Post-Romantic Romance: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana and A Song for Arbonne

by Janeen Webb

Copyright © Janeen Webb 1994. All rights reserved. This article first appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction, No.77, January 1995.

Judged by any of the standard genre definitions, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana is high fantasy, but A Song for Arbonne is not: it is a hybrid, a meta-fantasy bred from the root stock of nineteenth century historical romance, and crossed with late twentieth century cynicism about the politics of art, sexuality, and religion. Kay’s subversion of the innocent tropes of High Fantasy began in The Fionavar Tapestry with a very non-traditional interpretation of the sexual politics of the Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot triangle, set within what would otherwise have been a conventionally structured fantasy trilogy. In Tigana, the structure of high fantasy remains, but the emphasis is directed towards a direct analysis of the human aspects of sexual and religious machination in a dangerous world whose politicians may wield superhuman power. There is no magic in A Song for Arbonne, where the fantasy structure is self-reflexive, and the gods have been further distanced both by the historically grounded setting and the absolute human focus on the political permutations of sex and religion.

Since it is a truth universally acknowledged that historical fiction, fantasy, and science fiction all employ essentially the same methodology, extrapolating from close research the details that bestow plausibility upon fictionally re/created cultures beyond the immediate experience of the reader, this hybrid form does not signal a major shift in approach. The change is one of emphasis.

Both Tigana and A Song for Arbonne reflect the late twentieth century sense of innocence lost. This is an inherently ironic position for the writer of high fantasy, arguably the most romantic of the speculative genres. It is a position that derives, at least in part, from a recognition that the Romantic belief in the essential value of human identity, the keystone of countless quest fantasies, has been eroded, in the latter part of this century, by the pervasive construction of an individual subjectivity that no longer expects transcendence. Kay’s fictional worlds are inhabited by urbane adults: Line by line, he maintains the sentence structure, the ambience, the style of nineteenth century romance, yet he repudiates the cosy certainties and overt patterning of much current fantasy in order to concentrate on extrapolation of some quite caustic ideas concerning political, social, and sexual power, particularly as these relate to the arts.

This increasing sophistication is most evident in the changing representation of the belief systems of Kay’s created worlds, which show a clear progression from myth through faith to religion. In mythic Fionavar, there is a universe of Homeric interaction between gods and mortals. In Tigana, there is a less naive world where, although the gods are yet present, and may occasionally intercede for their worshippers, there is also overt political manipulation of myth for purely secular purposes – as occurs, for example, in the Ring Dive of Dianora. In A Song for Arbonne, the gods remain completely off stage in a world where religion has replaced faith, and the clergy of opposing organizations deal in the artificial manipulation of the laity through carefully designed theatre which reinforces political positions – we learn, for example, that the ‘arrow of the goddess’, “crimson dyed, fletched with crimson owl feathers” [p.512] which flew arching through the sky to kill the debauched king Ademar in the midst of battle, was in fact the product of a little pre-emptive religious engineering by Beatritz, High Priestess of Rian.

The secondary world of Tigana is a true world of High Fantasy, with its own geography, religion, politics and social systems. The story is set in the various provinces of a land mass known as the Palm, together with its nearby islands. It encompasses a highly developed pre-technological civilization, and although its complex social structure is overtly reminiscent of Renaissance Italy, it is also a world in which magic functions as a part of the natural order, and is accepted as a matter of course by those who live with it. As with all natural resources, the human value ascribed to magic in Tigana can be measured in political and social terms: it exists in direct correlation with the psychological strength of those who are able to harness it, responding, impartially, to the will of the wielder. In Fionavar, magic is externalised in talismanic objects which function as symbolic signifiers of association with the gods of the fictional world. This is not the case in Tigana, where the two groups of magic users, sorcerers and wizards, are vying for secular power. Sorcerers, concerned with politics, are able to access an inner strength that is used, primarily, for controlling the minds of others: they dominate the Palm, ruling through force and fear, dealing in death. Brandin, for example, whose personal sorcery gives him almost god-like power, places a spell of exile over an entire province, and is shown holding a hostage in a ‘mind and body lock’, and using his ability to alter perceptions as a military weapon of terror. Opposed to the sorcerers are wizards, who wield a more constructive social power for healing and shape-changing, drawing their strength from the land itself: in order to gain full power, they sever the two little fingers of the left hand in a ritual binding to the earth that re-shapes the anatomy to mirror the geographical shape of the Peninsula of the Palm.

In A Song for Arbonne, Kay has moved firmly into historical fantasy, depicting a civilization drawn directly from the identifiable world of the medieval Provence of the troubadours, with emphasis upon the social intricacies of the Court of Love. This is a world of political power struggles between cultures with opposing religious codifications. There are no wizards or sorcerers, though there remains a vestigial idea of human access to superhuman power through the personal sacrifice of physical maiming, represented by the traditional blinding of the High Priestess of Rian to gain ‘inner sight’ [as also occurs, for example, in David Zindell’s Neverness]. Even this has been reduced to an optional ritual, reinstated by Beatritz in a bid to touch the receding power of the goddess: her blinding has granted her a power of very limited use – visions are true, but clear only within the boundaries of the sacred island. The political uses of such religious customs are never far from the surface. This ritual blinding is cruelly parodied by Galbert, the fanatical high priest of Corannos, who tortures, maims and blinds Arbonne’s beloved troubadours in a most unmagical act of precursive psychological warfare.

One of the hallmarks of High Fantasy is the fictional validity of the tenets that underpin the world in which the characters move and act, and one of the most difficult areas in which to achieve this is the system of religious belief that guides the imagined society. In Tigana, the political and social structures are informed by the pervasive religious beliefs of the various inhabitants of the fantasy world. Kay’s mythology is complex: a conflation of myths modified to make contextual sense. The world of Tigana has two moons [a silver and a blue] and one sun, complemented by a triadic religion of two goddesses and one god – Eanna, Morian and Adaon, respectively ruling sky, underworld, and sea – Eanna of the stars, Morian of portals, goddess of the dead, and Adaon of the waves. The basic belief is that humankind was created from the initial incestuous union of divine mother/sister and brother.

The mythological basis for Tigana‘s Triad recalls the story of the love of the mother-goddess Ishtar for the youthful Tammuz, whose yearly death and resurrection revives the natural world. In Greek mythology, this is the story of Adonis, beloved of both Aphrodite and Persephone and shared between them, until his death while hunting a boar. This has been further conflated with the story of Actaeon, whom the moon-goddess Artemis turned into an antlered stag to be hunted to death by his hounds – a myth which is itself one of the many variations on the ritual fate of the Horned King. The association of the Triad with fertility rites is spelled out in Adaon’s ritual death, occurring annually in the traditionally observed Ember Days of autumn: here, the god is slain on his mountain as the promise of spring to come, reborn to be again beloved of the moon-goddesses.

The religious observances of the Triad are part of the very fabric of life in the world of Tigana, and are inextricably bound up with the politics of power. The various interpretations of the death of Adaon are a case in point. If the celebration has evolved into a symbolic foot race in cultured Chiara, its observance is more literal elsewhere: in the matriarchal province of Quileia, the variation on the myth in which Artemis took a yearly consort who became the Oak king, ritually sacrificed at the end of his term of office, has been specifically re-enacted. A major political and social change occurs when one Marius, having overcome his attackers in the Oak Grove for the seventh time in succession, despite his ritual maiming, has decided that: Seven is sacred…By allowing him this latest triumph the Mother Goddess has made known her will. Marius has just declared himself King in Quiliea, no longer only the consort of the High Priestess. [p.37] This shifts the sexual balance of power associated with the province’s religious affiliations: “I thought [comments one character] they had a matriarchy there.” So [replies his interlocutor] did the late High Priestess.” [p.37] This is an action of the utmost political consequence in the text, and crucial to the military strategy of Alessan and his allies against the sorcerer Brandin.

Although the text of A Song for Arbonne maintains the structural fiction of Tigana‘s solar system, the triadic mythology has been replaced by the more orthodox medieval dialectic opposition of female and male principles, represented by the life-giving mother goddess, Rian, sacred in Arbonne, and the life-denying war god Corannos, worshipped in Gorhaut. Again the method is one of conflation: the female associations with fertility and gathering of the dead are telescoped into the representation of Arbonne’s goddess, Rian, whose name is a linguistic diminution of Tigana‘s Morian. Again, the emphasis here is more overtly historical. Kay’s alignment of the cult of the troubadours, exponents of ideal earthly love, with the worship of Rian as avatar of transcendent idealized love, places Arbonne’s official religion in the position of the Cathars, whose Church of Love was founded on the feminine principle, the mother of Logos. In this way the depiction of Rian resembles the historical appropriation of the fertility aspect of Artemis with the role of Mother as intercessor for the dead, evident in some medieval worship of the Virgin Mary as she was adored in the rituals of courtly love: themselves influenced by Sufist representations of the idealized Garden of Love.

Opposed to the music of “goddess ruled Arbonne” is Gorhaut, whose official religion is that of the masculine god Corannos – a conflation of the warrior cult of Mithras with dour Christian piety into a priesthood dedicated to the destruction of any form of female power. Historically, Gorhaut is aligned with the position of medieval Rome, whose distrust of the intellectual freedom and female power of the Courts of Love led to the accusations of Albigensian heresy, and thence to a bloody crusade of persecution that wiped out the offending female centered courts – whose passing was mourned in the lyrics of the troubadour Sicard de Marjevols.

In Kay’s Arbonne, the symbolic uses of mythology have also become, appropriately for this society, much more stylized. Rian is associated with both moons, represented in devices such as the crescent knives carried by her priestesses, and in her sacred owl of wisdom: but she is also associated with the civilized warmth of Arbonne, as patron of its music, its courtly festivals and its olive groves. Corannos, however, is associated only stylistically with the sun – in the heraldic device of the kings of Gorhaut – he is the unforgiving god of the cold, hard northern men who seek to overrun the warmer lands of the south. The opening attack in this invasion is indicative of the obsessive hatred of Rian that drives Gorhaut’s High Priest of Corannos to destroy an unarmed village: Three guardsmen in a tower, a hamlet of shepherds and farmers, eight priestesses raped and set on fire. A scourging of the god.” [p.354]

I should probably confess, at this point, that Guy Kay and I disagree about the detail of this reading. He maintains that, while Gorhaut is single-mindedly masculine in character, Arbonne represents a healthy duality in the worship of both female and male deities. I am sympathetic to this narrative intention, but my close reading of the text does not confirm it. Corannos is included in Arbonne, but in a very minor way: there is only one shrine, functioning as a plot device in the story of Blaise; and although children here have godparents representing both deities, Rian is supreme in Arbonne. This dichotomy is constantly reiterated in the textual patterning: Corannos’ men rule Gorhaut, Rian’s women rule Arbonne. The authorial intention is that Gorhaut should eventually return to societal health through reintegration with Arbonne, each state containing both male and female elements. But the strength of Kay’s representations of the struggle between the sexes in the course of the novel is such that the political balance achieved by the ultimate arranged marriage between Blaise and Rinette suggests a more traditional sexual union between male and female principles, resulting in a different kind of symbolic reunion.

GGK new iconGGK NOTE
Janeen Webb takes the unusual and generous step of noting the author’s differing view or intention. This is a classic case where the writer might well not have accomplished what he wanted, but to open up the possibility of further discussion I’ll note here that the source of my dissent from her reading lies in the degree to which the text tries to make clear that it is an anomaly and a dangerous one that a woman is reigning in Arbonne. The notion for me was to suggest that in political-military terms a male leader was important at this time, even in the south, while women in Arbonne had significantly enhanced cultural impact and religious status compared to the rest of the world at the time. From this, I hoped the idea was planted that would imply a harmonization of the spheres of god and goddess. The resolution of the novel – with the implication of a strong male leader ritually linked to a representative of the goddess was meant to further this suggestion. — GGK

A further indication of Kay’s movement from the mythic towards historical fantasy can be found in the ways in which the triadic structures of Tigana are resolved into a more conventional narrative dualism in A Song for Arbonne. In Tigana, the triadic religion is complemented by the three main strands of narrative action that are plaited into the tale – the storylines cross, touching briefly, each following its own logic, always being woven towards a single outcome. In A Song for Arbonne, the narrative is focused upon the balanced tensions between the male and female gods and upon the two resulting sets of opposing political intrigue. Both tales are concerned with political power struggles between nations, but differ markedly in the ways in which these tensions interact with religious power: in Tigana, the tyrant-tyrant Brandin is the central figure, and the squabbling sub-sects of the different religious orders devoted to the three deities of the Triad are exploited by secular leaders; in Arbonne, the position is reversed, as Galbert, the Machiavellian High Priest of Corannos, controls both the weak King Ademar and his court, manipulating the political action in the name of the god and forcing Arbonne to respond in defence of its lands and its goddess.

This shift in narrative patterning is also evident in characterisation. In Tigana, the protagonists are linked with particular deities, and their fates reflect the aspects of the Triad that they themselves have invoked. Alessan, Prince of Tigana, is descended in
direct masculine line from the god Adaon: he is directly associated with Adaon in his role as the hunted stag king; he plays, with consummate skill, the Tregean pipes sacred to the god; he has inherited the right to be king when Brandin’s death releases his land, and so is able to use the gift of Adaon to bind Erlein the wizard to his service. Brandin is also associated with Adaon, but by choice rather than by inheritance: In choosing to run the Chiaran race of Mt. Sangarios on the first of the Spring Ember days, Brandin has identified himself as the human incarnation of Adaon, to be slain for the land’s better thriving next autumn. This prefigures his death at the autumn battle that frees Tigana to be regenerated by Alessan, the next of the Adaon kings.

The association of power with sexual politics is strong in both books. In Tigana, it is linked with those who follow the gods Morian and Adaon, who know of death and corruption. The strongest of the sexual politicians is Brandin, whose prowess is legendary in the saishan. His chosen lady Dianora is a dark beauty whose name identifies her closely with the moon-goddess Diana: she follows the path of Morian, death aspect of the goddess. Dianora is herself a politician of consummate skill, acting smoothly within a courtly atmosphere of deadly intrigue. Her incestuous relationship with her brother Baerd mirrors the action of the Triad goddesses, and her intention to redeem Tigana by killing Brandin results in her path toward both death and dark sexual experience. She submits herself to prostitution to earn her living until she is captured for Brandin’s saishan by Rhamanus [recalling Rhadamanthus, one of the judges of Hades]; and her fate is sealed when, by finally admitting her love for Brandin, she adopts the one course of action that will lead to his death. Dianora is the only protagonist specifically redeemed by one of the Triad, when Morian of Portals herself appears to grant Dianora grace at the moment of her drowning.

Also associated with the darker aspect of the goddess, and with Morian, is Alienor, embodiment of female sexual power. The raven-haired Alienor enjoys a lonely personal and political freedom – her control of castle Borso is reflected in her power to seduce and enjoy the men of her choice. Her conquests form a counterfoil for those of Brandin, and she functions in the text as the mother-goddess in her role as sexual initiator for the men of Adaon’s Tigana. She, too, is a guardian of gateways: the strategic position of castle Borso enables her to aid Alessan and give refuge to Eleanor of the Night Walkers.

Balanced against these strong, sexually mature women are Tigana‘s younger protagonists, Catriana and Alais, associated both with Eanna of the Lights and with the virgin aspect of the white goddess. Alais remains innocent though competent; Catriana has two politically motivated sexual encounters essential to the plot. Red haired and associated with light, Eanna’s Catriana is finally wed to Adaon’s Alessan. Interestingly enough, all of Tigana‘s major characters have been involved in sexual triads that involve death and loss: for the survivors, these triads are finally replaced by pairs: Alessan and Catriana; Devin and Alais; Baerd and Eleanor.

While mythic conflations produced Tigana‘s characterisations, the process in A Song for Arbonne is an historical one. This is a less innocent, more secular text, where the plottings are those of political survival ungarlanded by personal myth. Kay’s meticulous research into troubadour history is evident in his creation of characters such as the duke Bertran de Talair, who recalls both Bernard de Ventadorn, in the bird motif of his love songs, and Bertran de Borne [whom Dante met wandering in the Inferno] in his fierce eulogy of war and his reputation as a famous lover and pursuer of the ideal woman. Other famous troubadours are woven into the text: the passion of Jafre Rudel for the image of Melissande is transposed into the passion of Rudel Correze for the infamous Lucianna; the complex style of Arnaut Daniel is reflected in the lyrics of Aurelian and Remy, and so on.

The colour symbolism of darkness and light has been retained in Arbonne’s female characters. The raven haired queen of the Court of Love, Ariane de Carenzu [namesake of the troubadour Lady Carenza], wields a large measure of personal and political power in Arbonne; and she too functions as sexual liberator for the emerging hero. Arianne is aligned with another dark lady, Beatritz, High Priestess of Rian, since both are keepers of different aspects of the goddess of love – the secular and the divine. Similarly dark haired, but more closely aligned with death, is Lucianna d’ Andoria [fictional cousin to Lucrezia Borgia], the chief sexual predator of the text, whose bedroom tastes, like Alienor’s, run to serious bondage. These dark women of power are balanced in Arbonne by the golden power of Signe d’Barbentain [modelled, I think, on Eleanor of Aquitaine], and once again in the pivotal roles of light haired younger women, especially Rosala and the troubadour Lisseut.

The politics of sexual liaisons in Kay’s works can also be seen in the ways in which children of the politically powerful are used as pawns in matters of state. In Tigana, the core of the plot is Brandin’s revenge on Tigana for the death of his son, Stevan, in battle: Brandin had attacked the province to create a kingdom for his son, and when the young man was killed by the defending Valentin, Prince of Tigana, Brandin responded with total war, wiping out the people, destroying their culture, and cursing them to historical annihilation by placing a spell over the whole peninsula: the very name of Tigana cannot be heard, much less spoken, by anyone not born in the province before Stevan’s death. Brandin also controls his fertility so that he will not produce another heir.

In A Song for Arbonne, the politically motivated fate of children is again at the centre of the text. In Arbonne, political events are informed by the hatred between the powerful dukes Bertran de Talair and Urte de Miravel, arising from the defiant last acts of Aelis de Miravel, who set events in motion by telling Urte, on her childbirth deathbed, that Bertran was the father of her just delivered son. Urte has guaranteed his own safety by withholding knowledge of the fate of the boy, thus condemning Bertran to a hopeless search for his heir [a position reminiscent of Dunnett’s Francis Crawford of Lymond, whom Bertran resembles in many ways, especially in his skills as musician and military strategist]. In Gorhaut, the tyrannical Galbert de Garsenc manipulates the lives of his own sons, and, having driven his son’s wife, Rosala, to flee to Arbonne in order to preserve both herself and her unborn child, Galbert uses the resulting political situation as the excuse to declare war on that province. The social differences between the two states are underlined in the finely written scene of the birth of Rosala’s son: a lady well versed in politics, she makes her son as safe as he can be from Galbert by binding Signe, Countess of Arbonne, and Bertran to his protection by naming them his godparents. There is a further twist, in that Rosala, aware of the political necessity to produce an heir to Garsenc, has deliberately seduced her husband’s younger brother, Blaise [now pretender to the throne], to beget the child [since Ranald is impotent].

Just as in ‘real life’, it is impossible to disentangle the political implications of sex and religion. In both of these texts, sexual relationships are a measure of the political strength of the protagonists: compare, for example, the mature responses of Dianora to the private sexual domination of the powerful Brandin in Tigana, with Rosala’s disgusted response to the overtures of the debauched king Ademar, whose political weakness in A Song for Arbonne is revealed through his cruel and public use of sexual humiliation as a way
of controlling his courtiers. Brandin controls his priests and priestesses, reducing the impact of their plotting, whereas Ademar is controlled and out-manouevred at every turn by the high priest of Corannos.

A Song for Arbonne retains the romantic form of fantasy, using an historical mode of presentation with which some of the mythic and archetypal dimensions of Tigana have been conflated. It marks a self-conscious move into a more worldly narrative structure that should prove interesting when Kay’s next novel, The Lions of Al-Rassan, is released in 1995.

Guy Gavriel Kay, Tigana [Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1990]
Guy Gavriel Kay, A Song for Arbonne [Toronto, Viking, 1992].


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