The Fionavar Tapestry is a high fantasy trilogy by Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay (GGK), set in the fictional world of Fionavar. The trilogy revolves around the story of five young adults who are transported from our own world into Fionavar to help in an epic struggle against the evil Rakoth Maugrim, the Unraveller.
In the world of Fionavar, Kay intertwines Celtic, Welsh, Norse, First Nations, and many other mythologies to deliver a culturally-diverse successor to Tolkien. The five main characters are used as vehicles to weave the stories of various mythic archetypes into the narrative. Arthurian legend, in particular, plays a major role in the story.
I recently finished re-reading The Fionavar Tapestry this past year. Shortly after my re-read, I discovered that the series had been optioned as a TV show by Temple Street, the same production studio behind the excellent BBC America show Orphan Black.
Although Orphan Black has definitely jumped the shark in its most recent season, its earlier seasons were among the best TV that I’ve watched in recent years. I’m very excited to see what the studio will do with such stellar source material. However, I do have a bone to pick with The Fionavar Tapestry — and I’m nervous about what the finished product result will look like.
The Fionavar Tapestry in the Context of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Other Works
I want to preface the following discussion by saying that Guy Gavriel Kay is undoubtedly one of my favourite fantasy writers (I’m going to gush for a second). Kay has a singular ability to deliver these stunning moments of raw emotion, which leap straight out of the pages and hit you in a real, visceral way.
I’ve found this quality to be fairly rare among fantasy authors. I would say that his success in delivering these heartfelt moments comes from his excellent character development, which ranks as his greatest strength.
Although The Fionavar Tapestry is often described as a classic of high fantasy, I would NOT rank it among Kay’s best books. I would argue that Tigana, The Sarantium Mosaic duology, and A Song for Arbonne would all solidly rank above it, while many others would be debatable. In a Stereogum-esque ratings of Kay books from worst to best, I would only be able to put The Last Light of the Sun and maybe Ysabel solidly below it.
If you’re wondering why the rest of Kay’s books are not considered classics, it is because they fit into a genre that most describe as ‘historical fantasy’ — which tends to be overlooked in fantasy circles. This is too bad because Kay’s overall body of work is quite excellent. I honestly don’t think the man has ever written a truly ‘bad’ book — some of his books have flaws, but you will enjoy reading all of them.
Taking this into consideration, you’ll understand why I was very surprised to see The Fionavar Tapestry be the first GGK book to be optioned as a TV show or movie — although it makes sense, since high fantasy is such a hot commodity right now.
I do hope that we will see his other books optioned in the coming years. I also hope that the book is adapted in the right way and that’s what I want to discuss in more depth here.
The Flaws of The Fionavar Tapestry
Disclaimer: The following discussion will contain spoilers for The Fionavar Tapestry.
There are a couple of levels on which I feel The Fionavar Tapestry fails to deliver on its potential. The first (and most significant) is the pacing of the plot. The other flaw is the story’s main characters, most of whom have underexplored backstories and who eventually disappear into the mythic archetypes that each comes to embody, later in the story.
Since the characterization issue is where Kay initially loses me, I’ll start there and work through how the character problems carry over into the plot issue.
Five Flimsy Main Characters
Although Kay is most commonly linked to Tolkien (as he was the editor for many of Tolkien’s posthumously-published works), it is interesting to observe how the novel’s starting plot device pays homage to another Inkling: C.S. Lewis.
However, instead of children climbing through a wardrobe, Kay’s protagonists go out for drinks with an academic after a guest lecture. There’s so much potential in this opening sequence: its vivid depiction of Convocation Hall and the University of Toronto campus; the in-depth discussions of law school struggles between Dave and Kevin (both law students); and the overall feelings of the city that is evoked by Kay. Let’s just say, I hope they keep this in the show.
As a Canadian, who knows Toronto quite well, this opening sequence is part of what made the book speak to me — but also what disappointed me, when it was not developed further. Especially in the interlude between the group’s two visits to Fionavar, after the conclusion of The Summer Tree, I felt like there was an opportunity to further explore how the characters fit into our own world and Toronto in particular.
We are given glimpses of each character’s previous life, but mostly through the medium of family relationships. Dave has some backstory with his father and brother. Kevin and Paul’s backstories are the most explored, specifically Paul’s account of Rachel’s death on Lakeshore Boulevard. However, the two female characters don’t seem to have families, as far as I can tell, which feels like a major issue.
The Trouble with Jennifer
I’m going to single Jennifer out because I believe that she’s the most underdeveloped main character in the story. I also think the issues with her character are symptomatic of the problems that afflict the other four, to a lesser degree.
We don’t really know who the original Jennifer is. We get a very cursory sense in the opening sections, before she’s kidnapped by Maugrim. Then, over the course of her rape, she has her old identity torn away, without Kay really exploring what that old identity was… After the birth of Darien in The Wandering Fire, she starts to disappear into the Guinevere archetype, until that’s basically who she is; Guinevere, plus this steadfast conviction that Darien needs to choose his own way.
But why does she believe that Darien should choose his own way? What events in her own life lead her to feel this conviction so strongly? Where does her stubbornness come from? Why is she so willing to disappear into Guinevere and discard her old identity? Was she always Guinevere?
At the end of the series, when Jennifer disappears into the sunset with Arthur and Lancelot, you don’t really feel too much sorrow for her lost self. The moment lacks impact because you don’t get the sense that Jennifer is giving anything up, by leaving with them. Her choice to become Guinevere could have represented a very interesting internal struggle, but it just gets brushed off as the manifestation of destiny.
There is not much setup to show the drama of transformation from Jennifer into Guinevere. Kay tends to tell us that the changes to her persona are dramatic — rather than showing us the drama, by contrasting her new persona with an older one. Of course, this isn’t really possible because we, as readers, don’t have a clear sense of what her older persona is…
Issues with the Other Four
The underdevelopment and the forced drama of transformation are issues that affect the other four characters to a much lesser degree, since none of them are literally becoming someone else. That said, it is still present with each — to an extent.
When Kimberley becomes a sage and feels Ysanne’s spirit join hers, it’s hard to distinguish pre-Seer Kimberley from Seer Kimberley. We don’t feel the drama of this transformation (and Kay has to tell us that it’s dramatic) because we don’t have a clear sense of who pre-Seer Kimberley is. She isn’t developed in-depth beforehand, nor do we have flashbacks showing the differences from before she changed.
I will admit that the men’s previous lives have more detail to them and their stories feel more real as a result. Kevin’s death is probably one of the most heartfelt moments in the trilogy, but it’s so convincing because we do have a peek into Kevin’s other life, through scenes with his father. Similarly, Paul’s struggles with suicide, due to his guilt over Rachel’s death, and his transformation into Pwyll Twice-born are well-developed in the first book. That said, we do not have a clear sense of the rest of Paul or Kevin’s life.
The central trauma of Rachel’s death is the only thing that’s important about old Paul and, when that’s erased on the Summer Tree, he disappears into the archetype of Pwyll/Mornir/Odin. In the latter parts of the series, he is not nearly as interesting as the first book, since there is nothing that he’s really struggling against — except his feelings for Janelle. He disappears wholly into Fionavar, which is why we don’t see him return to our world at the end.
Kevin sacrifices himself to save them from Maugrim’s eternal winter, but it’s not exactly clear what motivates him to do this. His internal unhappiness is hinted at — but why does it drive him to make such a dramatic sacrifice? Some feeling that he is doomed to be alone forever, regardless of what he does? Like Jennifer, Kevin’s sacrifice is written off as destiny and left at that.
Dave Martyniuk is the best developed of the five and my favourite character of the series. There is a real progression for Dave, from his ill-tempered early self into the confident Dave that we see at the conclusion of the trilogy. But he’s never forced into a clear archetype and, as we see the early events from his POV, we have the best sense of his original character.
An Over-Ambitious Work
Earlier, I alluded to the fact that Kay tends to tell us that things are dramatic in The Fionavar Tapestry, rather than showing us. It’s a problem that even the best writers struggle with and it is very forgivable in a work that tries to do so much (in so few pages) — in short, it is something that is directly caused by the trilogy’s ambitious goals
I want to reiterate that I’m not trying lambast Kay — I’m simply arguing that he has stronger works, which would be better candidates for a movie or TV adaptation, and that the TV adaptation of The Fionavar Tapestry will need to address the books’ existing issues.
When it comes down to it, I think that what The Fionavar Tapestry needed (to deliver on its true potential) would have been more pages — or more books. That’s a pretty unusual thing to say about a work of high fantasy, but I think this is a rare case where it’s true.
In this series, Kay simply tries to fit too many epic storylines, too many dramatic moments, and too many major characters into one narrative. The result is a story whose pacing breaks down in the later stages and begins jumping from one tragic climax to another, at a pace that leaves the reader lagging behind.
I think this is an issue that becomes more evident as the series continues. By the end of The Darkest Road, you feel like every other chapter is another climactic moment in the narrative: the rescue of the Paraiko, the first meeting between Jennifer and grown-up Darien, the arrival of Arthur and Lancelot at Lisen’s Tower, the battle in the grove between Lancelot and Curdadh, the Crystal Dragon of Calor Diman, Lancelot in Daniloth, and then everything that happens in the final battle.
There is simply no downtime between events, no moments for the reader to feel buildup or sense the gravity of the situation. I don’t think Kay’s style lends itself to such a breakneck pace. In my mind, he excels in scenes where he shows characters reflecting or talking; scenes that focus exclusively on character development. He does a much better job of doing this in his later works.
Moments of downtime allow Kay to fully develop his characters and deliver moments of incredible drama, where you feel viscerally for his characters and sense the drama of the situation. In The Fionavar Tapestry, those moments are lacking their usual impact. In the later books, you find nothing but tightly-woven plot and the threadbare development.
I’m honestly not sure whether Kay’s youth is the cause of these pacing and development issues, or if his early editor simply had a poor understanding of how to play to the strengths of his style. Whatever the case, the execution of The Fionavar Tapestry does not match its ambition; things are rushed and the book fails to deliver at key moments, leaving the reader underwhelmed.
Conclusion: What It Could Have Been
You can see what Kay is trying to do in The Fionavar Tapestry: create a multicultural, high fantasy homage to Tolkien. It’s a very Canadian move — taking the Norse mythology that influenced Tolkien and bringing other mythic players into the game. I don’t think anyone else could’ve pulled off this series, without having it called derivative. Again, a true testament to Kay’s skill as a storyteller.
Maybe other readers won’t agree with my assessment of the trilogy’s flaws — if that’s the case, I hope that I haven’t detracted from your enjoyment of the books. I simply felt very strongly underwhelmed during both reads of the series (back in my teens and again in my twenties) and I wanted to see if other people felt the same way.
The Fionavar Tapestry is undoubtedly a classic high fantasy series. However, in my mind, it will always be a flawed classic. With more time spent exploring the backstory of the five main characters, developing a measured pace for the plot, and taking the time to build up to climactic moments, the series could’ve been a true equal to the Lord of the Rings. Instead, it’s just a tribute to it.
My hope for the TV show is that the showrunners will recognize the latent potential of the story, see the flaws, and draw out the characters and storylines in the right way. Certainly, the typical length of a TV show would allow this to happen. I am hopeful, but also nervous about the end result — the adaptation could easily amplify the existing issues with series. My real worry is that if the adaptation is a flop, we won’t see other GGK books adapted, which would be a real loss, in my opinion.
What do you think is going to happen with the TV show? Did you feel the same way about the books or do you disagree with me? Feel free to leave a comment below, I’d love to discuss the subject further.
Thanks for reading!