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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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Kay incorporates the legend of King Arthur into the trilogy from the second book. Using these forms and established literary characters enables Kay to utilise a form of authorial short-cut. As readers already know much of the legend surrounding King Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot, Kay does not have to provide the back story. Because of this well-known relationship, as soon as Arthur arrives in the narrative the reader is awaiting the appearance of Guinevere and Lancelot. Arthur is summoned from under Glastonbury Tor by Kimberley, after she obtains the name that will awaken him from his father, Uther Pendragon. Lancelot joins the narrative at the end of The Wandering Fire when he is woken in Cader Sedat but Guinevere is reincarnated in Jennifer. Kay gives his audience clues as to the identity of Guinevere, as Jennifer is a Welsh variant of the name Guinevere, meaning ‘fair one’.3 But there are other clues placed throughout the novels which also suggest her role: ‘Jennifer wiped her face; she pushed back her hair and straightened her shoulders. Very like a queen, she looked, to Paul’ (WF, p.

129). However, Jennifer does not become Guinevere until she sees Arthur for the first

time, and his words to her seem awaken this aspect of her which had been suppressed:

‘Oh, Guinevere,’ said Arthur. ‘Oh, my very dear.’ (p. 135). Yet it is not a simple as Guinevere existing where Jennifer once did; Jennifer remains in some aspects of the


Definition of ‘Jennifer’ taken from www.meaning-of-names.com.

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towards the end of the final book: ‘It was strange, […] how she could be at once so different, so remote, so much Guinevere of Camelot, Arthur’s Queen, Lancelot’s love, and then, a moment later, with the quickness of a smile, be Jennifer Lowell again’ (DR, pp. 306-307). These flashes of her personality have to be stated as Jennifer is least fully

realised character of the five Canadians. However, Kay did this intentionally:

As I was sorting out the implications of creating an avatar of a mythic figure, who passes through an apotheosis to become Guinevere, and who must ultimately ascend to another world, it occurred to me that one way to make her more acceptable for the reader would be to ground her least effectively in our world.4 If Jennifer had been as fully realised as, for example, Dave the transformation to Guinevere would have been much less believable and effective. One of the few things we know about Jennifer is that she is Catholic and that her faith is important to her. One of the ways Kay combines this with the character of Guinevere when she is described as the ‘Queen of Sorrows’ (WF, P. 268). The Queen of Sorrows is an allusion to ‘Our Lady of Sorrows’, an example of Catholic iconography depicting the Virgin Mary5, but by changing the name to queen, Kay is able to combine Jennifer’s Catholic faith with the character of Guinevere.

Whilst there is the familiar tale of love and betrayal involving these legendary characters, this is not the aspect of the legend that Kay chooses to base his interpretation of the legend on. Instead Kay utilises a less well known aspect of the Arthurian legends;

Kay’s Arthur is ‘The Warrior Condemned’ forced to battle evil as punishment for the killing of babies. This disturbing aspect of the legend is included in Malory’s Le Mort



 Raymond H. Thompson, ‘Interview with Guy Gavriel Kay’ (Mythcon: Vancouver, B.C. 30th July 1989), http://www.brightweavings.com/ggkswords/thompson.htm [accessed 10 September 2013].  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Our_Lady_of_Sorrows [accessed 12 September 20013]

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‘Hic jacet Arthurus, Rex quondam, Rexque futurus’.7 This is part of a larger paragraph:

‘Yet some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of our Lord Jesu into another place; and men say that he shall come again’.

Rather than viewing this as a form of reward for past heroic deeds, Kay interprets

Arthur’s resurrection as form of punishment for killing the babies born on May Day:

‘When the babies died the Weaver had marked him down for a long unwinding doom.

A cycle of war and expiation under many names, and in many worlds, that redress be made for the children and for love’ (WF, p. 53). Kay has discussed the decision to do

this in interview:

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young man. Arthur accepts his punishment and is prepared to die, as he always does, before the end of the confrontation. In a development of the legend, Kay’s Arthur expresses his feelings of guilt and the acceptance of his curse: ‘‘It cannot be so,’ he said.

‘I killed the children, Guinevere’’ (WF, p.273). Kay expresses Arthur’s guilt but he also finally allows him to break free of the curse laid upon him. During the final battle, Arthur is transformed from the ‘Childslayer’ to the saviour of a child when he catches


Thomas Malory, Le Mort d’Arthur, Vol. I, Kindle edn. ([n.p.]: Amazon Media EU, [n.d.]), ch. XXVII, para.1 Thomas Malory, Le Mort d’Arthur, Vol. II, Kindle edn. ([n.p.]: Amazon Media EU, [n.d.]), ch. VII.

Thompson, ‘Interview with Guy Gavriel Kay’, http://www.brightweavings.com/ggkswords/thompson.htm [accessed 10 September 2013].

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child saver at that moment’.9 However, Arthur is only able to save Tabor, and earn his release, because Diarmuid takes his place in single-handed combat against Uathach, the

Urgach commander of Maugrim’s army:

Diarmuid dan Ailell, with the last strength of his soul, […] did the final deed of his days. He rose up above his agony, with his left hand he clutched the hairy arm that held that black sword, and with his right, pulling himself forward, as toward a long-sought dream of overwhelming Light, he thrust his own bright blade into the urgach’s face and out the back of its head, and he killed it in Andarien, just after sun had set (p. 324).

This scene is similar to the final battle scene in Le Morte d’Arthur where Arthur attacks


when Sir Mordred felt that he had his death wound he thrust himself with the might that he had up to the bur of King Arthur’s spear. And right so he smote his father Arthur, with his sword holden in both his hands, on the side of his head, that the sword pierced the helmet and the brain-pan, and therewithal Sir Mordred fell stark dead to the earth; and the noble Arthur fell in a swoon to the earth.10 Malory describes the final confrontation between Mordred and Arthur as a fight founded on Arthur’s desire for revenge rather than the act of love that Kay uses, though there are similarities between the two passages. This allusion is complicated by the connection between Arthur, Guinevere, Maugrim and Darien. In Le Morte d’Arthur, Arthur attacks and kills is illegitimate son and is mortally wounded; in The Darkest Road Darien kills his father, Maugrim, and himself. Whilst Arthur does not feature in the passage involving Darien and Maugrim, he still connected to that narrative through his relationship with Guinevere; Jennifer is Darien’s mother so Guinevere is also his mother. Darien’s death is also a factor in allowing Guinevere pass from Fionavar after the curse has been lifted. If Darien was still alive, she would be tied to Fionavar and would not be able to transcend with Arthur and Lancelot.


Thompson, ‘Interview with Guy Gavriel Kay’, http://www.brightweavings.com/ggkswords/thompson.htm [accessed 10 September 2013].

Malory, Le Mort d’Arthur, Vol. II, Kindle edition, ch. IV, para. 3.

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inclusion of Cavall, who appears in ‘Culhwch and Olwen’ in The Mabinogion as ‘Cafall, Arthur’s own dog’.11 Arthur’s ship, Prydwen, carries The Warrior, Prince Diarmuid, Loren Silvercloak and others to the spiralling island of Cader Sedat to destroy the Cauldron of Khath Meigol. Once the ship has been named so, Arthur announces his knowledge of Cader Sedat: ‘we called it Caer Sidi once, and Caer Rigor, but it is the same place’ (p. 271). However, here Kay is combining more than one legend. There is magical cauldron in ‘Branwen Daughter of Llŷr’ which can reanimate the dead, but Arthur does not feature in this legend, though Taliesin is one of the seven who escape from the battle in Ireland after the cauldron is destroyed. Prydwen is the name of Arthur’s ship in ‘Culhwch and Olwen’ and he does sail in it in order to obtain a cauldron, but not one which will bring the dead back to life. Caer Sidi is the name of an otherworld fortress which is mentioned in ‘The Spoils of Annwfn’, a poem featured in The Book of Taliesin. In this poem, Arthur sails in Prydwen to Caer Sidi and only seven people return.12 Kay quotes from this poem and attributes it to the shape-shifting andain Flidais, who was known as Taliesin on Earth: ‘Thrice the fullness of Prydwen we went with Arthur, / Except seven, none returned from-’ (DR, p. 21). In both ‘Culhwch and Olwen’ and ‘The Spoils of Annwfn’ only seven return after the mission to obtain a cauldron and this suggests that these two legends have become combined. Kay’s Arthur discusses his expedition to Caer Sidi with Paul before they leave for Cader Sedat where he seems regretful about the number who returned: ‘Seven,’ said Arthur softly. ‘Only seven’ (WF, p. 271). Kay continues to indicate the importance of the number seven by having that number of characters embark upon the quest to find the cause of the


Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones (intro. and trans. by),’Culhwch and Olwen’ in The Mabinogion (London: J.M. Dent, 1966), pp. 95-137, p. 129.

 James MacKillop, A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780198609674.001.0001/acref-9780198609674-erskey=0cjEyj&result=1 [accessed 12 September 2013] 

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to move through the shadows of space and time to try to unlock a door’ (WF, p. 193).

Combining elements of different myths demonstrates how it is almost impossible to definitively state which account is the original as parts of the legends from The Mabinogion have possibly been combined in The Book of Taliesin but it is more likely that they all were inspired by similar oral narratives as they draw upon the same characters.

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The Mabinogion: ‘the virtue of the cauldron is this: a man of thine slain to-day, cast him into the cauldron, and by tomorrow he will be as well as he was at the best, save that he will not have the power of speech.’13. The loss of speech depicted in ‘Branwen Daughter of Llŷr’ has been exaggerated by Kay into a total mindlessness: ‘Paul saw the one who had been dead a moment ago walk stumblingly, with others helping him, to stand behind another man.’ (p.335). The Welsh legend has the cauldron being used to revive soldiers after a battle but Kay instead has them magically powering a villainous wizard’s spell. The incident with the albino boar in Leinanwood could also be an allusion to the boar Twrch Trwyth from Welsh legend. When, in ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, Arthur is hunting Twrch Trwyth he is accompanied by Cafall and Kay utilises this by having Cavall announce the beginning and the end of the battle against Galadan’s wolves in Leinanwood. Several lesser known figures from the various Arthurian legends feature in The Fionavar Tapestry, such as Mabon, Tegid and Gereint. Whilst their names may have been drawn from sources such as The Mabinogion Kay’s characters are not versions of these legendary characters, though they do display some


Jones and Jones, ‘Branwen Daughter of Llŷr’ in The Mabinogion, pp. 25-40, p. 29.

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drawn from The Tales of Taliesin where he is known as ‘the giant of Pennllyn’.14 Kay not only utilises traditional texts, such as The Mabinogion, but he also alludes to texts which were inspired by these stories. Leyse of the Swan Mark’s final journey from Fionavar alludes to Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shallot’: ‘As she drifted close to the northern bank of the Celyn she plucked one red flower of sylvain and one of silver to carry with her, as the music carried her and the river carried her to the sea’ (DR, p. 277). This allusion is more pertinent as her journey came to be after she fell in love with Lancelot and was rejected by him because of his love for Guinevere. Her journey becomes part of the legends of Fionavar because she was ‘the first of her people for past a thousand years to reach the world the Weaver had shaped for the Children of Light alone’ (DR, p. 277). This is one example of the creation of new legends which Kay indicates throughout the trilogy.

Not only does Kay recount and retell traditional stories, his central characters create legends which will become part of the narrative of Fionavar. This emphasises the importance of the oral tradition of story-telling as these legends will be performed rather

than written down:

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