Review: The Summer Tree

This review contains spoilers. TW: rape, suicide.

I am finally out of the woods of NaNoWriMo, and what a luxury it is to have as many words as I want to ramble about books in.

I mean, it’s a pity that my first post-NaNo review had to be about Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Summer Tree, which manages to be simultaneously enraging and utterly uninteresting, but the Spreadsheet of Books is merciless, and so here we are.

So. The Summer Tree is the first novel in Kay’s Fionavar trilogy (also called, with irritating preciousness, the Fionavar Tapestry), and feels like an unholy cross between Narnia, Tolkien and Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant novels. Five university students from our own world are taken, by a mysterious and not at all suspicious wizardy figure named Loren Silvercloak, to a fantasyland named (yes, you guessed it!) Fionavar. More specifically, they end up in the kingdom of Brennin, which is in the midst of a terrible drought because the High King has selfishly refused to sacrifice himself to the gods on the titular Summer Tree. There are also rumblings of a deeper evil at large in the kingdom: the orcs svart alfar are abroad, killing indiscriminately in the manner of evil fantasy races. Does this perchance have anything to do with the dark god Rakoth Maugrim, chained under a mountain for a thousand years?

Guess.

Like Stephen Donaldson, I think what Kay’s trying to do here is put psychologically modern characters into a Tolkienian fantasy world. (And, incidentally, I think both writers are doing so out of an urge to improve Tolkien: Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge informs me that Kay worked for Christopher Tolkien on editing The Silmarillion, which is suggestive at the very least.) But where Donaldson’s characters react believably and productively – Thomas Covenant’s refusal to believe that the Land is real may be frustrating, but it’s at least part of what helps him save it – Kay’s, um, don’t. They become part of the (forgive me) fabric of Fionavar, of Middle-earth, unquestioningly and thus problematically.

It almost goes without saying (though it shouldn’t) that Fionavar is a typically cod-medieval place: a land where women are wives and priestesses and seers while the men are fighters and drinkers and counsellors; where the dark-skinned people away south are decadent and evil; where the nomadic tribe in the north is a thinly-disguised, stereotyped Native American analogue; where criticising the king is punishable by death.

What rings really false about The Summer Tree is that the five bright university students from our own world – even a 1980s version of our own world – don’t question any of this. There are two women in the group: one of them, Jennifer, attracts the (unwanted) attention of Brennin’s crown prince, Diarmund, and though she pushes back on it the narrative fails to read Diarmund’s continued pursuit of her as actual harassment. And though one of the students criticises Diarmund’s execution of a peasant who spoke treason against the king, he gets over it pretty quickly, and in fact becomes Diarmund’s friend. (And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that two of the students enable Diarmund’s rape of a princess from that decadent southern country.)

There’s a particularly egregious and harmful moment when the real-world characters actually participate in Fionavar’s regressive social roles. One of the students, Paul, is severely depressed after the death of his girlfriend in a car accident. When he goes off to sacrifice himself on the Summer Tree and so end the drought, his best friend Kevin reacts to the news thusly:

Let him die for you, if he can’t live for himself…Let him go.

Kevin knows Paul is ill: earlier in the novel he’s said something like “he’s been sick for a long time” (I don’t have the novel to hand, thank goodness). Heroic self-sacrifice, in medieval-inflected contexts, is a performance of bravery and chivalry. Key to that performance, key to the value of the sacrifice in a chivalric culture is that the hero chooses to do it, cold-bloodedly, rationally. Whereas what Paul’s doing is suicide – he’s dying from the often terminal disease that is depression, and, crucially, he is not in a state to choose rationally to sacrifice himself. Equating suicide with self-sacrifice is fucking dangerous. “Letting” a depressed person “go” is an abdication of responsibility, not (as Kay sees it) a recognition of the depressed person’s right to choose.

For me, this is sort of the crux of what’s wrong with The Summer Tree: Kay’s blending incompatible sets of social mores (a medieval shame culture and a modern guilt culture), and in doing so ends up utterly misrepresenting both. It might have been interesting to see the five students learn the rules of this new fantasyland and start following them; or to see them critiquing Fionavar’s regressiveness (although that approach has its own problems). Kay’s gone for an unholy blend of both, and it’s deeply problematic, as well as just plain tedious.

TL; DR: Don’t try to fix Tolkien. No, really don’t. Unless you are literally a medieval scholar, you don’t know enough.

Also, don’t read this book.

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