Three years ago, the Jewish Review of Books published my essay on the work of fantasy writer Guy Gavriel Kay. I discussed Kay’s early wrestling with the anxious influence of J. R. R. Tolkien, the intriguing ways Kay’s Jewish identity is both revealed and hidden in his novels, and the mode of historical fantasy he turned to after his initial Tolkienesque fantasy trilogy.
At the time, I offered some criticism of Kay’s historical fantasies, observing that his characters are often “modern in their outlook and are rewarded by their author to the extent that they do not take their historical horizons seriously,” and that the novels’ historical context “feels at times like stage decoration.”
I want to expand on this, as this characterization remains true of Kay’s latest novel and, as I will explain, much else in popular culture besides, and so I think a lengthy dissection is warranted.
The new novel, All The Seas Of The World (2022), is set primarily in a parallel sixteenth-century Italy (called Batiara) and functions as a sequel to Kay’s 2019 novel A Brightness Long Ago. Kay once again gives us a melodrama that raids history for its plots and characters but excludes the substance and mentalities of its historical subjects in favor of the all-too-familiar perspective of the twenty-first century liberal self.
The most obvious expression of this presentism is Kay’s treatment of religion. Kay has written a whole series of historical novels set in what is supposed to be an analogue to Europe’s medieval and Renaissance periods. His parallels to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, respectively, are the faiths of the so-called Jaddites, Asharites, and Kindath. The first worship the sun, the second the stars, the last the two moons of Kay’s world.
And that’s all there is to each faith. Rather than religious civilizations engaged with fundamental human questions through theology and philosophy, mysticism and ethnics, devotion and practice, we get a caracture of religion as a kind of team sport, where your mascot (sun, stars, or moon) determines who you cheer for. There is nothing necessarily wrong with a fantasy writer imagining a world in which religions are silly contrivances. Yet Kay seems to want to engage real history, while this conceit makes the past into something merely unfortunate.
We moderns, he implies, untethered from medieval superstitions such as Christianity or Judaism or Islam, are superior to the benighted people of long ago who were all too willing to kill each other for their imaginary sky-gods. We know better, and draw our compassion and ethical beneficence from its true source: the heart of the individual. That this might constitute another superstition, and an often brutal one in practice, does not seem to enter the purview of these books.
The protagonists of Kay’s novels, therefore, think like the sort of people you can meet in a Starbucks. They are for the most part indifferent to the cultures and moral systems of their historical settings. Agnostic, they reflect occasionally on why things happen and how to make decisions, but never with reference to the religions of their time.
The two heroes of the new novel are a Jaddite (Christian) woman named Lenia Serrana and a Kindath (Jewish) merchant named Rafel ben Natan. In a typical reflection, Lenia tells us: “She knew Rafel didn’t believe in miracles. She wasn’t sure if Kindath usually did. Jaddites like her were supposed to: the intervention of the god in times of dire need, invoked by prayer and virtue. She didn’t believe in them either, herself.” As far as Rafel’s own commitment to the traditions of the Kindath, he gives us this rousing affirmation: “He didn’t think he’d die for his beliefs, but he didn’t think he wouldn’t, either.”
It is emblematic of this ahistorical historical novel that the plot involves the theft of both a gem and a manuscript. Both objects are interchangeable tokens: the contents of the second, a work of Asharite (Islamic) philosophy, are of no significance. Like the gem, it is all impenetrable surface, valuable only for the market price it can fetch.
So extreme is this indifference to the substance of religious civilization that it extends even to the overtly supernatural elements in the novel. In two instances (that turn out to be largely unimportant to the plot), Kay’s characters encounter supernatural phenomena. In the first, a young Christian girl can communicate telepathically with Lenia; in the second, Lenia and a third character witness a mysterious force that threatens to break through into the world from some extra-dimensional beyond. But neither phenomenon is referred by any character to their religious traditions; it’s just stuff that happens. When Lenia says that she and Rafel don’t believe in miracles, she really means it—even when they happen to her.
The new novel frequently touches on the fate of the Jews in the sixteenth century, in the wake of the expulsion from Spain, contending with new geopolitical developments, persecutions, and conflicts between the Islamic and Christian powers. Rafel ben Natan is the primary mouthpiece for such concerns, as he experienced the Expulsion as a boy and knows all too well the experience of a powerless minority.
But Rafel’s Jewishness—Kindathness—most resembles a contemporary North American Jewish ethnic identity formed by a measure of family loyalty and guilt, and a degree of historical awareness, but nothing so thick as practice, belief, community. Rafel lives on the margins of Kindath community, but so do most all of Kay’s Kindath characters in these novels, at least in terms of culture and mentality.
In any case, the Kindath, apart from some gestures to their two moons, and their penchant for wearing blue and white, are mainly defined by their outsider status, the prejudice and violence they face. Rafel reflects that “he’d always remained the child on a crowded sea strand with his father and mother, driven from their home among weeping people.” This is a modern, post-Holocaust variant of Jewish identity, viewing Jews as the very type of the alienated wanderer. “It’s hard to be a Jew,” goes the modern Yiddish expression of hard-bitten fatalism. Kay’s version: “Whichever way the wind blows, it will rain upon the Kindath.”
In my Jewish Review of Books essay I showed the extent to which Kay hides the national-political element in Jewish history. (Particularly in the most uneasy and interesting of his historical fantasies, the 1990 Tigana, which is essentially a meditation on post-Holocaust Jewish identity and modern Zionism, yet constantly occludes these elements.) In Kay’s fantasy world, the Kindath are curiously without an analogue to the land of Israel. His historical tableaus moreover lack certain prominent elements such as the Jewish messianic and proto-Zionist movements and figures of their eras.
The identities of Kay’s characters are primarily defined by the two main components of identity for many other present-day subjects: autonomy and sexual activity. For the twenty-first century liberal self, the second is a central instantiation of the first, while the first is the animating principle for the second. Lenia, who had spent years as a slave to the Asharites, is particularly exercised by these elements:
She was still coming to terms with being a woman who could do, who had done, what she’d done that night. Was she really allowed to make such decisions in what seemed to have become her life? Extend affection, accept desire? Her own, someone else’s? To be a woman who seduced a man? And not just a man but one who cared for her. These were, Lenia Serrana thought, the dilemmas of a free woman with some standing in the world. It would take getting accustomed to.
Though she says her new focus on consentual bed-hopping “would take some getting accustomed to,” she acts and thinks in ways that show she is already quite accustomed to it, that she is less a sixteenth-century Italian farmer’s daughter freed from North African slavery, more the profile our cultural psychologists designate with the acronym WEIRD: Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic.
One of the most compelling sixteenth-century historical figures that Kay imports into his novel is depicted similarly, at some cost to her literary weight in the novel. The real-life Gracia Mendes Nasi was an extraordinary Jewish woman, a crypto-Jew after her family was forcibly converted to Christianity in Portugal, and, after her husband died, an enormously successful businesswoman who braved dangers to assist Jewish and crypto-Jewish communities. Hunted by the Inquisition, she moved as necessary for her business and survival from Amsterdam to Italy to Turkey, and played a key role in the revival of Jewish economic activity in northern Israel when that territory was conquered by the Ottomans.
Bits of this get into Kay’s version, named Raina Vidal, but her main function in the novel is to provide Lenia with her first lesbian experience. I don’t know if the real-life Doña Gracia was bisexual, but the point is that having sex is the way that Kay codes significance and personal character, which are in turn measured by the modern metrics of gratification and autonomy.
The early modern period was in fact a time of considerable transformation and fluidity of identity, as Kay well knows. “People converted regularly, for one reason or another,” one of his characters observes. “Kindath and Jaddites in the Majriti [North Africa] did it all the time.” Kay’s novel focuses on those crucial sites of early modern commerce (in the broadest sense): port cities and the mobile types who live off them.
But Kay depicts this process as what philosopher Charles Taylor calls “a subtraction story” of modernity. This is a narrative in which people in the past were burdened with false beliefs, myths and superstitions. Science, technology, travel, and catastrophe enabled people to jettison one untruth after the next, allowing the modern liberal soul beneath, happy, compassionate, and rational, to emerge. Again, Lenia on what religion means to her and Rafel:
Rafel was versed in the beliefs of his people, but she had doubts about the intensity of his devotion to the sister moons and the god. He had always seemed more a thinker than a believer. He was rarely in one of their houses of prayer. Perhaps after calamities on a certain level you might lose some of your faith? She had done so, hadn’t she, and her calamity had been entirely personal. Jad of the sun, she had decided long ago, didn’t care nearly as much about his suffering children as the clerics and devout believed. She wouldn’t deny his existence, his power, but she wouldn’t rely on him. You relied on yourself, and stayed alert.
This flattering (to us moderns) story does little justice either to the past or our present. Leaving aside the easy opposition between thinking and believing, it ignores, as Kay does, the way in which the changes of the early modern period are not a simple matter of religion’s disappearance.
The sixteenth century saw new religious movements and revivals; the complex interpenetration of magic and science; the unpredictable and cross-cultural impact of philosophy, scriptural commentary, and mystical texts; and shifts in the nature and boundaries of personhood that make sixteenth-century selves profoundly, fascinatingly different from (as well as similar to) people today. Nor do people today live out a mythless, rational existence, free of ideological commitments and elaborate rituals, as the last few years have amply demonstrated.
The endpoint and goal of Kay’s narrative is that of liberal universalism, in which everybody gets along (except for those who question liberal universalism and are to be punished) and group commitments are dispensible (though rigidly required if the politico-economic order demands it). The narrative arc of the novel brings together the Christian Lenia and the Jewish Rafel as lovers, exemplars of a world in which identity is fluid and tradition peripheral compared with sexual desire and personal inclination. The book culminates in a character’s death and Kay’s vision of a happily multi-faith afterlife. Passing into the next world, we find “the sun, moons, stars here, all shining at once, but gently. And each voice was saying sweet, healing, welcoming words.”
This is kitsch. Of course, there is a considerable market for this sort of kitsch. Kay is not at all unique in his construction of ahistorical histories. There is no end of books and costume dramas that let a certain swath of consumers feel that they have experienced a different era while keeping them carefully insulated from any actual encounter with sensibilities different from their own.
Joris-Karl Huysmans satirized this kind of faux-experience in his 1884 novel À rebours. The main character, a Frenchman, decides to visit England. Waiting for his ship to depart, he visits an English-style pub in the French port, orders English food, and listens to the English tourists in the room, whose tongue he cannot understand, and reflects fondly on the Dickens novels he has read in translation. When it comes time for his passage, he decides that he has no need of an uncomfortable trip which might only displace his pleasant notions of what England is:
“Now it would be necessary to rush to the gate and crowd into the baggage room! What ennui! What a bore that would be!” Then he repeated to himself once more, “In fine, I have experienced and seen all I wished to experience and see. I have been filled with English life since my departure. I would be mad indeed to go and, by an awkward trip, lose those imperishable sensations. How stupid of me to have sought to disown my old ideas, to have doubted the efficacy of the docile phantasmagories of my brain, like a very fool to have thought of the necessity, of the curiosity, of the interest of an excursion!”
Satisfied, he turns around and goes back to his house. This classic of late-nineteenth century French Decadence may point to a far less self-aware decadence in our own time.
I have been critiquing a widespread historical flatness in which Kay participates. But it’s worth saying something about a biological incoherence too, and one, again, that is hardly peculiar to Kay but characterizes a great deal of fantasy literature and popular culture today.
A central concern for Kay, as for so many writers today, is the status and treatment of women in pre-modern societies. Indeed, All The Seas Of The World is the first of Kay’s historical fantasies in which, despite his relativism, one of the religions comes out looking decidedly worse than the others. This is the Asharites (Islam), and it is precisely because of the Asharite characters’ attitudes towards women—treating them as disposable property.
Yet the social structures in Kay’s world do not seem to match any biological reality. Kay’s female characters complain of their vulnerability and mistreatment, but Kay makes them every bit as physically strong and combat-capable as men, so it is not clear why they are especially disadvantaged. Moreover, despite all the sex going on, birth control does not seem to be an issue in this world—at least, conception and pregnancy don’t seem to happen unless a character wants them to. So patriarchy in the world of the novel is entirely arbitrary, entirely unjust—and it is also difficult to understand why it exists in the first place, or why the culture and institutions of, say, the Jaddites, might have arisen to protect and honor women.
A couple of times in the novel, Kay nods to his own earlier novel The Lions of Al-Rassan, set in the equivalent of 11th-12th-century Spain. Characters in the new novel observe the traces of the earlier protagonist Jehane, a woman as religiously indifferent, sexually liberal, and physically daring as Kay’s other characters.
There was even a monument near the market to a woman, a Kindath physician from hundreds of years ago. Her name had worn away and no one remembered it (Raina had asked), but the carved stone image held a urine flask, so they knew she’d been a doctor. Raina liked thinking about that.
We might take this as a poignant image for a lost women’s history, submerged along with other marginalized voices beneath the historical record we have.
Except that rather than excavating such a history, Kay’s fictions hide it beneath a fantasy fascimile of history, enjoyable for the swashbuckling plots but never as deep as it tries to be. We don’t need to travel to the past, at least not before the 1980s, for the worldview we get via Rafel: “Life, Rafel ben Natan reminded himself, could move swiftly at times. You did what you could to keep up. Or afloat. Or whatever word you wanted.”