A dialogue between Christopher Cobb and Mary Anne Mohanraj
This article appears courtesy of Mary Anne Mohanraj and Christopher Cobb, and first appeared in Strange Horizons ezine.
Guy Gavriel Kay, one of the major fantasy authors of our time, has achieved a rare combination of popular and critical acclaim. This year, his latest novel, Lord of Emperors, completed the duology — The Sarantine Mosaic — that Kay had begun in Sailing to Sarantium.
Kay’s eight novels ask to be understood in relation to one another, as parts of a much larger imaginative project. The title of The Sarantine Mosaic parallels the title of Kay’s first published project, The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy. While the three books of the trilogy have their own titles — The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road — Kay asks his readers to imagine a complete work governed by the image of a weaving made up of all the individual threads of story. With his latest work, Kay returns to this kind of governing image as he relates this massive story of the Sarantine Empire to a mosaic composed of thousands of individual glass tesserae, each with its own color and worth.
Two of our editors, Mary Anne Mohanraj and Chris Cobb, set out to trace Kay’s progression from the Tapestry to the Mosaic through his three intervening stand-alone novels: Tigana, A Song for Arbonne, and The Lions of Al-Rassan. These middle works share a relationship to the histories of southern European cultures, as well as to the Tapestry and the Mosaic, and we’ve provided a series of short background articles on the relevant histories. This article and the accompanying review take the form of a dialogue.
Spoiler alert: please note that for this article, we assume that readers are familiar with some or all of the texts, and we discuss their plots in detail. In the review, we will assume that readers have not yet read the two new books, and will do our best to avoid spoilers.
Mary Anne Mohanraj: I discovered Kay through The Fionavar Tapestry as a kid; my library had them. I checked out the first one, read it through to that tremendous cliffhanger at the end of The Summer Tree, and went tearing back to the library for the others.
Christopher Cobb: I discovered Kay later in life. A friend recommended Tigana, the book that follows Fionavar, so I picked it up in paperback and couldn’t put it down. I read the Fionavar books for the first time only recently. From my perspective, Tigana appears immensely more sophisticated and tightly written than Fionavar. Fionavar seems like a workshop project, a collection of lots of devices and ideas that Kay doesn’t know how to organize yet — Tigana seems like an extremely tightly conceived and powerful novel.
MM: Fionavar is more of what I think of as classic epic fantasy. People from our world (in this case, five students: Kevin, Kim, Jennifer, Paul, and David) are contacted by a mysterious person (the wizard, Loren Silvercloak), and are invited to travel to another world. Once they arrive, they become tangled up in a complex conflict between Good and Evil, and it quickly becomes apparent that they have crucial roles to play; what they do will determine the course of the war. This is similar to many children’s novels, of course, such as Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence or Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time books, as well as adult works like Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series or Rosenberg’s Guardians of the Flame. It even parallels Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Although Tolkien’s hobbits aren’t from our world, they are ordinary people who get caught up in a vast battle — it’s a very familiar and powerful trope in fantasy.
CC: Yes. Kay adapts that trope in an interesting way, though. He makes Fionavar the first of all worlds, somewhat like Roger Zelazny’s Amber. Events on Fionavar are mirrored in all other worlds, so if Evil, personified in a Tolkien-style dark lord named Rakoth Maugrim, triumphs here, there will be consequences for all the worlds, including Earth. This fact makes the situation considerably more serious for the people from our world, and it helps to justify Kay’s inclusion of figures from the Arthurian legends as well. It’s an extraordinarily comprehensive fantasy trilogy, though I don’t think it quite holds together.
MM: I have to admit that while I admire the others more, and think they’re better written, I still love Fionavar best, and reread it most often. Part of that is simply that I read it first, and as a kid, of course.
CC: I can see that. What do you love about them?
MM: I think part of my love for them is that I really identify with the characters — possibly because they start in our world. So that when Kim suddenly collapses out of her mythic role into just the young woman she is, or when Jennifer is in terrible trouble and falls back on memories of her father to sustain her, that’s easy to identify with. The characters are simultaneously these grand heroic figures and law students, med students, smart kids who are stumbling through an entirely alien world. What do you think of the fact that it’s the only book(s) where some of the characters start in our world and go to the fantasy one? Strength or weakness?
CC: Both. Characterization is not the book’s strongest point, and the characters’ flatness appears most clearly in characters from our world. However, the link to our world and the idea of an integrated universe of story and myth provides Kay with an idea that enriches all of his subsequent work.
MM: I think I’d agree with that ‘both.’ It gives him some positive things to work with, but that idea of people from our world dragged into another feels a bit trite these days. His characters are perhaps a bit stereotypical as well. That might be the biggest charge one can level at Fionavar; do you think the characters and situations are stereotypical and/or trite?
CC: Maybe. Kay is aiming for archetypes, and sometimes he reaches them, and sometimes he doesn’t. Loren Silvercloak is an example of a stereotype, I think. He’s there to be a Gandalf/Merlin figure, but he never really becomes interesting and original. Matt Soren, the exiled King of the Dwarves who serves as Loren’s ‘source,’ is much more interesting. Loren’s role in the trilogy appears obligatory –there must be a wise old wizard, and there must be some way to get the characters from Earth to Fionavar. Matt’s stoic support of Loren, on the other hand, and the tension in him between his desire to serve the Light by helping Loren and his desire to return to his homeland, are not obligatory at all; Matt becomes a complex and gripping character.
MM: I’d agree on Loren; I think Kay could have done more with the idea of a wizard who has lived in some sense past his time, who is being forced by necessity to hand over the center of the battle to youngsters. There was potential there that he chose not to explore. I think with Loren, Kay may have been afraid of unbalancing his trilogy by focusing too much attention on Loren — the books are generally very well balanced. I think that’s one of Kay’s great strengths, and one that he just gets better at with later books — in Tigana, all the characters h
ave important roles to fill, and you never feel that you’re leaving a critical crisis just to waste time with a secondary character (or if you feel that, you don’t feel it for long — you quickly realize that you had underestimated the character). With Fionavar, Kay seems to be lacking a certain confidence that would have let him explore each character as fully as needed.
CC: Here’s a second issue of character development. Having been weaned in my fantasy reading on Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books, in which the main character nearly goes out of his mind trying to adjust to another world, I also thought the adaptation of the characters from our world to the mythic world was a bit too smooth, and that their mythic roles were too neatly mapped out.
MM: Good points; they do adapt very quickly. I think he tries to get around your second charge (the way they neatly fall into mythic roles) by having Loren (the wizard), say that the magic must have chosen those five, knowing they would fit into those roles. But I agree that it’s a little too neat. As a writer, I know that it’s a fine line between stereotypes and archetypes, and he occasionally slips over that line. But I’d add one more thing that I think the kids from our world add — that it’s a real and tremendous shock when Kevin dies in the second book, The Wandering Fire. I kept expecting there to be an out for him (especially because he was such a sweet, funny person) — but no. He’s really and truly dead. I don’t know if that would have had as much impact (for me) if he’d been a purely fantasy character.
CC: Kay’s willingness to let that character die is shocking and powerful; it’s one of his strongest choices in the Tapestry (and he’s willing to do the same thing in later books, too). It was a long time after Kevin’s death before I was truly convinced that he wouldn’t be brought back somehow, as Paul was.
MM: That was brilliant of Kay, I think — to give us Paul dying on the tree in the first book, and save him — it sets us up to believe that they’ll all be saved, that they’ll all be okay, one way or another. And he doesn’t allow such easy answers — despite all the triumph at the end of the trilogy, there is still the terrible sorrow of Kevin not being there to share it. The writing at the end of the trilogy always brings me to tears, no matter how often I reread it; there’s a real sense of both joy and sorrow powerfully conveyed.
CC: To give another example of what I see as the strengths of the Tapestry, I’d point to the battle of Lancelot with the earth-demon/spirit. A tremendously written, moving scene. The physical description of the duel is gripping in itself, but what’s more moving is the way that Kay shows that Lancelot’s extravagant, self-sacrificing prowess is a natural outgrowth of the extravagance of his love. It’s the first of many extraordinary duels in Kay’s books. What did you think about the use of Arthurian figures in the books?
MM: Well, I’ve always been a huge King Arthur fan, so they certainly resonated with me. On the one hand, it did feel a little like he was trying to pull too much in: Fionavar, our world, Arthurian legend.
CC: What you’re saying here relates back to your earlier point about Kay’s handling of Loren. He’s struggling to find the right balance. That struggle comes not just from lack of experience, but from his strong impulse to put everything in the Tapestry.
MM: Not a surprising flaw in someone’s first books. On the other hand — I do love that Jennifer is Guinevere. That came out of nowhere, but felt right when it happened. Right and unbearable. That after everything she’d suffered in Starkadh, that she should have this as well … And I was deeply satisfied by the resolution with Guinevere/Jennifer, Arthur and Lancelot. The fact that he created a way for them to be together, an end to the long tragedy, was one of the things that made me his devoted slave. That moment when Arthur stretches out his hand to Lance — it makes my heart thump.
CC: It was highly satisfying to see them reunited as they were. It makes sense to readers for whom the whole doomed-love-triangle thing seems so unnecessary, not just tragic but mistaken.
MM: A product of their time/culture/position. That’s the way T.H. White portrayed it as well, in The Once and Future King.
CC: I never read that far in White. The boiling the cat to death bit at the start of the second book scared me off when I was young, and I’ve never gotten back to it.
MM: Oh, you should read it. Here’s the relevant part from White — “It is difficult to explain about Guenevere, unless it is possible to love two people at the same time. Probably it is not possible to love two people in the same way, but there are different kinds of love. . .”. Very similar to Kay’s take on it.
CC: That’s an idea that Kay builds on in so many of his books — that there are different kinds of love, and that people love more than one person at the same time. Sometimes those loves are irreconcilable, and sometimes they can be harmonized.
MM: It’s one of the great things that his characters struggle with — and not just between love for two people, but between love of country and love of an individual. Which leads us to Tigana.
CC: Absolutely. I’m so fond of Tigana in part because he treats that struggle so well there.
MM: Tigana is what I start people on, if they haven’t read Kay before. It’s just a beautiful book, and probably still on my list of the top ten fantasy novels ever.
CC: That’s where I started, and I was completely blown away. It’s probably in my top five. At bottom, it’s a story of revolution. A small group of patriots from one province of a conquered land — the Peninsula of the Palm — set out to free the land from the two tyrannical sorcerors, Alberico and Brandin, each of whom controls half the peninsula. They plan to defeat the sorcerors by goading them to war with each other, weakening them so that they can both be destroyed at the same time. That makes for an exciting plot. But there’s so much more to Tigana than a brief summary can convey!
MM: So, what do you love about it?
CC: Well, so many things. 1) The culture of the Palm — so fully realized, so complex, so rich and beautiful, so intriguingly related to Renaissance Italy. 2) The Dianora-Brandin story. 3) The thematic importance of language and names at the base of the struggle to restore Tigana to the world. The revolutionaries are from the last principality to hold out against the invaders, and the only one to win any battle against the sorcerors. To punish them, the victorious sorceror, Brandin of Ygrath, cast a spell that took away the name of their land. No one not born there before the casting of the spell could hear its name: Tigana.
MM: Yes; some very strong threads there. His central idea — of the terrible revenge Brandin took for the death of his son, that he would not simply conquer the country that killed him, but take away their very name — it’s a concept that is utterly fresh in fantasy, and he deals with it tremendously well. It reminds me of the Jewish people, with their quest for their lost homeland (and of course, our world’s Jews seem to appear in later books, as the Kindath).
CC: Yes. It is a tragedy, one of the most convincing ones in modern literature.
MM: A very powerful theme, made more painful by the story of Dianora. She plots and plans and sacrifices the life she could have had in her attempt to destroy Brandin and free her country — and then, he lets her see the tragedy of Brandin, and fall in love with him. She ends up torn between love of him and love of country, between the future he offers her, and the demands of the past. I think that theme was par
t of why this book resonated strongly for me. As an immigrant, I’ve often felt torn between love of an individual and love of my culture — Kay taps into that feeling.
CC: Yes! Kay depicts the love of country so effectively by showing the consequences of losing its name. The importance of names has long been a key theme in fantasy literature, so he unites both themes in the quest to restore Tigana. And the curse as curse, I would suggest, is inspired by Morgoth’s curse of Hurin and his family in Tolkien’s Silmarillion. Kay takes another fantasy idea with deep roots and makes it totally new and right to the world in which it happens.
MM: I’d agree that the power of names has long been an important part of fantasy lore; it’s the naming of a country that was so unusual here. I don’t think I’ve run across that concept before in fantasy (although certainly in the real world, we’ve seen many instances of oppressed/colonized cultures renaming themselves (or reclaiming lost names) as part of their attempt to escape the shadow of the colonizer. Could you talk a little more about the Silmarillion connection? I’m afraid I skimmed it as a teenager and never came back to it, though I intend to.
CC: The story of Hurin and his children has close parallels to the story of Brandin’s revenge on the royal family of Tigana. Hurin was king of the men of Dor-Lomin. At the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, in which Morgoth destroys all the kingdoms of the High Elves, Hurin and his men serve as a rearguard for Turgon, King of Gondolin, Morgoth’s most bitter enemy. While Hurin’s men hold off Morgoth’s armies, Turgon’s people escape back to their secret city, escaping the slaughter. Hurin and his men fight to the last man, so that Hurin is finally left alone. He slays fifty orcs on his own, until finally he is captured, not killed, and brought before Morgoth. Morgoth tries to get his service, but Hurin reviles him. Still Morgoth does not kill him; instead, he curses Hurin and his family, so that all the good they try to do will turn to evil. He then sets Hurin in a high seat in the mountains above Morgoth’s fortress of Angband to watch the unfolding of the curse. There’s a close parallel here to the Prince of Tigana’s personal punishment, I think.
MM: Yes, and that was another stunning moment in Tigana — I had no idea that Brandin’s Fool was the old Prince of Tigana, Valentin, crippled and silenced and forced to watch everything that Brandin did to his country and his people, while everyone thought he was long dead. When that was revealed, it was perfect, and plausible, and absolutely critical to the ending.
CC: I also had no idea of the identity of the Fool, but it was absolutely perfect. Back to Tolkien –here’s how the curse unfolds. Hurin’s young children, Turin and Nienor, escape separately from slavery but, through their well-intended actions, they help to bring about the destruction of two hidden Elven strongholds, Nargothrond and Doriath. Later, Turin and Nienor are reunited, but not before Nienor has been enspelled by the Dragon of Morgoth, Glaurung, to lose all her memory. Not knowing herself, she and Turin meet and fall in love (the close parallel here is to Dianora and Baerd and the incest in their story). When Nienor recovers her memory, she leaps into a river and drowns herself. Again, this fits with Kay’s handling of the story of Dianora. So for those reasons I see the Silmarillion as an important source of inspiration for Kay.
MM: That is a close parallel — but it’s interesting that when Dianora tries to drown herself, she fails –instead she finds the Ring which confirms Brandin’s right to rule, and it looks like the gods have told her to choose love over country. At that point in the book, it looks like Brandin is safe, that he has in some way been forgiven for what he has done — and he is honestly remorseful, so Kay has seduced the reader into wanting Brandin to be forgiven. And then Prince Valentin returns to himself, and kills Brandin –because. . .? What do you think Kay was trying to say with that action? That remorse isn’t sufficient? That love doesn’t conquer all, even if the lovers are true? That moment is heartbreaking, because we’ve fallen in love with Brandin and Dianora; they’ve been in pain for so long, and we want them to be happy, but…
CC: Yes, and then. . .I think part of the beauty of Tigana is that it shows that there are limits on forgiveness. Brandin finally does realize that love, and life, and the future, are more important than his revenge, but he has to be pushed to the uttermost to make that choice, and when he does, the consequences of his own vengeance destroy him.
MM: Too little, too late? Maybe just too late. It’s an interesting decision on Kay’s part, similar to the treatment of Arthur in Fionavar, who had the children killed, and was doomed as a result. He eventually finds forgiveness; is his situation different from Brandin’s? And why?
CC: Love can conquer all, but not always. Maybe in Fionavar. Maybe after some thousand years of failure and penance in different versions of himself on different worlds, ‘Brandin’ will be forgiven. The model here is King Arthur in the Fionavar books. Although Arthur is a very good man, he committed a horrible crime when he killed many children in an effort to destroy Mordred before he could grow up to destroy Arthur’s kingdom. Because of that act, Arthur is doomed to fight and die for the cause of Good again and again, on many different worlds. It is only when he fights on Fionavar that, finally, the pattern is broken and he is freed from penance. I can imagine Brandin being drawn through a similar pattern. One thing I try to keep in mind with Brandin is that Kay is representing him both as a complex human being and as a ‘dark lord’ type. Remember that when Baerd fights alongside the caul-born during the Ember Days, he sees the leader of the forces destroying the fertility of the land as Brandin.
MM: Oh, that is a good point. Perhaps with Brandin part of the point is that his revenge has almost utterly consumed him — it’s miraculous that Dianora manages to retrieve what is left of his humanity.
CC: Yes. I think that Brandin dies well; it is Dianora’s death in the end that I find hard to take.
MM: Do you think that it was right that Dianora died at the end, when Brandin is killed by the Fool/Prince Valentin? Was there any other action possible to her?
CC: I think that she could have lived — had she understood that her actions did save her country even as she refused to betray her love for Brandin –she might have been able to live with that, had she ever heard the story. For only by her doing exactly as she did — by loving Brandin, by making his Kingdom of the Western Palm possible by performing the ring-dive — could the final battle between Brandin and Alberico (the sorceror/tyrant from the Empire of Barbadior who ruled the eastern half of the Palm) be brought about, enabling the rebels to destroy both the sorcerors at once.
MM: Mmm. . .good point about Dianora. The gods aren’t very kind to her. Before we leave Tigana, I do want to say that I think the other characters are also beautifully handled.
CC: Certainly we should not neglect them. Devin is an excellent entry-character for the reader. Since he knows nothing about the true history of his land or the conspirators who are seeking to free it, the reader can learn that history as he learns it. And Sandre is an extraordinary creation, old and wise and fierce and full of life.
MM: Yes — what of Catriana, and her relationship with Devin? It seemed to parallel Diarmuid and Sharra in the trilogy in many ways. . .I think what I’m thinking of is her innocence, and daring, and how dense she is — and the way their frustrated interaction resembles that of Sharra and Diarmuid. Does that make sense to you?
‘d say Catriana parallels Sharra to some extent, though I think she also parallels Jaelle, the High Priestess in Fionavar, too.
MM: Who also denies love — a lot of his women do that, especially the ones trying to be strong and self-sufficient.
CC: Yes, Kay’s not always the best feminist writer in those regards.
MM: Which does bring up again a charge that I think we’re going to have to deal with before this piece is through — are his characters sufficiently differentiated from book to book, or are they really the same people over and over? It’s more obvious with his female characters, I think, but I think there may be similar problems in some of the men (and he does have some splendid women, especially the physician Jehane in Al-Rassan).
CC: Well, that’s a/the big question. I think that from the standpoint of ‘realist’ fiction, his characters are not sufficiently differentiated from book to book. But Kay might say that, of course the characters are all versions of one another — that’s the point (there are some splendid women in Arbonne, too).
MM: Well, we’ll be coming back to his women soon. Any more to add about Tigana?
CC: I guess all I’d want to add is that the plotting is incredibly good; everything is perfectly tied together in ways that few books are; Kay is never quite so on top of the shape of the story elsewhere, but how could he be? Occasionally I feel like he deliberately jerks the reader around a little bit too much — the set-up of Catriana’s death and recovery was totally amazing the first time I read it, overwhelming, but on the second read I felt like I was being set up by narratorial sleight-of-hand.
MM: Heh. That’s the one part of the book that I’m not sure is utterly brilliant — but I’m just not sure about it. I think it depends on my mood whether I’m willing to grant it to him or not.
CC: Oh, it’s brilliant, but also contrived.
MM: Ah well — everything has to have at least one flaw, no? Otherwise it would be unbearably perfect. One last thing I’d add would be how well I think the riselka works at the very end. A riselka’s appearance signals a sudden shift in the lives of men who see it. At the end of Tigana, three of the main characters see a riselka at once. This means that one will die, one will change his life, and one’s life will be blessed. In a way, it’s emblematic of Kay’s writing, that uncertainty he creates in the reader, that sudden twisting and turning, so that you can never be sure that a character you love is safe. . .And the feeling that despite love and honor and truth and courage, we are all subject as well to the twists of fate. That’s a theme that he returns to again, especially in the latest duology. Let’s go on to Arbonne; I had trouble with this one, and felt it was seriously flawed.
CC: I agree that Arbonne is much more uneven. But I still like it a lot. It’s experimental in feel, I think. What do you see as the main flaws?
MM: Hmm. . .could you start instead by saying what you liked about it? I just reread it, and I think in the end, I find the book unsatisfying. But I’m not sure why. How do you see it as experimental?
CC: I think that the major experiment for Kay is the treatment of the theme of art. It’s always been with him, but in Tapestry it’s just a metaphor, and in Tigana the music is color, as it were. It’s an escape for Alessan’s band of revolutionaries from their real work: to restore Tigana’s name and free the Palm from the tyrants. In Arbonne, the making of art becomes a central project of the characters. That’s interesting to me, and I think it prepares Kay for what he does more successfully in The Sarantine Mosaic.
MM: So you’re talking about the role of the musicians in Arbonne. . . .
CC: Yes, and the importance of song to the culture, to the sense of who the Arbonnais are, what they stand for and what they want to save. I also find Arbonne poignant because Kay is writing against history. In our world, Arbonne and its culture do not survive the Albigensian crusade. For Kay, the troubadors and the idea of courtly love are the parts of the culture of Languedoc that matter, that he builds on. He uses the fact that there was a war over religion, but he doesn’t base any of the conflict in his book on the historical heresy that was destroyed by the French crusade.
MM: I’d agree that one of the main threads in this is certainly the role of music in the culture of the Arbonnais — the power and prestige it has, and its ability to change lives and society. The singer, Lisseut, at the end of the book, makes an important decision based primarily on a song she heard by one of the old musicians, and I think she’s emblematic of the other Arbonnais. Another thread is religion, though differently from the historical version. Kay creates a dualistic religion in Arbonne that elevates a female figure over a male, which infuriates the northerners, leading a fanatic against them to whip the country into a frenzied crusade. . .and he ties that in with what felt like the overarching theme of the book to me — the position of women in society. I admire him for what he seems to be trying to say — to work against the conception of women as useless beings. . .but I think there are several places in the book where his handling of the women becomes very problematic, most centrally in the fact that it is a woman’s foolishness that almost dooms them all.
CC: Which foolishness are you referring to, exactly?
MM: That Aelis, married by politics to Urte de Miraval, sleeps with Bertran de Talair, makes sure with magic that she conceives a child with him, and tells her husband Urte of this truth as she’s dying in childbed — and she does it all out of revenge, because Urte doesn’t love her. Which is problematic enough, but made more so by the revelation at the end that Urte did in fact love her — that he simply didn’t know how to tell her, because he wasn’t a poet like Bertran. Several times as war is coming down on Arbonne, various characters reflect that the division between Bertran and Urte may prove the destruction of Arbonne. So it all comes down to Aelis and her decision.
CC: I agree that his handling of women in the book is problematic. He seems to me to be trying to make a feminist story while still adhering to patriarchal assumptions. So he splits the men into demonized chauvinists and more ordinary men, who don’t believe that women exist only to serve them.
MM: He gets seriously excessive about it, too. The king in the north, who gets sexually serviced during court, and humiliates one of his nobles by ordering him to do the same. . .that felt so over-the-top to me. I don’t know if it’s historically appropriate or accurate, but it felt like he was trying to hammer in a point.
CC: Yes; it’s too much. I don’t think it’s historically accurate in terms of this world. And that behavior has to be outrageous even in the northern kingdom in Kay’s world, because the northerner, Blaise, shows the good side of that culture. The king’s actions violate the ideals even of his own kingdom. The story rejects this extreme version of patriarchy, but the alternative to it also seems male-dominated. To tie that point back to Aelis, I’d say that with the origin of the story in Aelis, Kay is trying to aim at a story with tragic potential. He doesn’t fully see the gendered assumptions in the way he sets the potential tragedy in motion, I think.
MM: I really wonder about Aelis — so many of the other women in the book are admirable. Why does he make the crux of the tale this woman? And the way he sets up the dramatic conclusion of the
battle at the end feels like a cheat, when Urte has stormed out, unwilling to fight under Bertran — and everyone believes this — and then it turns out that that was just a clever ploy. Kay tries to have it both ways.
CC: Well, fantasy stories often try to have things both ways. Part of their appeal is their ability to reconcile contradictions that in reality are hard to reconcile. I agree, though, that Kay undermines the consistency of his story when he has Urte do exactly what he has spent most of the novel convincing us that Urte was incapable of ever doing.
MM: Yes; he makes Urte this dark, brooding figure –and then suddenly it turns out that — surprise! –Urte wasn’t really holding a grudge after all. It was all just a political trick, for the good of the country. I was also frustrated by another surprise at the end, when it turned out that Aelis had had twins. We knew at this point that her son had died, and that was poignant. The only real reason for the second child was because there was no heir to Arbonne — and that felt constructed, to justify the ending. I guess where I end up with this book is feeling like there are many good moments — what he does with the musicians is excellent, actually — but that the book as a whole often lacks an internal logic; some critical situations are contrived (for an unnecessary surprise, much like the very end of Al-Rassan), and some seem grounded in sexist stereotypes.
CC: What about the characters in Arbonne? Blaise, Lisseut?
MM: Lisseut was wonderful. I thought her character was deftly rendered throughout — and I do like the fact that she can be loving, yet not stupid about it. Aelis was stupid. . .or if not stupid, so self-centered that it was close enough.
CC: Yes. The thing that’s hard to believe about Aelis is that she would be so unaware of the larger political context that everyone else seems to understand, years later. Kay can almost get away with that because he gives us Aelis’ story before we know anything about the world, either, but once we do learn, her behavior seems hard to credit.
MM: And Aelis’ actions do undercut what Ariane and Signe were trying to do with the Court of Love –create a space where women’s voices can be heard. Love becomes more than a feeble emotion; it becomes a strength, something that can enable positive action. In the tavern, Ramir sings of the sweetness of Arbonne, and he says at the end, that the song was a love song; love of country becomes elevated to join what Signe/Ariane are attempting to do with courtly love.
CC: Hmm. Ariane’s development of the Court of Love is shaped in part by her view of how her sister was used in political marriage, wasn’t it? While Aelis totally disregards the political implications of her stand for her right to love freely, though, Ariane creates a space for women’s power that co-exists with political reality. That brings us back to a major theme in Tigana –the tension between personal love and love of country. But here, the country being defended is a country that cares about and elevates personal love. That’s part of what makes it worth defending.
MM: Yes. And the value of song comes back into that love of country. Lisseut ends up influenced by that song — “It had been Ramir’s song though, in Lussan at the Autumn Fair that, more than any other single thing, had shaped her feelings now.” It convinced her to stay in Arbonne, to fight for it however she could, when she could have fled to safety. Lisseut there seems to stand in for everyone who believes in and supports what Arbonne is trying to become. Lisseut, through her coming into her own as a juggler and a troubadour, seems the best example of what the book does offer. . .which comes back to what you were saying about art.
CC: Okay, so then it’s the creation of her love for her place that becomes a turning point in her life?
MM: I think so. That, and her decision not to pursue Blaise, to let him be the king his country needs without hindrance — placing duty over love, unlike Aelis. That decision seems thoroughly linked to Ramir’s song — the fulfillment of that song, perhaps.
CC: Yes, Lisseut is the character who stands in for us, and she shows that the conflict can’t simply be overcome, but that one can live with it, and be happy, if duty comes first.
MM: Ariane and Blaise also put duty over love. It’s clear that they are one of Kay’s heart-breaking couples, yet they are unwilling to destroy their countries for love. Although again, problems arise. One is that Blaise’s potential political marriage with Rinette, Aelis’ surprise second child and the newly discovered heir to Arbonne, is one of the obstacles, which again feels contrived. What bothers me more is that in the end, the decision is Blaise’s. Ariane makes it clear what he should do, and if Kay had left it as their joint decision, I would have been satisfied. But instead, we get these lines — “She would have offered so much comfort, he knew. Comfort and passion and wisdom. Offered, and taken whatever he had to give in return, had he but asked.” Which implies to me that in the end, the power is his. . .that in the end, a woman in love is subject to a man’s desires.
CC: Yes; the real choices remain for the most part choices that men have. Women have to be resigned. Not a positive ending. But true to period, in some ways.
MM: I don’t think we can excuse him on true-to-period — he’s trying to show extraordinary people who are working against the conventions of period. Even if they can’t publicly defy them, they ought to be able to privately fight them. Supposedly that’s what Ariane is doing, but it’s not consistent. I was disappointed with Kay in those lines.
CC: Yes, and in the end, dynastic marriage and the political demands it represents remain more important than romantic love. I agree that we shouldn’t apologize for Kay’s decisions by turning to history. He’s changing history when it suits him. He’s not prepared to envision a history where rejection of the claims of a patriarchal-lineage society leads to a solution of political and social problems.
MM: In the end, I enjoyed Arbonne, but felt unsatisfied with it overall. Certainly worth reading, and he does do some beautiful things within it, but in my opinion, it’s the weakest of his work.
CC: Not having read Al-Rassan, I can’t judge completely. I myself prefer Arbonne to The Fionavar Tapestry because the characterization is so much richer (in my view). But it’s a step down from the other later novels.
MM: We may have to agree to disagree on Fionavar. . .
CC: Probably we will — I read it too late in life.
MM: Any last comments on Arbonne — anything we missed discussing?
CC: The only comment I would add on Arbonne is that in it we’re moving farther away from the magical and archetypal realm of Fionavar. Tigana was a first step away, and the world of Al-Rassan and The Sarantine Mosaic will be a further step. I don’t know that we need to talk about this much with respect to Arbonne, but I thought I should mention it in passing, because as we move further from Fionavar, clean resolutions and perfect happiness become less and less part of the reality of the worlds. Characters must compromise with life and be satisfied with smaller victories in Kay’s later books. Now we could move on to a subject I’m ignorant about — the content of The Lions of Al-Rassan.
MM: Al-Rassan is southern Spain, in a time where both the northern part of Spain and the desert people of the south want to control/conquer it. It is a place of great beauty and culture, an oasis. The fountains of Al-Rassan, where the lions (great men) came to drink, are a recurrent theme. The last of the caliphs of Al-Rassan is killed at the beginning of the book, and the rest of th
e novel is an exploration of what happens to the country when there are no great men able to save it.
CC: Are the central characters not people of power then?
MM: A great man does emerge, but he isn’t in a position to save the country. . .though his final critical decision in the book is whether to join the northerners (and be on the winning side), or attempt to defend his country in what will almost certainly be a doomed attempt. And, in fact, it is doomed. At the end of the book, Al-Rassan is no more, and I think, in that sense, Kay corrected what may have been a flaw of Arbonne. It’s really a tragedy of place, this book. Most of the people (and loves) survive, but the country is lost. It’s a beautiful counter to Tigana in that sense.
CC: In Arbonne, once the northerners are demonized, it would be simply unbearable to have them destroy Arbonne; the ambivalence that you describe in Lions, of the country dying but the people going on, was not possible given the extreme alternative scenario presented by the war over Arbonne. So it does make sense to see Al-Rassan as correcting a key weakness in his handling of the Arbonne story.
MM: I think the book is really wonderful. It doesn’t hit me quite as hard as Tigana, perhaps because it’s harder to emphasize with a tragedy, but it’s beautifully done. And I didn’t notice any of the thematic problems I did with Arbonne.
CC: Could you tell me a bit about the characters?
MM: The three central characters are Ammar (the strong man of Al-Rassan), Rodrigo Belmonte (a leader in the north), and Jehane (a Kindath physician from Al-Rassan). So, two men of power, and a woman who wouldn’t normally be, but is, by virtue of her intelligence and skill. She is also, of course, lovely. She falls in love with both men, and they both love her — this is one of Kay’s best treatments of that kind of relationship dynamic. It’s complicated by the fact that Rodrigo is married, to a woman he also loves and who loves him. The decisions become very difficult. And in the climax, the two men (who have become best of friends) are forced by their loyalties to country to fight to the death in single combat — while the women wait from a hill above the battle. Totally gripping.
CC: Have you read Ivanhoe? Your synopsis of Al-Rassan reminds me quite strongly of that book.
MM: I haven’t, actually — I really ought to.
CC: And I should read Lions.
MM: Yes, you should. He does a much better job with the treatment of women in this book — Jehane is competent, sharp, and sane, and she also is a bridge between the nobility and the world of prostitutes, whom she treats. There is one slightly cheesy bit at the end — he draws out the suspense of who survived that battle by kind of convoluted and unnecessary means. But aside from that, it’s really a terrific book. I especially think he did a good job with religion — the Jaddites in the north are rather stern Christians, the desert tribesman from the south are fanatics, Al-Rassan seems rather decadently areligious, and the Kindath are clearly the Jews, lost and wandering and screwed by all sides. He nicely parallels the twin wandering moons that they worship with the wandering of the Kindath. I think I’ll stop there — I don’t want to give away spoilers for you if possible.
CC: One more question: do you remember when and how Fionavar is mentioned in it? One thing we haven’t discussed is the fact that Fionavar is referred to in each book. It strikes me as important to remember that Kay is suggesting that the stories in each of these individual worlds are part of a larger story that spans the worlds.
MM: Good point! In Arbonne, it’s Lisseut, who remembers that bit of song — “On we two the high stars will shine / And the holy moon lend her light. / If not here you will be mine / In Fionvarre.” She is thinking of Blaise, who she cannot have.CC: In Tigana, it’s Brandin, who tells Dianora that they should have met in Finavir.
MM: I honestly don’t remember if it’s made explicit in Al-Rassan — but there’s certainly an implication in the tragedy of the book that there must be some place where that which is loved need not be lost. Al-Rassan seems to me the last of Kay’s sweeping novels in which all the characters are a little bigger than life: beautiful and tragic and glorious. Even though it’s not as realistic as his later work, in the end, it resonates more for me. One of the things I’ve always loved about Kay’s writing is in fact the way his people are all just a little better than you would expect them to be; that nobility, characteristic of the Arthurian legend as well, is what tugs at my heart and makes me fall in love with his books.
This concludes our discussion of Kay’s first six novels. Please follow us on, to a review of The Sarantine Mosaic.
© copyright Mary Ann Mohanraj and Christopher Cobb