Royal Ascent: the romance of monarchy in Yvain, The Hobbit, and Tigana

by Stephen David Wark, 1998

Stephen Wark explains how he came to write this paper: “As far as the provenance of the paper goes, it was written for a course during my M.A. at Concordia University titled “Early Modern Romance”. The course covered the history of the romance in six novels (Yvain, Princesse de Cleves, Romance of the Forest, Castle of Otranto, The Hobbit, and The Valley of the Dolls). The final paper required two novels from the syllabus, but had no guidelines for the topic. Given the ubiquitous Tolkien-Kay connection, I thought I had a plausible avenue to persuade my professor to allow me to include a Kay novel in my final paper. With some modest twisting and blugeoning with blunt critical instruments, I was able to contrive a topic that fulfilled the criteria for the paper. Of course, my professor had to borrow a copy of Tigana from the school library, and I had to emphasize plot summaries in the paper itself in case he didn’t finish the novel in time. No matter, I still managed to write a paper on my favourite Canadian author, and I considered my tuition well spent.) For what it’s worth, my final grade on the paper, and the course, was A-“.At a later stage, Stephen intends to adapt this paper further for the site and focus solely on Tigana, with a larger discussion of the role of women and family in the political structures of Tigana, focusing particularly on Dianora.

The ascent to the throne is a recurring motif in romance literature: a questing knight/dispossessed prince/beleaguered king strives to gain/restore/defend their realm against nigh-invincible opposition. Success is a triumph of individual merit of the protagonist and the moral superiority of the realm, over which the newly-(re)installed monarch rules with equal measures of benevolence and enlightenment. Such an idealized model of absolute monarchy may be politically naive, but the structural simplicity supports a variety of readings-morality tale, bildungsroman, satire, sermon, love story, and adventure tale-due to the allegorical potential of the model. Although monarchial authority, and its acquisition, is rarely as absolute and simple as their depictions in romance, these texts provide an unusual critique of the foundation of all forms of political authority. The ascendant monarch may be a model of individual and collective national virtue, but the rule will only endure if it comes with an assent to the responsibilities of governance. In these romances, the relationship between the aspiring monarch and the subjects determines the success and longevity of the rule. Three texts explore the different manifestations and consequences of conflict between royal ascent and loyal assent: Yvain, by Chretien de Troyes, The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien, and Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay. In Yvain, the conflict results from the seeming contradiction between Yvain’s duty as a Knight of the Round Table and his responsibility as a new lord and defender of an independent realm; in The Hobbit, Thorin’s quest to regain and defend his throne at the Lonely Mountain sets him at odds with neighbouring kingdoms; and in Tigana, King Brandin chooses between his responsibilities as King of Ygrath and his desire to revenge the death of his son. These conflicts, and their resolution, demonstrate how the proper use of authority is the sole justification for its pursuit.

The pursuit of honour and acclaim through adventure and might of arms is the guiding principle in Yvain, by Chretien de Troyes. The first lines of the text defines the political structure of the realm in symbolic relation to its leader: “Arthur, the good king of Britain whose valour teaches us to be brave and courteous” (de Troyes 295). Yvain’s ascent to power from the status of knight is a movement along this axis of prowess and courtesy, where prowess represents individual activity and courtesy the integration of these individual efforts into a social order. As a Knight of the Round Table, Yvain is inspired to achieve individual greatness by the example and according to the rules established by King Arthur. In the wine-soaked hours after the feast of Pentecost, the knights of the Round Table hear a tale of failed adventure from Calogrenant, a fellow knight and adventurer. Calogrenant found a magic spring in a beautiful glade, but disturbed the waters and caused a tremendous storm to appear. After the storm dissipated, a knight challenged him to a duel. Calogrenant was soundly defeated, and retreated in humiliation, but his story inspires Yvain to retrace his footsteps and succeed in the challenge where Calogrenant failed. Unfortunately, King Arthur is also inspired to pay an official visit to the spring. Yvain fears that the rules of courtesy as mediated by Arthur will allow other knights to demonstrate their prowess through the adventure:

… he knew that my lord Kay would undoubtedly be granted the battle rather than himself-if Kay were to request it, it would never be refused him. Or perhaps my lord Gawain himself would ask for it first. If either of these two requested it, it would never be denied them.
(de Troyes 303)

Yvain steals away from the other knights in order to recreate Calogrenant’s tale and face the Knight of the Spring. His ascent to power begins with a conscious movement away from courtesy towards prowess.

At the end of the adventure, Yvain faces the Knight at the enchanted spring, wounds him mightily, and follows him as the Knight retreats to his castle. The Knight dies and the denizens of the castle are outraged, but Yvain, assisted by Lunette the handmaiden and a ring of invisibility, hides in the castle and escapes detection. While invisible, Yvain observes and falls in love with the Knight’s wife, Laudine, and recruits Lunette’s assistance in earning her favour under what are considerably difficult circumstances. Lunette broaches the topic of remarriage with Laudine, who initially rejects any idea of replacing her husband:

Indeed you will, my lady, if it suits you. But tell me now, if it’s not too painful, who will defend your land when King Arthur comes? … As you are well aware, all your knights are not worth a single serving girl. Even the most conceited among them would never take up his shield and lance to defend your spring.
(de Troyes 315)

Surrounded by knights with a greater awareness of courtesy than prowess, Laudine accepts Lunette’s arguments and agrees to meet and marry Yvain. However, the marriage cannot take place before the end of the traditional mourning period, and so Laudine consults the local council for permission to remarry. Laudine argues that the marriage is essential for the defence of the spring and realm: “Before these two weeks are over everything will be laid waste unless a good champion can be found to defend it” (de Troyes 321). Permission is granted, and the council’s decision validates Yvain’s individual prowess, justifies the “theft” of the adventure, and places Yvain within a new social order-a new system of courtesy. The marriage to Laudine binds Yvain to the enchanted spring and requires him to replace his knightly duties towards King Arthur with his responsibilities towards his new subjects.

Unfortunately, Yvain is unable to meet this requirement when Arthur arrives at the enchanted spring. After defeating Kay in the course of the traditional challenge, Yvain reveals his identity to Arthur and the assembled knights, earning their admiration and approval for the success of his adventure. Arthur’s company visits for eight days, and then departs for the tournament season. As a Knight of the Round Table, Yvain would be required to exercise his might in regular displays of prowess, but as the Knight of Spring, he should be content with the prestige of his new position. His political achievement leaves Yvain with nothing to prove because his value is no longer evaluated according to Arthurian schemes of prowess and courtesy. He does not owe the Round Table further adventures any more than he, the ruler of a small, but independent and inalienable realm, owes Arthur political fealty. Gawain warns Yvain against sacrificing his knightly reputation for the sake of his marriage: “A man must be concerned with his reputation above all else! Break the leash and yoke … whatever it might cost you” (de Troyes 326). Easily swayed, Yvain asks Laudine’s permission to rejoin his companions-an acknowledgment of her rightful claims upon him-and she grants his request, but establishes a time limit of one year. Yvain fails to return within that year, and Laudine sends a damsel to denounce him as “a cheat, a seducer, and a thief” (de Troyes 329). The loss of Laudine’s love and favour reminds Yvain of his abandoned responsibilities, and drives him mad with grief and regret. Whatever honour was gained in the tenuous environment of tournaments was invalidated by the loss of the enduring prestige of his marriage and new community. Yvain’s ascent to the throne had required the assent of the entire community, and his failure to return according to his promise is a failure to honour their assent to his rule with proper governance.

Yvain had moved from a median position of prowess and courtesy under Arthur to a position of extreme courtesy as Knight of the Spring, but his madness places him outside all social orders, leaving him with nothing more than his prowess. He is found and restored to sanity by the lady of Norison, is recruited to defend her castle against the invading forces of Count Alinor, and, with his success, earns himself much honour in the eyes of the lady and her people. As a reward for his service, he is offered the same prestige as he enjoyed with Laudine, but he refuses in order to regain the favour and love of his wife: “she wished to do him honour and would have made him, had he agreed, the lord of all she had” (de Troyes 336-7). Yvain leaves Norison to wander the countryside as a knight-errant known only as the Knight of the Lion, and earns honour and courtesy for his prowess without reference to his relationship to King Arthur. The adventures met during his period of errantry all involve restoring the security of-and the proper balance between-rulers and subjects: he defends a vavasour’s family from giants, frees three hundred ladies from servitude to two demons, anonymously defends Lunette in a trial by combat, and defends a disinherited younger sister in a public duel with Gawain. Each of these adventures heightens his reputation, increases his desire to reunite with Laudine, and causes Laudine to consider the Knight of the Lion a suitable defender of her enchanted spring. When, through the intervention of the grateful Lunette, Yvain is reconciled with Laudine, he admits to his past mistakes and acknowledges the claims of the realm: “Folly caused me to stay away, and I acknowledge my guilt and wrong … if you will take me back, I’ll never do you wrong again” (de Troyes 380). The just rule and defense of his realm is the source of sufficient honour for Yvain. Within his own sphere of influence, and with mutual assent, Yvain is the model of prowess and courtesy.

While Yvain gains a new throne through adventure, Thorin the dwarf attempts to regain his family throne at the Lonely Mountain. Although the narrative of The Hobbit is focused on the development of Bilbo Baggins, the fabula of the text concentrates on Thorin’s quest to destroy Smaug the dragon and declare himself the new King under the Mountain. Armed with his father’s map, a key to a secret entrance, and a burglar of dubious skill, Thorin leads a party of thirteen dwarves to claim his family heritage. Thorin describes the history of the King under the Mountain to Bilbo:

… they mined and they tunnelled and … in addition I believe they found a good deal of gold and a great many jewels too. Anyway, they grew immensely rich and famous, and my grandfather was King under the Mountain again and treated with great reverence by the mortal men. … so my grandfa-ther’s halls became full of armour and jewels and carvings and cups … Undoubtedly that was what brought the dragon.
(Tolkien 22-3)

Manifesting the greed characteristic of all dragons, Smaug killed every dwarf in the Lonely Mountain, destroyed the nearby town of Dale, and spent the remaining years hunting and hoarding stolen wealth. This second loss of the family throne is a minor blow to dwarven prestige and sovereignty compared to the thought of dwarven craftsmanship in the possession of one who will “never enjoy a brass ring of it … [or] … make a thing for themselves” (Tolkien 23). The enthusiasm of Thorin and the other dwarves convinces Bilbo to join the expedition. Although the odds for thirteen dwarves and a hobbit succeeding against an entrenched dragon at the height of his power appear impossible, “there is no knowing what a dwarf will not dare and do for revenge or the recovery of his own” (Tolkien 199). Thorin’s ascent to the throne at the Lonely Mountain is less about his personal ambition than it is about revenge, family honour, and the restoration of an established political order.

Smaug’s opinion of Thorin’s quest, and of his chances of success, is decidedly less ambitious and optimistic. As a youth he had scattered a nation of dwarves-what chance does Thorin’s party really have? His rise to power was checked only momentarily, and his tyranny endures because no further challenges have been forthcoming. Smaug may have earned his wealth and reputation by conquest and terror, but his presence and power is nonetheless as respected as that of any dwarven King under the Mountain-fear is the assent to his rule. Smaug is proud of his reputation, and boasts his might equal to any challenge:

Revenge! The King under the Mountain is dead and where are his kin that dare seek revenge? Girion Lord of Dale is dead, and I have eaten his people like a wolf among sheep, and where are his sons’ sons that dare approach me? I kill where I wish and none dare resist. I laid low the warriors of old and their like is not in the world today. Then I was but young and tender. Now I am old and strong, strong, strong.
(Tolkien 224)

Strength is Smaug’s refuge against all threats, but pride is his undoing. During Bilbo’s second burglary expedition to his lair, Smaug inadvertently reveals his one weakness to Bilbo over the course of their riddling and boastful talk. Bilbo’s ill-advised claims of revenge sting the dragon’s pride, prompting Smaug to raid the nearby Lake-town as a display of his power- “They shall see me and remember who is the real King under the Mountain” (Tolkien 231)-but not before Bilbo has a chance to communicate the secret of Smaug’s weakness. The secret is overheard by an old thrush, who reveals the secret to Bard Bowman, a direct descendant of Girion Lord of Dale during Smaug’s raid. The knowledge allows Bard to slay the dragon with a single arrow, ending Smaug’s tyranny through an act of unwitting cooperation among those peoples so long oppressed by his presence under the Mountain.

The success of Thorin’s expedition also depends on the cooperation of neighbouring monarchs for both material support and the validation of his political claim. He already has the support of the dwarves in his party, and of his cousin, Dain, leader of the Iron Mountain Dwarves, but he requires the assent of his monarchial and political peers in order to achieve and consolidate his position. In particular, Thorin relies on the Men of Lake-town and on the ravens of the Mountain for assistance. Upon his arrival in Lake-town, built near the ruins of Dale in the shadow of the Lonely Mountain, Thorin announces his identity to the Master of Lake-town and proclaims his intentions in accordance with popular legend: “The King beneath the mountains … Shall come into his own” (Tolkien 196). The people rejoice, and render the dwarves all manner of assistance in their mission. The Master has his doubts, however, but the people believe, so he has no choice but “to obey the general clamour” (Tolkien 197) and offers the town’s help, “trusting to your [Thorin’s] gratitude when your kingdom is regained” (Tolkien 199).

The Master recognizes the political futility of acting against the express will of his subjects. The people of Lake-town restore the party of dwarves to health and fighting form, allowing them to continue their ascent to the Lonely Mountain. Thorin also relies on the long memories of the ravens of the Mountain and “the great friendship between them and the people of Thror” (Tolkien 256). His reliance is rewarded with a visit of Roac: “…I do not forget what my father told me. … We are few, but we remember still the king that was of old” (Tolkien 257). Roac brings news of Smaug’s death and offers to renew the traditional alliance between the dwarves and ravens. Roac’s brethren inform Thorin of the political and military movements made in the wake of the dragon’s death, linking the isolated dwarves to their surroundings.

Their assistance is essential. Thorin’s desire to “bring [his] curses home to Smaug” (Tolkien 24) and reclaim his treasure at all costs earns him the enmity of many, including those same groups upon whom he has depended on for so long. Roac informs Thorin that the men of Lake-town intend to demand restitution for the damages caused by the dragon’s final rampage. Because he is so recently restored to his wealth and power, and because the Master of Lake-town is allied with the unsympathetic Elvenking of Mirk-wood, Thorin reacts to the news with a Smaug-like declaration of greed: “none of our gold shall thieves take or the violent carry off while we are alive” (Tolkien 258). Thorin rejects the reasonable claims made by Bard Bowman, accepts a siege, and uses the ravens to summon the assistance of Dain and an army of Iron Hill dwarves. A solution to the siege comes from an unexpected quarter: Bilbo Baggins. As a neutral party, Bilbo is uninterested in the political relationships among men, elves, and dwarves, but he can see the destructive potential of their tripartite pride and intransigence, and so he intervenes to end the siege. He offers the Arkenstone, the prized gem and symbol of the King under the Mountain, to Bard as a negotiating tool. Bard then ransoms the Arkenstone to Thorin for his claimed amount of restitution, but earns Thorin’s wrath for himself and Bilbo. The arrival of Dain’s armies only serves to increase the tension, and only an invasion of goblins and wargs ends the crisis. Thorin dies, bitter and repentant, at the end of the War of Five Armies, Dain is declared the new King under the Mountain, and the treasure is distributed with justice among the neighboring kingdoms. Thorin’s ascent to power failed to endure because his desire to revenge and restore wounded prestige blinded him to consequences visited upon his allies. Like Smaug, he attempted to rule from a position of strength and silence, and was undone by his pride and greed.

The need for vengeance and the exigencies of government shape the rule of King Brandin of Ygrath in Tigana. When Stevan, his favorite son, is killed by Prince Valentin of Tigana during the conquest of the Western Palm, Brandin crafts a complete vengeance: he destroys all physical evidence of Tigana’s culture, and uses his sorcery to erase the name and memory of Tigana from everyone save those Tiganese living at the time of the conquest. Brandin names his eldest son Regent over Ygrath, and remains on the Palm to oversee the completion of his curse, using his sorcery to ensure that he outlives everyone who was born in the province where his son had died: “The vengeance of the King of Ygrath went deeper than occupation and burning and rubble and death. It encompassed names and memory, the fabric of identity; it was a subtle thing, and merciless” (Kay 177). By any measure, Brandin’s grief and vengeance are untenable foundations for his rule-both in the Western Palm, and in Ygrath-because his efforts to give them proper shape violate the natural order. He is more concerned with the proprieties of mourning than with the obligations of his throne. The Regent and Queen of Ygrath plot his assassination, and their chosen assassin gives voice to their grievances:

You had to have known that there would be a price for what you did. … You exalted a dead child above the living one, and revenge above your wife. And more highly than your own land. … you [have] kept yourself young. A thing no Sorcerer- King of Ygrath has ever done before … It is all unnatural, and there is a price to be paid.
(Kay 220-1)

Brandin’s incredible grief for the loss of his favorite son blinds him to his myriad responsibilities to family, to his homeland, and even his conquered territories-such duties are sacrificed for the sustenance of his vengeance. Like the people of Ygrath, Tigana, and the Western Palm, Brandin is ruled by the tyranny of his pride.

Brandin’s principal rival defines the extent and redemptive possibilities of his tyranny. He may be the Tyrant of the Western Palm, but Brandin is an enlightened despot compared to Alberico of Barbadior. Like Brandin, Alberico is a sorcerer who rules the Eastern provinces of the Palm, but there the similarities end. Alberico is a minor lord in the large empire of Barbadior, and his conquest of the Eastern Palm with an army of mercenaries is calculated to increase his chances of ascending to the imperial throne. Where the Tiganese exist to satisfy Brandin’s vengeance, the people of the Eastern Palm are subjugated to fill his war chest: “He liked it when necessity and gain came together; it didn’t happen often but when it did the marriage seemed to Alberico of Barbadior to represent almost the purest pleasure to be found in power” (Kay 491). Alberico is willing to pay any price to achieve his ambitions of Imperial authority, and his ambition seems to be motivated by nothing more than a love of power for its own sake. Brandin may have neglected his monarchial responsibilities in favour of a greater urgency, but he recognizes that Alberico lacks the necessary qualities to rule:

I hate that man down there … I hate everything he stands for. There is no passion in him, no love, no pride. Only ambition. Nothing matters but that. Nothing in the world can move him to pity or grief but his own fate. Everything is a tool, an instrument. He wants the Emperor’s Tiara, everyone knows it, but he doesn’t want it for anything. He only wants. I doubt anything in his life has ever moved him to feel anything for anyone else … love, loss, anything.
(Kay 624)

Alberico’s ambition blinds him to purpose-he would rule Barbadior with no purpose greater than the exercise of power. The Tyrants pose a threat to each other, but their powers, both military and sorcerous, are too evenly matched for either sorcerer to risk their ambitions: Alberico, the Tiara; Brandin, the eradication of Tigana. The assassination attempt forces Brandin to re-evaluate his rule over Ygrath and the Western Palm. Having lost Ygrathian assent to his leadership and the direction of his rule and being unable to abandon the revenge visited upon the Tiganese, Brandin opts to abdicate the throne of Ygrath, and declares himself the King of the Western Palm: “He would remain. Not just for Stevan and the response shaped in his heart to his son’s death, though that would hold, that was constant; but to build a united realm here, a better world than he had known” (Kay 534). The abdication is an acknowledgment of his failure to properly govern Ygrath. Brandin founds the new kingdom to assume the full burden of his grief, hoping to overcome his loss while justifying the collateral emotional and political losses of the last two decades. Perhaps the new kingdom will allow him to experience emotions other than grief and resolve. He moves to rule the Western Palm with all the care and consideration he failed to give Ygrath, hoping to redeem himself in the eyes of his subjects. At first, the change is welcomed by the people, because no one ruler has sought to unify the provinces of the Palm for the improvement of all, but Alberico senses an advantage in the political turmoil caused by the abdication, and moves his armies to invade the Western Palm. Brandin is forced to take desperate action to raise an army from people so recently subjugated. He resurrects the abandoned custom of the Ring Dive, a symbolic wedding of the monarch to the seas surrounding the Palm and “the most dramatic single ritual of temporal power in the Peninsula of the Palm” (Kay 542), as a gesture of his sincere love for his new land. A failed Ring Dive-the chosen woman unable to retrieve a gold ring thrown into the ocean-would represent the Palm’s denial of assent to Brandin’s government, but the Dive is successful. Brandin is rewarded for his new, positive allegiance to the Palm with an army to defend the Palm.

Ironically, the Ring Dive is performed by Dianora, Brandin’s favored consort and citizen of Tigana. Twenty years ago, Dianora had infiltrated Brandin’s harem in order to kill him, but fell in love with his complex and passionate nature. The contradiction represents an ambivalent assent to his rule, but Dianora knows Brandin’s capacity for good:

…they were fighting in the name of the Western Palm ,but the truer claim was to everything. To a united peninsula with Barbadior driven away. It was a good symbol, Dianora knew. It was the proper, the necessary step for this peninsula. But it was being taken by the man who had been King of Ygrath.
(Kay 622)

Ultimately, the successful Ring Dive is not enough to atone for Brandin’s crimes of conquest. Brandin’s plan for his new rule is honorable, but the curse on Tigana nullifies his good intentions. In the words of Alessan, the only surviving Prince of Tigana, who manipulated events so that the Western and Eastern Tyrants would defeat each other in battle, freeing the Palm to its own destiny and ending the curse of Tigana: “It is twenty years too late for Brandin of Ygrath to join the Palm. It was too late the day he landed here with an invading force” (Kay 644). Thanks to Alessan’s interference, the battle of sorcery and arms goes poorly for Brandin, who is forced-out of pride, out of hatred for Alberico and genuine love for the Palm-to sacrifice all his sorcery to defeat Alberico. Even the sorcery that maintains the curse on Tigana, and the spell that enfeebled Prince Valentin and held him captive as the court Fool-a second, even subtler manifestation of revenge and grief than a simple curse. Valentin regains his identity and kills Brandin, ending the one battle that they have been fighting for twenty years: the battle that killed Stevan and marked Tigana with Brandin’s wrath. The seas may have granted their assent to Brandin’s new philosophy of monarchy, but the Palm rejects his original ascent to power.

Power does not exist in a vacuum, but is defined as, and by, the relationship between the rulers and the ruled. Both leaders and citizens must assent to the nature of the relationship in order for the government to endure: If the leader refuses to lead, then a new leader is sought; and without the cooperation and support of the populace, the leader has nothing to lead. Surprisingly, the symbiosis between monarchs and subjects is explored within the romance-a genre which appears to support the individual will of the monarch over the collective will of the community. Nonetheless, the successful claim to power, or ascent to authority, is shown to be completely dependent on the claimant’s proper respect for the community and assent to the responsibilities of power. Yvain, Thorin, and Brandin, the respective claimant monarchs in Chretien de Troyes’ Yvain, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, all fail to recognize the demands placed upon them by their authority: Yvain wins acclaim and a kingdom by virtue of his knightly prowess, but his must abandon the practice of that prowess in order to maintain his kingdom; Thorin reclaims his family throne from Smaug the dragon, only to burden his neighbours with a similar tyranny of greed and avarice; and Brandin attempts to atone for twenty years of occupation and grief by abdicating his original throne and creating a new kingdom from his conquered colony. Though they may be read as allegory, the romance narratives of the failures and partial successes of these would-be monarchs use the motif of royal ascent as a practical critique of the nature of political authority.

© Stephen Wark

de Troyes, Chretien. Arthurian Romances. Introduction and Translation by William W. Kibler. London: Penguin Books. 1991. 521 pages.
Kay, Guy Gavriel. Tigana. New York: Roc. 1990. 673 pages.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. Revised Edition. New York: Ballantine Books. 1966. 304 pages.

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