King Arthur. The Round Table. The sad tale of Tristan and Iseult. Avalon. The drowned city of Ys. The lost kingdom of Lyonesse. These disparate elements constitute part of the medieval "Matter of Britain," one of the three great sources of medieval myth and legend (the other two "matters" being those of France and Rome). Nearly nine centuries after the most ancient lays and ballads of this "Matter of Britain," there are still a plethora of stories created from this amalgam of Breton, Cornish, Welsh, and Anglo-Saxon legends. Whether the writer be Béroul, Shakespeare, Tennyson, or more recent writers such as Jack Vance or Stephen Lawhead, these tales of betrayed kingdoms, honorable soldiers, starcrossed lovers, and fateful watery dooms still resonate with readers today. A strong case could be made that modern Anglo-American fantasy could not exist anywhere near its present form if it weren't for the shaping power of these enduring stories. Certainly there would not be quite the same connotations about fairies (and Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene unfortunately would have never existed without them), changelings, and luck of seven years' duration. There is a remarkable vitality in these mostly-Celtic myths that informs so many fantasies today.
One of those elements in the "Matter of Britain," (with Arthurian legends at its core) is that of Lyonesse. Over centuries, Lyonesse, the home of the Round Table knight Tristan, came to be associated with Cornish legends of a kingdom doomed to perish under the rapacious waves of the Atlantic Ocean. It, along with its Breton city counterpart of Ys, contains tragic elements. Not just because these city/kingdoms were doomed to drown, but in part because of the tragic histories bound up in each place. Several writers over the centuries have written epic poems and ballads concerning these remnants of local folk memories of drowned ancestral lands. One of the more recent adaptations of the Ys/Lyonesse tragedy is the trilogy written between 1983 and 1990 by the American writer Jack Vance. Vance used these famous locales to create a "lost" archipelago comparable in size to Ireland that was located nearly equidistant between Ireland, Britain, and Amorica (Brittany). This tale, set roughly two generations before the time of King Arthur, is perhaps one of the best recent adaptations of Lyonesse/Ys legends.
In the first volume, Suldrun's Garden, Vance introduces the setting and main characters for the trilogy. Usually, long, detailed introductions to constructed settings disinterest me because they tend to distract from the story at hand, but in Vance's case, he creates a vivid tapestry quickly, one that reveals even more depths the more familiar one is with the legends from which Vance drew to write this trilogy. Don't just "read" the quote below, but rather "listen" to it:
On a dreary winter's day, with rain sweeping across Lyonesse Town, Queen Sollace went into labor. She was taken to the lying-in room and attended by two midwives, four maids, Balhamel the physician and the crone named Dyldra, who was profound in the lore of herbs, and by some considered a witch. Dyldra was present by the wish of Queen Sollace, who found more comfort in faith than logic.
King Casmir made an appearance. Sollace's whimpers became moans and she clawed at her thick blonde hair with clenched fingers. Casmir watched from across the room. He wore a simple scarlet robe with a purple sash; a gold coronet confined his ruddy blond hair.
During the months of winter and spring King Casmir looked only twice at the infant princess, in each case, standing back in cool disinterest. She had thwarted his royal will by coming female into the world. He could not immediately punish her for the act, no more could he extend the full beneficence of his favor.
Sollace grew sulky because Casmir was displeased and, with a set of petulant flourishes, banished the child from her sight. (pp. 1, 3)
Vance displays a masterful use of language here. In just a few, short descriptions, not only can we visualize the ruling king and queen of Lyonesse, but we learn of their personalities, the hard life ahead for their infant daughter from their selfish inclinations. Furthermore, there are just a few hints, seeded for further plot flowering later, of the supernatural, present in the form of Dyldra. Vance's ability to construct well-drawn, vivid characters is balanced with his propensity in this series to "pan out" and hint at the histories of this doomed land:
Centuries in the past, at that middle-distant time when legend and history start to blur (p. 3)
Ehirme warned her: "I've never fared so far, you understand! But what grandfather says is this: in the old times the crossroads would move about, because the place was enchanted and never knew peace. This might be well enough for the traveler, because, after all, he would put one foot ahead of him and then the other and the road would at last be won, and the traveler none the wiser that he had seen twice as much forest as he had bargained for. The most troubled were the folk who sold their goods each year at the Goblin Fair, and where was that but at the crossroads! The folk for the fair were most put out, because the fair should be at the crossroads on Midsummer Night, but when they arrived at the crossroads it had shifted two miles and a half, and nowhere a fair to be seen. (p. 6)This commingling of legend and history occurs throughout Suldrun's Garden, as the lands of Faerie and those of humans are intertwined, with only a few mysterious passages between each. This is important later on in the novel and series, but for much of the first half of the novel, the story is concerned with the horrible treatment that Princess Suldrun receives from her parents after her father learns that Suldrun's first-born son will occupy the Lyonesse throne in front of him, a dark portent for an ambitious king who aims to unite the ten kingdoms of the Elder Isles under his iron rule. In a scene that could be the twin to that of Danae and Perseus, Suldrun is banished to a remote garden, where she will stay under threat of enslavement and (presumably) rape if she strays from it. However, there is a prince, Aillas, from a rival kingdom, who stumbles upon Suldrun's garden and they fall in and make love, with Suldrun becoming pregnant.
This sets the stage for one of the most tragic scenes in the book, their forced separation, Aillas' imprisonment in an oubliette filled with the bones of twelve prior prisoners, and the switching of Suldrun's baby son, Dhrun, with a fairy changeling. Despairing, Suldrun takes her fate into her own hands:
In the garden the first day went by slowly, instant after hesitant instant, each approaching diffidently, as if on tiptoe, to hurry across the plane of the present and lose itself among the glooms and shadows of the past.
The second day was hazy, less breathless, but the air hung heavy with portent.
The third day, still hazy, seemed sluggish and drained of sensibility, yet somehow innocent and sweet, as if ready for renewal. On this day Suldrun went slowly about the garden, pausing at times to touch the trunk of a tree, or the face of a stone. With head bent she walked the length of her beach, and only once paused to look to sea. Then she climbed the path, to sit among the ruins.
The afternoon passed: a golden dreaming time, and the stone cliffs encompassed the whole of the universe.
The sun sank softly and quietly. Suldrun nodded pensively, as if here were elucidation of an uncertainty, though tears coursed down her cheeks.
The stars appeared. Suldrun descended to the old lime tree and, in the dim light of the stars, she hanged herself. The moon, rising over the ridge, shone on a limp form and a sad sweet face, already preoccupied with her new knowledge. (p. 188)
This is such a tragic scene, but as important as it is for future events, it is in itself only part of the greater narrative tapestry being woven. Vance writes so beautifully of her despondency, setting up the achingly simple phrase, "she hanged herself." By this point, the reader will have come to have identified with her plight, to have felt her sorrows, and perhaps this will be devastating. And yet this novel (and series) is not just about tragedy. Suldrun and Aillas' son, Dhrun, experiences nine years' worth of life during his time with the fair folk, and the description of life among them is in turn droll and vaguely threatening:
"Thank you, Sir Dhrun!" Nerulf drank the potion, and expanded to become his old burly self. Quick as a wink he leapt upon Dhrun, threw him to the ground, tore away his sword Dassenach and buckled it around his own thick waist. Then he took the green bottle and the purple bottle and flung them against a stone, so that they shattered and all their contents were lost. "There will be no more of that foolishness," declared Nerulf. "I am the largest and strongest, and once again I am in power." He kicked Dhrun. "To your feet!"
"You told me that you had repented your old ways!" cried Dhrun indignantly.
"True! I was not severe enough. I allowed too much ease. Things will now be different. Out to the cart, everyone!" (p. 222)
These scenes involving Dhrun's often-comical (mis)adventures among the faires, ogres, and other secret folk serve as a counterbalance to the mostly-grim happenings of the human adults in Lyonesse, Ulfland, and Troicinet, Aillas' home. Vance expertly mixes these disparate elements together, creating not two entwined tales, but rather two tangential ones whose separate qualities serve to balance the excesses of the other. Thus this story contains not just Suldrun's tragedy and what that portends for the remaining two books in the trilogy, but also the madcap adventures of Dr. Fidelius, mountebank and curer of sore knees. This blend of humor and tragedy makes for an excellent beginning to a great trilogy.
Is Suldrun's Garden worthy of being called a "Masterwork"? While I will address the series as a whole in my review of the remaining two volumes of this trilogy, it certainly is a fantastic tale that borrows from medieval legends without feeling too constrained by their forms and personages. Vance has staked out his own territory in the midst of this rich collection of tales, creating a story that will appeal to readers of all sorts.