This irregular series began as a conscious decision to re-read certain books I had enjoyed many years ago when borrowed from Didsbury Library in South Manchester, and to consider how well, or otherwise, they stood up to my recollection of them. Since then, it’s expanded beyond the confines of the Library.
For the first time in this series, I’m writing about a book, or books, I never borrowed from anywhere, but rather bought – the first on whim – and have owned for well over thirty years. The Fionavar Tapestry is not so much a book in itself but rather a trilogy, like The Lord of the Rings. In contrast to that work, The Fionavar Tapestry has never, to my knowledge, been issued as a single volume, but only as its three component books, ‘The Summer Tree’, ‘The Wandering Fire’ and ‘The Darkest Road’, the first two of which I have signed by the author.
Guy Kay is a Canadian author and a qualified lawyer. I saw ‘The Summer Tree’ on holiday in the Lakes one year in the late Eighties, though not for once, I think, in Cockermouth’s New Bookshop, which I used to think I’d never visit without coming out with three volumes. I was still heavily into Fantasy and SF, that interest generated by The Lord of the Rings a dozen or more years earlier, and the bright and formalised cover of the book caught my eye. I read the back page blurb, scanned enough of the Introduction to confirm that it looked alright, and bought it.
I didn’t connect Kay with a line I’d read in a book I’d owned for a decade by then until the Waterstones author session for the second book, the following year. It’s in, perhaps not surprisingly, The Silmarrillion, at the end of Christopher Tolkien’s introduction, when he thanks Guy Kay for his help in collating the materials in that book. Yes, Kay had been a student at Oxford University, and C.J.R. Tolkien’s chief assistant in drawing together that legendary, unfinished book. Hardly a surprise then that he should go on to become a very successful author of fantasy fiction himself.
The Fionavar Trilogy was Kay’s first publication, and is both typical and untypical of the writing he’s done. The world Kay creates for his epic story is pure fantasy, Tolkienian in manner, with Elves and Dwarves and a Horse riding nation, as well as a High Kingdom and a malevolent God against whom a final battle is to be fought, and it wears no one direct influence on its sleeve other than the late Professor of Philology. His later books are set in Kingdoms that deliberately echo European countries as a direct influence on the narrative – Italy, France, Spain, Rome etc. – but there is no such tinge this time.
And, biggest difference of all, is that this story is set around five human beings, transplanted from Earth into this literally fabulous realm, the first realm. Not just five human beings, three male and two female, but five students from Toronto University: in no particular order Kevin Laine, Jennifer Lowell, Paul Schafer, Kimberley Ford and Dave Martinyiuk. The first four are friends, and the last a loner dragged into things against his will.
In that sense, in addition to trying to echo the works of Tolkien, Kay is also borrowing from his fellow inkling, C.S. Lewis, Narnia, of course. That is, however, the only Lewisian aspect of the story; there are no Christian allegories here.
There is, however, one more mythic element to be woven in, inextricably, and that is Arthur: King Arthur, a Moorcockian Eternal Warrior, Guinevere and Lancelot du Lac: the original triangle.
Having said all that, I don’t intend to go into much more detail about how the trilogy progresses, but rather to consider the story in more general terms. When I discovered ‘The Summer Tree’, I was still very much a reader of fantasy and SF almost exclusively, and I welcomed this discovery as something on a very high level. It was written in a clear, yet elevated mode, and it was a High Fantasy of Tolkienian scope, but at the same time it was refreshingly down to Earth. The five Canadians brought with them all the naturalism of ordinary human beings, and hopes, fears, concerns and desires that had nothing to do with Fantasy.
They also brought sex with them, but then, especially in the form of Prince Diarmud, of the High Kingdom of Aileron, it was already lounging with its feet up.
That is probably the biggest divergence from the Tolkien mode that Kay is seeking to evoke. He filters the story through the quintet’s perceptions which, no matter how well they adapt, are still those of Earth, instinctively reflective of our own: they mediate the fantastic for us, grounding it by reducing the distance between reader and event. But to an even greater extent, Kay’s greater willingness to introduce sex and direct violence, and modern attitudes to the same, is an even greater grounding of events for us.
Sex is non-existent in Tolkien. Eowyn falls in love with Aragorn, but really it’s only an advanced form of hero worship, like a girl obsessed with a boy band singer. Aragorn and Arwen marry, but everything is pure and holy. Sam marries Rosie Cotton, who doesn’t even get mentioned before he leaves Hobbiton. They being hobbits, and closer to the earth and the natural life that Tolkien preferred, have multiple children which means they have been shagging away quite happily over a long period of time and, naturally, no contraception.
But that’s only after the story is over. No sex whilst the action’s on. Not so in ‘The Fionavar Tapestry’, no sir, and for the most part all the sexual activities are woven into the story, changing its course in one way or another, and usually significantly.
Re-reading the series now, having left Fantasy behind for nearly half as long again as it originally obsessed me, I still found the story enjoyable, and intend to keep the books, though this time I found it far easier to see just how much the trilogy conforms to the expected patterns of Fantasy fiction. Kay’s variations don’t draw the story far enough away from what its audience would have expected.
What does still distinguish the trilogy from its contemporaries is how much Kay plays with the emotions during it. If you thought Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonrider series, which made her the Barbara Cartland of Fantasy, Kay has her beat at every turn, principally because of the intensity and depth of the emotions he plays with. He’s deliberately aiming to reduce you to tears constantly, and he gets very close to doing that several times over.
The concept that sustains the story is that Fionavar is the first of all worlds, from which every other world is but a reflection. Instead of an Eru Iluvatar to sing Arda into existence, the supreme God is The Weaver, who weaves the tapestry that is existence. Into the tapestry came the God from outside, Rakoth Maugram, who seeks to destroy all. Rakoth is both Morgoth and Sauron, having been defeated by an Alliance of all the different peoples a thousand years ago, and imprisoned, bound, beneath a near-planet sized mountain. Now, treachery has freed him and, like Sauron he is returned to strike again with incalculable and unopposable force.
And the adventure is how he is successfully opposed and, eventually, destroyed.
Now, you will have noted some very familiar elements in that brief outline. And there’s a sequence in the first book, transforming one of the five in a manner that has its roots in Norse myth, whilst the Arthurian elements don’t enter the story until the second book, ‘The Wandering Fire’.
Kay chose to end the first book by drawing the quintet abruptly back to Earth, to save all of them but principally to rescue one of the five who had undergone a terrible experience at the, um, hands of the God. This sets things up for the start of the second book, as Arthur has to be summoned from where tradition places him before we can go back to Fionavar, but after that we stay firmly in the first world. I confess that this transition backwards gives the trilogy an overall slightly unbalanced flow, leaving me wondering how deeply Kay had everything planned out in ‘The Summer Tree’, given that the two succeeding books are continuous.
It’s not to spoil the ending to tell you that ultimately, once everything has been worked out, only two of the five return to Canada to pick up the lives they have there, and don’t read too much into it if I tell you that of the others, two cannot return: that doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it does.
Kay has gone on to a long and successful career writing a series of High Fantasies, usually but not always single-volumed. I used to have several of these, and ironically the sequence was broken for me by the one set against a variation of Viking era Britain, which I just could not get into. I have retained one of his novels, the most uncharacteristic one, and I’ll be looking at that in due course.
The fairest way of summarising The Fionavar Tapestry is that it is good, and much better than most of its field, but it hasn’t worn well, and nothing like as well as Tolkien, because, at the end of the day, it is too representative of its genre. It does what it does powerfully, but it only does what you might expect to read if you like that sort of thing. Which I used to immeasurably, but now only read for its nostalgic flavours.