While Guy Gavriel Kay is probably best known for his fantasies set in lightly fictionalized versions of the real world — such as The Lions of Al-Rassan or the Sarantine duology — his first book was The Summer Tree (1984). It’s the opening volume of The Fionavar Tapestry, a trilogy of epic high fantasy that manages to cram into its pages nearly every important Germanic or Celtic myth you can think of. You want a dark lord in an impregnable northern fortress? Check. How about noble elves practically glowing with an inner light, and noble blond horse-nomads? Double check. Considering that at the age of twenty, Kay was picked by Christopher Tolkien to help him collate his father’s papers into The Silmarillion, it’s understandable.
The Summer Tree is a book of beginnings and setting the pieces on the table. The game that will be played out in the two succeeding books, The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road, is the usual one of long-imprisoned dark lord frees himself and sets out to get right this time his efforts to subvert creation and rule the world. Or in this book’s case, THE WORLD. Fionavar is the first world, the one from which all others, ours included, spring and are but shadows of.
The book opens in Toronto where five grad students, Jennifer, Kevin, Kimberly, Paul, and Dave go to hear Prof. Lorenzo Marcus lecture at the Second International Celtic Conference. He reveals to them that he is really Loren Silvercloak, a sorcerer from another world, and he would like them to travel back there with him for two weeks. In one of the book’s weaker moments, it doesn’t take much to convince them to go along. Dave balks at the last minute, which results in him arriving in a far different part of Fionavar than his friends, and having several chapters all to himself. What none of them knows is that while Loren has said he simply wants them to cross over in order to be present at a celebration for the king, the reality is he knows they have yet undetermined roles to play in Fionavar.
Fionavar is a world about to fall into chaos. The High King of Brennin is aged, his kingdom alone in all Fionavar has been stricken by a devastating drought, and he has driven his eldest son into exile. Svart alfars, vicious, bestial humanoids, have been seen for the first time in centuries. Visions of the coming tumult have plagued Ysanne the Seer of Brennin. In his prison under the mountain, Maugrim the Unraveller prepares to break free. By the book’s midpoint he will be released and all Fionavar will know it.
As I wrote, The Summer Tree serves to introduce the players and set them in motion. Some of the students begin to fall into the roles they seemed fated for, some seem random and tragic, but they all will be important. Secrets are unveiled and plots exposed. By the novel’s end the forces of dark and light are readying themselves for the war that is sure to come.
In examining epic high fantasy this past month or so, one aspect I’ve touched on unintentionally is the motives of the authors for creating their stories. The Sword of Shannara was Terry Brooks’ and the del Reys’ attempt to create a less taxing, commercially viable Tolkien pastiche. Stephen Donaldson, in the Thomas Covenant books, examined perception versus reality, and the consequences of choices using epic fantasy tropes. Joy Chant wanted to write an enthralling story sparked in equal parts by her childhood imagination and The Lord of the Rings.
Coming along well into the epic fantasy book boom of the late 1970s and early 80s, Kay had a distinct reason for writing the Fionavar Tapestry. In a 2000 interview with the magazine Challenging Destiny, he explained:
Well, Fionovar was planned as a trilogy because it was a self-conscious, self-aware attempt to make a statement. In retrospect it’s amusing. But back then I was “shocked and appalled” at the barbarians in the temple — the post-Tolkien trivialization of fantasy that I saw happening. And the serious writers of fantasy — the people I respected — were it seemed to me turning away from epic fantasy to other kinds of smaller scale work. Urban fantasy was born around that time — people like Megan Lindholm, Charles de Lint. Small, precise, nicely done books. But they were almost a kind of abandoning of the field of the epic scale to the hacks. And it ticked me off a bit. It seemed to me a premature abandonment. I really felt that the elements of high fantasy — the elements that Tolkien had taken from myth and legend — not the elements he invented, the elements he took from primary sources — were still there to be taken and worked with. And they could be recombined in different ways — you could work with those same core elements and come to a different destination. And so Fionovar was very consciously a statement that I’m going to do a tremendous number of the formulaic things — it’s going to even be a trilogy. Back then a trilogy was standard, now it’s as far as you want to go. A trilogy was almost synonymous with big fantasy. I’m going to address the middle book problem — a specific creative dilemma you have when you’re doing a trilogy. I’m going to work with figures such as elves and dwarves and magic and prophecy. I’m going to consciously take these elements and try to add to them characterization, complexity of motivation, ambiguity of morality — and see if it’s possible to marry these things and produce something that can at least lay claim to having merit. And so that was a deliberate trilogy.
With as much deliberateness of purpose as the del Reys brought to bear in order to create a profitable book, Kay set out to create one with greater respect for its antecedents and elevated literary goals. For the most part he succeeded. The depth of the psychology and emotions of characters in this book stands in stark contrast to the cookie cutter assemblages that began to fill the ranks of epic fantasy post-Sword of Shannara. The students grow far beyond their simple descriptions at the book’s start. While there are forces of good and evil in Fionavar, many of each have a strong touch of gray in them. Not everything that happens is tied directly to the oncoming conflict between those two sides. Some individuals insist on acting out of their own personal ambitions, even if it might be against the greater good. Without ever diminishing its deeply interwoven fantasy elements, Kay created in Fionavar a world and inhabitants that seem realer than many in fantasy.
Fionavar is a world of great beauty and haunted places brought to light by the deep and moving history Kay has created. He relays it through tales told by various Fionavarans to the students. Even the Fionavarans struggle to understand their history, oftentimes not knowing the truth of what happened in past centuries. Like us, the stories they tell, whether actually true or simply what’s believed true, retain real power, continuing to shape the present. Again, Kay has a better understanding of the nature of history and myth than so many other writers of fantasy epics. This understanding gives The Summer Tree emotional resonance. Drawn from the deep wells of German and Celtic myths, stories so deeply woven into Western culture, the book at times feels like it really might be a lost collection of real world legends, just as Joy Chant’s Red Moon and Black Mountain, and of course, J. R.R. Tolkien’s LotR do.
I have some quibbles with the book. As I mentioned at the start, the five Canadians are won over by Loren Silvercloak a little too easily. That they don’t just call the psych ward is a little unbelievable. Kay’s attempt to impart a sense of “storytelling with a capital S” by using a supposedly formal diction sounds stilted instead, especially as the students speak in 1980s North American English for quite a while. So, instead of just being dressed in white, Kimberly “All in white, she was…” Over time they do start to sound more like the native Fionavarans and I suspect that’s deliberate, showing they are becoming woven into a new world. Also, for all the variety of people and civilizations of Fionavar, there’s a sparseness, too. There’s a Potemkin village feel much of the time: lots of business in the foreground but nothing going on behind that. Despite the epic elements (five-fingered flame-hand erupting out of a volcano, giant evil black swan with teeth, gods walking the land, etc.), The Summer Tree’s stage feels very small sometimes.
The story, of the return of evil and the struggle to marshall the forces of good to combat it, is one we’ve read, and read again. Even if you picked up The Summer Tree when it first came out over thirty years ago, its overall outline would not have been original. So why should you bother to read it if you’ve already read The Lord of the Rings? Well, probably because it’s a good story well done. If you like the blues you can listen to Eric Clapton as well as John Lee Hooker. Both start with the same source material but bring different ideas, strengths, and weaknesses to create a unique take on it. Same thing here.
I read this trilogy nearly a decade ago and liked it just for the story Kay was telling. Now, studying its parts and mechanics, trying to understand better what Kay intended, I like it a little bit more. Without slipping into the gray and gray morality common to today’s fantasy (and seen as some sort of antidote to the supposedly simplistic black and white morality of Tolkien), Kay managed to take on the Tolkien-clones and show there was real, artistic life left in the form. This is how epic high fantasy can look if it doesn’t want to merely ape LotR or regurgitate the same bits and pieces over and over again