“The Unacknowledged Legislators of the World”: Songs and Poetry in
Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Song for Arbonne
This is an undergraduate paper by James Allard written when he was at the University of Waterloo, Canada. He also presented the paper at the 1997 Academic Conference of Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy.
One of the conventions of the fantasy genre is the idea that language has a power within the fantasy setting that it does not have anywhere else. Fantasy authors approach this convention in a number of ways, from the existence of magic spells that must be spoken to words of power that can bind or charm to ancient languages that must be learned to complete a heroic quest. But fantasy authors also make use of other types of language, language that does not belong only to the fantasy setting, and does have a certain power outside of that setting; in particular, fantasy authors often use songs and poetry to explore the power of language. We might think of The Lord of the Rings, where Tolkien uses songs and poetry as plot devices to convey historical and cultural background to both readers and characters, but also, and more importantly, as prophecy. Early in The Fellowship of the Ring, for example, we have the familiar poem:
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can[.] (44)
The words are spoken, and the hearers must follow the “Road” laid out in the poem. In The Return of the King, to complete a sort of frame, we have a similar poem: “Forth rode the King, fear behind him, / fate before him. Fealty kept he; / oaths he had taken, all fulfilled them” (77). In both cases, the events described in the poems can and must happen, for “the songs tell us” (77) what is, what was, and what will be. What has been said in this fantasy setting – Middle Earth – will happen; such is the power of songs and poetry.
In all of his books, Guy Gavriel Kay often uses song and poetry in conventional ways, and in each book, at least one of the major characters is a poet or musician. In A Song for Arbonne, Kay deals most explicitly with the potential power of language in the fantasy setting as expressed in songs and poetry, but as he does with all of the conventions of the fantasy genre, he uses the convention in such a way that it draws attention to itself as a convention – not necessarily to undermine or deconstruct it, but to map out and explore the possibilities of this and other conventions that create the fantasy setting and define the fantasy genre. In A Song for Arbonne, songs and poetry are not simply means of conveying historical and cultural information to readers and characters, although they serve that function as well. Furthermore, and most importantly for our purposes here, songs and poetry are not prophetic; that is, in this particular fantasy setting, unlike Middle Earth, events do not simply happen because of the power of the spoken word. In A Song for Arbonne, what has been said must be made to happen through the direct action or intervention of the inhabitants of the fantasy setting, effectively highlighting the standard fantasy convention which holds that language on its own has some kind of innate power to force events to occur, and suggesting that language, while possibly containing a sort of blueprint for action, nevertheless acts only as a cue for action. As Shelley asserts in A Defense of Poetry, “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” (448), providing direction for action, but never supplying the action itself.
The story of A Song for Arbonne is a familiar one to readers of fantasy fiction. Two very different cultures fight against each other to preserve their way of life: Arbonne, ruled by a benevolent countess, worshipping the goddess of wisdom, living by the laws of the “Court of Love” (53), whose troubadours compose songs in honour of Arbonne, its goddess, and its women; and Gorhaut, ruled by an evil king, worshipping the god of war, living by the laws of the warrior, whose warriors dedicate their lives to the service of the god in battle. Both cultures are fiercely proud of their histories and traditions, but, as we are reminded several times in the novel, “Until the sun falls and the moons die…Arbonne and Gorhaut will not lie easily beside each other” (167).
But before we are introduced to Arbonne and Gorhaut, Kay begins to develop the relationship between songs and poetry and his fantasy realm. The novel opens with a group of soldiers attempting to bring a poet back to a minor lord from the sacred island of the goddess, a place with “an actual pulse, a beating heart” (41), an image we will return to shortly. They attempt to do so in silence, but the priestesses on the island know of their plan. They are allowed to complete their mission, but at a price, for the goddess always “exacts a price” (44), and Arbonne must pay for “its subtle graces” (428): the men can take the poet from the island, but must leave one of their men behind. The man left behind is Luth, an average soldier who is not really missed by any of his companions. This scene is important for our purposes here because it begins to offer us a glimpse of exactly how important singers and poets are in Arbonne – and in this novel. The minor lord who financed this mission risks the lives of his soldiers, public humiliation, and potentially devastating political ramifications if this mission fails and is linked to him, but he is willing to risk anything to bring a poet, even a poor one, back to his lands. Blaise, one of the central characters and from the country of Gorhaut, cannot see the value of the poet or his poems, “[b]ut this, of course, was woman-ruled Arbonne, where the troubadours had a power in society they could never have dreamt of anywhere else” (24). Note here that it is the troubadours that have power, real, physical power, and not the troubadours’ songs and poetry as is usually the case in fantasy literature.
But immediately prior to the events of the novel, Arbonne’s most celebrated troubadour, Duke Bertran de Talair, composes a song mocking Gorhaut’s recent political troubles with another of its enemies, the country of Valensa, a song that sets the novel in motion:
Shame then in the springtime for proud Gorhaut,
Betrayed by a young king and his counsellor.
Sorrow for those whose sons were dead,
Bitter the warriors who had battled and won –
Only to see spoils claimed by their courage
Disposed and discarded like so much watered wine.
Shame in the treaty and no pride in the peace
Ademar allowed to vanquished Valensa.
Where were the true heirs of those who had died
For the glory of Gorhaut on that frozen field?
How could they sheathe their shining blades
With triumph gained and then given away?
What manner of man, with his father new-fallen,
Would destroy with a pen-stroke a long dream of glory?
And what king lost to honour like craven Daufridi
Would retreat from that ice-field not to return?
Where went the manhood of Gorhaut and Valensa
When war was abandoned and pale peace bought
By weak kings and sons long lost to their lineage?
In brief, Gorhaut and Valensa had fought for years over a particular piece of land on the border, and Gorhaut had recently won a crushing victory in the ongoing struggle. But instead of routing the forces of Valensa, the king of Gorhaut signed a treaty ceding the land to Valensa in exchange for a great deal of money.
This poem seems to exert some of the power of language we are used to seeing in the fantasy setting, but, in fact, just the opposite is true. Aside from the background it offers both in the novel and for our purposes in this forum, Kay’s unusual use of the convention of songs and poetry in this fantasy setting begins to take shape. Bertran’s song starts with a list of the actions of Gorhaut and Valensa: their “warriors…battled,” “spoils [were] claimed,” men “died / For…glory,” and then “sheathe[d] their shining blades.” But all of this action is cheapened and the kings and their courts are ridiculed when “a pen-stroke” destroys the “long dream of glory”: one side is ridiculed for thinking that words could substitute for action, the other for being weak enough to accept those words, both for using language in a world where language has no real power. Granted, the language being referred to here is the language of treaties, laws, and diplomacy, but the end result is the same: it is “all a game of words” (452) and nothing more. We must remember, of course, that this song was composed by the most celebrated troubadour in Arbonne, whose life is devoted to making beautiful music and speaking beautiful words, who is introduced to us as “the troubadour” (11) as if that explained everything, and we must also remember that his chosen response is also nothing more than a “pen-stroke,” more words with no real action to back them up. As the novel unfolds, however, we come to realize that both sides are intensely aware of the limitations of songs and poetry, and never rely on words alone.
This same motif, of songs and poetry acting as blueprints for action, can be seen to operate in Gorhaut as well, despite the fact that the men of Gorhaut think songs and poetry are for women and despise the men of Arbonne for their perceived weakness. As the king’s advisor, who is High Elder of the god, attempts to lure his king into attacking Arbonne, in apparent retaliation against Bertran’s song, his speech begins to take on a very poetic quality, and it is described in musical terms:
He does not end on a rousing note; it is not yet time. This is a first proclamation only, a beginning, a muted instrument sounded amid smoking fires and a late, cold spring, with slanted rain outside and mist on the moors. (90)
Still, despite the weight his words carry with the king and other members of the court, words, however poetic, are not enough to make a thing happen. The High Elder has two goals – to see Arbonne destroyed and to see one of his sons on the throne – and this poetic speech at court is only one link in a long chain of events he set in motion to make these goals possible. He has orchestrated the treaty Bertran sings of, gathering resources to fund the coming war; he has driven his son Blaise out of Gorhaut, giving him the opportunity to challenge for the throne; he has effectively dominated the king, making such a challenge possible; he has ordered the assassination of Bertran, giving Gorhaut’s enemies a reason to go to war; and he has duped the king into attacking Arbonne. These events were set in motion long before his dramatic speech at court; the power of language is far outweighed by the power of human action.
Regardless of whether we are speaking of the romantic troubadour songs of Arbonne, or the hypnotic, zealous speeches of the High Elder of Gorhaut, words alone, however powerful, must be supported by physical action. Words can incite action, they can offer plans for action, they may even be able to halt action, but they can never exist as actions. For as we are reminded in the novel, no matter how sweet the song or how beautiful the poetry, it is never enough:
There were limits to where music could take you…or, more properly, there were dimensions in affairs of state where it was necessary to leave aside the romantic troubadour strains and be ruthlessly practical. (232) Such an assertion is repeated at several points throughout the novel, as various characters suggest that “[w]ords and posturings, [are] the sad vices of Arbonne” (131). Similarly, just before the climactic battle between Arbonne and Gorhaut, the countess tells the troubadours that she wants a song in honour of the dead, but not now, for “[t]his is not a time for music” (444). Such thoughts as these are not, in themselves, remarkable, but knowing by this point in the novel the crucial role of songs and poetry in the fantasy setting, and knowing Kay’s awareness of this convention, we can see the persistence of these notions as important markers and comments on the convention. Kay appears to have neutralized language in this fantasy setting, has, in a sense, stripped language of its power, and we might think that Shelley’s maxim does not hold in this realm. But we are reminded, on more than one occasion, that “the music could not be left out” (218); that is, it cannot be left out of the characters’ personas, it cannot be left out of Arbonne, and it cannot be left out of the fantasy setting. And that is the real key: the convention holds that songs and poetry – language in general – have power in the fantasy realm, and Kay points to and uses this convention by giving the realm or setting a voice. The setting has power; it lives and breathes, as I pointed out earlier, and that power is troped throughout the novel as songs and poetry. The novel begins in “the song that would be springtime” (1), and the land exists “like a melody from…childhood” (435). In this setting, arrows destroying important people and initiating cataclysmic events “sing” (395, 491), and memory is like a “song winding through” the heart of the people. In effect, Kay has pointed to the convention of the use of songs and poetry in the fantasy setting by having the setting itself speak and sing the language of power. Spoken or written language contains little or no magic, as the priestesses of Rian remind the characters, but the language of fantasy, whether the fantasy genre, the fantasy setting, or the fantasy of the imagination, contains and exerts a power that makes fantasy, in all senses of the term, possible. The conventions of fantasy, the setting and the traditions of the genre itself, guide the action; the conventions are “the unacknowledged legislators” of this world. The novel ends where it began: with Luth, the average warrior and poor singer, whose life had been exchanged for that of a poet. It is entirely appropriate in this setting that a warrior and not a singer or poet would be the saviour of Arbonne, as it is Luth’s arrow that kills the king of Gorhaut. But at the same time, it is also entirely appropriate that his action would be accompanied by a song: He was not a musician, not a very good singer at all; he knew that. But songs were not only for those who could perform them with artistry. He knew that, too. And so Luth lifted his voice without shame, feeling a deep richness, a glory in the night, as he galloped his horse down the winding, empty road to the south, past farm and castle, village and field and forest, under the risen moons and stars above Arbonne. (513)
As the High Priestess reminds him, and us, for that matter: “The goddess…will sometimes intercede for us, but she always wants to see that we have tried to aid ourselves” (511). While she is speaking specifically of the goddess Rian, in this setting, whether Arbonne the country or Arbonne the novel, the “goddess” could just as easily be song and poetry. And in the fantasy realm, songs must still be sung and poetry must still be written by the characters who populate that realm and by the authors and readers who give them life.
© James Allard
Kay, Guy Gavriel. A Song for Arbonne. Toronto: Penguin, 1993.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “A Defense of Poetry.” The Selected Poetry and Prose of Shelley. Ed. Harold Bloom. Toronto: New American Library, 1966. 415-48.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. Boston: Allen, 1980.
–. The Return of the King. Boston: Allen, 1971.