Myth and the New High Fantasy: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana

by Janeen Webb

© 1991, by Janeen Webb. First published in The Ring Bearer: Journal of the Mythopoeic Literature Society of Australia, Spring 1991, Vol 8, No. 2. Reprinted by permission of the author. All rights reserved.

Guy Gavriel Kay is a writer for whom myth is of the utmost importance. His earlier trilogy, the highly acclaimed Fionavar Tapestry (The Summer Tree: The Wandering Fire: The Darkest Road) worked deliberately with myth, overtly drawing on a wide range of readily identifiable sources to produce a truly innovative re-interpretation of the archetypal battle between the forces of Light and Darkness. Tigana represents a new, more subtle direction. Here, there are echoes and resonances as the familiar tales are woven into a self-contained fictional mythology that is an integral part of a sophisticated text which declines to offer the traditionally clear division between Good and Evil.

The secondary world of Tigana1 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. This group encompasses a highly developed pre-technological civilization whose inhabitants interact by sea and land: they conduct trade in cloth, wine, spices and so on using sailing ships and horse-drawn wagons; their weapons are swords and arrows. All of this is reflected in a richly complex social structure which recalls that of Renaissance Italy. This is also a world, like those of Tolkien2, Eddison and Le Guin (all discernible influences on this work), in which magic functions as part of the fabric of the universe, and is accepted as a matter of course by those who live with it.

The magic depicted in this book exists in direct correlation with the psychological strength of those who are able to harness it: it responds, impartially, to the will of the wielder. Such magic is not externalized: the text contains no talismanic objects, staffs of power, or reforged swords to function as symbolic signifiers with ‘higher powers’. There are two main groups of magic users in Tigana, sorcerers and wizards. Sorcerers are able to access an internal 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, holds a hostage in a ‘mind and body lock’, and uses his ability to alter perception as a military weapon of terror. Wizards, on the other hand, draw their strength from the land–theirs is a constructive force used mainly for healing, and shapechanging. 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. The power of the land is also tapped by Healers, the Night Walkers and other minor magic users.

Tigana is a work about the nature of power–political, religious, and sexual. There are power struggles between nations; between the different religious orders devoted to the three deities of the Triad; between the harem women vying for court favours in the king’s saishan; between factions at all levels–as one viewpoint character notes dryly at the arrival at Brandin’s court of a great musician in the company of a famous poet, “The politics of art…was at least as complex as that of provinces and nations.”3

Tigana‘s first epigraph, from Canto XVII of Dante’s Paradiso, reinforces the book’s Florentine politics and its preoccupation with the intricacies of personal power. It also indicates something of Kay’s method, in that the text adopts Dante’s philosophical position of belief in free will, adapting the idea that a rational person may make a conscious choice that will make a difference for all eternity. Here, such consequences are heightened by the presence of magic, and are likely to become physically manifest in this world rather than the next. The Dante epigraph speaks of the poet’s personal exile. In Tigana, this exile is extended to the whole Province. At the core of the story lies a long struggle by a dispossessed people against the life-denying sorcerer’s curse that has all but destroyed the province of Tigana. The spell has been imposed by Brandin of Ygrath, whose great personal sorcery gives him almost godlike power: a man of passionate loves and hates, he has used his power to take a cruel revenge upon Tigana for the death of his younger son, Stevan, in a battle for which he was himself responsible. Brandin had made war upon 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 with 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 that province before Stevan’s death. The only exceptions are other sorcerers or wizards, who are immune to spells. Brandin’s curse effectively places the province in the Vestibule of Dante’s Hell, by leaving it ‘No reputation in the world’4. The Tiganese who survived must endure their loss of identity, living in the temporal limbo that results from the knowledge that no-one else can remember that their homeland ever existed.

Theoretically, the reader’s sympathy must lie with those, led by Alessan, last Prince of Tigana, who oppose such absolute tyranny. But Brandin’s extreme anguish does elicit some pity. The sorcerer’s spell is two edged, and he is bound in his dominance. He lives, grieving, on the island of Chiara, in self-imposed exile from his kingdom of Ygrath, so that he will not age until every last Tiganese has died and his curse is fulfilled. He is not a Dark Lord, like Sauron or Lord Foul, despising and wanting to ruin the world-indeed he reviles his rival, the bullying sorcerer Alberico, for desiring power as an end in itself rather than for any useful purpose. Brandin is a cultured despot, whose island court resembles that most brilliant of twelfth century European courts, that of Sicilian King Roger at the strategically placed seaport of Palermo; home, at the time, to scholars, scientists, philosophers and artists of both European and Arab worlds. Brandin himself embraces eastern and western ideas. He supports the arts and sciences, cares for his subjects, and even wins the unwilling love of Dianora of Tigana, whose intention to kill him has ruled her life.

One of the tests of true sub-creation is the 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 that imagined society. In Tigana, the political and social structures are informed by the pervasive private 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 imaginary world 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 and 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, when Eanna of the Lights “…who had made the world, the sun, the two moons…”5 came together in love with Adaon, on the Island of Chiara. It was

…in the surging climax of her desire on the third night Eanna of the Lights created the stars of heaven…like shining lace through the dark. And…nine months later – which is three times three – the Triad was completed when Morian was born… . And with Morian had come both life and death into the world, and with life and death came mortal man to walk under the newly named stars, the two moons of the night’s warding, and the sun of the day.6″

Kay’s is a poetic approach to mythology, and he alerts the reader to his intentional myth making by paying tribute to Robert Graves and Joseph Campbell as inspirations for his text. 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 is mourned to the music of flutes, and whose resurrection revives the natural world.7 The Semitic word Adon simply means Lord, and in Greek mythology, this became the tale of Adonis-beloved of both Aphrodite and Persephone and dividing his time between them, until his death while hunting a boar. In Tigana, this is 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 many variations on the ritual fate of the Horned King.8 The seasonal associations in Tigana reinforce this connection through the observance of the traditional Ember Days, during which the residents of the Palm light no fires, fast and close their doors “…against the dead and magic in the fields…”.9 The association of the Triad with fertility rites is spelled out in Adaon’s ritual death, occurring yearly in the Ember Days of Autumn, halfway through the year, when the god was a man to be slain on his mountain. Adaon is ritually

…torn apart in frenzy and in flowing blood by his priestesses…Shredding the flesh of the dying god in the service of the two goddesses who loved him and shared him as mother, daughter, sister, bride… 10

He is slain as the promise of spring to come, put into the earth to be nurtured, and reborn to be again beloved of the moon-goddesses.

All three gods, together with a myriad of minor local deities, are worshipped in this world, with rich variations in different provinces. Chiara, for example, claims pre-eminence as the place of Morian’s conception and birth on Mt. Sangarios, so Morian is the Island’s particular guardian, and there are special ritual observances at the beginning of each third year (each of the gods watches over a year, in sequence). The Chiaran festival reinforces the connection with rituals of sacrifice to ensure fertility:

…on the first of the springtime Ember Days, [the Day of the Dead] the young men of Chiara would vie with each other in a dawn race up to the summit of Sangarios, there to pluck a blood-dark sprig of sonrai, the intoxicating berries of the mountain… The first man down the mountain was annointed Lord of Sangarios until the next such race run in three years’ time.11

This Ember Day would be close to the Celtic Fire Feast of Imbolc, connected with the red Rowan berry, and with white goddess figure St. Brigid-also close to Candlemas (February 2nd). The text makes it clear that “In the old days…the Lord of Sangarios would have been hunted down and slain on his mountain by the women six months later”12, to coincide with Adaon’s death, but now the winner of the race is hunted only for his seed by ambitious women–a different interpretation of the fertility ritual.

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 provide a case in point. If the celebration has evolved into a symbolic race in Chiara, its observance is more literal in other provinces. Graves suggests that there are examples in both Celtic and Classical rites in which each early King is “…the Sun-god beloved of the reigning Moon-goddess”,13 and the variation in which Artemis took a yearly consort who became the Oak king, sacrificed at the end of his term of office, has been specifically re-enacted in the matriarchal province of Quileia. A major political and social change occurs there when one Marius, having overcome his attackers in the Oak Grove for the seventh time in succession, despite the handicap of 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 Quileia, no longer only the consort of the High Priestess.14

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.”15 This is an action of the utmost political consequence in the text, and crucial to the military strategy of Alessan and his allies in the struggle against the tyranny of Brandin.

The Triadic form of Tigana’s religion is mirrored in the structure of the text. There are three major strands of action, plaited into the tale–the storylines cross, touching briefly, each following its own logic, always being woven towards a single outcome. This is not to say that all of the major players ultimately become aware of each other’s importance: they are interconnected, but while their fates are conjoined, their tragic lives are not. Dianora, for example, chooses death minutes before her lost brother arrives, still searching for her; while Alessan does not learn that Rhun was his father, Valentin. The gods, and the reader, may see the whole tapestry-the players do not.

The interaction of mythology with human deeds is apparent throughout the text in many ways, not the least of these being the evidence that the major events have their genesis in the emphatically freely willed actions performed by the protagonists on the relevant Ember Days. It is this timing that helps to interweave the narrative strands of the text: for example, on the first Ember day of Spring Dianora saves the life of Brandin; and while she lies alone and shaken by this treachery to her identity as Tiganese on this Night of the Dead, her brother and lover, Baerd, is battling on behalf of the Night Walkers, entwining his fate once more with hers by earning the help of these magic workers against Brandin in the coming battle. This is also the night on which Devin is initiated into the darker side of sexual love by the lady Alienor.

The protagonists themselves are also 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 Adaon, and is so able to use the gift of Adaon to bind Erlein the wizard to his service. Like Brandin’s spell, this wizard’s binding is two edged, an awful power over a free soul that grieves the wielder. Alessan is directly associated in Devin’s dream with Adaon in his role as hunted stag king; he plays, with consummate skill, the Tregean pipes sacred to the god, and has inherited the right to be King when Brandin’s death releases his land.

Brandin is also associated with Adaon, but by choice rather than through 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, and inherited by Alessan, next of the Adaon kings. Where Alessan has chosen Catriana, associated with Eanna, to be his love and queen, Brandin has chosen the darker sexuality of Dianora, bound to Morian through her own choices. The association of personal power with sexual politics is strong in this book, and linked with those who follow Morian and Adaon, who know of death and corruption. The strongest of sexual politicians is Brandin, whose prowess is legendary in the saishan, and whose sexual domination of Dianora is heightened by her own matur
e response to the pleasure he can give. Brandin’s power is echoed by that of Alienor, another sexual predator, whose personal and political freedom to control her castle Borso is measured in her freedom to seduce and enjoy those whom she chooses.

As one would expect from the nature of the Triad, the women of the text are of the utmost importance. Indeed, each strand of this complex story is focused upon the actions of a major female character, each of whom is associated with a goddess of the triad, and thereby connected with various aspects attributed by Graves to the White Goddess. Although Tigana is not specifically feminist, it is certainly pro-female: its female characters are active, taking the initiative, and determining the course of events.

Dianora, a dark beauty whose name identifies her closely with moon-goddess Diana, has chosen the path of Morian, the death aspect of the Goddess. Her initial intention to redeem Tigana through killing Brandin set her on the path toward both death and sexual experience. Her incestuous relationship with her brother Baerd mirrors the actions of the Triad goddesses; she submits to sexual use to earn her living until she is captured for Brandin’s saishan by Rhamanus [recalling Rhadamanthus, one of the judges of Hades] as part of a tribute of maidens exacted by Brandin in a fashion that echoes the tribute exacted by Minos in the Theseus myth; in finally admitting the love for Brandin that divides her from herself, she adopts, unwittingly, the one course of action that will lead to his death. Dianora has played the role of Scheherazade, eventually loving the man she intended to destroy, but hers is a more tragic fate. Her own death is cryptically prefigured in the vision shown to her by a Riselka, one of the mythological female creatures who appear, unheralded, at turning points in the text. 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 freedom, and she functions as the great mother-goddess in her role as sexual initiator, particularly for the men of Adaon’s Tigana. It is clear that she has seduced Alessan and Baerd before their arrival with her next conquest, Devin; and she is in the habit of rewarding others with sexual favour. She too, is a guardian of gateways: the strategic position of castle Borso has enabled her to aid Alessan in his endeavours; and it is she who provides the refuge to Elena of the Night Walkers, also associated with the dead, to channel magical aid to the wizards in the final battle. Alessan’s mother, who, from her deathbed, wrongly curses her son’s perceived inaction, is also associated with the death-crone aspect of the goddess.

Balanced against these strong, sexually mature women are the younger protagonists, Catriana and Alais, associated with Eanna of the Lights and with the virgin aspect of the White Goddess. Alais remains innocent though competent and insightful, acting as helper and accomplice for other members of the group, and finally developing a relationship with the other youngest character, Devin. Catriana, stung by what she perceives as her father’s cowardice in not fighting in the battle of Deisa against Brandin, is instrumental in furthering the plot. She uses her sex twice: firstly in a failed attempt to distract Devin from true events; and secondly to seduce and kill a captain of the fortress, a rash action which sets the final events of the text in motion–including the final binding of the wizard Sandre to his full power. Red haired and associated with light, Eanna’s Catriana is finally wed to Adaon’s Alessan. Interestingly enough, all of the 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 Elena.

One of the instances in which Kay is working squarely with myth to reconstruct an archetype occurs in his use of the Fool, who plays a minor but crucial role in Tigana. Beginning with the Shakespearean incarnation of the licensed Fool as Touchstone to the King, Kay has added the image of the magic hunchback and linked both with the Tarot image of the Fool as indicator of a decision or turning point and keeper of the key to mystery. It transpires that Brandin, the Sorcerer of Ygrath, has made a mockery of the Wizards’ ritual binding to the land by creating his own binding: cruelly modifying a captured enemy into physical deformity and mental subservience to produce a literal symbiosis of Fool and King. Brandin’s Fool is a touchstone for his court because he reflects the King’s suppressed emotions–always dressed identically with the King, the Fool acts out the ruler’s feelings: for example, at the moment of Dianora’s approach for the fateful Ring Dive, Devin observes that

“…the King’s Fool, dressed exactly like Brandin, was wringing his hands over and about each other in obvious apprehension, anxiety and concern vivid in his face. By contrast, the face of the King of the Western Palm was a frigid, uncaring mask.16

Naming is crucial to this text, and Brandin has named his Fool Rhun–a deliberate pun on ruin, and also a reference to Rhun’s true identity–he is Valentin, Prince of Tigana, captured by Brandin at the battle of Deisa which forms the prologue to the tale, and believed dead by all because Brandin used his sorcery to change the appearance of another prisoner who died on the Deathwheel in Valentin’s semblance. The secret is known only to the symbiotes, King and Fool. The name Rhun is a direct reference to the Welsh story related by the first Taliesan (Gwion) ‘of the High King Rhun’s campaign against the men of the North, occasioned by the killing of Elidir: and the avenging raid and full scale invasion that followed’.17 This is Brandin’s own history, since it was Valentin who killed Brandin’s son Stefan during the latter’s raid on Tigana, thus bringing down the wrath of the sorcerer upon Tigana. Brandin’s revenge is a cruel interpretation of Yeats’s lines from “The Saint and the Hunchback”:

“A Roman Caesar is held down Under this hump;18

He has left just enough of Valentin’s noble identity so that he must suffer Brandin’s anguish at Stefan’s death in full knowledge of its terrible consequences for his own people. There is also a terrible irony in the name, since it leads to Brandin’s own ruin: in the final battle, Brandin’s draining of all of his power lifts the spell that prevents Rhun from harming his King, freeing Valentin to take the life of Brandin at the last.

These are just some of the ways in which Tigana interweaves myth and archetype with modern ideas of psychological, sexual and political power, creating a poetic structure that has real vitality and strength. This is a book that reflects our current sense of innocence lost: it counts the cost of power and the price of blood. It ends, intriguingly, with a creature from the book’s own mythology, when the wizard Sandre, the archer Baerd, and the musician Devin see a Riselka, whose presence is a prophecy in itself:

Three men see a riselka
One is blessed, one forks, one shall die.19



1 Guy Gavriel Kay, Tigana (Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1990). All references are to this edition.

2 It is worth recalling, in this context, that Kay worked with Christopher Tolkien on the editorial construction of The Silmarillion.

3 Kay, p. 229.

4 Dante, The Divine Comedy : 1 Hell, trans. Dorothy L. Sayers (Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1949). p.86.

5 Kay, p. 56.

6 Kay, p. 222.

7 See J.G.Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (London: MacMillan, 1922), p.86

8 See Robert Graves, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic My
(London: Faber, 1961), p. 217.

9 Kay, p. 258

10 Kay, p. 52

11 Kay, p. 223

12 Kay, p. 223.

13 Graves, p. 127
14 Kay, p. 37
15 Kay, p. 37
16 Kay, p. 568
17 See Graves, pp. 74-5

18 W.B.Yeats, The collected poems of W.B.Yeats (London: MacMillan, 1933), p. 189

19 Kay, p. 258


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