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 Johnson, Adam Roberts, Lev Grossman, Terri Windling, Susan Cooper, V.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.