When is it best to remember? When is it best to forget?
Sit with this question.
Ask yourself what memories in your life are worth keeping. Some memories we treasure for sentimental reasons, while some were part of our education, part of what made us into who we are today. But some memories are better worth forgetting.
Some memories we just want to forget because we find them embarrassing. However, there are some memories that, more profoundly, hold us back from realizing our fullest potential as human beings.
It is possible to be enslaved to the past. That’s the insight Nietzsche arrives at in his essay “On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life.” Living historically can be life-giving and can lend us towards tremendous insight into our life and times. But living with too much awareness of how our actions have repercussions can paralyze us into inaction.
I recently wrote an essay on this topic entitled “The Virtue of Forgetting: On Memory and Oblivion.” In it, I discuss how presentations made at Concordia University’s 2019 Liberal Arts Spring Colloquium last February treated the topics of memory and forgetting. The presentations ranged from Roman history, the works of Anton Chekov, and African Diaspora art. I reinterpreted the presentations in light of Nietzsche’s article, which was assigned to the audience as a reading for the Thomas More Institute’s interactive panel discussion that closed the colloquium.
A Multicultural Utopia: Historicizing New Fantasy in Charles de Lint’s Moonheart
“Utopia would seem to offer the spectacle of one of those rare phenomena whose concept is indistinguishable from its reality, whose ontology coincides with its representation”: what Fredric Jameson says in his essay “The Politics of Utopia” might also be said about the existence of fantasy (35). Charles de Lint’s modern fantasy novel Moonheart: A Romance (1984) represents utopia by distending reality and merging contemporary urban Canada with supernatural forces from First Nations and Celtic folklore. Laurence Steven terms de Lint’s novel a “new fantasy” for Canada’s “majority multiculture” (70). Referring to Jameson’s theories of interpretation in The Political Unconscious, I will present Moonheart as symbolically resolving cultural anxieties about Canada’s colonial history, through its Othering of the figure of the “colonizer” in its romance structure (Mains 347). Moonheart’s liberal multicultural ideology exists in an uneasy relationship to its rhetorical structure of intrusion, which adds colonial resonances to its inside/outside, self/other divisions. Despite the limits of multiculturalism, de Lint’s use of fantasy and magic is subversive in how it functions as a tactic of representational space in opposition to the strategy of realism, the hegemony of capitalism, and the state’s production of space. Historicizing Moonheart locates it as a text that imagines a utopia during the rise of Canada’s policy of liberal multiculturalism, while using fantasy as a visionary technique to resolve anxieties about the Other, the colonial past, and the capitalist present.
Attebery in his essay “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy” ventures to define fantasy as the formal “meeting ground between empirical and traditional world views,” but fails to grasp the relevance of Fredric Jameson to his own definition, dismissing strict political readings of fantasy as “beside the point” (10). I differ from Attebery in my use of Jameson to historicize the politics of fantasy. In The Political Unconscious, Jameson describes the form of the novel “as not so much an organic unity as a symbolic act that must reunite or harmonize heterogenous narrative paradigms which have their own specific and contradictory ideological meaning” (130-1). Once these narrative paradigms are identified, it becomes possible to historicize modern fantasy, which borrows from romance and yet relies on a grounding in realism. This is particularly true in Moonheart, which is a “contemporary fantasy,” a genre of modern fantasy that, according to John Clute, “sets the mundanity of the present day in clear opposition to the fantasy premise” (225).
In order to historicize Moonheart, it is necessary to understand the full significance of why Laurence Steven calls it a “new fantasy” (70), a term that places de Lint’s innovative genre on a synchronic axis that stretches back to what might be called the imperialist tradition in fantasy. Such early authors of fantasy included Lord Dunsany, who influenced de Lint. Dunsany wrote “oriental fantasy” (Clute 734) in his works The Book of Wonder and Tales of Wonder and was profoundly implicated with the structures of British imperialism (House-Thomas 89). De Lint broke from this tradition in the 1980s, during the beginnings of Canada’s commitment to multiculturalism. Northrop Frye observes the “creative schizophrenia” that comes from artists being conscious of Canada as “not only a nation but a colony in an empire” (qtd. in Steven 62); likewise, Linda Hutcheon claims that Canada is both capable of critiquing imperialism “and complicit with it” (qtd in Steven 62). Steven argues that authors of new fantasy are frustrated since, in their borrowings from mythology and folklore, they are constantly forced to adopt either an imperialist attitude of cultural appropriation, or to submit to the cultural colonialism of Europe.
Steven argues that new fantasy, emerging after the 1960s, resolves this tension by letting authors go beyond the “dyad of colonizer/colonized” (63), enacting Margaret Atwood’s idea of the “third thing […] somebody who would be neither a killer or a victim” (qtd. in Steven 62). New fantasy blends realism and fantasy into a hybrid genre that emphasizes what Homi Bhabha calls the “hybridity” of the nation-state (qtd. in Steven 63). New fantasy recognizes the dialectical complexity of cultural interaction over the course of history.
The Canadian Multiculturalism Act of 1988, which followed Pierre-Elliot Trudeau’s introduction of Canada’s Multiculturalism Policy in 1971 (Dewing 16), was created, in the words of Michelle Reid, not to “infringe on the autonomy of First Nations” or on other ethnic groups (426). Multiculturalism is Canada’s state policy for the management of immigration and cultural difference. However, the mosaic metaphor for Canadian multiculturalism also implies, according to Reid, a “gridlocked rigidity” (425). For the Canadian nation-state, the management of groups requires clear divisions between them. According to Henri Lefebvre, this includes organizing spaces into cultural “ghettos” (“State” 94), such as First Nations reservations. Multiculturalism serves the Canadian nation-state as a policy that homogenizes the hybridity that characterizes difference in new fantasy.
In Moonheart, the chronotope of the Otherworld serves as an ideal stage on which a narrative depicting a more dialectical approach to cultural difference can be played out. Mikhail Bakhtin describes the chronotope as “the primary means for materializing time and space […] for concretizing representation” (250). Space and time in the primeval forests of the Otherworld, where much of the action of the novel takes place, are more flexible, with multiple levels of different worlds interpenetrating each another—the way cultures should behave, according to progressive multiculturalism. Time and space—even thousands of years or kilometres—can be crossed in a few instants. The Otherworld, which Mains describes as a “multicultural utopia” (348), succeeds in bringing cultures closer together, particularly those of the ancient Celtic and Canadian First Nations traditions.
The most succinct articulation of the principles of de Lint’s utopia is in the Forest Lord’s ‘new way,’ in which First Nations and European cultures can find harmony and freedom from the burdens of the past. The Forest Lord appears after Kieran Foy, one of Moonheart’s protagonists, a magician of mixed French-Canadian and Irish blood, fights the War Chief of an Otherworld tribe in a ritual combat. Although the War Chief draws first blood, and is declared the victor, he attempts to kill Kieran to prevent him from becoming a member of the tribe. The Forest Lord himself stops the spear with magic force and tells the War Chief, “I would have you accept a new Way. Truth wears many faces, Red-Spear. Many paths lead to one destination. It is the spirit that will not accept change that will dwindle and be lost. […] There can be no return to the old ways. Life goes on […] If it were otherwise, life would be stagnant” (384). Since tribes will now be permeable to outsiders, the utopia is one that recognizes hybridity and rejects evidence of cultural ‘impurity.’
Despite de Lint’s representation of unity, the bias of his particular version of multiculturalism is Eurocentric. Anglo-Canadian characters still occupy the central narrative of Moonheart, which is utopian insofar as it claims to transcend the errors of the past and anticipates a better possible world to emerge out of the present. It locates what Fredric Jameson would call the “root of all evil” (“Utopia” ) in what Mains calls “the human force that perpetuates the colonial encounters of the past into the lived present” (347). The Forest Lord’s new Way roughly corresponds to the classic liberal multiculturalism of the Trudeau era. While not containing the faults of conservative multiculturalism, which was founded on white supremacy (McLaren 47), liberal multiculturalism still caters to the values of dominant groups. According to Peter McLaren, liberal multiculturalism is predicated on the “natural equality” between all races that enables them “to compete equally in a capitalist society,” a view that “often collapses into an ethnocentric and oppressively universalistic humanism” that identifies the norm of acceptability with “Anglo-American cultural-political communities” (McLaren 51). De Lint’s rejection of imperialism in favour of liberal multiculturalism places him as a representative of a particular historical moment, when new fantasy as a specific form symbolically reconciled the divisions in Canadian society in the 1980s.
The romance narrative of Moonheart can thereby be historicized through its ‘Othering’ of imperialism. Evil is always connected to “Otherness,” explains Fredric Jameson; an “Other” is considered “evil because he is Other, alien, different, strange, unclean, and unfamiliar” (Unconscious 101). This is as true in imperialist fantasies as it is in multicultural, or ‘new,’ fantasies. The ideologeme of the good/evil binary presents itself as “a form of social praxis, that is, as a symbolic resolution to a concrete historical situation” (104). Moonheart attempts to resolve the political struggle between the federal government and First Nations, who have fought to assert their claims over their cultural status and their ancestral lands, by symbolically depicting a resolution to colonial history in which the historical past and present encounter each other. Since the ‘good’ is liberal multiculturalism, then the ‘evil’ must be its opposite, namely imperialism. However, there is no straightforward battle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ characters per se; rather, since Moonheart is a romance, in the words of Jameson, “the ‘experience’ or the seme of evil [is] expelled from the realm of interpersonal or inner-wordly relations [to] be projectively reconstituted into a free-floating and disembodied element,” which is to say, a supernatural element (Unconscious 106-7).
Mal’ek’a, The-Dread-That-Walks-Nameless, is the evil supernatural force that completes Moonheart’s ideologeme. The evil spirit comes “from across the Great Water” (20). The monster’s association with Europe is not accidental. The quin’on’a, or manitous, call Mal’ek’a “the white man’s curse” (366), confirming that de Lint has ‘Othered’ imperialism and has displaced this evil from human social relations onto a supernatural entity.
The denizens of Tamson House represent the ‘good’ side in the ideologeme. A home for those “different from the norm” (29), Tamson House is its own chronotope. The House acts as a bridge between the mundane world and the Otherworld, what Michel de Certeau would call a “transformation of the void into a plenitude, of the in-between into an established place” (“Stories” 127). It is a multicultural space, where, according to the novel’s protagonist Sara Kendell, “Stepping over its threshold was like stepping into a place where everything you knew had to be forgotten to make way for new rules” (29). The House is a place of diversity, tolerance, and redemption. When Mal’ek’a’s minions, a band of tragg’a, or wolfmen, besiege Tamson House after transporting it into the Otherworld, de Lint evokes colonial history by mimicking the mythology of the surrounded fort—classically, an inside/outside division that pits Europeans against First Nations. In this case, however, the outside Other is Mal’ek’a, who represents colonial history itself. Tamson House—a building given the power of dialogue—tells Jamie Tams, the house’s owner, that he is not, in fact, facing Mal’ek’a, “but the evil of our ancestors given a life of its own” (416). Since Jamie in fact shares blood with the originator of Mal’ek’a, the Celtic druid Thomas Hengwyr, the irony of the siege becomes that the enemy is within. This twist implies that European-descended Anglo-Canadians, such as Jamie and Sara, have a dark history behind their heritage and an accompanying moral resposibility to overcome it. Jamie sacrifices himself to slake Mal’ek’a’s revenge at the cost of his life. As a symbolic act that mediates social relations, this ending satisfies the unquantifiable cost that Canada owes First Nations for hundreds of years of colonial abuse. The defeat of Mal’ek’a is thus a symbolic way of clearing the grievances of history so that white, Anglo-Canadians can transcend the mistakes of past.
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To create the animated stone, take the juice of a Saturnine herb to extract mercury and evaporate it to get the purest earth. Join this with its like in equal weight and dissolve both with a crude metallic humor. Putrify for forty days. You may also calcine the earth with fire alone, join it with sublimatic arsenic, and it will be the greatest arcanum for human bodies.
If visions of a middle aged man in a dark robe fumbling in his laboratory to create the elixir of life appear to you when reading this alchemical recipe, then you already have a sense of the alchemist’s quest.
Immortality and infinite wealth were the boons such alchemists pursued, thinking it possible to turn base metals into gold. Although modern-day atom-smashing, particle-accelerating science has proven this technically possible on a tiny scale, early chemists such as Nicholas Flamel, Gerhard Dorn, Cornelius Agrippa, and Thomas Vaughan dreamed of attaining the impossible.
Yet for all their obvious mistakes, alchemists were pioneers. Their techniques of manipulating matter through sublimation, coagulation, putrefaction, and distillation eventually benefited early scientific chemistry. Furthermore, the philosophy of turning lead into gold–that humanity had the power to increase the quality of the world around them through their knowledge of the natural order–has remained a central motive behind many scientists.
Today I will take you into the world of the alchemists, and you can judge for yourself whether they were hacks, or spiritual idealists devoted to an old magic system.
First let me show you inside the laboratory, the best place as any to learn about the alchemist trade. The main piece of equipment was the athanor, a cylindrical furnace stove where the alchemists lit fires in order to refine lead. Inside the hollow chamber within that athanor are a series of pots placed within each other, linked to the outside via narrow tubes where substances may be poured in for experiments. The athanor represents the womb where the Philosopher’s Stone was made. It is also the name I selected to brand my editing service.
Gerhard Dorn described four steps to the process of attaining the Stone. To attain the quintessence of matter, it was necessary to putrefy the body, decomposing all matter to a uniform blackness, purify it, then attempt to coagulate or condense the resulting spirit into a gold body. If you have any idea what that means, then I applaud you: alchemists concealed their secrets behind a web of symbolism and occult language, rather like the notation doctors use when they write subscriptions.
In order to attain the Stone of Harry Potter fame, the alchemist went through four processes using the athanor. These are called nigredo, albedo, citrinitas, and rubedo: blackness, whiteness, yellowness, and then redness, each earthly colour endowed with its own symbolism. Not only did these processes for alchemical transformation correspond to actual techniques used in a laboratory, but Carl Jung found archetypical resonances charting the progress of self-individuation within this symbolism. Whereas nigredo represents “the dark night of the soul,” albedo represents the male and female aspects of the self, citrinitas represents wisdom, and rubedo wholeness.
Once these steps had been accomplished, the alchemist made “gold.” But saying this was the only goal of the alchemist’s quest would be limiting. “Gold” was merely a symbol for attaining “God,” specifically, attaining God’s creative matter, the power of the Word, or logos, itself. In the beginning was the Word, reads John’s Gospel, and many alchemists had as their goal the discovery of this primal creative substance. It was also called prima materia.
Within all matter, this piece of God’s own substance supposedly resided, and the alchemist’s job was to penetrate the form of matter in order to reach this seed. Indeed, some alchemists believed all matter to be alive in a way reminiscent of plants. Iron, gold, copper, and other metals supposedly “grew” underground. And attaining the “sperm” of the prima materia was a way to impregnate the “womb” of matter, giving birth to new substances. A menstruum was a solvent used to reduce a substance to prima materia and was considered the mother from which all metals were derived.
Since attaining the Stone required alchemists to search into the heart of matter itself (not dissimilar to our current search for the God particle), it is no wonder that the alchemists used VITRIOL as their motto. This sulphate of iron or copper makes a powerful sulfuric acid and forms the first letters of a Latin phrase: Visita Interlarem Terrae Rectifando Ivenies Operae Lapidem. “Go down into the bowels of the Earth; by distillation, you will find the stone for the Work.”
Often venturing this deep into the mysteries required the alchemist to go “underground” in more than one sense. The quest for the Work proved too expensive to pursue for many. Many alchemists fell into debt. They were often lonely, ostracized from a society that did not understand their beliefs. Though they thought they had greater insight into the beliefs central to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, the representatives of orthodoxy would beg to disagree, claiming them to be heretics. This required alchemists to be secretive, to pass as much as possible under the noses of those who wished them evil.
Usually alchemists kept their athanor outside for ventilation, ordering clay materials from the local potter to construct their all-important furnace. They would also require an assistant–or accomplice–to keep the bellows going, like at a smithy. They had to face dangers from the authorities and may have had to pay them to turn a blind eye to their experiments. Furthermore, there was always the risk of lead and mercury poisoning, which may have caused some of the delirium experienced by these early scientists.
Given the risky nature of the work–especially in terms of finances–it is not surprising that many “alchemists” were less interested in unearthing the blessed Word, but in swindling kings and dukes of their money. These charlatans would place a rock in a pan of mercury, which they stirred with a hollow stirring rod stoppered with clay at one end. After stirring the mercury and claiming the everyday rock to be the “Stone,” the mercury would evaporate and the clay melt, letting the gold powder stuffed in the stirring rod pour into the pan. From the observer’s perspective, this would seem magical. Once their sleight of hand trickery was discovered, such alchemists had to ditch town and flee the king’s men.
This is not, however, to imply that all who practiced alchemy were charlatans. There were those like Gerhard Dorn who believed alchemy was best used to cure the sick, rather than for self-enrichment. Whether their cures worked is another issue. While it is doubtful alchemical cures were anything like modern medicine, a well-versed alchemist who was aware of the sympathetic bonds between planets and metals may have also know of the bonds between planets and herbs. Since planets and stars were said to direct the fate of humanity due to the phenomenon of stellar influence, perceived bonds between planets like Venus and Mars to metals like copper and iron supposedly contained great power. Medicinal herbs, whether due to their inherent chemical properties or their magical affinity to the planets, in all likelihood really did heal certain diseases and afflictions.
It may be possible that, even in their blindness, alchemists found certain effects that they observed to work reliably, though they ascribed them to sympathetic magic rather than the physical properties of the plants and metals themselves. However, one thing is certain, and that is that modern science would not have been the same without the efforts of alchemists. At the turn between the Renaissance and Early Modern period, alchemists participated in one of the great transmutations of European history: the transition from a traditional, magical worldview into the stabilized, rationalized, scientific mindset that defines the worldview of our own age.
Unreliable narrators have a way of turning up in the most recent short stories I have drafted, so, in the interest of attaching this idea to historical fantasy, here is my blog post of this week:
In my Honours thesis, I drew attention to the conflict posed by fusing the historical novel with the fantasy novel. If, as Tolkien argues, fantasy relies on eucatastrophe, then a historical fantasy must incorporate a happy ending to catastrophic historical events. Imposing happy endings on history inevitably draws attention to the fact that our histories of time are actually narratives—and that these narratives are shaped by our own desires, or fantasies.
Building off these ideas, I take a broad view of the term “historical fantasy.” It refers to more than simply a genre, but to a phenomenon—how all narratives of the past reflect our own desires. History itself is a fantasy, a mode of desire.
No one can retell the past in a complete, objective way. A corollary: whoever writes an account of the past can never be free of bias, no matter how scientifically they approach their tale-telling. After all, science is itself only one way of viewing the world. Culture and religion form other ways.
Since historical narratives can never be trusted to remain objective, it follows that to some extent all historians are unreliable. Not everything about the past can ever be known and even if we were capable of learning all the facts, the way we retell the past will carry a certain bias. It may never be possible to escape being an unreliable narrator. They are no longer the psychologically diseased and murderous viewpoint characters of an Edgar Allan Poe tale or a Robert Browning dramatic monologue. They are each of us.
Perhaps this is the reason why I have been drawn to unreliable narrators as a way to tell a historical fantasy story. If all narratives are unreliable, the possibility for them to be retold in a counter-factual way is a constant danger even for the most thorough historian. But if the character (re)telling the story is a drunken fool, an egomaniac, the unimpeachable emperor of a totalitarian nation, or a witch threatened with torture if she does not confess, then facts are all the more likely to become warped in radical ways. Occasionally—in the case of the witch—these distortions will be outright denials of consensus reality and of physics itself.
Hence you have a “fantasy” (being an imaginative trip of desire and wonder) that is “historical” (having happened, or claimed to have happened, in history).
When an entire nation is being subjected by a foreign will (like in Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay), be it another empire, race, or class, the cultural and economic pressures mounted on the people’s backs drive them to cherish their own identities. They become involved in retelling their nation’s history to keep their identities alive. During these tumultuous times, desires to modify the past emerge in the oppressed people, who glorify legends of the “Golden Age.” Hence the Saxon-dominated Britons and Welsh developed legends about the historical King Arthur, who was of their blood. And Geoffrey of Monmouth told a pro-Welsh tale to the later Norman conquerors in The History of the Kings of Britain. There are thousands of non-Eurocentric examples out there. If only I knew them all, I could try to list them.
Meanwhile, the dominators create their own stories to solidify their claim to the conquered land. The ideologies of conqueror and conquered vie for the status of having the “correct” interpretation of events. And you know what they say about history being written by the victors. The idea of “historical fantasy,” on the other hand, is subversive because it reveals that both sides of the argument are ultimately inaccurate or at least incomplete. Both versions of history are myths: each side may define its own identity, but it also avows the destruction or overturn of the other side.
Faced with these quandaries, no telling of history can be liberated from the conditions of history itself. In a sense, all history is therefore a fantasy. Catastrophe and eucatastrophe are two sides of viewing history, one no less legitimate than the other. A war may not always end happily, but in the end, the result is not outright catastrophe. A great man’s tragic death at the hand of assassins (the great Shakespearean tragedy Julius Caesar) is hardly the end of the world. Life goes on. Time goes on, and on, making the pain and happiness seem microscopic after the immense stretch of years, decades, centuries.
Humanity was not meant to see such long stretches of time. We are mortal and must make as much sense of eternity as we can in the short time we have to live. So we turn to the past in order to draw meaning from it. Faced with the nearly impossible task of finding a direct link to our ultimate origins, we inevitably imagine history. And doing so we necessarily tell a lie about history.
Yet those who tell such lies should not incur blame. We are human and we must live. We must tell stories. Faced with the objectivity of history, we might go insane seeing a meaningless space devoid of all human understanding. Our survival and spiritual well-being depends on having fantasies about history.
I conclude therefore that I may have been drawn to unreliable narrators because I realized that it so happens that all narrators are unreliable, no matter how confidently they may speak. Storytellers recognize that humanity needs narratives in order to survive. Fiction and falsehoods become more wholesome than the truth they are supposed to be detracting from: a disturbing thought. Is it better to lie? Or worse, perhaps all we can ever do is lie, since the truth remains forever indefinite.
Whatever the result of these sceptical musings may be, we may yet have one truth in which to take refuge: though a work of fiction may lie, it can still contain a glimpse of a deeper understanding of human nature. That is something mere history can never find.
In the end, the real story of the unreliable narrator is his own.
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.