North American conservatives often lament the paucity of contemporary literature which they find simpatico. Though they might find philosophical congruence in the books of, say, Brad Thor, or the late Tom Clancy, whatever other virtues those works might possess they fall somewhere south of “literature”. What distinguishes mere storytelling from literature is normative function: the former entertains whereas the latter exists, in the words of Russell Kirk, “to form the normative consciousness”, to be “the expression of the moral imagination … to teach us what it means to be genuinely human”. Art should cultivate the ability to discern the good, the true and the beautiful, and so reading literature is as much about undergoing an ethical awakening as it is an exercise in amusement. The uninitiated will be pleased to hear that one of the great writers working in the register of literature today is a Canadian novelist – albeit one whose works usually get slotted on the “fantasy” shelves at their local bookstore.
Guy Gavriel Kay has written one of the most eloquently ethical oeuvres in contemporary Canadian letters. The author of 13 novels, he is an Order of Canada inductee, and winner of the World Fantasy Award. At their best, his works exemplify the essence of literary art as defined by David Whalen writing in The Imaginative Conservative: “the intentional experience of beauty through language”. This essay advances no claim about Kay’s political commitments: he maintains a relatively low public profile (although he is active on Twitter) and provides few clues about his political views. But conservatives seeking literature that exhibits the moral imagination contemplated by Kirk will find it, irrespective of authorial intent, in many of Kay’s works.
He first won acclaim with The Fionavar Tapestry, a landmark trilogy from the 1980s that was a wine-dark, Arthurian- and Norse-inflected take on mythic fantasy. But the majority of his work over the last quarter century has been what the Canadian Encyclopedia calls “fictional alternative versions of the past”, or what many have described as “history with a quarter turn to the fantastic”. His stories take place in settings obliquely reminiscent of medieval Provence (A Song for Arbonne), Reconquista Spain (The Lions of al-Rassan), Justinian Constantinople (The Sarantine Mosaic), Saxon England in the face of Viking incursions (Last Light of the Sun), Tang and Song dynasty China (Under Heaven, River of Stars) and the Renaissance Adriatic coast (Children of Earth and Sky). It is these historical fantasies which most fully embody Kay’s ethical writings. His preferred approach lies outside the dominant modes of contemporary fantasy: apart from the Fionavar triad, he has eschewed both Tolkienesque sagas and sprawling George R. R. Martin-style prose marathons. His compact, spare style finds expression in succinct stand-alone books or, occasionally, linked duologies.
Kay is famed for his extensive research before putting pen to paper, and the worlds and characters he creates seem not so much constructed as simply described: his narrator’s voice often feels like a lens on an existing place. Yet whatever the merits of his prose styling, however adept his construction of narratives, what is important for our purposes are the themes which emerge from the tales told. Utilizing settings reminiscent of actual historical periods often assists in discerning those thematic elements – most readers will at least have an intuitive sense of context, allowing for a focus on the latent shades of meaning. That being said, Kay displays no small precision of craft in evoking commonality across centuries and continents. Contemporary verisimilitude is comparatively easy – describe someone grabbing a morning coffee on the morning commute and millions can quickly identify; make a reader catch their breath as they experience the tremulous efforts of a Sarantine mosaicist to render in stone a worthy tribute to his deity Jad … now that takes skill.
Inside these vivid worlds, Kay explores how cultural identity is forged in the crucible of conflict; the damage wrought by erasure and forgetting. He examines the capacity of language to mold perceptions of the world; the power and danger inherent in the capacity of metaphor and storytelling to move hearts and minds. He assesses the costs of the negotiations and compromises needed to accommodate violently clashing conceptions of the good. And he measures the weight of grief; the felt need to leave a tangible imprint on the world; the obligation to sacrifice; and the heavy burdens of social expectations and destiny. Kay’s characters engage and struggle with all these timeless human experiences and more. His most affecting stories involve characters in liminal circumstances: propelled by ambition, beset by betrayal, and struggling to survive the chaos they encounter when a society’s accepted certainties seem to slide under one another like tectonic plates.
These are novels about the importance and impacts of history, about cultural continuation and repercussion, about the continual struggle of the individual to remain whole – about the legacies that individuals leave – in the wake of the relentless pressures of a society’s remorseless tides. Kay’s writings are suffused with an elegiac tone and the gentle melancholy of farewells. His emotive power is such that readers will empathize with his characters’ sorrow for the world they are losing as strongly as they will dread the looming end of the book. The novels, for all their fantasticism, resonate because they reflect the patterns and contain the echoes of humanity’s lived experience. Readers see their own world and concerns reflected in Kay’s tales – imperfectly, mutedly, but distinctly recognizable.
The essence of conservative storytelling
Why might we characterize these works as “conservative”? Because they exemplify art which teaches us what it means to be genuinely human. The stories embody, to borrow from David Whalen’s observations about politics and literature, “the moral significance of choices; the inescapability of responsibility; the wisdom and folly of our predilections”. At root, Kay’s most compelling stories demonstrate the consequences of conduct – the present of his stories is always a product of their past, their future always a function of their present. American conservative author Rod Dreher has described storytelling as bearing the “power to form and enlighten the moral imagination, [to teach] right from wrong, the proper ordering of our souls, and what it means to be human”. If there is a Kay “formula”, that will serve to define it. To borrow again from Kirk, the conservatism to be found in Kay’s stories is not ideological, instead it is “a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order”. This is conservatism as a temperament – a way of recounting the world back to ourselves. The best literature provides an instructive reflection of our own lives.
Another American conservative writer, James Baresel, has observed that attempts at “conservative” art tend to focus on conveying ideas or messages, often at the expense of the quality of their expression. The “political” elements of great art, and its quality as great art, are usually emergent properties – not reducible to its component parts. So it is with the best of Kay’s novels: in addition to relishing the dramatic tension generated by his labyrinthine plots, the attentive reader will experience revelations about the content of human flourishing.
Inspired by Yeats
The Sarantine Mosaic duology, made up of Sailing to Sarantium and Lord Emperors, is one of Kay’s most beloved works and offers a fine illustration of the conservative disposition to be found in his writing. The title of the first book evokes Yeats’ poem “Sailing to Byzantium” – about the semi-mythical city which yields holy fire, Grecian goldsmiths, drowsy emperors and golden boughs. It is a city which inspires Kay to, as in the last lines of Yeats’ poem, speak “of what is past, or passing, or to come”. The book is a meditation on the ever-present tensions between imposed order and organic chaos; of the fraught relationships among religion, myth, art, the vicissitudes of pleasure-besotted crowds and the individual will to power; and how the choices a society makes in navigating those tensions shape a civilization.
Crispin, the mosaicist commissioned in a case of mistaken identity to create the crowning decoration of the fictional world’s equivalent of the Hagia Sophia, and whose journey to the imperial capital is reflected in the title, is the vessel through which Kay explores the transformative and transcendent nature of art. Crispin’s mosaic, in the words of reviewer Dena Taylor, captures “the light of eternity and uses it to elevate the soul”. Such recognition of the truth and importance of beauty marks Kay’s stories as conservative to their core.
The first book of the Sarantine Mosaic pivots on a scene in which Crispin, travelling on an imperial road to take up his mistaken commission, stops to perform his devotions in a modest old chapel. He looks up at the dome of the chapel to see the traditional religious imagery adorning the ceiling and is struck down, literally falling to the floor, “the power of the image above hammer[ing] into him, driving all strength from his body so that he fell down like a pantomime grotesque”. A massive depiction of his god Jad, a figure “absolute and terrifying”, rendered in his world’s Eastern fashion – not as gentle sun-figure as found in the West – but as “judge … worn, beleaguered warrior in deathly combat”. Crispin is rendered insensate before this artwork produced by human reverence, this giant icon which serves as a window onto the divine. What follows in the text is an incredibly sensitive rumination on the nature and universality of godhood, and the spiritual nature of art. This is writing which comprehends ecstatic visions of art and religious devotion and recognizes the exaltation of the human spirit through both. This is not fiction which requires faith on the part of the reader – the atheist, agnostic and devout should all be able to relate to the experiences of Kay’s characters.
Part of the story related in the Sarantine Mosaic is a subversion of the aphorism vita brevis ars longa – life is short, art is long. We discover, in the end, that sometimes works of art are indeed brevis in this world whereas the impact of some lives are amazingly longa – but the essential truth of the statement nevertheless remains. It is a testament to art as a bulwark against the undertow of history, art as the human exultation against history, art as the mark of the human on the face of the implacable divine. However described, that remains ineluctably true. And it is those truths that one learns from literature.
A conservative would say that words strung together count as literature if they illuminate or constitute the good, the true or the beautiful. As Whalen advises, if we don’t take the time to find meaning in literature – if we don’t find occasion to observe fictional depictions of the good, the true and the beautiful – we may well miss it in our own lives. Guy Gavriel Kay tells stories which are true – not in the veracity of their claims (which are obviously fictional), but true in their consonance with human experience. They are meditative rather than bombastic. They turn on the foundational nature of memory and the continuity of human experience from age to age and land to land. As Kay writes in Sailing to Sarantium, in words which avert to the universal truth of human existence, “you moved through time and things were left behind and yet stayed with you.” The conscientious reader will learn more about virtue from Kay’s delicately fantastic tales than from a dozen philosophical tracts. His stories are not your life. They are nothing like your life. And yet your life – the best version of your life – is to be found in those stories.