SFX Issue 93

July 2002

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GUY GAVRIEL KAY

The editor of JRR Tolkien’s The Silmarillion talks. Just don’t say he writes “alternate history”…

“It’s one of those life-shifting coincidences,” says renowned fantasy author Guy Gavriel Kay. The coincidence he refers to is his momentous meeting with Christopher Tolkien, son of JRR. This chance encounter eventually led to Kay editing the manuscript of The Silmarillion , Tolkien’s posthumously published collection of myths and tales from Middle-earth.

“Editing the Tolkien papers did several things for me,” says Kay. “I’d been in university. I think there was some vague presumption among people who knew me that I was heading for academia. That year outside Oxford was very isolated, it was intense and focused. Somehow those ten months crystalised my own awareness of what I would like to do. I would like to write.”

As Kay thought there was no way he would be able to support himself writing, he trained to be a barrister. In the end he never practised his trade. He struck lucky, and was offered a position on Scales Of Justice , a radio show that dramatised famous court cases. When the series moved to TV, Kay went with it as Associate Producer. Then he had his first literary success with the Fionvar trilogy. The rest, as they say, is history.

As Kay is a writer of “historical fantasy”, this old, old aphorism is particularly appropriate. His books aren’t alternative history, but stories inspired by historical events. After years of cogitation, he has worked out exactly why this mode of writing appeals to him so much.

“If I treat history through the prism of fantasy, you can’t know where I’m going,” says Kay. “Even if you know the actual events, because I’m not writing the actual events. And you don’t get that feeling that you have an obligation to go and read the Encyclopaedia Britannica first.”

Kay pauses thoughtfully. He is a man who talks in a measured fashion. He speaks far more precisely than many other people, possibly a result of his legal training.

“I also find a wonderful strength in fantasy of universalising things. If I write a novel about Provence in the 12th Century and the Albigensian crusade, that’s what it’s about. The reader reads it, and says it’s about something that happened 800 years ago and I’m enjoying it. There are enormously important lessons, themes, legacies of the past that reverberate today. We only have to look at the Middle-East and the Balkans to see the way in which the past can ripple powerfully, positively or negatively, through to the present.

“Fantasy opens up the past, puts it into a universalised framework, so that Tigana isn’t just about a country that was conquered and its language and culture suppressed, the way Cromwell did in Ireland and the way the Soviets did in Europe. It’s about the way tyrannies all through human history have realised that one way to suppress and control the people is to take away their language and their past. Erase history before you begin. That’s what Mao did in China. It’s a wonderful tool for taking away people’s identity.”

This “universalisation” of certain themes seems to work. In Eastern Europe, where SF and fantasy have a nobler reputation than in the dismissive English-speaking world, Kay is often asked if Tigana is about Soviet repression. No, says Kay.

“It is about any and all such places. By doing this in a kind of universalised fantasy setting my theory was that I could make a reader see it as a part of his or her own life and time in a wider way than if I just told a story about actual events.”

The third reason Kay writes this fantasticalised history is human dignity.

“I’m concerned with the way novelists today feel an absolute license to do anything they want with real lives,” he says gravely. “More and more fiction today is about real people. People take a real person and do a book where they make up their sexuality, their dialogue. It’s all fair game. The whole culture where the idea of privacy and respect for lives lived is going.”

“Novelists, instead of querying and resisting this, are running with it. And that worries me. So I’m not claiming to know what Justinian said to Theodore in bed, or how El Cid, the most powerful mythic figure in Spanish history, felt. I’m not going to presume to put words in his mouth or relationships in his life. I’m going to announce that this character in The Lions Of Al-Rassan is inspired by a period of Spanish history but he is not Rodrigo Diaz. I found this tremendously liberating as a writer. I felt freed from this feeling of encroaching on somebody’s real life.

“The final thing is, by making it fantasy, it allows me to telescope events and sharpen the focus on what interests me in a period. One easy example is The Lions Of Al-Rassan . It is about the process of the Reconquista of Spain from the moors. In fact, this took place over a period of 300 years. You can write a novel over a time period like that, but it’s a very different kind of book. By telescoping events into effectively two generations it allows me to intensify the emotional and intellectual response to what really happened by bringing it home to the same set of characters. And that’s another strength. I always argue that whatever is a strength for the author is, by automatic extension, a strength for the reader. Whatever helps me helps you.”