Kay’s Provence: From Arbonne to Ysabel

Faye Ringel, Ph.D.
Professor Emerita, Department of Humanities U.S. Coast Guard Academy, New London, Connecticut, USA

This paper was written by Dr. Faye Ringel, formerly Professor of Humanities, U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Versions were presented at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, March 2009, and at Anticipation, the World Science Fiction Convention in Montreal, August 2009. The paper examines GGK’s depiction of Provence in A Song For Arbonne and Ysabel.

Guy Gavriel Kay and I share an obsession: Provence. In this fantasia on Kay and Provence, I can’t pretend to objectivity about either. When A Song for Arbonne appeared in 1992, two years after my first long-dreamed-of visit to France, I realized that Kay had written the book I wished I had written. By the time Ysabel appeared in 2007, by coincidence just as I was visiting its settings in Aix-en-Provence, I was even more jealous! Kay has twice captured my heart and the magic of Southern France, transforming its medieval history into an otherworld in A Song for Arbonne, and in Ysabel reaching deeper into the Roman and Celtic past–and into his own novelistic career– to bring magic into the mundane present. Apparently he had no choice in the matter. As Kay told interviewer Alaya Dawn Johnson regarding the genesis of Ysabel, the subject chose him. “Ysabel… was entirely a consequence of our arriving in Provence and my being intensely and powerfully exposed to the collision of past and present there.”

Kay has captured not only the heart and soul and landscape of Provence. He has seen into the heart and soul of the medieval Arthurian romances such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: two competing versions of chivalry, male and female, and the conflict between them AND with the religious version of chivalry had to drive the protagonists, male and female, to madness, irrational acts, and inevitable tragedy. This conflict, implicit in the history and literature of the High Middle Ages, Kay makes explicit in Arbonne by creating a literally dualistic world, with two moons, a God and a Goddess, with God-identified corans, knights pledged to the God Corannos and ladies who may be priestesses of the goddess Rian, who wield real power through Courts of Love that are more than the courtly diversion they were in our world . The hero of A Song for Arbonne, the coran Blaise, like Sir Gawain, becomes entangled in the women’s mysteries, confused, tested, and found wanting-though unlike Gawain, allowed to grow in understanding and eventually prevail. So also in Ysabel, that dark female principle, reincarnating and careless in its possession of a modern body, is alluring, ever dangerous, making fools of the successive invading men who fought over her-yet still they come to die in her arms.

A Song for Arbonne is not exactly alternate history, not precisely historical fantasy. Brian Bethune, who has enthusiastically reviewed several of Kay’s novels in MacLean’s: credits him with dominating “a genre — historical fantasy — he virtually invented. ” Kay did extensive research for the novel– the sources are listed and annotated elsewhere on this website, Bright Weavings. But as Bethune notes, “that general cultural milieu is all he adopts from his sources. Everything else is altered to fit the needs of the story: rulers, religions, geography, even the chronology — events separated by centuries in actual history are often collapsed into a single era. It is a style that has allowed the author to keep what he values in fantasy while tackling his sophisticated themes.”(“The Man Who Sailed”)

Here are but a few instances of how closely A Song for Arbonne is grounded in our world’s history. Kay’s count and countess of Arbonne, Signe de Barbentain and Guibor, resemble our world’s Beatrice of Savoy and Raymond Berenger V. Their marriage was a famously happy one, from the time they were wed at age 12 and 14. Like Kay’s characters, they were famed for defying the “rules of courtly love” by sleeping in one bed, and for living in and actively ruling their County of Provence. Raymond Berenger V had no male heir-and ruled during the aftermath of the early 13th century Albigensian Crusade. Like Kay’s creations, Beatrice and Raymond had to deal with religious fanatic invaders, with the politics of a divided Germany and Italy, and with feuds among their own nobles. As in Arbonne, aristocratic women in our world’s Provence were literate and influential, though not as overtly powerful, lacking an acknowledged Goddess like Rian. Nevertheless, even in Kay’s Arbonne, women are marriageable pawns on the political chessboard; in Gorhaut, women are chattel-a situation similar to, though more extreme than prevailed in the Northern France of the 13th century.

Many facets of Kay’s Arbonne come not from “real history” but from the lyric poetry and chivalric narratives of our 12th and 13th century France. For example, magic is “weak” in Arbonne-belief may be strong, but there are no wizard’s duels, in keeping with the relatively small amount of “merveilleux paien” [pagan miracles or marvels, as opposed to “merveilleux chretien,” the miracles of saints and angels] in the real Medieval romances. As Beatritz, the high priestess of Rian, who has blinded herself to better learn the will of the Goddess, notes, “magic in Arbonne was a tenuous, very nearly non-existent thing. . . Confined to small things, the coinage of hearth and heart. . .” like the ordinary people of our Middle Ages, however, the inhabitants of Arbonne believe that the power of the Goddess’s priesthood is much greater: “It had been useful to have others think there might be more; a fear of the clergy of Rian and their night gatherings could be a kind of defence” (414). The word choice inevitably recalls Carlo Ginsberg’s “The Night Battles,” that narrative of the folk belief in benevolent werewolves who battle with witches to preserve the crops–a story that underlies John Crowley’s Aegypt sequence. Ironically, when Kay returns to our world’s Provence of the third millennium in Ysabel, there is more strong magic-in keeping with the ancient Celtic beliefs, as well as the “family magickal tradition” of today’s neo-Pagans.

Both novels reflect Kay’s deep love for Provence, as he notes on his website: “In some ways it is a love song to that part of the world.” But who doesn’t love Provence? Her invaders have always loved her to death! Peter Mayle, whose A Year in Provence and its sequels inspired a veritable invasion of British vacationers, responded to critics who claimed that he had spoiled the place he loved, that he felt mysteriously welcomed by the spirit of the place.” (Encore 226). I can corroborate Mayle’s observation. On my own first trip in real life to Provence, in 1990 on an otherwise ill-starred honeymoon, the landlady of my first Provencal B&B asked me if I was “returning home.” Only in spirit, I said.

Kay is not the first romancer to personify Provence as an alluring female, or to be inspired to poetry about and because of her. A Song for Arbonne is a tribute to the troubadours. Nancy Goldstone says of medieval Provence-which sounds a great deal like Arbonne:

The natural beauty of the landscape was of such potency that it inspired the voice of medieval culture-the troubadours, roving poets who set their words to music and played to the elegant audiences of the aristocracy. The troubadours were so ubiquitous to Provence, and so identified with its inhabitants and aesthetic, that the county was known throughout the rest of Europe as The Land of Song, and it was said by the chroniclers that Charlemagne himself had bequeathed Provence to the poets (Goldstone 2).

Kay’s identification of Provence with the beloved woman
connects the two novels. The same identification can be found in the poem by the troubadour Peire Vidal. I suspect that the troubadour’s poem is addressed to the country rather than or in addition to a human woman. Such language is common to exiles, (which Peire Vidal was, by the time he wrote the poem), and can be found as well as in Ireland, whose poets–often in exile, like Thomas Moore– used coded references identifying their beloved country with a woman: “Dark Rosaleen/Roisin Dubh” or Cathleen/Caitlin ni Houlihan or Deirdre of the Sorrows.

I breathe in and draw toward me the air
That I feel coming from Provence;
Everything that comes from there pleases me,
Such that, when I hear good told of it
I listen with a smile.
And for every word said I demand a hundred more:
So wonderful it is when I hear good of it.
For no man knows of a sweeter land
Than from the Rhone all the way to Vence
And from the sea to the Durance,
Nor one where a finer joy shines forth.
For I have left my joyful heart
Among those righteous people,
With her who can even make an angry man laugh.

As Kay himself explains on his website, describing the origins of Song for Arbonne. “The very first entry in the journal I have from that time is a quote from the troubadour, Bernart de Ventadour:”

When the cool breeze blows hither
From the land where you dwell
Methinks I do feel
A wind from Paradise.

This quotations comes from Canso 60, “Quan la frej’aura venta.” Some translations may use harsher terms about the wind, and another whole paper could be devoted to the “mistral,” inescapable in the lore and legend of Provence–and in both novels.

Kay brilliantly transforms these and other troubadour poems into the veritable “Song for Arbonne” of the title, in a scene that recalls for us the real history of the troubadours of our world’s Provence, from their sudden appearance, the first vernacular literature in Western Christendom, to their exile following the Albigensian Crusade, and the tradition continuing among the Minnesingers of Germany. Here is part of Kay’s composition:

When the wind that comes from Arbonne
Sweeps north across the mountains,
Then my heart is full again, even in far Gorhaut,
Because I know that spring has come to Tavernel and Lussan,
To the olive groves above Vezet
And the vineyards of Miraval,
And nightingales are singing in the south.

(Arbonne 268)

Yet neither of Kay’s novels is sentimental about the region: this is definitely not Peter Mayle’s Provence, with its lovable if incompetent bon vivants and picturesque Provencal peasants. In Aix-en-Provence, Mayle saw nothing but light. Not the brooding shadows of the cathedral where Ysabel opens; in Mayle, nothing lurks on the Cours Mirabeau. No wolves. Only the “sunny side” full of cafes. (105-106) For Mayle, the only horrors are those common to home remodelers-missing workmen, ever-increasing costs-no Cathars, no troubadours, no Romans or Celts.

This is an incomplete picture: Magical the land is, but it is a bloody ground, and Kay’s novels portray that bloody history. They are haunted by conquerors, from the Romans to the Northern French armies of the Albigensian Crusade. June 2009 marked the 800th anniversary of the Beziers Massacre, at which the Papal Legate was credited with saying “Kill them all! God will know his own.” In Ysabel, this episode becomes part of the eternal conflict between the two warriors, Roman and Celt,. The women and children who were slaughtered in Beziers represent the many innocent bystanders who die as “collateral damage” in the ever-recurring duel. In A Song for Arbonne, it is the High Elder Galbert de Garsenc from Gorhaut who reflects the Albigensian Crusaders’ mixture of self-righteous fanaticism, power hunger, and greed.

In keeping with the “Time in the Fantastic” theme of the 2009 International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, at which Kay was Guest of Honor, Ysabel might well have been subtitled “Time in Provence.” The novel’s 15-year-old protagonist Ned “had a sense of time. . .the weight of it” (Ysabel 30); like Ned, readers quickly realize that we, too, have “blundered into a corner of a very old story” (Ysabel 32). Both A Song for Arbonne and Ysabel portray Provence as a palimpsest of time and space, where the older history frequently bleeds through into the present time, and the simultaneity can be dizzying–literally, for Ned, figuratively for us.

The Roman and Celtic archaeological site at Glanum unites the two books-in Arbonne as the “Arch of the Ancients”: “The massive arch offered its own clear testimony as to what those who built it had been. Where the milestones by the long, straight roads told of continuity and the orderly, regulated flow of society in a world now lost, the triumphal arches. . . Spoke to nothing by domination, the brutal grinding down of whoever had been here when the Ancients came to conquer” (Arbonne Chap. 3). In Ysabel, Ned expresses his reaction to the same monument more appropriately for a modern teenager: “thinking about the power this arch represented. . .”Were the Romans good?” he asked suddenly” (Ysabel 243).

Not exactly. Kay’s eternal conflict began with the “first encounter” of the Greek and the Celtic world, when a princess of the native tribe chose a stranger, leading to, as Kay’s Roman immortal puts it “The world changing, forever… For good or ill, joy or grief, love or hatred, death or life returning. All those things. As much as a man might know” (229).

Another connection can be found between our world and Kay’s Arbonne in Rocamadour, that shrine in the mountains on the very Northern border of the old Lemosi, (the part of France that spoke the langue d’oc or Old Provencal). It is in many ways similar to the mountain shrine raped and destroyed by the invading army of Galbert de Garsenc. As the priestess Beatritz notes, “His fear of the women of Arbonne, his hatred of Rian and all the goddess meant, was the reason there was an army in the mountains in the middle of winter, whipped into a killing frenzy by the High Elder of Corannos” (415). At Rocamadour, an ancient Mother Goddess site was consecrated to the worship of the Virgin Mary (a Black Madonna). But when I visited the place, I saw on the façade of the old chapel a faded fresco of the Madonna and Child, with St. Joseph behind her-and next to St. Joseph-who was the young male figure? “Why,” said the guide, “St. Amadour,” the “Holy Lover.” For if Mary was a noble queen and courtly lady, she must needs have a sweet friend to worship her in addition to her elderly husband! The saint, by the way, owed his existence to folk etymology Roc + Amadour (the Rock of the Lover), while the real word derivation was Roca Mador (Hard Rock). Don’t look for St. Amadour in a post-Vatican II calendar (though you can still visit his crypt at the pilgrimage site). I tell it as the guide told it me. But more scholarly interpretation has St. Amadour as the lover/husband of St. Veronica. Or a hermit devoted to Mary who built the shrine. Whatever, si non e vero, e ben trovato. “If it’s not true, it’s a great story!” In this Italian proverb, “trovato” is derived from the same verb as troubadour, literally, “to find or discover,” which is also to create a poem or other work of narrative art.

Kay’s most recent novel, Ysabel, revisited the beginnings of his own career. Brian Bethune, his most enthusiastic reviewer at Maclean’s says “For the first time since Kay sent a quintet of University of Toronto students hurtling into a fantasy realm in the opening pages of Fionavar, the Toronto author is writing about the here and now.”-but oh and how much the author and the “here and now” have changed since 1984. There’s definitely another paper to be written identifying all the correspondences between the Fionavar Tapestry and Ysabel-but that is for another time! Like Guy Kay, folklorist Jean Poueigh emphasizes the cyclical: “le rythme inexorablement regulier des jours bons ou mauvais. Car rien ne finit, tout recommence” (255). [the inexorably regular rhythm of good days and bad] Or as Ned puts it at the conclusion of Ysabel, “Someone returned, was rescued, someone was gone. Was this the way it always was?” (403). Of course it is: when you spend Time in Provence–or with any work of great literature.

Works Cited

Bethune, Brian. “The Man Who Sailed”

Goldstone, Nancy. Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe. New York. Penguin, 2007.

Johnson, Alaya Dawn. “Conversation With Guy Gavriel Kay.” 9 Dec. 2008. http://www.darkfantasy.org/fantasy/?p=1201

Kay, Guy Gavriel. Ysabel. New York: Roc, 2007.

—. A Song for Arbonne. New York: Roc, 1992.

Peter Mayle. Encore Provence: New Adventures in the South of France. NY Knopf 1999

Poueigh, Jean. Le folklore des pays d’oc: La tradition occitane. Paris: Petite Bibliotheque Payot, n.d.

Official Disclaimer

The views contained herein are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the US Coast Guard, US Department of Homeland Security, or any other department, agency, or official of the US Government. Any mistakes are solely the responsibility of the author.

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