Interfaith Fantasy and Science
Guy Gavriel Kay
The Canadian author Guy
Gavriel Kay has explored the issues of faith and religious intolerance
in several of his fantasy books, such as his duology "The Sarantine Mosaic,"
set in a world modelled on Byzantium during the time of the Emperor Justinian.
Kay's stories echo the conflict that arose historically between such religions
as paganism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
. . . there has been a natural progression from Fionavar, through Tigana
and [A Song for] Arbonne, to The Lions of Al-Rassan,
away from the mythic and the fantastical, and towards the human and the
historical. The progression from myth to religion is another way to describe
it, not that the books are religious, but that we move away from what,
in Fionavar, I've sometimes called a Homeric world; the gods intervene
in the affairs of men, they have their own squabbles and feuds amongst
themselves, and yet they're physically present, men can sleep with the
goddess, men can battle with words with the gods – the gods are present.
In Tigana, magic is still there, but, for the most part, magic and
its use was employed as a sustained metaphor for the eradication of culture.
The major use of magic in the novel Tigana is the elimination of
the name of the country Tigana, which for me was very much metaphorical.
In A Song for Arbonne, we're into a story about how religion, the
organized religion, the clergy, manipulates the people with their beliefs
about gods and goddesses. By the time we get to The Lions of Al-Rassan,
it's mainly about how organized religion takes away the freedom and the
breathing space of individuals. So there is a natural progression, which
is not to say that I know where the next book is going, that that progression
is necessarily continuing.
It certainly seems however that the religious dimension is not going
to disappear; it's been very strong in the last two books, and certainly
Fionavar Tapestry has, in a sense, a proto-religion at the heart of
it. Can you conceive of writing a book which does not have religion as
Yes, I'm sure I can; I am not a religious man, what I think I am is
a person keenly interested in history. When you talk about proto-religion,
you're talking about, as I said, the Homeric idea of gods and goddesses
incarnate, and the progression in history away from that. I think that,
if I would characterize my interest, it's very much in the historical and
mythical roots of what we have become as cultures. When I say "we", I mean
Western men and women, because that's the culture that I feel most at home
in, it's the culture that most of us are, to some degree, shaped by. So,
in that sense, the four books (treating Fionavar as one) have been incorporating
that tension, but it's not in any huge sense central to my thinking or
my own work.
Does that mean you might write a novel about the Enlightenment, about
skepticism coming to the fore?
I think skepticism comes to the fore in the last two books to a great
degree. I think that it's part of the movement from myth to religion. In
Lions of Al-Rassan, one of the reasons the book is a fantasy, rather
than a story about medieval Spain, even though it's very closely modelled
on real history, is that I wanted to see what would happen to people's
preconceptions and prejudices about cultures: Christian, Moslem, Jewish,
if the names were changed and if the religious beliefs were rendered virtually
banal: one religion worships the Sun, another worships the Moon, and another
worships the stars. And out of that relatively banal conflict of ideologies,
you have crushingly brutal military and psychological conflict. When you
speak of skepticism, it seems to me that The Lions of Al-Rassan
should be very clear for the readers: the point that underlies the detaching
of these religious conflicts from their real underpinnings is that, if
we step back a bit, we can start to see how much violence, how much conflict
is generated by something that may be no more complex than whether you
worship the Sun rising in the morning or the stars beginning to shine at
with Solaris, conducted by Jean-Louis Trudel, 1995]
This leads me to the other nice thing I think fantasy does. It universalizes.
If you write a book about 12th-century Spain, there's a great likelihood
that the readers, enjoying it as much as they might, will see it as just
being about 12th-century Spain. What interested me about that time and
place was the way in which ideological warfare, holy war, utterly erased
the middle ground. In the astonishingly fertile period, what was called
the Golden Age of Spain, people from different religions and ideologies
could communicate with each other and interact. But it was destroyed because
that middle ground disappeared when the holy war began. People lost their
individuality and became elements, cogs in the war machine. When I started
doing my reading on the Iberian peninsula's early history, I cannot tell
you how strongly that resonated for me as an underlying trope of the modern
world: the inability of people to communicate across ideological divisions,
because they're enlisted in the service of whatever the conflict may be.
One of the reasons Lion worked best for me as a fantasy was because
my hope, my instinct, was that it could detach the story from just being
about a place on the Iberian peninsula 700 years ago, and let it have that
universality, that 'once upon a time' fantasy offers. And I think it does.
For certain readers, the works I've been doing have picked up that universality.
When I go to Poland or Croatia, on tour for my publishers there, the single
most common recurring question is, 'Were you writing about us?' When I
toured for Tigana, which is about oppression and the eradication
of a culture, the importance of naming and language to identity, they stood
up in Zagreb, Warsaw, and Cracow, and asked me, 'Were you writing about
us?' I was deeply moved and touched, because I was and I wasn't. I was
writing about all such scenarios.
["Guy Gavriel Kay: Lord of Fantasy," Locus (May 2000), 7, 63.]
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