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.

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Fantasies of History: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Synthesis of the Historical Fantasy Novel — PowerPoint Presentation

Use the following  links to download the PowerPoint for my presentation “Fantasies of History: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Synthesis of the Historical Fantasy Novel” at MythCon 2014. I presented at 5:00 pm Sunday, August 1oth at Wheaton College, Norton, MA.

Fantasies of History Presentation PDF

Fantasies of History Presentation PPT

Fantasies of History Presentation PPSX

Fantasies of History Presentation PPTX

Ember Nights in Guy Gavriel Kay and John Crowley

tiganaLove and Sleep

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In Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana and John Crowley’s Love and Sleep,part of his Aegypt sequence, characters born with cauls are summoned in the middle of the night to walk among the dead. Kay calls these individuals Night Walkers. Their story stretches back to real-world superstitions about children born with a membrane around their heads. This rare phenomenon, according to Wikipedia, occurs in 1/80,000 births, and it was supposed to mark children for good luck and greatness.

Crowley explains in his book that in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, children born with cauls participated in nightly battles against witches and evil spirits for the renewal of the land’s fertility. This battle is depicted in Tigana when one of the main characters, Baerd, who was born in a caul, meets other Night Walkers like himself, who then fight evil spirits with swords made of cornstalks in order to restore the land blighted by the tyrant Brandin. Crowley’s Night Walker, on the other hand, is a semi-literate coal miner from the Cumberlands of Kentucky, Floyd Shaftoe. While the heroic Baerd’s fight against the undead and the rough, working-class life of Floyd seem aeons apart, their stories are similar narratives woven by two brilliant historical fantasy novelists.

Ember tides are a Catholic tradition that a young Pierce Moffet in Crowley’s novel observes. They are a series of days that introduce each season, where fasting and prayers to the souls in purgatory are encouraged. In Tigana, ember tides become the Ember Nights. To observe Ember Nights, all lights in the house except a single candle are extinguished, in order to remember the story of the Triad, the triune deity worshiped throughout the Peninsula of the Palm.

However, in the south of the Palm, there exist certain heretics who claim the Triad sprang from older gods. Some of those who kept these older beliefs are the Night Walkers who Baerd runs into, men and women who participate in a literal battle against infertility and death itself. Perhaps here Kay alludes to a more ancient, pagan past to the Catholic celebration of ember tides.

moonlight

Kay explains: “In the highlands of Certando a child born with a caul was not said to be guarded from death at sea, or naively named for fortune. It was marked for war. For this war, fought each year on the first of the Ember Nights that began the spring and so began the year. Fought in the fields and for the fields, for the not yet risen seedlings that were hope and life and the offered promise of earth renewed” (388).

Crowley’s description of Floyd Shaftoe’s relationship to the ember tides is similar. “On certain nights–it might be the night of Little Christmas, or the last night of October, or when the moon was full at midsummer, less often as he grew older and the world grew worse–Floyd Shaftoe would hear his name called, not urgently but surely, at his window as he lay asleep: and he would answer. For he was one of a band, men and women born (he supposed) with the same signs as himself; and there were as many of the others, with whom his kind contended for the health and wealth of the earth: and he could no more refuse a summons to walk out against them than he could refuse a dream or die” (103).

While both Kay and Crowley make reference to ancient traditions to explain the Ember Nights, their approaches to depicting them are different. Baerd is engaged in a heroic struggle against the tyrant sorcerer Brandin, who has cursed his homeland of Tigana. He cannot utter his country’s name to strangers due to the tyrant’s curse, and since Tigana has been laid waste and renamed Lower Corte, that curse will annihilate the nation from memory. Answering the summons to stalk around outside during the Ember nights is one way Baerd finds release.

Whereas Baerd grieves for the dead of his nation who were slain fighting Brandin, Floyd Shaftoe’s grief is simpler. “When he was twelve years old Floyd had seen his mother laid away, dead of her last child and first girl, dead too. There had been no preacher for her, no one to read or sing; his father made the box himself, and his brothers dug the grave” (103). At night, he receives a summons from his mother to walk with a great crowd of other lost souls. The dead have a look of hunger in their eyes–the hunger to live again. After returning from this purgatorial vision, Floyd sees his own body sleeping in his bed, and then returns to it, questioning whether he would be able to return if he had stayed with his mother too long.

Floyd goes on to become a Born Again Christian, realizing that the “Holy Spert” summons him on ember tide. He works in the coal mines from boyhood to middle age, through the prosperous times where he is able to buy a fridge and TV, and through the worst times, when millionaires conspire against the company he works for. As he works under the earth, stripping the mountain of its rocks and metals, he starts to farm instead.

He sees the world as divided between those who follow the “Holy Spert” and the “Devil’s fiddle,” between those who grow things from the earth and those, like miners, who take away from it. He survives off Assistance, or “Well Far,” and blames “the great devil Hoover, who had brought ruin on the country, only to be turned out in disgrace himself” (112). President Herbert Hoover takes the place of Brandin of Ygrath as ruler of the land, although Floyd does not blame Hoover for the blighting of the landscape. He comes rather to think the “old enmity” between those sapping the earth and those who try to grow things on it, “was likely just a part of nature, like the enmity fixed between owls and crows, or between the red squirrel and the grey. […] [U]nless their two kinds did battle over what would grow and what would not, then nothing at all would grow” (112).

Reclaimed mountain that had been hollowed due to coal mining. Poisons still brown the stream.
Reclaimed mountain that had been hollowed due to coal mining. Poisons still brown the stream.

John Crowley uses  magic realism to create Floyd’s world, whereas Kay frames the Ember Nights in terms of the heroic tradition of portal-quest fantasy novels. A careful subjective voice claims only that what Floyd sees as his world world is true, but in Kay’s novel, the supernatural is treated as unquestioningly part of reality itself. Though both authors come from different perspectives, both share an interest in this obscure, but fascinating tradition. Both also deal with the genre and the ideas behind historical fantasy. Crowley and Kay both see Ember Nights as an nexus effective for the blending of the fantastic with the real.

Let me propose that the fantasy novel’s structure of restoration (Clute’s four-part structure: wrongness, thinning, recognition, and healing) lends itself to stories of wars fought for the fertility of the land. The war of the Night Walkers belongs to the monomyth found in many fantasy novels and legends. A child marked for greatness is prophesied to venture on a dark road and fight vast armies to restore the land to its health.

Our real world, blasted out of innocence by two World Wars, the Nuclear Age, the Cold War, 9/11, and economic collapse, is sick. Perhaps the monomyth of restoration appeals so much to Crowley and Kay because it promises the rejuvenation of our own world. One idea behind Tigana, for example, is that Tigana represents all cultures that have been obliterated from memory or maimed by powerful tyrants: it could tell the story of Cold War East Europe, Native North America, or Ireland. The story of Baerd and the Night Walkers promises that attempts at cultural obliteration can be overcome, worlds renewed.

On the other hand, Crowley recognizes that at different historical times, such as Renaissance England or one’s childhood, the world as perceived was different than it is now. We tend to believe in myths and legends more in earlier ages than we do in later ones. Crowley’s magic realist treatment of the Ember Nights is aimed not so much to restore culture and identity, as Tigana does, but the fertility of the imagination itself, the magical dimension that underlies our daily lives. Like other modern readaptations of ancient myths, Crowley’s Love and Sleep attempts to reanimate our demythologized, strictly scientific and utilitarian cosmology. Whereas Tigana can help us see our world through a distorted mirror, Crowley proposes something more radical: that, in the coal mine mountains of Kentucky, men might live today who have, in fact, been summoned by the dead to walk with them on Ember Nights.

John Crowley
John Crowley
Me and Guy Gavriel Kay
Guy Gavriel Kay and I

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Image Credits/Works Cited:

Crowley, John. Love and Sleep. New York: Bantam, 1994.

Kay, Guy Gavriel. Tigana. Toronto: Penguin, 1992.

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Love and Sleep Cover: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_%26_Sleep

Mountain: https://www.flickr.com/

Beyond this Dark House by Guy Gavriel Kay

beyondYou may know Guy Gavriel Kay as a historical fantasy novelist, author of River of Stars, a book that continues to be nominated for various awards. But did you know that he is also a poet?

Beyond this Dark House is that obscure volume of poetry you might have remembered seeing just before the title page of River of Stars. It should actually come of no surprise that Kay has tried his hand at poetry, given the intense lyricism and beautiful descriptions in his novel. Take the following line from Chapter 1 of River of Stars, for example, a few lines that perfectly set the tone for the whole novel:

The boy was alone in the bamboo grove on a morning swaddled with fog, a wan, weak hint of sun pushing between leaves: light trying to declare itself, not quite there.

Kay’s poems are a departure from the grand quasi-historical narratives that define his novels, but only a small one. In his introduction to the collection, Don Coles quotes a line of Kay’s verse where he claims “I have / a mild facility / that lets me turn such phrases.” Whether in prose or poetry, Coles writes that Kay has an ease with crafting words.

I would have to agree. His opening poem “Night Drive: Elegy” allows us a glimpse into Kay’s interior world as he writes about visiting the Winnipeg neighborhood where he grew up and remembering his dead father. I am unsure of the degree to which Kay tells us things that actually happened to him, but if this is Kay speaking about himself, readers of his novels will enjoy reading this intimate and nostalgic poetry.

The collection often turn towards Classical mythology, which should be unsurprising for readers familiar with Kay’s novels. “Being Orpheus” and “Psyche” in particular are well-crafted love lyrics, sensual and resonant. He also treats Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in “Malvolio” and Biblical myth in “Cain: the Stones.”

Many hidden treasures lie in wait for truly dedicated fans of Kay who do not mind reading poetry. He toasts Tennyson in his short lyric “Shallott” and nods towards his relationship with J. R. R. Tolkien in “If I Should Fly Across the Sea Again,” to whom the poem is dedicated. Kay, who helped Christopher Tolkien edit The Silmarillion, has been close to the Tolkien family and here fantasizes about returning to an old tree in rural England and experiencing some old memories .

guinvevere
Guinevere.

A few poems deal with Arthurian legends, which is the closest link I can find to Kay’s novels; it can be read as a loose tie-in to The Fionavar Tapestry. In “Guinevere at Almesbury,” Kay invites us into the monastery where Lady Guinevere resides after the fall of Camelot while she lives out the rest of her days , remembering Lancelot and Arthur–the two men she loved. “Avalon” also treats of the theme of the love triangle, a lyric that is one of my favourites. It opens with the line of dialogue that in 7 words summarizes both the conflict and the intimacy in Guinevere’s relationship to Lancelot: “But we both knew this long ago.”

On a less sublime level, Kay is capable of adopting more colloquial, twenty-first century styles. For instance “Night Call” opens with a lover’s anxiety that she is being “too literal” on the phone. Yet it ends with this beautiful line: “We have so far to go into what there is of light.” Another poem “Power Failure” is a series of small stanzas with lines only two or three syllables long, lending you a sense of encroaching darkness as you read it. The theme of light and dark is constant through the book.

“Beyond this Dark House” is a long poem about two lovers in the Prairies who walk together at night as the world around them acquires touches of the strange and mythic. Two stanzas in particular ought to resonate with any reader of Kay. They are also a fine example of the sort of poetry you can expect.  Here they are:

“You’ve walked beside me,

never knowing,

for six years now.

We’ve been together

in so many places

as I traveled, under skies

with doubled moons.

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“Beyond this dark house

a train is running away

into the night plain.

We’ve all had

dreams break,

fantasies we shaped.”

Double moons: a reference to the night sky in Tigana perhaps? Whether or not you get the reference, these are a sweet two stanzas, and a true mark of a mature poet. There seems to be some desire for fantasy in these lines, for escape–an escape to a land not unlike the ones which Kay has written about in his novels. What is truly touching about this poem is that two moons are no cheap allusion to his novels, but a suggestion–very slight–that the second moon is the speaker’s beloved. At least that is my interpretation.

I could talk more about this poetry collection, but I will leave the rest for you to read. If you fell in love with River of Stars‘ lyricism as much as its plot and its characters, then you must take a chance with Kay’s poetry. It will reward you.

GGK

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Image Credits:

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

Cover:http://fyreflybooks.wordpress.com/2009/02/28/guy-gavriel-kay-beyond-this-dark-house/

Guinevere: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guinevere

Machiavelli and the Problem of Memory in Tigana

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“Tigana, let my memory of you be like a blade in my soul.”

-Guy Gavriel Kay, Tigana

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Guy Gavriel Kay, author of Tigana
Guy Gavriel Kay, author of Tigana

Alessan’s mantra for his beleaguered nation, erased from history by the tyrant sorcerer Brandin of Ygrath, forms a central node in the theme of exile and memory in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana. A novel set in the Peninsula of the Palm, a landmass that more or less corresponds to Italy, Tigana borrows much of its inspiration from the Italian Renaissance era of warring city-states.

Brandin’s court is like that of the Medici or the Borgia. Ygrath and Barbadior’s conquests can be compared to the expansion of the empires of Spain and France, which were drawn into Italy by unwise allies who wished for them to intervene in their internecine rivalries with city-states such as Florence, Venice, Genoa, and the Papal States. The allies paid for this by being overcome by kings and emperors much more powerful than their own states.

Famously, one man who advised against taking such action was Niccoló Machiavelli. He wrote The Princea notorious book, one of the first on pragmatic political science—to advise Lorenzo de’ Medici (grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent) on how to act wisely as the governor of Florence.

In his final chapter, he exhorts Lorenzo to liberate Italy from “the barbarians,” likely a reference to the foreign armies of France and Spain who have taken up permanent residence on Italian lands. It is my observation that Machiavelli’s ideal to for Italian unification—something never accomplished until the efforts of Garibaldi in the nineteenth century—stems from the same national pride as Alessan feels in Tigana.

Which led me to wonder. If Guy Gavriel Kay used Machiavelli in his research, then in what ways could a reading of The Prince enrich our understanding of the conflicts in Tigana? Or a more precise question: is how Machiavelli understands memory and history the same as how Tigana understands it, or is there a difference?

Florence

On the surface, Machiavelli’s world—in ways I have already described—greatly resembles the world of Tigana. Brandin himself is a Machiavellian figure, a real Prince interested in establishing his authority across the Peninsula by driving out his rival Alberico of Barbadior. He superficially agrees to the terms of a peace treaty, while scheming to destroy Barbadior the moment it becomes convenient to break the agreement. Alberico, of course, plans to do the same, in a kind of polarized Cold War scenario where only the province of Senzio (perhaps a surrogate for Venice) remains neutral.

Machiavelli has several things to say about memory in The Prince. Some advice that he gives to Lorenzo may as well have been given to Brandin. For example, read the following paragraph from Chapter 5 on “How you should govern cities or kingdoms that, before you acquired them, lived under their own laws”:

“Examples are provided by the Spartans and the Romans. The Spartans took Athens and Thebes, establishing oligarchies there. However, they lost them again. The Romans, in order to hold on to Capua, Carthage, and Numantia razed them and never lost them. They sought to govern Greece according to more or less the same policies as those used by Sparta, letting the Greek cities rule themselves and enforce their own laws, but the policy failed, so in the end they were obliged to demolish many cities in that territory in order to hold on to them. The simple truth is there is no reliable way of holding on to a city and the territory around it, short of demolishing the city itself. He who becomes the ruler of city that is used to living under its own laws and does not knock it down, must expect to be knocked down by it. Whenever it rebels, it will find strength in the language of liberty and will seek to restore its ancient constitution. Neither the passage of time nor good treatment will make its citizens forget their previous liberty. No matter what one does, and what precautions one takes, if one does not scatter and drive away the original inhabitants, one will not destroy the memory of liberty or the attraction of old institutions. As soon as there is a crisis, they will seek to restore them. That is what happened in Pisa after it had been enslaved by the Florentines for a hundred years” (17, my Italics).

san gimignano 2Brandin, after conquering the province of Tigana after the Battle of the River Deisa, destroyed its main cities: Avalle of the Towers and the capital Tigana. Avalle, which was inspired by San Gimignano, once had many towers that stretched to the sky. But Brandin’s forces knocked them down, in order to ensure the city’s submission to his rule. Tigana itself (based on Florence, perhaps) was demolished as well, and renamed Lower Corte—Corte having been its bitterest enemy. Avalle was renamed Stevanien, after Brandin’s son, who was killed in battle. These policies seem to be directly inspired by Machiavelli’s advice to Princes in Chapter 5.

The tyrant’s spell adds an extra layer to the political-military strategy of Machiavelli: he uses magic to erase the very name of Tigana from memory and make its name unpronounceable. One particular difference from Machiavelli’s dry strategy and Brandin’s motive to demolish Avalle is that the Tiganese killed his son and he wanted revenge. This does not mean that Brandin acts on his emotions, however. He only knows where to direct his temper. Machiavelli advises on several occasions that a Prince should “lose his temper” deliberately under certain circumstances, such as when he is being lied to (105). The demolition of Avalle would have been one such well-advised occasion for Brandin to become angry.

Machiavelli may have also unknowingly given Brandin the idea to create his spell of obliteration, if the two had ever met in some other dimension. In Chapter 1 of The Prince, Machiavelli remarks how hereditary principalities—territories where it is traditional for a particular aristocratic family to inherit power—are by far the easiest to hold, compared to republics. “Because the state has belonged to his family from one generation to another, memories of how they came to power, and motives to overthrow them, have worn away,” he advises (7).

Brandin was not necessarily planning to share or to pass on his rule. But the implication of how enough time passing eventually legitimizes the rule of a Prince may have attracted to him. Since sorcerers can live to advanced age in Tiganas world, he plans to outlive all the Tiganese exiles, who alone carry the memory of their homeland. Once they die, Lower Corte would know no better than that Brandin is the right and honourable ruler of the land.

Cesare Borgia: possible analogue to Brandin of Ygrath?
Cesare Borgia: possible analogue to Brandin of Ygrath?

In addition to these specific remarks about the ability of a ruler to hold onto power by controlling memory, Machiavelli has an understanding of history’s usefulness in deciding policy. He constantly draws upon the patterns of the past in order to find examples that can advise rulers on present courses of action and on their future ambitions. The exploits of ancient Greeks and Romans—some real, others fictitious—are on par with those of other Renaissance Italian Princes, such as Cesare Borgia, Alexander VI, and Savanarola, as examples of what-to-do or what-not-to-do. He assumes the past serves as a map for the unknown.

Kay would use the metaphor of a mirror. “With bronze as a mirror one can correct one’s appearance; with history as a mirror, one can understand the rise and fall of a state; with good men as a mirror, one can distinguish right and wrong”: the epigraph from Under Heaven (by Li Shimin, Tang Emperor Taizong) can apply just as much to Machiavelli’s understanding of political history, as to how Kay invites us to understand history.

giucciardini
Francesco Guicciardini

That being said, Machiavelli has his detractors, to say the least. Francesco Guicciardini, a contemporary and a friend of Machiavelli, questioned even the usefulness of bringing the past to bear upon the present, although the patterns might be there for anyone to observe. Who, after all, can say they have ever successfully predicted the future, simply by looking at the past? He also believed that all men, though subject to sin, were essentially good—which Machiavelli’s pessimistic yet pragmatic philosophy seems to deny. “This is how it has to be,” says Machiavelli, “for you will find men are always wicked, unless you give them no alternative but to be good” (73).

Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche

Which brings to mind another cynical philosopher and his ideas of history and morality—Friedrich Nietzsche. Notorious in the twentieth century for his belief in Social Darwinism, which inspired the racialist ideas of Adolf Hitler, Nietzsche argued in Geneology of Morals that men behave good because they were given no other alternative.

Like Machiavelli, Nietzsche believed that the autonomy of the sovereign was mutually exclusive with morality. He also believed that all morality developed out of primitive ideas of punishment—that morals were literally beaten into our forefathers, so that as we evolved, we came to obey the laws better. For example, the brutal uses of capital punishment in the past—strangulation, hanging, drawing and quartering, beheading—produced the more civil society we live in during the present day.

I seriously doubt his conclusion on that last point. Nietzsche’s perception is affected by his retrospective analysis. I believe modern “civilization,” as he calls it, emerged because we rejected the brutality and absolutism of the past, not that brutality shaped our modern civilization. However, the idea that morals come from the memory of punishment is interesting in relation to Tigana: the idea that memory is directly tied to pain:

“Tigana, let my memory of you be like a blade in my soul.”

When Alessan speaks these words, it could be said he engages in a (somewhat) Nietzschean understanding of memory—and by extension, perhaps of history and morality as well. He must recall the pain of his exile in order to force himself to remember his nation—and then take moral action.

Nietzsche and Machiavelli exist simultaneously in Tigana: memory (problematically) is both ingrained by pain and an intellectual tool with which to gaze into the past. The heroes of Tigana do not let their fear of punishment lead them to submit to tyrants, but they do wish to experience pain, if it preserves the memory of their homeland. And that experience of self-inflicted pain guides their self-defined morality, to do anything they can to liberate themselves from Brandin’s yoke.

But does morality itself suffer under Alessan’s model? If we can determine our own morality by deciding what to remember and forcing ourselves to remember it—carrying all the pain that memory can bring—can we be expected to reach rational decisions that respect our fellow human beings? Or could this kind of morality cause us to act according to our passions and, more importantly, our self-interest—one of the guiding human principles that Machiavelli (and notably, Thomas Hobbes) understands as the source of all human endeavour?

Just as Brandin is a tyrant, Alessan is literally a Prince. Brandin’s morality—if he has any—is almost driven entirely by the interests of himself as ruler, and those of his state. But behind this self-interest is the burning memory of Stevan’s death at the River Deisa. Prince Alessan, like Brandin, carries the Deisa in his memory, but for different reasons. His father Prince Valentin died in battle, leaving Alessan without a principality to call his own. Is Alessan simply motivated by jealousy for Brandin and his own interest in becoming ruler? Is his nationalist rhetoric only a facade?

Kay intentionally makes Brandin a foil of Alessan, adding good qualities to Brandin and evil qualities to Alessan. For example, Alessan must enslave Erlein di Senzio as his wizard servant, in order to for his master plan to work. Should a man so preoccupied with liberty be damned for making a slave of one man? (Perhaps someone ought to have asked the leaders of the American Revolution this same question, many of whom owned slaves.) Furthermore, Brandin, however ruthless, also has feelings. Dianora, his favourite woman in his saishan and a Tiganese herself, notices that he cared an enormous amount for his son and that he never forgave himself for sending him to fight in battle. She intends to kill Brandin to avenge her country, but finds herself loving the man she has schooled herself so long to hate—even saving him once from an assassin.

Guy Gavriel Kay’s George Seferis epigraph sums up his own beliefs in the ambiguity of holding onto memory:

George Seferis
George Seferis

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“What can a flame remember? If it remembers a little less than necessary, it goes out; if it remembers a little more than is necessary, it goes out. If only it could teach us, while it burns, to remember correctly.”

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A long enough memory can produce a desire in you to avenge all the wrongs ever done to your kind. Witness the damage that extensive memories wreck in Middle East daily. Even Nationalism, which seems a noble enough ideology until you remember the twentieth century, can go too far. Yet having no memory at all utterly robs you of any identity. I like imagining all the whitebread kids lost in the suburban USA being asked what their heritage is, and being unable to answer “English” or “Irish” or “Welsh” or “Scottish.” Assimilation into a melting pot can do as much to erase memory as Machiavellian attempts to snuff it out all at once.

Does Alessan remember correctly? Does Brandin? The answers are ambiguous, although most readers will probably side with Alessan. But it cannot be ignored that Alessan may have easily turned into the villain in Tigana. Nietzsche argued sovereigns were above morality. Yet, following one’s own painful memories might have caused Alessan to think himself above morality while rebelling against the sovereign Brandin, in an effort to fight fire with fire.

The Ismaili Assassins
The Ismaili Assassins

Tyrant and rebel: an age-old conflict. Each obeys no law and each is the antithesis of the other. Yet, they are, in so many ways, the same. Nietzsche believed the laws we live by were oppressive. Yet, he also (quite famously) saw a way to rebel against such authority. The creed of the Ismaili Assassins said, “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.” Truths established by tyrants create a certain morality, so disbelieving in those truths frees one to perform any action suitable to overthrowing that power.

Does Alessan follow a similar creed, or does he too have a belief in truth, in morality? It would be worth a re-reading of Tigana to see just how much Alessan uses ends to justify means.

But turning away from Tigana now, other questions emerge. What are the dangers of the Assassins’ creed? If everything is permitted, do we have Hobbes’ State of Nature on our hands? Would followers of the creed then become self-interested, build up social contracts, and then begin punishing others when the contracts are breached, beginning the process of moral development all over again?

Let these questions stand as food for thought. It is not my place now to answer them, and I’ve rambled on enough as it is. But I believe it’s safe to say that memory can be a dangerous thing, especially when it forces us to disregard morality. Perhaps it depends on what we choose to store in our memory as well: if we keep hoarding pain, the fire of memory will grow so large it will consume us.

Feed the fire, but not to excess.

flame
What can a flame remember? -George Seferis
Machiavelli ac
The character of Machiavelli from Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood attests to the popularity of the duplicitous Machiavel figure in contemporary popular culture. Is he, as a friend of Cesare Borgia, a Templar, or is he the friend of Ezio Auditore, the Assassins’ Mentor?

 

Works Cited:

Kay, Guy Gavriel. Tigana. Toronto: Penguin, 1992. 1-793.

Kay, Guy Gavriel. Under Heaven. Toronto: Penguin, 2010. 1-710.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. Selected Political Writings. Ed. David Wooton. Indianapolis: Hacket, 1994. 5-80.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “Morals as Fossilized Violence.” The Prince. Transl. Francis Golffing. Ed. Robert M. Adams. New York: Norton, 1977. 253-275.

Rudowski, Victor Anthony. The Prince: A Historical Critique. New York: Twayne, 1992. 12-17

Wikipedia.

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Photo Credits:

Flame: http://pdphoto.org/PictureDetail.php?pg=8381

Nietzsche: http://pasolininuc.blogspot.ca/2011/11/friedrich-nietzsche.html

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

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

Tigana: http://evenstarwen.com/category/books/

George Seferis: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giorgos_Seferis

Machiavelli: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niccol%C3%B2_Machiavelli

Machiavelli AC: http://assassinscreed.wikia.com/wiki/Niccol%C3%B2_Machiavelli

Guicciardini: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francesco_Guicciardini

Cesare: http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cesare_Borgia

San Gimignano: http://www.italiautleie.no/tilleggstjenester/guidedebyturer

Florence: http://bonesdontlie.wordpress.com/2012/06/21/bones-abroad-visiting-the-famous-dead-in-florence/

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/

Is Fantasy Heresy?

poe_portraitBradbury

“War begets war. Destruction begets destruction. On earth, a century ago, in the year 2020, they outlawed our books.” -Edgar Allen Poe, in Ray Bradbury’s “The Exiles.”

Edgar Allan Poe fights rocket men on a Mars mission to annihilate everything fantastic or non-realistic, in Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Exiles.” Bradbury’s short story stands with Fahrenheit 451 as a grim chronicle of a dystopian world where imagination is prohibited, even to the point of it being considered a mental disorder. In these worlds, fantasy—the ability to imagine realities other than the “consensus”—is outlawed, exiled, and, ultimately, considered heretical.

One fascinating question arises out of how Bradbury saw the role of fantasy literature in this future world. Is fantasy heretical? More specifically, does the literary mode or genre we refer to commonly as “fantasy” hold any innate capacity to oppose the dominant, orthodox “consensus” understanding of truth and reality? If there is such a capacity, what does it mean fantasy-as-heresy can do? And if it is not true that fantasy is heretical, why is it not?

“Fantasy itself is heretical. It denies what everyone knows to be the truth. And, if you’re lucky, the untruth shall make you free.” These words may sound counter-intuitive, even a little Nietzsche-esque, but they are part of Brian Attebery‘s argument for fantasy’s subversive potential in his essay “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy” (11).

Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche
Brian Attebery argues that fantasy is heretical in "The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy"
Brian Attebery argues that fantasy is heretical in “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy”

Since it accepts the non-real, fantasy can say that “reality is a social contract, easily avoided” (10). Indeed, most fantasy novels contain an element of escape from the humdrum of modern-day, middle-class North American life (or whatever is your current milieu). While fantasy can slip into “escapism,” what escape does for readers is break the jail cell bars which contain us within the accepted reality that we accede to ever day. It demonstrates that out world is “a fluke, a localized and temporary aberration” (10). I like to think of Neil Gaiman in The Ocean at the End of the Lane saying that the world we know as our own is only the icing on a much larger and much deeper cake, lying just under the surface of things.

The slightly more dangerous and “most profound political statement that fantasy can make is to let the Other become a self” (10). Fantasists write from the point of view of aliens, animals, and other fantastic creatures—and analogously, other human cultures right here on earth. In fantasy, “the past threatens to break into the present, colonies become capitals, and the natural world takes revenge on civilization” (10).

Ent

The way fantasy novels do this is clearly evident. Epic fantasy, for starters, is almost completely based on the ways in which the past interferes with the present, and novels such as Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay do this in a twentieth-century our-world setting. And how subversive would the Ents of Fangorn be, if they waged a crusade against Amazon rainforest deforestation? In our globally-warmed world, the whole Mayan apocalypse craze was partially a result of our fear of nature’s TiganaYsabelvendetta against our race, and that surely inspired a few fantasy stories. On the subject of decolonization, I need go no further than Kay’s other novel Tigana in order to indicate a subversive book: a tale of rebels who overthrow the yoke of foreign domination in order to restore their nation’s identity. This belongs not only to the mythic history of the USA and France, but also to Ireland, Wales, Quebec, the Basque regions in Spain, and Communist East Europe.

Choose any binary: man/woman, dark/light, subject/object, self/society, victor/victim, man/nature, past/present, self/other: fantasy gains its subversive, heretical edge by showing us the “other,” by presenting both sides of the coin, and thus challenging us, whether we choose heads or tails. Even when an author such as C.S. Lewis attempts to reinforce a worldview—Christian orthodoxy—Attebury argues that the fantastic frame “resists any kind of orthodoxy” (11). Fantasy has infinite possibilities, which makes any limitations upon those possibilities (the “rules” of the secondary world) contrast with what lies beyond those boundaries, letting us question what set those limitations in the first place.

Aslan

Why is Aslan a lion, we might ask, and not, say, a dragon? Lewis’ choice reveals Aslan’s significance as a symbol for the “Lion of Judah,” Jesus Christ. At the same time as Christian orthodoxy is reinforced, the fantastic elements in Narnia—such as witches, centaurs, and giants—recall a more pagan world, the other side of the coin. Even a fascistic fantasy that reinforces a certain ideology or orthodoxy will be subverted, argues Attebery, because the possibility of asking, “What else?” remains. There will always be another side, an “other” that the fantasy implies exists.

Since fantasy brings down the orthodox, it is intrinsically heterodox, which is a fancy way of saying “heretical.” Attebery is not alone in drawing conclusions like this. Rosemary Jackson in Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion observes a similar phenomenon. For her, fantasy (defined more as a left-wing absurdist type of literature than post-Tolkien generic fantasy, which she viewed as too conservative and conventional) is a literature of desire that can thwart dominant understandings of reality.

Which brings us back to Edgar Allan Poe in his Martian exile. The dominant orthodoxy of the rocket men eventually triumphs over Poe, when the captain burns the pages of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, The Land of Oz, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—the last copies in the universe. Bradbury’s short story gains its power from the binary contrast between the world of the imagination and the world of science and progress that the rocket men represent. Even though the rocket men triumph and they see that “there’s no one here at all” in the now-emptiness of Mars, the fantastic remains in the unconscious. One man who sees the fall of the city of Oz must report for psychoanalysis. Although orthodoxy might presume to establish itself over all the universe, the fantastic remains in the mind, as an “other” understanding of reality, a heterodoxy.

BrunoImagining other worlds and other heterodox realities is not, of course, a phenomenon limited to fantastic fiction. Any heretic who opposes orthodoxy must have an imagination. In fact, we can further explore how imagining other worlds can be subversive by looking at one sixteenth-century heretic: Giordano Bruno.

Bruno is best known for championing a Copernican understanding of the universe. While this was not precisely the reason for his condemnation as a heretic, it nonetheless presented an alternate understanding of the universe’s order. Humans were no longer the center of the universe after Copernicus’ theories gained acceptance. The “self” had become an “other.” Interestingly, Attebery writes that we can understand fantasy as “the meeting ground between empirical and traditional world views” (10) The whole Copernican debate was also fueled by the very tension between empiricism and the traditional church teachings.

helipo versus geoOne of the actual reasons that Bruno was burned was that he asserted that Jesus could not have been God: since God, as he saw it, was infinite, it was impossible for infinity to become incarnate in a finite, human form. In my personal opinion, this leaves out the following possibility: in the infinite possibilities of the universe, such a thing could perhaps be possible. Nonetheless, Bruno was also one of the first to champion the idea that there might exist other worlds (such as Mars!) beyond our own, that the universe did not end, but stretched on to infinity. Implicitly, (the following is also my own thought) there are infinite possibilities to reality, no matter how fantastic they might seem to us. Whatever exists in our imagination could exist (we do hope!) somewhere out there.

Bruno2Giordano Bruno’s was the core of all heresies. By asserting that the universe was infinite and that human beings were not at the center, he challenged the dominant “consensus” reality of his day. An infinite universe has no boundary between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Implying there are worlds and things that lie outside of any explanation orthodoxy can provide necessarily undercuts that orthodoxy. Furthermore, implying that there are infinite things outside those boundaries can render those boundaries insignificant. Bruno’s beliefs not only made him a heretic for denying Christ’s divinity, but his teaching of infinity also denied the very legitimacy of the word “heretic.”

The Spanish Inquisition tortures a suspected heretic.
The Spanish Inquisition tortures a suspected heretic.

Fantasy, like Bruno’s infinite universe, has endless possibilities. It can therefore subvert any distinction made to divide the universe into binaries, whatever they might be. Furthermore, Bruno’s philosophy suggests that everything is in the universe, whether or not you believe it is real. Science, the orthodoxy of today, does not believe in dragons or the Emerald City of Oz. But Bruno’s philosophy can imply that these places do exist, if not on Mars, then somewhere in the infinite.

So the universe contains everything that can fit under one’s distinctions, as well as everything that exists outside of it. White swans and black swans in equal measure. Your best dreams, and your worst nightmares.

Going back to our original question, I can now confirm that fantasy is intrinsically heretical. However, this does not mean that all fantasy novels go “against the system” or challenge our most profoundly held beliefs. What it does mean is that the element of fantasy, when placed even in a conservative fantasy novel, implicitly subverts the worldview put forward in its story, by opening up the possibilities of the novel to infinity.

DDSome fantasy literature (we can all imagine the names of a few culprits) has become so codified that board games such as Dungeons and Dragons suggest formulas for crafting genre narratives using a nearly automatized technique. Elves, half-elves, barbarians, bards, and paladins run amok fighting goblins, orcs, and trolls. What particularly scandalizes me about formula dictating a work of fantasy is that—however fun playing a game might be—the story runs counter to everything fantasy stands for.

Fantasy is for imagining other things, new things, things not yet imagined, or things that break the mold of the orthodoxies to which we all implicitly hold. The elves and orcs, which began as an imaginative escape from our boring everyday twentieth- or twenty-first-century life, have become the new prison for our imagination.

Fantasy abhors a prison. It is free spirit. Formulaic genre literature undoes itself when we recognize the boundlessness of the fantastic and ask, “Why is this land populated exclusively by elves, dwarves, humans, and orcs? Why not other things we can imagine?”

In fantasy as in infinity, everything is possible. The creed of the Assassins comes to mind: “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.” Since everything in fantasy is permitted, it implies that what we assume to be true about the genre—and what we assume to be true about the universe—is not always so. Fantasy, a free radical, undoes whatever boundary lines the orthodox assumptions of society can set in its path.

The creed of the Assassin brotherhood is "Nothing is true; everything is permitted." Screen shot from Assassin's Creed.
The creed of the Assassin brotherhood is “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.” Screen shot from Assassin’s Creed.

In conclusion, I can confirm that fantasy itself is heretical. If it finds itself in a novel set by boundaries (and every work of fiction must have boundaries to exist), it breaks them. We may not intend this as authors. We may not pick up on it, as readers. But as soon as the windows to infinity are opened, the boundaries of the world we construct—either in the narrative of a story, or in the world in which we live—become exposed, and they are revealed for what they often are: arbitrary limitations. Faced with infinity, it becomes our duty to react. Do we stand by our current structures, definitions, and beliefs, or do we find some way of opening our mind to what we do not understand?

The tricky part of answering this question is that no matter what our answer is, we will always, at least implicitly, be forming a new orthodoxy in our minds—perhaps one more expansive, but still with its limits. A human mind cannot completely encompass infinity. Doctor Faustus tried that and failed miserably. However, if we are careful, fantasy is still a good thing: it’s work is never done, and in this world, the ability to help us press the boundaries of our imagination is a continual need.

Illustration on Title Page of Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus
Illustration on Title Page of Christopher Marlowe‘s Doctor Faustus. Faustus is an example of a scholar who transcends orthodoxy–but perhaps goes too far by signing a contract with the devil for his soul. (Wait … doesn’t that reinforce the orthodoxy?)

Works Cited:

Attebery, Brian. “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy.” Modes of the Fantastic. Ed. Robert A. Latham and Robert A. Collins. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995. 1-13.

Bradbury, Ray. “The Exiles.” Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales With an Introduction by the Author. New York: HaperCollins, 2003.

Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion. London: Routledge, 1998.

Photo Credits:

Aslan: http://narnia.wikia.com/wiki/Aslan

Assassin’s Creed: http://assassinscreed.wikia.com/wiki/Rashid_ad-Din_Sinan

Bradbury: http://www.thecimmerian.com/subpress-publishes-bradburys-martian-chronicles/

Brian Attebery: http://www.isu.edu/english/Faculty/BrianAttebery.htmlEdgar Allan Poe: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edgar_Allan_Poe

D&D: http://halfblaked.blogspot.ca/2011/07/how-d-made-me-better-storyteller.html

Doctor Faustus: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Theatre/DoctorFaustus?from=Main.DoctorFaustus

Ent: http://genedoucette.me/category/small-children/

Giordano Bruno: http://johns-spot112948.blogspot.ca/2013/02/giordano-bruno.html

Helio vs. Geo: http://www.technologijos.lt/n/mokslas/astronomija_ir_kosmonautika/S-29955

Infinity Bruno: http://www.theharbinger.org/xvi/971111/birx.html

Spanish Inquisition: http://fineartamerica.com/featured/victim-of-the-spanish-inquisition-everett.html

Nietzsche: http://pasolininuc.blogspot.ca/2011/11/friedrich-nietzsche.html

Tigana: http://chachic.wordpress.com/2011/03/24/once-upon-a-time-v-challenge/

Ysabel: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ysabel