“Just Enough Light: Some Thoughts on Fantasy and Literature,” the 2021 Tolkien Lecture by Guy Gavriel Kay

I was pleased last week to watch the 8th annual J.R.R Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature, an annual lecture on fantasy literature held at Pembroke College, Oxford, this year broadcast online.

The Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature was established in 2013 at Pembroke College, Oxford, where J.R.R. Tolkien worked for twenty years as a professor of Anglo-Saxon. Speakers in the series are given freedom to discuss any aspect of fantasy literature, broadly defined. The aim is to honour J.R.R. Tolkien’s legacy by promoting, and contributing to, the study of fantasy, and they have drawn past speakers such as Kij JohnsonAdam RobertsLev GrossmanTerri WindlingSusan CooperV.E. Schwab, and Marlon James. Last year, COVID-19 interrupted R.F. Kuang’s lecture, though, Gabriel Schenk hosted a video roundtable with past speakers and Kuang was able to attend, which was pretty cool.

The 2021 speaker was Guy Gavriel Kay, whom I have talked about from time to time here at A Pilgrim in Narnia. It continues to puzzle me as to why Guy Gavriel Kay remains Canada’s least well-recognized international-profile writer. In my piece here, I speculated that it is because (except for a book of poetry, Beyond This Dark House, for which Kay included a tour stop in Prince Edward Island) his entire publishing life has been solidly within the fantasy genre, and that’s simply not one of our privileged genres here in Canada. Margaret Atwood could most clearly challenge our Canadian temptation to realism as she writes solidly in science fiction, dystopic, and mythic modes, even beginning a PhD that thought about the work of folks like Tolkien and Lewis. Instead, though, Atwood carves out a definition of “speculative fiction” that allows her to remain an orthodox Canadian writer (though she is no doubt a heretic in many interesting ways).

As he describes in this Guardian piece, Guy Kay honed his craft as a Tolkienist, working on the most well-known of the posthumously published Tolkien works, The Silmarillion. Kay’s literary and gorgeous urban fantasy meets Tolkien-like Nordic epic, The Fionavar Tapestry, remains one of my absolute favourite series ever. What many don’t know, but Canadians are starting to recognize, is that as Kay moved away from Tolkien-like fiction, he was able to carve out a genre in which he has become a master. The eleven novels since The Fionavar Tapestry are strong literary works of historical fiction that include some sort of fantastic thread within that entirely realistic literary world.

Kay has published fourteen novels which have been translated into 30 languages and have appeared on bestseller lists around the world. Kay has twice won the Aurora Award, is a multiple World Fantasy Award nominee, and won that award for the rich novel, Ysabel. He also won the Sunburst Award for Under Heaven, and is the recipient of the International Goliardos Prize, presented in Mexico City, for his contributions to the literature of the fantastic. Both Under Heaven and River of Stars won the Prix Elbakin in France for best foreign language speculative fiction work. His most recent work is A Brightness Long Ago. In 2014, Guy Kay was invested with the Order of Canada, my country’s highest civilian honour, joining other great literary lights.

I hope you love this enigmatic and somewhat playful lecture. Guy certainly showed up, throwing himself imaginatively into the genre of a digital lecture from home to the world. Kay’s authorized website may be found at brightweavings.com. You can find him on Twitter with some frequency as @guygavrielkay.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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16 Responses to “Just Enough Light: Some Thoughts on Fantasy and Literature,” the 2021 Tolkien Lecture by Guy Gavriel Kay

  1. Cecilia Zeichner says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this incredibly generous lecture. How did I ever skip over Guy Gavriel Kay?

    In a way, the lecture dovetails nicely with your most recent post on Ursula K. LeGuin. Maybe LeGuin was not the most methodical worldbuilder, but the fact that she left room for ambiguity–one could even say the numinous or the magical to use GGK’s definition–is what makes her stories enjoyable and credible to the reader. That ambiguity, which is universal to all humans, is central to the power of fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

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  3. Thanks, Brenton,
    Kay is one of my favorite fantasy authors. I look forward to enjoying his talk.


  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    You may have ventured to say before, and I forgot or missed it – or you may not think it a useful approach, but… do you have a recommendation for what to read first by Guy Gavriel Kay (not counting The Silmarillion!)?

    (I just saw The Fionavar Tapestry second hand, but embarking on a trilogy seems a big step…)

    In any case, I’m looking forward to this lecture: many thanks for bringing it to our attention!


    • Oh yeah, I don’t know. I read higgedly piggedly, after Fionavar, and that worked. Ysabelle is tempting me next. See what your local shop or library has and start there!
      I also am lured by beautiful book design.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Looking up Taliesin in the Wikipedia today for another reason, my eye was caught by, “He also makes an appearance in a number of works of modern commercial fiction that blend history and Arthurian legend, including quite a lengthy appearance in […] Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry” – ! Maybe that will prove irresistible…

        Liked by 1 person

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          One month later: off to an enjoyable start – nearly half-way through The Summer Tree (though no sign of Taliesin in the handy character lists in any of the three books – then again, already pencilling in additional characters in the list n The Summer Tree…).

          Liked by 1 person

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Ah, reaching chapter 14, I encounter a character who says he “was” Taliesin, and speaks in ways in which Kay is playing with mysterious poetry attributed to Taliesin!

            A friend also just made me aware of a recent translation of the mediaeval Book of Taliesin translated by Rowan Williams and Gwyneth Lewis and published by Penguin.

            Liked by 1 person

            • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

              I have not yet followed all the links above, but, in the context of recent discussion here of the courses of Tolkien and Lewis scholarship down the years, I wonder about the contours of Kay scholarship – e.g., none of the Wikipedia articles about him in the seven languages I checked has any section of writings about him beyond reference works – except the link to the Italian ‘Fantasy Magazine’ (with the German ‘by and about’ links in the event only leading to works by him).

              Liked by 1 person

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