Character Dynamics: The Fionavar Tapestry

(spoilers yo)

One way to get me wading into an argument despite there being no point very quickly – the definition of High Fantasy.

It’s a very pointless one as the meaning of the sub-genre has gone so muddled with so many different definitions that I regard trying to reclaim it as pointless. Even viewed through the lens of genres being about a collection of traits that not every book will contain. Let it go down in the mud where the rivers all run dry. Despite this, I have a definition that I cherish and that is High Fantasy is a sub-genre of stories where characters encounter the supernatural/fantastical and change as a result, a direct descendent from the Grail Quest stories and the folk tales of meeting the good folk and the rest of it.

I mention this because Guy Gavriel Kay very openly wrote The Fionavar Tapestry in an attempt to reshape what he saw as the wrongful course of High Fantasy, to go back to the source rather than to borrow the forms simply for entertainment’s sake. I don’t know whether Kay shares my definition of the sub-genre, but it is one completely consistent with the arcs of his characters here and that I think is the key when thinking about the character dynamics here.

Namely, that the dynamics main purpose is to demonstrate each character’s growth using their peers as benchmarks. Their contrasts with each other aren’t as important in terms of producing entertainment and demonstrating character, as their arcs frequently take them apart from each other. In what is a fairly classic model for big fantasy series, the main characters started as an ensemble, then diverge a little to seed the sprawling adventure and world.

Something that I find intriguing is that the five main characters – Kevin, Paul, Kim, Dave, and Jennifer – is mainly a group of loners, dragged together by the social glue of Kevin (and maybe Kim too). Dave is stand-offish due to a family environment where he felt unloved. Paul is a loner due to a personal tragedy. Jennifer’s lonerness is less apparent, but becomes clear soon enough. To me, this is a part of what makes it so good as

a) the more emotional luggage a character has, the more room in which they have to go
b) it gives a strong theme

It works out strongest with Kevin, Paul, and Dave. Kevin is a golden boy in our world thanks to his charm and intelligence, with a strong family relationship; he contrasts strongly with Dave’s awkwardness, self-doubt, and evident poor family relationship. Paul stands a little apart; literally in that when they are walking with the mage from another world, he detatches himself from the rest of the group a little (Kevin and Kim are spinning tales with the mages) and then he refuses Kevin’s request to talk after. We get few extra details about Paul’s life, which is the point. He ha shielded himself in his loneliness, and pain, and demonstrates it here. But in Fionavar, his loneliness and pain and self-detatchment find a purpose. Dave’s awkwardness is less important than his athleticism and ferocity (maybe fueled by his self-doubt). And Kevin’s skills count for very little. Kevin’s struggle with accepting this would mean less without Dave and Paul travelling the opposite direction.

A key part in demonstrating how little Kevin’s skills count is the character of Prince Diarmuid. Diarmuid shares Kevin’s charm and intelligence, his golden status. There’s more minor resemblances too, such as their weakness for pretty ladies and strong relationship with their fathers. Diarmuid can back those things up with the skill of a warrior. It’s those skills Kevin would need to be effective in Fionavar. Since Kevin can’t match him there, he matches him in a different way – in sincerity and selfless courage, and a willingness to sacrifice.

A big part of Kay’s genius is that Diarmuid is not the only “superior” archetype mirroring a main character. Dave finds a mirror in Aileron, the brother of Diarmuid. Both are outcasts who, for various reasons, do not have solid family relationships. Both have an instinctive talent for war. But Aileron has a purpose and certainty. He is at peace with himself. That is something we see Dave build. Paul has this dynamic with Loren, the mage who bings the five to Fionavar. Loren is a man set apart, with a quick intellect and forceful manner. But Loren is not completely isolated. He has his source, Matt. When he loses his power, he accepts it swiftly. Paul struggles with admitting there was ever a moment outside his power, and with opening himself up even to those most dear to him. Both Paul and Dave eventually are able to become like Aileron and Loren, and in doing so find happiness.

Jennifer and Kim are less well served. They talk with each other less to begin with. Jennifer, the quietest of the five early on, has a mirror in the high priestess Jaelle but while Jaelle has power and shares Jennifer’s walls and loner status, she is not a model for happiness. Kim doesn’t have a mirror and is more reliant on the conflict between the person she is and the power she possesses, just as Jennifer will become defined by experiences. It is, to my mind, a small weakness that perhaps stops this book from having the reputation most of it deserves. Nevertheless, even there, the initial set-up of the loners around the happy people gives them the foundation needed to be memorable and beloved characters.

2 thoughts on “Character Dynamics: The Fionavar Tapestry

  1. Agree with all of this. Though mention of Aileron puts me in mind to Dave Langford’s long ago review of the books in White Dwarf magazine (before it became an advertisement for Warhammer) where he pointed out that an aileron is a part of a plane’s wing…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Blimey, I never knew that. I wonder if it was at all deliberate.

      Also, I grew up after that period of White Dwarf and I have to say that given all the old copies I found, I very much regret that. So many fascinating articles in those old mags.


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