Book Review 11: “The Fionavar Tapestry”

 

Genre: Fantasy

Have in the Library? Yes!

Reviewed by: Bill Oram

 

This is a deeply moving fantasy novel.  It’s long and it takes its time: its three volumes create the world of Fionavar with at least a dozen main characters and many other important subordinate figures.  (There’s a list at the front, and at first I had to keep consulting it.  After a while I entered the world and that wasn’t necessary.) The tapestry of the title is the world itself with the rules governing its existence, woven by a deity who has afterward given it the freedom to develop on its own—to destroy itself, if that’s the way things should turn out.  The fundamental conflict is the battle for Fionavar against a subordinate deity who would enslave it, destroying the races that have have opposed him (This is the main way in which it reminds me of Tolkien, however different it is otherwise.).  Fionavar, we are told, is one of many worlds, but it’s the principal world and if it falls, they all fall.  It encompasses four or five different cultures and races, with an extraordinary variety of character and incident.

In the opening chapter, five characters from our own world (three men and two women) are transported to Fionavar (one less willingly than the others) where they will take part in the struggle.  These five characters experience the events of the novel very differently, and the novel insists on their differing perceptions.  While they sometimes work alone, sometimes together, their development forms the novel’s center, as they all in different ways come to terms with their natures and fulfill their destinies. To speak of “fulfilling their destinies” sounds pompous, but it’s right for the novel.  Kay writes marvelously, and with a kind of absolute conviction in his world.   The book is pure romance, full of marvels—dwarves, gods and goddesses, enchanted forests with their spirits, sea-monsters, cauldrons that bring the dead back to life, magicians both virtuous and destructive, a deadly winged unicorn, priestesses, a shaman—even, in the third volume, two very different dragons.  The pleasure of the book comes partly from Kay’s constant inventiveness, and partly from the moving power of the writing.  There is a lot of action, of course, set against a world with a mythological depth, sense of events stretching back to the beginning of time.

This was written during the 1980’s, and it’s the best work of heroic fantasy I know from that decade.  It’s one of the few that doesn’t feel like a footnote to Tolkien.  That’s partly, I think, because, where Tolkien got much of his inspiration from Norse mythology, Kay looks to Celtic sources.  Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere all figure here as do a number of Celtic deities, but Kay allows himself to play with the old myths, giving them new dimensions.  In Malory’s version of the Arthur story, for instance, when the young Arthur realizes that he has begotten Mordred, who will kill him, he orders that all the young children born when he was born on be set adrift on a boat to die.  In this novel, Arthur suffers for his sin by being summoned back to life in various worlds to fight and die in the ongoing battle between good and evil.  If you’re inclined, you can trace the mythological dimensions of the novel by googling  them, or you can simply give yourself to the ongoing narrative.  If you don’t like heroic fantasy, you probably won’t like this one.  But otherwise you’ll love it. 

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