Fate, Fionavar, and Final Notes

You get another dose of Fionavar this week, because I crashed through the final volume in a day and continue to be blown away by it.

Endings are, in my experience, the hardest part of stories to get right. A satisfying ending follows almost automatically from everything that has come before. Some stories end with hand-waving happiness. More leave loose ends—not to be followed up on in later stories, but just dangling. Others may have the right events but the wrong mood. When you don’t get the ending right, it matters, because that’s where people leave the story. I always tell my students, whether writing fiction or essays, to get the beginning and the ending right, because you have to hook the reader and satisfy the reader.

In Fionavar, Guy Gavriel Kay satisfies. He nails the ending when there are, I think, many ways it could have gone wrong. I mentioned in the Nicking from Novels post that The Fionavar Tapestry belongs to “Narnia” type books, with many of its heroes plucked from our contemporary world. Usually, those books end with the characters going home. We get to see how their experiences elsewhere have empowered them for their mundane lives. Without spoiling it, Kay ends Fionavar just before certain characters go home. The characters get to make their decisions in the aftermath of victory and tragedy. We see those decisions. We don’t see how they play out. There’s happiness, but no guarantee of a happily ever after.

More impressive than finding the right moment, the right tone, is that Kay leaves startlingly few loose ends. Throughout the trilogy, Kay weaves together (and I use that phrase intentionally) the threads of so many characters, of so many parallel and overlapping stories. He doesn’t leave any dangling. He tucks them in and ties them off and their ends are, in just about every case, satisfying. (I wish, though, that there had been a sentence or three about Sharra in the last chapter; she alone deserved more of an ending than she got.) The climactic battle and its aftermath allow the stories to play out, to come together and, where needful, again diverge.

Kay does not use the word fate in Fionavar. He doesn’t write, explicitly, about destiny. Yet many of the characters play out stories that have been told before. They are echoes of older selves. Things happen, in many cases, because they “must.” Fionavar as a world, as the first of all the worlds, has its rules. Prices must be paid—and they are, beautifully and terribly. Characters are driven by magic outside their control, by gods who can intervene only when asked and paid in sacrifice. One of the protagonists is a seer, guided by visions.

But there are few prophecies. All the magic, all the visions…they force questions rather than provide answers. It is up to the characters to provide the answers. Their choices are wholly their own. Kay elevates this to a thematic level through inclusion of the Wild Hunt; they are a primal force of chaos that guarantees people can decide. There are patterns. There are rules that bind. But there is always, always choice. (The sociologist in me could create a whole tangential post here on Bourdieu’s model of field and habitus.) The ultimate fate of Fionavar hinges on choice. Two characters in particular, sons of divinity, must choose between the Light and the Dark.

It’s clever and more than a little meta—as with Tolkien, there is in Fionavar a deep backdrop of other stories. Kay leans heavily on Arthurian legend, for one. There is a pattern that Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere have enacted countless times. Those characters, and the ones around them, simultaneously understand that they are falling into the patterns of the old stories and, through the actions of others, fighting against them.

In mythology, fighting against Fate never works. Fate is tricky. Fate gets its way in the end. Always. Because Kay uses patterns rather than Fate, though, characters can change it. Characters do, though the cost is great. The closing chapters of Fionavar are full of sacrifice made to change the patterns. As with The Lord of the Rings, the characters of The Fionavar Tapestry act to end an age. They break cycles. They shape the old echoes through sacrifice that will, we expect, create new echoes.

And, as the last notes of the heroes’ actions fade, Kay stops…before the echoes can begin. He sticks the landing without need for appendices, without need to return to Toronto where the trilogy began. It’s representative of the remarkable alchemy of these books: the old stories matter so much, the old patterns shape events at every turn, but it is always the characters who act. It is the characters who decide. With the exception of Gene Wolfe’s Wizard-Knight duology, I don’t think I’ve read a story so beautifully driven both by the characters and the world they occupy. It’s part of what makes The Fionavar Tapestry one of the first things in a long, long time that I expect to re-read.

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