Lyonesse - 2: The World of Lyonesse

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2: The World of Lyonesse
What did you think of the world of Lyonesse, a land to the west of France destined to sink between the sea? How does it compare to other fantasy worlds? How does it compare to other Vancian worlds? Does Vance provide enough detail? Too much? If you wanted to re-create this setting at the gaming table, how would you go about it?

Comments

  • 3
    edited January 2

    There's one spectacular point of world-building here...Vance's approach to the fae. They're alien to humans, and vice-versa, dangerous but sometimes helpful, deceitful but bound by rules, and both powerful and weak. It's one of my two favourite treatments of the fae in fiction.

    The other point I really like about the world (which is developed further in later books) is the Ska. Another alien morality. Vance is really good at those.

    I can definitely see riffing off the Fae and the Ska in fantasy world building. I'd also happily play in the world of Lyonesse as is. It's a fantasy setting; the real world connections are just to place it.

  • 3

    I have to agree on the fairies, more in the Fairy question. Ska are also awesome. The lands are great for one reason - they are tightly intermingled and of different scale, though all small. Nothing monolithic. You can go from land to land, by foot, by horse, by ship, but quickly and fairly easily. Beautifully crafted for intrigue and travelogue!

  • 1

    I liked the Fae and how they were written.

    As for the land, I couldn't see the point of it. It was a generic, romanticised early-medieval England/France with some made-up history, right next to a genuine early-medieval England/France with real history.

    Jack, mate, do one or the other. If you're making up a fantasy world, do a fantasy world. If you're doing the real world with extra fantasy twiddles, do that. But this setting? No. Surely we'd have noticed the disappearance of a something the size of Ireland, just off Europe, that disappeared no earlier than the 13th century?

    Saying that, it was a neat place for adventures. In comparison to lots of Tolkein-derived fantasy, this was a densely-populated region. There were people everywhere, with villages, towns, inns, and the like all very close. There was just about no wilderness in Lyonesse. That made a change.

    There were also no monsters. No-one was really worried about getting mauled by some large wild predator; the only things that were dangerous were people: humans and fae.

  • 2

    Hi Neil!

    These lands were not made up of whole cloth. They are various legendary places mentioned in Dark Ages and Early Medieval literature as if they existed, but which suddenly disappear from the record as it were. Ys was a land and great city supposed to have been sunk beneath the waves off the coast of Brittany. Avallon was where Arthur's body was taken after Camlann. Lyonesse was the country Tristan came from and in which the story of Tristan and Iseult played out, said to be somewhere off Cornwall, most likely between Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. Hybras is short for Hy Brasil, an island off the coast of Europe on many early maps. His Elder Isles are a combination of many different legends pulled together into one place.

  • 1

    @clash_bowley said:
    These lands were not made up of whole cloth. They are various legendary places mentioned in Dark Ages and Early Medieval literature as if they existed, but which suddenly disappear from the record as it were.

    Thanks for the clarification!

  • 2

    Yes, Lyonesse very much seems to have been built based on high medieval European myth, the proverbial land that sank beneath the waves - a concept which goes back to Atlantis, so you can throw that into the mix as well.

    Tolkien's Numenor was also inspired by Atlantis/Lyonesse - in Middle Earth it was called Westernesse. 'Ness', if I recall, has a Norse root and means 'Headland' - there are a lot of Ness placenames in Scotland and Cumbria and, I presume, Ireland and certainly Orkney and Shetland. Lyon presumably has the same root as the French city - from Lugdunum, which is a Romanization meaning 'Fort of Lugus' (Lug, or Lugh) who was a Celtic champion god. And Lug is certainly mentioned for being still worshipped in Lyonesse.

    It also goes pre-Tolkien for the fantastical elements, drawing on fairy tales, perhaps on Norse or Germanic tales as well. Dunsany? I'm not entirely sure where the idea of the shrewdly negotiating fairy comes from, but I'm sure it didn't originate with Vance. In any case, we have no D&D-esque elves or dwarves, or really any creatures, so it feels quite refreshing after the market penetration of those tropes.

    Thomas Hardy wrote a poem: When I Set Out for Lyonesse, that seems to have been a source for Vance. At least, it may have given Vance the idea for magic putting the bees into Dhrun's eyes!

    When I set out for Lyonnesse,
    A hundred miles away,
    The rime was on the spray,
    And starlight lit my lonesomeness
    When I set out for Lyonnesse
    A hundred miles away.

    What would bechance at Lyonnesse
    While I should sojourn there
    No prophet durst declare,
    Nor did the wisest wizard guess
    What would bechance at Lyonnesse
    While I should sojourn there.

    When I came back from Lyonnesse
    With magic in my eyes,
    All marked with mute surmise
    My radiance rare and fathomless,
    When I came back from Lyonnesse
    With magic in my eyes!

    Linguistically, I also find it quite interesting. There's more here than just a bunch of made-up names. We find French names, mostly (Lyonesse, Dahaut, Troicinet, Dacinet) but a smattering of other cultures are represented - Germanic (perhaps more properly Frankish), and Basque, and Gaelic, for sure - Galician, Provencal, Saxon (Aillas <- Aelle, maybe?) - all the things you'd expect to find in a land in this location, but a bit jumbled in, much like other places that are oceanic cross-roads.

    The Ska are particularly compelling - a pre-Norse people said to have come from Scandinavia, chased out by the Norse. Scandinavia comes from a placename (known as Scania to the Romans, thought to be an island) and the germanic root apparently means 'Dangerous'. So there's another group to throw into the mix.

    All of the Elder Isles saw a smattering of Roman settlement, perhaps also Greek settlement. The church is spreading here, but struggles much more than in Ireland and the British Isles. I think that makes for some interesting conflict potential.

    The landscape is varied. Lots of cliffs, not many ports. Lots of coast, and sea channels. A range of tall mountains which divides the land into distinct west and east sides. But for the most part, apart from the mountains and fairy forests, we don't know much about the topography.

    Vance talks a lot about food, but never about trees or flowers (as Tolkien does). Culture is usually hinted at. Vance really picks and chooses the details to share, going into wonderful depth for some things, but leaving other totally blank. For example, the names the types of fairies, and even describes their hierarchy, but never bothers to tell us anything about what most of the types of fairies are. Which is fine - he's basically hanging a sort of literary amuse-bouche out there, inviting you in to learn more.

  • 0

    @Apocryphal said:
    'Ness', if I recall, has a Norse root and means 'Headland' - there are a lot of Ness placenames in Scotland and Cumbria and, I presume, Ireland and certainly Orkney and Shetland.

    And in fact down much of the east coast, which was largely settled north to south by Norse, for example Orford Ness in Suffolk.

  • 1

    I thought that the world building was a really strong point of the book, and liked the idea of an island out in the Bay of Biscay - to contemporary folk in the UK, that area suggests an unsettled and stormy area hazardous to shipping going on the great trade routes south-west from the English Channel to Iberia, Africa, and the Caribbean. "From Ushant to Scilly is 35 leagues" - Ushant being the island Oessant off the Breton Peninsula - this region definitely has a strong identity in British thought, and I enjoyed seeing it populated by a bundle of petty states.

  • 2

    There's one sequence on page 322 that leads me to wonder if Vance commenting on his own creation:

    "Well, then, what do you think of my villa?"
    Garstang shook his head. "I am beyond speech".
    Aillas said: "There is too much to comprehend."
    ...
    "We are curious," said Aillas. There is such overwhelming beauty here; it has almost the unreal quality of a dream."
    Lord Daldace looked around as if seeing the villa for the first time. "What are dreams? Ordinary experience is a dream. They eyes, the ears, the nose: they present pictures on the brain, and these pictures are called 'reality'... Sometimes, the dream images are more real than 'reality'. Which is solid, which illusion? Why trouble to make the distinction? When tasting a delicious wine, only a pedant analyzes every component of the flavor. When we admire a beautiful maiden, do we evaluate the particular bones of her skull? I am sure we do not. Accept beauty on its own terms: this is the credo of the Villa Meroe."
    "What of satiation?"
    "Have you ever known satiation in a dream?"
    ...
    He rose to his feet. "I hope you have satisfied your wonder?"
    "Only a churl would require more of you," said Aillas.

  • 3

    Jack, mate, do one or the other. If you're making up a fantasy world, do a fantasy world. If you're doing the real world with extra fantasy twiddles, do that. But this setting? No. Surely we'd have noticed the disappearance of a something the size of Ireland, just off Europe, that disappeared no earlier than the 13th century?

    Well, one could level the same criticism at T H White for 'The Once and Future King' (which shares many similarities with 'Lyonesse'); or Mallory for 'Le Mort d'Arthur', or Spenser for 'The Faerie Queene', but I think it would be churlish to do so. :)

    Vance follows in the grand tradition of European Romance fantasies, where the familiar is varnished with anachronisms, twisted to make it feel uncomfortable and otherworldly, yet still retains some cultural references to keep things grounded, but also slightly askance. As a piece of world building, its impeccable: detailed enough, consistent, vaguely familiar, but refreshingly alien.

  • 1

    Is Lyonesse high fantasy or low? I've seen claims made for each.

  • 0

    I love this setting. As others have mentioned, the Faerie and Ska are especially evocative -- singular elements of the Elder Islands as imagined by Vance. I also like the Forest of Tantrevalles -- it's this eerie, magical place stuck right dab in the middle of a number of squabbling, petty (and relatively 'prosaic') kingdoms.

    I quite like the connections to the real world (the Celts, ancient Greeks, Romans, etc.). It makes the setting feel 'grounded'. Yet by being distinct from the real world, Vance is free to invent things and explore stories free from the constraints of actual history.

    I also really enjoy the magicians -- their plots, rivalries, conflicts, and so forth. There really are two overaching storylines in the novels: (a) one involving the political struggle to unite and control the Elder Isles (Casamir versus Alais, etc.); and (b) one involving the magicians, and in particular Murgen's struggle to protect the Elder Islands from various supernatural threats. The two storylines interact -- especially through the character Shimrod -- but focus on different conflicts and have different stakes.

    I notice that some people have complained about all the 'world building' in the novels (Vance's historical asides, his descriptions of different realms, his footnotes, etc.). But I very much adore these elements.

  • 1

    It's probably of little surprise that I concur 100% with Akrasia's comments here: we do share very similar tastes in fantasy and SF literature...

    I think the Lyonesse trilogy is sort of High Fantasy. It occupies a curious ground between the high mindedness of Tolkien, and the gritty politicking of George R R Martin (I also think Vance a better writer than both, but that's a separate thread, and perhaps on a separate forum). Its certainly closer to High Fantasy than Sword & Sorcery, but also closer to Game of Thrones than 'The Once and Future King'.

  • 1

    LOL You would definitely get some battle on the Tolkien vs Vance front as a writer. A bunch of us spent the whole summer slowly reading the LOTR and we call gained new appreciation for Tolkien's skills as a writer. He was quite remarkable. I enjoy Vance, but definitely don't see him in the same category.

    One thing I find curious about Vance is he seems to appeal much more to the English audience than to the American audience, though here in this discussion there are Americans who love him and Brits who don't. I can't give evidence - it's just a gut feeling.

  • 1

    @Apocryphal said:
    LOL You would definitely get some battle on the Tolkien vs Vance front as a writer. A bunch of us spent the whole summer slowly reading the LOTR and we call gained new appreciation for Tolkien's skills as a writer. He was quite remarkable. I enjoy Vance, but definitely don't see him in the same category.

    One thing I find curious about Vance is he seems to appeal much more to the English audience than to the American audience, though here in this discussion there are Americans who love him and Brits who don't. I can't give evidence - it's just a gut feeling.

    The Dutch adore him! There's a pretty large Vancian cohort in the Netherlands.

  • 2
    edited January 6

    Americans are weaned on Hemmingway, Hammet, and other writers who aspire to taut, muscular prose. That is what they are taught in schools. Brits have different literary models. I am an American, but I was weaned on very different writers from either.

  • 2

    @Apocryphal said:
    Is Lyonesse high fantasy or low? I've seen claims made for each.

    I'd call it high fantasy. It's about the fates of nations, the whims of powerful sorcerers, and the capricious actions of the fairy. Yes, there's politics and the like in there, but they're backdrop, not dominant. There's also the tone of the writing: as I said elsewhere, the prose as the feel of a fairy/folk story to me.

  • 1

    @Apocryphal said:
    One thing I find curious about Vance is he seems to appeal much more to the English audience than to the American audience, though here in this discussion there are Americans who love him and Brits who don't. I can't give evidence - it's just a gut feeling.

    As a Brit, I very much liked his world-building and the geographical setting, though I found his use of language to be overdone (of which more in a minute). I'd probably say that I appreciate him rather than enjoy him.

  • 1

    @Apocryphal said:
    LOL You would definitely get some battle on the Tolkien vs Vance front as a writer. A bunch of us spent the whole summer slowly reading the LOTR and we call gained new appreciation for Tolkien's skills as a writer. He was quite remarkable. I enjoy Vance, but definitely don't see him in the same category.

    This brings me on to Vance's use of language - I found it quite heavy going. He (deliberately, I assume) adopted a kind of consciously archaic form of words which bogged me down rather than helping me enter his world. I've already mentioned his several "erotic conjunctions", but my memory of the book is of this overly-conscious false historicity - too many thous and thees for me. Now, someone like E.R.Eddison could (just about) get away with it, writing in the 1920s, though even there, my fairly recent reread of the book brought out many of the same reactions.

    Interestingly, Piers Anthony, writing about the same time, did something a bit similar with his Adept series, with one of the alternate worlds using archaic pseudo-medieval language, and the other not. Maybe it was a Thing of the Time?

    Re Tolkien, of course one of his huge strengths was the incorporation of actual poetry (and good quality poetry, at that, with a few different but consistent formal structures) into his prose. I don't see Vance having the same command of different styles of genre and language at his disposal. My memory of Suldrun's Garden is that the whole of the land feels pretty much the same as regards people's interactions. Sure, there are the Ska who have a different battle ethic, but (to me, at least) they don't come over as really different from anyone else unless you ask them about fighting. It all feels very uniform in diction and use of language, other than the occasional country bumpkin figure. Tolkien's world feels very much more diverse.

  • 1

    Vance employs his more florid style when deliberately working for comic or satirical effect, and most often in dialogue. I certainly don't recall an overuse of 'thees' and 'thous'. He's also quite a direct writer, conveying the incredible in a very matter-of-fact way. When doing so, he avoids the florid descriptions and is actually very straightforward with his language.

    There's certainly no doubting Tolkien's command of language and style, but the trouble I have with him is a lack of editorial restraint. The Tom Bombadil section feels interminable; as does the council of Elrond in Rivendell. Vance, for all his linguistic tricks, is very much more forthright in his approach, and believe there was some strong editorial guidance from his wife. I think its true that both Vance and Tolkien can be heavy going, but I prefer Vance's way with words, and certainly with plotting.

  • 1

    >

    …My memory of Suldrun's Garden is that the whole of the land feels pretty much the same as regards people's interactions. Sure, there are the Ska who have a different battle ethic, but (to me, at least) they don't come over as really different from anyone else unless you ask them about fighting. It all feels very uniform in diction and use of language, other than the occasional country bumpkin figure. Tolkien's world feels very much more diverse.

    I agree there (bit it's a worldbuilding thing rather than a language thing). The whole island seemed to have a single culture, just different warring "counties" within it. It didn't come across as being a collection of distinct nations with their own cultures, traditions, and languages.

  • 3

    I think it's safe to say that the Ska had a different culture, to the point that Casmir was completely nonplussed by them. But the rest - pretty much the same culture in so far as we can tell.

  • 2

    @Apocryphal said:
    I think it's safe to say that the Ska had a different culture, to the point that Casmir was completely nonplussed by them. But the rest - pretty much the same culture in so far as we can tell.

    On the mainland, I think this is true to an extent. In 'The Green Pearl' and 'Madouc', you do learn more about North Ulfland (which has a Scottish clans vibe); and Godelia, which also exhibits some differences to Dahaut and Lyonesse. In 'Suldrun', on the islands, we do get a peak into the very different culture of Scola (the catalyst for the war between Troicinet, Dascinet and Lyonesse), and the culture of Troicinet itself hints at being a little more Mediterranean than the other mainland cultures.

    And of course, Tantravalles is a culture all of its own...

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