My short story “In the Ruins of Shambhala” has appeared on 600 Second Saga, a flash fiction audiobook podcast. It’s my first publication outside of a student literary magazine and you can listen to it here! It is narrated by Mariah Avix.
I wrote a first draft of this story while at the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2016 and presented it at the Odyssey public reading at Barnes and Noble. The idea of the story came to me as a kind of sidetrack while working on my novel, which takes place in a similar, though not identical, milieu. A couple of characters from Michael Ondaatje novels crossed together in my imagination–specifically, the deminer Kirpal Singh from The English Patient and Ananda from Anil’s Ghost–and in my own consciousness, the composite of these two figures became inextricable from the plot of a Lost World story. The setting of my story is based loosely on the Hindu/Buddhist myth of Shambhala–to elevate the drama, I suppose.
I view this story as a commemoration of the men and women who work to preserve cultural heritage sites in dangerous places. A great example of individuals who do just that in real life are the archaeologists at Mes Aynak in Afghanistan, who place themselves at risk daily to preserve the past.
I may not have posted for a while, but I wanted to share this success with as many of my readers and listeners as I can. I have had plans over the last few weeks to give this blog a new start and possibly a re-brand. I’ve had the idea of reviewing short stories as I read through fantasy/weird fiction anthologies, such as the massive volume known as The Weird by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer and the slimmer but no less rewarding The New Voices of Fantasy by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman. I hope that some of my present responsibilities will free up soon so I can dedicate time for these ambitious projects.
“Tigana, let my memory of you be like a blade in my soul.”
-Guy Gavriel Kay, Tigana
Alessan’s mantra for his beleaguered nation, erased from history by the tyrant sorcerer Brandin of Ygrath, forms a central node in the theme of exile and memory in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana. A novel set in the Peninsula of the Palm, a landmass that more or less corresponds to Italy, Tigana borrows much of its inspiration from the Italian Renaissance era of warring city-states.
Brandin’s court is like that of the Medici or the Borgia. Ygrath and Barbadior’s conquests can be compared to the expansion of the empires of Spain and France, which were drawn into Italy by unwise allies who wished for them to intervene in their internecine rivalries with city-states such as Florence, Venice, Genoa, and the Papal States. The allies paid for this by being overcome by kings and emperors much more powerful than their own states.
Famously, one man who advised against taking such action was Niccoló Machiavelli. He wrote The Prince—a notorious book, one of the first on pragmatic political science—to advise Lorenzo de’ Medici (grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent) on how to act wisely as the governor of Florence.
In his final chapter, he exhorts Lorenzo to liberate Italy from “the barbarians,” likely a reference to the foreign armies of France and Spain who have taken up permanent residence on Italian lands. It is my observation that Machiavelli’s ideal to for Italian unification—something never accomplished until the efforts of Garibaldi in the nineteenth century—stems from the same national pride as Alessan feels in Tigana.
Which led me to wonder. If Guy Gavriel Kay used Machiavelli in his research, then in what ways could a reading of The Prince enrich our understanding of the conflicts in Tigana? Or a more precise question: is how Machiavelli understands memory and history the same as how Tigana understands it, or is there a difference?
On the surface, Machiavelli’s world—in ways I have already described—greatly resembles the world of Tigana. Brandin himself is a Machiavellian figure, a real Prince interested in establishing his authority across the Peninsula by driving out his rival Alberico of Barbadior. He superficially agrees to the terms of a peace treaty, while scheming to destroy Barbadior the moment it becomes convenient to break the agreement. Alberico, of course, plans to do the same, in a kind of polarized Cold War scenario where only the province of Senzio (perhaps a surrogate for Venice) remains neutral.
Machiavelli has several things to say about memory in The Prince. Some advice that he gives to Lorenzo may as well have been given to Brandin. For example, read the following paragraph from Chapter 5 on “How you should govern cities or kingdoms that, before you acquired them, lived under their own laws”:
“Examples are provided by the Spartans and the Romans. The Spartans took Athens and Thebes, establishing oligarchies there. However, they lost them again. The Romans, in order to hold on to Capua, Carthage, and Numantia razed them and never lost them. They sought to govern Greece according to more or less the same policies as those used by Sparta, letting the Greek cities rule themselves and enforce their own laws, but the policy failed, so in the end they were obliged to demolish many cities in that territory in order to hold on to them. The simple truth is there is no reliable way of holding on to a city and the territory around it, short of demolishing the city itself.He who becomes the ruler of city that is used to living under its own laws and does not knock it down, must expect to be knocked down by it.Whenever it rebels, it will find strength in the language of liberty and will seek to restore its ancient constitution. Neither the passage of time nor good treatment will make its citizens forget their previous liberty.No matter what one does, and what precautions one takes, if one does not scatter and drive away the original inhabitants, one will not destroy the memory of liberty or the attraction of old institutions. As soon as there is a crisis, they will seek to restore them. That is what happened in Pisa after it had been enslaved by the Florentines for a hundred years” (17, my Italics).
Brandin, after conquering the province of Tigana after the Battle of the River Deisa, destroyed its main cities: Avalle of the Towers and the capital Tigana. Avalle, which was inspired by San Gimignano, once had many towers that stretched to the sky. But Brandin’s forces knocked them down, in order to ensure the city’s submission to his rule. Tigana itself (based on Florence, perhaps) was demolished as well, and renamed Lower Corte—Corte having been its bitterest enemy. Avalle was renamed Stevanien, after Brandin’s son, who was killed in battle. These policies seem to be directly inspired by Machiavelli’s advice to Princes in Chapter 5.
The tyrant’s spell adds an extra layer to the political-military strategy of Machiavelli: he uses magic to erase the very name of Tigana from memory and make its name unpronounceable. One particular difference from Machiavelli’s dry strategy and Brandin’s motive to demolish Avalle is that the Tiganese killed his son and he wanted revenge. This does not mean that Brandin acts on his emotions, however. He only knows where to direct his temper. Machiavelli advises on several occasions that a Prince should “lose his temper” deliberately under certain circumstances, such as when he is being lied to (105). The demolition of Avalle would have been one such well-advised occasion for Brandin to become angry.
Machiavelli may have also unknowingly given Brandin the idea to create his spell of obliteration, if the two had ever met in some other dimension. In Chapter 1 of The Prince, Machiavelli remarks how hereditary principalities—territories where it is traditional for a particular aristocratic family to inherit power—are by far the easiest to hold, compared to republics. “Because the state has belonged to his family from one generation to another, memories of how they came to power, and motives to overthrow them, have worn away,” he advises (7).
Brandin was not necessarily planning to share or to pass on his rule. But the implication of how enough time passing eventually legitimizes the rule of a Prince may have attracted to him. Since sorcerers can live to advanced age in Tigana‘s world, he plans to outlive all the Tiganese exiles, who alone carry the memory of their homeland. Once they die, Lower Corte would know no better than that Brandin is the right and honourable ruler of the land.
In addition to these specific remarks about the ability of a ruler to hold onto power by controlling memory, Machiavelli has an understanding of history’s usefulness in deciding policy. He constantly draws upon the patterns of the past in order to find examples that can advise rulers on present courses of action and on their future ambitions. The exploits of ancient Greeks and Romans—some real, others fictitious—are on par with those of other Renaissance Italian Princes, such as Cesare Borgia, Alexander VI, and Savanarola, as examples of what-to-do or what-not-to-do. He assumes the past serves as a map for the unknown.
Kay would use the metaphor of a mirror. “With bronze as a mirror one can correct one’s appearance; with history as a mirror, one can understand the rise and fall of a state; with good men as a mirror, one can distinguish right and wrong”: the epigraph from Under Heaven (by Li Shimin, Tang Emperor Taizong) can apply just as much to Machiavelli’s understanding of political history, as to how Kay invites us to understand history.
That being said, Machiavelli has his detractors, to say the least. Francesco Guicciardini, a contemporary and a friend of Machiavelli, questioned even the usefulness of bringing the past to bear upon the present, although the patterns might be there for anyone to observe. Who, after all, can say they have ever successfully predicted the future, simply by looking at the past? He also believed that all men, though subject to sin, were essentially good—which Machiavelli’s pessimistic yet pragmatic philosophy seems to deny. “This is how it has to be,” says Machiavelli, “for you will find men are always wicked, unless you give them no alternative but to be good” (73).
Which brings to mind another cynical philosopher and his ideas of history and morality—Friedrich Nietzsche. Notorious in the twentieth century for his belief in Social Darwinism, which inspired the racialist ideas of Adolf Hitler, Nietzsche argued in Geneology of Morals that men behave good because they were given no other alternative.
Like Machiavelli, Nietzsche believed that the autonomy of the sovereign was mutually exclusive with morality. He also believed that all morality developed out of primitive ideas of punishment—that morals were literally beaten into our forefathers, so that as we evolved, we came to obey the laws better. For example, the brutal uses of capital punishment in the past—strangulation, hanging, drawing and quartering, beheading—produced the more civil society we live in during the present day.
I seriously doubt his conclusion on that last point. Nietzsche’s perception is affected by his retrospective analysis. I believe modern “civilization,” as he calls it, emerged because we rejected the brutality and absolutism of the past, not that brutality shaped our modern civilization. However, the idea that morals come from the memory of punishment is interesting in relation to Tigana: the idea that memory is directly tied to pain:
“Tigana, let my memory of you be like a blade in my soul.”
When Alessan speaks these words, it could be said he engages in a (somewhat) Nietzschean understanding of memory—and by extension, perhaps of history and morality as well. He must recall the pain of his exile in order to force himself to remember his nation—and then take moral action.
Nietzsche and Machiavelli exist simultaneously in Tigana: memory (problematically) is both ingrained by pain and an intellectual tool with which to gaze into the past. The heroes of Tigana do not let their fear of punishment lead them to submit to tyrants, but they do wish to experience pain, if it preserves the memory of their homeland. And that experience of self-inflicted pain guides their self-defined morality, to do anything they can to liberate themselves from Brandin’s yoke.
But does morality itself suffer under Alessan’s model? If we can determine our own morality by deciding what to remember and forcing ourselves to remember it—carrying all the pain that memory can bring—can we be expected to reach rational decisions that respect our fellow human beings? Or could this kind of morality cause us to act according to our passions and, more importantly, our self-interest—one of the guiding human principles that Machiavelli (and notably, Thomas Hobbes) understands as the source of all human endeavour?
Just as Brandin is a tyrant, Alessan is literally a Prince. Brandin’s morality—if he has any—is almost driven entirely by the interests of himself as ruler, and those of his state. But behind this self-interest is the burning memory of Stevan’s death at the River Deisa. Prince Alessan, like Brandin, carries the Deisa in his memory, but for different reasons. His father Prince Valentin died in battle, leaving Alessan without a principality to call his own. Is Alessan simply motivated by jealousy for Brandin and his own interest in becoming ruler? Is his nationalist rhetoric only a facade?
Kay intentionally makes Brandin a foil of Alessan, adding good qualities to Brandin and evil qualities to Alessan. For example, Alessan must enslave Erlein di Senzio as his wizard servant, in order to for his master plan to work. Should a man so preoccupied with liberty be damned for making a slave of one man? (Perhaps someone ought to have asked the leaders of the American Revolution this same question, many of whom owned slaves.) Furthermore, Brandin, however ruthless, also has feelings. Dianora, his favourite woman in his saishan and a Tiganese herself, notices that he cared an enormous amount for his son and that he never forgave himself for sending him to fight in battle. She intends to kill Brandin to avenge her country, but finds herself loving the man she has schooled herself so long to hate—even saving him once from an assassin.
Guy Gavriel Kay’s George Seferis epigraph sums up his own beliefs in the ambiguity of holding onto memory:
“What can a flame remember? If it remembers a little less than necessary, it goes out; if it remembers a little more than is necessary, it goes out. If only it could teach us, while it burns, to remember correctly.”
A long enough memory can produce a desire in you to avenge all the wrongs ever done to your kind. Witness the damage that extensive memories wreck in Middle East daily. Even Nationalism, which seems a noble enough ideology until you remember the twentieth century, can go too far. Yet having no memory at all utterly robs you of any identity. I like imagining all the whitebread kids lost in the suburban USA being asked what their heritage is, and being unable to answer “English” or “Irish” or “Welsh” or “Scottish.” Assimilation into a melting pot can do as much to erase memory as Machiavellian attempts to snuff it out all at once.
Does Alessan remember correctly? Does Brandin? The answers are ambiguous, although most readers will probably side with Alessan. But it cannot be ignored that Alessan may have easily turned into the villain in Tigana. Nietzsche argued sovereigns were above morality. Yet, following one’s own painful memories might have caused Alessan to think himself above morality while rebelling against the sovereign Brandin, in an effort to fight fire with fire.
Tyrant and rebel: an age-old conflict. Each obeys no law and each is the antithesis of the other. Yet, they are, in so many ways, the same. Nietzsche believed the laws we live by were oppressive. Yet, he also (quite famously) saw a way to rebel against such authority. The creed of the Ismaili Assassins said, “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.” Truths established by tyrants create a certain morality, so disbelieving in those truths frees one to perform any action suitable to overthrowing that power.
Does Alessan follow a similar creed, or does he too have a belief in truth, in morality? It would be worth a re-reading of Tigana to see just how much Alessan uses ends to justify means.
But turning away from Tigana now, other questions emerge. What are the dangers of the Assassins’ creed? If everything is permitted, do we have Hobbes’ State of Nature on our hands? Would followers of the creed then become self-interested, build up social contracts, and then begin punishing others when the contracts are breached, beginning the process of moral development all over again?
Let these questions stand as food for thought. It is not my place now to answer them, and I’ve rambled on enough as it is. But I believe it’s safe to say that memory can be a dangerous thing, especially when it forces us to disregard morality. Perhaps it depends on what we choose to store in our memory as well: if we keep hoarding pain, the fire of memory will grow so large it will consume us.
Feed the fire, but not to excess.
Kay, Guy Gavriel. Tigana. Toronto: Penguin, 1992. 1-793.
Kay, Guy Gavriel. Under Heaven. Toronto: Penguin, 2010. 1-710.
Machiavelli, Niccolò. Selected Political Writings. Ed. David Wooton. Indianapolis: Hacket, 1994. 5-80.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “Morals as Fossilized Violence.” The Prince. Transl. Francis Golffing. Ed. Robert M. Adams. New York: Norton, 1977. 253-275.
Rudowski, Victor Anthony. The Prince: A Historical Critique. New York: Twayne, 1992. 12-17
We first see Ren Daiyan, the heroic protagonist of Kay’s newest novel, as an angst-ridden adolescent in a grove, wielding a bamboo sword to channel his anger. Living in a time of famine, and of war against the barbarian Kislik tribe, he is deeply aware of the diminished glory of the empire of Kitai. In its Twelfth Dynasty (a society based on Song Dynasty China), Kitai is forever overshadowed by the glory and ruin of the Ninth Dynasty (the Tang Dynasty). Kay weaves a theme through his novel that resonates harmoniously with what readers can expect in an epic fantasy novel. Diminished empires have been part of the epic fantasy genre ever since Tolkien described the fall of Númenor and Gondor. Even so, River of Stars is best described as a historical fantasy, using Kay’s technique of the “quarter-turn of the fantastic,” in which he depicts a reflection of a real-world society with magic that the society would have believed in. In Under Heaven, Kay described the fall of Ninth Dynasty Kitai during the years of tribulation that are referred to as the An Li Rebellion. In River of Stars, which is a sequel to Under Heaven (although Stars can stand by itself), we see the Kitan court’s pathological fear of the military, along with the emperor’s deep, conflicting desire to reconquer the Lost Fourteen Prefectures, Kitai’s old territories which are now ruled by the Xiaolu. Ren Daiyan’s dream is to enter the court and lead an army to reconquer the Prefectures, restoring the glory of Kitai. He is, however, only a teenager—not quite a man—fighting imaginary enemies in a glade. After killing a band of outlaws single-handedly on the road one day, his life changes irrevocably. The arc of his life then follows a larger-than-life curve. He wanders down paths with random forks, always keeping his single desire at heart: the restoration of an empire. Meanwhile, Kay weaves a brilliant subplot involving the poet Lin Shan. A woman given a man’s education by her devoted father, Shan is an expert calligrapher and the founder of a new genre of poetry: the ci. A succinct definition of ci is “new words set to old music,” which may refer to a theme in Kay’s novels of historical patterns being repeated in slightly different ways, during each time cycle. When Shan meets her poet idol Lu Chen, just before he is sent into exile, she becomes drawn into the world of court intrigue, where she must use her power as a poet to protect those she loves. In his signature manner, Kay depicts her feminine viewpoint in the present tense, to demonstrate how focused and observant (in-the-moment) a woman must be to survive in a ruthless, patriarchal world. Shan speaks out of turn with the men, asserting herself in ways that have become taboo, ever since women were blamed for the laziness of the Ninth Dynasty court. However, the present-day Twelfth Dynasty is just as decadent as the Ninth, though its glory is less. Shan is invited into the Genyue, a beautiful imperial garden sponsored by the Flowers and Rocks Network. The brainchild of prime minister Kai Zhen and his ally Wu Tong, the garden is a vision of harmony created at the expense of the lives of many peasants. Shan will have to court imperial patronage and favour here, placing her life in danger, even as Daiyan fights the Flowers and Rocks as an outlaw. Their lives inevitably interweave, like silk. Mixing the worlds of politics, art, and war is Kay’s trademark, and he does this while asking many questions about how history must be remembered, and how seemingly inevitable events actually carry themselves out. Kay also asks how legends are made, a process that may involve valiant actions on the part of real men and women, but also, inevitably, storytelling—and a dash of fantasy about the past, which inflates heroes to truly immense proportions. All this is to say nothing of Kay’s wonderful poetic ability, the quality of his words that elevates his novel beyond the limitations of epic fantasy, into a more literary domain. Veterans of Kay will find nothing lacking in River of Stars and newcomers can find a great introduction to the author here. However, I suggest that a reader new to Kay should read Under Heaven first, if they wish to receive the full weight and effect of River of Stars. Other reviews: http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2013/02/interview-guy-gavriel-kay-author-of-river-of-stars/http://www.fantasyliterature.com/reviews/river-of-stars/http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2013/04/what-were-reading-river-of-stars-by-guy-gavriel-kay/
[The review is done here. Following are some observations on the book itself, concerning my previous studies on Kay, and containing some spoiler material.] Being a Kay veteran (I have read all of his books now), I smiled on occasion while reading River of Stars. This smile emerged not directly as a result of what the author wrote, but in how what he wrote found reflections in his earlier novels. I do not know whether Kay’s intent is responsible for these echoes, or if it is simply a set of imagery and wording that keeps popping up in his body of work, but I am inclined to think it is a mixture of both.
One thing to understand about Kay’s novels, is that all of them are in some way connected to his initial trilogyThe Fionavar Tapestry. Fionavar is known in his other novels by other names, such as Finavir (in Tigana) and Fiñar (in The Lions of Al-Rassan). The mentioning of Fionavar, or phrases that refer to the weaving of the Tapestry (such as “brightly woven,” “a bright loom,” or, in River of Stars, “the Weaver Maid”) tie each of his novels to Fionavar, which is the first world, the world of which all other worlds are merely reflections or echoes. Whether it is the author returning to similar images or themes due to the unconscious patterns of his mind, or a deliberate attempt to establish parallelism across his novels, Kay’s repetitions can all be attributed to the Tapestry. In River of Stars, there are two easy examples of parallelism: one is a reflection from The Summer Tree and the other is from The Lions of Al-Rassan. The Xiaolu emperor has a custom where women dance around a fire for him. This dance also serves to demonstrate power, when the emperor forces the leaders of subservient tribes to dance. In The Fionavar Tapestry, the nomadic Dalrei tribe, a horse-riding people of the plain, have a prominent custom of almost exactly the same type as the Xiaolu. The parallelism suggests that in some mysterious way, the Xiaolu are reflections of the Dalrei. Secondly, there is a moment in River of Stars greatly similar to one in The Lions of Al-Rassan. The brother of the war leader of the Altai tribe essentially repeats King Ramiro’s speech, which describes his dream of being able to ride his horse into the sea on the other side of Al-Rassan (in the Altai’s case, Kitai), claiming all the lands behind him as part of his kingdom. The language of the two speeches are so closely linked that the only explanation is that Kay is trying to deliberately draw a parallel. Those familiar with the poetry Kay brings to his writing will know that he would never repeat himself out of laziness. The King Ramiro grace note suggests that readers who are familiar with Kay should compare the narrative arc of restoration and reconquest in River of Stars to the perspective of the Jaddites in their reconquest of Al-Rassan. The Jaddite reconquest was seen as an arrogant assertion in Kay’s earlier novel, a “reconquest” of a land that was never theirs in the first place. This adds to the sense that the Altai have no right to conquer the Xiaolu—but also challenges the idea that Kitai has a right to reconquer the Lost Fourteen, which have for so long been in Xiaolu hands. After all, whether the peasants in the Lost Fourteen must pay taxes to the Xiaolu or the Kitan emperor makes no difference to them. We find ourselves asking, “How long do a people have to live in a country before they become native to it?” This question was also asked in Kay’s novel Ysabel, regarding Phelan the Roman’s integration into Celtic lands in the south of France, over the thousands of years he’s been living there. As a matter of fact, the moral ambiguity of reconquest becomes one of the central issues in River of Stars. The novel ends up questioning whether it is best to attempt to amend the brokenness of an empire through reconquest, or whether peace is best established in other ways, such as through compromise. River of Stars sets up a narrative of wrongness, thinning, recognition, and healing (terms by John Clute; see link) quite distinctly in its narrative arc—and in a distinctive Kay-like manner, questions that arc. In a way, his novel attempts to answer the question, “Is an individual really, in the words of Ninth Dynasty poet Sima Zian, ‘powerless to amend a broken world?'” The answer might surprise you. No more spoilers; read the book.
I was in my second year at McGill University, struggling to find a mentor for my Honours thesis in English literature. I’m in an advanced program, and I needed it to graduate and to develop my own critical voice. Oh, the ambition! My mission was to write on fantasy literature, a genre I have enjoyed since I was young. The problem was, fantasy literature was not a subject many of my professors were familiar with. Fortunately, I lucked out: Prof. Ken Borris had read some Tolkien, was an expert on Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and knew about genre theory. My quest towards historical fantasy had begun.
My thesis was entitled “Fantasies of History: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Synthesis of the Historical Fantasy Novel.” As the title suggests, I reached the conclusion that history is fantasy.
Now to explain.
For my Honours thesis, I looked at the work of Guy Gavriel Kay, a Canadian historical fantasy writer. Three books of his, Tigana, The Lions of Al-Rassan, and Under Heaven, formed the basis of my analysis of how he combines the disparate genres of fantasy and the historical novel. I first encountered Kay’s works at The Blue Metropolis Festival in Montreal, where he had just promoted Under Heaven (I missed him!). I picked up Tigana, taking note of the promise on its back cover that it was possibly the greatest single-volume fantasy novel ever written.
Who could forget the story of Tigana’s obliterated name, and the struggles of Prince Alessan, Baerd, Devin, Catriana and the other Tiganese rebels as they worked underground to overthrow the tyrant that destroyed their nation? The ending was nothing less than sublime. I was hooked.
A few years later, having read The Lions of Al-Rassan, I decided to commit my thesis to Kay’s novels.
What a task it was! I spent an entire summer reading nearly all of Kay’s works (I could not squeeze The Fionavar Tapestry into my summer). Emerging from that reading experience, I committed myself to understanding how exactly Kay creates this particular genre of historical fantasy.
The Argument of my Essay
Historical fantasy? What a strange term, when you think about it! One word implies the imagination, magic, wizards, and prophecy. The other, the dry, realistic rendering of cause-and-effect, dates to be memorized by rote, and certainly nothing outside of the probable, let alone the impossible.
I had to decide how Kay reconciles these two essentially opposite modes of literature.
Fortunately, Kay himself had a strategy up his sleeve: each of his novels are set in lands that I termed “mirror worlds.” These settings, such as the Peninsula of the Palm (Tigana), Al-Rassan (Lions), and Kitai (Under Heaven), resemble, but do not not actually represent, real-world historical settings: Renaissance Italy, medieval Al-Andalus (southern Spain), and Tang Dynasty China. These mirror worlds allow Kay latitude in writing his novels, since they do not have to follow real-world events. As my term implies, these settings are only reflections of reality, and the stories can be universalized, or reflected, onto any other appropriate historical context. Thus, Tigana‘s story of colonial rebellion may apply to Africa, Ireland, India, post-Communist Eastern Europe, or even my own province, Québec. The Lions of Al-Rassan‘s tragedy of sectarian warfare is easily applicable to the Middle Eastern conflicts of today.
Using these mirror worlds, Kay is able to impose structure onto narratives that form analogues to reality. This is significant because history itself often seems random, simply effects following causes. When we conceive history as flux, narratives cannot be formed about it and poets rebel. To paraphrase a line in Under Heaven, human beings need to make stories out of history; stories are a fundamental human need.
Here is where fantasy comes in. John Clute, a writer and editor for The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, proposes that what makes a fantasy novel a fantasy, aside from the existence of the impossible, is the presence of an underlying, fully exposed Story. Unlike historical fiction, fantasy flaunts its central Story, such that Clute capitalizes the word when describing it. The Story must in some way become reconciled to historical narratives, which tend to reject Story. He proposes four terms to outline the central narrative of what he calls the “fully-structured fantasy“:
1. Wrongness: this happens when the protagonist first sees a hint that something is wrong in the world, that the land will be (or already is) subjected to thinning. Think about the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings first seeing the Black Riders in the Shire. Their grim shadowed forms reveal that wrongness is at work.
2. Thinning: this may be the fading away of the land, an amnesia where the protagonist forgets his name, or the result of the unjust rule of a tyrant. When the Elves with their magic flee Middle Earth because of the growing evil of Sauron, leaving the land to the mundane race of Men, that is thinning.
3. Recognition: when the protagonist realizes that his life has the “coherence of Story” and he realizes what he must do in order the save the thinned land. Aragorn’s recognition is when he realizes that he is destined to become King of Gondor. The crownless again shall be king…
4. Healing: the salvation of the thinned land. Ring is destroyed. Aragorn becomes King of Gondor. Sam spreads his magic seeds to restore the Shire.
It is not accidental, of course, that I use J.R.R. Tolkien‘s trilogy as an example here. Tolkien anticipates Clute’s structure when he states that “eucatastrophe” (the opposite of catastrophe) is the must-have ending of a fantasy novel. Eucatastrophe more or less corresponds to healing and is the happy ending of the faerie-story, an uplifting surge of joy and renewal. It is also in direct opposition to how Bertrand Russel understands history: as essentially catastrophic. After all, how can history have a happy ending (or even an ending at all) in the midst of civil wars, genocides, and holocausts? In historical fantasy, if one is to preserve the fantasy novel structure, how can the happy ending be applied to the historical novel’s structure while still remaining truthful to historical reality?
That was my guiding question while writing this essay. I will not re-articulate my precise argument–I hope to publish the essay in its entirety online in the future–but I will summarize by explaining how Under Heaven dealt with this issue.
The Two Smoking Philosophers:
Under Heaven is where Kay’s historical fantasy becomes most fully itself. It is a fully hybridized historical fantasy because it employs each of Clute’s four terms while remaining true to the nature of catastrophe.
Wrongness foreshadows the An Li Rebellion when the reader is introduced to the monstrous military general An Li, a grotesquely obese, illiterate barbarian who speaks out of turn at the court because the Emperor assigns him too much power.
Thinning happens as a direct effects of An Li’s arrogance, when he rebels against the Emperor and initiates the rebellion. Mass death, starvation, and even cannibalism ensue, as the capital of Kitai is destroyed.
The protagonist, Shen Tai, might have prevented the rebellion when he was alone with An Li in his carriage. However, his Recognition of historical narrative is rejected by his wise friend, the poet Sima Zian, who argues that it is arrogance to think that we can understand how our actions can change the future. Tai’s recognition is not so much a recognition of an underlying story as much as a recognition that he cannot know the story.
Complete Healing is impossible. Sima Zian says, “The world is not broken any more than it always, always is.” The poet implies that thinning is the real state of the world and that the world is unrecoverable because it is always in that state. Perhaps Tai’s recognition is that history is a story of thinning rather than healing.
However, Under Heaven does not lack a Eucatastrophe. Rather, a happy ending is possible for certain individuals, including the protagonist, when granted a refuge from historical forces. Eucatastrophe does not seek to re-make history (as it does in Tigana) but to imply that there is hope even within the terrible catastrophe of a civil war.
History as Fantasy
Under Heaven is also remarkable in how its narrator, who takes on the persona of a historian, challenges historicism. For instance, take the following quotation from the book:
It is a truth about the nature of human beings that we seek—even demand—order and pattern in our lives, in the flow and flux of history and our own times.
Philosophers have noted this and mused upon it. Those advising princes, emperors, kings have sometimes proposed that this desire, this need, be used, exploited, shaped. That a narrative, a story, the story of a time, a war, a dynasty be devised to steer the understanding of a people to where the prince desires it to go.
Desire shapes historical narratives. And what is desire, but a fantasy, an imagination, of what history should ideally look like, according to one’s own opinion? Kay’s narratives may use fantasy (in the literary sense), but he avoids the arrogance of imposing his own desire onto historical flux, by creating mirror worlds. Using this technique, he not only orders his narratives according to the conventions of wrongness, thinning, recognition, and eucatastrophe, but exposes how historians do occasionally make arrogant assertions.
In conclusion, Kay’s historical fantasy novels reveal how history is fantasy. It reveals how people compose their own historical narratives, according to their own desire, or fancy. Therefore, I also think that an understanding of history as fantasy can lead us to see how desire causes historians to compose narratives, revealing the hidden ideologies that lie behind those stories.
Clute, John and John Grant, eds. “Bondage,” “Fantasy,” “Healing,” “History in Fantasy” “Kay, Guy Gavriel,” “Recognition,” “Story,” “Thinning” “Wrongness.” The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. 125-126 337-339, 458, 468-469, 530-531, 804-805, 899-901, 942-943, 1038-1039.
Kay, Guy Gavriel. E-Mail Interview. 19 November 2012.
_____.“Home and Away.” Bright Weavings: the Worlds of Guy Gavriel Kay. 2002. Web. 4 Apr. 2012.
_____.The Lions of Al-Rassan. Toronto: Penguin, 1995. 1-635.
_____. Tigana. Toronto: Penguin, 1992. 1-793.
_____. Under Heaven. Toronto: Penguin, 2010. 1-710.
Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Faerie Stories.” Tree and Leaf. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965. 3-84.
Toner, Christopher. “Catastrophe and Eucatastrophe: Russell and Tolkien on the True Form of Fiction.” New Blackfriars 89.1019 (2008): 77-87. EBSCOhost. Blackwell Publishing, 2008. Web. 12 Sep. 2012.
On the cover of my Penguin edition of Guy Gavriel Kay’s novel Under Heaven is a little circular stamp that reveals that it made the Globe and Mail’s top 100 books. It must be understood that these books do NOT just include fantasy literature! This book has proven a better read in the eyes of the Globe and Mail than many thousands of other books published that are more mainstream in subject matter. Kay has scored big time by achieving this. He is an author who blends genres. The historical fantasy hybrid novel that emerges proves to be superior to other works of fantasy literature. With good reason. The story is very powerful.
Under Heaven tells the story of the consequences of a gift. A Sardian horse in the empire of Ninth Dynasty Kitai, a land based on Tang Dynasty China, is a gift that can greatly honour an individual. Superior to other Kitan horses, these Heavenly Horses must be imported from beyond a merciless desert across the Silk Road. When Shen Tai, the Second Son of the general Shen Gao, buries the bones of the dead slain during a terrible battle, he is gifted with no fewer than 250 of these supremely valued horses, an extravagant gift from the Princess of Tagur, Chen-Wang.
The world could bring you poison in a jeweled cup, or surprising gifts. Sometimes you didn’t know which of them it was. This quote from the book becomes the mantra defining Tai’s perilous situation. The horses are his, and he must choose what to do with them. He is going to get sucked away from his solitude in Kuala Nor into the ‘gold and jade’ of the court of Kitai.
By now the motif of ‘the decadent court’ is a staple of Kay novels, and he has honed it to perfection. The tension invoked in such court scenes keep you at the edge of your seat even though there may be no physical action. People use words as weapons, and the game is all about reading faces to discern motivations. Tai is an upstart at court and is being placed in a position of considerable danger, so he will have to use his observational skills to their best advantage. Honestly, if we had time travel, a reader of Guy Gavriel Kay could train in the ways of court life by reading his novels and then go to the sixteenth century and rise to a high station in Elizabethan England. Just about. Take time to read these scenes. So much tension is invoked that it is a model about how to write dialogue effectively.
Moderate spoiler alert for next three paragraphs.
Without giving too much away, there is a divisive feud between two high-ranking officials in the world of the court. The 250 horses complicates that. But one day, rebellion breaks–the Rebellion, as it turns out–and Guy Gavriel Kay writes the following line: “historians, without exception, appeared to join in accepting the number of forty million lives as a reasonable figure for the consequences of the An Li Rebellion” (529).
You read that and then you think, “Oh, $!%@.” And you read on. You have to. Because civilization is going downhill and you can enjoy the ride.
Aside from depicting court life tension and intrigue, the thing that Kay does particularly well is depicting the collapse and changing of civilizations. This puts Kay’s novel on an epic scope. He adds dignity to the genre of epic fantasy by bringing in the historical. Many failures of epic fantasy miss the dignity behind Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which comes from the tragic scope of the Elves leaving Middle Earth, the fall of the race of Men from the glory of Numenor, and Frodo’s symbolic death. Tolkien, the father of modern fantasy, finds a closer kin in Guy Gavriel Kay, who keeps the tragic elements. Truth be told, reading the last chapters of Under Heaven is like watching a train-wreck in slow motion (anyone ever see Meet the Fockers? Another kind of train-wreck…). But it was a good train-wreck, and who knew just watching civilization collapse into chaos could be so entertaining! Not to mention strongly disturbing, seeing as the rebellion’s creation of a wide famine results in the appearance of cannibalism. I might add, however, that the ending is optimistic. I am not lying: I actually almost cried in one of the final scenes, and I do not cry at movies, let alone books.
No more spoilers!
As an English student, I will be analyzing all of Kay’s novels in my Honours thesis. I find provocative the fact that Kay includes some sections of his book devoted to telling how future Kitai will make sense of the events that occur in his book. No other Kay book, to my knowledge, really has that explicit a dealing with history, though all of his books deal with history in some capacity.
Keep alert of a possible (but only in the discussion-phase) movie deal for Under Heaven. It will be a wicked Chinese movie like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, or at least it could be. I can seriously see that coming about. Whatever movie they make of this book, if any at all, will be awesome.