its name and its history will be lost forever. The struggle of these revolutionaries to recover that name, Tigana, and the life and history of the place it stands for is the story of Tigana.14

This magical vengeance makes Tigana into a meditation on the psychological importance of remembered and shared history. Kay represents the effacement of one’s past as a terrible burden to bear. Many inhabitants of the former Tigana have fled from their homeland. They craft new identities for themselves, seeking to forget the horrors in their past and to mend the psychic traumas they have suffered. This kind of escape, however, ironically assists the spell. The revolutionaries take a different course. They seek to make their memories, the burden of this terrible history, into a source of strength, painful as it is to live with them continually. The leader, the last Prince of Tigana, expresses his commitment to remembering in the oath that gives the first part of the book its title: “Tigana, let my memory of you be like a blade in my soul.” 15 This memory is both a wound and a rod of support. As in Fionavar’s Arthur story, the past cannot be changed, but history – the memory and the record of the past – can most definitely and most destructively be changed. Because of the changefulness of history and memory, if the characters let their hold on that past slip, they could lose the resolve or the knowledge they need to preserve that history by shaping the future. The characters demonstrate their intellectual skills in shaping an intricate plot to free the Palm and restore Tigana’s name, but to endure the work of putting that plot into action, they must live with the blade in their souls and turn the pain of memory into strength.

If the psychology of history for the characters in Tigana is clear enough, the psychology of history that Tigana fosters in its readers is less certain. The characters must hold fast to their history and not be deceived or overwhelmed by the immense powers devoted to effacing their past. The reader of Tigana may share this psychology of history with the characters. The reader may also, however, respond to this history in relation to the history of Italy, which the history of the Palm resembles but does not match exactly. Tigana’s eucatastrophe, like that of the Fionavar Tapestry, offers an imaginative escape from a cyclical doom. Where the doom binding Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot is personal in scope, the doom Tigana breaks is cultural and therefore more strongly historical. It breaks the cycle in which the beauties of civilization arise only to be destroyed by baser human impulses. The glory of Renaissance Italy rises, only to fall before the internecine quarrels among its city-states and the imperial ambitions of its neighbors. Tigana arrests this cycle, ending not with the downfall of the Palm’s culture but with the greater union of its states and the destruction of its imperial oppressors. 16 A Song for Arbonne offers a similar escape from a similar loss. What is the value for the reader of this sort of revisionary, historical eucatastrophe? Tolkien saw the value of eucatastrophe as personal and religious in nature: “it denies…universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” 17 Such a personal experience may arise from any eucatastrophic narrative. Eucatastrophes that involve the rescue of cultures from the doom of historical cycles seem more secular, but does a cultural eucatastrophe affect the psychology of history in a reader? Kay’s handling of history in Tigana does not suggest that he believes his readers’ interest in the novel will derive from its historical elements; the degree to which he himself is interested in the novel for its approach to history is not clear. A brief acknowledgements section offers the knowing reader some hints as to the book’s historical engagements and some sources for the more obscure elements of Italian history that Kay is addressing, but it is perfectly possible to read the novel without any awareness that it is a re-casting of Renaissance Italy.

The novel’s failure to acknowledge Tigana’s relationship to actual history renders its revision of that history problematic. If a reader enjoys Tigana but never learns the history of Italy, then Kay’s revision of that history bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the tyrant’s spell, which revises history in violation of the actual past. If historical fantasy is to develop the historical sensibility of its readers, it must find a way to acknowledge its engagement with history. Kay’s handling of the psychology of history in the characters in Tigana is brilliant, but without some extension of this psychology of history to the involvement of the writer and the reader in the act of revising actual history, Kay’s vein of historical fantasy still has nothing direct to offer to the neighboring genre of alternate history, in which the work’s engagement with historical revision is explicit. In Tigana and A Song for Arbonne, Kay still appears to treat history as merely a convenient source of narrative suitable for eucatastrophic revision, though his consistent use of historical materials and his character’s engagement with their own histories suggest that he is becoming concerned with history for itself.

Kay’s two most recent projects undertake a much fuller exploration of engagement of the writer/artist and the reader with history and evince greater concern for the value of an art that revises history. The Lions of Al-Rassan retells the history of Islamic Spain, while the two-volume Sarantine Mosaic is based on the history of the Byzantine Empire during the reign of Justinian. Like his earlier novels, these latest are built on the conceit of parallel worlds, but they no longer offer eucatastrophic alternatives to the histories that they parallel. Instead, they focus increasingly on artist characters who create works of art in response to historical and personal tragedy, thereby exploring the significance of the act of writing alternate histories. The Sarantine Mosaic in particular explores the value of creating alternate history. The artist characters, paralleling Kay, struggle to form in their art a human, humane response to the tragedies and injustices of history. Their artistic re-creations of history for their world reflect upon Kay’s project of creating such histories for our own. These parallels – Kay’s admission, as it were, that he is interested in history for itself – intimate the purpose and the value of this kind of artistic re-creation.

The value of re-creating history in art appears most clearly in the life of the mosaicist Caius Crispus (known also as Crispin), protagonist of the Sarantine Mosaic. Kay’s use of “mosaic” in his novel makes an analogy between his own artistic project and Crispin’s. Native to Batiara, the peninsula that was once the heart of the Rhodian (that is, the Roman) Empire, Crispin travels to Sarantium (Byzantium), heart of the still-flourishing Eastern Empire, at the invitation of the Emperor Valerius II (Justinian) and his Empress Alixana (Theodora), to create a mosaic to decorate the inner face of the immense dome of the great Temple of Holy Jad (Hagia Sophia) that Valerius is building. When he leaves for Sarantium, Crispin is struggling to come to terms with a recent tragedy in his life: the death from plague of his wife and two daughters. Most of Sailing to Sarantium, the first book of the Mosaic, deals with the changes in him on his journey to the city, so that when he arrives, he is ready to shape a mosaic worthy of its great setting. The novel closes with him high up on his scaffold, touching the surface of the dome upon which he will attempt to realize his vision. His thoughts are those of an artist responding to the world as he has experienced it, and they lay out a program for the methods and purpose of writing alternate history or historical fantasy.

The program begins with devotion to representational realism: “It came down to seeing… You saw in the eye of your mind, you looked with fierce attention at the world and what it showed you… You stood or sat in the palace chamber or chapel or the bedroom or dining hall you were to work within, and you watched what happened through a day as the light changed, and then again at night, lighting candles or lanterns.” 18 Even this mimetic view of art rejects a one-to-one correspondence between art and a single, graspable reality: every place, every represented image, will change with time as the quality of the light revealing it changes.

As Crispin contemplates the design he has in mind for this great dome, he finds that he is no longer content with realism; something more is required:

[He] would seek to render here as much of the world as he knew and could compass in one work. No less than that. For the truth was, he…had been wrong all these years, or not wholly right. This was one of the hard things Crispin had learned on his journey, leaving home in bitterness and arriving in another state he could not yet define. Seeing was indeed at the heart of this craft of light and color – it had to be – but it was not all. One had to look, but also to have a desire, a need, a vision at the base of that seeing. If he was ever to achieve anything even approaching the unforgettable image of Jad he’d seen in that small chapel on the road he would have to find within himself a depth of feeling that came – somehow – near to what had been felt by the unknown, fervently pious men who had rendered the god there (p.529).

This “depth of feeling”, implicit in Kay’s earlier psychology of history, here rises to the surface of the text and encompasses the act of artistic creation as well as more direct intervention in the course of events. It comes to Crispin not from religion, though he sees religion as a possible source for it, but from his personal and cultural history, what he understands as “things [that] were left behind and yet stayed with you”.

He would never have their pure, unwavering certainty, but it seemed to him that something that might be equal to it was within him now, miraculously. He had come out from behind city walls in the fading west… and had journeyed to greater walls here in the east. From a city to the City, passing through wilderness and mist into a wood that terrified… and out alive. …He had seen a creature in the Aldwood he would have in him all his days. Just as Ilandra would be with him, and the heartbreak of his girls. You moved through time and things were left behind and yet stayed with you. The nature of how men lived. He had thought to avoid that, to hide from it, after they’d died. It could not be done (pp.529-30).

To gain access to the depths of feeling contained in his memory, Crispin has had to come to terms with the inevitability of the suffering that humans must endure because they live in time, carrying within themselves out of the past things that are lost to them in their own lives.

In coming to terms with the burden of history, Crispin gains not rational mastery of historical process but the emotional foundation for a greater artistic vision, and his response to history will be rendered in the form of art:

“You do not honor them by living as if you, too, have died,” Martinian had said to him… Just now, high above the chaos of Sarantium, it seemed as if there were so many things he wanted to honor or exalt – or take to task, if it came to that, for there was no need for, no justice in, children dying of plague, or young girls being cut to pieces in the forest, or sold in grief for winter grain. If this was the world as the god – or gods – had made it, then mortal man, this mortal man, could acknowledge that and honor the power and infinite majesty that lay within it, but he would not say it was right, or bow down as if he were only dust or a brittle leaf blown from an autumn tree, helpless in the wind. He might be, all men and women might be as helpless as that leaf, but he would not admit it, and he would do something here on the dome that said – or aspired to say – these things, and more (p.530).

Although humans must endure their suffering of history, their art, if they come to terms with their suffering, need not simply submit to the memory of past events in which it originates. Art can judge and challenge history, honoring it but also advancing alternatives to it. Alternate history, by engaging deeply with the details of the world but challenging their necessity, becomes a proper vehicle for profound artistic vision, because history is both the source of that vision and its end. This alternate history is not just the proper vehicle for a vision worthy of the dome of the Temple of Holy Jad, it is necessary for Crispin himself. Through it, he can accept his history instead of living on as if he has died because the people he loved have died, because the culture from which he comes, “the fading west”, may be dying too.

“Things were left behind and yet stayed with you.” This is the psychological burden of history, both personal and cultural, as Kay represents it in Crispin. The analogy between Crispin’s actual mosaic and Kay’s metaphorical Sarantine Mosaic suggests that Kay, in his historical fantasies, is dealing with the legacy of Western history in a similar way; he is representing those histories that have graven themselves in him. The burden of history moves him both to honor the world as he knows it and to challenge it, to put the question of why we must lose or destroy so much of Creation. This question is not posed as a thought experiment about the cruxes of history, but as an enquiry into human psychology, “the nature of how men lived”, and as such is not answerable within the confines of the novel. The course of the second Sarantine novel, Lord of Emperors, shows Crispin living out again the burden of this unanswerable question, as he loses to a second death both his family and his culture: the fall of Valerius and the rise of the iconoclasm movement lead to the stripping of the mosaic he has begun to create. The images of his life, of his wife and children, as well as the greater image of the god Jad he has placed on the dome are destroyed. Yet, Crispin, having learned to bear the burden of history, is not destroyed by this second loss. Instead, his measured and careful response to this loss results in three triumphs against the forces of destruction. First, he manages to save the image of Jad that first inspired him to rethink his artistic principles. Second, back at home in Batiara he receives and takes advantage of a new opportunity to realise something of his vision, on a smaller scale and more obliquely expressed, but still conveying his ideas about art and the world. Because this work is on a smaller scale, it may actually last, and as Kay bases this mosaic project on mosaics yet surviving in Ravenna, the novel implies that they will last. Finally, Crispin learns to love again, and may, in the future left open and untold, go on to have another family that will move into history’s future. The events of the second Sarantine novel play out the significance of history that the first novel has presented only as ideas. Its events confirm the primarily psychological significance of alternate history, but they also affirm that the strength that comes from bearing history’s burden enables not only the creation of alternate histories but also positive interventions in the historical process. More importantly, this strength enables one to live fully in the world, to have a future. 19

The Sarantine Mosaic, then, makes clear the value of its imaginative restoration of Byzantium for modern readers and for the author, which Tigana left unclear. Kay uses historical fantasy to deepen readers by placing upon them new burdens of history that can free them from seeing the world as it is. Kay’s minimal adaptation of place-names (Sarantium) and his extensive acknowledgements section require the reader to recognize the actual history that the novels take up, to face its losses. The engagements with history first glimpsed in the undoing of Arthur’s doom in Fionavar and developed in more depth for the characters in Tigana are finally offered directly to the reader in the Sarantine Mosaic.

This use of history offers a salutary challenge to writers and readers of the thought-experiment sort of alternate history. Are they coming to terms with the burdens history is placing upon them, acknowledging the weight of the past and their desire to re-shape the past’s impact on the future, or are they embracing a fantasy of rational mastery of history in order to deny those burdens? Have they engaged with the psychology of history? The attitude towards history evident, for example, in Robert Silverberg’s story “A Hero of the Empire” may seem, in light of Kay’s work, naïve and hubristic in ways not intended by its author. In this story (set in a historical moment similar to the Sarantine Mosaic’s), an agent of the still-enduring Roman Empire posted in Mecca recognizes the danger to the Empire of Mohammed’s religious vision and arranges for him to be assassinated. Seeking recall from his dusty border post, he writes to a friend who is an intimate of the Emperor, explaining what he has accomplished:

“Go to the Emperor, Horatius. Tell him what I’ve done. Place it in its full context, against the grand sweep of Imperial history past and present and especially future. Speak to him of Hannibal, of Vercingetorix, of Attila, of all our great enemies in days gone by, and tell him that I have snuffed out in its earliest stages a threat to Rome far more frightening than any of those. Make him understand, if you can, the significance of my deed. “Tell him, Horatius. Tell him that I have saved all the world from conquest: that I have done for him a thing that was utterly essential to do, something which no one else at all could have achieved on his behalf, for who would have had the foresight to see the shape of things to come as I was able to see them? Tell him that.” 20

Where Silverberg’s protagonist sees himself as mastering history, Crispin sees his capacity to stand against history as much more modest. Insofar as Crispin’s emotional depth is useful for survival, it is useful because it gives him the spirit to take advantage of the small opportunities for change offered unexpectedly by history and the natural world, which gives the artist the light by which he or she works. This sense of proportion, of the smallness of the human being in relation to the world, seems absent from Silverberg’s story and its claims about the power of rational analysis over history.

Obviously, Silverberg’s story is not emblematic of all alternate history, but it represents tendencies in it that critics have used to define the genre. These definitions tend to exclude fiction that alters history but that approaches the value of such alteration with more skepticism than positivism. Hellekson, for example, mentions “the chronocracy story, which depicts a ruling body that controls time to its own advantage”. 21 She excludes stories of this type from her study because they take place primarily in the future, not the past. Yet, she also notes that “interestingly, most of the texts that posit chronocracies also foresee their downfall.” 22 While Hellekson legitimately limits the scope of her study by focusing on stories that change the past, this limitation’s exclusion of stories that raise questions about the value of manipulating history is not coincidental: definitions of genre, which mark off boundaries of form, also mark of ideological boundaries. 23 The exclusion from alternate history of chronocracy stories leaves out stories that explore the consequences of the impulses driving the creation of much alternate history. Schmunk’s sweeping exclusion of parallel-world stories from alternate history more damagingly limits the genre’s scope, leaving out not only Kay’s fantasies but quantum parallel-world stories as well. The infinite possibilities offered by parallel worlds make the parallel-world design particularly effective for offering cautionary commentary on historical engineering as well as for exploring the passions that lead to the effort to revise history.

While Kay’s sophisticated conception of alternate history as a response to history’s psychological burdens usefully challenges alternate history writers, it has begun to serve as a useful model for contemporary writers of fantasy. Jo Walton, for example, uses Kay’s idea of parallel worlds to give her characters a way of facing the burden of history, which they understand as fate, and to try to define for themselves a space where they can shape their lives as they wish. In the universe she creates in The King’s Name, The King’s Peace, and most recently The Prize in the Game, everyone understand that there are multiple worlds, and in some pagan traditions, oracle-priests are trained to look into the other worlds and so see the outcome of events in every world but their own, in which they, and everyone else, must choose how to act without precise fore-knowledge. Where Kay deals with the burden of the past, Walton focuses equally upon the burden of the future. Scott Bakker’s The Darkness that Comes Before represents history, for some, as being the darkness that comes before, which must be known and mastered before self-mastery can be achieved. For others, history is a burden of dreams and memories to which they must be subjected in order that they be deepened in the ways that will make them capable of intervening effectively in history. This fantasy, though not historical, places in tension the two approaches to history developed in alternate history and in Kay’s fantasy: on the one side a hard-earned rational mastery of history and on the other a hardly-endured emotional acceptance of it.

In general, then, the psychological significance of history in alternate historical fantasy would be worth more critical attention, even in works that do not necessarily invite such readings. Kay’s reflections on the uses of alternate history point a way towards this critical enterprise.


1 Karen Hellekson, The Alternate History: Refiguring Historical Time (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2001), p.11.

2 Robert B. Schmunk, “Uchronia: The Alternate History List”,

3 Amy J. Ransom, “Alternate History and Uchronia: Some Questions of Terminology and Genre”, Foundation 87 (2003), p.67, citing Carl D. Malmgren, Worlds Apart: Narratology of Science Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), pp.4-5, 20-21, 141.

4 Hellekson, Alternate History, pp.110-11.

5 Guy Gavriel Kay, The Summer Tree: The Fionavar Tapestry, Book One (New York: Arbor House, 1985; New York: Roc, 1992), chapter 1, p.18 (reprint).

6 Hellekson, Alternate History, p.3. Helleckson includes parallel-world stories in her capacious definition of alternate history; Schmunk excludes them from his narrower definition.

7 Kay, The Summer Tree, chapter 1, p.18.

8 Guy Gavriel Kay, The Wandering Fire: The Fionavar Tapestry, Book Two (New York: Arbor House, 1986; New York: Roc, 1992), chapter 3, pp.40-42 (reprint).

9 J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”, in Essays Presented to Charles Williams (Oxford University Press, 1947), reprinted in The Tolkien Reader (New York: Ballantine, 1966), pp.85-87 (reprint).

10 Guy Gavriel Kay, The Darkest Road: The Fionavar Tapestry, Book 3 (New York: Arbor House, 1986; New York: Roc, 1992), chapter 17, pp.392-398 (reprint).

11 Guy Gavriel Kay, interview by Raymond H. Thompson, 30 July 1998. Reprinted at http://www.brightweavings.comswords/thompson.htm.

12 Kay, Darkest Road, chapter 14, p.324.

13 Kay, Darkest Road, chapter 17, p.393.

14 Guy Gavriel Kay, Tigana (New York: Roc, 1990, 1991), chapter 5, pp.95-99 (reprint).

15 Kay, Tigana, chapter 6, p.133.

16 While the freeing of the Palm resembles Garibaldi and the Thousand overthrowing the corrupt Neapolitan monarchy to unite Italy in the nineteenth century, that heroic venture was far too belated to rescue the glories of the Italian Renaissance.

17 Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”, p.86.

18 Guy Gavriel Kay, Sailing to Sarantium (New York: HarperPrism, 1999, 2000), chapter 10, p.528 (reprint). Citations for subsequent quotations from this edition are indicated parenthetically in the body of the text.

19 Guy Gavriel Kay, Lord of Emperors: Book II of the Sarantine Mosaic (New York: HarperPrism, 2000), chapter 15, pp.457-64; epilogue, pp. 520-30.

20 Robert Silverberg, “A Hero of the Empire,” The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, October/November 1999, reprinted in The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Seventeenth Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois (New York: St. Martin’s, 2000), p.370 (reprint).

21 Hellekson, Alternate History, p.6.

22 Hellekson, Alternate History, p.7.

23 Ransom, in exploring the differences between the generic boundaries of alternate history and uchronia, is similarly concerned about the consequences of narrow and rigid genre definitions on conceptions of the value of alternate history. See Ransom, “Alternate History”, p.69.

This entry was posted in Professional Scholarship. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.