Sunday, March 05, 2006

Most hated by the Dark, for their name was Light

Yesterday morning I finished re-reading The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay. Each time I re-read this trilogy, I wonder if the tale's final 150 pages or so will still pack that same emotional punch, given how well I know the story by now.

Sure enough, I was blubbering like a baby through it all.

I've only read Fionavar in its entirety four times, with the last coming four years ago, a few months before I launched this blog. The timing seemed right -- with Kay being my favorite living author, he's on the short-list of authors whose books I actually do re-read completely. But I don't like to do it too often: I prefer to wait long enough that while I know the large-scale course of the story, I am still surprised anew by other, smaller plot points. And I also find other things in the books, things that I may have missed in earlier reads. (Even though this was only my fourth complete re-read of the trilogy, I dip into favorite passages very frequently indeed.)

I first read Fionavar in 1994. It wasn't my first brush with GGK. I'd earlier started, but not finished, A Song for Arbonne and read Tigana in full. So Fionavar came as something of a surprise: I was already familiary with GGK's trend toward "historical fantasy" and away from the traditional, quest-based "high fantasy" that's dominated the entire fantasy genre ever since The Lord of the Rings was published.

For those who haven't read Fionavar: a wizard named Loren Silvercloak comes into "our world" and asks five young University students to return with him to "Fionavar", the "first of all worlds". This is ostensibly to provide some "bang" for a celebration for High King Ailell's fiftieth anniversary of taking the throne in Paras Derval (think Minas Tirith), but we rapidly get the impression that there is more going on in Fionavar than Silvercloak discloses at first and that he hasn't chosen these five strangers at random at all. Our five heroes go with him and are thus plunged into a world where the Dark God, Rakoth Maugrim, is about to be freed and where a war is about to begin which, if lost, would give Rakoth freedom to spread darkness throughout all the worlds.

I haven't done the story justice at all in that brief summation of the background, believe me. What makes Fionavar interesting are some subtle ways GGK plays with the themes of "traditional" fantasy. Yes, we have elves and dwarves and the like, but their roles are very different from what we've been conditioned to expect from LOTR, and GGK provides deep glimpses into their respective cultures. We don't just get a Dwarf who's along for the ride, but an entire culture of them -- and a culture that, as it turns out, may not entirely be on the side of Light. Character motivations in Fionavar tend to be quite a lot more complex than in run-of-the-mill fantasy.

I've always been amazed, in GGK's novels, by his recurring theme of self-sacrifice. At some point in every one of his books you can count on some character making a major difference in the story by undergoing some act of self-sacrifice, usually heroic. In Fionavar, the self-sacrifice is cranked up to '11' on the provebial amp; just about every character in some way or another is eventually called upon to an act of self-sacrifice. And it starts, even, before the story in the books takes place: the backstory of Fionavar is replete with many acts of self-sacrifice. It's no accident that so many of the book's finest moments, in terms of sheer writing, are moments involving self-sacrifice, and it's no accident that The Summer Tree (the first book in the trilogy) doesn't really start to get involving until Paul Schaefer's decision to go to the Tree, about halfway through.

What else to say? Yes, the final 150 pages or so moved me in pretty much the same way it always does. Darien's final choice between Light and Dark, a moment when Diarmuid takes up an unexpected battle cry, a resolution to the sorrow in the tale of King Arthur, a realization by Paul of feelings he didn't know he had...few books make me feel the way Fionavar does, even now, after four re-reads and uncounted references to favorite passages over twelve years since the first time I read it.

I have a couple of other points to make, but they're kind of spoiler-ish, so I'll change the font color to conceal the text a bit:

:: It's amazing what you pick up on re-reads. I never recognized the passage where Lancelot comes to Daniloth for what it is: a reflection of, and resolution to, the tale of Elaine, the Fairy Made of Astolat, who falls in love with Lancelot and, being denied by him, dies in order that her body may be placed on a boat and set to be carried on the river past Camelot. Here, Leyse of the Lios Alfar loves Lancelot, but this is barely remarked -- and after his departure from Daniloth, Leyse gets into a boat like Elaine did. Only, Leyse isn't dead, and her boat thus becomes the first Lios Alfar boat to reach the world the Wevaer shaped for them alone. I didn't catch this on any of my previous re-reads.

:: GGK's final resolution to the tragic love triangle of the Arthurian legend is one of the moments that moves me to tears, each time I read it. I didn't pick up before, though, on the sheer number of love triangles that resonate through this story. The big one is, of course, the Amairgen-Lisen-Galadan tale -- but this one sort of mirrors one we only know of in passing, the Paul-Rachel-Mark triangle. Both Paul and Galadan are incapable of expressing their grief for their lost loves who first spurned them for another (Lisen turned to Amairgen, and Rachel to Mark) before dying tragically; the first major act of resolution in The Fionavar Tapestry involves Paul's coming to grief for Rachel, and the story pretty much ends with Galadan finally coming to grief for Lisen.

There are other triangles, too: in a way, Ailell-Aileron-Diarmuid can be seen as another type of triangle, this one about fathers and sons. There is Raederth-Ysanne-Dana, which has more potency because Dana is a Goddess. The fates of Finn, Darien, and Leila are bound together as well, as are those of Matt, Kaen, and Blod. Triangles abound in Fionavar.

:: As much as I love this series, at the end I always envision Kim and Dave returning to the real world to be confronted, some time later, by some Toronto cops: "We're looking for three missing people: Kevin Laine, Jennifer Lowell, and Paul Schaefer. They were last seen with you two...."

And now, I face the problem that I confront every time I finish a GGK novel: what to read next....

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Those triangles are very interesting. Thanks for pointing them out.

Reading your post reminds me of why I love The Fionavar Tapestry so much. As good a fantasy tale as it is, the one thing that allows it transcend that "genre" is the quality of the characterization. From that, we see many relationships that move the reader, so that one may see the 'human' behind the villain in Galadan; or the Prince in Diarmuid; or the Princess in Sharra; and last but not least, the hero in Kevin.
Guy Gavriel Kay draws these characters so vividly that the relationships and bonds that they form with one another feels like one of my own.