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«Author(s): Sarah McColvin Title: The weaver at the loom: A discussion of Guy Gavriel Kay’s use of myth and legend in The Fionavar Tapestry Date: ...»

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There are numerous versions of the legends of King Arthur and many more again in which Arthur features as a secondary character. A discussion of all the aspects of this legendary figure would occupy a far greater study than the one proposed here. Instead this work will take Malory’s Le Mort d’Arthur and The Mabinogion as its sources for the legends. Kay subverts the quote ‘Hic jacet Arthurus, Rex quondam, Rexque futurus’9; turning it from a blessing or reward for heroic deeds into a curse and punishment for past sins. Kay chooses to use this less well-known aspect of the Arthurian legend as the basis for his version of the legendary king which enables Kay to have a much greater level of artistic freedom. Yet the threads of Arthurian legend are woven with several different aspects of mythology and legend to create a complex narrative structure.

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be deeper than allusions to traditional stories by the applying Vladimir Propp’s theories set down in Morphology of the Folktale to Kay’s works, in particular by utilising the functions associated with absentation. This analysis will be the subject addressed in chapter three, ‘The Morphology of Fionavar: Applying Propp’s ‘Functions of Dramatis Personae’ to Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fantasy Trilogy’. The length and complexity of Kay’s


Thomas Malory, Le Mort d’Arthur, Vol. II, ([n.p.]: Amazon Media EU, [n.d.]), Kindle edition, ch. VII.

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enact the functions defined by Propp at different junctures within the narrative. Most of Propp’s thirty-one ‘Functions of Dramatis Personae’ can be applied to The Fionavar Tapestry but only if it is accepted that the roles defined there are transferable and fluid.

At different points within the texts all the central characters assume the mantle of ‘hero’ but no one character remains in that role, to the exclusion of the others, for the duration of the narrative. There is no one clear hero in the texts, though many characters display heroic traits. Some of these traits are defined by the magical object in their possession, such as Kimberley and the Baelrath, or by their breeding and training, as when Ailel returns from exile to lead the armies of the light. Yet even this can be disturbed when characters exercise their free will and act, or fail to act, in the way the narrative leads you to expect them to. These instances, often involving self-sacrifice, demonstrate a departure from the rigid formula of myth and legend and appeal to a contemporary readership as the characters do not blindly follow the path laid out for them. Some characters, such as Darien, occupy both roles at different points in the text, an action that reflects the twentieth-century author’s understanding of the complex nature of human relationships and their ability to change their mind.

Therefore, this work will demonstrate the thematic and structural connections between fantasy literature and myth and legend by analysing a selection of passages from Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry. A detailed analysis of the entire trilogy would occupy a far greater work than the one embarked upon here, as would a comparable study of the myths and legends he uses in the construction of his fantastic world. However, this study will aim to show the similarities and the progression from the traditional story telling techniques to the complex narratives of fantasy.

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As already discussed there are established links between traditional forms of narrative, such as myth, legend and folktale, and contemporary fantasy novels. This connection is particularly apparent in the sub-genre of high fantasy, as ‘high fantasy departs from contemporary consensus reality by creating a separate world in which the action takes place’ thus enabling the author to emphasise the mythological elements.1 Kay’s trilogy, The Fionavar Tapestry, has a rich mythical landscape, shaped by myths and legends which many readers are familiar with. This is explained in the texts as Fionavar is ‘the prime creation, which all the other [worlds] imperfectly reflect’ (p. 30), thus meaning that all the myths and legends which are familiar to us were created to some extent on Fionavar. This chapter will endeavour to locate the various mythologies used and the connections between them. Kay has acknowledged that much of the research he did for The Fionavar Tapestry involved Celtic and Norse mythology and a large thematic thread of the trilogy involves Kay’s interpretation of Arthurian legends, which will discussed in chapter two. However, the themes and motifs of mythology appear in many different cultures and therefore it is almost impossible to definitively state which myth came first. Some of the mythological aspects of Kay’s trilogy are allusions to myths from Ancient Greece, as opposed to Celtic or Norse mythology. There is also an unmistakable connection to Judeo-Christian stories, which arguably form a mythology themselves. Whilst many of the myths Kay utilises are familiar to an educated reader, some of the links are more tenuous. For example, Kay’s choice of names for some of


C.W. Sullivan, ‘High Fantasy’ in Peter Hunt and Sheila G. Bannister (eds.), International Companion Encyclopedia of Children's Literature, pp. 300-311, p. 300.

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legends that may not initially be apparent.

Many of the gods and goddesses of Fionavar interact directly with the mortal inhabitants; this alludes to the myths of various ancient cultures, particularly Greece.

However, whilst they converse with the human characters, they are forbidden from offering their divine intervention in the war against Rakoth Maugrim: ‘We were enjoined when first the Unraveller came into Fionavar that we might not interfere of our own will.’2 Thus making the conflict a human one, rather than a war of the gods played out in the mortal realm. Yet the gods and goddesses of Fionavar do assist their mortal counterparts when compelled to do so, as in the case of Pwyll and Liranan; or they acknowledge that they will be punished for their actions, as Ceinwen knows she will be for giving Dave Owein’s Horn. The lack of free will demonstrated by the gods and goddesses of Fionavar is in direct contrast to the emphasis placed on the free will of the mortal characters. Towards the end of the trilogy the supernatural characters withdraw from Fionavar, leaving it to its mortal inhabitants, which suggests a move towards a more secular society. Kay’s decision to minimise the assistance given by the gods of Fionavar suggests a shift from myth to legend. Whilst the gods and goddesses walk freely through the countryside of Brennin, their stories are not told to the Canadian visitors; they simply already exist, with little or no back story provided. In order for them to be fully realised characters, Kay has adapted figures from established mythologies to enable him to by-pass convoluted narrative devices to enable their stories to be included.


 Guy Gavriel Kay, The Wandering Fire (Hammersmith: Voyager, 2006), p. 330. All further references will be given in the body of the text. 

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armed with bow and arrows’3 and the description of her hunting a stag, whilst being watched by a hiding Dave, is reminiscent of the story of Actaeon observing Artemis bathing: ‘No man of Fionavar,’ the goddess said, ‘may see Ceinwen hunt.’ (p.

302).Whereas Actaeon is transformed into a stag and killed, Dave is spared after he declines to point out that he is not a ‘man of Fionavar’ and offers to pay a price for his indiscretion. This interaction marks the beginning of a relationship between Dave and Ceinwen. As the narrative progresses, Ceinwen develops a deep affection for Dave and this becomes a sexual relationship after the first battle against the Dark on the banks of the River Adein. At the end of the trilogy, we are told that Ceinwen is expecting a child from that union but as Dave is not ‘of Fionavar’ he must leave or die as he has witnessed her hunting. Ceinwen is, arguably, an aspect of the mother goddess Dana and the two become connected when Dave asks Ceinwen that the baby be named Kevin.

The concept of the triumvirate goddess is depicted in Fionavar as Ceinwen, the Huntress; Macha and Nemain, the goddesses of war who are depicted as one entity; and Dana, the Mother.

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same way as Ceinwen, though she does appear once in The Summer Tree. Dana embodies the archetypal mother goddess and is worshipped as such. Hers is the only formal, organised religion in Fionavar and the clergy are entirely female. Whilst there are temples dedicated to Dana, the reader is told very little concerning the rites which are performed there, which is similar to the historical understanding of these rites on Earth: ‘[Goddesses] were of considerable importance […] among the Celtic peoples – even though we have little evidence as to how they were worshipped – for traces of


Robert Graves, The Greek Myths: Complete Edition (London: Penguin, 1992), p. 83.

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mentions of blood rites and an ominous ‘double axe, each face ground into the shape of a crescent moon, one waxing, one waning’ hanging above the altar (p.145). Here Kay has doubled the symbolism associated with women’s power by including both the axe and the moon. The lack of information about the rites performed in Dana’s name conveys a combination of fear and lack of understanding of the ways in which women worship within religions dedicated to female deities. This is more likely a way for Kay to demonstrate the views of the largely patriarchal societies in Fionavar than a failing on his part, though his knowledge does seem to be more focused on myth than on the ways in which pre-Christian societies performed rites of worship. However, it does somewhat undermine Kay’s feminist credentials as it leaves large gaps in his female characters, especially the high priestess Jaelle, and he attempts to gloss over these by alluding to the stereotypical understanding of Mother Goddess worship as one that is centred around blood sacrifice. Jaelle, the High Priestess of the Mother Goddess, wields the axe only she can lift with authority. Whilst she is a powerful character, her authority is only absolute within her faith; she rules other women, not men. Because of this she takes pleasure in forcing the powerful men in the text to play by her rules but this only occurs within the confines of the temple. Elsewhere she is vocal in her opinions but they are not always given the respect they deserve; Silvercloak openly ridicules both Jaelle and the religious order she leads.

There is a clear distinction along gender lines between the apparently logical ‘skylore’ practised by the mages, such as Loren Silvercloak, and the priestesses of

Dana, the Mormae:


Hilda Roderick Ellis Davidson, The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 107.

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women have acted as sources; Lisen was source to Amairgen, and Aideen acted as the source for Nilsom. Both of these women have become part of the legends of Fionavar, partly due to them both committing suicide, though under very different circumstances.

Amairgen, therefore, has lead men ‘out from the dominion of the Mother’ and Silvercloak’s abhorrence of the blood magic practised by the Mormae is a result of this.

Silvercloak’s feelings of fear and disgust are not just associated with the rites performed; they are a fear of the power that these rites endow upon the women practising them. Throughout the trilogy, Silvercloak demonstrates animosity towards Jaelle whilst acknowledging that she is not evil, just ambitious. Ambition and the wielding of power are shown to be traits that are not considered suitable for women and Jaelle’s refusal to be controlled and belittled by the men of Brennin threatens Silvercloak and his skylore. Jaelle, however, wields a power that Silvercloak is unable to understand, something which is demonstrated by the lack of explanation he offers the Canadian characters concerning the ways in which the Mother is worshipped. Men feeling threatened by women’s power and its association with blood is due to their inability to understand this aspect of the female body and their unconscious desire to escape the womb: ‘Menstrual blood […] stands for the danger issuing from within the identity […]; it threatens the relationship between the sexes within a social aggregate and, through internalization, the identity of each sex in the face of sexual difference.’5


Kristeva, Julia, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. by Leon S. Roudiez (New York:

Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 71.

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it in order to maintain his own power. The suggestion is that he does this because he does not understand the workings of her magic as hers is a world completely closed off from him as a man.

The reader never has the ‘rites of Liadon’ explained but after Kevin is revealed as a reincarnation of Liadon, and sacrifices himself in The Wandering Fire, it becomes clearer that there is some allusion to the myth of Adonis and Aphrodite. Kevin is attacked by an extraordinary boar whilst hunting in Leinanwood: ‘It had to be eight hundred pounds, at least, with savage curving tusks and enraged eyes, and it was an

albino’ (p.213). A well-known version of the myth of Adonis includes this feature:

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