Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Williams, Tad

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Working name of US writer Robert Paul Williams (1957-    ). TW's first novel was Tailchaser's Song (1985) an Animal Fantasy featuring Cats, but his principal contribution to the genre has been the High-Fantasy Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy: The Dragonbone Chair (1988), Stone of Farewell (1990) and To Green Angel Tower (1993; vt in 2 vols Siege 1994 UK and Storm 1994 UK). This is explicitly a Revisionist Fantasy, intended as a criticism of the alleged implicit racism in J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) and more generally of the assumption throughout Genre Fantasy that Good and Evil can be simply allocated along national or species boundaries; there is a Dark Lord in the trilogy, and he has his bodyguard of undead, but his particularly horrible scheme of Debasement in response to genuine wrongs. Neither humanity nor its elven rivals, the Sithi, is native to Osten Ard; it is explicit that both arrived in historical time, the Elves ahead of various waves of human incomers, each of them semi-cognate with nations of Earth – the usual quasi-Vikings, Slavic plains folk, etc. – and that a genocidal war, largely won by humanity, ensued.

Much of the novel is centred on the Hayholt, castle of Prester John (nothing is made of this coincidence of names at a literal level), who is High King and dragonslayer, whose death after a long life of apparently benevolent rule opens the way to the intrigues of the undead Ineluki and his human pawn, John's heir Elias. The Hayholt, also formerly Ineluki's stronghold against humanity, is an Edifice full of tunnels, forges and Labyrinths; it is a haunted palace of the mind, symbolic of the recesses in which humanity has hidden its bad conscience about the Sithi, as well as the location for the climactic Night Journey undergone by the Ugly Duckling and Hidden Monarch Simon in the final stage of his heroic attainment.

Much of the trilogy is a tour of the Water Margins of Osten Ard undertaken by Simon and his various allies – Elias's virtuous daughter Miriamele, her uncle Josua and various members of the League of the Scroll, a secret order of scholars and mages (> Wizards). The collection of artefacts, notably the three Swords which give their name to the trilogy, is not the usual Plot-Coupon collection but a search for knowledge deliberately suppressed – TW makes effective use of the Time Abyss as symbol for the guilt of attempted genocide. The swords are taken severally to the Hayholt in an attempt to defeat Ineluki. The interpretation the League of the Scroll places on this event is disastrously wrong; this is one of several points in the trilogy in which TW sardonically reverses LOTR. Where suffering in LOTR hardens the will of the virtuous against the wicked, though the actual act of destruction is done inadvertently by the already corrupt, in TW's work Simon's crucifixion on a waterwheel creates in him an empathy and compassion which enable him to refuse Ineluki from the moral high ground, just as Miriamele's rape by a minor villain provides the sympathetic analogy which makes her capable of killing her father to free him from Possession by Ineluki – TW's enlightened moral relativism extends to the creation of an entirely virtuous parricide.

At the same time, TW owes much to Tolkien, in his marshalling of multiple secondary protagonists; his critique of Tolkien's absolutist morality is as much a killing of the father as the gradual uncovering of the truth about Prester John, who turns out not to have been quite the benevolent old patriarch he seemed. Of all the bestselling high-fantasy sequences of recent years, this is perhaps the one in which the author's intelligence is most effectively embodied in plot, character and vividly described action and backdrops. TW's only real weakness, though it is at times a damaging one, is a tendency to sentimentalized psychologizing, which comes to the fore most in his dialogue.

TW's other published works are two novellas – Child of an Ancient City (1992 chap) with Nina Kiriki Hoffman, an interesting exercise in cross-cultural empathy which places a traditional encounter with a Vampire in a specifically Islamic Arabian-Fantasy storytelling context, and Caliban's Hour (1994), another Revisionist Fantasy in which Shakespeare's Caliban's getting of language and attempted rape of Miranda are complexly and interestingly deconstructed. [RK]

Robert Paul Williams


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.