The World-Building of Guy Gavriel Kay
by Holly E. Ordway
May 13, 1998
One of the most notable aspects of fantasy literature is its creation of a secondary world, not like our own primary world. If I may be excused for starting off this essay with a lengthy quote, J.R.R. Tolkien lays out the situation definitively in his landmark essay, "On Fairy-Stories":
Fantasy (in this sense [of dealing with things not of the primary world]) is, I think, not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent. Fantasy, of course, starts out with an advantage: arresting strangeness. But that advantage has often been turned against it, and has contributed to its disrepute… [Many people] stupidly and even maliciously confound Fantasy with Dreaming, in which there is no Art; and with mental disorders, in which there is not even control; with delusion and hallucination. But the error or malice, engendered by disquiet and consequent dislike, is not the only cause of this confusion. Fantasy has also an essential drawback: it is difficult to achieve… at any rate it is found in practice that "the inner consistency of reality" is more difficult to produce, the more unlike are the images and the rearrangements of primary material to the actual arrangements of the Primary World. It is easier to produce this kind of "reality" with more "sober" material. Fantasy thus, too often, remains undeveloped; it is and has been used frivolously, or only half-seriously, or merely for decoration… To make a Secondary World inside which [a] green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode. (47-9)
What I have set out to do in this paper is to explore some of the ways that fantasist Guy Gavriel Kay has gone about creating a "secondary world" and investing it with the consistency of reality. Kay's work is notable in that he makes extensive use of sources from what Tolkien would call the "primary world": Kay draws on literature, mythology, and history as well as his own imagination to create the worlds of his fantasy novels. In this paper, I will look closely at the trilogy The Fionavar Tapestry, and the first volume of that trilogy in particular; and his most recent novel, The Lions of Al-Rassan, to untangle the threads of the sources that he has used and how he has used them to craft his own worlds.
I. The Fionavar Tapestry
The three books of The Fionavar Tapestry (The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road) tell the story of five college students from our own world who are magically transported to the world of Fionavar, where they take part in an epic war against evil that threatens not only Fionavar but our own world as well. The books display a remarkable number of influences, woven together in sometimes surprising ways. The strongest single literary influence on Kay's creation of The Fionavar Tapestry is J.R.R. Tolkien, a natural enough result after Kay co-edited The Silmarillion with Christopher Tolkien. Kay comments that "The Tapestry was a conscious decision… to work squarely in the Tolkien tradition while trying to allow room for character development and plausibility that I tended to find missing in most post-JRRT High Fantasy" (interview).
One of the first Tolkien influences that reader see is the figure of the mage Loren Silvercloak. As the gray-bearded mage, gatherer of the five characters from our own world, advisor to kings, he is clearly a Gandalf figure. Even the name, Silvercloak, echoes Gandalf the Gray and Gandalf the White.
The looming figure of Rakoth Maugrim, the Unraveller, bears a resemblance to the figure of Sauron in Tolkien's world. Rakoth motivates the plot in much the same way as well, in that the forces of the Light, including the "Five" from our own world, must fight against his plans for domination. Like Sauron, he commands from afar, employing the hideous svart alfar and urgach instead of goblins and orcs. The direct influence from Tolkien applies mainly to the role that Rakoth plays in the novel, however; in terms of his character, Kay draws more from Norse mythology, as will be shown later.
An even more Tolkienesque element is the Fionavar version of elves: the lios alfar. The lios alfar, living in the magic-hidden forest of the Shadowland, are "most hated by the Dark, for their name was Light" (Summer 3). The first representative of the lios alfar that the reader is introduced to is Brendel, who is a "silver-haired figure" with an "ethereal, flame-like quality" (Summer 74). The lios alfar are also, like Tolkien's elves, characterized by a love of music. Later, Brendel explains more about his people: "'We live very long, and age will not kill us, but we do die… by sword or fire, or grief of heart. And weariness will lead us to sail to our song, though that is a different thing… Westward lies a place not found on any map. A world shaped by the Weaver for the lios alfar alone, and there we go when we leave Fionavar, unless Fionavar has killed us first'" (Summer 166). While Tolkien's elves do not go off one by one, at the end of The Lord of the Rings they do all sail away from Middle Earth.
Dwarves are another Tolkien influence. Matt Sören, the source for the mage Loren's magic, is a dwarf who we learn later in the trilogy to be the King of the Dwarves. Forty years earlier he gave up his kingship to wander with Loren; in the third book of the trilogy, he returns to the mountain home of his people to reclaim his crown, just as Thorin does in The Hobbit.
But Kay does not rely on Tolkien as his only source of inspiration. Quite the contrary: he draws on many real-world myths and legends for material to weave into his tale. Celtic mythology is evident in the naming of Macha and Nemain as twin goddesses of war, the stag-horned forest god Cernan, the cauldron that brings the dead to life, and the existence of the Wild Hunt. Elements of pre-Indo-European worship of the mother goddess are also evident in the existence of Dana, the mother, in contrast to Mörnir, the sky god. Blood and fertility rites performed by priestesses of Dana occur throughout the novels. In the second and third books, the doomed trilogy of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot is pulled into the war in Fionavar, bringing in elements of British and French legends. In addition to all this, Kay draws particularly heavily on Norse mythology for various events and characters.
How does he justify the combination of these disparate elements in one setting? As presented in the first book, Fionavar is "the first of all the worlds" (Summer 4). As Loren Silvercloak explains it to the five characters from our world, "'There are many worlds… caught in the loops and whorls of time. Seldom do they intersect, and so for the most part they are unknown to each other'"; Fionavar is "'the prime creation, which all the others imperfectly reflect'" (Summer 18). Such a conception of the multiple reflections of one world suggests an influence from Roger Zelazny's Amber novels. In Nine Princes in Amber and its sequels, the world of Amber is revealed as the one true world, with all the others merely shadows or reflections of it.
Kay's handling of characters from legend is interesting in that he doesn't introduce the idea of specific, archetypal figures in Fionavar until the second book, The Wandering Fire. This brings up the possibility that his rendering of figures such as Arthur and Guinevere, and their place in the multiple worlds, is influenced by Robert Holdstock's fantasy novel Mythago Wood. Portions were published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1981, with the complete novel published in 1984, the same year as The Summer Tree.
The legendary figures such as Arthur in The Fionavar Tapestry echo the "mythagos" in Holdstock's novel. The premise of mythagos is that in certain undisturbed woodlands, a person's unconscious mind interacts with the natural environment in a startling way: "it's in the unconscious that we carry… the pre-mythago -- that's myth imago, the image of the idealized form of a myth creature. The image takes on substance in a natural environment, solid flesh, blood, clothing… The form of the idealized myth, the hero figure, alters with cultural changes, assuming the identity and technology of the time" (Holdstock 37). This formation of legendary figures is not limited to one incarnation of a particular figure: "Historians and legend-seekers argue about where Arthur of the Britains, and Robin Hood really lived and fought, and don't realize that they lived in many sites" (Holdstock 37). In Kay's The Wandering Fire, the Seer of Fionavar summons Arthur, the archetypal figure of "the Warrior Condemned" (Wandering 360), and calls on him for aid against Rakoth. As explained in the story, his first existence was in our world, but when he ordered children to be killed in order to be sure of killing his incestuous son Mordred, "the Weaver had marked him down for a long unwinding doom. A cycle of war and expiation under many names, and in many worlds, that redress be made for the children and for love" (Wandering 40). Guinevere is a similar figure: "Hers… was a different fate from Arthur's, though interwoven endlessly… No curse so dark as his had been given her... She was, instead, the agent of his fate… She knew not how many times she had come back to tear him apart, for the children and for love" (Wandering 182). While Holdstock's explanation of the origin of mythic figures is integral to the plot of his novel, Kay's explanation of his figures in The Fionavar Tapestry is more incidental; nonetheless it shows that he felt it important to provide an explanation to account for the variety of mythological and legendary figures in the novels.
Simply stating some of the mythological sources for The Fionavar Tapestry does very little to show how those sources are developed in the novels themselves. In order to see what Kay has done with his sources, it will be helpful to examine one, the Norse material, in some detail.
One of the most important Norse elements in The Fionavar Tapestry is that which gives its name to the first book: the Summer Tree. This ancient, sacred tree is in a wood near the capital. Its description shows its kinship to Yggdrasil, the World Tree of Norse mythology: "Very dark it was, dark almost to black, its trunk knotted and gnarled, wide as a house. It stood alone in the clearing, in the place of sacrifice, and clutched the earth with roots old as the world, a challenge to the stars that shone down, and there was power in that place beyond the telling" (Summer 164-5). It is to this place that "'the God would summon the High King, in the old days, when the land had need… To hang on the Summer Tree and die'" (Summer 80). It was also possible for a surrogate for the king, such as a prince, to go in the king's place.
This conception of the king as an intercessor between the land and the god draws on James Frazer's famous description of the King in the Wood, as presented in The Golden Bough. Frazer notes first that the priest of the sacred grove was called the King in the Wood. He goes on to explain that
Kings were revered, in many cases not merely as priests, that is, intercessors between man and god, but as themselves gods, able to bestow upon their subjects and worshippers those blessings commonly supposed to be beyond the reach of man, and are sought, if at all, only by prayer and sacrifice offered to superhuman and invisible beings. Thus kings are often expected to give rain and sunshine in due season, to make the crops grow, and so on. (8)
The King in the Wood was not merely a spiritual leader; he "personified the tree on which grew the Golden Bough. Hence, if that tree [the sacred tree in the grove] was the oak, the King of the Wood must have been a personification of the oak-spirit" (Frazer 364). And death was an inherent part of the king's role: Frazer suggests that "to complete the parallel, it is only necessary to suppose that the King of the Wood was formerly burned, dead or alive, at the midsummer fire festival which, as we have seen, was annually celebrated in the Arician grove" (Frazer 364). Both of these conceptions -- the king as intercessor with the god for good weather, and the king as sacrificial victim -- come into play in The Summer Tree. In the novel, Paul, one of the five people brought from our world, volunteers to go in the High King's place to hang on the Summer Tree and die in order to bring rain to end a terrible drought.
The underlying idea of the king bound to the sacred tree may come from Frazer's analysis, but the significance of Paul's self-sacrifice can be seen as coming from the Norse tradition of sacrifice to Odin. In Norse mythology, sacrifices were sometimes used to gain a boon from Odin. One story of such a sacrifice relates that "…a Viking leader, King Vikar, prayed to Odin for a favourable wind" (Davidson 52), just as Paul stands in for the king to gain an end to the drought. King Vikar, wanting to avoid being actually sacrificed, however, arranged to stage a mock sacrificial hanging. However, when one of his men spoke the words of offering, "a deadly substitution took place, and the ritual became reality"(Davidson 52): the fake rope became a real one and a branch pulled the king up, hanging him so that he died. We do not know if Vikar got his favorable wind or not, but at any rate he wasn't around to appreciate it; the story illustrates the perils of taking Odin's sacrifices lightly.
Paul's sacrifice of himself on the Summer Tree is, unlike the unfortunate Vikar's, a genuine one. Because of this, it is more akin to Odin's own ordeal on the World Tree to gain the runic knowledge:
I wot that I hung on the wind-tossed tree
all of nights nine,
wounded by spear, bespoken to Othin,
bespoken myself to myself,
upon that tree of which none telleth
from what roots it doth rise. (Poetic Edda 36, stanza 138)
H.R. Ellis Davidson explains that this ritual act has "two main conceptions behind it. First, Odin is made into a sacrifice according to the accepted rites of the god of death, who is Odin himself… Secondly, Odin is undergoing a ceremony of initiation, gaining his special knowledge of magic by means of a symbolic death" (145). On the first level, Paul's act is a sacrifice, and as such is acceptable to the god, who grants the rain. On the second, Paul also undergoes a form of initiation, in which he must face his greatest pain: he blames himself for the car accident that killed his girlfriend moments after she announced that she intended to marry another. He is rewarded for facing this with the knowledge that the accident was truly an accident, enabling him to find peace. Shortly afterwards, he experiences a transcendent union with the god: "…there came then a roll of thunder like the tread of doom, of worlds cracking asunder, and the God was there in the glade, he had come…forged by the power of that thundering, the mist began to flow together then, faster and faster, to the one place, to the Summer Tree… Paul felt it going. Through him. His. His and the God's. Whose he was. He felt the tears on his face. He felt himself claimed, going, mist boiling through him, ravens rising to fly, the God in the Tree, him…" (Summer 232).
After suffering for nine days and nights on the World Tree, Odin gains the wisdom he seeks and returns with it:
I looked below me --
Aloud I cried --
caught up the runes, caught them up wailing,
thence to the ground fell again. (Poetic Edda 36, stanza 139)
After the transcendent experience on the last of his three nights on the Tree, Paul is left alive. While this might seem just an easy way out of having to kill one of the main characters, Paul's return to life is an essential part of his role as the Odin-figure, for he has been transformed: "He felt the presence of Mörnir then, within himself, latent, tacit" (Summer 337). After his ordeal, Paul is marked as Odin not just by this felt sense of power, but explicitly by the two ravens, Thought and Memory, who now accompany him periodically. These ravens, familiar companions of Odin in the Norse tales, are "symbols of the mind of the seer or shaman, sent out over vast distances" (Davidson 147), which is appropriate, given that one of Paul's functions in the second and third books is to cast his mind out to summon other gods or godlike figures to aid his companions.
The episode of Paul's sacrifice on the Summer Tree, while central to the plot, is far from the only use that Kay makes of Norse mythology. Two of the central antagonists, Rakoth Maugrim and Galadan, draw heavily on Norse figures.
Rakoth Maugrim has been noted above as a Sauron figure in some ways. This is true in terms of the function he has in The Fionavar Tapestry. However, for the characterization and history of this antagonist, Kay draws on the Norse figure of Loki.
To begin with, Rakoth and Loki are both anomalous figures in their respective universes. Rakoth is not part of the orderly Tapestry of reality woven by the Weaver at the Loom, in which the gods as well as mortals have their parts. As a mage warns Kevin, one of the characters from our world, Rakoth "is outside the Tapestry. There is no thread with his name on it. He cannot die, and none could ever set his will against him" (199). This seems to draw on the ambiguous role that Loki plays in the Norse tales. Loki, nominally one of the Aesir, consorts with the hostile giants as well as with the gods, even siring a number of monstrous children. There is even variation in the treatment of Loki in the different sources; he is mainly a comic figure in the Prose Edda of Sturluson, but in the Poetic Edda he is a darker, more threatening character. As Davidson sums up in her discussion of Loki's character, "No estimate of Loki can be complete which does not take into account the grim and terrifying background of death to which Loki seems at times to belong… Only at Ragnarök is it clear where Loki's real allegiance lies, when he seems to relapse again into the figure of a bound and monstrous giant, breaking loose to destroy the world" (Davidson 182).
The fact that Loki's tale ends with him as the bound figure beneath the mountain shows the strongest influence of the Norse tales on the character of Rakoth Maugrim. At the opening of the story, the reader is shown the image of the malevolent but restrained power of Rakoth: "And under the great mountain, Rangat Cloud-Shouldered, in the wind-blasted north, a figure writhed in chains, eaten by hate to the edge of madness, but knowing full well that the wardstones would give warning if he stretched his powers to break free" (4). Compare this to the restraint of Loki after the murder of Balder:
After that Loki was taken unconditionally and put into a cave. Taking three flat stones, the gods set them on end and bored a hole through each. Then Loki's sons were captured, Vali and Nari or Narfi. The Aesir changed Vali into a wolf and he tore asunder his brother Narfi. The Aesir took his entrails and with them bound Loki over the edges of the three stones -- one under his shoulder, the second under his loins, the third under his knee-joints -- and these bonds became iron… There he will lie in bonds until Ragnarök. (Sturluson 85-6)
Here there are the elements of the malevolent god restrained in lieu of death; the place of restraint being underground; stones being part of the restraint; and the idea that at some point he will break free. And indeed the action of The Fionavar Tapestry revolves around Rakoth Maugrim's successful break from his restraints, and his attempt to bring about his version of Ragnarök.
The other main antagonist in the novels is Galadan, who shows evidence of being firmly based on the figure of the Fenris Wolf, or Fenrir. First of all, his epithet of Wolflord is not simply metaphorical: he has the power to change into the form of a wolf. He is an intimidating wolf, as well: "Coal-black, with a splash of silver-grey on his brow, he was the largest wolf by far… [furthermore there was a] malevolence of the power that hovered about the wolf like an aura" (169). Like Fenrir, he is also a force to be reckoned with intellectually as well as physically. The fact that Fenrir is far from a dumb brute can be seen when the gods, fearful of his power, try to bind him. He breaks every fetter until they commission the dwarves to produce Gleipnir, which "seemed no more than a silken cord, yet no force could break it" (Davidson 31). The gods try to trick Fenrir into accepting it, explaining that he will be sure to break it. Fenrir replies, "This ribbon looks to me as if I could gain no renown from breaking it -- it is so slight a cord; but if it has been made by guile and cunning, slender though it looks, it is not going to come on my legs" (Sturluson 58). The gods promise to set him free if he cannot break the cord, but Fenrir expresses his doubts as to their sincerity, adding that he will do it only if "one of you place[s] his hand in my mouth as a pledge that this is done in good faith" (Sturluson 58). Tyr, of course, volunteers and loses his hand, showing that Fenrir was right in suspecting a trick. Intelligence is apparent in Galadan as well. When Jennifer looks into his eyes, "she saw a degree of intelligence that should not have been there, and was more alien than anything else she had come upon in Fionavar. There was no hatred in the look, only a cold, merciless will" (169). This is displayed as well in the final battle, where Galadan is the master strategist controlling Rakoth's forces.
Galadan's origins also show his origin in the figure of Fenrir. Galadan is "one of the andain -- child of a mortal woman and a god" (198), as Fenrir is the son of Loki by the giantess Angriboða (Sturluson 56). Though in The Fionavar Tapestry Galadan is not the literal son of Rakoth / Loki, he has a similarly close relationship: "first lieutenant to Rakoth and the most terrible of his servants" (198).
Lastly, the roles of Galadan and Fenrir at their respective final battles show the connection between the two. Galadan became a force for the Dark when he was spurned by the woman he loved: he vowed the most complete vengeance ever sworn… Galadan swore that the world that witnessed his humiliation would cease to exist'" (198). The execution of his vengeance would be what Fenrir participates in: Ragnarök. In that final battle of the gods and the giants, Fenrir gets loose and fights on the side of the giants. When the gods come onto the field, "Oðin will ride first… and he will make for the wolf Fenrir" (Sturluson 87). Likewise, in the last book of the trilogy, Paul, the Odin-figure, confronts Galadan on the final battlefield. Here Kay departs from the grim rendering of the Norse tale, in which Fenrir kills Odin, only to be killed by another Aesir. Though Galadan is powerless, surrounded by the victorious forces of the Light, Paul chooses to release him into his father's keeping, to heal his anger and come to the side of the Light again.
It is precisely this kind of usage of his mythological and literary sources that Kay's novels much more than a retelling of an old tale; he has his own story to tell, and he uses his sources to give depth to it without dictating it.
II. The Lions of Al-Rassan
In The Fionavar Tapestry, Kay draws on Tolkien as a main literary source, and on Norse and several other mythologies for further source material, using the idea of Fionavar as "the first of all worlds" to explain the assortment. In his stand-alone novels, Kay continues to use source material as a basis for his novels; but, in contrast, he focuses on a single source for each novel. The Lions of Al-Rassan, his most recent novel, is an excellent example of this different approach to using source material. The Lions of Al-Rassan draws its story and setting from the medieval Spanish story of the Cid, which is best known in the epic poem called the Poema del Cid. While some elements of Kay's story may draw on the Poema, the actual historical background of the Cid is often given precedence over the poem in Kay's handling of the subject.
To begin with, the character of the Cid himself is one of the main characters of The Lions of Al-Rassan. "Cid" means "lord," and is a respectful title that the man, Rodrigo Díaz de Bivar, earned by his prowess in battle. Kay's character, Rodrigo Belmonte, has similarly earned the respect of both friends and enemies: "The Captain… Everyone in the peninsula knew who was called by that name alone, as a title" (74). This respect is well-founded; what the Poema says about the Cid, that "He who in good hour was born deals with them justly; / all who came with him are well content" (95), is as applicable to Rodrigo Belmonte, for whom almost any soldier "would have fasted a week, would have forsworn women and wine, would have seriously contemplated murder for the chance to be trained by the Captain, to be under the cool, grey-eyed scrutiny of Rodrigo Belmonte for three whole weeks. To be, if only for this one mission, numbered among his company" (28). The major difference in Kay's treatment of the Cid is that he makes him into a well-rounded character, a real and not just epic figure, and surrounds him with other full characterizations.
Rodrigo Belmonte is one player in a complex situation that is closely modeled after the real medieval Spain of the Cid. W.S. Merwin's overview of the political situation in the Iberian Peninsula provides a concise summary of the complex inter-relations among the various powers:
Feudal Spain of the mid-eleventh century was politically an extremely complicated place. By then the reconquest of the country from the Moors had made considerable progress. In the north of the peninsula were the Visigothic Christian kingdoms and states, most notably Castile, León, Aragón, Navarre, and the county of Barcelona. In the south were the Moorish kingdoms, chief among them Seville, Granada, Córdoba and Valencia. To further complicate the division, the Christian states lived in rivalry with one another. Many of the Moorish states were dependencies of the Christian kingdoms, paying them tribute in exchange for protection from other Moors or other Christians. These tributary kingdoms were a principal cause of the contentions and intermittent wars among the Christian states. Another was the Spanish kings' practice of dividing up their kingdoms among their heirs. Rodrigo, as a young man, was a witness to some of the tragic consequences of one of these partitions; they affected the whole course of his life. (Merwin viii)
In the first few pages of The Lions of Al-Rassan, Kay sets up a strikingly similar set of initial circumstances. Here, the Spanish Christians are Jaddites, worshippers of the sun, in Esperaña; the Moors are the star-worshipping Asharites of Al-Rassan. But the politics are the same:
Since the thunderous, echoing fall of the Khalifate in Silvenes fifteen years ago, allegiances and alignments in Al-Rassan had shifted interminably, often several times a year, as petty-kings rose and fell in the cities with numbing regularity. Nor were affairs any clearer in the north, beyond the no-man's-land, where the Jaddite kings of Valledo and Ruenda and Jaloña -- the two surviving sons and the brother of Sancho the Fat -- schemed and warred against each other. (10)
Using this historical situation as a base, Kay then works in the story of the Cid, at first much as it is told in the Poema del Cid. This poem has three sections, or cantares. The beginning of the poem is missing from the manuscript, but the contemporary Crónica de Veinte Reyes provides the missing information: the story of how the Cid, on a mission to collect tribute from a Moorish king, offends the king's alférez, or constable. The poem itself picks up with the Cid's disgrace and exile, followed by his victories while in exile.
[The city of] Fezana became part of the rapidly growing kingdom of Cartada. So, already, had Lonza, and Aljais, even Silvenes itself, with the sad, plundered ruins of the Al-Fontina. So, later, did Seria and Ardeño… The fierce Lion of Cartada was being forced to acknowledge the presence of beasts equally dangerous. The Jaddites of the north might be fewer in number and torn amongst themselves, but they were not blind to opportunity. For two years now Fezana had been paying tribute money to King Ramiro of Valledo. (14)
The reason for the Cid's exile is important, because it sets up who his influential enemies are. In the Crónica de Veinte Reyes, the Cid was sent to collect tribute from the Moorish King of Sevilla, who was being threatened by the Moorish King of Granada. At that time, García Ordóñez was at Granada to collect tribute from him. The Cid, trying to protect the King of Sevilla, asked Granada to keep the peace. In response, García Ordóñez invaded and sacked part of Sevilla. The Cid retaliated and defeated García: "And in this battle the Cid took prisoner the Count Don García Ordóñez and pulled out part of his beard, and took prisoner many other gentlemen and so many of the ordinaries that they lost count; and the Cid held them three days and then released them all" (Merwin 35). It is important to note the humiliating touch of the pulling of the beard, an incident that is heightened in Kay's rendering of the scene:
Jehane [a principal character] … saw only the blurred motion of Rodrigo Belmonte's right arm. She heard a crack, like a whip, and a man cried out. Then she realized it had been a whip, and saw the black line of blood on Garcia de Rada's cheek. He would be scarred for life by that, she knew. (76)
The sense that de Rada has been humiliated is important to understanding the motivation for his later actions. While pulling his beard was no doubt perceived as humiliating at the time of the Cid, it is unlikely to impress a modern reader, whereas the scarring does.
After this incident, Belmonte releases de Rada and his men to go back to Valledo, holding their horses and weapons as the first part of their ransom payment (82). But, as in the poem, this incident results in Belmonte's exile from his home in the Jaddite kingdom of Valledo (122).
The second cantar of the Poema describes the Cid's conquest of Valencia, reconciliation with the king, and the marriage of his daughters to the Heirs of Carrión. While the last action is not correlated in Kay's novel, since he chose to give Rodrigo Belmonte two sons instead of two daughters, the other two are. Rodrigo is quite successful in his actions against the kingdoms of Al-Rassan, as the Cid was against the Moors. At this point in the Poema, the Moors send for help against the Christians from the Moorish tribes in Africa, who have begun to convert to a more radical form of Islam: "And they [the Moorish kings] see their affliction growing, that there is no remedy, / and they have sent word to the King of Morocco" (Merwin 127).
But summoning the Moors from Africa was a dangerous move for the Moors of the Iberian peninsula:
The court of Seville in particular was a flourishing center of the arts, learning, and pleasure, and King Motámid was a lavish patron of all three. The Moorish kings of Spain could hardly expect the fierce, ignorant, fundamentalist zealots who had overrun the rich culture of North Africa to play a subservient or a gentle role in their kingdoms. Almost certainly they could expect worse treatment from Yúsuf than from Alfonso. Motámid's son opposed the invitation to Yúsuf. But Motámid, in the name of his religion, persisted. (Merwin xv-xvi)
Likewise, Rodrigo and his men reflect on the situation: If the kingdoms of Al-Rassan "[begin] The process of summoning the tribes from the Majriti… [What will happen] If Yazir and Ghalib come north across the straits with twenty thousand men? Will the desert warriors fight us and then go quietly home?" (95). The answer, of course, is no: but the kings of Al-Rassan, like the Moors of history against the Christians, make the decision to use any allies possible to defeat the Jaddites.
The third cantar tells how the Cid's sons-in-law beat and abandon his daughters in order to insult him, and how he gets revenge and marries his daughters to better husbands. At this point, Kay's handling of the subject of the Cid ceases to follow the story as it is told in the Poema, and incorporates more strictly historical elements.
One of the incidents that Kay pulls from the story of the Cid is the death of his son. Historically, the Cid's son was killed in a battle against the Moorish reinforcements from Africa while serving with King Alfonso (Merwin xxiv); this incident is not mentioned in the Poema. From this brief fact Kay crafts a powerful scene near the end of The Lions of Al-Rassan. Diego and Fernan, Rodrigo's sons, are too young to go into battle against the Moors, and so by rights should have remained safe on Rodrigo's estates. But word reaches King Ramiro that Diego has a special gift of being able to see, at times, where his father is and what is happening around him. The King has the two brothers brought to the army to be able to use Diego's gift to plan strategy around what Rodrigo is doing. The boys are kept in a supply camp that is supposed to be safe; however, a contingent of Muwardis, Asharite desert warriors, attack the almost unprotected camp: "It was all a matter of sending a message. Making the Jaddites brutally aware of what they faced if they remained in the lands of Ashar so far from their pastures in the north" (452). Despite his young age, Rodrigo's son Diego joins in the defense against this brief, brutal attack, and is struck down by the leader of the attackers: "Aziz blocked the blow and then -- something he had done a hundred times, at least -- brought his hammer across and down, through the feeble parrying of that sword. He smashed the boy's skull, felt it break like the shell of an egg" (451).
Kay turns this situation into an intensely dramatic one. Rodrigo is not far away from this camp, as he helps his doctor, Jehane's, family escape from the embattled city of Fezana. This is not a coincidence, since King Ramiro has been guided by Diego to where his father is. But when Rodrigo emerges from the embattled city to be greeted by his son Fernan, the exiled Asharite, Ammar, who is his companion, immediately realizes what is about to happen to that camp: "'Ambush!…The Muwardis. Almalik planned it, years ago. Pray to your god and ride!'" (432). Knowing that his son is in mortal danger, Rodrigo must ride in what he fears to be a vain attempt to save him. In developing this incident in this way, Kay opens up the possibility not only of increasing the dramatic tension, but also of deepening the characterization of his version of the Cid. Rodrigo's agony shows the depth of the love he holds for his son:
He could not remember feeling so pure a terror in all his life… He was a father trying to outrun the arc of time to his son. Terror was in him, defined him, made his mind a blank of dread. Nothing like this, ever before. Fear, yes. No honest soldier could truly say he had never known fear…He had faced his own death many times, and feared it, and dealt with that fear. He had never felt what he was experiencing now, in this night of Al-Rassan, hurtling toward Orvilla for the second time in less than a year. (453).
In fact, Rodrigo is too late to stop the attack on the supply camp that results in Aziz striking down his son. But in the resolution of this incident, Kay is able to draw on the well-developed cast of minor characters to turn what would have been an utterly tragic scene into a painful yet hopeful one. Jehane, one of the principal characters in the novel, is a Kindath physician; her father, also a physician, was blinded and mutilated by an Asharite king as punishment for seeing an Asharite woman's body during a surgical operation. Cutting out the doctor's eyes and tongue was actually intended as a reward for the success of the operation, since the punishment was normally death. The blind, mute figure of the once-famous physician has been a painful one throughout the novel, always reminding Jehane of the brutality of the Asharite king and their powerlessness as Kindath. Since it was her family that Rodrigo was helping bring out of the city, her father is at the scene of the attack and examines Rodrigo's son. The subsequent events are a turning point not only in Rodrigo's life but in Jehane's and her father's:
In Al-Rassan, in Esperaña, Ferrieres, Karch, Batiara -- even, in time, in the far-off eastern homelands of the Asharites -- what happened that night in a burning hamlet near Fezana became legendary… Sightless, unable to communicate except through his wife who understood every mangled syllable he spoke, handling a surgeon's blades for the first time since his blinding, working by touch and memory and instinct, ben Yonannon [Jehane's father] did something even Galinus had only hinted might possibly be done. He carved an opening in the skull of Diego Belmonte… [and removed the] fragment of bone that would have killed Rodrigo's son before the blue moon joined the white one in the sky. (458).
Diego lives. This moment becomes a regenerative one for Jehane's father; a joyous one for Rodrigo and his wife; and for the Jaddite doctor who assists, "'the proudest moment of my life as a doctor'" (460). In this scene, the son of a Jaddite warleader is saved through an Asharite's warning and a Kindath's medical skill; it hints at the possibility of peaceful interaction among the three embattled religious groups.
One last episode of interest in Kay's handling of the source material for The Lions of Al-Rassan is the conclusion. Historically, despite the Cid's victories, it was not until three hundred and fifty years after the writing of the Poema del Cid that the Moors were driven out of the Iberian peninsula and Spain was once more ruled only by the Spanish. To be sure, at one moment in the time of the Cid King Alfonso managed to gain control, political or military, over the entire peninsula, controlling "all the Moorish kingdoms of the peninsula, from Castile south to the straits of Gibraltar; and his influence over the other Christian princes of Spain had grown enormously. For the first time since the Moors had invaded Spain, a Christian ruler could claim with some reason to be King of all Spain" (Merwin xv). But this fragile assortment of alliances with other Spanish kings and tributary relationships with Moorish kings did not last through even Alfonso's lifetime.
In The Lions of Al-Rassan, however, the story concludes with a decisive Jaddite reconquest of the peninsula, twenty years after the main action of the novel. Though Rodrigo himself is killed in single combat with Ammar, the Asharite champion, in a battle before the war's end, his son Fernan carries on. A Jaddite ship's captain joyfully reports, "'[Fernan] Belmonte took Cartada and Aljais this summer, and then Tudesca surrendered to him! Ramiro the Great has ridden his black horse into the sea at the mouth of the Guadiara. Jad has reconquered Al-Rassan! The peninsula belongs to Esperaña again!'" (519). This is an interesting choice. The novel is peopled with sympathetic characters drawn from both sides of the war, from Jaddites and Asharites and Kindath. No matter what the outcome of the war, there would be some characters who would be hurt in some way by it. And so the reader, too, must feel bittersweet about it. Despite its brutalities, Al-Rassan has been portrayed as a place where culture and learning reached heights unknown in the Jaddite north.
If Kay had written the historical ending to the Cid's wars into his novel, the conclusion would have been one without resolution; the Asharites would have lost ground, but not been defeated. They would have been slowly ground down and pushed out of Esperaña city by city over the next three hundred years, rather than being extinguished in one wave of conquest. What is the effect of the ending that does conclude The Lions of Al-Rassan? For one thing, it is more symmetrical than history actually was: the Moors gained all their conquered territory in Spain in only fifty years. But a more important effect is in the novel itself. By having the reconquest accomplished in only twenty years, Kay has it occur in the lifetime of the characters that the reader has grown attached to. The reader gets to experience the Jaddite victory through the perceptions of the characters who have ties to both sides, and so the complexities of the reconquest are brought home in a way that a simple epilogue or statement of the later victory could not. Since one of the characters who reacts to the news of the reconquest at the end is one of the first characters that is introduced in the novel, the novel also comes full circle. Alvar de Pellino begins the novel as a horseman in Rodrigo Belmonte's company, and his wish is to gain glory as a warrior driving the Asharites from Esperaña. By the end of the novel, he has converted to the Kindath religion, befriended the exiled Asharite Ammar, and has abandoned his career as a soldier to become a physician. His response to the news is a painful one, and it shows the reader just how much one's perspective may change through experience.
Kay draws heavily on mythological, legendary, and historical sources in his fantasy novels. Using mythological sources allows him to be faithful to the origins of modern fantasy while not imitating the early giants. Tolkien, for instance, draws on the Norse mythology, among others, in The Lord of the Rings; while Kay does show influence directly from Tolkien in The Fionavar Tapestry, he for the most part goes back to Tolkien's sources and makes his own stories from them. This gives Kay's novels a kinship to other fantasy novels without being derivative. But the northern European and British mythologies have been mined extensively for inspiration at this point, and even a return to the sources may end up looking like many other fantasy novels. What Kay shows in The Lions of Al-Rassan is the way that a little-used tradition can provide a rich and varied supply of materials for the fantasy author to use in the creation of the "secondary world." In both the secondary worlds of Fionavar and Esperaña, Kay displays the labor, thought, and attention to craft that Tolkien shows are integral to a successful work of literary fantasy.
© Holly Ordway
Davidson, H.R. Ellis. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. New York: Penguin, 1964.
Frazer, James G. The Golden Bough: The Roots of Religion and Folklore. Avenel Books, 1981. Original publication London: Macmillan, 1890.
Holdstock, Robert. Mythago Wood. New York: Avon, 1984.
Kay, Guy Gavriel. The Lions of Al-Rassan. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
-- The Summer Tree. New York: Penguin, 1984.
--The Wandering Fire. New York: Penguin, 1986.
--Interview with Andrew A. Adams. January 1995.
The Poetic Edda. Hollander, Lee, trans. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1962.
Poem of the Cid / Poema del Cid. Merwin, W.S., trans. Spanish text by Ramón Menéndez Pidal. New York: Mentor, 1959.
Sturluson, Snorri. The Prose Edda: Tales from Norse Mythology. Trans. Jean. I. Young. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1954.
Tolkien, J.R.R. "On Fairy-Stories." Tree and Leaf. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1964. Rpt. in The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine, 1966. 3-84.