Memory, Sorrow And Thorn, comprising The Dragonbone Chair, Stone Of Farewell, To Green Angel Tower (1988 – 1993) by Tad Williams.
In case you haven’t noticed, fantasy is a pretty hefty part of our literary lives now. But it has really only been the last ten years or so that fantasy authors have begun to shed their “performing dog” status when they have showed up on the bestseller lists. Of course, it was inevitable that the more successful writers would receive comparisons with Tolkien, but let’s face it, few of them are really deserving of it. However, in three volumes (four if you count the halving of To Green Angel Tower into smaller “easier-to-handle” volumes, four-and-a-half if you count the novella in the Robert Silverberg-edited Legends anthology) Tad Williams created a world as fully realised as any other apart, perhaps, from Middle-Earth. It was also, perhaps, the last of the great epics that didn’t require you to make a substantial lifestyle investment simply to reach the tired, clichéd conclusion. We were promised a trilogy and a trilogy is what we got. Two decades on we have been spared the inevitable sequels, prequels, parallel stories or even apologies that the story just “couldn’t be told in only x number of volumes”.
It is the story of Simon, a scullery-boy-made-good, with all the elements and clichés you’ve come to expect of the genre in general and fat, multi-volume quests in particular: it has magic, elves that are elves in all but name, warring immortals, suffering, battles, swordplay, characters whining about their honour, romance, castles, kings and evil-doers. But it takes these tropes and makes them new: the mimicry of Tolkien, down to the invented languages, the songs, the different cultures and mythologies plundered for the sake of verisimilitude serves a slightly different purpose. Williams has reconstructed the whole Epic Fantasy oeuvre to incorporate modern takes on history including racism, psychology, economics and the notion of good and evil.
I have recommended this series to many of my friends, but few have really taken to it: it is too slow, they say, the characters seem to spend a lot of time dithering without furthering the plot, and the plot itself doesn’t seem all that new. The slow build-up is part of the attraction for me. Once we are immersed in the plot we are thrown headlong into it: we need the slow build-up in order to assimilate all the ideas and history of this invented realm that Williams lays before us. And, damn it, the development of the characters is interesting! I love the progression of Simon from scullion to traveler to knight. He is one of the most realistic adolescents I have ever come across in Fantasy fiction: he is not a serious, naive youth with his head buried in books and with deep concerns about honour that many authors seem to think kids are like. He is completely bewildered by the adventures he finds himself in, he gets moody and sulky, he lets his hormones do some of his thinking for him, he gets emotionally thrown about by his adventures, he gets pissed off by what happens to him, but he always struggles to do what he believes is right. And when he wakes up after a night of drinking with his mates, he doesn’t “sensibly” swear off drink forever: he accepts it as a hazard of life, just like a fifteen year-old in a mediaeval kingdom would. Also, the moments in the first volume when he meets and begins to feel attracted to the disguised Princess Miriamele are amongst the most realistic in Fantasy. As his feelings develop we follow his inevitable adolescent confusion about the Princess: does she like me/ doesn’t she like me? Simon has weighty concerns regarding the fate of the world resting on his shoulders, but Williams never lets us forget that he is a kid first and foremost. And he also becomes a character who, though inexperienced, you can imagine commanding people twice his age and older: something that few wunderkind in other sagas convince me of.
And the other characters are equally developed as well: Elias, the king driven mad by his obsession with his dead wife; Josua, his brother, who must lead a rebellion against his wishes; Binabik, the troll who befriends Simon and who struggles with his own honour and desires; Princess Miriamele, who almost totally subverts the cliché of “feisty princess” in a way almost unheard of in commercial Fantasy before; Deornoth, the honour-bound knight who serves Josua; and Isgrimnir, the bluff Lord coming to terms with new ways of thinking and resolving conflict (a character screaming to be played by Brian Blessed if there ever was one!). And there are dozens of other characters, all well-portrayed and realised.
This was one of the books that brought me out of my adolescent stupor about what makes “good” reading: style or substance. It is a thumping good story, though slow to begin with, combined with a critique of modern Fantasy. The writing is consistently good throughout and the conclusion, though expected, winds up the plotlines satisfactorily.
So, as I said, this is probably one of the most successful homages to Tolkien published to date. And while the debt is obvious, the slavish admiration is curiously absent. This is a fantasy epic written by a person who understands history and people and who isn’t prepared to make concessions to the genre simply because it is easier to.
Find out more about Tad Williams here: https://www.tadwilliams.com/