by James Gunn
This piece was written by Professor James Gunn as an introduction to a leatherbound edition of Tigana published by Easton Press, as part of a series ‘the leatherbound masterpieces of fantasy’.
Thanks to Clinton Hammond for typing it up.
The subject is fantasy.
In the field of fantasy, eras are measured as B.T. or A.T. – Before Tolkien or after Tolkien. Certainly that is true in high fantasy, with its autonomous, secondary worlds. And it has particular application to the work of Guy Gavriel Kay, who helped J.R.R. Tolkien’s son Christopher edit The Silmarillion in the 1970s. The Silmarillion was the core work that Tolkien started writing immediately after World War 1, but the text of that basic document was not put together and published until 1977, four years after Tolkien’s death. According to Peter Kuzca writing in The Encyclopedia Of Fantasy, Kay “seems to have learned from the experience… How to combine worldbuilding with the narrative vigour of mythic plot structure, giving his work a strength and intelligence missing from most sub-Tolkien epics.” Moreover, Kay has been quoted as saying that “to be successful in fantasy, you have to take the measure of Tolkien – work with his strengths and away from his weaknesses.”
Hemingway once said that writing a novel was “getting into the ring with Mr. Tolstoy”; after the mid 1960s a fantasy world novel, particularly a long, epic fantasy novel, inevitably was going to be compared with Lord Of The Rings. And that of course is how Kay broke into the fantasy business. He was born in 1954 in Canada, educated at the University of Manitoba, where he earned a B.A. in philosophy in 1975, and at the University Of Toronto, where he earned a law degree in 1978. Between 1982 and 1989 he served as associate producer and principle writer for the Canadian television series “The Scales Of Justice” and Kuzca speculates that Kay may have learned much about scene-setting and the use of dialogue from his television experience.
Kay’s first published fantasy book was The Summer Tree in 1985. It was followed the nest year by the other two volumes of The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy, The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road. Tigana was published in 1990, A Song For Arbonne in 1992, and The Lions of Al-Rassan in 1995. Sailing To Sarantium is scheduled for 1998. The Wandering Fire won the Casper Award for the best SF or Fantasy Novel by a Canadian author, and Tigana won the award (by then called the Aurora) in 1990.
Kay could not avoid the comparison with Tolkien. The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy appeared at a time “when large fantasy works, and Kay’s work was clearly one work in three volumes, invited comparison to… The Lord Of The Rings,” Maureen Speller pointed out in the St. James Guide To Fantasy Writers. She went on to write that “it has not perhaps been clearly acknowledged as it should have been that Kay’s trilogy, while it had resonances of The Lord Of The Rings, was nevertheless a work of great originality.”
That describes Tigana as well. Genre works cannot help but contain aspects of the tradition in which they place themselves – the common elements among texts is what makes a genre a genre – but the best distinguish themselves by what they add to a particular body of literature. Kay’s novels stand out for their richness of character, their fullness of scene, and particularly for their realism of situation and action. Kay deliberately sets problems for himself.
A traditional fantasy scenario, for instance, has a band of assorted outcasts trying to overthrow a powerful black magician and restore peace and justice to a ravaged land. That is what happens in Tigana as well, but in Kay’s novel the outcasts cannot even say the name – Tigana – of the realm they hope to restore. Brandin the Tyrant, a powerful magician, is angry at the death of his son in the battle to conquer Tigana. He has cursed the land and the people so that they will forget such a kingdom as Tigana ever existed. A greater difficulty arises, however, because the peninsula has been divided between two magicians, and the destruction of one of them, as hard to accomplish as that may be, will allow the other to conquer the rest and consolidate his own evil regime.
Tigana reads like a richly tapestried historical novel dense with character and detail, but it occurs in a world the reader does not know, a world with two moons, one white, one blue. It is a world in which magic works, in which there is a different cosmology, different religions, different songs and arts and crafts and myths. Kay has imagined them all with an intensity of imagination and a skill that rivals Tolkien’s. Moreover, he has created a world in which lust and rape happen, in which torture, murder, mutilation, and execution occur routinely, in which people die bodily and painfully in battle, in which homosexuality involving both sexes is commonplace, and even incest is not unknown. Kay surprises his readers by his willingness to kill off major characters, even his most attractive ones, and this, too, gives the edge of reality to what might otherwise be airily fantastic.
Moreover, his protagonists understand their human predicaments. One young man, for instance, lusting after a red-haired beauty, finds her suddenly and gloriously available only to realize immediately afterwards that she was trying to distract him from the conversation that was going on in the next room. A prince has the ability to bind a magician to him but must face the fact that in order to free his realm he must enslave another.
“I am not a tool!” the magician cries out. “I am a free and living soul with my own destiny!”
And the prince relies, “I understand what you have said and why you will hate me, and I can tell you that I grieve for what necessity demands.”
And ultimately the magician points out, “You will forgive me if I remain unmoved by speeches about freedom tonight. Before the sun went down I was a free man on an open road. I am now a slave.”
It is this facing-up to the consequences of actions glossed over or ignored in other fantasy texts that gives Tigana its unique flavor. In Kay’s hands the conventions – the short-hand that enables fantasy writers to get on with what they consider to be the main thrusts of their mythic stories – get questioned, and their implications become the stuff of drama.
In another remarkable sequence, Dianora, a young woman whose family has been ravaged by Brandin the Tyrant’s savagery after his son’s death, plots to work her way into his harem, bent on killing him. But Brandin is attractive, and witty, even charming, as well as powerful, and the young woman finds herself torn between love and hatred, with what one character calls “the terrible interwovenness of things.” Dianora also wonders whether Brandin’s control over her may be enforced by magic, or alternatively, whether she is too weak to carry out her resolution.
A sense of change at work undergirds the situation of the novel. As Kuzca observes, “underlying the conflict is the sense of changing systems, with patriarchy and matriarchy in conflict for the soul of their world.” In describing The Fionavar Tapestry, Kuzca comments about the nature of all Kay fantasies, “[Kay] attempts to create a grittier, harsher world than is common within fantasy.” And in discussing The Lions of Al-Rassan, set in an analogue of medieval Spain, Luzca writes, “As ever, leading characters suffer and die, and [Kay] gives the impression that his world is a real place, as nasty and brutish as our own, rather than an escapist refuge.”
Other scholars have commented on the possible relationship between Tigana and The Fionavar Tapestry. “There is a sense,” Spiller writes, “that this novel was intended to be much more closely related to the Fionavar trilogy than it now is.” At one point Brandin tells Dianora about a legend he learned as a child, that their world “is but one of many worlds the gods sent into Time. The others are said to be far off, scattered among the stars, invisible to us.” One of those worlds is “Finavir or Finair… The nearest of all the worlds to where the true gods dwell.” Fionavar was described in The Fionavar Tapestry as the core world from which all the others have sprung, or, as Kuzca describes it, “a kind of Platonic Ideal.” Moreover, Brandin continues, “some of us are born over and again into various of these worlds until, at the last, if we have earned it by the manner of our loves we are born a final time into Finavir.” And then, towards the end, Brandin tells Dianora “we should have met in Finavir.”
“Kay remains among the foremost fantasy writers…,” Speller sums up. His work, she concludes, “set a new standard in what could be achieved in original fantasy writing.” David Pringle’s Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels was written before Tigana was published, but his comments about The Fionavar Tapestry apply to Tigana as well: “The invented world is clearly conceived and well described… Metaphysics, magic, and morality work together to provide a satisfactory and coherent framework and justification for this enjoyable story.”
Not every high fantasy benefits from the gritty touch of realism, but for those readers who like their fantasies re-imagined as they might have been if the stories dealt with real people doing real things, Tigana may be the finest example of its kind.
July 30, 1998