Weaving Legitimacy: Kay’s Use of Mythology in The Fionavar Tapestry

This is an undergraduate paper by Adrienne Johansson written when she was at Wilfrid Laurier University.

Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry, undoubtedly the greatest fantasy trilogy ever written by a Canadian, consists of three books; The Summer Tree, published in 1984, The Wandering Fire, published in 1986, and The Darkest Road, also published in 1986. These three novels tell the tale of five University of Toronto graduate students and their journey into the mythical, fantastical world of Fionavar, where they must battle alongside the natives of Fionavar against the evil god Rakoth Maugrim, who is out to rule Fionavar, and through that, all the worlds (including our own) after it. In constructing this tale, Kay has used many names and legends from various mythologies from our own history. Among these are Norse mythology, Celtic mythology, and the Arthurian legends. But why, in creating a land of supposedly new mythology, does Kay use names and legends from such long established, and sometimes well-known stories?

Kay, throughout the Tapestry, asserts the idea that Fionavar is the first of all the worlds created, and that all other worlds are merely a shadow or a reflection of Fionavar. Kay intertwines mythologies and legends of our own world with his creation of Fionavar in order to give his world a certain legitimacy to Fionavar’s claim of being the first world. In investigating this quest for legitimacy, we must examine the origins of the names and legends that Kay uses in comparison to the various Norse and Celtic legends and how they relate to Fionavar.

There are many elements of Norse mythology throughout the three novels. Kay does not use many Norse names, rather he takes many of the basic elements from the myths and incorporates them into Fionavar’s mythology.

One of the basic elements of Norse mythology is Yggdrasil, the World Tree. The World Tree was a symbol for the universe, for it was said to have spread its branches over every land that was in the Norse cosmology. Since the Tree was a link between the worlds, it was also said to be a link between the gods and men, forming a ladder or a bridge between the two. The tree was traditionally associated with the god Odin, something that is evident when the name Yggdrasil is broken down.

Yggdrasil is derived from Odin’s name Ygg (the deep thinker) and drasill (carrier or horse). Yggdrasil therefore means the Bearer of the God, a phrase which finds a literal explanation when Odin hangs nine nights on the tree before he discovered wisdom. (Anderson, pg. 206)

It is Odin’s tree because he was pierced with a spear and hung on the tree as a sacrifice for the attainment of wisdom. The idea of a universal, central tree is paralleled in Fionavar as the Summer Tree of Mornir. If the Summer Tree is indeed a parallel to Yggdrasil, then that would make Mornir a parallel to Odin. This is mostly true, however, there are also elements of the god Thor in the makeup of Mornir. The most striking similarity between Mornir and Odin though, is their association with ravens. Odin’s ravens, Hugin and Munin, are usually depicted as perching on Odin’s shoulders, whispering into his ear what they heard and saw during the day after Odin had sent them to fly out over the world and report the goings on back to him. Mornir, god of the Summer Tree, also has two ravens who help Mornir’s chosen one, Paul (who will be discussed in more detail later), by giving Paul whatever knowledge he needs in a given situation. There is no mistaking that the two sets of ravens are one and the same, as Paul describes them thusly,

There were two birds on the branches, ravens, both of them. I know these, he thought, no surprise. They are named Thought and Memory. I learned this long ago. It was true. They were named so in all the worlds and this was their nesting place. They were the God’s.
(Kay, The Summer Tree pg. 229)

Kay wants the reader to recognize that, despite having two different masters, they are the same birds, for the names of the ravens are the same, Hugin means Thought, and Munin means Memory.

As stated, the two gods are similar, but not exactly the same. For although Odin was “a voluntary sacrifice, his purpose was the acquisition of secret, hidden knowledge.” (Davison 51). Mornir never sacrifices himself on the Summer Tree because Mornir is instead, the one who grants the hidden knowledge to the freely-come sacrifice. Due to this aspect, Mornir drifts a little from an association with Odin towards an association with Thor.

Thor and Mornir are similarly thunder gods. Mornir’s official title is Mornir of the Thunder, and Paul describes this aspect of the god when the god arrives during Paul’s third night on the Summer Tree,

And there came then a roll of thunder like the tread of doom, of worlds cracking asunder, and the God was there in the glade, he had come. And he spoke again, in his place, in the one unchanging voice that was his, and forged by the power of that thundering, the mist began to flow together then, faster and faster, to the one place, to the Summer Tree.
(Kay, The Summer Tree 232)

Mornir’s entire being is thunderous, from his tread to his voice; he is the personification of thunder. This aspect of Mornir’s though is slightly different from Thor, whose thunder was mainly confined to his hammer, Mjorlnir, rather than to his person. Mornir’s name though, resembles the name Mjorlnir, and if the origins of the hammer’s name are examined, then the name becomes even more closely linked to Mornir. Anderson gives the following origins to the name Mjorlnir, “The derivation from mala or mola (to crush) is, though probable, not certain. The word may be akin to Gothic milhma, cloud; Swedish moln; Danish mulm; Norse molnas, to grow dark from bands of cloud arising.” (Anderson 453). The languages are different, yet the root words are all very similar to one another and all have something to do with clouds. Not only are the root words similar to one another, but they are also similar to the name Mornir, which gives a universal link from the name of the Fionavar thunder god to Thor and Thor’s hammer, Mjorlnir.

Through the use of the ravens and the name Mornir, it is an easy conclusion to link Mornir and the Summer Tree with Norse mythology and so ground Yggdrasil, Odin and even Thor in the mythology of Fionavar.

Another aspect Kay draws from Norse mythology is the concept of Ragnarok, the final battle of the gods. Anderson describes the origin of the word Ragnarok as such,

Ragnarok [ragna from reign, god; rok may be old high German, Rahha, sentence, judgement, akin to rekja,; rok from rekja] is the Whole development from creation to dissolution, and would, in this world, denote the dissolution, doomsday of the gods; or it may be from rokr (reykrr, smoke), twilight and then the word means twilight of the gods. (Anderson 456)

The most widely accepted translation of Ragnarok is indeed, the twilight of the gods. Ragnarok then, in the Norse myths, is the final battle between the Norse gods and the giants; the final struggle between good and evil. It is Ragnarok that is taking place in Fionavar, for it is the fight between the Light; the five from Earth, the forces of Brennin and Cathal, the Dalrei and the lios alfar (whose name means light elf in Old Norse), and the Dark; Rakoth Maugrim, Galadan the Wolflord, the urgach and the svart alfar (whose name means dark elf in Old Norse). The battle taking place in The Fionavar Tapestry, in the Norse tradition of Ragnarok, will be reflected on all the worlds when it happens. All the characters realize that Fionavar must be saved if all the worlds are to survive, as the High King Aileron states, “All I have been taught tells me that if Fionavar falls then all worlds fall as well, and not long after.” (Kay, The Wandering Fire 130). The idea that the battle will be felt everywhere, on every plane of existence, gives a very frightening glimpse into the magnitude of the war being fought; if the Dark wins, all is truly lost. Once again, the reader is made to feel the universality of the myth.

The battle of Ragnarok also has several warning signs that foreshadow the arrival of war. These warning signs are present in Fionavar, however they are not true portents, as many of them arrive after Rakoth Maugrim has already freed himself and issued his declaration of war from Mt. Rangat. Ragnarok is said to be preceded by a great winter that would last for three years; an unnatural winter. Fionavar experiences such an unnatural winter, as the Five are told by Loren Silvercloak upon their return to Fionavar, “He (Rakoth) is making it. He has twisted the seasons utterly. These snows have been here for nine months, Pwyll. In six nights it will be Midsummer’s Eve.” (Kay The Wandering Fire 80). Earthquakes were also predicted before the arrival of Ragnarok, and Rakoth himself made the earth quake when he broke his chains and blew the summit off of Mt. Rangat to demonstrate that he was free. The next sign of Ragnarok was the freeing of monsters from their underground dwellings. Rakoth himself also fulfills this role in Fionavar when he freed himself from his subterranean prison (for he is quite the monster), and then later again, when he looses his dragon upon the army of Light,

Most secret, most terrible of all Maugrim’s malevolent designs, the Dragon had been another casualty of the Unraveller’s untimely haste at the Bael Rangat – his Dragon had been able to play no part in that war… He waited, and in the fullness of time he made the Mountain go up in flame, and he shaped the winter, and then the death rain over Eridu. And only when these were ended did he let his army issue forth in might, and only after that, saved for the very last, that its unforeseen coming might shatter the hearts of those who would oppose him, he sent out his Dragon to scorch and burn and destroy.
(Kay The Darkest Road 348, 350)

Once all of the signs were fulfilled (which are all nicely laid out in the above passage), then the armies of gods and giants met on a great plain for the final battle. This happens in Fionavar, and even though the portents of Ragnarok happen in a slightly different order, the end result is the same; the armies of the Light and the Dark meet on a great plain, that of Andarien, or Camlann as it is also known (which, of course, has great significance in Arthurian legends, for it is the site of Arthur’s death), for the final battle.

The use of elements from Norse mythology give The Fionavar Tapestry much of its structure, for the main focus of two of the three novels is the final battle, or Ragnarok. The Norse myths also supply Fionavar a basis for one of its most important myths, the Summer Tree, and one of its main gods, Mornir of the Thunder. However, the majority of the gods and goddesses in Fionavar have Celtic origins, as do many of the more important characters in the novels.

For many, Celtic mythology is not as widely known as is Norse mythology, so perhaps this is the reason that Kay borrowed so extensively from the Celtic stories. Celtic tales would not be recognized as easily and so would not have to be as heavily disguised as Odin and Yggdrasil were. The use of the mythologies though, gives Fionavar the feeling of being an older world than our own, and this feeling of being older is one very common in fantasy literature.

The first Celtic hero to be discussed is Pwyll, or Paul as he is first known. I have already briefly mentioned Paul in relation to the Summer Tree, and this relationship will be explored more in this section. Pwyll, in Celtic mythology, was Prince of Dyfed and the head of Annwn, the Welsh name for the Underworld. Pwyll was a very confusing and very paradoxical character in Celtic tradition, for as Prince of Dyfed, he was a mortal man, but as Head of Annwn, he was the ruler of a mystical Otherworld and therefore immortal. This paradox is also reflected in Kay’s Pwyll. Paul is a normal, mortal Earthling, but after he hangs on the Summer Tree, he becomes Pwyll Twiceborn, someone who has tasted all the deaths that there are and has access to the knowledge of a god. But why did Kay choose the character of Paul, or Pwyll, to hang on the Summer Tree? Firstly, as has already been discussed, a sacrifice hangs on the Summer Tree to gain wisdom, and the name Pwyll literally means wisdom. Paul becomes Pwyll because he gains wisdom on the Summer Tree.

The second reason Kay chose Paul was that the Celtic Pwyll had a similar experience to his namesake in Fionavar. The Celtic Pwyll had a magical mound outside of his palace. If any dared to sit on it, they were either wounded or would see something wonderous. Pwyll decided that he would sit upon the mound and see what happened. He sat and no blows or wounds came upon him, and soon he saw a lady on a white horse appear. Pwyll sent men after the lady, but she evaded them without even spurring her horse on, and passed out of sight. Pwyll went back to the mound the next day and the lady appeared again. Again Pwyll sent his men after her, again she eluded them. On his third day of sitting on the mound, Pwyll decided to speak to the lady. He chased her, asked her to stop, and she complied. She said her name was Rhiannon (a goddess often associated with the moon) and that Pwyll was her choice for a husband. Pwyll agreed and they were later married. (Squire 282-283). This myth resembles the story of Paul on the Summer Tree quite strongly. Both Paul and Pwyll spend three days trying to attain wisdom, and on the third day, both are spoken to by a goddess; Rhiannon to Pwyll and Dana to Paul. Both Rhiannon and Dana are also goddesses associated with the moon. Both Paul and Pwyll succeed in their sittings, although the semi-flippant story of Pwyll looking for a wonder and finding a wife is presented in a much more serious fashion in Fionavar. Paul is on the Summer Tree trying to heal many hurts. He must heal the country of Brennin from a devastating drought, and he must heal his own hurt over losing his girlfriend in a car crash. Kay uses the Celtic Pwyll but also incorporates the more serious overtones of the Norse Yggdrasil and the idea of sacrificing oneself for knowledge and healing.

Another Celtic hero who finds himself in Fionavar is Finn mac Coul. The name Finn means fair, and Finn was a fair king; he was true and wise and trusted by all. Finn in Fionavar was not a king but a boy who ended up leading a group of dead kings called the Wild Hunt. Why then does Kay use the name Finn where there is seemingly no connection? Because there is a connection in that the Celtic Finn was a great hunter and the founder of a band of warrior-hunters called the Fenians. MacCana, in his book, Celtic Mythology, gives this description of Finn and his Fenians,

They were bodies of warriors subject only to the authority of their own leaders and standing apart from and largely independent of normal society, but they were recognized by law and tradition as fulfilling a legitimate, even an essential function. Many of the legends represent them as the defenders of the sovereignty of Ireland against external enemies, both natural and supernatural. (MacCana 104)

This description of the Fenians is also an excellent description of the Wild Hunt in Fionavar, which Finn leads. The Wild Hunt did operate independently of society; they were random. The Hunt had been imprisoned for thousands of years, and when they were finally freed by the forces of Light to aid in the battle against the Dark, the Hunt displayed their independence by indiscriminately slaughtering both armies. This action greatly surprises Dave, who summoned the Wild Hunt and had thought that they would be on the side of the Light,

Then he saw the Hunt split in two as four went with the child who had been Finn in wild, airborne pursuit of the army of the Dark. The other kings, and Owein was one of them, stayed by the Andein, and in the evening light, they began to kill the lios alfar and the Dalrei, one by one.
(Kay, The Wandering Fire 335)

The Wild Hunt in Fionavar also performs a function of balance in the story. The Hunt hovers in a grey area between Light and Dark, and so, when called into battle, the Hunt tries to maintain the balance between the two forces. This is why Kay chose Finn to be the leader of the mighty hunters of the Hunt, for Finn traditionally lead hunters in Celtic mythology.

The final Celtic hero to be discussed is Diarmiud, also known as the Fenian Adonis, who has Prince Diarmuid of Brennin as a twin in Fionavar. The character of Diarmuid is extremely developed in the Tapestry; he is a little wild, rather cynical, very mischievous, extremely intelligent and an excellent warrior. But aside from all of these attributes, there is another that is stressed over and over in the novels; Diarmuid is extremely handsome. This is obvious from Kim’s first look at him,

After a moment, she was able to isolate some of the qualities: the lean, graceful build, high cheekbones in an over-refined face, a wide, expressive mouth registering languid amusement just then, the jewelled hand, and the eyes…
(Kay The Summer Tree 44)

Diarmuid and his Celtic counterpart share the trait of being uncommonly handsome, for the Celtic Diarmuid was said to have “fatal beauty” (Squire 209). Celtic Diarmuid was said to be a forerunner of the Lancelot character from Arthurian legends, because Diarmuid unwittingly snares Finn’s (yes, the same Finn mentioned above in relation to the Wild Hunt) betrothed, Grainne, with his good looks. Diarmuid and Grainne end up fleeing from Finn together, but eventually, Diarmuid is slain by Finn. The idea of Diarmuid being an earlier incarnation of the Lancelot character is very interesting, for this idea is also shared by Kim in Fionavar when she thought Prince Diarmuid could be the reincarnated Lancelot,

‘You thought he was the third one?’ he (Loren) said. ‘Third angle of the triangle?’ She (Kim) nodded, still pale. ‘I was afraid. Don’t know why now. Don’t know why I was so sure’.
(Kay The Wandering Fire 146)

Prince Diarmuid was, of course, not Lancelot, for Lancelot himself does enter the Tapestry later on. Kim believed that Diarmuid was Lancelot because Kay took Diarmuid from Celtic mythology, where he was the Celtic answer to Lancelot. Kay reinforces the fact that Diarmuid and Lancelot are similar characters when Prince Diarmuid accepts the challenge to personal combat from Uthach, the leader of the army of the Dark. Diarmuid sacrifices his life so that neither Arthur nor Lancelot will have to die and so will be freed from the curse that ensnares them. Through his link to the triangle in being a forerunner of Lancelot’s, accepts the challenge “because it was for Arthur and Lancelot, and for Guinevere, that Diarmuid, in all the wild anarchy of his nature, had claimed this dance for his own.” (Kay The Darkest Road 322). Diarmuid sees a way to end the suffering of those in the triangle, and since he has an idea of what their grief is like through his connection to the Celtic Diarmuid, he allows the triangle to have a final, happy ending through the sacrifice of his own life, therefore redeeming the Celtic Diarmuid from his own love triangle.

Guy Gavriel Kay used the names and motifs of Celtic and Norse mythology and wove them into a mythology of his own making in the world of Fionavar. Kay borrowed from our own world’s mythologies in order to lend credence to the idea that Fionavar was the first world; the world that all others, our own included, imperfectly reflect. Kay himself sums up his reasons for using these mythologies through Loren Silvercloak,

Your own world, too, was once like this, though it has been drifting from the pattern for a long time now. The legends of which I spoke in the auditorium tonight are echoes, scarcely understood, of mornings when man did not walk alone, and other beings, both friend and foe, moved in the forests and the hills.
(Kay The Summer Tree 21)

Kay gives our legends an interesting twist by saying that we received them, much diluted, from another world, and in his weaving of the ancient stories and characters into his creation, Kay reminds us of our own past, rich with history, mythology and legend; legends that, through reinvention like Kay’s, will never truly die.

Works Cited

Anderson, Rasmus Bjorn. Norse Mythology. USA: Longwood Press Inc., 1977.

Davidson, Ellis. Gods and Myths in Northern Europe. Great Britain: C. Nicholls & Company Ltd., 1964.

Kay, Guy Gavriel. The Summer Tree. USA: Penguin Books Ltd., 1984.

______________. The Wandering Fire. USA: Penguin Books Ltd., 1986.

______________. The Darkest Road. Canada: Collins Publishers, 1986.

MacCana, Prornsias. Celtic Mythology. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1968.

Squire, Charles. Celtic Myth and Legend, Poetry and Romance USA: Crown Publishers Inc., 1979.

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