Let’s talk about great Fantasy

To begin, Guy Gavriel Kay‘s Fionavar Tapestry, a trilogy comprising The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road.

Kay worked with Christopher Tolkien in compiling The Silmarillion, so he learned from the best. (On occasion when I have said this I have been corrected that this only proves Kay learned from the canon. I stand by my assertion.) The Tapestry demonstrates in every particular how deeply Kay loves stories and storytelling: it honors chivalric romances as well as modern coming-of-age novels while being in its essence high fantasy at its most wrenching.

The Tapestry‘s central metaphor is of the worlds/worlds’ stories brought together thread by thread as if on a loom worked by God (the Weaver).  This is–surely by design–not unlike the Silmarillion‘s song of creation. Following the metaphor, all things/events/people are unified in meaning, but the meaning is literally an added dimension, not something individuals can experience. 

The later books in the Tapestry draw heavily on Arthurian stories, but the overall structure is that of a portal fantasy. Five young Canadians, grad students, are drawn into Fionavar, First of All Worlds (this is a Capitalization Kind of Tale), to address a need. There is some minor back-and-forth between worlds, but mainly we’re in a romanticized late-Middle Ages type world where magic, Fate, gods, elves, dwarves, giants, &c. are closer to the surface–okay, right out there–than your average Earther experiences.

And it’s beautiful. The writing, the story, the world: all of it. Spectacular imagery dances through my mind as I write this–I am nearly reeling with it–but I do not want even to try to express Kay’s creations in my own words. So I’ll try to replicate for you my first experience with The Summer Tree. I found the book on the shelves of my local Borders and opened it by happenstance to one of the two passages in the whole book (by my calculation) that just absolutely brains the reader like a psychotropic 2×4. I offer to you the other such passage.

My father says the Tapestry was written for people in their twenties; the central characters’ stage in life is one manifestation, but, more than that, there’s a particular young and all-or-nothing energy to the writing. I am already beyond dealing with suchlike. I will perhaps never reread again the books of the Tapestry, after three times or so through over the course of my teens and early twenties.  I would love to reread them, yet by now I know too well: the foreshadowing is too intense to bear.  I feel the weight of the entire trilogy on my back in every scene. Again, I am certain that the books were expertly crafted to produce just this effect–Kay, I imagine, sees them as a whole.

3 thoughts on “Let’s talk about great Fantasy

  1. Meh. Fionavar’s never really done it for me. In many ways it’s very derivative, full of cookie-cutter plotlines and flat characters, and worst of all, it’s one of those fantasy tales with the Evil Dark Absolute Bad Guy who wants to Destroy The Whole World for No Reason.

    Maybe it’s just that I came to Fionvar late compared to many readers, towards the very end of my 20s, and in a time when I was predisposed far less favorably to tales with black and white morality. But in my opinion it’s a far less rich tale than Kay’s later work. The Sarantium books are brilliantly complex, and the Lions of Al Rassan is a profoundly moving human tale, weaving together two protagonists on opposite sides of a war in a completely believable, heartbreaking mix of friendship and war. Compared with that, Fionavar’s a black-and-white sketch, just a first promise of the depth Kay in time grew into with later works.

  2. Great to hear from you, Marshall. (Have fun with Burning Man–which, by the way, I first heard about through Dan Simmons’s _Ilium_!)

    _Lions_ has been highly recommended to me previously, and now we own a copy, so hopefully I will get to it sometime. May I ask what of Kay’s you did read first? It seems to me that for several other readers I know (though not all), the first experience with his work is far superior to any subsequent. (For instance, I find every character in _Tigana_ either boring or morally reprehensible.) Perhaps it is a case of what your First of All Worlds is 😉

  3. Yeah I’m one of the people who found the foreshadowing in Tapestry so overbearing that I couldn’t read anymore of.

    I really liked Tigana though. Guess I am more comfortable with morally reprehnsible characters (although it certainly isn’t perfect).

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