Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry

This review was written by Matthew Scott Winslow.

It takes a lot to bring me to tears. I don’t cry often, but there are certain books that are written so wonderfully that they leave me an emotional mess for a few days after reading them.

Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry is one such series.

Prior to writing his first book, Kay was in the enviable position of having helped edit J. R. R. Tolkien’s life work and magnum opus, The Silmarillion. The manuscript was left incomplete at Tolkien’s death and needed to be worked into a publishable format. The result was indeed the wondrous work that fans had been waiting for, filled with rich and beautiful language. By comparing The Silmarillion with Kay’s own works, one can see why Kay was an excellent choice for helping to smooth out the rough spots that were left in the incomplete manuscripts.

After The Silmarillion, Kay went on to write the trilogy of ‘high fantasy’ novels, The Fionavar Tapestry. In Fionavar we have not just a fully realized imaginary world, but a beautifully written addition to anyone’s list of ‘well-written high fantasy’ books.

The Fionavar Tapestry is a tale of travelers from our world to the world of Fionavar, which is the first world from which all other worlds emanate. In the first book, The Summer Tree, five college students from Toronto are carried over to Fionavar by a mage of Brennin for that country’s celebration of its monarch’s fiftieth year on the throne. Soon after their arrival, the High Kingdom of Brennin finds itself having to prepare for war as the evil god Rakoth Maugrim, the Unraveller, breaks free of the bonds that have held him under the great mountain of Rangat. The travelers are caught up in the struggle to overcome Rakoth and come to realize that each of them has a special role to play in redeeming Fionavar from the evil it has fallen under.

The second book, The Wandering Fire, begins to weave the Arthurian mythos into the fate of Fionavar, as well as various other Celtic and Northern myths. As with most second books of a trilogy, The Wandering Fire focuses mostly on ‘lining up’ all the characters for the battles that are sure to come in the final book. That final book, The Darkest Road, tells of the confrontation of the forces of Light and Dark, and (of course) the triumph of Light over Dark.

But to summarize The Fionavar Tapestry just by its plot is similar to saying that The Lord of the Rings is about this short guy who wants to get rid of some jewelry left to him by his uncle, who is the neighborhood nutcase. It may be true, but it doesn’t really capture what the book is all about.

Some readers will immediately see the parallels to Tolkien — dwarves, elves, a high kingdom with its heir in exile, an evil power gaining ascendancy after many years, traitorous mages, a nation of horse riders … the list goes on — but these are similarities only because Kay is attempting to show how the high fantasy genre — which, in the mid 80s when Fionavar was written, had already been justifiably accused of being nothing but brain candy — can sustain writing that is not just fun and exciting, but also takes the reader beyond simple enjoyment to a meaningful experience. That is, The Fionavar Tapestry is an exercise in how high fantasy can also move one to tears.

And move you to tears it does. If I had to separate out a major theme of the book, I would say that it is about sacrifice. From beginning to end, Kay focuses on how the needs of the world are sometimes greater than the people that populate it, but that those people can rise above their human limitations and commit great deeds of sacrifice. With his usual skill, Kay creates a large cast of well-rounded and believable characters who, even though they live in a world the reader will never be a part of and commit deeds that the reader will never have to participate in, are nonetheless people about whom you care. Kay spends hundreds of pages taking you through his characters’ lives so that you care deeply and intensely for them, even if you’re not aware of it. But then, when the needs of the world loom large, the characters sacrifice themselves, not for personal glory, but for the greater good.

It is one such sacrifice, that occurs in the last 100 pages of the novel, that I have yet to find anyone able to withstand crying over. No, I’m not a softy — when my kids cut themselves bad enough to need stitches, I usually tell them not to bleed on my carpet — but I do appreciate a discussion of self-sacrifice that doesn’t resort to cliches. And The Fionavar Tapestry is one such discussion.

But that is not to say that this is a depressing book — not in the least. Kay, as someone familiar with Tolkien, is also familiar with Tolkien’s idea of eucatastrophe, the reverse of the catastrophe. The righting of the wrong, though, is often greater than any one character. In The Fionavar Tapestry, as in The Lord of the Rings and any other great fantasy novel, the eucatastrophe takes time to come about and the severity of the catastrophe also determines the severity of the price that must be paid to set things to rights again.

The Fionavar Tapestry, when all is said and done, is one of the most beautifully written and moving fantasy trilogies ever written. Those are very large words, but I truly believe this book is large enough to fit into such a reputation. At times I find myself growing weary of fantasy literature, since there is so much that is just plain dross, but at such times, I pull out my well-worn copy of The Fionavar Tapestry and am reminded why I read fantasy literature: the human spirit is greater than this world we live in. Guy Gavriel Kay reminds us of that.

(White Dwarf, 1995)

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