A Song for Arbonne: de-romanticised fantasy

This is an article by Nathalie Labrousse-Marchau, a French philosophy teacher, which appeared originally on her website.
With thanks to Francois Vincent for the translation into English.

Read it in French.

Guy Gavriel Kay is not an author like the rest. Since the highly praised Fionavar Tapestry, which grafted a personal interpretation of the famous love triangle of Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere on to the classical themes of High Fantasy, he has evinced a growing tendency to replace the usual tropes of the genre with a preoccupation with history, either political or strategic. Certainly, the theme of power plays a considerable role in novels of heroic fantasy, just as it did in all literature inspired by the heroic romanticism of the 19th century. But this romanticism, in Guy Gavriel Kay’s works, is tinted by both an interest in history and a resolutely contemporary and post-modern cynicism. Thus, from one book to the next, his work seems to be developing towards an orientation to a new form of heroic fantasy which, while respecting the structure, literary conventions and even the general ambiance of the genre, is shedding bit by bit the naive foundations, the belief in man or his obsession with spirituality of traditional heroic fantasy. It is a very interesting progression in a genre that is sometimes a bit stilted, where authors are often satisfied (too easily?) by applying a preconceived scheme – such as that put forth by David Eddings in his Rivan Codex. A Song for Arbonne certainly best represents Guy Gavriel Kay himself, since it is with Arbonne, after The Fionavar Tapestry and Tigana, that the transition is most manifest.

To start with, there is no magic in A Song for Arbonne and this reflects a neat evolution towards the representation of reality. In The Fionavar Tapestry, the world clearly had a mythical structure. Gods were present in the real world and magic flowed around each character, and permeated through each object, place and person. All was magical in one way or another and a sorcerer had little to differentiate himself from the common mortal other than the function of concentrating this omnipresent power. In Tigana, already, the gods are far off. Myth becomes mythology; the link to reality is reason. The sorcerer is not capable of simply channeling the magic but must invoke it, access it by a mysterious gift and a ruthless asceticism. And even this access requires consent, a ritual sacrifice which consecrates them to the divine: the loss of two fingers. In A Song for Arbonne, the break is complete. Certainly, the blinding ritual of the High Priestess of Rian is reminiscent of the sacrifice of the fingers in Tigana, but the differences are notable: first, visions only appear for the High Priestess while she remains on her holy island and, second, they only appear randomly; she has no control over the power. The gods are no more than focal points for religious faith, abstract and transcendent entities to be used to manipulate opinion or to justify strictly political ambitions (the final chapter with “Rian’s arrow” or the High Priest of Corannos’ crusade are perfect examples). Reality has become disenchanted. The gods have left.

Myth has become religion, an instrument of power, the “opiate of the people”. It is an idea that inevitably accompanies the passage from High Fantasy to historical fiction. Even here, the statement is imposed. Fionavar is a parallel world, or rather, the source of all worlds in the tapestry of reality. History is only given as a distant reference, for purposes of intrigue with references to Arthurian times. Even Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere are used out of context, or, to put it another way, dehistoricised. The world of Tigana is clearly inspired by Renaissance Italy but it is first and foremost a fantasy world where magic is part of the natural order and sorcerers lead the dance. Fantasy again trumps history. In A Song for Arbonne, the priority is reversed. Arbonne, is Languedoc, with its troubadours and courts of love. The predominance of the principal female represents, without a doubt, the church of the Cathars. Gorhaut and its virile, misogynist ideology represents the Christian church, more precisely the Christians of medieval Rome and their penchant, proven a thousand times, to systematically destroy all cults of femininity. The crusade of Gorhaut against Arbonne is the Albigensian Crusade, the annihilation of the Cathar cult. Guy Gavriel Kay has done a lot of research and it is evident. Let’s take the characters for example. Bertran de Talair is the famous Bertran de Born, the infamous lover that Dante puts in his version of Hell. The troubadour Jafre Rudel and his destructive passion for the lovely Melissandre is transposed onto Rudel Correze and his beautiful and cruel cousin, Lucianna. All of the singers throughout the book, Aurelien and Remy in particular, espouse the style of the grand Occitan troubadours like Arnaut Daniel or Bernard de Ventadorn. Nothing is left to chance and even an informed reader, even a connoisseur of history, can savour this as a muffled echo of distant Languedoc.

However, let’s not fool ourselves: A Song for Arbonne is truly fantasy and not a historical novel. Why? Because the symbolism is ubiquitous and it models reality as much as it informs. Sexual symbolism comes first since the whole novel consists of an allegory of the battle between male (Gorhaut) and female (Arbonne) principles. But there is also symbolism in colours, in particular dark and bright, shade and light. The hair of the powerful women, politically or sexually, is dark: Ariane Carenzu, queen of the Court of Love, married to a homosexual and lover to Blaise; Beatrice, the High Priestess of Rian, linked to the divine aspects of Love, but manipulative and heavily implicated in the power struggle; and, of course, the insatiable Lucianna, who seduces all the men and keeps them captive by the irresistible attraction of a sulfuric perversity. On the opposite end is the light hair of the disinterested women, without personal ambition or perversity: Cygne de Barbentain, whose age and social position distances her from the games of seduction; Lisseut, the troubadour, who travels both country and sexuality with the sensual and unique view of an artist; finally, Rosala, who is fleeing the shadow for the light, death for life. We could even go further to see the white owl of brown-haired Beatrice as a symbolic image of the ties between religion and power. The owl, symbol of the divine, is white, colour of innocence and purity – Rian is the goddess of Love, of Light, of generosity – and she opposes dark Corannos, the warrior god of Gorhaut. Yet her priestess partakes in the obscurity of all who come into contact with power. Guy Gavriel Kay endows the world of men with a radical cynicism. Religion, politics and sex are inseparable and partake in a shared human desire to dominate, control and rule all that lives. Disenchantment once again, in the other sense of the word.

In this book, the men of Gorhaut and the women of Arbonne only differ in their goals, and not in the means employed to achieve them. With Guy Gavriel Kay, we will not find the dichotomy of “good” and “evil” that is so frequently employed in typical fantasy. The shadows are inextricably linked to the light and the light to the shadows. Even the High Priestess of Love, Beatrice, does not hesitate to manipulate opinion or to use religion as a pressure tactic as long as it serves her designs. Even the biggest jerk in the novel, the High Priest of Corannos, in whom we find, a priori, nothing but cruelty and delusions of grandeur, reveals himself as strangely human in the end. A difference of degree and not nature, which explains the opportunities for all of the twists and turns. Yet again, Guy Gavriel Kay distances himself from classical fantasy where the roles are too often simply handed out in advance with characters who are either good or bad by nature, independent of the education, experience, and culture which they might have had. In all aspects, a richness of historical research, a discarding of the High Fantasy cliches in preference of a more cynical view of the world, inextricably linking sex, religion and politics, A Song for Arbonne is a must-read book. Guy Gavriel Kay is decidedly a sure thing in contemporary literature whose readership should extend well beyond the traditional fans of fantasy.

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