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/

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Nothing is True; Everything is Permitted: Historical Reality and the Creation of the Myth behind Assassin’s Creed

Horseback altair

A white-robed hooded rider spurs his stallion to the castle of Masyaf to receive an assassination contract from his master Rashid al-Din, the infamous leader of the Assassin Brotherhood. The rider’s name is Altaïr ibn la-Ahad. They meet in a library, and the assassin receives his instructions: Marquis Conrad of Montferrat, a Templar crusader, must die.

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If this sounds like a video game you’ve played, then you might be aware of how the creators of Assassin’s Creed conduct thorough historical research. Although they take liberties in inventing a fanciful storyline, there are historical realities behind the famous video game.

The fida’is, brave soldiers of the Ismaili sect of Islam, are the real-world historical source for the Assassin myth. In Crusader-era Syria and Iran, they would infiltrate the social circle of political targets and wait, keeping up appearances, before threatening them by thrusting a dagger beside into their pillow at night.

Often, the threat would be enough to deter the enemies of the Ismailis, but occasionally they used real violence against targets, as a last resort. One such a target was Marquis Conrad of Montferrat, assassinated in 1192 in a courtyard at the port-city of Tyre just before his coronation as King of Jerusalem—by figures disguised as Christian monks. Wearing robes reminiscent of these assassins, Altaïr is the character that players of Assassin’s Creed guide through multiple levels, conducting similar assassinations. However, the names of the real assassins are lost to history.

Rashid al-Din Sinan (left) was a real leader of the Ismaili.
Rashid al-Din Sinan (left) was a real leader of the Ismaili.

As for the castle of Masyaf, it actually does stand in Syria, though not in the location specified in the game. Sinan Rashid al-Din, Altaïr’s master, was the actual legendary Ismaili leader who once called it home. Called “The Old Man of the Mountain,” he was lame in one leg, a learned alchemist, and was said to have had telepathy, clairvoyance, and the ability to communicate with spirits. Perhaps the Apple of Eden, Assassin’s Creed‘s illusion-creating artefact, had had something to do with that .. but once again, these stories are lost to history.

The truth of the Ismaili Assassins is often difficult to separate from myth.

Modern-day Masyaf castle.
Modern-day Masyaf castle.

One of the first myths is from Marco Polo’s account of the Earthly Paradise of the Assassins in his Travels. Assassin’s Creed II: Revelations has sequences that play off Niccolo Polo’s supposed encounter with the Brotherhood.

A painting of the Old Man of the Mountain receiving assassins in his castle within the garden of the Earthly Paradise.
A painting of the Old Man of the Mountain receiving assassins in his castle within the garden of the Earthly Paradise.

Supposedly, the Old Man of the Mountain had command of a fortress called Alamut (in Polo’s account not Masyaf), where he had an exceptionally beautiful garden. Milk and honey flowed in rivers through his garden, which was filled with fragrant fruits and flowers, appearing as the Qur’an’s vision of Paradise. The Old Man would bring men into the garden and have young virgins entertain them, before serving them wine laced with hashish. He would then bring them into his presence.

There, mission briefing would occur, and a promise. Since an assassination was essentially a suicidal job—it was assumed that the guards protecting the target would inevitably kill or capture an assassin—the Old Man offered Paradise itself to his minions. Since the drugged assassins thought they had truly found Paradise at Alamut, they believed the Old Man could offer that.

Through this method, the Old Man of the Mountain supposedly eliminated his political rivals and advanced his own interests.

Marco Polo’s account is a juicy myth. Essentially a result of Western fascination with the East, Europeans found in the Earthly Paradise of the Assassins a way to explore fantasies forbidden within their moralistic society. The myth gained popularity throughout the ages. According to Wikipedia, Friedrich Nietzsche in his Geneology of Morals considered the Assassins free spirits not bound by Western strictures of morality, operating according to the creed—now made famous by the video game—that states, “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.”

The Ismaili Assassins have captured the imagination of the West for centuries.
The Ismaili Assassins have captured the imagination of the West for centuries.

However, the historical reality behind the Brotherhood demolishes these Orientalist fantasies.

To begin with, there could never really have been a garden at Alamut. Peter Willey, in his book Eagle’s Nest: Ismaili Castles in Iran and Syria, to which I am indebted in this article, describes the castle’s physical details at great length. Alamut, which means “Eagle’s Nest,” is perched above a steep and rocky ridge. It is a very narrow castle and is said to have once contained a great library. However, it is simply impossible to imagine a luxurious garden growing in such a narrow courtyard.

A modern-day shot of the castle of Alamut.
A modern-day shot of the castle of Alamut.

Marco Polo clearly had never seen Alamut, which leads scholars to suppose that his famous journey to the Orient never actually happened. He may never have left Constantinople, composing his Travels from hearsay and the stories of other travelers.

To debunk the myth that the Assassins took hashish before carrying out their murders, Peter Willey draws attention to how it is impossible to aim a blade with any accuracy while high. Dexterity takes a serious hit when the mind is clouded, and a successful assassination would require presence of mind to quickly slide a blade between a target’s plate armour or through chain mail—and sometimes the target would be on horseback.

It also must be emphasized that the fida’is did not always kill. Often, the mere threat of a dagger thrust in a target’s pillow would make him withdraw a siege from a castle, or pull back his troops from a strategic region. The fear caused by the fida’is had a real affect on the enemies of the Ismailis, who were much more powerful and numerous. It kept them away from strongholds and villages—and added to the paranoia that would launch the Assassin myth.

The Ismailis were considered heretics by many Muslim religious groups. Hunted like witches by enemies seeking to weed out the fida’is from their ranks, they became blamed for assassinations that they did not commit. Innocent people were accused of being Ismaili assassins. For these, the punishment could be severe: al-Ghazali suggested the death penalty for any Ismailis who remained apostates of the Islamic faith. Meanwhile, the political situation in the Middle East—so little has changed since—was volatile and paranoid, filled with many rival political groups, most of whom employed assassination as a tactic.

In such an environment of fear, myths can easily arise. The Ismailis were blamed for more assassinations than it would have been prudent to commit. Those who blamed them were either reacting out of paranoia, or seizing an appropriate scapegoat, to better mask their own political and military stratagems.

It is precisely through such times of paranoia that fantasies take root. The historical record today can only give us glimpses into the past, and those records may be contaminated with hearsay at best, if not a deliberate falsification of information. Today, you can immerse yourself in the myths that history has passed down to you, playing a part in them through your PS3 controller.

What the the Assassin myth tells us is that human beings prefer to indulge in great stories rather than seek the truth of history. Fiction and reality: these are opposed modes and people enjoy fiction more than reality. For a writer of historical fantasy such as myself, what an insight! “Nothing is true; everything is permitted”: the creed of the historical fantasist!

Photo Credits:

http://www.gamesradar.com/awordfromoursponsors/?page=2&zone=p3_pc_x3/reviews&sendMeBackTo=http%3A//www.gamesradar.com/assassins-creed-review/%3Fpage%3D2

http://assassinscreed.wikia.com/wiki/William_of_Montferrat

http://assassinscreed.wikia.com/wiki/Rashid_ad-Din_Sinan

http://www.iis.ac.uk/view_article.asp?ContentID=101164

http://www.sickchirpse.com/2011/01/13/origin-and-myth-the-mashed-assassins/

http://simerg.com/special-series-i-wish-id-been-there/the-great-resurrection/