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/


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

  1. Michal says:

    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.

    That’s a rather uncharitable description of a highly diverse discipline–since by “historical” here, you seem to mean the practice of academic history, rather than a broader application of the term. I can assure you that no one who has read The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginzburg, or The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis, would define “historical” as “dry” or a set of “dates to be memorized by rote.”

    Of course, if you mean this as just a harmless general impression of the historical, then I’m just babbling.

    Kay’s historical fantasy novels reveal how history is fantasy.

    Insofar as history is a narrative form…why yes, but in that sense all narratives are fantasies. Hayden Whyte, Paul Ricoeur and Meier Sternberg have all written a great deal about narrative theory in relation to history-writing, and post-linguistic turn treating historical texts as literary artifacts has been a regular component of historians’ analytic toolkit.

    I wonder if you ever thought to look at Kay’s historiographical influences when initially researching your paper? Under Heaven, I believe, owes a great deal to a particular atmosphere, a way of writing about Tang China, found in Edward Schafer’s The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: A Study of T’ang Exotics, for instance. A section of Tigana is directly lifted from Carlo Ginzburg’s The Night Battles. You could, in fact, extend the argument of your honour’s thesis further, and look at how Kay’s fiction engages with the historiography that goes into his research as well as “history” in general–it would be fairly easy to check works listed in his acknowledgement pages.

    All the best,

    Michal Wojcik

    • Thank you, Michal, for your in-depth response! I’ve been waiting for someone to post a long, intelligent comment like this, and you’ve even challenged me to think about my Honours thesis in a new way. My site’s just started up, so a comment like this is especially validating. Thank you!

      While I have not, unfortunately, read Ginzburg or Davis, I will say that I was being extreme on purpose, to throw the contrasting modes of fantasy and historical realism into deeper relief. Mimetic realism without fantasy would be dry, since the fantastic mode represents everything that is non-real. So, fantasy comes into effect as soon as you begin to imagine history outside of what surviving evidence can tell us. A certain amount of fantasy is necessary even for purely historical novels to be written, and that is even more true when being creative with its presentation, since that often involves the creation of a narrative.

      Which brings us to Part 2 of your comment. I think Kay would agree that people conceive of their histories almost inevitably as narratives. In such tellings, the narratives offer subjective perspectives on history, and we can never receive an “objective” narrative. I’m just taking it a step further, and linking subjectivity to fantasy, since our subjectivities are formed a great deal from out goals, dreams, and desires. Rosemary Jackson in Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion argues that fantasy (as a mode) is a literature of desire. In Under Heaven, all this links up with how the Emperors of Kitai can change the way history is written by desiring it to be different.

      And lastly, I did look at The Quest for El Cid, and found a striking passage where it speculates Rodrigo Diaz and the poet ibn Ammar must have met in Saragossa together. I can perfectly imagine Kay reading that passage and jotting down a little note, which would have later expanded into practically the whole of The Lions of Al-Rassan. Ammar was killed by the king Al-Mutamid after betraying him, and in Kay’s book, Ammar does nearly die when King Almalik comes to get him in Ragosa with the Muwardis. I would say Kay was trying to salvage the glory of ibn Ammar’s poetry, by giving him the chance to live longer in his fictional novel, than the real poet did.

      I would have liked to analyze Kay’s interactions with historiography and his thinking about the ways in which history are imagined, but my present thesis did not have any room for it. I was mostly concerned with genre.

      Once again, I appreciate your comment! By the way, if you or whoever else is reading this, know any books of history writing on the late Elizabethan age that could help me get at the atmosphere of the period–or failing that, late 15th century Venice–I would really appreciate it. Those are two periods in some of my own historical fantasy writing. Very much works in progress, but hopefully they will bear fruit!

      • Michal says:

        I’m just taking it a step further, and linking subjectivity to fantasy, since our subjectivities are formed a great deal from our goals, dreams, and desires.

        You’ll get no argument from me on that point! Caroline Walker Bynum has specifically related history to the discourse of wonder (something alive and well in fantasy literature), or at least urged historians to think that historical writing can inspire wonder just as much as fantasy might: http://www.historians.org/info/aha_history/cwbynum.htm

        I related her piece to fantasy-writing on my own blog: http://onelastsketch.wordpress.com/2013/03/10/a-history-of-wonder/

        Of course, we should realize that we needn’t limit ourselves to Aristotle’s categories in the Poetics; the “history” he described would indeed be a very dry endeavor, but I can think very few historians who composed without some level (even unintentional) of poiesis. Our brains make causal connections between events whether true or not, and even Aristotle admitted that a poet (in the ancient Greek sense of the word) could impose a plot over actual happenings and would be no less a poet.

        For Renaissance Venice, you might want to look at the work of Patricia Fortini Brown. Unfortunately, I’m not too familiar with work on Elizabethan England, my chief area of interest in Britain has been the mid-seventeenth century, and witchcraft trials in particular.

      • Wow, excellent! Thanks for the hints about the link between history and fantasy that Bynum explores. I’ll give that a look-over. Good luck with your witchcraft trials research (another area where fantasy and history intersect). I wrote a paper in college once on the phenomenon of witch hunts in legal cases across history, so I’ve done some research into that myself, and I think it ripe ground for a future historical fantasy creative project. And thanks for the Patrician Fortini Brown reference. I will look into it!

  2. […] Pierce reading Kraft’s manuscript: I felt as if all my research into historical fantasy, Guy Gavriel Kay, and even my novel, had finally prepared me to read John Crowley. I first heard of Aegypt […]

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