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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco

foucault's pendulum

A group of editors gets together to write a parody of a conspiracy theory. What if the parody ends up becoming perceived as the source of ultimate truth for an actual underground group that styles itself after the Templars and Rosicrucians?

The answer lies in the pages of Umberto Eco’s intellectual thriller Foucault’s Pendulum. In a way, the book is Dan Brown on steroids. Conspiracy theories abound in dizzying multitudes. Heretics, Knights Templar, Assassins, cabalists, Diabolicals, Masons, Jesuits, the Bavarian Illuminati, and the School of Night all become implicated in one giant Plan that spans centuries and has formed the very shape of history.

The editors at Garamond Press in Milan, Italy compose the Plan as a parody of a Templar plot that Colonel Ardenti believes he has uncovered from evidence found in Provins (Provence). However, as the editors mock Ardenti’s leaps in logic, their research into secret societies and the occult inspire them to create their own ultimate Plan.

However, the pastime, begun for the editors’ amusement, eventually begins to poison how the editors think. The Plan becomes real; life imitates art. And the central object that ties the created reality together—the thing that may reveal the greatest secret of all—is Foucault’s Pendulum, located in a Paris museum.

Though it was published in 1989, Foucault’s Pendulum continues to excite readers today. With the popularity of such authors as Dan Brown, author of The DaVinci Code and Angels & Demons (and his new thriller Inferno), interest in conspiracy theories and secret societies is running high.

Also, if reading Foucault’s Pendulum, you are reminded of the Assassin’s Creed video game franchise, you were not alone. In the Plan, Ismaili Assassins inspire the secret rites of the Templars, and dispense secret information to them about a powerful artifact with which they could control the world.

A Knight Templar.
A Knight Templar.

Perhaps Foucault’s Pendulum inspired Assassin’s Creed; perhaps Assassin’s Creed inspired Foucault’s Pendulum! After all, the programers were (obviously) Assassins themselves… And the only way to tell if someone really is an Assassin, is if they deny it.

Such is a sample of the kind of warped thinking into which the editors of Eco’s thriller fall. It combines the paranoid thought patterns of conspiracy theorists and witch hunters with the ars combinatoria, which seeks to interconnect all human knowledge. In Cabala, for example, passages of Hebrew scripture may be randomly combined with each other in order for new truths to emerge. In a similar way, the editors of Garamond Press enter statements of knowledge into a computer called Abulafia, which reconnects the entered statements randomly. Thus they emerge with a list, such as the following:

“The Templars have something to do with everything

What follows is not true

Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate

The sage Omus founded the Rosy Cross in Egypt

There are cabalists in Provence

Who was married at the feast of Cana?

Minnie Mouse is Mickey’s fiancée” (364).

The editors connect the random terms into a narrative and come up with the grand and exquisite claim that Jesus was actually married to Mary Magdalene and it was His marriage that was feted at Cana. In a clever way, Eco ridicules the exact same Templar conspiracy discovered in The DaVinci Code, which (coincidentally?) reveals the “truth” about Jesus Christ.

This is one example of Eco’s exploration of signs and symbols and how people connect them all together, even when no such connection exists objectively. It is the way that Garamond Press’ target audience, the Diabolicals, think.

I personally find Eco’s ideas fascinating, especially in the context of historical fantasy. In Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay discusses the philosophical implications of how desire influences how narratives of random historical events are told. These events become signs of a pattern, or signs of a plan to history’s unfolding. Eco shows how such plans may be interpreted from random data. Furthermore, he implies that in hyperreality, a universe where reality has largely been replaced by symbols and simulations of reality, the creation of such a plan in a spirit of fictitious play may have actual, historical consequences.

Umberto Eco, author of Foucault's Pendulum and The Name of the Rose
Umberto Eco, author of Foucault’s Pendulum and The Name of the Rose

Eco explores these ideas because he is a semiotician, a scholar who studies the structure of signs and the processes in which they develop signification. For example, his most famous novel, the medieval mystery The Name of the Rose, explores how signs can be interpreted, or misinterpreted. In Foucault’s Pendulum, Eco explores similar themes. Symbols and signs have such a wide range of meanings that everything (a rose, a triangle in a Leonardo DaVinci painting, historical events) can be interpreted in hundreds or thousands of different ways.

Indeed, it would be a legendary meeting if it were possible for Eco to meet Dan Brown’s protagonist Robert Langdon, who is a symbologist, a professional who interprets the historical meaning of symbols. While Langdon sees a triangle in Leonardo DaVinci’s Last Supper and interprets it as a symbol for the sacred feminine, Eco would perhaps more closely analyze at the process of how Langdon came to make that interpretation. Perhaps Leonardo had intended to make a symbolic triangle. Then again, the triangle may have been a random shape that Langdon only perceived to signify something.

We see symbols everywhere, but where are the real ones? This is a mystery that Eco leaves ambiguous, to his credit. After all, life is much more interesting with symbols to interpret that do not have fixed meaning.

On the whole, Foucault’s Pendulum makes for an engrossing read. Irony, a concern with symbols, and plenty of lists: these signature features of Eco’s style combine to create a unique reading experience. As the Garamond Press editors formulate the Plan, scenes pass almost exclusively in dialogue-based exposition, but somehow, Eco makes it work. Do not expect Eco’s thriller to read like a Dan Brown novel, but expect it to be richer, to fascinate and challenge you intellectually.

And take care you don’t become a Diabolical while reading it.

Foucault's Pendulum, in Paris
Foucault’s Pendulum, in Paris

Photo Credits:

Foucault Pendulum:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foucault_pendulum

Foucault’s Pendulum cover:  http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17841.Foucault_s_Pendulum

Templar: http://boltzmann.wordpress.com/2006/04/27/a-templar-in-his-habit/

Umberto Eco: http://politics-prose.com/event/book/umberto-eco-prague-cemetery

Quotation taken  from  Harcourt paperback edition, translated by William Weaver.