The Creative Construction of History in Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Sarantine Mosaic

by Jillian Hatch, 2005

As Holly E. Ordway recognizes in her essay, “The World-Building of Guy Gavriel Kay,” “Kay’s work is notable in that he makes extensive use of sources from […] the ‘primary world,'” such as “literature, mythology, and history […] to create the worlds of his fantasy novels.” In the novels, Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors, which constitute his Sarantine Mosaic series, the role of history is exceptionally significant; this is due to the fact that a substantial portion of the depicted events are modeled after historical episodes of the early Byzantine Empire. More specifically, the Sarantine Mosaic revolves, principally, around existing accounts of the rule of Emperor Justinian I and his wife Theodora. Taking these accounts as a prototype, Kay has written the Sarantine Mosaic as “an echoing of elements, not a copying” of history (Emperors 72). Throughout Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic series there is a running commentary of historiographical concerns, and emphasis is heavily placed upon the role of creativity in the construction of histories; this is most aptly demonstrated in the portrayal of the mosaic, in the shifting form of the narrative, and in the character of the historian, Pertennius. These subjects serve to highlight the important, and often overlooked, fact that the construction of history is, for better or worse, an artistic process.

Before I continue, it would most likely be wise to provide a clear definition of what I mean by the fairly ambiguous term, ‘art,’ as it will be liberally used throughout this essay. As can be discovered in almost any dictionary of the English language, the word ‘art’ derives from the Latin ‘ars,’ which, according to Lewis and Short’s A Latin Dictionary, means skill in the joining or combining of something. This act of arranging implies the creative control of the materials to be organized. Also, ‘art’ is “the application of skill to the [act] of imitation,” and any type of imitation requires some level of observation in order to be effective (“art, n. 6” OED). Another aspect of ‘art,’ which is especially pertinent to Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic series, is the connection between ‘art’ and ‘artifice,’ or deception. That which imitates can also deceive. This connection played a major role in the ongoing argument of the time, which Kay’s historical fiction represents, between the iconophiles and the iconoclasts; a dialogue which is incorporated into the Sarantine Mosaic in the different approaches of the two emperors, Valerius and Leontes, to art. We can conclude that observation and organization are fundamental elements of art and its construction, and due to the imitative nature of art, it has the capacity to deceive.

Despite the knowledge of the “impermanence of all things,” many of the characters in the Mosaic series have the desire to create a record of observations-a history-of the world at a certain time and place, and in doing so immortalize a part of themselves (Sailing 402). This construction of history involves the observation, interpretation, and evaluation of the ‘facts.’ And, as Hayden White quotes Claude Lévi-Strauss in his “Interpretation in History,” when “confronted with a chaos of ‘facts,’ the historian must ‘choose, sever, and carve them up’ for narrative purposes” (288). The act of including and excluding data suggests that the historian has not only creative control, but also-as noted by White-a specific ‘purpose’ or vision in mind. As in the creation of art, we can see that observation and organization are also important elements in the creation of historical accounts.

When one thinks of the term ‘history,’ it is generally not in terms of art. Yet, art plays a vital role in what we know of the past. In the Sarantine novels, the artistic medium and process of the mosaic is a major leitmotiv, and often it is used to mirror the construction of histories. The pieces of tessera play a very similar role in the creation of a mosaic as words do in the creation of a history. They both act as a sign, and as such, they are representative of something-sometimes several things-that cannot otherwise be communicated. As words are combined to express complex ideas in a history, tesserae are assembled to create images. Throughout the novels, the mosaicists-Pardos, Martinian, and Crispin-emphasize the importance of sight. The “ambitious” and often overwhelmingly comprehensive mosaic that Crispin creates for the Sanctuary of Valerius incorporates many of the images that he and the reader encounter along the narrative journey. One could say that the life experiences of Crispin have inspired his art. Observations of the world and its many hues inform the mosaicist, enabling him to make important decisions, such as which materials should be accepted or discarded. The ability to assess one’s sources is an important aspect of the creation of both art and history. Within the Sarantine Mosaic, there is quite a bit of fuss made about the quality of the tesserae available to the artist. In addition, Kay points out to us that materials other than tesserae, such as “marble […] river-smooth stones […and] mother-of-pearl” are often used in the construction of mosaics (Sailing 68). This focus on the quality and the variety of the sources that one uses is indicative of the impact that ‘raw materials’ can have on the process of constructing, as well as on the final result of works of both art and history. As we can see, the importance of observation in the creation of both art and history is demonstrated throughout Kay’s representation of mosaic.

Much like the theme of the mosaic, the style of narrative in Kay’s Sarantine series is suggestive of the artistic aspect of history making. That this link exists is largely due to the fact that Kay has intentionally created “a variation in fiction upon a given period,” which in this case is the Byzantine era (Sailing Acknowledgements). Kay’s ‘alternate history,’ like Crispin’s Sanctuary mosaic, involves the creation of a world, and thus is larger in scope than historical accounts tend to be. However, it still succeeds as a history of a people-fictitious, though they may be. Moreover, as a ‘historical’ account, the obvious artistic play of observation and organization are under the control of the author.

As in his trilogy, The Fionavar Tapestry, Kay uses “the technique of shifting focalization” in his Sarantine series (Randall). This multi-focalized narrative is comprised of not only the observations of the revolving cast of characters, but contains several distinctive and colourful views of Sarantine society as well. Kay’s narrative is focused on both the affairs of leaders as well as those of the ‘common’ man. This lack of a traditional ‘historical’ emphasis is demonstrative of Carl Schorske’s claim that the historian is “confined to no single domain of human experience,” but instead is free to “move into any terrain in search of the materials which [s/he] will organize into a temporal pattern” (408). However, Kay’s narrative is not organised in a purely chronological fashion. It incorporates flashbacks and often uses several focalizers to emphasize an event. This cyclical style of narrative creates a sense of cause and effect in history, rather than a timeline of historical events.

The organization and construction of the narrative in the Sarantine novels is very similar to that of Crispin’s Sanctuary mosaic. The shifting focalization act much in the same way as the colours of a mosaic “play[ing] against each other and with each other” do (Sailing 62). This accentuation of contrasts, in both the novels and the mosaic, is not only limited to narrative perspective or colour. There are also examples of textural contrasts to be found in both cases. The scene in Sailing to Sarantium in which the characters encounter the zubir describes a dense and misty atmosphere that starkly contrasts with the rest of their journey. That same scene is represented on Crispin’s mosaic in the form of the zubir, who is modeled in black and white, while the rest of the mosaic is in colour. The painterly aspects of the creation of both the Sarantine narrative, and the Sanctuary mosaic constantly reminds us of the creative force behind the constructions.

The examples of the mosaic and the narrative demonstrate the positive effects of artistically conscious ‘histories.’ However, a history can become dangerous when the creative aspect of its construction is concealed or unknown. In the Sarantine Mosaic, Kay presents this danger through the role of the historian, Pertennius. This fictitious historian is modeled after Procopius of Caesarea, who chronicled the lives, works, and the ‘secrets’ of Justinian and Theodora.

The character Pertennius is described as a “carefully observant” man, who has a knack for hearing and seeing “things [that] others might not” (Sailing 318). This is demonstrated within the novels, as Pertennius manages to witness most of the important events within the narrative. His role as a witness means that he is undoubtedly collecting ‘facts,’ with which he can then write his historical accounts. As we have already seen, the necessary organization of those ‘facts’ into the desires shape requires the historian to ‘choose, sever, and carve’ the gathered information. Although he is present for many admirable moments in the rule of Valerius and Alixana, the historical account that is written by Pertennius, which we are shown in The Lord of Emperors, does not display their nobility. This account is demonstrative of the way in which gossip, masked as historical ‘truth,’ can be, and likely has been, immortalized. Pertennius, for his own purposes, does not attempt objectivity, or seek variety in his sources. Instead, he confines himself to his own bitter experiences, and the gossip, which justifies his hatred of Valerius and Alixana. He chooses to substantiate rumour, while ignoring or twisting those things that he knows to be fact.

Through his characterization of Pertennius, Kay illustrates the fact that the power of the historian is more lasting than that of the rulers of the world. The historian has the ability to choose historical reality. Through their words, historians “shape, in years to come, an impression of truth for those who had never actually known the people of whom [the] words were written” (Emperors 193). However, as Kay brings to our attention, with an awareness of the creative aspect of history making, the power of the historian’s words dissolves. If the reader accepts the fact that historical accounts, like art, are forged and shaped by fallible people, that there is no such thing as ‘truth’ in history, then history loses its ability to shape our beliefs, and becomes merely another source of knowledge.

At the end of the very first paragraph on the very first page of the first book in the Sarantine Mosaic, Kay’s narrator claims that, “writers of history often seek the dramatic over the truth” (Sailing 1). While it is certainly the case that historians tend to choose more dramatic material for their narratives, Kay demonstrates throughout this series, his ‘alternative history,’ that there is no objective truth. Instead, with the theme of mosaic, the form of his narrative, and the character of his fictional historian, Kay illustrates the power of history to shape our thought, and the way in which we may reduce that power. Further on, Kay’s narrator claims that this dramatic tendency “is a failing of the profession” of the historian (Sailing 1). However, throughout the novels, we are shown that historians are not truly at fault for adopting the dramatic, but rather, it is our fault, as readers, not to be aware of it.

Works Cited

Jameson, Fredric. “From Criticism to History.” New Literary History, Vol.12, No.2, Interpretation and Literary History (Winter, 1981), 367-375. 25 July 2005

Kay, Guy Gavriel. Lord of Emperors: Book Two of the Sarantine Mosaic. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2003.

– – -. Sailing to Sarantium: Book One of the Sarantine Mosaic. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2003.

Lewis, Charlton T. and Charles Short. A Latin Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1879.

Ordway, Holly E. “The World-Building of Guy Gavriel Kay.” (13 May 1998). Bright Weavings: The Worlds of Guy Gavriel Kay. 2002. 25 July 2005.

Orr, Linda. “The Revenge of Literature: A History of History.” New Literary History, Vol. 18, No. 1, Studies in Historical Change (Autumn, 1986), 1-22. 25 July 2005

“art, n. 6.” Oxford English Dictionary. Ed. J.A. Simpson and E.S.C. Weiner. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 7 Jan. 2006.

Randall, Neil. “Shifting Focalization and the Strategy of Delay: The Narrative Weaving of The Fionavar Tapestry.” Canadian Literature, issue no. 129 (Summer 1991). Bright Weavings: The Worlds of Guy Gavriel Kay. 2002. 25 July 2005.

Schorske, Carl E. “History and the Study of Culture.” New Literary History, Vol. 21, No. 2, History and the Study of Culture (Winter, 1990), 407-420. 26 July 2005.

White, Hayden. “Interpretation in History.” New Literary History, Vol. 4, No. 2, On Interpretation: II (Winter, 1973), 281-314. 25 July 2005.

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