10 Fantasies of History
This is the 2012 honours thesis by Matthew Rettino written when while attending McGill University.
Since the publication of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, fantasy literature has simultaneously seen the rise of formulaic fantasy and the appearance of authors who escape the constraints of genre and renew its powerful effects on readers. Guy Gavriel Kay is one such author. Possessing a certain pedigree among fantasists-he knew Christopher Tolkien through Christopher’s second wife’s family-he became an editor of The Silmarillion in 1974 (Ordway 140). Kay afterwards engaged with the Tolkienesque epic fantasy tradition in Fionavar Tapestry before turning, in Tigana (1992), towards a genre termed “historical fantasy.”1 The historical novel, which depends upon mimesis and realism for its effectiveness, is opposed to the anti-mimetic impulse of fantasy. However, Guy Gavriel Kay synthesizes these diverse literary forms in a way that highlights the value of fantasy literature. One of the primary ways the genres hybridize is through his application of fantasy’s structural characteristics, such as thinning and eucatastrophe, to a historically probable narrative. Kay’s Tigana is most accurately described as a fantasy novel combined with a modulation of the historical novel’s repertoire, since the narrative structure of fantasy dominates. However, in Kay’s later novels, The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995) and Under Heaven (2010), he equally reconciles the structural demands of the fantasy novel to the historical novel, achieving a fuller generic hybrid. The new hybrid sets the composition of a self-consciously told narrative against the maintenance of a historically probable narrative that disguises its artificiality. In the end, Kay’s historical fantasy challenges historicism by implying that history is always subjective and partial, composed of crafted narratives.
I. Theory of Fantasy and Historical Fiction
Kay’s novels straddle two genres by depicting Secondary Worlds based on Primary-World historical settings. To use Tolkien’s terminology, the Primary World is the “real,” exterior world, while the Secondary World is the author’s “sub-creation,” a made-up universe that the reader enters (46-49). Borrowing from Primary-World historical events, Kay creates an analogous Secondary World that resembles, but is not actually, the Primary World. The result is, as Kay says, “history with a twist” (qtd. in Ordway 139). Distinguishing it from alternate history, Christopher Cobb defines “historical fantasy” as a genre which, “rather than constructing a past that might have existed, constructs a past, similar in some respects to an actual past, that could not have existed” (“Psychology”). In Tigana, for instance, Kay borrows events and culture from Renaissance Italy to create the Peninsula of the Palm, a world of infighting city-states under the control of foreign tyrants, such as Italy was for much of its history. However, since the Palm is not Italy, Kay can make the tyrants sorcerers and invent many details of the world. The Palm is a “mirror world” of Italy, though it is a distorted mirror, capable of reflecting an image removed from its specifics onto a host of other contexts: colonial dominance over Africa, the Caribbean, native North America, and even Eastern Europe under the Communist Bloc. Through his fantastic settings, Kay universalizes the stories of oppressed nations (“Home”). Liberating historical narratives from their real-world context, Kay can fashion narratives that evoke Primary-World settings, adding a historical resonance to his novels.
Kay’s “mirror worlds,” while they may separate narratives from their historical contexts and distort them, nevertheless enable him to write novels that match the narrative form of the fantasy novel, while claiming no pretension to be rewriting Primary-World history. His “mirror worlds” offer latitude over historical fact. For example, in The Lions of Al-Rassan, he shortens the time of the Reconquest of Spain from the span of several centuries to a single generation. Since the novel does not actually refer to Spain, it distorts Reconquest history only by analogy. His condensed narrative lets him tell a story more easily than actual history allows, particularly since the chaotic, disconnected events of the past do not always lend themselves to storytelling. Latitude also enables him to shape history in a form more congenial to the structure of a fantasy novel, such as reversing the tragic trend of colonial history by depicting a successful revolution against the foreign tyrant Brandin of Ygrath in Tigana, creating an effect of “Eucatastrophe,” or happy ending (Tolkien 68). Fantasy, according to Casey Fredericks, “poses a mythic potential insofar as it creates an imaginary alternative to our present conception of reality” (58). Finally, Kay’s use of fantasy enables him to declare “without pretence” that he does not know how real historical characters actually lived, acted, and related to others (“Home”). Kay acknowledges a truth about historicism, that histories are imperfect, even biased, and that writing a historical novel means to invent history. In this sense, history is fantasy, and Kay exploits that dynamic through his hybrid genre. Using fantasy can not only curb the historian’s dilemma, but create a deep resonance of meaning, combining two, in some ways opposed, genres.
A “historical novel” can be defined, as Harry E. Shaw observes, as a work “in which “historical probability reaches a certain level of structural prominence” (22). As such, mimesis and realism are modes inherent to historical novels. Events and characters that would seem improbable in history, even if they might have truly existed, are not considered characteristic features of the historical novel. Although romance conventions are frequent in historical novels such as those of Sir Walter Scott, examples like Tolstoy’s War and Peace break the rule (Quinn 155). The result of romance conventions is a vertical perspective on the story, often dividing the story into good and evil forces (Frye 49-50). However, such conventions are opposed to the horizontal perspective of realism, which concerns itself with causes and effects that lead to the end of the story (50). Of the two forms of the historical novel, the latter one bears the least resemblance to the fantasy novel, which depends on “Story” more than causation for the flow of its narrative (Clute 899). Nonetheless, a good historical fantasy novelist must tell a story, while recognizing “that history plays a number of distinctive roles” in historical novels (Shaw 22). Shaw paraphrases Avrom Fleishman’s belief in one of these roles, that “what makes a historical novel historical is the active presence of a concept of history as a shaping force” (25). Such a definition carries deterministic overtones, even though history only seems determined in retrospect. Perhaps the novelist’s advantageous perspective is what enables him or her to write a narrative and attempt to reconstruct the past in a scientific manner. Milieu and setting influence character in historical novels, reflecting how personality is formed by historical circumstance. Georg Lucáks says that “what matters [in the historical novel] is that we should re-experience the social and human motives which led men to think, feel and act just as they did in historical reality” (42). Furthermore, those characters must be typical, so that the reader can sample what was generally true in past societies. In Realism in Our Time, Lucáks says that “a character is typical, in this technical sense, when his innermost being is determined by objective forces at work in society” (qtd. in Shaw 42). When character is controlled in such a way by social milieu, the possibilities open to historical novelists become limited to what the society of the past allows its characters to do. Its structure does not allow for the improbable, and certainly not the impossible-even honest inaccuracies can defeat the historical effect of such a novel.
On the other hand, fantasy, which may be defined as either a genre or a mode, may freely deal with the impossible. Brian Attebery, a pioneering critic, defines “fantasy” as the genre and the “fantastic” as the mode, depending on the usefulness of either designation (Strategies 11). As a mode, the fantastic may take the form that Kathryn Hume describes, which, with mimesis, is one of “the twin impulses behind the creation of literature” (195). Though Hume’s definition makes it useless to identify any exclusive category of literature as “fantastic,” Rosemary Jackson clarifies what the fantastic, defined so broadly, can accomplish. Jackson defined fantasy as a subversive impulse, “a literature of desire, which seeks that which is experienced as absence and loss” (3). Fantasy is thus “a literary mode from which a number of related genres emerge,” one of them being the contemporary Secondary World fantasy novel (7). Brian Attebery understands fantasy generically as a “fuzzy set” (Strategies 12). Fuzzy sets are a way of categorizing “not by boundaries but by a center,” so that, for example, there are literary works associated with the word “fantasy” that might range from “quintessentially” fantasy, “technically” fantasy, “loosely” fantasy, or “like” fantasy (12). Colin Manlove defines fantasy more stably as “fiction, evoking wonder, and containing a substantial and irreducible element of supernatural worlds, beings or objects with which the mortal characters in the story or the readers become on at least partly familiar terms” (54). Manlove’s definition is especially apt because it emphasizes acquaintance with the world, which is similar to how the historical novel familiarizes its readers to historical milieu. Such a definition is important, to define the contemporary genre of fantasy; this essay does not address, for example, the genre of the fantastic that Todorov describes, which is “that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event” (25). Post-Tolkien fantasies involve entire Secondary Worlds that the reader can inhabit, whereas Todorov’s fantastic implies a distinct feeling of unease in the world of the supernatural. For the purposes of this essay, a generic definition of fantasy will be given priority, but it is still crucial to note the ambiguity of defining fantasy as a genre or a mode and to recognize that Manlove’s definition is not perfect or all-encompassing.
Kinds of Literature, Alastair Fowler’s exhaustive analysis of genres, presents a system of classification for genres that emphasizes their continually changing natures. “Genre” is a loose term for Fowler that could refer to kinds, modes, or subgenres. Kinds are “equivalent to ‘historical genre’ … [and] the names of kinds … are invariably nouns” (56-57). The historical novel and the fantasy novel are kinds, since they are recognizable genres that arose during specific times in history. Modes, on the other hand, are defined by “terms [that] tend to be adjectival” (106). Romance, comic, tragic, and the fantastic are modes (107). When modes are combined with kinds, “the overall form is determined by the kind alone” since modes are structureless, extractions from kinds that can be attached to new kinds (107, 167). For example, epic is a kind with heroic themes, but sometimes epic appears as a mode, attaching itself to other kinds, to produce, for example, heroic romance (167). Modal extensions may go on to create entirely new genres (167). Subgenre refers to the various divisions of kinds that are possible, “their features … more or less disjunct subsets of the sets of features characterizing kinds” (112). Unlike modes, they share “the common features of the kind-external forms and all-and, over and above ties, add special substantive features” (112). Fowler uses the example of piscatory eclogue being a subgenre of the eclogue. The historical novel is likewise a subgenre of the novel.2 Each of these designations may combine with each other in an array of ways, such that “all genres are continuously undergoing metamorphosis” (23).
Historical fantasy may be termed a generic hybrid or a modal transformation. In order for one of Kay’s novels to become a generic hybrid, it must consist of two kinds, where “two or more complete repertoires are present in such proportions that no one of them dominates” (183). A repertoire is useful to define: “the whole range of potential points of resemblance that a genre may exhibit” and these “distinguishing features … may be either formal or substantive” (55). To keep with Fowler’s definitions, the generic hybrid may be termed “History-Fantasy,” although since it is a cumbersome term, “historical fantasy” will suffice. Such a hybrid would have to balance the historical novel’s structural emphasis on probability with the fantasy novel’s narrative of renewal and eucatastrophe. However, historical fantasy may also refer to a modal transformation: either a modification of fantasy on the historical novel or vice versa. When this is the case, the mode adds a repertoire to the kind’s overall structure, imposing no structure itself. Examples of either result could imply the following: the presence of magic in seventeenth-century Scotland, a favourite setting of Sir Walter Scott, or a Secondary World filled with magic already, that through its added historical repertoire resembles seventeenth-century Scotland. Kay’s novels, when they do not hybridize perfectly, would belong to the latter category: the historical mode transforming the fantasy novel kind. When mixing two philosophically opposed genres such as fantasy and the historical novel, adding the structural demands of one upon the demands of the other leads to an impasse. If wonder must be imposed upon a historical novel where only the probable may occur, then the genres must become reconciled. To Fowler, understanding kinds and how their values contrast and contradict with each other is what “prescriptive genre rules” are for (29). Although Kay can use the fantastic as a modulation without driving the historical novel into structural conflict, if he is attempting to hybridize two kinds in his novels, he must seek a way to reconcile the structural demands of both generic kinds.
The “fully structured fantasy novel,” as described by John Clute in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, involves four fundamental principles: wrongness, thinning, recognition, and healing (338). Clute’s structural terms privilege a generic definition of fantasy. However, if readers are familiar with the fantasy novel genre and have expectations of a fantasy structure in Kay’s novels, it is important to note the structure that Clute describes. If the novels are true hybrids, the structure must be reconciled or balanced with the historical novel’s repertoire. These structural features may or may not be present in any one fantasy and some may be emphasized more than others, depending on the individual novel or generic category. The typical fully structured fantasy novel, it is important to note, is also a quest: Clute says that “a fantasy text almost invariably conveys its sense of things by conducting its protagonists … to the end of their QUEST through sequences which hearers or readers understand as consecutive and essential moments in the telling of a tale” (900). However, a fantasy novel’s overall plot need not overtly resemble a quest to contain the structure of a quest. “Quests,” Clute writes, “are sequential, suspenseful, event- and goal-oriented … [They are] therefore basic to the telling of Story; as fantasy as a genre is inherently tied to Story, it is not surprising that almost all modern fantasy texts are built around, or incorporate, a quest” (796). If Clute’s terms are present in some capacity in Kay’s novels, then they help Kay “engage deeply with the transformative potential of fantasy” (338). The story of a fantasy will typically tell of a “passage from BONDAGE-via a central RECOGNITION of what has been revealed and of what is about to happen … -into the EUCATASTROPHE” where “just governance [may] fertilize the barren LAND” (338-339). If Clute’s map of the structure of a fantasy novel resembles the essential elements of any story, and not only that of a fantasy novel, then his terms do not lose usefulness. Rather, Clute would argue that the structure of fantasy is remarkable precisely because it reflects the essential storytelling structure.
Clute’s terms appear within a structure that emphasizes the transition from a sterile, thinning world to the recovery of fertility. “Wrongness,” the first term, is “a recognition that the world is-or is about to become-no longer right, that the world has been subject to, or soon will be subject to, a process of THINNING” (1018). “Thinning,” which follows on the heels of wrongness, may be the loss of world’s “old richness,” of the land’s health, or of true name of the protagonist, among other examples of loss and fading away (942). In Tigana’s case, both the protagonists’ true names and the true name of their home must be recovered from thinning. Before the recovery occurs, however, there is generally a recognition. “Recognition” occurs when protagonists realize that “they are in a Story; that, properly recognized (which is to say properly told), their lives have the coherence and significance of Story” (804). In such moments, which freely admit to the story’s own artifice, the protagonist “finally gazes upon the shrivelled heart of the thinned world and sees what to do” (339). Often the scene will involve a moment where the protagonist looks simultaneously “into the past and into the future” (804). Mimetic literature finds such moments scandalous or embarrassing, since they admit to the artifice of a story (804). However, in fantastic literature recognition is necessary to reach what follows: the “healing” of the land, or alternatively, the return, consolation, eucatastrophe, or recovery. Frequently, when the land is healed, what was lost through the thinning of the land is regained, in an act of “restoration” (942). Clute’s terms map a story structure in which the fantasy novel plot charts a transition from a fading of being into a restoration of what was lost.
The fantasy novel’s narrative of recovery is also a story of escape from “bondage.” Clute defines “bondage” as “a state of being contained or trapped in a particular place, time, physical shape or moral condition” (125). The term refers to how fantasy differs from every other kind of literature, since every aspect of the world has “at least theoretically been chosen” and “bound” into place (125). “Bondage is stasis” while “stories move” and “tell bondage away” by virtue of their sequencing of events (126). Since stories have such a property, Clute says that “the fully structured fantasy is a tale of escape” (126). He hints at how the progress of the story structure-from thinning, through recognition, and onto recovery-is analogously a transition from bondage to escape. Reinforcing the analogy, Clute describes the trope of magic vanishing from the world as a state of bondage and he links it to thinning, suggesting that thinning itself can be understood as bondage. Escape would then correspond to recovery. His explicit labelling of the trope of the land that has “lost its communal memory” as an example of bondage indicates that Brandon’s spell in Tigana is an instance of bondage and thinning (126). Bondage, which can be defined structurally, also attains a political sense when applied to the tyrant Brandon’s harsh policies against the inhabitants of Tigana. The struggle for liberty, and therefore escape, defines (or, to use a term from Clute, “stories”3) the struggle of the Tiganese against Brandon. Tigana, and potentially other of Kay’s novels, can be partially understood as stories of a set of protagonists who attempt to, or desire to, escape the conditions of “the times into which they have been born” (Kay, Heaven 528). Escape is not always possible, but the political definition of the word “escape” naturally lends itself to the observation that Kay’s characters frequently attempt to escape from their bondage towards their national (or personal) histories, whether for good or evil. This suggests the thematic potential for Kay’s generic hybrid.
When J.R.R. Tolkien describes the effects produced by fantasy, they anticipate Clute’s full structure and for the most part fall into sympathy with the effects of the historical novel. Tolkien’s three effects are recovery, escape, and consolation. First, “recovery” means to regain “a clear view,” to be “freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity-from possessiveness” (57). Lion Feuchtwanger notes that a reader of “genuine historical writing” can relate to the work from his own experience, that such a work “compels him to recognize himself anew” (144). Just as fantasy can freshen our self-perspective by presenting realities different from our everyday world, knowing history can freshen our vision of the present, ourselves, and society. Roughly, “recovery,” a reader-response term, corresponds to fantasy’s structural feature of healing, which is the “recovery” of the fantasy world. Secondly, “escape” is a criticism of the conditions of the world: “the Escape of the Prisoner” but not, as some think, “the Flight of the Deserter” (Tolkien 60). To be an escapist is to be a prisoner desiring his home and not to be “so subservient to the whims of evanescent fashion” (61). The escapist “does not make things … his masters or his gods by worshipping them as inevitable” (62). In the context of historical fiction, Conrad Ferdinand Meyer remarks, “I like most of all to immerse myself in times past, for this enables me to treat the eternally human factors more artistically than the brutal actuality of contemporary materials would allow” (Feuchtwanger 135). The action of escaping into another world in a historical novel can help illuminate present-day circumstances, as well as provide a disguise for contemporary social criticism-and the same is true in a fantasy. Far from being escapist, the historical novel’s proper function, according to Lukács, is “to provide a representation of historical process which promotes the discovery of the present as history” (Shaw 46). Fantasy’s “escape” is, in the words of Douglas Barbour, “the kind of escape that brings you home,” the potential that Kay says he has always seen for fantasy (qtd in “Home”). “Escape” is also subversive in that it enables readers of historical fiction and fantasy to regard the present (and reality itself) not as “inexorable” but as a “fluke” (Tolkien 62; Attebery, “Politics” 10). “Renewal” and “escape” are terms that define reader responses to both historical novels and fantasy novels, suggesting that a hybrid of the genres is not only possible, but that it would reinforce the effectiveness of both genres.
Tolkien’s third term is “consolation,” which is a source of friction when applied to the historical novel. “Consolation” is “the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires,” the “Happy Ending” that “all complete fairy-stories must have” (68). “Eucatastrophe,” another term for “consolation,” is the opposite of a tragedy’s “catastrophe,” representing for Tolkien the true form of the fairy story, “its highest function” (68). Tolkien’s ideas about this last criterion are aligned inextricably with his Catholicism; “the Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history” (72). But even for secular readers, the structure of fantasy is considered comic, as Attebery writes-and “if it were otherwise … then we would not have the structural completeness of fantasy, but the truncated story-forms of absurdism and horror” (Strategies 15). Eucatastrophe is the end of the fully structured fantasy novel, roughly corresponding to healing, and heralded by each of Clute’s other structural terms. However, though escape and recovery fit in snugly with the historical novel, a eucatastrophe risks feeling like an imposition. This is true not only of comic endings, but also of healing and recognition. After all, those familiar with civil war, colonialism, and genocide know that history is full of disasters. Imposing a happy ending on random violence, or even pretending to have insight into the patterns behind historical trauma, would seem to betray the nature of history, which is always obscured to the present.
Eucatastrophe presents a point of contention between the successful hybridization of the historical novel and the fantasy novel, hinting that the concept of healing is not one that the repertoire of the historical novel recognizes. If historical probability forms such an important part of the historical novel’s structure, then eucatastrophe directly contradicts that structure. In Tolkien’s own words, eucatastrophe is a grace that can never “be counted on to recur” (68). If consolation is a thing that only happens once, the historical probability of it is nil. This is also true of the probability of supernatural events occurring. Even when a person like Tolkien accepts the existence of a supernatural order, given his Catholicism, an event such as the Incarnation can only be accounted to happen once. Obviously, those who do not acknowledge the supernatural also believe it to be improbable. While it is important to note that eucatastrophe does not end the fairy-tale-Tolkien says that “there is no true end to any fairy-tale”-and that eucatastrophe “does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure,” its denial of “universal final defeat” is bold (68). Even ignoring issues of probability, the simple fact that eucatastrophe offers a comic view of history can be deeply objectionable. Bertrand Russel, a naturalist, argued that tragedy is the true form of fiction, that “the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins” (Toner 78). A historical novelist cannot ignore the fact of catastrophe, if he or she wishes to depict a historical period with full accuracy-indeed, he or she may have a moral duty to do so. The historical fantasy novelist must search for a conscionable way in which to include eucatastrophe, keeping the happy ending in balance with the recognition that happy endings are not granted to everyone.
Kay offers refuge to his characters when historic tragedy strikes, ending his novels on a positive note, though an ambiguous one. In The Lions of Al-Rassan and Under Heaven, Kay depicts the fall of civilizations into ruins (in Tigana, the catastrophe has already occurred), a choice that places more stress on Russel’s catastrophe than on Tolkien’s eucatastrophe. The lands of Kitai and Al-Rassan both endure fierce wars that tear their respective societies apart, ending or greatly reducing the power of the political regimes that are the centres of stability of once-flourishing and even decadent cultures. The old orders fade, thinning away, until other (and in some ways lesser) powers replace them. Kay emphasizes thinning instead of healing when he depicts civilizations experiencing such catastrophe; the land is unrecoverable, a complete healing impossible. However, Tolkien insists that “defeat itself is encompassed by victory,” that eucatastrophe need not be omitted from a fantasy novel in which catastrophe occurs (Toner 78). Kay may thus include comic endings amid disaster without inviting critics to contest its probability. Although Christopher Cobb criticizes Kay’s treatment of history in Tigana as “merely a convenient source of narrative suitable for eucatastrophic revision,” Kay’s later works strike a better balance. By granting his characters “refuge” from massacres, sieges, and civil war (Kay, E-mail Interview), he ends his stories on a satisfying note without having to reverse the downward cycle of the decay of empires, giving full value to catastrophe. Rather than changing the course of a civilization, a eucatastrophe in this sense might change a few individuals, including the protagonist. Being able to include both types of endings, Kay delivers a more ambiguous sense of closure, while incorporating the structural demands of both genres. Closure is thus crucial to the hybridization of Kay’s historical fantasy novels. On the other hand, should eucatastrophe defy historical probability, involving a substantial reversal in the recurring catastrophic patterns that define history, closure would bring the novel generically towards the modal historical fantasy, since the structure of the historical novel becomes shortchanged. While The Lions of Al-Rassan and Under Heaven, which are generic hybrids, find a balance between eucatastrophe and catastrophe, Tigana, in which Kay adds the historical mode to the fantasy novel, is more heavily invested in exploring a reversal of historical defeat.
Tigana differs from realist discourse not only because of its use of magic, but from the foregrounding of the artificiality of its story structure, through techniques such as prophecy. Whereas historical novelists usually attempt to hide underlying story structures, fantasy novels expose story like a shirt with the seams on the outside, to use an image from Attebery (“Structuralism” 83). One of those seams, for example, is in the moment of recognition, when protagonists becomes self-consciousness that “their lives have the coherence and significance of Story” (Clute 804). Another seam is in prophecy, which Kay brings into his novel through the riselka, a magical creature that is an omen. The riselka’s prophecies foreshadow and expose the structural lines in his novel. For instance, when Brandin of Ygrath tells Dianora that he saw a riselka, she recalls that when “one man sees a riselka / his life forks there” (290). Brandin changes after: he spares the life of his fool Rhun, who he had been thinking of replacing-that is to say, murdering. Dianora is astonished at this act of mercy, finding it a distinct change in character of the despotic tyrant sorcerer (490). As it happens, Rhun is actually Prince Valentin of Tigana, disfigured so no one can recognize him, and forced by Brandin’s magic to mime the inner emotions of the tyrant who destroyed his country. The consequences of Brandin’s mercy ironically prove his undoing. When Brandin, at the climax, uses all his magical energy to obliterate Alberico on the battlefield, he accidentally spends the energy that had been keeping Valentin in bondage. The prince promptly takes his deadly revenge. The riselka prophecy draws attention to the irony of Brandin’s choice, foreshadowing the ending of the novel-at least in retrospect. A strongly mimetic text would have avoided exposing the story structure through ominous foreshadowing. At a more basic level, the very presence of magic and the impossible is a fundamental-indeed, obvious-feature of the fantasy genre (Attebery, Strategies 14). The most significant magic in Tigana is Brandin’s infamous curse, which obliterates Tigana’s name from memory and makes it impossible to hear it being spoken, unless the listener is from Tigana. The spell facilitates Brandin’s vengeance and nearly extinguishes an entire culture. Other than magic, the Secondary World setting of the Peninsula of the Palm also belongs to the category of the impossible, which Kathryn Hume defines as a “departure from consensus reality” (8). Through its use of prophecy and magic, Tigana adopts a subject matter of the “impossible” and a story structure that a mimetic novelist might criticize as artificial.
Story structure is also exposed through the status of many characters as “actants” instead of “acteurs,” to use terms from A. J. Greimas. According to Greimas, an actant is a character with whom “the sense of doing … is essential,” whereas an acteur is “more interesting for his individual categories than for his place in a shaped narrative” (qtd. in Attebery, Strategies 73). In many works, an actant can have individual characteristics, but the fundamental interest in them does not come from their individuality, but from how they fit in a story. Identifying an actant, Attebery explains, is often possible in a fantasy novel when a character is distinguished as being affected by magic, which is a “narrative and semiotic code” (Strategies 73). When magic affects character, the “continuity of traits” associated with the character changes, revealing that his or her role in the story structure is more significant than originally supposed (73). For example, magic changes two characters in Tigana, when the hiding Prince Alessan binds the wizard Erlein di Senzio to himself, using a spell that physically forces him to obey and follow him. This change unwillingly turns Erlein into an actant, as an aide-lender to Alessan. The spell also hints strongly at Alessan’s role as a hidden king, since his ability to bind wizards to himself comes from his legendary lineage as a descendent of the god Adaon. During the binding, he says,” You are bound by Adaon’s name and my own” (338). As the leader of Tigana’s rebels, the distinction clarifies-and indeed blatantly reveals-the role that Alessan plays in the novel: that of the rightful king who will vindicate the lost nation.
Kay’s actants expose the underlying structure of his narrative, which follows the fertility myths of the Triad, and thus produces a narrative of healing and recovery. Kay constructs a triadic religion consisting of the god Adaon and the two goddess Eanna of the Lights and Morian of the Portals. They each borrow aspects of Primary-World deities such as Actaeon, Adonis, Isis, and Diana, creating a “mirror mythology,” using a similar technique to the “mirror world” of the Palm. In her essay “Myth and the New High Fantasy: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana,” Janeen Webb describes the Palm’s mythology and how the main characters correspond to the deities of the Triad. More than simply a neat feature to add depth to the narrative, Kay’s mythology reflects the structure of the story that girds the novel together, the theme of fertility lending itself readily to a narrative of the healing of a sterile, thinned world. Adaon, a cross between Adonis and Actaeon, is a dying god who, engaged in the passionate act of love is torn apart by his sister, Eanna, and his daughter by Eanna, Morian. He is “torn and slain, to be put in his place which was the earth,” renewing the fertility of the land, bringing “the promise of spring to come” (Kay, Tigana 48). Morian is the goddess of life, death, and thresholds, born in a cave on the island of Chiara, which names “Morian as guardian of its destiny” (248). At the birth of Morian, “in the surging climax of desire on the third night, Eanna of the Lights had created the stars of heaven and strewn them like shining lace through the dark” (248). Eanna, like Isis, is a goddess of fertility and sexuality, but also the creator of the stars. Kay’s triadic mythology explores the relationships between death, sexuality, and creation in fertility myths.
When characters are revealed to have affinities toward Adaon, Morian, and Eanna, those characters find themselves enacting the mythic narrative. Alessan, for instance, is an actant because he is a “function”4 for the fulfilling of a story of sacrifice and restoration, to use a term from Vladmir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale (Attebery, Strategies 25). Alessan’s function as an Adaon figure becomes unavoidably apparent when Devin sees Alessan’s face on Adaon’s body in a vision (Kay, Tigana 25). When Devin sees this, he is singing “Lament for Adaon” at the funeral of the supposedly deceased Duke Sandre, hinting that Sandre is also an Adaon figure. Brandin is also related to Adaon, since as victor of the race on Mt. Sangarios, he would have been, in older more traditional times, “been hunted down and slain on the mountain” in imitation of the myth (249). Alessan, Sandre, and Brandin’s repetition of the Adaon myth, serves as a “rhetorical device” where the characters emphasize “their status as parts of a pattern, a story, rather than mimetic renderings of real human beings and lives” (Attebery, Strategies 25). Their enactment of the Adaon myth forms and exposes the underlying mythical logic of the novel.
Characters associated with Eanna and Morian also help shape Tigana’s mythic structure. Dianora, for example, is Brandin’s favourite consort on the island of Chiara and is associated with Morian of the Portals, a death goddess. Dianora sees a riselka on Chiara and according to the lore, when “one woman sees a riselka / her path comes clear to her” (290). Choosing her path consists, in a way, of stepping through a portal, a doorway that leads “to the sea” (479). Kay alludes through this prophecy to her ultimate fate: after the climax, she drowns herself in the sea, where Morian of the Portals appears, “to bring her home” (775). Catriana’s association with Eanna of the Lights is also important, manifesting itself most strongly, Webb says, when she uses her sexuality to further the plot at two crucial moments. She refers to herself as Eanna when she tells Devin that “we are going to my room at the inn for a session of love-making like Eanna and Adaon at the dawn of days” (Kay, Tigana 35). She afterwards uses her sexuality to distract Devin from learning about the Sandreni conspiracy against Alberico of Barbadior, one of the Palm’s two tyrants and rival sorcerer to Brandin. Catriana also enacts a Triadic myth when she seduces Anghiar of Barbadior, the Governor of Senzio, before killing him with a Ygrathan comb containing a hidden blade (700-701). This action ends the watchful truce between Brandin and Alberico, precipitating the final action of the novel. Not only is this a defining moment for Catriana, but it is also reminiscent of the death of Adaon: Anghiar must also be sacrificed for the sake of peace and fertility, which the end of the war brings. Each of these characters, through their actions, align themselves with the myths of the Triad, which, as a fertility myths, are concerned with the processes of death and renewal. The underlying mythic narrative shapes and exposes the structure of the novel, making it discordant with the historical novel’s mimesis.
Wrongness in Tigana appears at the same time as a moment of recognition: when Devin learns the story of his beleaguered country. Before this event, a few events of political and historical importance to the Peninsula of the Palm happen, such as the death of Duke Sandre and Marius’ declaration of himself as King of Quileia, which had previously been a matriarchy under a High Priestess. The latter event shocks Devin and alters the balance of power in the Palm (30-31). Although both of these events allude to breaks with the status quo, none of them specifically constitute wrongness. However, when Beard tells Devin about the history of his vanished native country, he hurls his words “as a denunciation, an indictment, to the trees and the night and stars-the stars that had watched this thing come to pass” (116). The quoted passage conveys a strong sense of a wrong that the world has done nothing to repair. Though Devin is aware of the sorcerers’ magic and the Palm’s balance of power (30-31), he was never aware of Tigana. He experiences “a longing for something taken away from him before he’d even known it was his-taken so completely, so comprehensively he might have lived his whole life through without ever knowing it was gone” (120). The only way Devin can notice the wrongness of his world is if Baerd and Alessan tell him, causing his recognition. Being told the story of Tigana’s fall, Devin learns the story in which he will play apart. If the moment of recognition is extended to encompass Devin’s dream of Alessan as Adaon (49), then he not only gains insight into the past, but also glimpses the underlying mythic structure that will come to define his own life, in which Alessan enacts his role by becoming king. The presence of a sense of wrongness and a moment of recognition suggests Tigana’s adherence to the full fantasy novel structure.
The Night Walkers’ special insight into a parallel world allows Baerd to glimpse the depth of the thinning of Tigana and of the entire Peninsula of the Palm. Tigana’s destruction and the amnesia that Brandin’s spell produces are easy signs of the thinning of the Palm. However, the depth to which thinning affects the land is most clearly seen in the scenes in which Baerd fights for the Night Walkers in Quielia, on the first of the spring Ember Nights, a holy festival to the Triad at the beginning of the year. Night Walkers are people who when born emerge surrounded by a transparent membrane, which indicates that they have been fatefully selected to participate in a battle against the dead for the continued fertility of the land, fighting with corn stalks that act as swords. Baerd finds the Night Walkers for the first time and participates in the battle, which takes place in a dreamlike, altered state. The underlying world under a “pale green moon,” is symbolic of the deeper reality beneath the mundane world of the Palm (411). The narrator remarks how Elena, one of the Night Walkers, ponders the “thinning” of their small army’s ranks. “There hadn’t been enough last year, or the year before that,” she thinks, “[and] the Ember Night wars were killing Walkers faster than young ones like Elena herself were growing up to replace them” (386). Baerd’s mind on the Ember Night is filled with the burden of the knowledge of Tigana’s thinning: “he carried, like baggage, like a cart yoked to his shoulders, like a round stone in his heart, images of his people, their world destroyed, their name obliterated” (391). The worsening struggle of the Walkers against their enemies, who are called the Others, is connected mysteriously to the arrival of the tyrants, since the Others come from the west, and the battle has been worsening over the last twenty years. “Brandin of Ygrath came almost twenty years ago,” Baerd says, “And Brandin of Ygrath landed in the west” (401). To Baerd, the Others even appear “in livery of Ygrath” (409). The battlefield’s landscape is “utterly bare and desolate and lost, in the west” (411, 408). Brandin’s despotism renders the other world infertile, having “shaped a wrong that goes deeper than who governs in a given year” (427). Baerd’s dreamlike experience during the Ember Nights, indicates the close connection between the political and cultural domination over Tigana and the thinning of the very fabric of the land itself.
Baerd’s triumph in battle against the Others alludes to the destined healing of Tigana and the liberation of the Palm from foreign domination. In the dream world, Baerd gains the appearance of his teenaged self-fifteen, the age at which he would have been allowed to fight at the Deisa river, where Tigana held its last stand against Brandin, which happened when he was fourteen and too young. Fighting valiantly, Baerd redeems himself and delivers the fatal blow to the Others by naming them:
“You are the spirit of the violators here. The presence of Ygrath in this peninsula, and of Barbadior. Both of them! You are tyranny in a land that has been set free. You are the blight and ruin in these fields. You have used your magic in the west to shape a desecration, to obliterate a name. Yours is a power of darkness and shadow under this moon, but I know you and can name you, and so all your shadows are gone!” (421)
The moment is Baerd’s own moment of recognition, the moment he understands his own place in the story he is in. Confronting his past-he was once mocked by Ygrathan soldiers for his inability to utter the name of the place of his birth-and triumphing over the Ygrathans-a foreshadowing of his eventual victory over Brandin-Baerd is at the meeting point of his future and his history. He significantly utters his own true name, “Baerd di Tigana bar Saevar” (428). Baerd’s triumph and budding relationship to Elena then carries “them into the beginning of spring” and restoration (421). Flowers spread “in all directions” where Elena walks and she finds the flowers, which restore the infertile earth, to be “the most beautiful things she had seen in all her days” (426). Not only does Baerd’s victory represent a turning point for the fertility of the land, an obvious instance of recovery, but uttering his name during the Ember Nights is an example of the recovery of “the TRUE NAME, or home, of the protagonist” (Clute 942). Baerd recovers his own name as a prelude to the recovery of Tigana, a symbolic victory over thinning.
History and memory, when too well-remembered, frequently form the sources of bondage in Tigana, making it possible for the concept of escape to comment on historical themes. Instances of bondage often overlap with examples of thinning: Brandin’s spell effects the land politically as well as in its very texture. However, bondage can also refer to being trapped within one’s own nature, or, crucially, within one’s memory. Baerd carrying his own memory of his country “like a cart yoked to his shoulders” is but one example of how Kay’s characters are affected by the burden of Tigana’s erased history (391). Somewhat paradoxically, Alessan utters his oath, “Tigana, let my memory of you be like a blade in my soul,” to subject himself to bondage, instead of seeking to escape it (158). Escaping by forging a new identity for oneself would merely assist the spell, so Alessan chooses to oppose the spell by preserving the memory, even when it hurts (Cobb). Brandin’s own actions are inspired by a burden in the tyrant’s memory: the death of his son Stevan. As Baerd remarks, Brandin’s renaming of Tigana to Lower Corte, and the renaming of the great city Avalle of the Towers into Stevanian, was “his ultimate revenge” against the nation that murdered his son in the Battle of the Deisa (115). Dianora, Baerd’s sister, remarks that she, but also Brandin, “had been born into a world, a life, that would not let [them] be whole” (633). In this insufficient world, “Valentin di Tigana had killed Stevan … this had happened, could not be unmade” (633). Past actions in Tigana bind people to their decisions, just as history itself cannot be changed, no matter how unpleasant that history is. The way one remembers the past becomes crucial. The meaning of Kay’s epigraph from George Sefaris becomes apparent here: “What can a flame remember? … If only it could teach us, while it burns, to remember correctly.” Sometimes the memory of a traumatic event in one’s history can drive one to commit atrocious acts or obsess over a wrong done. Escape and bondage thus each have their place in the remembering of history.
The historical themes and rhetoric in Tigana influence the novel’s structure less strongly than those elements sprouting from the repertoire of the fantastic, making Tigana a fantasy novel modulated by the repertoire of the historical novel. Tigana opens with a mise-en-scene: “In the autumn season of wine, word went forth from among the cypresses and olives and the laden vines of his country estate that Sandre, Duke of Astibar, once ruler of that city and its province, had drawn the last bitter breath of his exile and age and died” (11). The opening passage reads like an entry in a chronicle and lends the novel a historical flavour. The reader is being signalled, rhetorically, that the story will be, in some way, about the consequences and events following Duke Sandre’s death, an important time for Astibar. However, the historical rhetoric is subverted when the reader eventually discovers that Sandre has faked his own death. Kay says in his afterword to Tigana that this was an appropriate opening to his narrative of “subterfuge and deception” (792), but the lie also throws doubt on the reliability of the historian persona of the narrator. In a fantasy novel that deals with lost identities and histories, such an opening is particularly apt. Tigana’s historical focus is further evidenced in the prologue, when Saevar, a sculptor and the father of Dianora and Baerd, expresses his solitary hope to Prince Valentin on the banks of the river Deisa before battle, that “our children’s children will remember us, and will not lie tamely under the yoke” (6). The novel is accordingly about how people remember history, the prologue setting up its central historical themes. The repertoire of the historical novel must exist substantially in order for Tigana to be considered even modally historical, since “history and ideas of history” form a significant portion of the repertoire of the fantasy novel kind, according to K. L. Maund (qtd. in Schanoes 236). Since ideas of history are central to Tigana and feature more strongly than in other fantasy novels that deal casually with history, Kay’s novel includes the historical mode.
The complete structure of the fantasy novel exists in Tigana due to its status as a “portal-quest fantasy.” Farah Mendlesohn describes several rhetorical forms that correspond to different strategies that fantasy novels use in order to introduce the impossible. In one form, the portal-quest fantasy, “the fantastic is on the other side” of a portal that leads from a familiar to an unfamiliar world (1). Since the protagonist passes into unfamiliarity, it also “positions both protagonist and reader as naive” (2). Tigana is peculiar as a portal-quest, however, because Devin is not naive about the existence of magic. His familiarity with the impossible brings Tigana slightly closer to the “immersive fantasy,” in which characters are “immersed” in the logic of their own world.5 However, if Devin’s awareness that Brandin of Ygrath and Alberico are real sorcerers is taken for granted, he nonetheless travels through a portal into a strange world. A singer who knows a lullaby that his father taught him in Lower Corte a long time ago, ignorant of its provenance, Devin, along with the reader, eventually learns that the song is a sign of his true ancestry. He learns his true name, “Devin di Tigana bar Garin” (118), after he symbolically steps through “a portal of Morian’s” which, when it “has been crossed there is, as everyone knows, no turning back” (65). Baerd and Alessan subsequently teach him about the amnesia caused by Brandin’s vengeful spell, which pounds “through to the vulnerable centre of how Devin saw and dealt with the world,” estranging him from his past self (116). The stability of Devin’s world before the revelation is that of a “thinned land,” a circumstance characteristic of the opening of a portal-quest fantasy, which must conclude with “restoration,” or healing (Mendlesohn 3). These structural features, along with wrongness and recognition, the same terms which Clute understands to be common features of fantasy plots in general, “become fundamental to the structure” of the portal-quest fantasy through the “closed” nature of the narrative (17). Arguing that many portal-quest narratives are “closed,” being locked in only one interpretation, Mendlesohn suggests that a stasis in the variation of fantasy novel plot exposes the assumptions of those who read the genre.
The naivety of the protagonist of the portal-quest fantasy and the mandatory belief in the “club-story” narrative both cause history in Tigana to be received unquestioningly. In Conjunctions 39: The New Wave Fabulists, Clute describes the club-story as: “a tale or tales recounted orally to a group of listeners foregathered in a venue safe from interruption. Its structure is normally twofold: there is the tale told, and encompassing that a frame which introduces the teller of the tale… [It] enforces our understanding that a tale has been told” (qtd. in Mendlesohn 6). Mendlesohn argues that the club-story is a “taproot” (in fantasy literature criticism, a historically foundational kind of text) for the modern portal-quest fantasy, supplying it with the rhetorical assumptions of its parent (5). Kay’s narrator, whose voice at times resembles that of a historian in its distanced relation of events, can be understood to be operating according to club-story assumptions. When opening the scene of the aftermath of Duke Sandre’s supposed death, the narrator says that “perhaps because [of Sandre], and certainly because he tended to be cautious and circumspect in all his ways, Alberico … acted with a precise regard for protocol” (12). The narrator’s speculative persona supposedly only guesses at the reasons for Alberico’s actions, but the reader must nonetheless agree with it, if he or she is to continue reading. Readers must accept the narrator’s judgement because they are too new to the world to judge otherwise. Despite the narrator-historian’s apparent attempt to be circumspect and cautious, he must still regard the protocol of his narrative persona, which lays down the truth and authority of the text. When the narrator’s voice reveals itself, it adopts the authority of the club-story teller, becoming unquestionable. In contrast, Kay could have presented the world immediately though a character’s subjectivity and understanding of what is normal in his or her world-the protocol for the immersive fantasy. In such a case, the narrator’s speech, and consequently his understanding of the world’s history, would be impeachable because it would be based on a character’s subjectivity. However, in Tigana this is not the case.
Narrative authority in the portal-quest fantasy is distributed hierarchically among the characters and in encoded speech patterns; when the guide speaks, his relation of history and analysis denies the protagonist and reader any interpretation, revealing a problematic ideological consequence for the understanding of history in portal-quest fantasies (Mendlesohn 7). Since the protagonist cannot interpret events without a guide, he or she “is more often an actant than an acteur,” someone who enacts the told narrative (7). When Alessan and Baerd relate the story of Tigana’s destruction to Devin, their narrative is not challenged, and Devin must fulfil his appointed story role. Club-story narrators, Alessan and Baerd could have multiple motives for distorting the truth of Tigana’s history in their favour-after all, it would be easy, since no real memory of the nation survives in the minds of most people. Alessan demands Devin’s full trust, telling him, “Don’t judge yet; think,” when telling him why his parents left him so young in the aftermath of the Battle of the Deisa (123). As Baerd tells Tigana’s story, “Devin never took his own eyes away from [him]” (114). When Baerd begins to speak, Devin feels “as if he were crossing over into a country of dream, leaving the simple, defined boundaries of the daylight world” and the tale itself is “a spell,” while “Alessan and Catriana made no sound at all,” acknowledging Beard’s narrative as the correct course of events, and the right interpretation of them (112). In a novel that is precisely about how power influences how history is understood, it is somewhat troubling that Kay should choose to compose a portal-quest fantasy, which relies on the incontestable authority of a narrative persona to dispense historical information to the reader and protagonist. The history of Tigana is never truly lost, or reinterpreted. To a select few characters, the one narrative that the narrator’s authority sets as true is well-known and unchallenged. Such a closed narrative, denying other interpretations, results in a “hermetic” narrative that becomes “locked in the patterns [of] wrongness, thinning, recognition, and healing/return” (Mendlesohn 17). It also contains an implicit ideology that privileges authority, “a palpable failure to understand the fictive and imaginative nature of the discipline of history” (14). Mendlesohn argues that the prevalence of the fully-structured fantasy in so many fantasies results from narrators who cancel out all objections to their narratives of world redemption. Tigana is a fantasy novel modulated with the historical novel’s repertoire, but the ideology behind the portal-quest fantasy lulls the reader into accepting historical narratives unquestioningly, which is not the practice of historicism.
II. The Lions of Al-Rassan
In The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995), Guy Gavriel Kay creates a secondary world with a relative absence of magic, limiting the mode of fantasy in his novel, while focusing on the mimetic and historical modes. Depicting the warring lands of Al-Rassan, a collection of rival city states and their territories, and Esperaña-divided into the three kingdoms of Valledo, Ruenda, and Jaloña-Kay depicts what corresponds in our Primary World to the Reconquista: the conquest of Moorish Al-Andalus by Christian Spain. Instead of the three Abrahamic faiths, Kay depicts the Jaddites, who worship the sun, the Asharites, who worship the stars, and the Kindath, who worship the two moons. While Kay “wanted the interplay of faiths, without the tenets, to strip the story of religious prejudice” (“Universes”), it is plain enough that the Jaddites correspond to the Christians, the Asharites to the Muslim Moors, and the Kindath to the Jews. Though they worship celestial bodies, the gods of Esperaña and Al-Rassan are essentially invisible, distancing Kay’s setting from the “Homeric world” of living myth, away “from the mythic and the fantastical, and towards the human and the historical” (“Solaris”). Virtually the only ounce of magic in The Lions of Al-Rassan is ability of Diego, son of Rodrigo Belmonte (who is based on the legendary Rodrigo Diaz de Bivar, or El Cid (Ordway, “World-Building”)), to sense where his father is and whether he is in danger. Given the increased emphasis on mimesis instead of fantasy, it is also more difficult to spot characters who might be actants, or story functions. The effect of the lack of magic and the unbridgeable distance between gods and humans-which, when seen as a noted absence, can be understood as thinning-is an increased emphasis on the interplay on the horizontal plane: the nations and religions in conflict as it plays out within history, not eternity. Although the sparsity of magic reduces the fantastic effect of The Lions of Al-Rassan, it allows for the historical repertoire to fill the void.
Translating the structural feature of thinning into the context of the historical repertoire by depicting the fall of Al-Rassan, a great nation, Kay brings his fantasy novel close to hybridization with the historical novel. The Lions of Al-Rassan differs from Tigana in that the collapse of Al-Rassan is not enabled by magic, but by purely historical forces. The land is in decline from the beginning of the novel. In the prologue, Ammar ibn Khairan, one of the chief protagonists, enters the palace of the Al-Fontina in Silvenes, which is described as having “dissolving magnificence,” and assassinates the last of the khalifs, the elderly blind Muzafar (1). “It will be a time of wolves now,” Ammar says afterwards (3). Although not a magical prophecy, his words are prophetic. In a short time, “the poets were calling the three hundred years of the Khalifate a Golden Age” (16). In the epilogue, Alvar Pellino hears news about the fall of Al-Rassan and notes that the name of Al-Rassan “would be gone now… a word for poets and historians” (626). Between prologue and epilogue, Al-Rassan’s “fading away of beingness” (Clute 339) comes as a result of the simultaneous invasions of the Jaddites, led by King Ramiro of Valledo, and the Asharite fundamentalist Muwardis, from the Majriti Desert, who fight alongside Al-Rassan, but also aim to purify it from what they see as its decadent excesses. Rodrigo tells Ammar that the Jaddites and Muwardis have an equal potential for destruction, each “driven by hatred and holiness,” and asks the poet what “good men” should do in war (480). Ammar replies, “Kill each other, until something ends in the world” (480). The internecine rivalries in Al-Rassan and the religious conflicts both contribute to the thinning of Al-Rassan. Having transferred an event belonging to the repertoire of the historical novel onto a structural feature of the fantasy novel, Kay synthesizes the two genres and brings them a step closer towards hybridization.
Events such as the execution of Timewalkers subordinate magic to the historical and thin the land (122). One agent of the thinning of Al-Rassan is religious intolerance, which helps cause the Reconquest, but intolerance is also responsible for making Diego’s gift-the only example of magic in the novel-so rare. Possibly, it has also contributed to the loss of other forms of magic. Miranda Belmonte, his mother, must keep Diego’s talent as one of the “Timewalkers” secret, because it is well-known that “at different times and at different places, those visionaries had been burned, or nailed alive to wooden beams as sorcerers” (122). Drawing a parallel in his “mirror world” to such religious persecutions as the Spanish Inquisition, Kay suggests that the kind of radical religion that was responsible for the Reconquest of Al-Rassan is also responsible to a degree for the loss of magic more generally. It might also be true that the thinning of the Homeric world increases the distance between humans and their gods, making errors in religious practice and belief more likely to appear, providing conditions for fundamentalism to emerge. Kay may have intended for the thinning of magic in The Lions of Al-Rassan to contain a reflection on the relationship between religion and history, themes his novel does explore. Whether Kay discusses history and myth-or history and religion-the coupling of these interests hints at his engagement with fantasy and history.
In the village of Orvilla, the protagonists sense wrongness, signalling the form of the fantasy novel to the reader, while hinting at the how violence will increasingly mark life in the peninsula. No magic marks the wrongness, so it is true that from one perspective, the attack on Orvilla might be seen as one of the “initial disturbances” of a non-fantastic narrative. However, from the perspective of a reader expecting a fantasy narrative structure, the attack on Orvilla does instill a sense of moral wrongness. Rodrigo Belmonte of Valledo and his riders fight the raiders of Garcia de Rada while they burn a village that Rodrigo is sworn to protect, since Orvilla, along with Fezana, pays an annual parias payment to Valledo for protection. During the battle, Alvar remarks the irony of the battle, that Jaddite is fighting Jaddite: “he had certainly never imagined that the first man he killed in Al-Rassan would be from Valledo. … In a way, that did not feel right” (86). Even Garcia’s men realize the “this was not supposed to happen” (86). The wrongness of soldiers from the same nation fighting each other hints at how Al-Rassan will eventually fall due to conflict among people who have been living peacefully together. The devastation to the village is horrific and sickening, to the extent that Jehane bet Ishak, a doctor, reflects, “What was medicine, what was all her training, in the face of an atrocity such as this?” (91). The slaughter is beyond healing, perhaps alluding to how the thinning of Al-Rassan in the coming war will cause atrocities beyond recovery. Finally, one of the images that Kay uses to symbolize the sense of wrongness is two of the battle’s casualties: a pregnant woman who a soldier rapes and penetrates with his sword, killing her and her child (92). The gruesome death highlights the perverse irony of a child who is killed before being born. The raid of Orvilla sets up the readers to expect the thinning of Al-Rassan and, at least potentially, its recovery at this point in the novel.
In the later part of the novel, a second feeling of wrongness occurs-also a moment of recognition-when the new king of Cartada sends Muwardi assassins to kill Rodrigo during Carnival, because he will be his enemy in the coming war. Jehane’s servant, Velaz, is killed in the struggle, making her reflect:
Somewhere within her grieving soul Jehane experienced a termor then, an apprehension of pain to come. The world of Esperaña, of Al-Rassan, seemed to her to be rushing headlong towards something vast and terrible, and the deaths of Velaz and of Rodrigo’s man at the barracks door, and even of the seven desert warriors tonight-all these were merely prelude to much worse to come.
Jehane’s prediction proves true. Burdened by the past-what has just happened-she reflects on the future, achieving the dual perspective that constitutes a moment of recognition. Like Devin’s recognition in Tigana, Jehane’s own recognition is a moment of perceiving wrongness, suggesting that the perception of the history’s injustices is a theme that Kay finds continually interesting. The world is, once again, impossible to heal completely: Jehane uses the learning of her profession to attempt to heal the wounded where she can, remarking how death is “the physician’s implacable adversary” (477). Jehane’s profession can be read as a symbol for the recovery in a fantasy novel, given the implication of her being a doctor in a land in need of healing. While the raid raises the expectation that there will be a senseless but inevitable war that will follow, the assassination attempt confirms this expectation in the reader. From such wrongness, healing can help assuage some of the pain, but not all of it.
Al-Rassan’s thinning cannot be completely recovered, which is evidence of Kay’s increased respect for his historical sources and the hybridization of the genre. Eucatastrophe, when it revises history, provides an escape from historical circumstances and is thus prone to produce a less historical narrative. The actual Reconquest did not end with a victory for the Moors of Al-Andalus. It follows, then, that Al-Rassan must meet annihilation, if Kay wishes to better reflect the catastrophic reality of history. In the epilogue, Al-Rassan is lost and Ammar can only ask in his lament, “Where are Tudesca, Elvira, Aljais, / and where, in this twilight, is Silvenes?” (634). These cities of Al-Rassan “mourn for the passing of lions, / for the ending of Al-Rassan the Beloved, / which is gone” (634). The poem sets an elegiac tone to the end of the novel. However, eucatastrophe is not absolutely vanquished. Ammar speaks his poem while he hears his “children’s laughter … through an open window” (634). Those children, living now in a Kindath community in Sorenica, on the Batiaran peninsula, are safe from the war that has destroyed Al-Rassan. The protagonists Ammar, Jehane, and Alvar acquire a space of safety for their families in Sorenica, providing a happy ending, though one weighted with sorrow. Eucatastrophe occurs, but it is more local and does not entail the recovery of an entire nation.
Despite the safety that it provides, the restored Kindath community in Sorenica survives tenuously. Since the last Sorenican community was destroyed by Jaddites, the restoration of the community is framed as a recovery from an earlier loss, invoking one of the opening remarks in the novel. The Kindath of Al-Rassan, as a scattered people, struggle against the reigning Asharites “to create a small space in the world of safety and a measure of repose” (6). A limited space in which to escape catastrophe, the maintenance of such a community is subject to continual challenge. For example, the narrator says that various people see Sorenica’s restoration as either a “sad demonstration of the Kindath’s desperate desire for roots and home” or as being “emblematic of endurance in the face of hardships” (621). Alvar comes to an understanding of history’s variability, saying that “Sorenica’s revival was simply … an opportunity to be grasped” to build a safe life for himself and his children (621). Safety for his family rests on the variable and morally dubious opinions of the Jaddite clergy, who conveniently apologize to say that the slaughter twenty years ago that destroyed the initial community had represented “a failure of piety” (622). What the sober tempering of the restoration of Sorenica reveals is that the story of Ammar, Jehane, and Alvar will continue, in a changeable random world, though in their present circumstances they may be safe. Although The Lions of Al-Rassan does end in eucatastrophe, the comic ending does not encompass the fate of the characters’ entire world. Rather, it acknowledges the world’s complexity and the potential for catastrophe.
The Carnival of Ragosa grants protagonists an escape from the religious intolerance that marks their historical age, but only for a time. Even before Carnival, Ragosa provides an atmosphere where Rodrigo, Jehane, and Ammar, representatives of the three religions, become bound in mutual friendship. For example, Rodrigo and Ammar are bound mysteriously into brotherhood when they first look at each other in the court of King Badir (220). Later, Rodrigo agrees that he falls “in love” with Ammar “in a way” (617). During the night of Carnival, Jehane is torn between her love for Ammar and for Rodrigo, though she chooses Ammar because of Rodrigo’s love for his wife Miranda (585). Friendship and romance thus unite the three faiths, against the larger trend of intolerance. Also during Carnival, Alvar Pellino, a Jaddite in Rodrigo’s company of riders, shares cultural fashions with the Asharite Husari ibn Musa. Alvar wears “a wide-sleeved linen overshirt, ivory-colored, loosely belted at the waist, over hose of a slightly darker shade and Asharite city slippers” (382). Meanwhile, “Husari ibn Musa, silk merchant of Fezana, [wears] a plain brown Jaddite soldier’s shirt under a stained and well-worn leather vest” (382). Even after Carnival ends with the beginning of war, they are still wearing the same clothes: “Alvar wasn’t sure why, but that meant something to him” (497). Wearing the clothing of the “enemy” faith solidifies a mutual respect between Asharite and Jaddite, perhaps being one of the factors that leads to Alvar’s conversion to the Kindath faith (623). Ragosa’s Carnival enables the protagonists to escape from strict political and cultural divisions between the three faiths, which may be understood as forms of bondage to the norms of society.
After Carnival, historical burdens and personal pasts carry the novel to its catastrophic conclusion. Carnival’s ending with the battle against the Muwardi assassins in the street alludes to the ending of harmony (477). Ammar eventually becomes an Asharite ka’if leading the Muwardis, and Rodrigo fights him one-on-one in battle. With deliberate ambiguity on Kay’s part, Jehane watches the battle and sees “a good man raise his sword and … a good man fall” (620). Only in the epilogue does it become clear that Ammar is the victor. Historical circumstances tear Ammar and Rodrigo apart and place them on opposite sides of the battlefield, and an escape from the circumstances of the reality of their world can only be temporary. In the end, Ammar values his “memory of Silvenes” and his “history” which leads him to prefer to “herd camels in the Majitri than be a shepherd in Esperaña,” if Al-Rassan is lost (576-577). Rodrigo and Ammar are ultimately not only forced, but choose to align themselves with their cultures, which are unfortunately on opposite sides of the conflict. Held in bondage to their respective pasts, history forms a part of identity and becomes inescapable. Ammar is also in bondage to his personal history, where he is remembered everywhere as “the man who slew the last khalif of Al-Rassan” (3). When the Muwardi leader Yazir ibn Q’arif takes over control of the Asharite armies from Ammar, he might have had him executed for the murder of the last khalif. However, because Ammar killed Rodrigo, Yazir allows him to be exiled to Sorenica, where he can escape his stigma and remember Al-Rassan (629). Escape and bondage in The Lions of Al-Rassan are thus in a shifting relationship where free will may align itself to historical circumstance or conflict against it, more accurately representing the flow that history takes.
Though The Lions of Al-Rassan ends in eucatastrophe, it differs from that of Tigana in that it does not seek to remake history, ensuring the hybridization of the historical fantasy. The presence of the fully-structured fantasy novel in The Lions of Al-Rassan frames the story as a process of thinning and recovery, ending in eucatastrophe. However, healing does not save the entire land, but ensures the establishment of an island of stability in a sea of cyclical repetitions of violence. Likewise, the story in The Lions of Al-Rassan does not straightforwardly “tell away” bondage in order to bring about a recovery, as it does in Tigana. Instead, the story tells the thinning of Al-Rassan, and the recovery does not spring directly from protagonist’s efforts. Eucatastrophe in The Lions of Al-Rassan does not, as in Tigana, offer “an imaginative escape from a cyclical doom” (Cobb). When it does deny “universal final defeat” (Tolkien 68), it only does so on a smaller, more personal scale where temporary victories may be won against the larger catastrophic movements of history. Binding characters to their historical circumstances more strongly, Kay consequently designs a narrative that places a greater emphasis on thinning, which more accurately represents historical catastrophe and decay. Doing so, Kay finds a compromise between the fully-structured fantasy and the historical novel, ensuring the hybridization of his historical fantasy novel.
The Lions of Al-Rassan’s hybridization is reflected in its status as a (nearly) immersive fantasy, a rhetorical form that may represent fantasy as easily as history. According to Mendlesohn, the immersive fantasy, which “does not need a line to divide the real from the unreal,” must therefore “assume that the reader is as much a part of the world as are those being read about” (61, 59). The historical novelist must also depict protagonists who are a part of their own world and whose attitudes to their surroundings are typical for the time and place in which they live. In an immersive fantasy, information is dispensed through the point of view of the protagonist, so that the reader accepts “what they know of the world, interpreting it through what they notice, and through what they do not” (59). Though not all historical novels employ such subjectivity, they may do so effectively. An immersive fantasy is also more likely to emphasize thinning as a structural feature rather than healing or recognition, which are emphasized in portal-quest fantasies (60). “In an immersive fantasy, what is storyable is not the discovery of the world (in which we are immersed) but its loss,” says John Cute (qtd. in Mendlesohn 61). Since the characters are already familiar with their world, they can only encounter the strange if that world starts to disappear. When it does, in The Lions of Al-Rassan, the changing circumstances bind the immersed characters to the historical forces that act on them and determine how they act. The Lions of Al-Rassan’s status as a hybrid thus not only owes itself to characters who are bound to historical circumstance, but to characters who are immersed in those circumstances.
As an observant and inquisitive viewpoint character, Jehane establishes the novel’s rhetorical positioning as an immersive fantasy. In the opening of the novel, Jehane is in the midst of her routine as a doctor within Fezana, a world with which she is deeply familiar, although the reader is not. However, the reader eventually becomes familiar with the world’s politics and history through Jehane’s own observations about what she finds unusual. Though Tigana employs similar ways to dispense information, portal-quest protagonists are generally poor at reading and judging the foreign land they enter. Mendlesohn explains how protagonists of immersive fantasies, by contrast, are often “antagonists within their world,” meaning that they are able to argue against it (66). While Jehane does not argue like a prototypical “antagonistic” protagonist against her world’s very construction, she is able to analyze it scientifically. Through her medical profession, in which she diagnoses patients, she is able to prescribe actions that results in consequences: “The morning passed. Velaz quietly and steadily filled clay pots and vials at he back of the booth as Jehane issued her directions. A flask of urine clear at the bottom but thin and pale at the top told its tale of chest congestion. Jehane prescribed fennel and told the woman to return next week with another sample” (9). Jehane’s viewpoint dispenses information to the reader after she encounters the unusual: she notes, in free indirect discourse, that “the noise level this morning was really quite extraordinary” (9). She observes her surroundings in order to arrive at the reason for the noise level: “It was only when she saw the three blond and bearded foreign mercenaries arrogantly shouldering their way through the market that she remembered. The new wing of the castle was being consecrated by the wadjis today, and the young prince of Cartada, Almalik’s son, who bore his name, was here to receive selected dignitaries of subjugated Fezana” (9). Since Jehane belongs to her world, she knows its background information and history. Kay can then use her character to relay the reader the information as she reminds herself about it, a way of dispensing information to reader that contrasts with the method in the portal-quest fantasy, in which information is revealed by authorities, such books and wise guides. Jehane’s perspective signals to the reader that he or she is reading a novel in which characters are familiar with their world.
However, due to the narrator’s omniscient historian’s voice, the novel is not a perfectly immersive fantasy. For example, the following passage reveals a breach in the subjective perspective necessary for immersion: “One hundred and thirty-nine citizens of Fezana assembled in the newest wing of the castle that afternoon. Throughout Al-Rassan, not long after, what ensued became known as The Day of the Moat. This was the way of it” (26). Such a passage takes the reader outside of the immersive perspective within the viewpoint character’s mind, to deliver an omniscient perspective instead. Also, the narrator’s voice and the thoughts of Kay’s viewpoint characters frequently intersect. For instance, when Jehane “belatedly remembered hearing that the prince had arrived two days ago with five hundred men,” she reflects, “They needed soldiers here” (13-14). The following sentences follow her subsequent thoughts, but they are written in a distanced fashion that signals a passage that is chiefly in the narrator’s voice: “The current governor of Fezana was a puppet of Almalik’s, supported by a standing army. The mercenary troops were here ostensibly to guard against incursions from the Jaddite kingdoms, or brigands troubling the countryside. In reality, their presence was the only thing that kept the city from rising in revolt again” (14). The narrator subtly offers information to the reader, disguising it as Jehane’s thoughts. Such passages complicate the rhetorical form of the novel, though they do not hinder the historical repertoire. Indeed, a historical novelist may well want to adopt such a narrative voice.
Since The Lions of Al-Rassan does not fully immerse the reader into the protagonist’s viewpoint, the rhetorical form of the novel may be termed a hybrid, just as its genre. The narrator’s voice, for example, may be a carry-over from a more authority-centred rhetoric, in which such a narrator “‘stories’ the world for us, making sense of it through the downloaded histories so common to [the portal-quest fantasy]” (Mendlesohn 8). Portal-quest fantasies, which often simply tell the reader information, stand in contrast to fully immersive fantasies, which let the reader construct “a world from pieced-together hints and gradual explanations” and understand “a world by the context of what is told” (75). Kay may be subtle in his writing, but he never relies so heavily on context alone. While The Lions of Al-Rassan may be considered immersive because of the protagonists’ familiarity with their world, the narrator as a historical guide introduces a portal-quest rhetoric that “denies the taken for granted and positions [the] reader as naive” (2). Though the characters are immersed already, the reader must still be introduced to Kay’s Secondary World. The Lions of Al-Rassanmay thus be called a hybrid between the two rhetorical styles. Kay is able to relate historical information to the reader who is estranged from world, via the familiar knowledge of his protagonists. Through reflections of his viewpoint characters on their own past and the history of their world, Kay can dispense information to the reader in not only a smoother fashion, but through his characters’ subjectivity. Kay’s novel thus shares certain features with the portal-quest fantasy and the immersive fantasy, while its generic features reflect a generic hybrid.
IV. Under Heaven
In Under Heaven (2010), the ghosts of Kuala Nor and An Li’s reputation for excess provide the reader with a sense of wrongness, a reminder of Kitai’s thinning. Unlike Al-Rassan, the empire of Kitai in its Ninth Dynasty, which is based on Tang Dynasty China, does not decline at the very beginning of the novel. However, the ghosts of the slain soldiers around the lake of Kuala Nor, the battlefield where General Shen Gao defeated a Taguran army in a Pyrrhic victory, present an initial sense of wrongness. To mourn his father’s memory, Shen Tai, the novel’s protagonist, buries the bones, becoming familiar with the cries of the dead, “the angry ones and the lost ones, and those in whose thin, stretched crying there was only pain” (4). The thinning of Kitai as an empire, on the other hand, begins in earnest after An Li leaves Xinan, the empire’s capital, to begin the great rebellion that bears his name. Also known as Roshan, An Li is a barbarian military governor who Emperor Taizu has granted honours beyond any other governor. His position at court allows him to speak out of turn, “shockingly,” whenever he wishes (236). The “uncouth and illiterate” courtier is incredibly fat, “awesomely vast” like “a figure of legend” (238, 358). In a grotesque ceremony, Wen Jian, the favoured consort of the Emperor, adopts Roshan as her son, which Wen Zhou, her cousin, views as a “frivolity” of the court that fails to check Roshan’s ambition (285). Zhou’s opinions suggest to the reader that the imperial court has reached a point of decadence, that the emperor has lost control, and that Roshan might soon seek the ultimate goal of his ambition: to begin a new dynasty and overthrow the emperor. When Emperor Taizu does eventually step down, making his son Shinzu emperor, Shen Tai, the protagonist, observes an acute wrongness in the old emperor:
It was deeply disturbing to see the emperor walking. He was carried, always. His feet seldom touched the ground-not in the palace, and certainly not here in the dust of an inn yard. Tai looked around, and saw that he wasn’t the only one unsettled by the sight. Wei Song was biting her lip.
Too much had happened in one night. The world was a different place, he thought, than it had been when they went to bed. (602-603)
The emperor of Kitai is supposed to rule with the guidance of heaven, forming the centre of Kitan civilization as the ultimate, unquestionable authority in the empire. Seeing the emperor walking reveals how much the balance of Kitai has changed, alluding to its subsequent breaking apart during the rebellion. While ghosts allude to the thinning texture of a violent world, Roshan’s presence reminds the reader that Kitai cannot remain whole much longer.
Tai’s recognition of his place in history reveals not so much a definite understanding of the future, as an uncertainty about it. Roshan forces Tai to enter his carriage just before he leaves to begin the rebellion. He plans to discover to whom Tai will give his two hundred and fifty luxurious Sardian horses, which Tai receives as a free, personal gift from the queen of Tagura as thanks for his burying of the dead at Kuala Nor. Before he enters, Tai remarks how the crowd parts “in both directions, east and west,” establishing himself as a focal point on the main road that links the major cities in Kitai (349). “It matters what I do now,” Tai remarks (349). His action in the carriage will have consequences, meaning that he is potentially experiencing one of the branching points of history. In the carriage, he recognizes that he “owed Roshan’s death, and my own, to … everyone else. That it was required of me. Before it is too late” (370-371). Had he gone through with the action, Tai believes rebellion would not have broken out, though he would have been killed by Roshan’s guards. However, Sima Zian, a poet who is Tai’s friend, says that “the idea we can know what must be done, and do it properly” is “arrogance” (372). In other fantasy novels, such as the portal-quest fantasy, the recognition consists of a true insight into the future. Zian’s caution towards this assumption grounds Tai’s recognition, acknowledging that the future is unknowable. Recognition becomes no longer a revelation of true knowledge suddenly granted, as much as a moment in which the protagonist makes a false assumption about his role in shaping history. Instead of being a requisite to future healing, Tai’s recognition highlights the broken, “thinned” shape of history.
Thinning is depicted in Under Heaven as the constant state of the world, making healing and recovery occupy necessarily a more minor role in the novel’s resolution. The restlessness of the ghosts of Kuala Nor, as has already been stated, is the first instance of thinning. The setting foreshadows the destruction and death that war is capable of inflicting upon a land and a landscape-the cries of the ghost soldiers ring “outside in all seasons, moonlit nights and dark, as soon as the sun went down” (4). Tai’s labour in burying the dead is his attempt to heal that. He is, however, only one man and cannot hope to fully heal the distraught spirits. At a much later point in the narrative, Tai dreams of “wistfulness, loss, as if something, someone, was leaving, was already gone, like the dream itself” and later remarks, quoting the Kitan poet Chan Du, “I am powerless to amend a broken world” (375). The insubstantial dream may represent the losing of wholeness and reality that accompanies thinning, the brokenness of a world. Tai is powerless not only to bury the dead, but to kill the future war criminal Roshan. Consoling him, Sima Zian says that the thinned “world is not broken any more than it always, always is” (372). Tai’s is not responsible for the world’s future suffering; had he slain An Li, Zian hints that the world would still be as broken. Assuming brokenness to be the consistent state of the world, Zian denies the premise implicit it some fantasy novels that involve thinning, that thinning is a decay of the land from a more innocent Golden Age situated in the past. It is impossible on a fundamental level for Kitai to be restored: there has never been any golden past to restore. The world simply continues. Zian’s insight into the continuous thinned state of the world aligns his vision of history close to Bertrand Russel’s conception of history as mainly consisting of catastrophe.
Since humans cannot heal all wounds, time itself becomes an agent of recovery. “Weariness,” confirms the narrator, “sometimes more than anything else, can bring an end to war” (708). When the Ninth Dynasty defeats An Li’s never fully consolidated Tenth Dynasty, “the Ta-Ming Palace was restored,” but it is not “what it had been before” (705). In a thinned world, even a restoration can be a decline. Time also heals the spirits at Kuala Nor. The final image of the novel is that of two unnamed men (most likely Shen Tai and Sima Zian) who continue to bury the dead, until both men die, one after the other. Eventually “because not even the dead can grieve forever, forgotten, there came a moonlit night when there was no lost spirit crying in Kuala Nor” (710). Time heals the land, but also makes it more difficult or impossible to remember the ways in which the world is broken-and perhaps a certain amount of forgetting is healthier than remembering everything for an eternity.
Where humans do experience recovery, it is the lucky fate afforded to few, or a restoration that nonetheless is a decline from past glory. For example, Shen Tai’s sister Shen Li-Mei is sent to marry Tarduk, the heir of a Bogu chieftain, because her elder brother Shen Liu, an advisor to Wen Zhou, the first minister, used her to advance the family’s prestige. Meshag, Tarduk’s brother, rescues her from the Kitan caravan and leads her across the steppe to eventually bring her home, as a favour to Tai for saving his life once. Li-Mei eventually becomes empress to Shinzu, which is a just restoration since Liu sends her to Tarduk without Tai knowing, to Tai’s fury. Furthermore, Meshag, who becomes known as “the Wolf,” succeeds Hurok, his father, as kaghan of the Bogü, by killing his brother (708). This is a restoration of the moral order, given how Meshag’s avenges Tarduk’s treacherous near-murder of him, which employed a shamanistic ritual that Tai interrupts during a military campaign. Tai saves Meshag, but the magic’s incompleted effect turns Meshag into a half-dead man with a magical affinity for wolves. Meshag’s undead status is another example of thinning in Under Heaven, and his eventual triumph and rule solidifies peace along Kitai’s northern border, a recovery. One other example of recovery is how Spring Rain, a prostitute from Sardia and Tai’s lover, regains her lost name. Having received forewarning from Tai about Roshan’s advance on Xinan, she flees the empire. When she crosses the border, she claims her true name back, saying, “My name is Saira” (659). Kay’s use of recovery lends a sense of eucatastrophe to the end of his novel, while treating the tragedy of the rebellion (based on the Tang Dynasty An Lushan Rebellion) with faithfulness.
Escape in Under Heaven is made possible by human and supernatural means, reducing the importance of magic and the agency of the fantastic mode. For instance, the false Kanlin Warrior who attempts to kill Tai fails because she becomes pinned against his cabin by the forces of the dead. A ghost wind stirred by the spirits “poured around [Tai], curving to either side like a pair of bows [and] took the assassin bodily, lifted her up, and hurled her through the air as if she were a twig” (57). While she is pinned, two Taguran soldiers shoot her with arrows to finish her off. As such, “the dead of Kuala Nor had come to him … [b]ut so had two men, moral and desperately frightened” (58). Supernatural agency provides a means for Tai to survive a situation in which death is eminent-to escape a moment where he was bound to die. However, Kay draws attention to the importance of the human in Tai’s salvation. The ghosts helped, but the Tagurans may have been able to save him as well. Granting the supernatural equal agency with the human, Kay demonstrates that his use of the mimetic, historical mode is just as important, if not more important, than his use of the fantastic.
Bondage and escape also have a complicated relationship to each other: Tai’s escape from death is accompanied by burden, a bondage to the future. Tai recalls the teachings of wise men from the history of Kitai: they have said that being saved could grant one the burden of conducting one’s “granted life in such a manner as to be worthy of the return” (59). His history will now dictate forever how he lives. Tai respects the memory of the dead and the dead repay him by helping him escape death, but then he is bound to honour that favour. The supernatural offers assistance, though not without some sacrifice (the physical labour of burying the bodies). However, it is afterwards up to human beings to live a worthy life. While the supernatural lets Tai escape death and then places him in bondage to honour the ghosts’ favour, escape is also possible without supernatural assistance. For instance, after saving the life of Ye Lao, a steward, Tai orders him to maintain his compound, which is a gift of the emperor. Lao remembers the order: “to preserve order in one small place, one household, in a world that had lost all sense of order or claim to being civilized” (646). His tiny island of order provides a place where his staff can escape, mostly, from the terrors of famine and warfare that follow the An Li Rebellion. Focusing on the power of humans, Kay reduces the role of the fantastic mode in providing characters means of escape from historical forces.
Kay’s narrator questions the integrity of historical narratives in passages that demonstrate a self-reflexive understanding of the historical fantasy. His narrator speaks in several scenes in the voice of a historian describing the discourses of the mandarin-class historians and philosophers of later Kitan dynasties who look back on the time of the main narrative. In one key passage, for example, there is the following reflection:
It is a truth about the nature of human beings that we seek-even demand-order and pattern in our lives, in the flow and flux of history and our own times.
Philosophers have noted this and mused upon it. Those advising princes, emperors, kings have sometimes proposed that this desire, this need, be used, exploited, shaped. That a narrative, a story, the story of a time, a war, a dynasty be devised to steer the understanding of a people to where the prince desires it to go. (330-331)
In Tigana and The Lions of Al-Rassan, there are passages that approach this kind of historical retrospective, but they never quite deal so explicitly with interpretations of history. In the excerpted passage, Kay draws attention to how rulers of nations might seek to write or rewrite history in their favour. He thus alludes obliquely to his own role in shaping his narrative, through the convenient device of the “mirror world.” It is precisely because history may become distorted by princes that Kay invents worlds that resemble, but do not actually represent, Primary-World cultures. Doing so enables Kay to construct his story without arrogantly imposing a narrative on a potentially unknowable and disconnected sequence of “real” historical events. The narrator articulates an argument across the novel that justifies Kay’s own technique and the implications behind naming a genre “historical fantasy.”
The narrator’s reflections expose a gap between how the narrator conceives of history as flux and how Kay uses a story with a patterned narrative. “Story,” according to the definition of John Clute, is especially significant in a fantasy, where the story “generates a sense that its meaning is conveyed through the actual telling” (899). In a fantasy text, “an irreducible substratum of Story” is always in the process of being revealed (900). Hence, in a historical fantasy novel such as Tigana, which follows a central mythic story, the historical events contain a discernible pattern. However, if history is flux, then such patterning does not reflect history, even though “order and pattern” make it possible to satisfy the fundamental human need to tell stories (Kay, Under Heaven 330). Shaw indicates why writers search for pattern when attempting to represent historical events artistically: “If we believe that history is flux it is likely that we will assign its representation in prose fiction a low priority. Our conclusion will be different if we believe that history is a coherent process with an emerging meaning available to artistic intuition and capable of being represented by esthetic means” (46). The historical novel itself is opposed to the idea of history as flux, which denies the existence of a coherent meaning to historical events. The fully structured fantasy’s central narrative of thinning and recovery is even more insistent on the need for pattern and meaning. Although historians, who do not attempt fiction, might conceive of history as flux (though the more interested of court historians might not have done so), to write a story about history is to see history as a poet.
The irony of Kay’s historically reflexive passage becomes apparent: though Kay is self-conscious about representing history, he must necessarily shape a narrative that pretends to be historical. The gap between the historian’s conception of the past and the poet’s conception is bridged through the device of the “mirror world,” without which, Kay would not be able to write a story with honesty at all. To set Under Heaven in the Chinese Tang Dynasty instead of Ninth Dynasty Kitai would be to set a possibly deceptive narrative about the congruency of real events. Claiming that history may simply be flux given an arbitrary order and patterning in chronicles, Kay sets up an irony for the reader to work through: the reader wonders at how deeply the narration is invested in flux, if flux can undermine the entire project of storytelling.
In a novel that lies midway between a portal-quest and an immersive fantasy, the narrator challenges assumptions behind storytelling, questioning ideas about authority in determining the truth of events. Under Heaven is about two quests: Tai must journey to Xinan and Li-Mei must return to Kitai. Tai is essentially familiar with his world, though he becomes defamiliarized to the new political landscape in the Ta-Ming Palace at Xinan while living at Kuala Nor. Li-Mei, on the other hand, may be familiar with life in Kitai, but is alienated from her culture while among the Bogü, where she also encounters strange magic. In the moment where both quests become mysteriously linked, a story pattern emerges that the narrator questions. On the same day, Li-Mei kills a shaman disguised as Meshag and Tai kills an assassin. The narrator remarks that “it would have certainly have been noted as significant by any … philosopher or adviser that the second son of and the only daughter of General Gen Gao … each killed a man on the same morning, a long way from each other” (331). The narrator here draws attention to how simultaneous events suggest historical narratives. However, the narrator expresses scepticism, ironically, that any such narrative can be made (even though it just has). He says, “Who will dare say he knows with certainty which single gem is to be held up to whatever light there is for us, in our journeying, and proclaimed as true?” (331) The narrator calls the act of proclaiming historical truth as arrogance. Yet, the narrative itself contains events, the veracity of which is unquestioned. The historians note that lack of clarity “is the nature of existence under heaven” (529). The narrator, normally responsible for ordering a story, undermines itself by questioning what portal-quest fantasies do not: the historical record and the structure of storytelling itself.
The historian passages also test the concept of “found” knowledge, which is a mode of epistemology common to portal-quest fantasies. Perhaps the most striking example of this questioning is when the narrator describes how Wen Zhou falsifies an imperial order for the Kitan army to advance through Teng Pass. The order precipitates the battle where Kitai’s army is slaughtered, exposing Xinan to attack. The historians of later dynasties risk dismissal “or worse” if they were ever to write a history that questioned the emperor’s authority: “It would have been deeply unwise to imply, let alone assert, any error or failing on the part of heaven’s emperor, or his duly appointed ministers. Easier, and safer, to turn one’s gaze and calligraphy to the soldiers” (608). Due to these imperial pressures, the historians depict Wen Zhou heroically. However, in the scene following, soldiers who learned about the disaster at Teng Pass defy imperial authority and say that the imperial order came directly from Zhou, implicitly accusing the First Minister of treason and the emperor of an error. Imperial authority writes history, but the soldiers defy imperial authority, making it apparent that the emperor’s historians distort the truth. True knowledge is not “found” like in the portal-quest fantasy: the knowledge that is “found” is distorted (Mendlesohn 17). The historian-mandarins of Kitai open history for debate. Authority is also questioned in the context of the survival of historical documents; since not all documents survive, one cannot possibly have a complete and therefore authoritative narrative of history. For example, Kay dedicates one scene to a Kanlin Warrior returning to Kitai from Sardia with a letter to Tai from Spring Rain. The result of this “incidental figure” who “is living through the drama and passion of his own life and death,” is that he is ambushed and killed, the letter “tumbling in dust and wind, and disappearing” (702-703). Such lost documentation exposes the fault in a Scholastic system of knowledge common to portal-quest fantasies, where knowledge is conventionally “rediscovered” in written accounts (Mendlesohn 16). The omniscient narrator, by revealing that many events in history are not known, subverts the role of unquestionable historical narration and exposes the ideology underlying the portal-quest fantasy, which places such importance on authority and the purity of the narrative (6-7). While Kay does not precisely work against Under Heaven as a portal-quest fantasy, since its rhetorical form is more complicated, he does reveal his consciousness of the tensions inherent in a historical fantasy.
Kay’s narrator is not only a historian, but is implicitly the creator of a fantasy about history. The narrator presents himself as one Kitan historian among many. This persona emerges, for example, when the narrator discusses how “chronicles of warfare” debate “strategy and tactics,” to explain how the An Li rebels won their victory at Teng Pass (587). Armies will retreat if retreat is possible, the chronicles argue, and this, “it was subsequently agreed with a degree of consensus, was the best explanation for the victory of the An Li rebels” (588). It is also the course of events that the narrator does subsequently relate, suggesting that the narrator places value on the consensus, like a scholar. However, such passages contrast to the passages of subjective viewpoints that characterize most of the novel. If the historian-narrator also narrates Tai’s viewpoint, the careful historian makes outrageous claims about the linear connections between disassociated events that have no written evidence that could survive in future dynasties. According to the narrator’s own words, this would be the work of a “tale-spinner, not a true scholar” (689). While there may be two narrators, one citing historians and the other narrating from the perspective of the viewpoint characters, the gap between the both voices is briefly bridged by irony, suggesting a single narrator. The narrator remarks that Shen Tai was unimportant to the narrative, since he “hadn’t even passed the examinations at that point!” (689) The exclamation point is telling. It reveals the narrator’s knowing irony in remarking Tai’s unimportance: the entire novel takes Tai as its central figure. At this point, the narrator’s departure from historical consensus becomes clear and Kay’s role as author blends with that of the narrator. If the narrator is a mandarin-historian and has chosen to tell Tai’s story, then the voice strongly reflects Kay’s own role as a Tang Dynasty historian and artist. The narrator’s irony causes the reader to consider why a narrative that delivers an insufficient perspective on history should be chosen. The novel’s reply might say that no person, neither Tai nor Kay himself, has ever had a perfect perspective. Only through the mode of fantasy can one attempt to create a narrative that connects disparate historical events, which are unconnected in the attempt at pure mimesis that defines historicism. Since it deals philosophically with the crucial relationship between history and fantasy-arguing, essentially, that history is fantasy-and because it contains structural aspects of the fantasy novel balanced with mimetic modes of storytelling, Under Heaven can be said to be Kay’s most self-conscious historical fantasy.
5. Conclusion: History as Fantasy
Kay’s novels become more historically reflexive over the years, increasingly concerned with a conception of history as fantasy, and more demonstrative of how effectively one can hybridize the fantasy novel with the historical novel. In Tigana, the prominence of the myth of Adaon and the characters’ status as actants within that myth override the historical novel’s influence on the historical fantasy’s structure. As a result, Tigana may be classified as a fantasy novel that is modally historical. It is also naive about the portal quest’s ideology that privileges hierarchical authority in the communication of historical knowledge. Not only is a “true” history impossible to articulate, but the injustice of re-writing history in favour of the victor is a major theme of Tigana: the portal-quest fantasy rhetoric thus subverts the argument of the book. In The Lions of Al-Rassan, Kay achieves a hybridization of historical fantasy, since the setting is devoid of magic and thinning appears in the historical force of the fall of Al-Rassan, an irreversible catastrophe. Though the protagonists are familiar with their world, as characters in historical novels must be, The Lions of Al-Rassan’s historian-narrator breaks the close subjectivity needed to sustain an immersive fantasy. Tying the protagonists to their historical circumstances, Kay binds them each to Al-Rassan’s catastrophe, and respects how character is formed by objective forces in historical novels. Kay’s other historical fantasy hybrid, Under Heaven, is the fruit of his increasing concern with history and the processes that create it. Like The Lions of Al-Rassan, it strongly depicts the thinning of civilization and the subsequent impossibility of restoring what is lost. It is also sceptical about reconstructing history from scattered documents and information. Questioning how a patterned narrative-for example, Clute’s full fantasy novel structure-can be imposed on historical events, Under Heaven reveals Kay’s consciousness of a conflict inherent in historical fantasy: the ambivalence of whether it is best to erase the exposure of story structure or to push it into the foreground. Implying that history is always crafted, that narratives are always imposed on recorded “facts,” Kay subverts the ideological assumption, present in portal-quest fantasies, that accurate historical information is the property of authorities.
Kay’s historical fantasy novels each challenge assumptions about the objectivity of history, by declaring history as fantasy or, in other words, history as how one wishes to understand it. Using the “mirror world” technique, Kay is able to shape history as he desires without imposing a narrative onto actual history. Doing so, he implicitly exposes how historians impose ideological narratives onto history. Kay’s criticism of historicism proposes ways in which historical fantasy can be used: it can expose ideologies, recover parts of history that have been lost because of the omissions of historians, and cause readers to recognize the narrative that they have constructed of their own lives, that lends their personal history the coherence of story.6
1. Veronica Shanoes defines “historical fantasy” as “a hybrid of two seemingly opposed modes, fantasy, with its explicit rejection of consensus reality, and historical fiction, a genre grounded in realism and historically accurate events” (236). Jana L. French polarizes the distinction between both modes, arguing that to combine the two modes of “historical realism” and “fantasy” posits “a clashing of two vastly different discursive mediations of the historical world” (1-2). Kay, it should be noted, evades the polarization by situating his novels outside of real history.
2. Harry E. Shaw demonstrates that historical novels “do not constitute a strongly unified, independent genre,” but are rather “united by their dependence on broader fictional traditions” (30). Although Shaw may appear to challenge the historical novel as a definable generic category, his theory still allows for an understanding of the historical novel as a subgenre.
3. “Stories”: Clute transforms this noun into a verb to demonstrate how, in a Story, “for something to happen there must be something to happen against. There must be a given state or problem, an inertia, a resistance” (125). Thus “to story” means for a narrative to be told against its initial inertia, or bondage. Story “tells bondage away” (126). In Tigana, the bondage to be “storied” away is Brandin’s curse. For Clute, Story (with a capital ‘S’) is fundamental to the full structure of the fantasy novel and it distinguishes fantasy from what he calls the other “literatures of the fantastic,” such as surrealist works (899).
4. In tales of the marvelous, a “function” is one of the “structural elements” that are unfolded in a series (Attebery, Strategies 25). These functions may be “characters like the hero, the helper, and the opponent, or incidents like interdiction, crossing of the threshold, gaining of the treasure, and return” (25). “The pattern they make,” like the Clute’s fully-structured fantasy, “is usually a quest” (25).
5. Mendlesohn’s other forms are the “intrusive fantasy,” in which the fantastic enters the mundane world from the outside, and the “liminal fantasy,” in which the threshold of the fantastic exists, but is never crossed (xx-xxiv).
6. In April 2013, River of Stars, the sequel to Under Heaven, was released. In a blog post, Kay sees the HarperCollins book design in the UK as “capturing an elegant, more literary aspect of the novel” (“UK”). It is interesting to note that Kay’s hybridization of historical fantasy could potentially relate to the increasingly perceived “literariness” of Kay’s novels.
I. Primary Sources
Kay, Guy Gavriel. The Lions of Al-Rassan. Toronto: Penguin, 1995. 1-635.
_____. Tigana. Toronto: Penguin, 1992. 1-793.
_____. Under Heaven. Toronto: Penguin, 2010. 1-710.
II. Secondary Sources
1. Guy Gavriel Kay
Note: I have canvassed bibliographical databases for works treating Kay. These are few, and having consulted them I have included those relevant to my project below.
Cobb, Christopher. “Guy Gavriel Kay and the Psychology of History.” Bright Weavings: the Worlds of Guy Gavriel Kay. 2002. Web. 4 Apr. 2012.
Kay, Guy Gavriel. E-Mail Interview. 19 November 2012.
_____.”Home and Away.” Bright Weavings: the Worlds of Guy Gavriel Kay. 2002. Web. 4 Apr. 2012.
_____. “Interview with Solaris.” Bright Weavings: the Worlds of Guy Gavriel Kay. 1995. Web. 11 Sept. 2012.
_____. “Parallel Universes: Guy Gavriel Kay reflects on twenty years of alternative history.” Bright Weavings: the Worlds of Guy Gavriel Kay. 1995. Web. 11 Sept. 2012.
_____. “The UK Weighs In…” Guy Gavriel Kay’s River of Stars: The Tour Journal. 2013. Web. 26 Feb. 2013.
Ordway, Holly E. “Guy Gavriel Kay.” Dictionary of Literary Biography: Canadian Fantasy and Science Fiction Writers. Vol. 251. Ed. Douglas Ivison. Detroit: The Gale Group, 2002.
______. “The World-Building of Guy Gavriel Kay.” Bright Weavings: the Worlds of Guy Gavriel Kay. 1998. Web. 20 April 2013.
Webb, Janeen. “Myth and the New High Fantasy: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana.” Bright Weavings: the Worlds of Guy Gavriel Kay. 1991. Web. 11 Sept. 2012.
2. Theory and Criticism
Attebery, Brian. Strategies of Fantasy. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992. 1-141.
_____. “Structuralism.” The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature. Ed. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012. 81-90.
_____. “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy.” Modes of the Fantastic. Eds. Robert A. Lantham and Robert A. Collins. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1995. 1-13.
Feuchtwanger, Lion. The House of Desdemona or The Laurels and Limitations of Historical Fiction. Transl. Harold A. Basilius. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1963. 144, 135.
Fowler, Alastair. Kinds of Literature: an Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1982. 1-357
French, Jana. “Fantastic Histories: A Dialogic Approach to a Narrative Hybrid.” Diss. U of Wisconsin-Madison, 1996. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. Web. 12 Jan. 2013. 1-52.
Frye, Northrop. The Secular Scripture: a Study of the Structure of Romance. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1976. 1-199.
Clute, John and John Grant, eds. “Bondage,” “Fantasy,” “Healing,” “History in Fantasy” “Kay, Guy Gavriel,” “Recognition,” “Story,” “Thinning” “Wrongness.” The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. 125-126 337-339, 458, 468-469, 530-531, 804-805, 899-901, 942-943, 1038-1039.
Fredericks, Casey. The Future of Eternity: Mythologies of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1982. 58.
Hume, Kathryn. Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Culture. New York: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1984. 1-213.
Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion. London: Routledge, 1998. 1-211
Lukács, Georg. The Historical Novel. Transl. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell. London: Merlin Press, 1962. 1-363.
Manlove, Colin N. “The Elusiveness of Fantasy.” The Shape of the Fantastic. Ed. Olena H. Saciuk. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990. 54-65.
Mendlesohn, Farah. Rhetorics of Fantasy. Middletown, CT, Wesleyan UP, 2008.
Quinn, Edward. “Historical novel.” Collin’s Dictionary of Literary Terms. Glasgow: HaperCollins, 2004. 124-5, 135, 155-6, 298-9, 306-7, 336.
Schanoes, Veronica. “Historical Fantasy.” The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature. Ed. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012. 236-247.
Shaw, Harry E. The Forms of Fiction: Sir Walter Scott and His Successors. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1983. 1-257.
Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: a Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Transl. Richard Howard. Cleveland: Case Western Reserve University, 1973. 25.
Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Faerie Stories.” Tree and Leaf. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965. 3-84.
Toner, Christopher. “Catastrophe and Eucatastrophe: Russell and Tolkien on the True Form of Fiction.” New Blackfriars 89.1019 (2008): 77-87. EBSCOhost. Blackwell Publishing, 2008. Web. 12 Sep. 2012.