Throwback Thursday: The Fionavar Tapestry
By Oliver Johnson
Posted on September 15, 2016 in Books, Throwback Thursday with tags Guy Gavriel Kay
First published between 1984 and 1986, the three books of The Fionavar Tapestry (The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road) frequently appear on lists of the top fantasy series of all time. Guy Gavriel Kay’s trilogy has been quoted as a key influence on many later writers. No wonder, as Kay had unique access to the font of modern fantasy: in 1974 he was retained by the Tolkien estate to assist Christopher Tolkien in the editorial construction of The Silmarillion. The Fionavar Tapestry emerged a decade later but though Locus magazine termed it ‘the essence of High Fantasy,’ Kay determinedly set out to explore what could be achieved in the genre beyond Tolkien.
But first there is the obvious similarity between the world maps of Fionavar and Middle Earth: the Elvish safe haven far in the western seas; forests, once benign, transformed into places of danger by impending threat; plains for wild horsemen and the grim eastern mountain ranges. Secondly there is the extensive drawing on myth and folklore
But The Tapestry is by no means an echo. Fionavar is a ‘first world’ created by a deity called the Weaver; it was saved a thousand years before when the Unraveller, Sathain, Rakoth Maugrim, was defeated. Unlike Middle Earth with its long history of decline and original sin, in Fionavar all things seem new and possible. That is until Maugrim escapes from his mountain prison.
To explore Fionavar we need modern guides. Narnia, The Chronicles of Amber, and Thomas Covenant, later Discworld, all feature protagonists from our world exploring the unfamiliar and utterly strange, but there is a bracing modernity to the protagonists of The Tapestry, and not just in their names: Kevin, Paul, Dave, Kimberly and Jennifer. They all have fascinating back stories and their reactions to Fionavar are intriguingly varied, from complete acceptance to total scepticism. The five’s Virgil is the mage-wanderer-between-worlds, Loren Silvercloak. Though Silvercloak promises they will only have a ceremonial role to play in Fionavar, it quickly becomes clear that the five will be plunged into a cosmic battle to thwart this second attack by the Unraveller. The first book builds threat and danger. Before you know it the five, and the reader, are up to their necks in a massive drama.
Fionavar is the world of myth brought back to life. It is the first of worlds; the sagas and tales of other worlds begin or end in this most primary of settings. Thus the victory or defeat of Rakoth Maugrim has not just immediate importance to Fionavar but also implications for our own world too. The series has sometimes been labelled ‘mythic fiction’, and, for sure, all myths are here: Arthurian, Celtic, Norse, Buddhist… Characters assume mythic personalities in the alternate reality. For example Jennifer is Guinevere but a Guinevere transformed, able to shrug of the mythopoeic role imposed by generations of story. The mid 80s saw a flowering of this trope. In addition to the emergence of Kay’s fellow Canadian, Charles de Lint, The Summer Tree appeared in the same year as Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood with its theme of subconscious memories of story and myth becoming flesh in the eponymous forest. In Fionavar humans from our world become myth, in Mythago Wood the myths literally come out of the woods after human contact.
As well as its grasp of myth, Jungian archetypes and storytelling, Kay’s place as a writer’s writer and one of the most beautiful craftsmen in all fantasy is cemented here in his first works, works that have continued to entrance readers, as have his other masterpieces, in the 30 years since the publication of The Fionavar Tapestry.
The Fionavar Tapestry is out now in eBook, with stunning new covers by Martin Springlett.