ASLAN'S KIN ¶ Interfaith Fantasy and Science Fiction

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.

[Interviewer:] 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 The 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 a factor?

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 The 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 night.

[Interview 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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Creative Commons License: Some Rights ReservedThis text, or a variation on it, was originally published at Copyright © 1999 Heather Elizabeth Peterson. Some rights reserved. The text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License ( You may freely print, post, e-mail, share, or otherwise distribute the text for noncommercial purposes, provided that you include this paragraph. The author's policies on derivative works and fan works are available online (