History as Fantasy: My Honours Thesis on Guy Gavriel Kay Summarized

The Build-Up to my Honours Thesis

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.

It was.

Guy Gavriel Kay: Historical fantasy author
Guy Gavriel Kay: Historical fantasy author

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.

John Clute: Theorist of the Fantastic.
John Clute: Theorist of the Fantastic.

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:

Believes that historical catastrophe is encompassed by the joy of eucatastrophe.
JRR Tolkien believes that historical catastrophe is encompassed by the joy of eucatastrophe.

 

Also a pipe-smoker. Believes that catastrophe is the inevitable pattern of history.
Bertrand Russel also smokes a pipe. He believes that catastrophe is the inevitable pattern of history.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Under Heaven

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 Under Heavenprevented 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.

 

Works Cited:

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.

 

Photo Creds:

Guy Gavriel Kay: http://profunduslibrum.blogspot.ca/2012/10/guy-gavriel-kay-ysabel.html

John Clute: http://www.wfc2012.org/goh-johnclute01.html

JRR Tolkien: http://www.nndb.com/people/511/000022445/

Bertrand Russel: http://hugnad.wordpress.com/2012/06/12/bertrand-russell-why-i-am-not-a-christian/

Under Heaven Cover: http://deconcrit.wordpress.com/tag/under-heaven/

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay: Blending Fantasy and History

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.