A recent piece in The Guardian made the trenchant point that Tad Williams, author of the fantasy epic series “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn,” hasn’t really gotten the respect he deserves for both the achievement of his epic series in itself as well as the influence he has come to exert on generations of fantasy writers. In keeping with the spirit of that Guardian article, I have embarked on an epic quest of my own, to make my way through his corpus. Given that he has published three complete series (“Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn,” “Otherland,” and “Bobby Dollar,”) along with sundry other works, this may take me a while.
Nevertheless, I plan to keep at it, and to post my reviews of his work here, starting with The Dragonbone Chair.
Now, a brief word about my history with Williams and his work. I first discovered him when I was a teenager and, as I was prone to doing at the time, I just browsed through the aisles of the fantasy section at Waldenbooks (back when that was a thing) and, I believe at my Dad’s suggestion, picked up To Green Angel Tower: Part 1. Again, being the foolish person that I was back then, I went ahead, read it, and and bought the second part, and it would be several years before I would get around to reading the series from beginning to end.
Now, I’m on my second time around, and I find that I love it even more. There is a lushness and a maturity to Williams’ prose that I find is very rare indeed in a lot of even the highest-quality fantasy writing. Every time I read his work, I take pleasure not just in the plot (though those are surprisingly tightly-woven for works of epic scope), but also in the way that he engages us as readers, giving us a world at once brilliantly realized and familiar yet also sometimes disconcertingly strange.
The novel follows several primary characters, primary among them Simon, a young scullion who is apprenticed to a scholar named Morgenes. Gradually, he becomes embroiled in both struggles both political and cosmic, as it gradually emerges that the dynastic struggle between two princes, Elias and Josua, is but part of a much larger struggle between the undead Sitha Ineluki (the elf-like creatures of this world) the Storm King and the humans who he sees as his enemy to be utterly destroyed.
I have found that the most compelling and enjoyable epic fantasies typically contain something of the disturbing about them, something that makes an essential human part of your body and psyche recoil. Terry Brooks has it with his Reaper and his Shadowen, Tolkien had it with the Nazgûl, and Robert Jordan had it with the Myrddraal. Williams has an uncanny ability to convey, primarily through Simon’s eyes, the absolute otherness of Ineluki and the Norns who are his primary allies. The scene in which Elias gains possession of the unearthly and destructive sword Sorrow, in particular, is one of the most viscerally unsettling that I have ever read in a fantasy novel, equaled only (I think) by the revelation in Martin’s A Storm of Swords of Catelyn Stark’s eventual fate.
While Simon fits neatly into the fantasy archetype of the reluctant hero, he’s actually far more complex and contradictory than that designation might imply. He is by turns likable and insufferable, and he is driven by a burning desire to know. His descent into abjection after he is forced to flee the castle known as the Hayholt is frightening, and Williams’ great genius is that he allows us as readers to feel Simon’s sense of fear and alienation, as he struggles throughout the novel to make sense of of the forces that continue to move him along and, as importantly, attempt to assert his own agency in the face of those titanic forces.
There is much else to love about this novel. The world is vast yet understandable, with a rich history that suffuses every aspect of the novel. Ancient history comes bubbling to the surface in all of its terror and its suffering, and it is up to the flawed mortals of these latter days to attempt to piece together the tatters of knowledge that have been left in order to make sense of the threat and attempt to combat it. As readers, the novel forces us to dwell in as much ignorance as the characters and to feel with them the terror of the unknowable, even as we hope (perhaps without justification) that a new day may yet dawn. Even in the face of incredible suffering–the death of companions, the destruction of the strongholds of good–hope springs eternal. In The Dragonbone Chair, and indeed in Williams’ epic fantasy work more generally, the beautiful and the tragic remain inseparably intertwined.
I’m sure that most of this sounds like slavish devotion, but let me assure you that it is heartfelt and genuine. Fantasy as a genre is rarely celebrated for either its aesthetic beauty or its philosophical depth, and that is truly a shame, because Williams does both. Is it possible to have human agency in a world where titanic forces threaten to overwhelm those who would resist it? Is there such a thing as good and evil to begin with? How much can we truly know, either about the world in which we live or about the history that precedes us? Who, for that matter, gets to write history and how are we to make sense of the tangled skein of competing narratives that constantly struggle for supremacy? Of course, there are no easy answers to these, and the novel doesn’t try to provide them.
Just as importantly, though, Williams’ work continues to serve as one of my models. He, along with others such as Terry Brooks, is a potent and important reminder that epic fantasy can be vast and scope and still wrap itself up in either a trilogy or, at most, a tetralogy. He continues to inspire me with his work.
It will be a while before I finish Stone of Farewell (dissertation and all), but when I do I’ll be commenting on it here. Stay tuned!