I suppose that if one of your first literary jobs is helping Christopher Tolkien edit his father’s work, The Silimarillion, it is inevitable your own work bear the master’s mark. Which makes it all the more remarkable that Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry resemblances to The Lord Of The Rings almost begin and end with the fact that it is a trilogy.
Since the publication of The Fionavar Tapestry, the Canadian born Kay has gone on to create a reputation for himself as the writer of unique fantastical histories. Using real epochs in earth’s history as a basis for his stories, he creates a parallel to our world, then recreates moments of import as seen through the eyes of the central players: kings, queens, emperors, generals, and champions; and those who serve them: cooks, servants, and soldiers.
Their vision is what makes his work come alive. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, than we are beholden to each of his characters for our understanding of what passes for beauty in each of his worlds. What is important to the foot soldier, and what is important to the lord of the manor are separated by generations of class distinction, so the picture of life we form is a composite that is far more revealing than normally offered a reader.
If this tends to make his work wordier than most, it does not detract from the story. Instead it only increases our appreciation and wonder. Nothing he writes is extraneous, and he deftly weaves each thread together, forming a final complete image that is imprinted in our minds.
The three books of the Fionavar Tapestry cycle (The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road) were first published in the mid-1980s, and then gathered together in an omnibus form by HarperCollins in 1995. It seems only appropriate on the tenth anniversary of that edition, and nearly twenty years since the completion of the trilogy, to look back and see how it is withstanding the tests of time.
There are some books you re-read because they are easy and allow for a few moments of respite from the day; I call them “television reading,” as they require almost no effort on my part, and allow for simple diversion. However there is a spot on my bookshelf reserved for those books that I simply feel compelled to read on a regular basis. The reasons are as varied as the books, but the authors included each have their own attraction.
From Rowling to Joyce, Tolkien to Kingsolver, they are like old friends whom I can visit with when ever I feel the need. Admittedly, I did not feel that immediate attraction to Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry. I had picked up the trilogy for a song one day in a used bookstore and read it through once, finding it enjoyable, but at the time not memorable.
A couple of years down the road I was at home, recovering from a stay in the hospital, and was casting about for something to read that would eat up the hours. I spotted my battered box set and remembered that, if nothing else, it would fill time. So for the second time I entered the fantastical world of Fionavar. What had changed in the two years since my previous read I don’t know, but now I was enthralled. From the opening sequences on campus at The University of Toronto, through to the final chapter of book three, the fortunes of the peoples and their struggles to overcome an ancient evil was captivating.
Hey asshole, enough of the sentimental crap and reminiscing, what’s the damn thing about anyway? Well I guess I can’t put that off any longer, can I? The plot? Well, alright, here goes. Our world, and many others like it, is a mere shadow of the original world Fionavar, the original creation of the Weaver who spins all our lives, and who made all the races and gods.
In the Kingdom of Brennin, the High King Ailell is about to celebrate his fiftieth year on the throne, and his mage Loren Silvercloak and the dwarf Matt Soren have been dispatched to our earth to bring five visitors, one for each decade, to help commemorate the event. As fate, or something else, would have it, five friends and acquaintances have converged at a lecture by a reclusive scholar of Celtic antiquities. It just so happens that said scholar is also known as Loren Silvercloak.
Kimberly Ford, Kevin Laine, Jennifer Lowell, Dave Martyniuk, and Paul Schafer are enticed by Matt and Loren to accompany them back to their hotel room under the guise of helping the shy scholar escape from academics. The ruse barely holds until they gain the hotel room.
During the walk from campus to the hotel, Paul and Matt notice something is trailing them, which causes Matt to briefly leave so he can deal with the problem. Upon gaining the hotel room, Paul forces Loren to reveal his true identity by demanding to know what had followed them. After overcoming their initial disbelief, the five agree to return the following evening to accompany their visitors back to Fionavar.
Unfortunately the trip doesn’t quite go as planned, as Dave gets separated from the rest in transit and nobody knows where he landed. To make matters worse, although Brennin is indeed celebrating the king’s fiftieth anniversary, it is a country on the verge of collapse. Drought-stricken since the beginning of its growing season, it faces the very real danger of famine in the near future if rain is not forthcoming soon.
Than there are the internal conflicts of the court: the eldest son to the king is in exile for a mysterious reason, and is never to be named, the chancellor appears to be making a power grab, the mages are in conflict with the priestesses of the Goddess over some long ago transgression, and the king is verging on dotage.
All of this is just prelude for the mysteries and disasters in store. Each of the five has a destiny to fulfill in Fionavar, and for none of them will the path to fulfillment be easy. Each will have to walk the lonely path of self-discovery on a parallel course with the war that develops between the forces of good and evil in Fionavar.
Over a thousand years ago the peoples of Fionavar, human, dwarf, and the lios alfar (beings similar to elves but not quite the same) had banded together to defeat the God Rakoth Maugrim. He was imprisoned under a mountain and chained hand and foot. Each people and country took into their possession a ward stone that would change colour if he so much as attempted to break free, thus guaranteeing his imprisonment.
Naturally his escape coincides with our friend’s visit. Book one, The Summer Tree, ends with the five being whisked back to Toronto, including Jennifer who was captured and imprisoned by Rakoth, at the moment all hell breaks loose.
Dave had been located hanging out with a Plains Indian-like people called the Dalrei, where he has not only learned how to fight but captured the attention of a Goddess; Kimberly has transformed into a visionary seer with powers she’s just beginning to understand; Paul has become known as the twice-born after spending three days and nights hung on the Summer Tree as a voluntary sacrifice, in an attempt to call down the rain; Jennifer has been impregnated by the evil God; while Kevin has remained Kevin.
When we find them at the beginning of The Wandering Fire, they are awaiting a chance to return to Fionavar, which means waiting for Kimberly to find them a means of getting there. But there is somebody from our world who she must bring with them, and she is waiting to dream the right words of command.
Throughout the whole tapestry, Kay draws upon a variety of Earth-based mythologies and stories to create the world of Fionavar. Celtic flavours predominate, but Greek influences, as well as others, pop up in the names of some of the Gods and Goddesses. But in the Wandering Fire, he brings to life one of great Romantic heroes of English literature, King Arthur.
It is Arthur who Kimberly must collect and bring to Fionavar to fight on their side against the forces of evil. But even she can’t foresee what this will result in for her dearest friend Jennifer. For in Jennifer lies the soul of the woman who was once Guinevere, and her meeting with Arthur in Fionavar awakens that long-dormant force.
Jennifer already has her own burden to bear. Imprisoned, tortured and raped by the evil Rakoth, she was to have been killed. Kimberly’s timely rescue prevented that, but has also left her pregnant with the child of the evil God. Although all her friends try to convince her that she should abort, she is resolute in her determination to see the child born. Her logic is that since Rakoth wanted her dead so badly, there is a reason why he doesn’t want the child born.
On their return to Fionavar they find the world trapped in an endless winter, devised in some manner by their foe. If they are to have any hope in winning this war they must first break the winter’s spell, and than discover Rakoth’s means of controlling the weather. Book two is taken up with that quest and the opening battle of the war.
Of importance is the fact that we lose one major character as a sacrifice to eliminate the snow, and gain a new one who makes life very complicated for Arthur and Guinevere: Lancelot du Lac. The love triangle to end all love triangles is now complete.
In order to buy some time Guinevere sends Lancelot off to protect her son. As the child of a God, he has physically and mentally grown at a phenomenal rate, but is as emotionally unready for the world as an infant. When he believes Guinevere has rejected him he flees to his father, bearing with him what he hopes will be the gift to win his acceptance, an ancient knife of the dwarfs that has the potential to send the user’s soul completely out of time.
This is actually the beginning of The Darkest Road, the third book in the trilogy, where of course all comes to an end. The road referred to in the title is not just another way of saying that it’s darkest before the dawn, but is in reference to the journey into the self that so many have to take to find their true nature.
For Guinevere and Rakoth’s son Darien this is a harder trip than what most of us have to deal with. He has gone in search of his father to seek acceptance because he feels rejected by good, when his mother’s refuses to help him choose between the two sides. In the end it is that gift of freedom of choice that decides his fate.
It has always been within his power to decide who and what he is, and not seek for his identity in the favour of others. Guinevere had been right all along to allow his birth and to give him that gift. For it is by his hand that the evil that is Rakoth is destroyed and sent out of time.
Before Darien’s birth Rakoth was not tied to the world, and existed outside of the cycles of birth and death. But when Darien was born it tied him to existence. The knife that his son gave Rakoth was cursed so that when a person kills with hate in his heart, his soul is cast forever out of time. When Darien dies by the knife at the hands of Rakoth, he succeeds in ending his threat forever.
I have no guilt at all in telling the ending, because you didn’t need to be a seer to sense that coming when you started the book. Like so many other books of this type, the ending is not as important as how we get there. In The Fionavar Tapestry, Guy Gavriel Kay has spun an epic composed of a variety of threads.
Themes, characters, humour, pathos, romantic idealism, and stories out of earth’s history are interwoven to create a rich and diverse work of fantasy. Good versus evil is a well-worn theme, a path trodden by writers since man first set pen to parchment. For an author the trick than is to find the means to change the scenery, or put new twists in the road, in order to captivate the reader.
This is exactly what Kay manages. At times it would appear that he has gone too far in his attempts to add colour, but he has an innate instinct telling him when enough is enough, and we are returned to the action of the plot. His characters may seem at first blush to tend towards the cliché, but as the stories develop so do they, ensuring that we care about what happens to them.
Well written and deftly characterized, The Fionavar Tapestry has proven enduring enough that it has become one of my “must read on a regular basis” books. If you are a lover of the fantastical, you owe it to yourself to at least read these books once. I must warn you though, there is the danger of them becoming habit-forming.