Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Kay, Guy Gavriel

(1954-    ) Canadian writer who worked for a time during the 1970s as assistant to Christopher Tolkien in editing J R R Tolkien's The Silmarillion (1977). GGK's own fantasies, however, are original in conception and execution, and he seems to have learned from the experience of working on The Silmarillion how to combine worldbuilding with the narrative vigour of mythic plot structure, giving his work a strength and intelligence missing from most sub-Tolkienian epics. In terms of his scene-setting and use of dialogue he probably learned as much by producing and writing the tv series The Scales of Justice (1982-1989) for CBC Canada. These lessons are most clearly displayed in his first work, The Fionavar Tapestry: The Summer Tree (1985), The Wandering Fire (1986) and The Darkest Road (1986).

The story tells of five contemporary US students transported to the world of Fionavar, where they find themselves amid a conflict between a patriarchy and a matriarchy. At first the mythic figures whom the five encounter seem an ill-matched mishmash of characters from a host of legendary sources, notably British and Norse myth. However, Fionavar is the core world from which others have sprung, a sort of Platonic Ideal, and our own myths and legends are debased forms of this original Reality. This notion bears comparison with that of Robert Holdstock's Ryhope Wood sequence. Just as Holdstock's mythagoes are coarser and more complex than their retold forms, so GGK attempts to create a grittier, harsher world than is common within fantasy: one of his student heroes is killed, another is raped. Even so, the involvement of the students in the Fionavar adventure brings Healing to the land and, in the end, to the people they were before their arrival.

GGK's subsequent novels display a willingness to seek widely for inspiration. Thus Tigana (1990), which in many ways feels like a pendant to The Fionavar Tapestry, has all the superficial appearances of a standard fantasy novel, but underlying the conflict is the sense of changing systems, with patriarchy and matriarchy in conflict for the soul of their world – and again GGK displays a willingness to kill his more attractive characters. The central story is the familiar one of countries that follow the old way being invaded by a new regime, but by the time of the inevitable Last Battle it is no longer clear which is right and which is wrong. The Sacrifice which finally settles the matter actually leaves an even greater ambiguity.

The setting of A Song for Arbonne (1992) is apparently a Fantasyland but actually based on the Court of Love of troubadour lyrics. The troubadours who provided one of the central motifs of Tigana are here set in their natural environment; there is a slightly uneasy tension between fantasy and historical novel, with the setting vividly presented but the foreground not so carefully worked out.

GGK attempts much the same blending of historical and fantasy novel, with more success, in The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995), set in an analogue of medieval Spain, where the struggle for power between Asharites, Jaddites and Kindath clearly mirrors the fate of Moors, Christians and Jews. As ever, leading characters suffer and die, and GGK gives the impression that his world is a real place, as nasty and brutish as our own, rather than an escapist refuge. [PK]

Guy Gavriel Kay


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.