Present Reality in Historical Fantasy (Guy Gavriel Kay – Scholarship: & Dissertation)

This is a dissertation by Anya Kleander written for her Honours English Studies with Film and Media Studies Degree at Stirling University, submitted in Spring 2008.


Table of contents

Acknowledgments and Declaration
List of abbreviations
Tigana – ‘mirroring the complex reality’
The Sarantine Mosaic– the ‘evolution of historical memory’
The Lions of Al-Rassan– ‘when ideologies harden towards holy war’


I would like to thank Professor Rory Watson and everyone on the BrightWeavings forum for all their support during the writing of this dissertation. Thanks also to Laura Paterson for all her help these last four years.


I declare that this thesis is my own work and that all critical and other sources (literary and electronic) have been specifically and properly acknowledged, as and when they occur in the body of my text.

21 April 2008

List of abbreviations

LLotS The Last Light of the Sun
LoAR The Lions of Al-Rassan
LoE Lord of Emperors
StS Sailing to Sarantium
T Tigana


Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.   (Lloyd Alexander in Eriksson 2007, 3)

The fantastic mode ‘can be traced back to ancient myths, legends [and] folklore’ (Jackson 1981, 95) and in fact ‘forms the mainstream of Western literature until the Renaissance’ (Mathews 2002, 2). At that point, the realist mode gained in popularity and the fantastic stayed in the background until the early 1800s when it crystallised into the three modern non-realist genres: science fiction, horror and fantasy (Holmberg 1995, 7). As indicated by Clute, ‘fantasy’ has proven to be an ‘extraordinarily porous term’ (Clute in Clute & Grant 1997, 337) and ‘[n]early every critical text in the field has proposed its own definitions for fantasy and the fantastic’ (Attebery 1992, 12). However, most will agree that a fantasy narrative is ‘[a]ny narrative which includes as a significant part of its makeup some violation of what the author clearly believes to be natural law’ (Attebery in Wolfe 2004, 273). Beyond this, classifications of the genre and its subgenres are confused at best, some advocating definitions based on formula, some based on mood (Holmberg 1995, 224; Attebery 1992, 1-2). Baird Searles divides the genre into categories such as ‘there-and-back-again’, ‘kings, queens and heroes’ and ‘Bambi’s children’ after their structural components (Holmberg 1995, 227), whereas Diana Waggoner speaks of modes: mythopoetic, sentimental, comic, nostalgic, etc. (Holmberg 1995, 224). Attebery has proposed a completely new way of looking at the genre as a whole, a view that Clute and Grant claim informed the shape of their influential Encyclopedia of Fantasy (Clute & Grant 1997, viii). Attebery claims that the fantasy genre is a ‘fuzzy set’, meaning that it is ‘defined not by boundaries but by a center’ (Attebery 1992, 12) and that the genre thus includes what people believe fantasy to be.

The two main categories that have stood the test of time are ‘high fantasy’ and ‘low fantasy’. High fantasies are those set in otherworlds and deal with heroes, quests and various other ‘matters affecting the destiny of those worlds’ (Clute in Clute & Grant 1997, 466). To many this is what fantasy means ‘because of the immense popularity’ (Attebery 1992, 14) of J.R.R. Tolkien’s high fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings. The term ‘low fantasy’ was introduced in the late 1970s to designate those fantasies ‘not set in secondary worlds, nor elevated in literary style’ (Langford in Clute & Grant 1997, 597). Stories where the fantastic breaks into our own world, such as Diana Wynne Jones’ Archer’s Goon, and much humoristic fantasy, like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld Series, are classified as low fantasy.

Bridging these two is a genre whose main characteristic is that ‘one recognizes it’ (Grant in Clute & Grant 1997, 396): namely genre fantasy. This type of narrative is what ‘dominates the marketplace’ (Grant in Clute & Grant 1997, 339): it is ‘writing that’s done for money’ (Eddings 1998b, 18), like many ‘mysteries, […] adventure novels and bodice-rippers’ (Eddings 1998a, 393). Often formulaic and rarely profound, these narratives may nevertheless be entertaining. Terry Brooks’ Shannara cycle and David and Leigh Eddings’ Belgariad and Malloreon are examples of genre fantasies of great appeal and success. Unfortunately, never-ending genre fantasies such as Tracy Hickman and Margret Weis’ Dragonlance series have fuelled the belief that the fantasy genre is escapist and inherently unoriginal (Grant in Clute & Grant 1997, 396).

Because of such charges, fantasy has historically been ‘excluded from the canon of great literature’ (Attebery 1992, ix), and ‘buried as something inadmissible and darkly shameful’ (Jackson 1981, 171). The general assumption is that the realist mode of writing is inherently ‘more profound, more morally committed, more involved with “real” human concerns than a mode of writing which employs the marvellous’ (Swinfen 1984, 10-11). Such accusations cannot be denied, but they may be levelled equally at much realist writing: it is true of any genre that masterpieces do not form the majority (Holmberg 1995, 8). Thankfully, there is a great breadth of purpose and ambition, and consequently of quality, in fantasy fiction (Holmberg 1995, 233), and this fact is recognised in most modern criticism.

After ‘Tolkien bestowed a kind of academic blessing upon fantasy’ (Mathews 2002, 54), universities and colleges began to explore the genre, and the interest has only grown with the increase of published fantasy narratives in the last few decades (Broberg 1994, 9). While some critics and academics still ‘condemn the whole genre with a passion that seems less than objectively critical’ (Swinfen 1984, back cover), many have defended it and argued that

the fundamental purpose of serious fantasy is to comment upon the real world and to explore moral, philosophical and other dilemmas posed by it.
(Swinfen 1984, 231)

Aspiring to comment upon the world in this way, the Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay has created ‘some of the most innovative and challenging fantasy books [published] over the past 15 years’ (Marcus in Blogcritics Interview 2007, url). The fact that he has ‘set a new standard in what could be achieved in original fantasy writing’ (Speller in Gunn 1998, url) should be no surprise to anyone as Kay ‘studied Tolkien’s manuscripts at first hand’ (Pringle 1998, 150) as the assistant editor of the posthumous Silmarillion (Kincaid in Clute & Grant 1997, 530). Kay’s debut trilogy, The Fionavar Tapestry, is considered the ‘highpoint of Canadian high fantasy’ (Colombo in Clute & Grant 1997, 162) and the same high quality has been maintained in the seven books published since. While many characteristics of popular fantasy, even of genre fantasy, are present in these novels, Kay ‘attempts to create […] grittier, harsher world[s] than [are] common within fantasy’ (Kincaid in Clute & Grant 1997, 531) and his ‘darkly complex work [is unlikely to] bring him any of the adolescent boys who turn other fantasies into mega-sellers’ (Bethune 2000, 58).

Kay himself observes that many critics and readers have ‘noted the contemporary themes that underlie [his] books’ (in Solaris Interview 1995, url), and while he does want to give his readers ‘that escapist adventure’, he also wants them ‘to be brought home to the situation in [their] own world’ (Crew 1995, H13) by the themes he explores. Thus Tigana (1990) explores sexual and moral complexity, echoed in the novel’s complex pattern of focalization, while The Sarantine Mosaic (1998; 2000) explores historiographical issues of trustworthiness. Finally, The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995) brings the two together in contemplation on multiculturalism and religious tolerance. As this dissertation will set out to prove, Kay’s novels are far from a means of escape, but rather ‘a method of approaching and evaluating the real world’ (Swinfen 1984, 230).

Tigana – ‘mirroring the complex reality’

(Kay in Rambles Magazine Interview n/d, url)

Life, the processes of living and what it did to you, seemed to Devin to grow more painfully complex all through that fall and winter.
(T, 277)

The Ygrathen sorcerer Brandin wreaked a horrible vengeance on the people of Tigana for the death of his son: he wiped their name from memory. Eighteen years later, Devin di Tigana finally learns the truth of his heritage and joins a group of fellow Tiganese in their fight for retribution. Together with Alessan, Baerd, Catriana, a duke and two wizards, Devin travels the Palm in search of allies as they bide their time. Meanwhile, on Brandin’s island Chiara, Dianora di Tigana is torn: she had come there twelve years ago intending to kill Brandin. Instead, she fell in love with him. Now the Ember Days approach and the story is coming to an end…

Tigana could at first glance be mistaken for an uncomplicated genre fantasy: like ‘almost all modern fantasy texts [the novel incorporates] a quest’ (Clute in Clute & Grant 1997, 796), the ‘dynamic opposition [between good and evil] which drives much fantasy’ (Hanna & Clute in Clute & Grant 1997, 422) is clearly present, and there is a group of companions fighting to heal the land and conquer the evil tyrant Brandin. However, while there is no doubt that Tigana is a high fantasy, it is far more than a simple genre fantasy. As the narrative progresses, Kay introduces new characters with opposing viewpoints in a way that problematise the novel’s at first seemingly simple definition of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. The result is a moral and sexual complexity that exposes the intricacies of our own world.

This complex awareness of morality is ‘present in the structural patterns of the work’ (Swinfen 1984, 147). As Randall (1991) noted in a study of The Fionavar Tapestry, Kay achieves these complex narrative structures by means of shifting focalization. This is the term used by G?rard Genette and Mieke Bal in place of point of view, as it allows differentiation between ‘who sees? and who speaks?‘ (Genette 1980, 186). The ‘point from which the elements are viewed’ (Bal 1997, 146) is designated the focalizor by Bal, however the term focalizant will here be used in its place as ‘ [f]ocalizor suggests one who acts, and only the narrator acts’ (Randall 1991, url). Genette recognises three types of focalization: narratives with zero focalization, or nonfocalized narratives, and narratives with internal or external focalization (Genette 1980, 189-190). Kay’s novels heavily rely on this technique, for example ‘the prologue of Sailing to Sarantium was written as a mosaic‘ (Kay in New York Review of Science Fiction Interview 2000, url) of different focalizations. In Tigana, Kay primarily uses shifting internal focalization: moving between many different focalizants, though focalizing through some more often than others. A further non-focalized omniscient narrator is used, both in short passages inside focalized narratives and in separate sections. In this way Kay slowly reveals more and more information from different viewpoints and so advances, as well as delays, ‘the unfolding of the story’ (Randall 1991, url) and the moral it has to offer.

Part One of Tigana follows Devin, a travelling musician from the farmlands of Asoli, and his companions. To a conditioned fantasy reader, he is immediately identifiable as the protagonist of the story: heroes appearing from nowhere special are extremely common in genre fantasy (Johansson 2000, 97). They will normally be ‘chosen’ in some way (Johansson 2000, 97), either by birth or by a special talent. Alessan’s revelation that Devin di Asoli is in fact Devin di Tigana (T, 99) ties him to the quest by birth and fulfils this requirement. His companions, Alessan, Baerd and Catriana are also Tiganese in origin, and Alessan is soon revealed to be ‘Alessan bar Valentin, Prince of Tigana’ (T, 108). The similarities to Frodo and Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings are apparent and, at this point in the story, it would be nigh impossible for any fantasy reader to deny that this group are Kay’s protagonists.

However, this should also be clear to any readers unfamiliar with fantasy conventions. Part One, that is the first 150 pages of the novel, is made up of twenty-two separate focalizations: Devin is the focalizant for twelve of these. The mere fact that Alessan, Baerd and Catriana are the only characters the main focalizant has continual contact with positions them to be his companions. As Bal points out, readers are in principle ‘inclined to accept the vision presented’ by the character that coincides with the focalizant (Bal 1997, 146). As such, when Devin sympathises with Catriana’s weeping and the sorrow of Baerd’s ‘dry whisper’ (T, 97) as he recounts how Tigana had been overrun by ‘blood and fire’, the reader cannot help but identify with the Tiganese. The sorcerer’s ultimate offence was the fact that he had ‘stripped away [their] name’. Even against the backdrop of the prologue, where the focalizant Saevar had found himself unable to ‘impute any absolute sense of evil’ (T, 1) to Brandin’s Ygrathens, and Baerd’s own admittance that Brandin had acted with ‘the rage of a father whose son [had] been slain’ (T, 96) the lines between good and evil are clearly drawn. The Ygrathen’s revenge on Tigana was excessive, and so the Tiganese are in the right to avenge themselves on him: ‘[i]n fantasy stories, Good reacts to Evil’ (Hanna & Clute in Clute & Grant 1997, 422). Devin consequently leaves his musical troupe to join Alessan and the others on their quest to release the curse that had so far concealed ‘his true role’ (Clute in Clute & Grant 1997, 25) in life from him. Upon finishing Part One, there is no doubt that the Tiganese freedom fighters are the protagonists Kay intends for his readers’ to identify with.

Then Kay introduces a new major focalizant to sympathise with – Dianora. She is the focalizant of nine of the twelve sections of Part Two, and just as in the case of Devin readers are ‘inclined to accept [her] vision’ (Bal 1997, 146) and identify with her struggles. Dianora had arrived on the island of Chiara, Brandin’s home in the Palm, twelve years earlier and joined his harem, fully intending to kill him ‘for having done what he had done to Tigana which was her home’ (T, 160). At that time she had been ‘nursing her hatred and her secret like two […] snakes twining about her heart’ (T, 156), yet now the two share ‘late, private supper[s]’ (T, 159), and take pleasure in each other. Dianora was once at least as dedicated to freeing Tigana as are the Tiganese led by Alessan, having spent years prostituting herself abroad to conceal her heritage. Knowing that depth of dedication, her failure to follow through with her plan must hold real significance to any reader and consequently complicate their response to the tyrant.

When she arrived on the island, Dianora had thought there was ‘no room’ (T, 156) in her heart for anything but her hatred: she had ‘known very little – dangerously little – about a great many things that mattered’ (T, 157), despite ‘all she’d seen and lived through’. Her only sexual experiences had been with customers and the brother with whom she had ‘sought a pitiful illicit shelter […] from the ruin of [Tigana]’ (T, 239), even as her happiness ‘terrified her, and consumed her with guilt […] as they reached for their fugitive joy’ (T, 239-240). Considering her sexual history, it is hardly surprising that Brandin’s sexual proficiency caught her off-guard and halted her from carrying out the assassination. Twelve years on, she still refers to her ‘rebel body and mind, traitors together to her soul’ (T, 160) when she thinks of the time they spend together in bed. The tyrant is not only her sexual mentor, his force and magic also holds immense power over her and the Western Palm. When Brandin once asked her if he would be attractive to her without that power, he

almost caught her out. It was too unexpected a question and far too near to the place where her twin snakes yet lived, however dormant they might be.
(T , 160)

So there was room for something else in her heart all those years ago: however unhealthy her relationship with Brandin is, Dianora has grown to love him. She cannot bring herself to kill her lover, no matter how deeply she wishes to free Tigana. Indeed, when an assassination attempt brought Tigana within ‘a single pulsebeat from coming back into the world’ Dianora ‘saved his life‘ (T, 225). That same night Dianora vowed to rectify her mistake and free Tigana, a vow she intends to keep even as he the next day speaks to her ‘about the one thing she could never have made herself ready for. About love’ (T, 421) and how he wishes to start a family with her. Readers cannot help but sympathise as Dianora’s heart and soul are torn between her home and the man she loves.

This complex emotional response of a major focalizant demolishes the previous image of Brandin as evil, introducing a human being capable of maintaining relationships, even winning the ‘unwilling love of Dianora’ (Webb 1991, url). However, as Kay has stated, ‘[u]nderstanding may not equate to forgiveness’ (Kay in Rambles Magazine Interview n/d, url) and it is indeed impossible to forgive Brandin his actions towards Tigana. It is true that his son was killed by Prince Valentin, Alessan’s father, but Brandin and his son were invading the Palm at the time. It is true that he later decides to unite the Palm and make a future there; it is true that he supports ‘the arts and sciences, [that he] cares for his subjects’ (Webb 1991, url), but none of these justify, nor atone for, his vengeance.

The two contrasting blocks of focalization set up a structural complexity that goes against the grain of what many critics would see as the essential simplicity of the genre. And yet one must question why Kay did not invoke this complexity more strongly at the beginning of the narrative. While there are shifts in focalization throughout Part One, those focalizations all uphold the uncomplicated story of a peninsula taken over by Brandin and Aberico, the malevolent tyrants, and the resistance against these. As the narrative progresses and the pace increases, Kay does move between Devin and Dianora, so it stands to reason that he must have some reason not to do so from the outset.

For a fantasy writer, Devin has at least one major advantage over Dianora: he does not know the history of Tigana. The protagonist’s ‘absence of knowledge’ (Clute in Clute & Grant 1997, 25) is a common device in fantasy, designed to help ‘the reader assimilate the novel’s secondary world’ (Randall 1991, url). David Eddings specifically advocate the use of ‘dumb’ or ‘innocent’ heroes since ‘in explaining things to him, the writer explains them to his reader’ (Eddings 1998a, 8), allowing for unobtrusive exposition. Thus when Baerd explains the history of Tigana to Devin, Kay explains it to the readers, and the slow release of information about Alessan’s plans and their companions histories allocate the reader time to assimilate the details. This also lets the reader follow Devin as he progresses from ignorance of Tigana’s fate, to a need for retribution and finally reaches a point where he has seen enough to ‘learn better’ (Langford in Clute & Grant 1997, 567) and to doubt Brandin’s absolute monstrosity:

Then he saw the King, the Tyrant, the sorcerer who had ruined them with his bitter, annihilating power, gather [Dianora] into his arms, gently, with tenderness, but with the unmistakable urgency of a man deprived and hungry for too long.
(T, 562-563)

Another reason for separating the two main focalizants, Devin and Dianora,1 could be to emphasise their equal value as focalizants in the eyes of readers. In general, there is seldom any doubt ‘which character should receive [the] most attention and sympathy’ (Bal 1997, 148), even if for no other reason than ‘[o]n the grounds of distribution’ (ibid.). However, Devin and Dianora are so evenly matched when it comes to total focalizations that it is impossible to claim one of them to have precedence over the other. Giving them each one part at the beginning of the narrative stress their individual characters, as well as allow for one narrative each instead of a shared story, emphasising their different backgrounds and psychological makeup.

However, Kay is not content with Devin and Dianora’s ‘psychological development’ (Randall 1991, url), he wants the reader to develop along with the characters, and his narrative gains much ‘from the reader’s slow realization that’ Alessan ‘although possibly morally superior to the Evil adversary, is by no means a saint’ (Grant in Clute & Grant 1997, 324). In fact, Brandin and Alberico’s evil is ‘counterbalanced not by Good but by the morally unreliable’ (Grant in Clute & Grant 1997, 323). Ygrathen kings are traditionally bound to a Fool, ‘someone visibly, sometimes painfully afflicted or malformed’ (T, 175) under the magical rule of the king. In this way ‘intimately tied’ to Brandin is Rhun, a creature that makes Dianora ‘uneasy’ whenever he is near. Alessan has a worryingly similar gift, so horrible that it has only been used twice since ‘the dawn of records in [the] peninsula’ (T, 289): he has the god-given ability to ‘bind a wizard to [himself] unto death’ (T, 110). He has long been searching for one to serve him in this way to aid the fight against Brandin, and finally finds him in Erlein di Senzio, who he binds against his will:

I am not a tool! ‘ Erlein cried from the heart. ‘I am a free and living soul with my own destiny! […] Before the sun went down I was a free man on an open road. I am now a slave.’
(T, 289)

Sandre, another of Devin’s companions, defends Alessan’s actions, claiming that ‘[t]he honor of a ruler’ can only be appreciated ‘when he must go against his own soul’s needs and do such things that will grieve him to the very bones of his hands’ (T, 290). If this is to be Alessan’s defence, it must also be Brandin’s: during the eventual last battle the Ygrathen went against his ‘soul’s needs’ by releasing all of his spells in order to save the ‘men dying below him […], fighting under his banner, in his name’ (T, 652). Though Alessan came to his senses and freed Erlein before the battle, realising ‘that there [were] limits to what [he wished] to do or see done for any cause’ (T, 609), he still stole Erlein’s freedom, and the reader cannot again see him as the good and flawless hero of Part One.

Alberico is Brandin’s double in Tigana: the two sorcerer tyrants are caught ‘in bondage to one another’ (Feeley in Clute & Grant 1997, 126). Alberico rules the Eastern Palm harshly by magic and military force, often punishing whole regions, families and dependants for one man’s crimes in order to make an example. This excessive violence and extreme power is the reason why Alessan insists on the need to ‘take them both’ (T, 69) so that they do not fall under the rule of one tyrant as they take the other: the fact that there are two of them is the ‘only balance of power in the peninsula’. Like Brandin, Alberico could never atone for his actions, but Alberico never even learns to care for the peninsula he invaded: all he wants is ‘to claim an Emperor’s Tiara in Barbadior [that was] the only thing that had [ever] really mattered’ (T, 581) to him.

Even Brandin hates Alberico, not because they are rivals over the Palm, but because ‘there is no passion in him, no love, no pride. Only ambition’ (T, 624). For a man that loves as strongly as Brandin does, who wreaked such destruction in the name of his ‘most-beloved son’ (T, 95) and who changed his world for the woman he loved, Alberico’s purposeless want is inconceivable. It is impossible to sympathise with Alberico, for he shows no humanity, no feeling, only greed.

Returning to Brandin, he is central to all the story kernels of Tigana, and the originator of the fabula. Yet, Brandin is only focalized through at the very end of the battle as he weeps for his son and the undoing of ‘twenty years of vengeance’ (T, 652). By this point, the readers have had time to assimilate all the information given about the Sorcerer King and thus had the chance to form their own opinion about him before Kay reveals what Brandin thinks of himself. No more than a page long, Brandin’s focalization is one of the most powerful sections of the story.

As Brandin falls apart in Dianora’s arms, Kay turns the story on its head as he focalizes through Rhun, Brandin’s Fool who is revealed to be Valentin, Prince of Tigana and Alessan’s father. Freed from ‘the weight of mountains crushing his mind’ (T, 653) he lifts his sword and kills Brandin with a blow to the heart after twenty years under his control, more than half of these spent knowing Dianora’s identity. Over the years, Valentin had seen Dianora’s love develop and known that his freedom, and Tigana’s, would not come from her. Before he dies himself, from a wound delivered by Brandin’s adviser, Valentin speaks the name he freed: Tigana. This odd twist of plot is thoroughly unexpected: part of Alessan’s quest was to avenge his dead father! This is a common motif in fantasy (Kaveney and Langford in Clute & Grant 1997, 767), Harry Potter’s revenge on the Dark Lord that killed his parents perhaps being the most well-known example. ‘Reviving’ the dead parent is a unique twist on this motif, allowing Valentin and Brandin to yet again meet on the battlefield. What is more, Kay has hinted to Valentin’s identity throughout the book, though the hints only make sense in retrospect: Brandin once told Dianora that ‘there [were] precedents’ (T, 415) of marring ‘a whole and healthy man’ to create the king’s fool.

In Tigana, Kay expertly moves from what could have been a genre fantasy with a quest motif focused on healing the land, to a story where ‘self-recognition combines with [this] external goal’ (Clute in Clute & Grant 1997, 796) to a point where ‘it is no longer clear which is right and which is wrong’ (Kincaid in Clute & Grant 1997, 531). Each character’s individually complicated response to the world is interwoven with others’, creating a sense of complexity above and beyond the genre narrative of the defeat of evil and victory of good that is so prevalent in popular fantasy. Through this intermingling of opinions, Kay’s narrative faces up to ‘the consequences of actions glossed over or ignored in other fantasy texts’ (Gunn 1998, url) and this complexity of story, plot and structure mirrors ‘the complex reality of [our] world’ (Kay in Rambles Magazine Interview n/d, url).

1 In addition to the non-focalized narrative, there are twenty-one separate focalizants in Tigana, and more than 150 separate focalizations. Devin is focalized through forty-one times, and Dianora twenty-seven times. There are twenty-one separate occasions of non-focalized narrative, excluding short passages with zero focalization within focalized sections.

The Sarantine Mosaic – the ‘evolution of historical memory’

(Rosenfield 2002, 93)

Perhaps the chroniclers, the painters, sculptors, the historians, perhaps they are the real lords of emperors, of all of us […]
[LoE, 437)

A New Sanctuary is being built in Sarantium, and Crispin the mosaicist sets sail to decorate its domes. In the city he meets the Emperor Valerius II, a farmer’s son obsessed with leaving a legacy, and his Empress Alixana, a former prostitute interested in theological issues. Their court includes the Strategos Leontes and his wife Styliane, the daughter of the man Valerius murdered to prevent him from acceding the throne. There is also Leontes’ secretary, the historian Pertennius, a bitter man who revels in gossip. The cast is completed by the Antae Queen Gisel, a few charioteers and an Eastern doctor as the byzantine plotting begins…

Like most of Kay’s fantasies, The Sarantine Mosaic is ‘a variation in fiction upon a given period’ (Kay in StS, Acknowledgments), in this case the Byzantine Empire under Justinian and Theodora.2 Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors tackle historiographical concerns, something that is hardly surprising considering the fact that as a genre, fantasy ‘is almost inextricably bound up with history and ideas of history’ (Maund in Clute & Grant 1997, 468). To many readers and writers, ‘a fantasy novel should be set against a quasi-historical (very often quasi-medieval) background’ (ibid.), and underpinned by ancient Greek, Celtic or Germanic mythology (Pringle 1998, 8-9). Kay shows that such borrowing from the primary world does not have to be simplistic.

The ‘relations between literary texts and the world’ (Bennett & Royle 2004, 27) is a fundamental issue in criticism and theory that has been much debated over the years. Once upon a time, ‘[a]ctual historical events were commemorated – and fantasticated – in cycles of oral stories and songs’ (Pringle 1998, 9) and ‘there was little distinction between “story” and “history”‘ (ibid.). Now the two are considered opposing genres, but it is not that simple. Taking Kay’s novels as a case in point, they are clearly not historical accounts but neither are they complete fiction. His books are historical fantasies, reading like ‘richly tapestried historical novel[s] dense with character and detail’ (Gunn 1998, url).

Historiography is the study of how history is written, and major theorists like R.G. Collingwood and Hayden White proposed that ‘the historian [is] above all a story teller’ (White 1978, 1714) and that every historical narrative contains ‘an irreducible and inexpungeable element of interpretation’ (White 1973, 281). There are also many types of fictionalised historical narratives, alternate history being the genre that has received the most study. It is argued that ‘[b]y examining accounts of what never happened, we can better understand the memory of what did’ (Rosenfield 2002, 90). The genre is based upon the question ‘what if?’, followed by ‘some speculation about the consequences of a different result’ (Schmunk n/d, url). However, Kay’s books imagine pasts ‘that could not have existed’ rather than pasts ‘that might have existed’ (Cobb 2005, url), and are thus excluded from this genre.

Kay has admitted to becoming ‘almost too engaged while researching Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors‘ (Kay n/d c, url), something that his readers are in prime position to appreciate as the plot, for the most part, follows historical events and include ‘variations’ upon the great characters of that time. Kay believes ‘that the quiet, steady accumulation of detail and complexity reach out to readers in an almost subliminal way’ and induces ‘trust in the author and the book’ (Kay in SFSite Interview 2000, url). Therefore he builds layers of historical detail into his narrative: the Emperor Justinian, for example, ‘was the inspiration for [Kay’s] Valerius’ (Kay in SFSite Interview 2000, url), and his Sarantium was named after Emperor Saranios just as Constantinople wa
s named after Constantin. In addition to inducing trust in his readers, Kay also forces them to examine uncomfortable issues that are as valid now as they were then.

Kay’s most obvious illustration of how ‘history can become dangerous when the creative aspect of its construction is concealed or unknown’ (Hatch 2005, url) is the historian Pertennius. ‘[C]arefully observant’ (StS, 251), Pertennius is described as a man who sees ‘things others might not’ in his place as Valerius’ historian and advisor to general Leontes. Accordingly a witness to most of the critical events of the story, Pertennius is in prime position to write faithful accounts of what actually took place. The first example of Pertennius’ history writing that Kay introduces is his record of the Victory Riot, accurately modelled on the Nika riot of 532 A.D. Bonosus of the senate vouches for the account’s ‘essential accuracy’ (StS, 251), however he also recognises that parts of it are ‘at odds’ with what actually took place. This is an uncomfortable insight: while Bonosus can think back and rely on his own memory for the events of that day, future generations ‘cannot go and look at them in order to see if [they were] adequately reproduced’ (White 1978, 1718). ‘[S]ociety’s memory and history’ (Bethune 2000, 58) thus relies on what one man remembers and how faithful he is to that when putting pen to paper.

Pertennius is modelled on Procopius, ‘reckoned the greatest of the later Greek historians’ and ‘the best authority for the history of Justinian’s reign’ (Phillimore n/d, url). A holder of important offices under Justinian and Belisarius, the model for Leontes, Procopius wrote ‘a number of official histories’ (Halsall 1996, url) ‘full of praise for the emperor and court life’ (Robinson 1967, 678), including On the Wars and On the Buildings, the titles similar to how Kay describes Pertennius’ duties. Interestingly, Procopius’ posthumous Secret History was long considered an expose of ‘the corruption of imperial society’ (Robinson 1967, 678), but later historical research have led historians to dismiss much of it as ‘malicious gossip’ (Evans n/d a, url). Kay subscribes to the latter theory and depicts Crispin reading Pertennius’ ‘exquisitely phrased vituperation’ (LoE, 154), wondering if that is what will be seen as truth by future generations who ‘never actually [knew] the people of whom [those] ugly words were written’ (LoE, 155). This is a fair question to ask considering Pertennius’ attitude to ‘the truth’; ‘[o]nly the things written down [matter]’, anything else ‘never happened, wasn’t a part of history’ (LoE, 347).

As Pertennius sets out to ‘choose, sever and carve’ (White 1973, 288) among events, he reveals that he is, as Crispin suspected, far from ‘harmless’ (StS, 386). In the end, the historian literally ‘carves’ Valerius, stabbing him in the back as he arrives upon an otherwise failed assassination attempt. His reaction:

This is terrible. So terrible. Everyone agrees it is wrong for an historian to intervene in the events he chronicles. He loses so much authority, you understand.
(LoE, 345)

Pertennius’ intervention thus comes both during and after the events. Returning to the Secret History, it exemplifies ‘the way in which gossip, masked as historical ‘truth’, can be, and likely has been, immortalized’ (Hatch 2005, url). For example, Pertennius’ account of Alixana’s orgies is exposed as nothing more than a manifestation of the historian’s bitterness: the couple’s love and devotion has been affirmed time and time again in the text, witnessed by Crispin, Gisel, Pertennius and many others. Nevertheless, Pertennius ‘chooses to substantiate rumour, while ignoring or twisting those things that he knows to be fact’ (Hatch 2005, url) to follow his own agenda.

However, while Kay criticises Pertennius for the creative aspects of his history telling, he is himself changing historical detail when it suits him and the story he is telling. In Lord of Emperors, the destruction of images of the god is ordered by Leontes, the new Emperor, before Crispin has even had the chance to finish the Sanctuary dome. In reality, iconoclasm came ‘several hundred years after Justinian’s reign’ (Kay in Rambles Magazine Interview n/d, url). Similarly, the Spanish Reconquista re-imagined in The Lions of Al-Rassan took place over a period of 750 years and not in the lifetime of any one man as Kay depicts it. Such ‘telescoping of events’ (ibid.) is hardly an accepted historical practice, but it has many advantages for an author. One is the ability to ‘focus on what interests [him] in a period’ (Kay in SFX Interview 2002, url), and to bring several such points of interest together in one contained narrative. However, the main advantage recognised by Kay is that ‘telescoping events […] allows [him] to intensify the emotional and intellectual response to what really happened by bringing it home to the same set of characters’ (Kay in SFX Interview 2002, url). Knowing Crispin and the importance of mosaics to him makes the proclamation that ‘[t]hey will come down, [there] and elsewhere in the lands’ (LoE, 458) resonate that much more with the reader. Had there been an epilogue taking place two hundred years later when the mosaics were defaced in the primary world timeline, Crispin’s emotional response would have been moot; what difference would it make that the loss of them ‘was death’ (ibid.) to him when he himself was dead? It would still have been a sad loss, but the immediacy of torment, the personal grief, would have been so much less dramatic.

Another advantage of ‘re-writing’ history is the fact that it allows Kay to keep his readers in suspense even ‘if [they] know the actual events’ (Kay in SFX Interview 2002, url). Kay’s knowledge of Justinian and Theodora’s reign is scattered throughout the narrative in the details. For example, when Alixana proclaims that ‘[t]he vestments of Empire are seemly for a shroud’ (StS, 239) during the Victory Riot, she echoes Empress Theodora who is reported to have uttered ‘Kingship is a good shroud’ (Evans n/d a, url) during the Nika riot. On the other hand, Kay is just as likely to take liberties with actual history as he is to reproduce it, thus making it impossible to know where Kay is headed even if familiar with the period, and that adds to the ‘page-turning energy of the plot’ (Mietkiewicz 1992, F11).

Nevertheless, Kay’s revisions of history can be seen as problematic. While his books offer brief acknowledgment sections which refer to his research, ‘it is perfectly possible to read the novel[s] without any awareness that it is a re-casting’ (Cobb 2005, url). With historical origins unclear in such a way, Kay’s revisions bear an uncomfortable resemblance to those of Pertennius, or Brandin’s spell in Tigana. One must however remember that Kay does not conceal his ‘creative construction of history’ (Hatch 2005, url): it is The Sarantine Mosaic, not The Byzantine Mosaic. Facts are spun ‘quite deliberately’ (Kay in Challenging Destiny Interview 2000, url) to create what Kay calls ‘[a]n echoing of elements, not a copying’ (LoE, 57). David Eddings once claimed that ‘[w]e should never permit historical reality [to] get in the way of a good story’ (Eddings 1998b, 5), and it would seem that Kay agrees.

Tied in with the historical theme of The Sarantine Mosaic is the question of legacies; ‘almost every character is obsessed with leaving a legacy’ (Bethune 2000, 58). Valerius’ feels the need to ‘take Batiara back’ (StS, 331) from the Antae, and to leave religious and architectural evidence of his reign. There was a reason Procopius’ main works were named On the Wars and On the Buildings. Crispin’s journey to Sarantium is the result of Valerius’ building of the New Sanctuary, modelled after the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. When the mosaicist first sees the Sanctuary, he remarks t
hat there is no need for Valerius to retake Batiara, as his immortality is assured in the structure of the domes (StS, 331). He decorates it with ‘the world the god has made in all its splendour and variety’ (StS, 431), with Jad watching over it. Crispin wishes for the dome to be a part of his legacy also, and so he ‘put into the mosaics of [the] Sanctuary as much of [his] living journey and what lay within it and behind it as his craft and desire [encompassed]’ (StS, 436). Regrettably, Crispin’s New Sanctuary mosaics did not even survive him.

Leontes abandons all of Valerius’ grand plans for leaving a legacy as he is crowned Valerius III, yet he is the one that is remembered hundreds of years later. As a child, King Aledred of The Last Light of the Sun journeyed east to the lands of the Mosaic, and saw Crispin’s two Varenan mosaics, of Leontes and Gisel’s court and Valerius and Alixana’s court. Crispin valued the second one the highest, having there rendered ‘each figure in the panel […] unique’ and ‘set their names […] into the drapes and folds of their clothing, that those who came after might know [them]’ (LoE, 524). Aeldred sees the two differently, naming Crispin’s favourite ‘less good’ (LLotS, 405). Worse than that, he knows well the story of ‘[t]he Strategos-Emperor. Leontes’, but is unable to remember the ‘earlier emperor, the one before him’ in any more detail than that he rebuilt the Sanctuary – and even that he is not sure of!

In view of this, Kay’s legacy might also prove momentary, but it is something to be proud of. A multi award winning writer, Kay is translated into twenty-one languages (Penguin Canada n/d, url), available in print, e-book and soon audio. Both The Lions of Al-Rassan and The Last Light of the Sun are currently in pre-production for feature films (Pearson Canada 2006, url). These artefacts will remain and form a ‘modestly sized’ (LoE, 521) legacy, but just as the reception of Crispin’s mosaics changed over time, so will the importance of Kay’s themes. A hundred years from now, circumstances and ideology could well be different enough that the commentary upon religious tolerance that is The Lions of Al-Rassan might be useless, except as a historical record.

Kay is known for ‘the strength, variety and verisimilitude’ of his female characters (Vancouver Sun in StS, dustjacket), and he is ‘always looking for ways, working with history, to create plausible, strong and involved female characters’ (Kay in Crew 1995, H13). Of course, women have always played important parts in history but their contributions have often been imperfectly recorded in the history books written by men. In Kay, they are all remembered as ‘of the utmost importance’ (Webb 1991, url) and immortalised as ‘active, taking the initiative, and determining the course of events’ (ibid.). In Tigana it is Catriana and Dianora, in The Lions of Al-Rassan it is Jehane and Miranda, and The Sarantine Mosaic has Alixana and Giselasia. In fact, one of the elements that caused Kay to became hooked on Byzantium was ‘[t]he ways in which women have, historically, needed to operate [behind the scenes] to shape their worlds’ (Kay in Blogcritics Interview 2007, url). In The Sarantine Mosaic, female influence on the development of history is quite unambiguous, especially in the representations of Gisel of the Antae and the Empress Alixana.

Gisel echoes the Visigoth queen Amalasuintha who inherited a throne but whose people considered her too weak to hold it. Eventually, she ‘felt so threatened that she contemplated flight and got the promise of refuge in Constantinople’ (Evans n/d a, url). Unfortunately, she decided to remain and was murdered, leaving the kingdom open when Belisarius, the model for Leontes, attacked. Faced with the same options, Gisel found herself ‘sailing to Sarantium’ (StS, 410) and thus survived an assassination attempt. While it is true that ‘[h]er only hope of retaining her throne [was] to enlist male assistance in the person of the Emperor of Sarantium’ (Taylor n/d b, url), she is manipulating the world around her. It was she that convinced Crispin to travel to Sarantium, she who gave her virginity to Leontes as a part of her machinations, she who was ‘forgotten’ (LoE, 385) after Valerius’ death, and she who saved Batiara from invasion when she convinced Leontes to make her his Empress.

As Valerius’ Empress, Alixana held a unique position in Sarantium. Like her inspiration Theodora, she came from a low background, a prostitute who became Empress (Robinson 1967, 667). They convinced their husbands to stay and fight during the riots when they were poised to flee, and thus marked the continuation of their reigns. They were both maligned by their historians, Theodora not only by Procopius, but by the Catholic Church who, in 1623, ‘were delighted to find such explicit proof of the wickedness of the empress’ (Evans n/d b, url). The main difference between the two can be found in what could have been considered their legacies: their supposed barrenness. It is known that Theodora and Justinian never conceived (Evans n/d b, url), a fact that has historically been blamed on Theodora catching a sexually transmitted disease during her years as a prostitute. However, as Theodora had an illegitimate daughter while Justinian had no children at all (ibid.), this verdict seems unmerited. Kay refuses to assign the same blame to his Alixana: ‘The failure to bear might sometimes arise in the husband, not the wife’ (LoE, 424) the doctor announces. As Valerius must leave a legacy of some kind, the inability to leave a living heir is what leads him to overextend the economy with extravagant buildings and territorial conquests. Throughout this process, Alixana ruled by his side. Having been present for the major kernels of the narrative, it is Crispin who best sums up the women of The Sarantine Mosaic: ‘[I]t was the women, he thought, who had shaped the story here, not the men with their armies and blades’ (LoE, 451-452).

So Kay does indeed spin history to suit him and his themes, however, he is deeply ‘concerned with the way novelists [and journalists] today feel an absolute license to do anything they want with real lives’ (Kay in SFX Interview 2002, url) and as a result believes distorted records to be as relevant today as they were in Byzantium. As such it is unlikely that Kay will ever write ‘true’ alternative histories, or ‘faction’ in the vein of Truman Capote or Norman Mailer. Luckily, Kay is happy ‘creating characters inspired by, modelled on, [and] evoking the real ones’ (Kay in Covert 1998, url) in fantastical settings as he considers that ‘an up-front admission that [he has] no idea what the “real” people were like in private with each other’ (Kay in Historical Novels Review Interview 2004, url). The example Kay offers is that he does not ‘know what the Emperor Justinian and the Empress Theodora said to each other in bed’ (Kay in Covert 1998, url). Being thus free to ‘seek the dramatic over the truth’ (StS, 3) Kay teaches that there is no such thing as an ‘objective truth’, that ‘there is always more than one story’ (Bennett & Royle 2004, 52). His fantasies are therefore allowed to be just that, in a way he calls ‘ethically and creatively liberating, for both author and reader’ (Kay in Historical Novels Review Interview 2004, url).

Through Pertennius and Crispin, the historian and the artisan, Kay makes clear that all accounts are ‘forged and shaped by fallible people’ (Hatch 2005, url). Sometimes this means that one version of events has been deliberately distorted, sometimes it means that someone has simply had a different point of view; either way, it is important to be sceptical of all knowledge, to question it before accepting anything as reliable. This advice is of particular relevance in today’s media ridden and gossip rich society where it seems anyone can publish anything about anyone, and ‘weapons of mass destructi
on’ can be conjured out of thin air.

2 The Sarantine Mosaic, The Last Light of the Sun and The Lions of Al-Rassan all take place in the same secondary world, echoing respectively 6th century Byzantium, the Anglo-Saxon rule of Alfred the Great during the 9th century and the life of El Cid in 11th century Spain.

The Lions of Al-Rassan – ‘when ideologies harden towards holy war’

(Kay in MZBFM Interview 1999, url)

But although the three religions were all present here, it was obvious to her that when quarrels arose it had nothing to do with whether sun or moon or stars were worshipped.

(LoAR, 76)

The peninsula had once been under Jaddite control, but the Asharites had forced them north as they established Al-Rassan in the south. Now northern Espera?a plot to reclaim what they lost as religious tension is mounting. Caught in the middle are Jehane, a physician of the Kindath belief, and the two men she loves: Rodrigo, a Horseman of Jad forced into exile, and the Asharite warrior and poet Ammar…

‘Fantasies are never ideologically “innocent” texts’ (Jackson 1981, 122) and with its highly politicised take on religion and culture, The Lions of Al-Rassan is a perfect example of this. The novel ‘explores ideological rigidity’ (Crew 1995, H13) and ‘what happens to the space for interaction between peoples when ideologies harden’ (Kay in MZBFM Interview 1999, url). Kay’s narrative revolves around Jehane, Ammar and Rodrigo, each a representative of a different religion in a time and place on the verge of holy war as he explores ‘the interplay of faiths, without the tenets, [without] religious prejudice’ (Kay in Historical Novels Review Interview 2004, url).

Fantasies set in secondary worlds ‘frequently feature organized religions’ (Clute in Clute & Grant 1997, 808), their tenets at least offering an implicit explanation of the narrated culture and their values. Frequently, though, religion and belief ‘become explicit and central’ (Swinfen 1984, 75) as in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle, C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. These all offer distinct takes on religion, from Lewis’ Christian evangelist narrative, via Le Guin’s rejection of ‘any form of religion which is either empty ritualism or superstitious placation of unknown sources of terror’ (Swinfen 1984, 169) to Pullman’s anti-religious revelation of god as ‘a charlatan more pitiable even than Oz’ (Rosin 2007, url). As one might expect, Kay’s portrayal is more complex than this.

The Spanish Reconquista was a ‘re-conquest’ of the Iberian peninsula, where the northern Christian kingdoms slowly expanded themselves south at the expense of Al-Andalus, the Muslim Moorish states. It was a long and arduous period of changing fortunes: the process officially began in 722 A.D. and was concluded by the Christian conquest of Granada, the only remaining outpost of Moorish rule, in 1492 (Gunnes 1984, 110). Kay’s fantasy narrative is easily dated to begin ca. 1080: Rodrigo Belmonte, ‘the Captain himself’ (LoAR, 30), is based on Rodrigo D?az de Bivar, known throughout history as El Cid. As noted in the previous chapter, Kay then telescopes the remaining 400 years or so into the life-time of his main characters, thereby increasing the emotional impact of the destruction of Al-Rassan. Kay chose this time-period since he saw the ‘story of the demise of Moorish Spain through [the] emergence of holy warfare as acutely relevant to our own day’ (Kay in MZBFM Interview 1999, url). Since the publication of The Lions of Al-Rassan in 1995, political developments, including Al-Qaeda’s 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, the subsequent ‘War on Terror’ and the July 2005 bombings in London, has made the issue even more pertinent.

Kay chose to explore the Reconquista in a secondary world because he ‘wanted to see what would happen to people’s preconceptions and prejudices about cultures […] if the names were changed and if the religious beliefs were rendered virtually banal’ (Kay in Solaris Interview 1995, url). Thus he re-imagined the ‘Abrahamic, Jerusalemaic, “people of the Book”‘ (Marty 1992, 4) – the Christians, the Muslims and the Jews – into the Jaddites, the Asharites and the Kindath. The Jaddites are worshippers of the sun-god Jad, in whose honour the New Sanctuary in Sarantium was built. Jad has many similarities to the Christian god, including a human son: Heladikos. The Asharites are named after Ashar ibn Ashar, a merchant who walked ‘[i]nto the sands’ (LoE, 211) to ponder the meaning of the stars in the same way the prophet Muhammad meditated in a cave on Mount Hira (Ewald 1996, 363). They worship the stars and pray to ‘the one god and his beloved servant Ashar’ (LoAR, 251), facing Soriyya where Ashar had his visions. The Kindath call themselves ‘the Wanderers […] for the two moons traversing the night sky’ (LoAR, 13), who they worship as sisters of the god. Disliked by both Jaddites and Asharites, the Kindath are caught in the middle and ‘subject to the same restrictions and prejudices, the same accusations of blood-sacrifice and greed as the Jews’ (Taylor n/d b, url), forced to live in ghettos called ‘Kindath Quarters’. Kay has made the message of The Lions of Al-Rassan ‘very clear for [his] readers’ (Kay in Solaris Interview 1995, url):

the point that underlies the detaching of these religious conflicts from their real underpinnings is that, if we step back a bit, we can start to see how much violence, how much conflict is generated by something that may be no more complex than whether you worship the Sun rising in the morning or the stars beginning to shine at night.
(Kay in Solaris Interview 1995, url)

Rather than focusing on differences, Kay focuses on similarities. Beyond the fact that they all worship bodies of the sky, the clearest example of how alike the religions are can be seen in the prayers of the Asharites and the Jaddites:

They lowered their veils and prayed then in the open spaces to the one god and his beloved servant Ashar, their exposed faces turned to where Soriyya was, so far away. They prayed for strength and mercy, for purity of heart and mortal body, for the fulfilment of Ashar’s starlit visions, and for access, at the end of their days among the sands of earth, to Paradise.(LoAR, 251-252) They prayed in that simple, unadorned space to the one god and the life-giving light of his sun, their faces turned to where an emblem of that sun was set upon the wall behind the altar stone. They prayed for strength and mercy, for purity of heart and mortal body, for the fulfilment of Jad’s bright visions, and for access, at the end of their own days among the fields of earth, to Paradise.

The Asharites in question are Muwardi warriors, religious fundamentalists from across the straits. They have been asked to help ‘cleanse Al-Rassan’ (LoAR, 247) from extravagance, ungodliness and Jaddite intervention. The Jaddites are the King, Queen and Constable of Rodrigo’s homeland Valledo, just informed by a High Cleric that they are to march on Al-Rassan in a ‘holy war’ (LoAR, 262), whether they believe in such a war or not. Of course, as in our world, there are those who wish to use such claims of ‘holiness’ to further more secular goals of, for example, expansion and conquest.

One of Rodrigo’s horsemen, the Valledan Alvar ‘spent his childhood playing games of imagined conquest among the evil Asharites, dreaming of the sack of Silvenes, dreading the swords and short bows of Al-Rassan’ (LoAR, 107). Similarly, many children in our own world grow up playing the brave soldier in computer or video games featuring faceless Arab terrorists, never considering the types of ‘assumptions about the scale of values in human life, [or] about forms of society’ (Swinfen 1984, 88) inherent in such games. Likewise, Alvar never stopped to think why he played those games, nor did he consider why his people crawled ‘on their knees, to beg miracles’ (LoAR, 105) of Blessed Vasca, the 300-years dead Espera?an queen, who once proclaimed that ‘the Kindath were animals, to be hunted down and burned from the face of the earth’ (LoAR, 104). In meeting Jehane, simply in talking to her, ‘the shadowed complexity of things was first made known to him. Not the answers, of course, just the difficulty of the questions’ (LoAR, 106). A few months later he names the town of Ragosa in Al-Rassan ‘the most civilized place in the world’ (LoAR, 195) and calls the Asharite Husari friend. Alvar was given the opportunity to travel and widen his horizons, but it is fair to assume that his childhood playmates were not all so lucky. However, their ‘basis of philosophy, religion and belief’ (Swinfen 1984, 88) is not the Valledans’ fault: the Jaddite ideology claiming that the ‘Asharites and Kindath are an attack upon Jad’ has been ‘taught for centuries’ (LoAR, 462) and pervades their whole society. However, not questioning what they have been told by their clerics and rulers is their failure, and such ignorance is the reason why the same conflicts are fought again and again throughout history: if no one questions the tenets that brought them to a certain point, they will undoubtedly find their way there again. Thankfully, through Alvar and Husari, through Jehane, Ammar and Rodrigo, Kay offers a small measure of hope for a world ‘made of three. Sun, stars and the moons’ (LoAR, 376).

Jehane, Ammar and Rodrigo form an unlikely threesome of Kindath, Asharite and Jaddite, their relationship echoing that between their religions. As noted, the Jaddite and Asharite beliefs are not as dissimilar as the clerics and the wadjis have convinced their followers, and just so Ammar and Rodrigo are very much alike in many ways:

He had fought those five men side-by-side and then back-to-back with Rodrigo Belmonte of Valledo, whom he had never seen in his life, and it had been as nothing had ever been before, on a battlefield or anywhere else. It had felt weirdly akin to having doubled himself. To fighting as if there were two hard-trained bodies with the one controlling mind.
(LoAR, 226)

After that first meeting, their connection grows to the point where old friends feel ‘displaced’ (LoAR, 226). Unfortunately, they are ultimately to be on different sides of the war. Rodrigo will march on Al-Rassan as the Valledan Constable, to ‘reclaim [Espera?a’s] lost land’ (LoAR, 527). In an effort to retain his friend, he makes Ammar a ‘handsome offer’ (LoAR, 529) of a Valledan office, but Ammar cannot join him, for he has to try and save Al-Rassan. He knows it to be an impossible fight, knows that either the Jaddites of the north or the Muwardis of the south will break his homeland, but he has to fight: it is not a matter of faith, but a matter of a shared history, of culture. Jehane is caught in between the two men she loves: she would not be accepted by the Jaddites, nor by the Muwardis but she has to chose. She follows Ammar, and leaves Rodrigo with his wife Miranda and their fellow Espera?ans.

When Ammar and Rodrigo meet in combat, it is as ‘icons in a religious clash’ (Kay in MZBFM Interview 1999, url), a ceremonial encounter of the gods on the eve of battle. It is a fight to the death between two men who love each other, and as one good man falls, the other sinks ‘to his knees beside him as the sun [goes] down’ (LoAR, 577). It is not until halfway through the epilogue that Kay reveals who survived the battle of the ‘lions’, but by then the outcome is strangely unimportant. Kay has shown his readers ‘a juxtaposition of different ideological orientations’ and left them ‘torn between different views’ (Toolan 1988, 74). It does not matter who won because, either way, one of the three is gone. Al-Rassan has been broken; and, either way, the surviving protagonists are hurting.

The Lions of Al-Rassan is incredibly pertinent today, its many conflicts not unlike those faced by our own primary world: some are caused by fundamentalists of various beliefs, some are fought for economic and territorial reasons. Kay’s complex narrative is designed to bring his readers out of their comfort zone to explain that whatever ‘the origins of [a] conflict’ (Bal 1997, 148), someone will inevitably be hurt by it. This is an undeniable rule, and yet it is often forgotten during conflicts that war is waged on actual people, and not an abstract nation.

By fantasticating his narrative, Kay is able to circumvent any latent prejudices on behalf of his readers and can thus examine ‘the interplay of faiths, without the tenets’ (Kay in The Historical Novels Review Interview 2004, url), as well as offer his readers hope that the people of the world might one day remember their similarities rather than their differences.


The kind of escape that brings you home.

(Barbour in Kay 2001, url)

In Tigana, Guy Gavriel Kay explores morality and sexuality to the limit, blurring the lines between good and evil until his readers doubt either exist, at least in pure form. His structural and narrative complexity far exceeds the genre expectations held by many critics and scholars. The Sarantine Mosaic is a meditation on ‘whose memories will prevail’ (Shapiro 1997, 1), and why that is so. In it, Kay encourages his readers to be sceptical of all they read, including his own work, through stressing the creative aspect of all writing. The Lions of Al-Rassan bridges the above questions of morality and trustworthiness in a timely examination of religious tolerance and cultural acceptance.

Those readers who ‘turn to fantasy for clear triumphs as an asylum from the ambiguities of real life’ (Kay in Adams Interview 1995, url) need to look elsewhere. Kay ‘re-combines and inverts the real’ (Jackson 1981, 20) to comment ‘upon the real world and to explore moral, philosophical and other dilemmas posed by it’ (Swinfen 1984, 231). Like others before him, Kay finds that using fantasy as a medium ‘detaches the narrative from a narrow context’ and gives the reader ‘the possibility of seeing the themes, the elements of that story, as applying to a wider range of times and places’ (Kay 2001, url) – including their own lives.


Primary texts

Kay, Guy Gavriel (1984), The Summer Tree: The Fionavar Tapestry Book One, New York; Arbor House

Kay, Guy Gavriel (1986), The Wandering Fire: The Fionavar Tapestry Book Two, New York; Arbor House

Kay, Guy Gavriel (1986), The Darkest Road: The Fionavar Tapestry Bok Three, New York; Arbor House

Kay, Guy Gavriel (1992), A Song for Arbonne, London; BCA

Kay, Guy Gavriel (1998), Sailing to Sarantium: Book One of The Sarantine Mosaic, Earthlight; London

Kay, Guy Gavriel (1999), Tigana, Special Tenth-Anniversary Edition, New York; ROC Fantasy

First published in 1990

Kay, Guy Gavriel (2000), Lord of Emperors: Book Two of The Sarantine Mosaic, Earthlight, London

Kay, Guy Gavriel (2001), The Lions of Al-Rassan, Earthlight; London

First published in 1995

Kay, Guy Gavriel (2004), The Last Light of the Sun, Toronto; Penguin Canada

Kay, Guy Gavriel (2007), Ysabel, London; Simon & Schuster

Secondary texts

Adams Interview with Guy Gavriel Kay by Andrew A. Adams (1995), available on Bright Weavings: the Worlds of Guy Gavriel Kay – the Authorized Website[2007-12-31]

Attebery, Brian (1992), Strategies of Fantasy, Bloomington; Indiana University zPress

Bal, Mieke (1997), Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative, 2nd edn., Toronto; University of Toronto Press

Baldick, Chris (2004), The Conc
ise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, 2nd edn
., Oxford; Oxford University Press

Bennett, Andrew & Royle, Nicholas (2004), Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, 3rd edn., Harlow; Pearson Longman

Bethune, Brian (2000), ‘The Man Who Sailed to an Alternate Byzantium’ p. 58 in Maclean’s: 2000-04-03, available at [2007-12-29]

Blogcritics Interview with Guy Gavriel Kay by Richard Marcus (2007), available on the Blogcritics Magazine website, [2008-01-19]

Bright Weavings: the Worlds of Guy Gavriel Kay – the Authorized Website [2008-04-19]

Broberg, Jan (1985), I fantasins v?rldar, G?teborg; Zindermans

Broberg, Jan (1994), P? fantasins vingar: En bok om fantasy, Stockholm; Carlssons

Bruun, Patrick (1983), Bra B?ckers V?rldshistoria, Band 3: Asien m?ter Europa, 200 f.Kr-500 e.Kr, H?gan?s; Bokf?rlaget Bra B?cker

Burger, Douglas A. (1986), ‘The Shire: A Tolkien Version of Pastoral’ pp. 149-154 in Coyle, W. ed., Aspects of Fantasy: Selected Essays from the Second International Conference on the Fantastic in Literature and Film, Westport, CT; Greenwood Press

Calvino, Italo (2004), ‘Definitions of Territory: Fantasy’ pp. 133-134 in Sandner, David ed., Fantastic Literature: A Critical Reader, Westport, CT; Praeger

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