Mythmaking and the Works of Guy Gavriel Kay
by Jackie Cassada and Nicky Rea
Jackie Cassada is the science fiction/fantasy
columnist for Library Journal and a freelance game designer. Nicky Rea is a freelance game designer and editor and a
crafter of mythic jewelry. Both are members of the Mythic Journeys volunteer crew.
To read the works of Guy Gavriel Kay is to open a door in your mind to the realm of myth and legend. Though he writes what some might call alternative historical fantasy, Kay’s many novels delve deeper than the truths hidden in history or even in the relationships among his characters. Kay’s works touch on the substance of myth itself, the aching inner truth that resonates against the touchstones of the world.
And yet, in spite of his mythic underpinnings – or perhaps because of them – Kay’s novels touch the emotions in ways that only a few writers have mastered.
This article attempts to take a look at the personal myths as seen in some of Kay’s earlier works, such as The Fionavar Tapestry, Tigana and Song for Arbonne, with a look at his most recent novel The Last Light of the Sun.
This is not meant to be a scholarly article, but a personal response to the author’s portrayal of his characters as embodiments of mythic figures. For Kay does create characters that function on multiple levels – as heroes of their own journeys, as mythic icons, and as flesh-and-blood people that could co-exist alongside any of us just as easily as they inhabit their own universes.
Using characters as symbols is not new. Allegory is based on just that effect. Making those characters seem both mythic and microcosmic, however, requires a special touch.>
In the Fionavar Tapestry, Kay’s first set of original fiction, the author begins his epic tale with five university students who are transported into the world of Fionavar by a mage from that realm. As we read the tale of their transformation from individuals with their own small problems into five people whose actions shape the destiny of a world, we also learn more about them as individuals.
As each of the five makes his or her own mythic journey, whether as sacrifice, as warrior, as seer or as something else entirely, each becomes more, not less, of a singular person. The myth does not become the person; rather, the person becomes the myth.
The thoughts of Paul Schafer as he prepares to sacrifice himself – rather, as he becomes the sacrificial offering – illustrate the synchronization of myth and person in luminescent, lucid prose:
There had been light, now there was not. One measured time in such ways. There were stars in the space above the trees; no moon yet, and only a thin one later, for tomorrow would be the night of the new moon.
His last night, if he lived through this one.
The Tree was a part of him now, another name, a summoning. He almost heard a meaning in the breathing of the forest all around him, but his mind was stretched and flattened, he could not reach to it, he could only endure, and hold the wall of memory as best he might…
Now I give you to Mörnir, Ailell had said. Which meant he was a gift, an offering, and it was all waste if he died too soon. So he had to hold to life, hold the wall, hold for the God, for he was the God’s to claim, and there was thunder now.1
Other archetypes abound within the three books that encompass the Fionavar Tapestry: The Summer Tree; The Wandering Fire; The Darkest Road. The Goddess is there, as maid, mother and crone, in both her creative and her destructive aspects. When Kimberly Ford first meets the Seer Ysanne, the elderly mystic’s reaction expresses the delight in the realization that she has met her successor:
“Ah!” cried the old woman then on a sharply taken breath. And in the softest thread of a whisper added, after a moment, “I have awaited you for so long now, my dear.”
And only Kim herself had seen the spasm of fear that had crossed Ysanne’s face before she spoke those quiet words like a benediction.
“How?” Kim managed to stammer. “What do you mean?”
Ysanne smiled. “I am a Seer. The dreamer of the dream.” And somehow, Kim knew what that meant, and there were sudden, bright tears in her eyes.2
Mentors and villains, while mythical figures, do not often appear as individuals that exist outside their function as archetype. Loren Silvercloak, mage and mentor to the five heroes of the Fionavar novels, has a deep and resonant relationship with the dwarf Matt Soren, the source of Loren’s magic. The interplay between the two men contains a depth of affection and understanding not usually associated with “mythic” characters.
This, too, is part of Kay’s gift to the understanding of myths. His message, above and beyond the particulars of his stories, is chiefly this – that we are mythic figures, with all our faults and peculiarities, our individual quirks, our singular personalities. Mythic figures are not one-dimensional; Achilles raged, but he also loved.
Kay does much the same with countries as well. In Tigana, a nation reminiscent of Renaissance Italy becomes the symbol for remembrance, as the memory of an entire people is wiped clean of their homeland due to the workings of a grieving sorcerer. The struggle of a few courageous individuals to restore their memories and, with them, rediscover their lost homeland stretches beyond the personal into the realm of national mythology.
His most recent book, The Last Light of the Sun, transports Norse and Celtic myths into another world, much like our own, but one in which magic is a reality. This is the world of his Sarantium novels (Sailing to Sarantium; Lord of Emperors) and of The Lions of Al-Rassan.
By transferring familiar cultures into unfamiliar worlds and infusing them with elements of living myth and legends, Kay allows us to examine the process of myth-making in a unique and memorable way. The Last Light of the Sun deals with a world on the edge of discovery, with the wonder that germinates when mortal and fae meet each other under the aegis of love, and with the inevitability of change when two worlds collide.
Throughout all his works, Kay uses the power of words to convey the meanings of myth. Both the sound and structure of his language combine to reinforce the mythic aspects of his stories. In The Last Light of the Sun, Kay uses short, choppy sentences when writing about the Erlings (Vikings). His words grow gentler and more melodic when he describes the doings of the Cyngael (Celts) and the faeries.
On the basis of his body of original fiction (and his work with Christopher Tolkien compiling the notes of J. R. R. Tolkien) Guy Gavriel Kay embodies his own modern myth – that of the writer as mythmaker, as the discoverer of old myths and the creator of new ones.
1 Guy Gavriel Kay. The Summer Tree. New York: ROC 1992. p. 185-186.
2 ibid. p. 66-67
Next: Marion Woodman and Coleman Barks
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