The Almásy Controversy: History, Fantasy, and The English Patient

The following is an update of an essay I submitted to a class on Michael Ondaatje taught by Prof. Robert Lecker at McGill. The English Patient, especially after it was transformed into a movie, ignited a controversy about historical representation. Was it ethical to rewrite the death of marginal desert explorer László Almásy by having him burn in a fiery plane crash? The ethics of Ondaatje’s rewriting of history was under particular questioning because of Almásy’s choice to join the Axis powers at the outbreak of World War II. His actions had consequences, to paraphrase the thief Caravaggio in the film. Are there any limits to an author or a director’s freedom when they deal with historical subject matter? This is a question that haunts not only makers of historical films and writers of historical novels, but writers of historical fantasy, such as Guy Gavriel Kay. Fantasy makes no claim to represent reality, which makes it a ‘safer’ mode in which to depict events that reflect, but do not actually depict, primary-world history. Although Ondaatje seems to reject the easy road of fantasy, Kay mounts a convincing case that fantasy can universalize a historical moment to make it applicable to multiple contexts.

Almasy

Almásy

 

“The Almásy Controversy: History, Fantasy, and The English Patient

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Under accusations that he had distorted the life of Hugarian aviator and explorer László Almásy while writing The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje wrote a letter to the Globe and Mail defending his art. In his article “Michael Ondaatje Responds,” Doug Saunders quotes his defense:

From Homer to Richard III to the present, literature has based its imaginative stories on historical event. [] If a novelist or dramatist or filmmaker is to be censored or factually tested every time he or she writes from historical event, then this will result in the most uninspired works, or it just might be safer for those artists to resort to cartoons and fantasy. (qtd. in Tötösy)1

Ondaatje transforms the marginal but real figure of Almásy into the burned-out ‘English’ patient, a victim of a fiery plane crash. Almásy’s fictionalization distorts the reader’s perception of historical fact. Yet Ondaatje desires to depict the private lives of historical figures through ‘the truth of fiction.’ This postmodern approach to novel writing defies the strictures of mimetic, bourgeois representations of history, while rejecting historical fantasy, which transcends the issues at the heart of the Almásy controversy. Like Ondaatje, historical fantasy novelist Guy Gavriel Kay’s non-mimetic aesthetic dramatizes the relationship between the private and the historical. While Kay humbly admits the impossibility of knowing the private lives of historical figures, Ondaatje insists on explicit historical references, which add deeper meaning to the innermost emotions of his characters.

In a keynote speech delivered in Toronto, Kay refers explicitly to The English Patient and the Count Almásy controversy when he asks the provocative question, “Are there limits, or ought there to be limits, to what writers of fiction feel at liberty to do with real people and their lives?” The value of artistic freedom must be weighed against the danger of “political propaganda,” which constitutes such works as the Tudor play Richard III. Kay also raises the issue of whether “privacy or respect for lives lived” should be a factor in a novelist’s ethical considerations while fictionalizing historical characters, asking “If they are uttely obscure—like Almasy [sic]—can we do it?” If such depictions do imply a violation of privacy, then Ondaatje pays slight regard to those limits. For example, Almásy died not in Tuscany after a plane crash in the desert, as the novel suggests, but in Salzburg, where he was “appointed head of the Desert Institute in Cairo” just before his death in 1951 (Tötösy 3). If, for example, Ondaatje had rewritten Ghandi’s death instead of Almásy’s, whose biographical details remain obscure for most readers, the controversy surrounding The English Patient would have become a scandle. But can Almásy’s obscurity alone permit Ondaatje to indulge in a historical fantasy?

Critics such as Elizabeth Pathy Salette accuse the film of The English Patient of being “ahistorical” and even “amoral,” since it “trivializes” the distinction between the Nazis and Allies (qtd. in Tötösy 8). This criticism can extend to the novel. One passage states explicitly that “it no longer matters which side [Almásy] was on during the war” (251), which was the side of the Nazis. Furthermore, Caravaggio trivializes wartime alliances and makes a melodrama out of the patient’s adulterous affair when he tells him, “You had become the enemy not when you sided with Germany but when you began your affair with Katherine Clifton” (254-5), the fictive wife of explorer Geoffrey Clifton.2 Taken out of context, these quotations relativize the ethics of alliance during the Second World War, which is a problematic effect of the novel. Within their context, however, the same quotations are really about how private individuals relate to the war. The side Almásy takes has great emotional significance for the explorer friends whom he betrays and to Caravaggio, a thief-turned-spy who lost his thumbs in a Nazi torture while tailing him for the Allies. Ondaatje is more interested in individual emotions within the epic sweep of the catastrophe of World War II rather than what he calls in an interview, “that Ben Hur sense of looking down and encompassing the full scope” (Wachtel 256). He humbly refuses to pretend he can paint such a picture accurately, preferring to piece together “little bits of mosaic” instead (256). Understanding these personal relationships and how they are affected by an overarching event forms Ondaatje’s primary interest in historical literature.

On the other hand, Kay’s historical fantasy novels are able to avoid ethical pitfalls because he avoids explicit reference to historical events. In the sense that they create worlds that do not actually exist, Kay’s novels are non-mimetic; however, they remain intricately researched and founded on an idea of a specific time period and geographical region. In The Lions of Al-Rassan, for example, Kay invokes Moorish Spain during the Reconquista. The Islamic territory of Al-Andalus becomes Al-Rassan, a non-factual but reasonably accurate reflection of historical reality. A reflection of the historical, legendary figure of Rodrigo Diaz de Bivar (El Cid) appears in Kay’s novel under the name Rodrigo Belmonte. Using this manoeuvre, Kay explains, “I would be declaring, without pretense, that I did not know what the real man was like nine hundred years ago, how he related to his wife, his children, his enemies.” Notably, Ondaatje does exactly the opposite in Coming Through Slaughter with regards to showing many aspects of Buddy Bolden’s personal life. Yet, he avoids the claims of biography, which he knows he cannot make, by including authorial self-references that make it evident that the novel is a self-conscious, imaginative construction.

Although Kay’s historical fantasy is not escapist, Ondaatje implies that fantasy would be a dissatisfying alternative to choosing a historical setting grounded in the real world. Douglas Barbour, who happens to be an Ondaatje scholar, calls one of Kay’s novels “the kind of escape that brings you home” (qtd. in Kay), since his novels serve as a kind of historical allegory for real events. This “allows the universalizing of a story” because it “detaches the tale from a narrow context” in history. Historical fantasy can be more ethically responsible than Ondaatje makes fantasy out to be when he rejects offhand the childlike alternatives of “cartoons and fantasy” (qtd. in Tötösy). Unlike Kay, the author of The English Patient requires the freedom to set his art in the real world. Although both Kay and Ondaatje are careful in their humility towards representing history, Ondaatje still feels that a connection to real events is fundamental to his fiction; in this light, The English Patient‘s historical fantasies about Almásy are more radical than the imaginative histories of Kay’s novels.

Despite the ethical dangers of historical representation, Ondaatje makes the case that his depiction of Count Almásy reveals more truth than lies. Ajay Hebel claims that his postmodern novel expresses an “imaginative account of the past as being narratively faithful to the way things might have been” (qtd. in Tötösy 2). This is “truth by lying,” a phrase Ondaatje attributes to Vargas Llosa in an interview with Eleanor Wachtel (258). Ondaatje claims that his departures from history are more honest than his description of facts: he tells Wachtel, “I started to discover I was being more honest when I was inventing, more truthful when dreaming” (257). Rather than relying on written histories, which can be warped, Ondaatje uses historical personas simply as a “costume” or “mask” in which he can “both reveal and discover” himself (Bush 240). In this way, he avoids making truth claims he cannot make, accomplishing the same humility as Kay, but while using a different literary mode. History becomes the playground in which Ondaatje writes about themes that are less about history and more about the personal relationships that exist in private among small groups of individuals.

Lyrical and private moments in The English Patient are Ondaatje’s strategies of responsible historical representation. These moments serve as a shield against potential accusations of historical falsity. Ondaatje’s fascination with “minor characters in history, people who don’t usually get written about” (Wachtel 256) give him artistic space, since figures like Bolden and Almásy have relatively few verifiable facts recorded about them. The blank spaces of their lives can be filled with fictions. Often these lacunae are their personal lives, their private thoughts, their first person perspectives—how the ‘English’ patient relates his story, saying, “I fell burning into the desert” (5). “I wanted to erase my name and the place I had come from,” says the mysterious burned man (139), suggesting the ambiguity of his identity as either English or Hungarian. Almásy’s ambiguous identity creates space for Ondaatje’s fictional inventions, a kind of writing that is at odds with history writing itself. Intimacy and emotions rarely get written down in history. Discussing his affair with Katherine Clifton, Almásy says, “You do not find adultery in the minutes of the Geographical Society. Our room never appears in the detailed reports which chartered every knoll and every incident of history” (145). Not only does Ondaatje give Almásy a voice he never had, but he claims that the evidence of the affair is in, paradoxically, the absence of recorded evidence. Such details construct an illusion of fact within the fiction.

Another layer that frames Ondaatje’s subject matter in addition to protecting his novel from the scrutiny of censoring historians is the Villa San Girolamo itself, a private, isolated chronotope. Hana, Caravaggio, Kip, and the patient reside in the villa, which was made a private space after the nurses abandoned it and as the front moved into northern Italy. It is a place and time where Ondaatje’s characters take refuge from the tumult of history-making events, a “tableau, the four of them in private movement, momentarily lit up, flung ironically against this war” (278). Aside from Hana’s personal writing, the events at the villa go unrecorded, making the fictive Almásy’s last days unknowable to any readers of the official historical record. While the four characters inhabit the villa, it is the perfect setting for Ondaatje to explore the human emotions and relationships that pass between each of them. Although Kip imagines “the streets of Asia full of fire” after the bombing of Japan (284), Ondaatje is not primarily interested in history lessons, but in “an interpretation of human emotions—love, desire, betrayals in war and betrayals in peace—in a historical time” (qtd. in Tötösy 8). Fantasy would make these human emotions less authentic, because they would be less recognizably connected to a time and place of significance for the twentieth century. For Ondaatje, being criticized for manipulating history is the price to be paid for the perfect setting in which to dramatize emotions.

Works Cited

Bush, Catherine. “Michael Ondaatje: An Interview.” Essays on Canadian Writing 53 (1994): 238-49.

Kay, Guy Gavriel. “Home and Away.” Bright Weavings: the Worlds of Guy Gavriel Kay. 2002. Web.

Ondaatje, Michael. The English Patient. 1992. Toronto: Vintage, 1993

Tötösy de Zepetnek, Steven. “Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, ‘History,’ and the Other.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 1.4 (1999): 2-12. <http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/ clcweb/vol6/iss3/5>

Wachtel, Eleanor. “An Interview with Michael Ondaatje.” Essays on Canadian Writing 53 (1994): 250-61.

Endnotes

1Regretfully, I could not unearth Ondaatje’s original letter, or the Saunders article; I must quote from Ondaatje third-hand.

2A further violation of the bourgeois mimetic contract, the plot of heterosexual adultery erases the fact that Almásy may have been a homosexual engaged in a relationship with Rommel (Totosy 6).

Photo Credits:

Almasy: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Almasy_Laszlo.JPG

6 Similarities between Guy Gavriel Kay and Michael Ondaatje

Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay

 

Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Embedding myself in the novels and poetry of Michael Ondaatje this semester in an MA seminar taught by Prof. Robert Lecker, I could not help but notice the similarity between the thematic/artistic concerns of the author of The English Patient and Guy Gavriel Kay. Both are great writers and both are Canadian. Upon first glance, this might be where their similarities end. Ondaatje has written postmodern poetry and literary fiction that merges with autobiography, while Kay writes mainly historical fantasy, although he does have one book of poetry, Beyond this Dark House. On closer inspection, they both have similar obsessions. I could possibly write a whole thesis on their similarities and differences, but why write a huge paper when I can just turn out a blog post?

Both of these authors leave me in awe at their poetic prose style and the infinite care and research that goes into their novels. They’re also two writers whose collected works I’ve come close to reading in full–by the end of the semester, I’ll have Ondaatje’s novels and much of his poetry under my belt, and I’ve already read all of Kay’s books. It’s about time we set them side by side and imagine them in conversation–perhaps at a round table debating art, history, and the life of the artist over drams of scotch (I hear Kay, at least, knows a thing or two about the latter).

(Michael Ondaatje doesn’t have Twitter.)

Without further ado, here are the 6 similarities between Michael Ondaatje and Guy Gavriel Kay:

1. They both use the same John Berger epigraph.

At the end of Ysabel, Guy Gavriel Kay uses the same epigraph by John Berger that Michael Ondaatje uses at the beginning of In the Skin of a Lion: “Never again will a single story be told as if it is the only one.” Fittingly, the fact that both authors employ the same epigraph confirms what the epigraph itself implies. Both novels also happen to borrow from myth–Ysabel from Celtic myth generally, and In the Skin of a Lion from The Epic of Gilgamesh. (The title alludes to a particular line in that ancient narrative poem.)

2. One is a poet-turned novelist and the other a novelist-turned poet.

Ondaatje began his career writing poetry, from early works like The Dainty Monsters and the man with seven toes, to his more mature confessional poems in Secular Love. While writing poetry, he slowly made the transition into the form of the novel. He eventually became hugely famous for writing The English Patient, a novel that was made into an Academy Award winning movie.

Guy Gavriel Kay is chiefly a novelist, although he intersperses poetry when a particular character, usually a poet, has the occasion to write a few lines. My favourite examples of such poetry come from the Chinese-inspired poems in River of Stars and Under Heaven. He has also published a nice volume of poetry called Beyond this Dark House.

3. They are both interested in where the mythic intersects with the personal.

In The Lions of Al-Rassan, the relationships between Ammar ibn Khairan, Rodrigo Belmonte, and Jehanne bet Ishak–which includes both romantic love and friendship–are between three legendary individuals. Rodrigo, for example, represents a figure similar to El Cid, the national hero of Spain. Kay  shows how public duty places demands on each of these figures in such a way that it conflicts with their personal friendships. The result is sublime, believable art. Describing how five University of Toronto students deal with a new mythic world in The Fionavar Tapestry might be Kay’s quintessential exploration of the mythic-personal conflict, although I must say his treatment of such themes in Ysabel is more effective.

Ondaatje’s early poetry in The Dainty Monsters was intensely interested in the intersection between myth and one’s personal life: the section of the book entitled “Troy Town” attests to this, particularly the Trojan War poem “O Troy’s Down: Helen’s Song.”  When he began to write novels, he did not abandon this interest. Coming Through Slaughter treats the myth behind jazz legend Buddy Bolden, who went mad playing the cornet during a New Orleans parade. He writes intimate, sensual scenes of Bolden’s personal life that also imagine the possible cause of his madness–the archetypal downfall of substance-abusing musicians. Furthermore, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid deals with the myth of the titular outlaw, made famous from nineteenth-century penny dreadfuls.

4. They are both obsessed with the figure of the outlaw.

Ondaatje’s first published novel was also an experiment in poetry. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid opens with the frame of an absent photo of Billy, and implies that the reader will have to assemble an image of this mythic character themselves. They are to do this extrapolating from the fragments revealed in Ondaatje’s multi-genre collage. This is outlaw poetry, and poetry about an outlaw. As well as being intensely violent and precise in its imagery and diction, The Collected Works reveals the obsession of an author trying to excavate an American celebrity about whom no one seems to have a full picture.

Guy Gavriel Kay finds his Billy the Kid in the figure of Yue Fei, a Chinese hero. In River of Stars, Kay writes the story of Ren Daiyan, who is a fictitious analogue for Yue Fei. An expert bowman who wishes to restore the glory of the Empire of Kitai, Ren ambushes representatives of the Prime Minister’s oppressive Flowers and Rocks Network, which is exploiting the empire’s starving poor. Kay speculates on the origins of a Chinese national legend through the figure of Ren, who eventually becomes a General fighting for the Emperor–a movement from the peripheries of society to the center that may lead to disaster (as it often does in Kay’s novels). The intricate attention Kay pays to how Ren’s story becomes legend attests to his obsession with Yue Fei.

5. They both wrote novels that explore the life of an original and mysterious artist.

In addition to the outlaw, Kay and Ondaatje are obsessed by the figure of the artist. Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter is about Buddy Bolden, who many believe to be the originator of jazz itself. Jazz is also a metaphor for Ondaatje’s own style. Taking documentary evidence of Bolden’s life as a starting point, Ondaatje improvises the narrative of Bolden’s life in a way that mimics the solos of a jazz musician. Ondaatje strongly identifies with Bolden, at one point stating, “When he went mad he was the same age as I am now” (134). Coming Through Slaughter stands as perhaps the greatest jazz novel ever written.

Although Kay is less personally invested in the artist Caius Crispus from his Sarantine Mosaic duotrope, he still connects Crispin to an artwork in real life that fascinated him. A mosaicist, Crispin becomes the employee of Emperor Valerius and charged with the creation of a massive mosaic to cover the inner dome of his Sanctuary of Holy Wisdom. This project is analogous to the decoration of the dome of Hagia Sophia in modern-day Istanbul, during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. Can an artist produce a work that can survive the times in which he was born? Is it possible to create a monument that will stand for eternity? While Crispin’s mosaic is designed to withstand political tribulations, Bolden’s jazz is deliberately ephemeral. Yet both forms of art continue to inspire.

6. They each use a different strategy to depict the personal lives of historical characters.

Regarding this issue, Kay explicitly links his novels to Ondaatje’s. Do historical characters deserve privacy? What about living characters? Is it more ethical for a novelist to speculate on the intimate life of Elizabeth II, or Elizabeth I?

In his speech “Home and Away,” Kay describes the rationale for his particular approach to historical fantasy–writing narratives set in locales that invoke historical milieus but do not actually refer to such milieus. In this way, Byzantine Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora become Sarantine Emperor Valerius and Empress Alixana. At one point, he compares his problem of blending the historical and the personal to the ethics of Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient:

And then there are the moral questions. These emerge most strongly when we consider that ‘history’ isn’t just about the distant past. Consider the works that involve real people – living or recently dead – saying and doing things the author has simply made up. There is no way to know if such scenes are true, indeed, put more strongly, there is almost no way that they are true. Does this matter? Should it?

The examples are legion. We look at the real people interwoven with fictional ones in Doctorow’s Ragtime, we consider J.D. Salinger as a character in Shoeless Joe (and pass over a more recent tell-all about Salinger which purports to be non-fiction), we pause before the controversy regarding Michael Ondaatje’s creative ‘invention’ of a life and personality and death for a very real person: Count Almasy in The English Patient. […]

The question – or one question – seems to me to be this: are there limits, or ought there to be limits, to what writers of fiction feel at liberty to do with real people and their lives? Does anything go, in fiction as in Cole Porter songs? Ondaatje, in a spirited defence last year against attacks in the Washington Post, pointed out that we’d lose Shakespeare’s Richard III if we introduced constraints to the free treatment of real people in art. A grievous, appalling loss.

Kay’s strategy to deal with this moral problem is to present his work as entirely fictional. This extra level of removal acts as a humble admission that he does not know what historical characters truly thought during the time they were alive, or what they felt. It also enables him to weave a mythically structured plot that true history, being filled with random events, does not always permit.

Ondaatje’s strategy is entirely different from Kay’s, and yet achieves a similar effect, in one respect. He purports to show you Buddy Bolden or Billy the Kid in their most intimate moments. But rather than presenting a straightforward plot, he presents a fragmented, disunified story from different voices and witnesses.  Readers must suture the gaps between various scenes with narratives of their own. It is a style that lets the reader participate in the creation of Bolden and Billy.

Furthermore, Ondaatje makes clear in Coming Through Slaughter that his goal is not the mimesis of a historical subject–that is, the reproduction of a historical reality–but a more jazzed-up combination of fact and fiction. This kind of art serves as a mirror to his own self. “The photograph moves and becomes a mirror,” states Ondaatje, illustrating the transformation of one of the only surviving photos of Bolden.  Bolden reflects Ondaatje’s own psyche; the two inhabit each other. His improvised history of Bolden says less about a historical referent that it does about Ondaatje’s idea of the self-destructive artist.

Kay’s secondary worlds are also mirrors–although they are less personal to the author and more like mirrors to history. The patterns of history reflected in novels like Tigana and The Lions of Al-Rassan continue to map onto events in the modern world–wherever national or linguistic heritages are being erased or competing religions wage endless wars against each other. This gives Kay’s novels, according to sometime Michael Ondaatje scholar Douglas Barbour, “the kind of escape that brings you home.”

In conclusion, I will state boldly that Kay’s novels are a ‘historical fantasy’ reaction to many of the ethical problems and artistic interests that concern Ondaatje as a writer. Together, these two authors share something more than a Canadian citizenship; they are two kindred spirits writing from two very different, yet nonetheless related, artistic philosophies.

Fantasy, Narrative, and The Origin of Species by Nino Ricci

The Origin of SpeciesAlex Fratarcangeli, the protagonist of Nino Ricci’s The Origin of Species, works on a Ph.D. proposal that could change literary academics: he chooses to analyze literary texts in the light of Darwinism. As its title suggests, the novel is about Alex’s relationship to the life of Darwin and his seminal The Origin of Species. On the road, he lives through various failed romantic relationships and tries to learn what it means to be a father. This journey culminates in the production of a Ph.D. proposal that I believe to be both fascinating and potentially revolutionary, if academia takes these ideas seriously. In Ricci’s fictitious 1980s Montreal setting, academia does not.

Having achieved an MA in Victorian Studies, Alex pursues his Doctorate and is assigned Jiri Novak as his supervisor, a man with a troubled past. He has an idea about what he wants to explore, but he struggles to come up with the revelation that will tie his thesis together: kind of like the way I am currently searching for my Master’s research essay topic. Not even Jiri, however, can deny the simplicity and revolutionary potential in Alex’s work, even if the institution of academia finds Darwinism a tough pill to swallow.

What emerges is the argument that narrative is older than humankind. As Darwin’s discoveries about evolution once put humans in their not-so-special place in the animal kingdom, so does Alex’s thesis put all of literature in perspective with biology. To paraphrase Ricci, narrative is not the hallmark of human self-consciousness, but a path to it, a journey in itself.

The masked booby of the Galapagos presents its mate with a series of gifts that indicate the male’s desire to give the female a life of happiness. This, and interactions like it across the animal kingdom, prove that “happily ever after” is a story that goes beyond the human.

A masked booby chick. The product of a fairy tale? Yes, as it were.

A masked booby chick. The product of a fairy tale? Yes, as it were. We all are products of fairy tales.

Bringing this understanding in light of my own research, I am astounded to think that Tolkien’s transcendent vision of the fairy tale’s happy ending, eucatastrophe, should be part of some biological imperative. No doubt Tolkien, who believed in the Christian resonance of eucatastrophe, would find Alex’s thesis radical.

Darwinism is often described as leading to the rise atheism in the nineteenth-century, a slaying of the ultimate Father–who was also Tolkien’s Father. Without God, what becomes of transcendence? Must narrative itself become arbitrary, without an overriding scheme? Is storytelling a denial of Darwinian competition and randomness in how it attempts to map order onto an orderless world? Is storytelling itself a fantasy of an order that no longer exists?

Of course, we see fantasies that have tragic endings. I need hardly mention Game of Thrones. But there is also the branch of historical fantasy, which blends Tolkien’s eucatastrophe with historical probability, often placing a moment of refuge, instead of an outright happy ending, amid a larger historical catastrophe, such as war and famine. When you consider Clute’s five points of the fantasy novel structure (wrongness, thinning, recognition, healing, eucatastrophe), and all that description of florid, healthy natural habitats in Thomas Convenant, you are left with the sense that this structure is tied to ecosystem. Fantasy magic is related to the “health of the land.” Is this a memory of  how narrative, like the structure of life itself, is “primal beyond reckoning?” (Ricci 400).

Could it be that eucatastrophic literary fantasy is a leftover from a protohuman mating ritual?

Suddenly, why so many of Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels–I’m thinking of The Lions of Al-Rassan above all–end with romantic couplings at the end becomes clearer than glass: eucatastrophe is itself a promise of sexual fulfillment. It is a fulfillment that often occurs despite the catastrophes of history. And in its promise of happily ever after, what the characters offer their beloveds is refuge: from the trials of history, the world, all the forces of eat-or-be-eaten.

What Darwinism implies about fantasy as a mode is a whole other ball of wax. Perhaps fantasy itself has a rather obvious sexual origin. “Happily ever after” may itself be the fantasy that spawned all fantasies, making fantasy itself older than mankind.

In fantasy literature, as in other forms of narrative, animal instinct lies at the foundation stone. When reflecting on how physical bodies of ancestral creatures came to influence the bodies of texts, Alex reflects, “Somewhere in literature’s dark beginnings there had to be real blood on the page, there had to be real bodies being sacrificed or being saved” (82). Even in the midst of his Darwinist reverie, the religious connotations in this line is intriguing. I believe it reminds the reader that Christ’s death–a body sacrificed so humanity may be saved–spawned a body of text. Perhaps in the even more distant past of the Bible, there were animal bodies whose narratives human beings inherited. Such creatures may have given us the greatest love story of all, the greatest eucatastrophe–according to Tolkien, the Resurrection.

Yet this “blood on the page” has a more eerie connotation: Doctor Faustus and his deal with the devil for knowledge. Perhaps Alex’s devotion to Darwinist ideas are his signature on a satanic contract. A hubristic scholar, Alex is beset by frustrations on all sides. He has sold his soul to academia and blames his partner Liz’s abortion on getting a paper published in Canadian Studies. Perhaps the Chernobyl disaster, referenced often throughout the book, is as metaphor for mess of his life. But if Darwin killed God, then Satan is dead as well, and Alex only serves to entrap himself in a cycle of guilt  marked by a fateful trip to the Galapagos islands.

Charles Darwin (author of The Origin of Species)

Charles Darwin (author of The Origin of Species)

Alex “had always seen Darwinism as just another of the grand schemes for making sense of the world–like Marxism, say, or Freudianism, or New Criticism–that proved all was right with it” (297), but his opinion soon changes as he begins to see the undirected life of Darwinian evolution for what it is. Soon he is offered a chance, perhaps, at redemption, when he learns he has borne a son to his Swedish girlfriend.

Eventually it is Alex’s research into sociobiology that sets his thesis in presentable order: “It was all total anathema to the literary purists insofar as they even deigned to notice anything reactionary–it was just biological determinism writ large, they said, the worst sort of regression, a heartbeat away from social Darwinism and eugenics–but that didn’t mean it wasn’t true” (398).

This theory goes against “everyone,” claims Jiri, his supervisor. “The Marxists, the feminists, the deconstructionists, everything that’s happened in the past twenty years” (409). Just as Darwin unhorsed the theism of his time, Alex threatens to overturn the other structures of significance literary theorists have built for themselves over the years, proving that literature is at base biological.

“I suppose it’s like Derrida,” Alex explains at an earlier point in the book. “This idea that there’s a whole structure in our minds that controls how we think. Except that instead of language or binary opposite or something like that, it’s genetic” (75).

If the radical theory of literary criticism contained within Nino Ricci’s The Origin of Species ever builds steam within the real world of academia, I have a feeling it could change the landscape. Alex is one fictitious character against a conservative institution, but his theory is simplifying, like all great theories, including Darwin’s, are. Time will tell the extent of the consequences of evolutionism, Darwinism, and sociobiology on the field of literary studies. Personally, I cannot wait to see the effects of the ideas on fantasy literature.

Nino Ricci, author of The Origin of Species

Nino Ricci, author of The Origin of Species

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Image Credits/Works Cited:

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Ricci, Nino. The Origin of Species. Anchor: 2008.

http://ms.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Darwin

http://www.bellasbookshelves.com/?p=1696

http://www.canada.com/story_print.html?id=135c6779-b5d1-4bc7-b933-d19aeed03a61

 

How did Yeats inspire Sailing to Sarantium?

sailingWhen Guy Gavriel Kay wrote his byzantine historical fantasy Sailing to Sarantium, he was stealing a title from a famous poem by William Butler Yeats: “Sailing to Byzantium.” After reading the novel last June, I took a close look at Yeats’ poem to search for the items that might be said to have inspired Kay’s depiction of Sarantium and the prominent themes of his novel

The following is essentially a slightly edited and modernized re-post from my earlier author site, which has fallen into disuse. I thought my explorations of Kay’s source material was fruitful and I now wish to revisit it and share my findings, old and recent, with you.

First, allow me to provide a quick review of Sailing to Sarantium, which is the first novel in the Sarantine Mosaic, a series of two books that includes Sailing‘s sequel Lord of Emperors.

Caius Crispus, or Crispin, is an dissatisfied artisan working on a mosaic for a royal tomb in Varenna using mediocre teserrae pieces which lack for colour, when his master Martinian receives a letter by imperial post. He has been summoned to work on the great mosaic being planned for the Sanctuary to Holy Jad in Sarantium. Crispin takes on his master’s name and ‘sails’ to the Queen of Cities, Sarantium, and ultimately the court of Valerius II. In actual fact, he travels on foot, encountering many strange people and horrors along the way. When finally he arrives to perform his artwork, his destiny becomes intertwined with the men and women who rule the empire and kingdoms that make up his world.

GGK

Guy Gavriel Kay

In my mind, Kay’s work should be as well known for its portrayal of artist figures as for its spectacular fusion of history and fantasy. There is a great list of such figures now: Alessan from Tigana, the bards of A Song for Arbonne, Ammar ibn Khairan the poet-diplomat from the Lions of Al-Rassan, Sima Zian the Ninth Dynasty poet from Under Heaven, and the most recent one, River of Stars‘ poet-calligraphist Lin Shan. In Sailing, Crispin’s calling is that of a mosaicist. Exploring the process of creative inspiration, Sailing also raises the question of whether the execution of an artwork can be said to be idiosyncratic to the individual artist, or if it is always the result of the culture and civilization in which that artist lives. To some extent, this is a question relevant to all of Kay’s artists.

Crispin’s quest begins with him in a depression, which he channels into anger through his vivid, imaginative insults to which he subjects his apprentices. His wife has died. His daughters are dead too, take by the plague. He has given up living for anything, awash in a world that feels indifferent to him, a leaf in the wind of impermanence. Art becomes part of his search for stability.

yeats

Irish poet W.B Yeats

Art and permanence (read: immortality) are also key themes in W.B. Yeats’ poem “Sailing to Byzantium.” Kay has admitted that Yeats inspired his portrayal of Sarantium, which is based on the Byzantine empire under the Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora. But to what extent do both literary works invoke the other through shared themes and imagery? The answer surprised me: there were more ways than even I had thought to find.

Here is a transcript of the poem:

“Sailing to Byzantium”

THAT is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

The church of Hagia Sophia, constructed during the reign of Justinian. Since 1453, it has been a mosque.

The church of Hagia Sophia, constructed during the reign of Justinian. Since 1453, it has been a mosque.

Yeats describes Byzantium as a city of youth and art, a place where you can go to forget “whatever is begotten, born, and dies” (ln. 6). It is the original “no country for old men” (1). I can imagine that Crispin would be comforted in his existential crisis in such an ageless land, although Kay’s portrayal of Sarantium is not quite so idealized as Yeats’ depiction of Byzantium.

A significant stanza regarding Kay’s depiction of the Sarantine court is the following:

“O sages standing in God’s holy fire

as in the gold mosaic of a wall,

come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,

and be the singing-masters of my soul.

Consume my heart away; sick with desire

and fastened to a dying animal

it knows not what it is; and gather me

into the artifice of eternity” (17-24).

After reading these lines, my mouth dropped. Even leaving the beauty of Yeats’ verse aside, which is difficult, there were so many subtle reflections of Kay’s universe in these lines. The gold mosaic is a clear reference to the mosaic in the church of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) in Byzantium, the analogue for Kay’s Sanctuary to Holy Jad. The effect of the “holy fire, pern[ing] in a gyre” describes the all-around overwhelming effect that religious art, especially when thrown onto a 360 degree dome, can have on a spectator. It reminds me of the scene where Crispus sees the more rugged depiction of Jad in a provincial sanctuary, and is blown off his feet in awe, so that he can only lie down on his back gazing up at the sublime beauty of the artwork.

The plans for Justinian's original sanctuary of Hagia Sophia.

The plans for Justinian’s original sanctuary of Hagia Sophia.

“Consume my heart away” was the other phrase that immediately called to mind a particularly gruesome scene in Sailing. In the haunted Aldwood forest, a mysterious beast called the zubir devours prey sent to it as a sacrifice. It rips open the rib cage and devours all the internal organs, including the heart, so that the torso is completely hollowed out. Kay literalizes a metaphor that Yeats’ speaker uses to express his longing for immortality—an intense irony, if there was ever one. Yet, after glimpsing the zubir, Crispin becomes so deeply affected by his close brush with death that he becomes more susceptible to the inspiration he needs to create his mosaic, his “artifice of eternity,” which he hopes will win him immortal fame.

My Norton Anthology of English Literature quotes Yeats as having written the following about his poem: “The painter, the mosaic worker, the worker in gold and silver, the illuminator of sacred books were almost impersonal, almost perhaps without the consciousness of individual design, absorbed in their subject matter and that the vision of the whole people.” (My italics)

I said before that Sailing is about the tension between the individual artist and role society plays on his artwork. Kay challenges Yeats’ assumption about the impersonality of art. Crispin designs an intensely personal mosaic for the dome of Jad’s sanctuary. His personality is inevitably displayed in the passion and desire he puts into his creation. He does cater to his society, by trying to avoid depicting heretical images and adhering to what Valerius wants emphasized in the artwork. However, Crispin’s personality and his own beliefs end up colouring the final product in subtle ways that might be overlooked by most observers—including censors.

Yeats says that writing the poem and escaping to Byzantium was his way “to warm myself back to life” after an illness (Norton Anthology). Crispin’s character arc is similar, if depression is his illness. He gains the desire not only to live, but to leave his imprint on the world. Yeats and Crispin both have the same driving desire as poets.

justinian

theodora

The mosaics above are from Ravenna, Italy. They depict the Emperor Justinian and the Empress Theodora and their entourages.

Melissa Houle produced this rendering of Crispin's mosaic at the end of Lord of Emperors.

Melissa Houle produced this rendering of Crispin’s mosaic at the end of Lord of Emperors. Notice the similarity to the Ravenna mosaics.

“Sailing to Byzantium” forms a pair with Yeats’ other poem “Byzantium,” where further parallels may be gleaned:

“Byzantium”

The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night walkers’ song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.


Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For Hades’ bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.


Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the star-lit golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.


At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.


Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,
Spirit after Spirit! The smithies break the flood.
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

Right away, it can be seen that the “moonlit dome” that “disdains / all that man is, / all mere complexities, / the fury and the mire of human veins” has resonance, because it is under the dome in the Sarantine sanctuary that Crispin becomes inspired to live without fear of death (ln. 5-8). Furthermore, the opening nighttime imagery resonates strongly with Lord of Emperors, in which many events happen in the space of single night—a romantic hour, if there was ever one.

linonThe enigmatic character in Yeats’s poem, the “image, man or shade, / shade more than man, more image than shade” (9-10), made me recall the zubir, or even Linon, the mechanical bird embedded with the soul of a human girl. Although the beast and the girl are not men per se, both are “superhuman” and can be called “death-in-life and life-in-death” (16). The zubir is a living incarnation of death itself, while Linon’s soul exists in a liminal state of life. It need hardly be mentioned, of course, that Kay uses Yeats’ line “miracle, bird or golden handiwork, / more miracle than bird or handiwork” to refer to Linon as well: he uses the very line as an epigraph in his book.

Valerius II is known as the “Night Emperor” in Sailing, because he is restless at night, always leaving lights on in his window and wandering the moonlit halls of his palace, planning his stratagems to deal with the power-hungry court he must hold together. Yeats draws attention to this special appellation, which Valerius shares with the real-life Byzantine Emperor Justinian, when he describes the emperor: “At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit / flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit, / nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame” (25-27).

On the flame imagery: though the following is a major spoil alert [Do NOT read ahead if you have not read BOTH books of the Sarantine Mosaic], I cannot help but imagine that the “agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve,” which can be interpreted as a reference to the ‘fire’ of guilt, since it does not physically wound, inspired the crime Valerius abetted in the prologue to Sailing, when he first wins the throne. He burns a competitor to death with Greek fire. Perhaps the same fire imagery inspired the way in which the victim and his relatives repay Valerius in Lord of Emperors

dolphinLastly, “that dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea” (40) should carry mountains of resonance with readers familiar with Sailing. In Sarantium, dolphins are heretical to depict in art because they are associated with an older style of worship that is considered unorthodox under Valerius II: the worship of Jad’s son, Heladikos. This pagan god drove his chariot, which was the sun, before dying tragically, in a myth the calls to mind the story of Phaeton. Heladikos is understood among Sarantine heretics to still be carrying the sun through the underworld, suggesting that Heladikos is a symbol of the unconscious, repressed aspects of a society’s psyche. Since dolphins inhabit the seas and occasionally leap out of the water, the old religion draws the link between dolphins and Heladikos, and adds the belief that dolphins ferry the souls of the dead to the underworld.

Undoubtedly, I have only skimmed the surface of the nuances between both poems and the novel. I hope you have found my explorations and speculations illuminating. I will leave it to other readers of Yeats and Kay to tease out any additional layers of meaning between Sailing and its source material. It has been a fascinating exercise for me, and I hope readers of Sailing return to Yeats after finishing the book in order to discover (or re-discover) a remarkable twentieth-century poet.

hagia sophia3

Works Cited

The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 4th ed. Vol 2.

http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/byzantium/

http://www.online-literature.com/frost/781/

Photo Credits:

Crispin’s mosaic: http://www.brightweavings.com/artgallery/melissa.htm

Dolphin: http://mosaicbazar.wordpress.com/

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

Hagia Sophia: http://annoyzview.wordpress.com/2012/04/02/the-puzzle-surrounding-hagia-sophia/

Hagia Sophia Interior: http://www.teslasociety.com/hagiasophia.htm

Hagia Sophia Plans: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hagia_Sophia

Justinian: http://traumwerk.stanford.edu/philolog/2006/01/byzantine_art_as_propaganda_ju.html

Mechanical bird: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kittycreative/7721209084/

Sailing to Sarantium: http://www.e-reading-lib.com/bookreader.php/134766/Kay_-_Sailing_to_Sarantium.html

Theodora: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodora_%28wife_of_Justinian_I%29

Yeats: http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/10/19/christine-tobin-sailing-to-byzantium/

River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay

River of StarsWe first see Ren Daiyan, the heroic protagonist of Kay’s newest novel, as an angst-ridden adolescent in a grove, wielding a bamboo sword to channel his anger. Living in a time of famine, and of war against the barbarian Kislik tribe, he is deeply aware of the diminished glory of the empire of Kitai. In its Twelfth Dynasty (a society based on Song Dynasty China), Kitai is forever overshadowed by the glory and ruin of the Ninth Dynasty (the Tang Dynasty). Kay weaves a theme through his novel that resonates harmoniously with what readers can expect in an epic fantasy novel.  Diminished empires have been part of the epic fantasy genre ever since Tolkien described the fall of Númenor and Gondor.  Even so, River of Stars is best described as a historical fantasy, using Kay’s technique of the “quarter-turn of the fantastic,” in which he depicts a reflection of a real-world society with magic that the society would have believed in. In Under Heaven, Kay described the fall of Ninth Dynasty Kitai during the years of tribulation that are referred to as the An Li Rebellion. In River of Stars, which is a sequel to Under Heaven (although Stars can stand by itself), we see the Kitan court’s pathological fear of the military, along with the emperor’s deep, conflicting desire to reconquer the Lost Fourteen Prefectures, Kitai’s old territories which are now ruled by the Xiaolu. Ren Daiyan’s dream is to enter the court and lead an army to reconquer the Prefectures, restoring the glory of Kitai. He is, however, only a teenager—not quite a man—fighting imaginary enemies in a glade. After killing a band of outlaws single-handedly on the road one day, his life changes irrevocably. The arc of his life then follows a larger-than-life curve. He wanders down paths with random forks, always keeping his single desire at heart: the restoration of an empire. Meanwhile, Kay weaves a brilliant subplot involving the poet Lin Shan. A woman given a man’s education by her devoted father, Shan is an expert calligrapher and the founder of a new genre of poetry: the ci. A succinct definition of ci is “new words set to old music,” which may refer to a theme in Kay’s novels of historical patterns being repeated in slightly different ways, during each time cycle. When Shan meets her poet idol Lu Chen, just before he is sent into exile, she becomes drawn into the world of court intrigue, where she must use her power as a poet to protect those she loves. In his signature manner, Kay depicts her feminine viewpoint in the present tense, to demonstrate how focused and observant (in-the-moment) a woman must be to survive in a ruthless, patriarchal world. Shan speaks out of turn with the men, asserting herself in ways that have become taboo, ever since women were blamed for the laziness of the Ninth Dynasty court. However, the present-day Twelfth Dynasty is just as decadent as the Ninth, though its glory is less. Shan is invited into the Genyue, a beautiful imperial garden sponsored by the Flowers and Rocks Network. The brainchild of prime minister Kai Zhen and his ally Wu Tong, the garden is a vision of harmony created at the expense of the lives of many peasants. Shan will have to court imperial patronage and favour here, placing her life in danger, even as Daiyan fights the Flowers and Rocks as an outlaw. Their lives inevitably interweave, like silk. Mixing the worlds of politics, art, and war is Kay’s trademark, and he does this while asking many questions about how history must be remembered, and how seemingly inevitable events actually carry themselves out. Kay also asks how legends are made, a process that may involve valiant actions on the part of real men and women, but also, inevitably, storytelling—and a dash of fantasy about the past, which inflates heroes to truly immense proportions. All this is to say nothing of Kay’s wonderful poetic ability, the quality of his words that elevates his novel beyond the limitations of epic fantasy, into a more literary domain. Veterans of Kay will find nothing lacking in River of Stars and newcomers can find a great introduction to the author here. However, I suggest that a reader new to Kay should read Under Heaven first, if they wish to receive the full weight and effect of River of Stars.   Other reviews: http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2013/02/interview-guy-gavriel-kay-author-of-river-of-stars/ http://www.fantasyliterature.com/reviews/river-of-stars/ http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2013/04/what-were-reading-river-of-stars-by-guy-gavriel-kay/

A map of Kitai, Kay's setting for River of Stars. A reflection of China's Song Dynasty. Everything south of the Long Wall and north of the Great River is lost to the Xiaolu.

A map of Kitai, Kay’s setting for River of Stars. A reflection of China’s Song Dynasty. Everything south of the Long Wall and north of the Golden River is lost to the Xiaolu.

  [The review is done here. Following are some observations on the book itself, concerning my previous studies on Kay, and containing some spoiler material.]     Being a Kay veteran (I have read all of his books now), I smiled on occasion while reading River of Stars. This smile emerged not directly as a result of what the author wrote, but in how what he wrote found reflections in his earlier novels. I do not know whether Kay’s intent is responsible for these echoes, or if it is simply a set of imagery and wording that keeps popping up in his body of work, but I am inclined to think it is a mixture of both.

The Weaver Maid and Herdsman cannot meet across the River of Stars (the Milky Way), a metaphor for how we can never attain our ideals, though we may strive for them. Also not a bad love story.

The Weaver Maid and Herdsman cannot meet across the River of Stars (the Milky Way), a metaphor for how we can never attain our ideals, though we may strive for them. Also not a bad love story.

One thing to understand about Kay’s novels, is that all of them are in some way connected to his initial trilogy The Fionavar Tapestry. Fionavar is known in his other novels by other names, such as Finavir (in Tigana) and Fiñar (in The Lions of Al-Rassan). The mentioning of Fionavar, or phrases that refer to the weaving of the Tapestry (such as “brightly woven,” “a bright loom,” or, in River of Stars, “the Weaver Maid”) tie each of his novels to Fionavar, which is the first world, the world of which all other worlds are merely reflections or echoes. Whether it is the author returning to similar images or themes due to the unconscious patterns of his mind, or a deliberate attempt to establish parallelism across his novels, Kay’s repetitions can all be attributed to the Tapestry. In River of Stars, there are two easy examples of parallelism: one is a reflection from The Summer Tree and the other is from The Lions of Al-Rassan. The Xiaolu emperor has a custom where women dance around a fire for him. This dance also serves to demonstrate power, when the emperor forces the leaders of subservient tribes to dance. In The Fionavar Tapestry,  the nomadic Dalrei tribe, a horse-riding people of the plain, have a prominent custom of almost exactly the same type as the Xiaolu. The parallelism suggests that in some mysterious way, the Xiaolu are reflections of the Dalrei. Secondly, there is a moment in River of Stars greatly similar to one in The Lions of Al-Rassan. The brother of the war leader of the Altai tribe essentially repeats King Ramiro’s speech, which describes his dream of being able to ride his horse into the sea on the other side of Al-Rassan (in the Altai’s case, Kitai), claiming all the lands behind him as part of his kingdom. The language of the two speeches are so closely linked that the only explanation is that Kay is trying to deliberately draw a parallel. Those familiar with the poetry Kay brings to his writing will know that he would never repeat himself out of laziness. The King Ramiro grace note suggests that readers who are familiar with Kay should compare the narrative arc of restoration and reconquest in River of Stars to the perspective of the Jaddites in their reconquest of Al-Rassan. The Jaddite reconquest was seen as an arrogant assertion in Kay’s earlier novel, a “reconquest” of a land that was never theirs in the first place. This adds to the sense that the Altai have no right to conquer the Xiaolu—but also challenges the idea that Kitai has a right to reconquer the Lost Fourteen, which have for so long been in Xiaolu hands. After all, whether the peasants in the Lost Fourteen must pay taxes to the Xiaolu or the Kitan emperor makes no difference to them. We find ourselves asking, “How long do a people have to live in a country before they become native to it?” This question was also asked in Kay’s novel Ysabel, regarding Phelan the Roman’s integration into Celtic lands in the south of France, over the thousands of years he’s been living there. As a matter of fact, the moral ambiguity of reconquest becomes one of the central issues in River of Stars. The novel ends up questioning whether it is best to attempt to amend the brokenness of an empire through reconquest, or whether peace is best established in other ways, such as through compromise. River of Stars sets up a narrative of wrongness, thinning, recognition, and healing (terms by John Clute; see link) quite distinctly in its narrative arc—and in a distinctive Kay-like manner, questions that arc. In a way, his novel attempts to answer the question, “Is an individual really, in the words of Ninth Dynasty poet Sima Zian, ‘powerless to amend a broken world?'” The answer might surprise you. No more spoilers; read the book.

Guy Gavriel Kay: Historical fantasy author

Guy Gavriel Kay: Historical fantasy author

  Photo Credits:   Author: http://profunduslibrum.blogspot.ca/2012/10/guy-gavriel-kay-ysabel.html Cover: http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2013/04/what-were-reading-river-of-stars-by-guy-gavriel-kay/ Map: http://www.penguin.ca/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780670068401,00.html Weaver Maid: http://l5r.wikia.com/wiki/River_of_Stars  

Special Post: Honours thesis added to brightweavings.com

Today, I make a special announcement: my Honours thesis “Fantasies of History: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Synthesis of the Historical Fantasy Novel” has been added to Kay’s official website at brightweavings.com.

This thesis is the fruit of over two years of thought, and one year of hard research, writing, and re-writing. It represents the summit of my achievement as an English literature undergraduate at McGill, and now it is online for the world to see!

 

You can read it if you wish here, or read my summary version, if you just want to read the basic ideas here.

 

Thank you Deborah, for the time out of you schedule to post my thesis online. You are a silver thread, brightly woven, in the Tapestry of the website!

I met Guy Gavriel Kay at the Alire stand during Salon du livre in November. He signed all my books--and my Honours Thesis proposal.

I met Guy Gavriel Kay at the Alire stand during Salon du livre in November. He signed all my books–and my Honours Thesis proposal.

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/