We re-imagine World War I, a century after its declaration in 1914, as a time of heroic sacrifice. It was also a time of foreboding, since it alluded to the mass causalities that would follow in the various wars of the Twentieth Century. Even the peace treaty itself would provide the pretense for a new, still more disastrous war in 1939. Brian Gottheil’s historical fantasy novel Gateways is just such a world, where a peace treaty to end a disastrous war might produce as many enemies as allies.
Caryn Hallom is First Minister of Deugan, the first woman to hold such an office in the democratic republic. She is responsible for the foreign policy of the Hallom Doctrine, which aims to reduce the threat of the Seffians, a group of religious fundamentalist terrorists, by bringing their land in the Fringes out from the New Empire’s control and into Deugan’s aegis. When Wassia closes the Amimi canal and Brealand responds to Deugan’s subsequent invasion of Wassia by declaring war, the continent falls into chaos. Though the world was told it would be over in a few span, it stretches on, a war on three fronts.
The Deugan President sends Caryn to the Gateway fort, on the frontier with Brealand, where the fate of the continent will be decided in blood, shells, and gas. Adding to the difficulty is that Caryn, thanks to Steffian propaganda, is widely thought to be a witch. She can indeed use magic–or as she calls it, energy–but only at terrible cost.
The energy is a mysterious, parasitic force of nature residing in certain Wells that are scattered throughout the continent. Energy cannot be manipulated, but it can be tamed. The energy has its own desires and appetites and the skill of the Secrets user is determined by how well one knows the energy. Most people cannot survive more than a day in a Well, and being in contact with the energy prematurely ages you. Caryn has already spent time in a Well, letting the energy seep into her body so she can learn to use its power. As a result, she has the body of a middle-aged woman but the mind and memories of a twenty-five-year-old.
Before the Well changed her forever, Caryn went by another name: Jayla. As Jayla, she fell in love with Brenner, the man with whom she spent months in the Well, their bodies slowly being destroyed as they learned how to manipulate the very energy that was killing them. Since Jayla escaped the Well, she and Brenner have not seen each other. But as fate would have it, the war will reunite the again–in the most unlikely manner.
Caryn will have to evade assassination plots, negotiate with the cool-headed and sardonic Brea ambassador Michael Ravencliffe, and survive bombardments and assaults within the maze of twisted passageways that form the Gateway. As the stakes rise, a new, highly destructive weapon made from the power of the Wells’ energy will confront the Deugan army–and in the middle of it, there will be Brenner, and all Caryn’s forgotten feelings for him.
Will Caryn survive? Will she be able to establish a peace? And even if she does, will it last? You will have to read Gatewaysto find out.
One of the strongest parts of this book, I think, is the cost associated with the magic system. The cost of magic should, as a rule in fantasy lit, be more interesting than the magic itself, and that is true in Gateways: it increases the sacrifice of war. Although the energy can create miracles, it can also destroy, and may even be fatal for the user.
It was good to see that no political side in the conflict is ever stigmatized as the “enemy.” The true enemy is the war itself. Although we may sympathize with the liberal-leaning Deugans, the history of which is reminiscent of the United States or perhaps France, we receive the Brea perspective through Ravencliffe, who, I think, is a noble character. We even receive two empathetic Steffian viewpoints.
It was clever worldbuilding to fog the correspondences between the countries of the continent and those in Europe. This eliminates the prejudice we might feel, for example, if Brealand was clearly described as an analogue for Russia or Germany. As Guy Gavriel Kay’s secondary “mirror” worlds are analogues for medieval Spain and T’ang-dynasty China, Gottheil’s continent is an analogue for Europe itself, during World War I. Gateways can therefore be interpreted as a reflection of how nations struggle towards conflict resolution throughout history.
A hundred years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, perhaps Gateways is just what readers need to renew their perspective on the Great War, and armed conflict in general.
What if dragons and their riders formed their own corps of soldiers adjacent to the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars? You get Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, the first novel of which, His Majesty’s Dragon, I have just finished reading on my Kobo.
William Laurence, a Royal Navy captain engaged in the Napoleonic Wars, captures a French ship bearing unusual cargo: a dragon’s egg. When it hatches, the creature accepts Laurence as his master, changing the captain’s life forever. Laurence names the dragon Temeraire, thinking of the name of a British ship. ‘Temeraire’ means ‘bold,’ ‘reckless,’ ‘dauntless,’ and is the sort of name a navy man without experience in the Aerial Corps would bestow.
Here you see the real originality of Novik’s world: Temeraire is named after a ship, hinting that dragons take the place of ships in this alternate nineteenth-century universe. Lawrence does not become the sole, independent rider of a dragon but the captain of a dragonback crew. Temeraire truly becomes one of His Majesty’s dragons, flying alongside His Majesty’s ships, which are trying to prevent the transports for Napoleon’s army from crossing the Channel.
Laurence initially loathes the idea of becoming a member of the Aerial Corps. However, he sees that he has no choice but to join, given his profound sense of duty. It means he must forsake his promising Navy career. He will also never be able to enjoy social functions, since those in the Corps live in isolation due to the nature of their duty and are even looked upon as social outcasts. Lawrence must furthermore lose the hand of a woman he has never formally courted.
But as Temeraire grows in size from a hatchling, so does Laurence’s bond with him. Soon he learns to favour the company of his dragon over that of human society. He learns to accept his lot as Corps captain.
Mix Master and Commander with Eragon and you might think you have a good idea of Novik’s concept for this historical fantasy world. But the truth is more complicated than that; dragons are an analogue for warships and function alongside the Navy. This element of fantasy shows how similar an exchange of broadsides in a naval engagement is to dragon fire.
I was uncertain what to expect wading into His Majesty’s Dragon, but I was pleasantly surprised. The prose style alone is remarkable; Novik uses polite semicolons to render her dialogue and style into the period cadence. Temeraire is about as polite in his speech as dragons come; he is the sort of dragon to whom you could read an Isaac Newton treatise over a cup of earl grey. Temeraire is also special for another reason, an unusual feature of his that makes him feel different from other dragons. But that I leave readers to discover.
The first chapters of His Majesty’s Dragon set off at a roaring start. It was a pleasure to not only learn about the biological aspects of dragons and their military uses, but the social consequences of humans who associate themselves with the creatures. Although the middle sags, when Laurence and Temeraire must train for war and get to know about life in the Corps, it picks up at the end and introduces the sequel around a promising premise. I was personally hoping that premise would get addressed in His Majesty’s Dragon, but I suppose I would have to buy Throne of Jade to find how it plays out.
Joseph Boyden begins The Orenda with an allusion to the lost world of Huronia that is suggestive of a certain insight proposed in John Crowley’s Aegypt sequence: the world was not always what it has since become. Huronia, the land of the Wendat nation, has since vanished, along with their magic ties to orenda, the life force the suffuses all things, living and dead. Whether The Orenda is a historical fantasy is debatable–there are magic tricks, dream prophesies, and prayers and libations of all kinds, though none or very few unexplainable by science. However, The Orenda is certainly a historical novel, and therefore invested in showing us a forgotten world and time.
Before the arrival of the crows–the Jesuit missionaries who first called First Nations magic unclean–the Wendat had a power that the Christian European world could not comprehend. This is what the Jesuit priest Père Christophe discovers while living away from the security of the settlement of Kebec, behind a Wendat palisade deep in the woods. This ‘primitive’ village is the primal setting of the Canadian consciousness, at least according to Margaret Atwood in her 1970s book Survival, and thus promises to be a gripping Canadian epic.
The first heart-stopping sequence sets the tone for the rest of the novel with the brutal slaughter of the family of a young girl. Snow Falls witnesses her father sing his death song as his skull is bashed in by a club and he falls, arms outstretched and blood pooling around his head. The man who committed the murder is Fox, brother of Bird, who is a respected war chief of the local Wendat village. Bird is at war with the Haudenosaunee, who soon pursue him to avenge Snow Fall’s capture. As the war party trudges away through the snow, Christophe carries Snow Falls to safety and tries to win her trust. Despite her rebellion, he sees her father, splayed in the same shape as he fell when he died, in the silver crucifix around the Jesuit’s neck. It is implied that she believes her father’s orenda has come to rest in the crucifix. This belief in the orenda is what defines her people as different from Christophe’s.
‘Orenda’ is the closest word the Wendat have for ‘soul,’ though it also implies ‘power’ and is a mystical force that unites not only humans, but all things–trees, animals, stones. You could also say the orenda is like ‘the Force’ in Star Wars, which borrows ideas from world religion, or Polynesian ‘mana.’ The difference between Christian soul and Huron orenda proves to be a vast gap that must be bridged if Christophe is to save the ‘savage’ Wendat from what he sees as the demons of Satan.
Though we see Bird and his brother Fox engaged in committing horrific violence within the first few chapters, we later see them at home in their longhouses with their families. We grow to see these characters as heroes defending their traditional way of life. Though in one sense, Christophe–or Christophe Crow, as the Wendat call him–is the antagonist of this novel, the reader cannot help but feel sympathy for him and admiration for his intelligence and bravery. Snow Falls naturally draws our sympathy as we see her grow from a scared Haudenosaunee orphan into a grown Wendat woman who may one day become a seer.
The Orenda is a novel composed of various heroes who come together as antagonists to each other, because of their cultural differences. Even the enemy who we rarely see, the Haudenosaunee, Bird describes as being not so different from the Wendat. But if every character has a good orenda, then what happens to ruin the magic that the Wendat once had?
Joseph Boyden poses the question of who’s responsible with a beautifully structured tragedy. Is it Bird’s adoption of Snow Falls that begins the war that will see the end of his world? Is it the disease the Jesuits bring with them? Is it Christophe Crow’s clumsiness? Or was it just a few bad harvests? Boyden sows the seeds of the end in the beginning, as the Wendat sow the seeds of the three sisters–squash, corn, and beans–each spring to be harvested–or burned–in the fall.
At times The Orenda causes you to remember the present social troubles of First Nations by glimpsing the birth of the patterns of destruction that have assailed them ever since. You see alcohol, suicide, physical and sexual abuse, and the way of regarding First Nations as “savage” that eventually results in the formation of Residential Schools. All that bloody and painful history has its origins in the fatal story that involves Bird, Snow Falls, and Christophe Crow.
Even before I began to read The Orenda, I expected it to be a defining epic of Canadian history, an absolute must-read. I also expected it be similar to the movie Blackrobe. Indeed, several scenes in The Orenda appear to have been either inspired by Blackrobe, or the source material it has in common with it: The Jesuit Relations. But The Orenda goes deeper in describing the ripples the Jesuits caused in Canadian history. The past and future are present, says Aataentsic the Sky Woman.
I saw Blackrobe once in high school at the same time as I studied–too briefly, perhaps–the civilization of First Nations before and during European contact. I remember learning about all the anthropological points between distinguishing the Algonquins and Iroquois, the genocidal wars the Iroquois won with Dutch muskets, and then New France’s reaction, or rather inaction, regarding the wars. Our schools spend too little time teaching about First Nations history. But The Orenda can satisfy your curiosity about any blank spots in your mental timeline. I personally find the old-school map included in the hardcover edition and the references to Huronia and Kebec (instead of Quebec) work wonderfully at alienating Quebecois readers who are familiar with their country/province so that they can be carried into the perspective of those who lived during that time.
The Orenda is part of Joseph Boyden’s saga of the Bird family, and the first prequel. Certainly the first to go back so early in the history of the family. I have read Through Black Spruce before, a tale of a comatose bushplane pilot (named Bird) who remembers how he dealt with a gang of drug dealers in Northern Ontario while his daughter speaks to him while he recovers in hospital from a crash, recalling her own journey to find her sister. It has the same stark, affecting style as The Orenda and it explores some of the social issues in First Nations communities–issues that we now know go back to the seventeenth century. Three Day Road is another in the saga, a book I may pick up in the future.
The Orenda won Canada Reads in 2014, was a Governor General’s Literary Awards finalist, and made the longlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. The Orenda‘s orenda is strong. Read it.
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.
On the cover of Patrick Lane’s Witness, a poetry collection of his most powerful verse, there is a picture of a barn owl staring at you with those wide-set eyes that are so effective at seeing in the dark. This owl is the perfect metaphor for a poet who does just that. Despite the darkness of mortality, alcoholism, and a brutal family history, Lane’s speakers perceive the beauty that underlies violence and the unspeakable.
Lane’s father was an alcoholic who was murdered seemingly at random by a man pointing a rifle through a store window. His brother, another poet of the notorious Lane family, committed suicide. He was also divorced–all this over a few years in the 1970s. As a result, Patrick Lane fell deeper into his own dependence of alcohol. Finally, after marrying his wife Lorna Crozier, he found his healing through the act of gardening, adopting his body to the cyclical rhythm of nature.
Lane’s poetry reflects his alcoholic past and the ultimately redemptive power of nature. His poems shock you with their violence, to “leave you not just shaken, but shaking,” as the Vancouver Sun remarks. From the first poem “For Ten Years,” we encounter dead birds, the merciless season of winter, and the pain of divorce. Though it may be tempting to say that birds are a symbol of beauty and innocence in Lane’s poetry, it would be almost immoral to ascribe the term “symbol” to the sudden violence of a bird hitting a window and perishing, “his beak … a crust of ice / that melted as you breathed.” Lane’s poetic breath can do nothing to prevent this bird’s death. His is an anti-academic philosophy that resists complicated interpretations: his poems just are. They breathe and then they die.
Invoking Canadian landscape and wildlife in almost every poem, Lane feeds off natural imagery. But he also includes heart-rending reflections on his relationship with his father in “The Killer” and “Fathers and Sons.” When I studied Lane at McGill, my professor Robert Lecker told us how his last class had cried upon reading the latter poem. Other poems such as “The Changing Room” and “The War” express the implicit codes of silence the govern relationships between men, while others like “The Happy Little Towns” describe gaping, bloody wounds and the attempt to suture them and heal.
Given the sobering power of his verse, I thought Witness could provide a fine introduction to poetry book reviews on my blog. Though it is not the normal fare of fantasy novels up for review, I wish to remind my readers of my abiding interest in Canadian literature.
Since each poem in Witness resists attempts at interpretation, I thought Lane would be a fine poet to introduce yourselves to, if you are not the sort to read poetry. It will likely change how you think of poetry and beauty itself. I would only advise a quick word of caution that some of the poems contain violence and perverse sexuality. Of course, the violence if part of the deal with Lane: how he causes you to see the beauty in violence. Not in a Quentin Tarantino way, but in a way that accepts that violence resists style, yet strives to demonstrate the more bitter, complex beauty behind brutality. If this understanding of beauty shakes your values, then be prepared to be “shaking.”
Every once in a while, two events in your life happen simultaneously and in their juxtaposition, a humorous situation appears in your imagination. I had just finished reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry and started a job as a salesman. Anyone familiar with the myth of King Arthur, especially as retold by Kay, and the cliches of the sales pitch will find the following short story’s concept amusing.
“We’ll sell you a High King, and if he is ever damaged or killed in battle, just send him back to Avalon, and we’ll return him. That’s our eternal guarantee.”
Morgan le Fay of Camlann Marketing, the sales branch of Avalon Enterprises, smiled with her pearl teeth at the customer, a prophet with a white beard by the name of Merlynn. They were sitting at a stone table in the middle of her grove, while she spun her webs and charms.
“I see,” said Merlynn, arching his eyebrows. “And when would that be?”
“There will be a prophecy in the end. He’ll wait on the island for when he is needed once again. Now,” she said, opening her illuminated codex. “Let me show you the wide variety of saviours Avalon Enterprises has in its collection of Worthies.”
Merlynn nodded and pressed his forefinger above his eye, to furrow his brow. Morgan le Fay was always troublesome, but when she’d asked for him to listen to her presentation, for the sake of the nation he could not have refused. Uther was dead and Wales needed a king. He listened to her litany of saviours, as she pointed to a picture of a warrior in bronze armour.
“Hector of Troy,” she said. “Customers like him, because he is strong, agile, and versatile for mostly every occasion. However, he is not stronger than Achilles. He’s perfect as a strongman, but his temper makes him poor for politics, which means you might want King David. He killed the giant Goliath with a slingshot when he was only a young man, and thereafter ruled as a great king. However, he was not resistant to the sin of adultery with Bathsheba, which means you might need Godfrey of Bouillon. A French crusader sworn to the ideals of chivalry, he took Jerusalem from the Saracens and ruled as king, although he refused the title. However, though a virtuous knight, he was not the ruler of a kingdom that endured, which means you might need Frederick Barbarossa …”
“The German makes are never quite as good,” said Merlynn, shaking his head sadly. “And I don’t see this country moving in that direction.”
“That’s all right,” said Morgan le Fay, lending him another pearl smile. “Besides, maybe what this land needs is another sort of king. Not an Alexander the Great, but perhaps a Christ, a Buddha, or a Gandhi?”
“Gandhi?” asked Merlynn. He closed his eyes and focused on the name. Threads of time, centuries of civilization, wove themselves through his synapses and he tasted the future. “Not the violent type of man, I see. But it’s my impression that all these saviours have some fatal defect or another. Either that, or they die a martyr.”
“There is always a price,” said Morgan le Fay, sounding concerned. “But if the weight of that knowledge sounds like too much at once, you can make three equal payments. And if you find you don’t like him, you can return him during our free-trial period.”
“A free hero does not sound like much of one,” said Merlynn, folding his arms. “But what about the payments?”
“Your saviour will endure an even amount of grief over his or her lifetime,” she said. “You might be interested in Hercules, perhaps: that’s a twelve payment plan.”
Merlynn sighed with such a deep longing that he could not encompass just how much he wished for the world to be different. But the earth was still there, in so much need. “You know … I don’t think Wales can pay such a hefty price for a saviour. In this age, after all, who needs a hero who causes so much more grief? Sure, these heroes legends, but I really don’t think Wales is ready for this investment.”
Morgan le Fay nodded and smiled. “That’s why we have our free-trial period. If you are in any way dissatisfied, we can return your hero to Avalon for a full refund.”
Merlynn cursed himself for a fool. He wanted heroes to lead Wales as they had in the days of old, but time had moved on and the every year brought a steeper decline in glory. He supposed it was simply not possible in this age, for heroes to be born the way they used to be. Ever since the goddesses had formed Avalon, their corporate machine had experienced unprecedented successes, selling high-quality heroes to lands bereft of them. This was the way of the future, and the past was done.
He grumbled from behind his white beard, a throaty old-man sound. When had he gotten so old?
“Him,” he said, pointing to an illumination in Morgan le Fay’s codex. A golden crown rested heavily on a man’s bearded head, a silver sword sheathed by his side and a red-tipped spear in his hand.
“That is the dux bellorum, lord of battles,” said Morgan le Fay. “He is expensive, but it’s worth it, because he comes with Caliburn, his famous sword, Ron, his great spear, and a host of eight other gallant knights. Is this who you want?”
“I’m on the verge,” said Merlynn, nodding, and trying not to think of the cost. “But I cannot justify saturating this world with so many heroes. There could be glory in it, but evil as well.”
Morgan le Fay squeezed her lip together. “I can give you a deal. If you agree to rid the world of one or two of your more common heroes, I can give you the Knights of the Round Table—which, by the way, includes the world’s greatest knight, Lancelot du Lac.”
Merlynn wondered what her game was, but there was no doubting that she was giving him an excellent deal. He thought he would surely weep later, if he passed up the chance for such a bargain.
He smiled. The promise of future glory, the shortcut history could take towards remaking the social cohesion of the pax romana, was too tempting. It was an investment in the future. He owed his decision to succeeding generations.
“He will be called Arthur Pendragon,” he said, and signed by Avalon’s wax seal.
“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