River of Words: Outsiders in Guy Gavriel Kay

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Guy Gavriel Kay
Guy Gavriel Kay Photo by Beth Gwinn

My initial inclination when doing what I do vis a vis blogging is to immediately launch into my subject matter, as if I were an Olympic sprinter who has just heard a gunshot and not a sometime-bespectacled, moderately portly gentleman who thinks far too much about fiction. However, in light of the fact that this is the first of what I hope will be many writings to come here on the Clyde Fitch Report, I thought it might be best if I suppressed my usual leanings and set the table, as it were. So welcome! I am a sometime-bespectacled, moderately portly gentleman who thinks far too much about fiction, and this is “Out of Time,” a place where I examine where film, television and literature intersect with the real world (although let’s treat that last loosely, considering the fact that I found my way to the written word by way of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth; I am aware that ‘nerd culture’ is on the rise, but I grew up in a less enlightened time and still habitually keep an eye out in case someone tries to shove me in a locker, metaphorical or otherwise).

Guy Gavriel Kay
Guy Gavriel Kay
Photo by Beth Gwinn

My topic for this go-round is the most recent offering from Canadian historical fantasist Guy Gavriel Kay, who has perhaps the most essential middle name I’ve ever seen. Kay’s initial association with the fantasy genre was as the assistant to Christopher Tolkien’s unenviable task of editing The Silmarillion, J.R.R.’s answer to all the questions no one was asking about The Lord of the Rings. From there, Kay tried his own hand at the fantasy epic, producing The Fionavar Tapestry, a three-volume series I find more palatable than LotR these days, although it’s as much of a relic of its era as LotR is of its (and the Tapestry, of course, benefits from having part of the trail blazed already).

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After the Tapestry, Kay began what would become his practice for nearly all of his prose fiction efforts; he researched a specific historical period and then crafted a fictional narrative, some more fantastical than others, that attempted to capture the issues and feeling of that period. Sometimes, especially early on, he would alter the actual historical outcome (A Song for Arbonne, inspired by the Albigensian Crusade, ends far more positively than the real-life events might otherwise imply); at other times, he lets the chips fall where they did, in fact, fall. In either case, what Kay does most adeptly is bring these places alive through his characters, making real the trials of a Jewish doctor in Moorish Spain, or a dancer in Byzantium. As someone drawn to learn about ancient Chinese history through exposure to some of its classic heroic fiction, I can attest to the fact that storytelling can provide an easier window to an era than its source material.

The invocation of China is not incidental; Kay’s works were largely confined to Western Europe until his two latest books, 2010’s Under Heaven and the recently-released River of Stars, but Kay’s favorite themes (societies on the knife-edge of peace and war and the role of art and civilization in a precarious world, to name two) are just as applicable to Kitai, his fictionalized China. There’s a fine literary tradition of telling and retelling stories of the past, whether updated to contemporary times or not, and that tradition continues because, as any high-school English teacher with a mandated Shakespeare curriculum would say, the stories of the past still have relevance today.

Yue FeiChinese history itself can be seen as a series of cycles; an imperial dynasty would become strong and prominent, with peace and prosperity abundant, until a point where the dynasty weakened (through conflicts external or internal, or through corruption, or through simple neglect), whereupon war would break out until a leader strong enough to bring an end to it took power. Under Heaven details the beginning of one of these periods of strife, the An Li Rebellion (based on An Shi’s rebellion against the Tang dynasty), seen through the eyes of Shen Tai and his sister Li-Mei. River of Stars, however, is the book that really gives a sense of the cyclical nature of history. It covers a fictionalized Song dynasty, whose way of life has been irrevocably changed by An Li’s rebellion in Under Heaven; the military has almost no sway at the emperor’s court, and civil servants hold the power and respect of society. Art, music, and poetry are now considered proper avenues for male achievement, and soldiers are viewed as a necessary evil, to be used but not trusted.

Kay’s protagonists are often outsiders; in this Big Idea entry from John Scalzi’s blog he puts this in terms of exile, a common theme throughout his books. I find that even beyond the literally exiled, there is a persistent trait in many of his protagonists, at least at the beginning of the narrative, of not being easy in their worlds, their societies, their lives. The Five in The Fionavar Tapestry, Devin in Tigana (although the trait is true for many in that novel), Blaise in A Song for Arbonne, Jehane in The Lions of Al-Rassan, Crispin in The Sarantine Mosaic, Alun in The Last Light of the Sun, Ned in Ysabel, Shen Tai in Under Heaven; every single one of these characters is, to one degree or another, uneasy in their society, set apart in some way, be it through Crispin and his anger and introversion, Alun and his grief at his brother’s early death and his knowledge of the fairy realm, or Devin and his unknown (at the outset of the story) heritage, and by his societal status as a traveling musician. Kay’s first protagonists, five college students from Earth who are summoned to the first of all worlds, Fionavar, are as literal an embodiment of this trait as you could possibly imagine.

I am absolutely not trying to ding Kay for this; this is only something that jumps out at you if, to pluck an example from thin air, you are someone who has lived and breathed his books for much of your adult life and also is trying to write a blog post about him. As a predilection, this one is comparatively mild, and it’s one that offers a greater window into the world of the book, as Kay himself says at the link above – “It also, from a technical, ‘writerly’ perspective, can set up a viewpoint for the reader: if someone is experiencing a new place (cynically, fearfully, arrogantly?), their observations and reactions become a way in for the reader who is, obviously, also ‘away from home’.” I bring it up because it’s used masterfully in River of Stars, giving us two different outsider perspectives. One is Ren Daiyan’s; from a young age he feels it’s his duty to liberate the northern provinces from “barbarian” rule, something which is only going to be possible through a military victory. Given the view of soldiers, especially generals, in Kitai’s Twelfth Dynasty, this sets him at odds with virtually everyone of importance in society.

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It also sets him in sharp relief with many of the protagonists named a couple of paragraphs ago, none of whom are simply soldiers. Some of them can fight (Blaise, who comes the closest to being a soldier, Alun), some learn to fight (Dave, one of the Five, Devin), and although part of Shen Tai’s history is time as a soldier, he doesn’t identify that way. Jehane is a doctor, Devin a singer, Crispin a mosaicist. Ren Daiyan becomes a soldier, a military man and leader of same. He is no An Lushan, from Under Heaven, but the rest of the characters in the novel have no way of knowing that, and no reason to believe it. It’s an interesting look at how societies re-contextualize groups based on the actions of a few extraordinary group members. For the people of Kitai uprooted and displaced by the An Lushan rebellion, soldiers are now the enemy, no matter how good a particular, individual soldier might be, as many Americans have a picture of Muslims based on Islamic extremists such as Osama bin Laden or, more recently, the Tsarnaev brothers, and as many have a picture of Christianity colored by the actions of men like Timothy McVeigh or groups like the Westboro Baptist Church. We habitually organize people into groups as humans, and the danger in doing so is losing the true perception of the people in the group to the broad stereotypes we build in our heads. Not every soldier is bent on domination, destruction, and betrayal; not everyone who likes The Catcher in the Rye is Mark David Chapman.

OutsiderThe other protagonist is Lin Shan.

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I’m going to digress here for a moment and address something before we continue. Most of Kay’s work, aside from Ysabel, exists in a sub-section of fantasy literature that draws heavily from medieval Europe in societal structure and technology level. In Kay’s case, it’s because the history he drew inspiration from was literally in this time period, and so the influence was inescapable. Tolkien’s works and George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire are other popular examples, while the Arthurian legends might be thought of as progenitors (Kay drew on them explicitly for The Fionavar Tapestry). The usual hallmarks are a feudal social structure, military technology that doesn’t quite get to gunpowder, some sort of magic and mysticism, and mythological beasts. What makes these stories problematic from a modern perspective is that generally the patriarchal structures of medieval society are also carried over.

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This raises a question: is there value, in a world that is more and more vocally advocating for social justice, a world that is crying out for both more women as authors and women as characters, in medievalist fiction? In other words, is there a reason to tell stories about a world that is inherently biased against women? I believe the answer is yes (spoiler alert), but only if the difference in status doesn’t go unexamined. I don’t think that there’s much use, in 2013, in writing a story where the women only exist to be married off to the men, as princesses to be rescued from dragons (at least without one’s tongue firmly in one’s cheek, or without the story being, as a Terry Pratchett dwarf might say, like iron). But fiction has always illuminated the dark corners of the human experience-Invisible Man, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Animal Farm-and the goal is never to glorify the injustices and mistakes of the past, but to contextualize them and bring them into relief. In an imperfect world, there’s value in aspirational fiction that exists without the barriers that the under-privileged face, to provide refuge and succor to those who still face difficulties facing the seemingly impervious structures that serve to separate and disenfranchise people. There is also value in fiction that reminds us that, while we have taken steps down the road to a more perfect and inclusive world, that we still have a ways to go.

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So, Lin Shan. Lin Shan is the daughter of a minor government functionary who exists as an interesting inversion of the ‘daughter raised like a man’ archetype. In what we might think of as a more traditional or stereotypical fantasy setting she would be trained to hunt and fight, but in Kitai’s Twelfth Dynasty she is instead taught to read and write, and specifically to write poetry. This marks her from an early age, and we’re shown that she knows this; as the novel progresses she chafes against the societal restrictions that govern women, well aware of her outsider status. She never suffers for this, in the way that we might normally fear a non-conforming woman to suffer in a narrative sense; I spent a good portion of the novel fearing such a thing, and happily these fears turned out to be misguided. Her suffering is internal, for the most part, although no less meaningful for having little external dramatic expression (until near the end of the novel).

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There’s a punch to the gut with Lin Shan, a little under halfway through the novel. She has been summoned to court to have one of her poems performed, since the current emperor is a fan of poetry. She doesn’t perform the poem herself; it’s performed for her by a singing girl, traditionally beautiful. From the novel: “Shan cannot look for long at the other woman without glancing away. The singer is gifted (of course she is, to be here) with both her instrument and her voice, and her beauty dazzles. But every time Shan looks she sees the woman’s feet, bound in the newest fashion for pleasure girls.” Another quote: “The woman playing here, singing Shan’s own dangerous words set to “Butterflies and Flowers,” will not be able to step down from this pavilion when she is done. Not without leaning, all helpless, scented fragility, upon a man.” Lastly, from Lin Kuo, Shan’s father: “‘Daughter, if the men of our time forget how to ride and hunt, and are carried by bearers wherever they go, even to the house next door, how do they ensure women are even more diminished? This. This is what happens now.'”

We do not have foot binding in America (unless Portland’s gotten really weird), but we do have the beauty industry, and any woman who works in an office where people say, “are you sick?” if they come in without wearing make up may find something in Lin Kuo’s words that resonates with them. “I don’t write novels inspired by history to offer easy parallels to our time. That can feel lazy, or glib, or both,” says Kay in the essay linked above. “But I do find immense richness in seeing how the past is both startlingly similar and amazingly strange…” I don’t think my own parallels are lazy or glib, although I will grant that glibness is in the eye of the beholder. For better or for worse they are my parallels, and I think the most important thing when one reads or sees or hears fiction is that we engage with it, that we draw a line from the story to our lives. I suppose that’s as good a mission statement as any for this column.