Learning From The Summer Tree – Art in Genre Fiction

In talking about Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Summer Tree I mentioned the use of arts within the book. It’s an area I find fascinating. The role of art in society and its power to stir emotions are often overlooked in fantasy fiction. What makes it so useful?

For me, there are two obvious points.

Firstly, showing a society’s culture adds depth. It shows that there is more to people’s lives than the struggles they currently face, the wars and intrigues that are the backbone of so many plots.

Secondly, it helps us connect to the characters. We all know what it feels like to be stirred by art that touches something within us. For me, that can be listening to Jeff Buckley’s Lover You Should Have Come Over, watching Lost in Translation or reading Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. You’ll have your own examples, because while the feeling is universal, it’s triggers are seldom the same.

So who else makes good use of culture in their writing?

  • Tolkien uses songs and poems to explore the past.
  • Iain M Banks has games in The Player of Games.
  • John Scalzi’s Redshirts, while taking a different angle, at least shows TV as a prominent part of life.

Who else is there? Which writers do this, and especially do it well?

And what are the cultural experiences that really stir you?

Share your thoughts in the comments. I’ve mentioned a couple of my favourite things, and I’d love to hear about yours.

The Summer Tree and Guy Gavriel Kay’s Development as a Writer

I find it interesting to see how writers develop. I see it in my own writing every time I go back to edit an old story. And I saw it in spades reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Summer Tree.

I came to Kay through his more recent work, which is some of the richest and most brilliant in modern fantasy. The Summer Tree is a good read, but lacks the overwhelming beauty of Lions of Al-Rassan or The Sarantine Mosaic. But it helps in understanding where those books come from.

 The Roots of the Tree

Most obvious is the Tolkien connection. Kay helped Christopher Tolkien edit his father Silmarillion, and boy does it show in The Summer Tree. There’s a world of culturally varied nations that will pull together in the face of external menace. There’s an epic mythology frequently alluded to. There’s a battle brewing between everyday good and epic evil. There are even ordinary people suddenly thrown into great destinies.

Christian Ethics, Pagan Trappings

Its underlying morality also shows Tolkien’s influence. I don’t know what Kay’s religious beliefs are, but Tolkien was a Christian, and his stories showed Christian morality beneath pagan trappings. The same can be seen here.

Throughout The Summer Tree, we see self-sacrifice. In some cases characters literally sacrifice their lives for others, but just as often they sacrifice their happiness or desires. Although the most prominent example of this, using the Summer Tree of the title, draws from northern European pagan mythology, the repeated theme is a very Christian one. Good comes not from people expressing their own interests and finding a way to further those together, but from subsuming themselves in service and sacrifice.

An Interest in Art

While the book shows Kay’s past, the shadow of Tolkien from which he would eventually emerge, it also shows his future, and in particular the importance of the arts in his books.

Art and its relationship to power is a repeated theme in Kay’s novels, including poetry in The Lions of Al-Rassan and mosaic in The Sarantine Mosaic. Like the Sarantine books The Fionavar Tapestry series wears that connection in its title.

But there are other links too. Music plays an important part in stirring emotions and signifying Paul’s past. Carefully crafted letters stir the heartstrings. Kevin solidifies friendships by playing guitar. Ivor’s tribe express themselves through dance.

Watching the Kay Tree Grow

The Summer Tree may not be as great a piece of writing as Kay’s more recent works. But seeing his development toward the writer he is today adds an extra pleasure to this already very good book.

The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay – Lets Get Mythical

Guy Gavriel Kay is, for me, one of the truly great and unusual voices in fantasy. His work has an incredible richness of character and description that keeps me exhilarated through slow paced stories. His use of fantasy to provide slight twists on historical settings, shining light on the roots of our world, is endlessly fascinating.

So it was with a certain trepidation that I started reading The Summer Tree, the first book in Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry. On the one hand, at only 400 pages this would be a relatively quick Kay read, allowing me to enjoy his writing without investing as much time. On the other hand, from what I’d heard this early work did not live up to the standards of his current writing. I settled in with uncertain expectations.

Rich in Myth

The Summer Tree tells the story of five Canadians snatched away from our world and transported to the magical world of Fionavar. There they become involved in a struggle for the future. There is political turmoil in the court of Brennin, a bastion of light and civilisation. Meanwhile, dark forces are returning in the north.

Morally, it’s a less sophisticated narrative than Kay’s later works. There are clear forces of good and evil. We empathise with the good and not the bad. It’s very much a world of myth and legend.

In this regard, it shows the heavy influence of J R R Tolkien, whose Silmarillion Kay had recently helped to edit. Like The Lord of the Rings, there are hints at deeper legends, a large cast of characters both on and off the page, and divine forces lurking in the background.

Characters of Power

Like Tolkien, Kay in the The Summer Tree is concerned with people who have great destinies, however high or low their roots. From before the characters arrive in Fionavar it is clear that they are people of significance there. I’m not a fan of the use of destinies and chosen ones in fantasy, but it is in keeping with the mythical tone of the book.

In terms of empowering people, this book therefore featured two of my least favourite fantasy tropes – destiny and interventionist gods. Yet despite this, I found it engrossing.

A large part of the pleasure comes from the characters. They aren’t all as interesting as each other, and the women in particular feel less well developed, a sin I fall guilty of in some of my own writing. But characters such as Paul Schafer and Prince Diarmuid are rich and fascinating, their existence defined in relation to other people and their pasts, as our own lives are. I really enjoyed spending time with them.

Good by Any Standard

The Summer Tree is a good fantasy novel. The world is well developed, the characters interesting, and the mythical content, while not quite to my tastes, is well executed. Given developments in both fantasy and Kay’s writing since, I’d have trouble calling this great, but compared to the genre in general it is very good, and I look forward to seeing where the story goes.

If that’s got you intrigued, I’ll be discussing this book further later in the week.