Interview with Phantastes "The Mythic Heart"

Interview by Stacy Ann Dumoski
This interview appears courtesy of Phantastes.
Guy Gavriel Kay is a rare thing among genre writers, tending towards single-volume, stand-alone works in a time when the market favors (seemingly endless) series and multiple returns to already popular worlds. He is also one of the least prolific writers of fantasy, having published only seven books during his fifteen-year publishing career (the eighth, Lord of Emperors, is due out in January 2000). What Kay lacks in quantity, however, he more than makes up for in quality. I think I’d be quite right in saying that most Kay devotees don’t mind the two to three years between releases, because they know that the next book will be well-worth the wait. Kay’s skill lies in developing intricate, and real, human relationships against a rich backdrop drawn from history and myth.

Kay’s career in fantasy began in the mid-70s, when he assisted Christopher Tolkien with the editing of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Simarillion. But it wasn’t until the publication of “The Fionavar Tapestry”-Kay’s only trilogy to date, consisting of The Summer Tree (1984), The Wandering Fire (1986), and The Darkest Road (1986)-that he became recognized in his own right. Kay secured his place as one of the preeminant authors in the fantasy genre with his next book, Tigana (1990), a ground-breaking masterpiece which stepped away from the over-used quest format typical of most imaginary world fantasy of the day. Tigana was the winner of the 1991 Aurora award (as was The Wandering Fire in 1987) and was nominated for many others including the World Fantasy Award and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award. Successive books-A Song for Arbonne (1992), The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995), Sailing to Sarantium (1999)-have garnered additional nominations and continually rate high on readers polls.

Because of his regular and masterful use of mythic images and themes, it seemed natural to seek out Mr. Kay to discuss the interweaving of myth and fantasy for this issue. This interview was conducted by e-mail in the fall of 1999.

PHANTASTES: How would you describe the relationship between myth and fantasy?

Guy Gavriel Kay: I see myth and legend as the principal wellsprings of fantasy literature. Not the only ones, since I’m deeply averse to attempts to formally limit the range of the genre, or any genre for that matter. But I do see fantasy as inward-looking and backwards-looking (in the sense of examining our roots) and myth is an immensely powerful aspect of both those things. It speaks to our inner, individual journeys, and our collective one as a species.

P: Can you elaborate on what you mean by fantasy being inward-looking and backwards-looking? How does fantasy examine our roots?

GGK: I mean inward looking in exactly the sense I mentioned in the first answer: the sense of examining our individual behaviour and our collective behaviour. Myth and legend do this for us. They explain people and they explain society-because, of course, they involve the attempt to explain the world. Whether we talk of archetypes, or “fatal flaw”‘ (as in Oedipus) or creation myths or flood myths, or Demeter and Persephone explaining the seasons. Backwards looking involves the idea of trying to understand how we once were, what we came from, what peoples shaped and created these myths, how they saw and understood (or misunderstood) the world-and how that has shaped us.

P: What are our inner, individual journeys, and our collective one?

GGK: This is easy and impossible. The inner journey will be individual for each person. It means the progression we make through life, from child to adult and through adulthood. The changes that occur (and the changes that don’t!). The collective one is the human passage from caves and trees and terror of the sabre-toothed tigers in the dark, from oral society to writing society, to where we are now, for good or ill.

P: Do you make a conscious effort to include mythic themes within your work, or is it something that arises naturally?

GGK: It was very conscious in Fionavar where I was deliberately attempting to incorporate a great many different strands and approaches to myth and legend (including the Freudian). In later books it has varied from title to title. In A Song for Arbonne, for example, one plot element involves showing how organized religion can create a legend or myth when that is seen as useful. The manipulation of faith, in other words. In Sailing to Sarantium, the period in which the novel is set evokes a time when old and new faiths; pagan gods and state sanctioned religion were in uneasy transition, and in such a time mythic figures and images, the idea of the numinous, can be wonderfully powerful for a writer to work with.

P: Obviously, the Arthurian tradition has had a great influence on you, as evidenced in “The Fionavar Tapestry.” What other mythic traditions do you find intriguing (and can we expect to see any of these appearing in future works)?

GGK: I hate “spoilers” about as much as I hate anticipating myself, so even if I knew what was coming next (and I don’t) I’d probably not tell! I’ll say that all myths fascinate me, in good part for what they tell about us, and that the ones I work with in the future will most likely be those that arise naturally from whatever setting and period inspire my next book.

P: Which traditions, if any, do you think have been overused in modern fantasy?

GGK: I don’t think any of the great traditions are at any real risk of being worn down by a given period’s overuse of them. They’ve lasted an awfully long time, they are proof against our current fads and trends. I’d say the greater risk to fantasy is a “dumbing down” of the field, a reduction of the idea of fantasy literature to the lowest common denominator, books as an extended role playing game, lacking only the dice. Having said this, I’m less pessimistic than I was five years ago…I think the maturing of the field (and the aging of the market!) means a flourishing of more substantial work, alongside the trivial (if lengthy) material.

P: How did your work on The Simarillion, which essentially presents the mythic background for The Lord of the Rings, influence your own use of myth?

GGK: Not in any direct way, since my interest in mythology came before my involvement with the Tolkien materials. I’d say the Tolkien “lesson” for me had more to do with the idea that the author needs to know a great deal about his material but that he need NOT tell every detail. In other words, give the sense of complete control, but don’t bog the story down with showy proliferation of detail. World-building (and myth-building) are as much about the things NOT told as the things revealed.

P: In that vein, how much time do you devote to myth-building (and world-building in general) in preparation for writing a new novel? What is essential for you to know before you begin?

GGK: It has varied for each book, but in the last years about a year of work goes into the research and setting for each novel. The actual myth-building has been less significant as the books merge more closely into history. I’ve had to put the same amount of work into sorting out the conflicting religious beliefs of the people in the book, which incorporates myths but is also a social and political thing.

P: Of your own mythic creations, probably the most standout is the conception of Fionavar as a primary world from which all other worlds are imperfectly derived. Can you discuss what inspired this idea, and how you went about developing it?

GGK: It is such a long time ago, it becomes difficult to isolate a specific inspiration. My a
cademic studies were in Philosophy, and so I was very much aware of the Platonic idea of the prime version of all things, the prime chair, prime tiger, prime world…for me the notion took off when I merged it with the idea of “original” versions of myths and legends, of which our own are then slightly skewed, not-quite-right versions. That opened a doorway to a great many things. One of them being the “reversal” of the idea of Arthur as the great hero who only returns at time of greatest need. I came to think of this as a burden not a blessing (think about it!) and started considering what deed the figure of Arthur might be punished for…and from that answer, when it came, a great deal of the story evolved.

P: What advice might you offer to other writers who would like to incorporate myth into their own work?

GGK: One core thing, for me, is to be immensely conscious of the power of what one is dealing with. It can take over a work, undermine it, change where it ends up going. When we incorporate these ancient, dominant images and story strands into our own work, we need to try to be aware of risk and reward. And it is never possible to please all readers. Even with a strong majority enjoying the Arthurian elements of Fionavar, for example, I have heard from those to find that strand of the tale to unbalance the novel, to be either gratuitous or bothersome. When you take up the old tales, you are treading on other people’s personal terrain sometimes, and a writer needs to be prepared for responses that stem from that. ‘How dare you?’ from a reader may be harsh, but it is not illegitimate when we turn everyone’s stories to our own purposes.

P: Would you call yourself a maker of myth, an interpreter of myth, or something else? Why?

GGK: Different answer for each book, really. One of my own goals is to provide a moving target, as it were. Fantasy has so many people doing the same thing over and over, I prefer to shift my own ground (and the reader’s), which means there can’t be a single answer to that question. In The Lions of Al-Rassan, for example, consider the huge significance of El Cid in the Spanish national mythology, and you’ll get some ideas of why I dealt with the time and setting and characters in the way I did. Sometimes a sense of respect for the material is what should animate a novelist.

P: Your work is infused with mythic themes and imagery. In your latest work, Sailing to Sarantium, myth takes a backseat to history, but still the most powerful scenes are those featuring encounters with mythic forces, such as the appearance of the zubir. Even when the gods don’t come down to chat with the characters (as seems to happen in any number of popular fantasy books), when characters have no direct mythic experiences, it’s clear that they are influenced in word and action by the mythic forces that rule the world-or that they believe to rule the world. Does “the mythic” play as significant a role in your own life as it does in your fantasy?

GGK: It is always tricky to merge the author and the work, and in fact the writer may no be the best person to answer such a question, since so much of the creative process is intuitive and subconscious. I’m certainly not a mystic or a pagan in any sense of either word. I am very conscious of and intrigued by mythic patterns in our lives, by the stories that seem to be told and occur over and over, by the common threads that link, say, 12th century Spain and the present day…and sometimes the mythic (in the sense of those things we see as ‘explaining’ the world) are at the heart of those links.

P: Thank you very much!

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