Monday, June 6, 2022

The long journey: Tad William's Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn

When I posted on the doorstopper fantasy over two years ago, the book I had before me was Tad Williams's The Dragonbone Chair, the first book of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. Now, I've just finished To Green Angel Tower, the last book of the trilogy. The reading experience says something about the fantasy series, as a genre and a form, and also how reading is itself an undertaking that changes over time.

For the sake of accuracy, I've read plenty of other books since starting MST, and part of the pleasure of a long series is setting each volume aside, then beginning again, reprising the synopsis, leaving and then returning to the fictional world, observing the changes in characters, speculating on the long threads of plot that are held over. But as MST progresses, the pace slackens, and reading TGAT in particular was a plodding business, sometimes only a few pages a night. When I was younger, I was bolder about skimming long books, but as a consequence my recollection of first reading TGAT was somewhat sketchy and incomplete. This time, I took the time—but the time, as it were, also took something out of me. There was more to learn reading at a measured pace, but it was also obvious how much of the text was filler, spacing, incidents that replicated previous incidents, not to mention the sheer spatial requirement of journeying out and back across the map of Osten Ard.

The slower read gives us more time to reflect on the themes as well as the action—and though Williams is a fine writer of action, there is too much of it. First time round, MST can be read as a classic bildungsroman, tracing the journey of its younger characters from late childhood through to adulthood, and indeed challenging some of the conventions, since sex as well as romance arise, as well as the usual responsibilities and the adult need to confront and overcome grief and anger. But the other theme that becomes evident, woven into and reprised throughout the long journey outwards and back to the beginning, the Green Angel Tower overlooking the very castle that Simon and Miriamele set out from, is the theme of recurrence and nostalgia, of the longing for and critical loss of the past.

[mild spoilers to follow]

This, of course, has informed fantasy fiction since the Old English elegy, and is defines the distinct mood of the elvish exodus from Middle-earth. Williams centers MST on the cycle of invasion and dispossession, and the deep and exceptional resonance of this theme is that while Simon and his companions strive to correct a world that is severely and devastatingly out of balance, trapped in a supernatural winter, restoring the elder world of Sithi domination, before the violent arrival of the human conquerers, is the mission of the tragic and evil Storm King. To some degree, they are both on the same quest, but from very different points. 

This recognition makes Simon's choice at the very moment the Storm King's return is near complete an act of maturity and compassion. Choosing to perhaps to fear but not to hate, he seems to rob Ineluki of the last quantum of rage and spite he needs to complete his ritual. But outside the moment, this is also problematic. For if we accept that the Sithi are in a real sense the indigenous peoples of Osten Ard, brutally displaced, then admitting that fear of the other is only a first step towards justice and reconciliation.

MST gains great traction and interest in playing with many of the tropes of earlier fantasies, particularly The Lord of the Rings. But where the wisdom of Frodo Baggins lies not simply in his destruction of the ring but his pity and compassion—a weapon that the fallen Saruman acknowledges is formidable indeed—Simon here seems to gain the power to acknowledge fear and even look past hatred, but not to overcome it. 

Perhaps this is a necessary change, a more realistic balancing of the fears and compromises, as well as insight and regret, that the hero accumulates, and the cost of the return of the king. But one can't but feel that the moment is not quite satisfying, after so much effort is expended reaching it. Perhaps this is even the trap of the doorstopper, which always suggests more text, more sequels, another novel just in development.

On the other hand, investment in the characters and their world, the very sense of challenge and effort, would be lesser if it were not for their weight and detail of the trilogy. The danger for the doorstopper is that the nostalgia for the world, the desire to deepen immersion and multiply characters into sprawling stories, eventually became its own end. The problem with Game of Thrones is that the player can no longer see the end. But I do believe there are ways back into the form, that the formal structure of the trilogy and can nourish engagement, but also find ways to shift expectations, compress, adapt. The wonderment of fantasy is that the world is whole but also deep, and somewhere always remains beyond reach.

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