I’ve recently finished an in-depth re-read of The Dragonbone Chair, the first book in Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy (or tetralogy because when the series was put out in paperback, the third door stopper had to be split in two). I’m re-reading it for two main reasons: Williams has announced a new three book series, placed in the same world, called THE LAST KING OF OSTEN ARD; and though I remember liking it when I read it when it was first released, I cannot remember through the years the details. My Dad used to call this “CRS Syndrome” (Can’t Remember S___).
I’m happy to report that The Dragonbone Chair stands up to the test of time, at least in my re-read of it. Published in 1988. it has an obvious place in the fantasy timeline after Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (LOTR) published in the mid 50’s, and before George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) (known as Game of Thrones by HBO viewers) published from 1996 through hopefully-not-too-many-years-from-now. Like many other fantasy epics of its time, it is influenced by Tolkien. But unlike many published around the same time, it not a Tolkien imitator (though there are some similarities). GRRM cites the series as an influence on his own A Song of Ice and Fire series. (Read Daniel Kaszor’s article in the National Post that talks about Williams’ series as an inspiration for the A Song of Ice and Fire series and as starting the wave of American fantasy; also, if interested, there is an article about a Tad Williams’ hosted book signing of Martin where Martin discussed this series as inspiration.)
After the publishing of The Lord of the Rings (published in 1954 and 1955), there were a great many Tolkien imitators released (Terry Brooks Shannara series in 1977 is an example). But there were many great fantasy series that attempted to either build on The Lord of the Rings and/or take epic fantasy in a new direction: Michael Moorcock’s Law vs. Chaos cycle of books but especially Elric, (which first appeared in 1972), Corum (gotta love the silver hand), and the others in the Eternal Champion meme; David Edding’s Belgariad series (started in 1982); Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber series; and Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series. Robert Jordan (w/ Brandon Sanderson)’s Wheel of Time series (nominated en masse for the 2014 Hugo) should be mentioned as a contemporary series of A Song of Ice and Fire.
Some of these series certainly aren’t as well known as more recent series (except for the wonders that epic movies or HBO TV series will do for a fantasy series mind share!) such as Patrick Rothfuss’ Name of the Wind series, or either of Brandon Sanderson’s series, but they’ve had a part in influencing fantasy authors.
For perspective on publishing dates, I was going to put in a timeline, but could only build a table…so let’s just call it a time-table. (Rimshot!) This is not meant to be an exhaustive list by any means, but a timeline to show where Memory, Sorrow & Thorn‘s publication dates sit relative to the other series discussed and relative to the first books of other fantasy series. Since this timeline starts with the 1950s (with the LOTR publications), it does leave out titles such as The Hobbit (1937) and the Gormenghast series by Mervyn Peake (starting with Titus Groan – 1946, Gormenghast – 1950 and Titus Alone – 1950) which Tad Williams sites as an influence.
There are, of course, many other series that could be mentioned here. On all of the sites that try such feats as rating the most popular fantasy series, the more recent the series (or the more recent the TV or movie adaptation), the higher the rating. This table is not meant to be such a rating but rather to show a progression juxtaposed against time. A true timeline would match these series against the events of the world around them: World War II; the Vietnam War; the spread of the Internet; Al Gore’s invention of the Internet (which should surely show on any fantasy timeline); 9/11; and other historical and social events that would influence writers, not just of epic fantasy but of all genres.
Amidst all of the other books and series released since LOTR, there seems to be an obvious progression from Tolkien’s series to Williams’ to Martin’s. The Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series is less well-known these days, most likely due to the success of the LOTR movies and Game of Thrones HBO series.
From a certain perspective, Williams’ MS&T is at once an homage to LOTR and a commentary on those parts that seem a bit “black and white” (and a bit too puppy dogs and sunshine, IMHO).
For example, in LOTR as men are usurping the elves as the dominant “species” in that world, the elves seem to be willing allies. But in The Dragonbone Chair (TDC), the Sitha (who were in Osten Ard before men) are un-willing to help men, and in some instances begrudge them their right to the land (since men killed many Sitha and took their cities, a grudge is most likely in order).
“Then know this,” Jiriki said stiffly. “Though the years that have passed since we were sundered from the Hikeda’ya – those you call the Norns – are as numerous as snowflakes, still we are one blood. How could we take the side of upstart men against our kin? Why should we, when once we walked together beneath the sun, coming out of the ultimate East? What allegiance could we possibly owe to mortals, who have destroyed us as eagerly as they destroy all else…even themselves?”
None of the humans but Binabik could meet his cold gaze. Jiriki lifted a long finger before him. “And the one you whisperingly call the Storm King…he whose name was Ineluki…” He smiled bitterly as the companions stirred and shivered. “Ah, even his name is fearsome. He was the best of us once – beautiful to see, wise far beyond the understanding of mortals, bright-burning as a flame! – if he is now a thing of dark horror, cold and hateful, whose is the fault? If now, bodiless and vengeful, he schemes to brush mankind from the face of his land like dust from a page – why should we not rejoice? It was not Ineluki who drove us into exile, so that we must always hide among Aldheorte’s dark trees like deer, wary always of discovery. We strode Osten Ard in the sunlight before men came, and the works of our hands were beautiful beneath the stars. What have mortals ever brought to us but suffering?” (pg 686-687)
In LOTR, the only good orc or goblin is a dead orc or goblin. In TDC it is not that black and white; the Sitha (who are potential allies to men but not sure they want to be allied with them) and the Norns (who are the big baddies) are the same species, with some existing familial relationships between them.
Since they were written in different times and in different countries, the social norms had changed. LOTR is a quite chaste book, with perhaps the description of a kiss or two. In The Dragonbone Chair, as Simon grows up his hormonal imagination provides commentary on females, human and Sitha. There is even hints of somewhat forced sex in the next book (Stone of Farewell), but certainly nothing on the scale of the sexual escapades in Martin’s series, written 20 years later (and over emphasized for ratings on HBO).
The three books in the LOTR trilogy were written while victory in World War II was fresh in the minds of all (except those that lost!) and that feeling of hope and of overcoming all odds (“we shall never surrender!”) permeates those novels. Propaganda in both World War I and World War II was aimed at making the opposing side viewed to be “evil”, so the strong “good vs. evil” (with no in-between) theme in LOTR reflects those times. Tolkien himself was an officer in World War I and experienced the nastiness of trench warfare. While Tolkien has stated that LOTR is not based on his experiences in war, there are several interesting articles that point out the similarities. The Dead Marshes and WWI trench warfare are particularly telling.
Williams grew up during the Vietnam era; one would assume that the non-“black and white”, “all is not what it seems” nature of the times influenced that tone in the MS&T series.
It is also interesting that while magic is in-your-face in LOTR — especially with Gandalf and Saruman front-and-center — it is more subtle in both MS&F and ASOIAF. (Although, all three have dragons, if you include The Hobbit! All worlds need more dragons, including our own. At least the latter two series have wolves: Binabik the troll’s Qantaqa and the Stark’s Direwolves).
Some of this may be oversimplification, but the progression from a good vs. evil from LOTR, to MS&T where there are some grey areas, to ASOIAF where there seem to be no dominant good vs. evil themes (but certainly fire vs. ice themes!) tracks along with the evolution of epic fantasy.
There are some obvious similarities in LOTR and MS&T. When The Storm King was first described in The Dragonbone Chair, I must admit my mind’s eye saw Sauron…with antlers. (Sorry, Tad.) There are, of course, many parallels between the Elves and the Sithi. And there is a long journey or quest with two main protagonists (Frodo and Sam; Simon and Binabik) who build a unique bond.
Both series also feature fully imagined deep worlds with long histories. But in The Dragonbone Chair the truth of past histories is not always as wonderful as the legends and stories are remembered to be, one of the issues I believe Williams was trying to bring forth about LOTR. The past in LOTR is usually remembered as being a wonderful time; an occasional war, but other than that lots of puppy dogs and sunshine; in MS&T, the veil of past legends is slowly pulled back to reveal something a bit more unseemly than written or remembered.
The similarities between The Dragonbone Chair and A Game of Thrones (the novel, not the TV show) are many, with some being tips of the hat from Martin to Williams. In addition to the aforementioned dragons and wolves/direwolves:
- Both feature unique and strange thrones;
- Both feature a red-robed advisor to a king (Pryrates/Milisandre) with questionable motives;
- Both have a King’s Hand
- Both have a handless relative to a king.
There are many more listed on this article on the OstenArd.com website.
Unlike the latter two books in the series, The Dragonbone Chair is all Simon, the young hero of the series; out of the 44 chapters in this first book, Simon makes an appearance in all but three of them. (Yes, I am a semi-OCD Math, Physics and CompSci major…but I’ve gotten better.) This is in sharp contrast to the latter books in the series which bounces back and forth between several groups of characters as the conflict spreads throughout the world.
Simon/Seoman is 14 years old at the start of this book, at that not-a-kid/not-an-adult age, driven by dreams and sometimes hormones. Whether he is accidentally thrust into this worldwide adventure or whether it was his destiny or birthright is a secret Williams keeps for many pages. (I’m at the beginning of the third book, and I still don’t know and can’t remember.) Simon, normally a kitchen scullion, is apprenticed to Morgenes, a type of professor/magician, who points Simon to books when Simon asks to learn magic.
“Books,” Morgenes said grandly, leaning back on his precarious stool, “-books are magic. That is the simple answer. And books are traps as well.”
“Books are a form of magic-” the doctor lifted the volume he had just laid on the stack, “- because they span time and distance more surely than any spell or charm. What did so-and-so think about such-and-such two hundred years agone? Can you fly back through the ages and ask him? No, or at least, probably not.
“But, ah, if he wrote down his thoughts, if somewhere there exists a scroll or a book of his logical discourses…he speaks to you! Across centuries! And if you wish to visit far Nascandu or lost Kkandia, you have also but to open a book…”
“Yes, yes, I suppose I understand all that.” Simon did not try to hide his disappointment. This was not what he had meant by the word magic. “What about traps, the? Why traps?”
Morgenes leaned forward, waggling the leather-bound volume under Simon’s nose. “A piece of writing is a trap,” he said cheerily, “and the best kind. A book you see is the only kind of trap that keeps its captive – which is knowledge – alive forever. The more books you have,” the doctor waved an all-encompassing hand around the room, “the more traps, then the better the chance of capturing some particular elusive, shining beast – one that might otherwise die unseen.” Morganes finished with a grand flourish, dropping the book back on the pile with a loud thump. A tiny cloud of dust leaped up, the flecks milling in the banded sunlight leaking past the window bars.
Simon stared at the shimmering dust for a moment, collecting his thoughts. Following the doctor’s words was like trying to catch mice while wearing mittens.
“But what about real magic?” he said at last, a stubborn crease between his brows. “Magic like they say Pryrates does up in the tower?”
For a brief instant a look of anger – or was it fear – crossed the Doctor’s face.
“No, Simon,” he said quietly. “Do not throw Pryrates up at me. He is a dangerous, foolish man.”(pg 93)
Quite a bit of foreshadowing in this passage, as Morgenes’ own book/scroll on the life and history of the current king becomes a source of elusive knowledge to Simon and his companions, as they oppose Pryrates. Or Morgenes could have been describing my study and its currently overflowing to-be-read stacks.
King John Prester, he who united the world of men, dies, and the world falls into chaos. The Norns, like their brethren the Sitha so long lived that they seem immortal, have been plotting vengeance for quite some time, and put their plan into motion. They make an alliance with King John’s heir, Elias, through an evil priest named Pryrates and the country soon feels the wrath of that alliance with changing weather patterns, the appearance of things previously unseen and Elias’ heavy handedness.
Through all this Simon moves from clueless youth to wanderer to adventurer. The three sections of the book are aptly named “Simon Mooncalf”, “Simon Pilgrim” and “Simon Snowlock”. If you have not already read this book, spoilers are next in this brief summary (for more detail, links to the re-reads are included).
In Part One – Simon Mooncalf (my re-read is post here), Simon has a relatively normal life (thinking about girls, dreaming about battles, trying to sneak off to join the army) until being apprenticed to Morgenes. Reference is made to Simon’s birth to an unknown father, and a promise made by Morgenes to keep the boy safe.
When King John dies, the kingdom slowly slides into disrepair – bad weather, taxes, the new King Elias (son of John) having a heavy hand. Elias is counseled by Pryrates, the prototypical evil dude. King Elias’ brother Josua goes missing, and when Simon finds Josua held captive apparently by Pryrates, things spin out of control. Morgenes and Simon help Josua escape, but Pryrates attacks Morgenes, who pushed Simon into the same secret passage under the castle before burning himself and trying to burn their assailants.
Simon wanders underneath, hearing the voices of long ago Sithi, the former inhabitants of the castle, who were driven into hiding by men. Simon eventually escapes and sees King Elias and Pryrates in a ceremony with the Norns, who are like the Sithi, and Simon witnesses some kind of pact between the King and one of the Red Hand, undead minions of Ineluki, the Storm King, who died long ago.
In Part Two – Simon Pilgrim (re-read post here), Simon has runaway, and is outside of the castle and alone for the first time in his life. Once Simon escapes/ventures outside of the castle, he meets trolls, Sithi and other humans from far away lands.
Simon frees a Sithi from a trap, who gives him a White Arrow in return. He meets Binabik (and Qantaqa the wolf) and journeys along with them. They head for the rest and safe haven of an abbey in the forest, only to find the abbey burning, its inhabitants mostly killed. Simon is briefly captured by a band from the Hayholt (but not King Elias men) then escapes when creatures from legend called Bukken attack the band. Simon and Binabik head back into the woods, and find themselves hunted by men and dogs, sent by Pryrates to track down Simon (who saw too much). They rescue two girls, one of whom is Marya, who Simon knew as a boy Malachias, from the castle. Together, all journey to the house of the witch woman Geloë. Here, Binabik and Simon travel the dream road with the witch woman, and discover some of the forces that are allied with King Elias and Pryrates. The huntsman and his dogs come at them again, and they run toward an ancient Sithi city, where the huntsman shoots an arrow through Binabik. Simon saves his friend, and with Marya they are eventually rescued by Josua outside of the castle Naglimund.
In Part Three – Simon Snowlock (re-read post here), Simon comes into his own on a quest to find the sword Thorn to the far north where few have ever ventured. The sword Thorn is part of three swords (Memory, Sorrow and Thorn) which legend (and Morgenes final manuscript) says must come together to defeat the un-dead king Ineluki. Much of this knowledge is researched through the League of the Scroll, which Morgenes and Binabik’s master were a part of.
Simon also finds that Marya is actually Miriamele, King Elias’ daughter and a princess.
Simon and Binabik travel north with others. The same huntsman with his dogs falls upon them, but they are saved by Sithi, one of whom is Jiriki, the Sitha that Simon saved from the trap. The Sithi join with Simon’s quest. Together, they find the sword Thorn and awaken an ancient dragon which was guarding it. Simon wields Thorn and hits the dragon, showering himself with dragon’s blood and causing the dragon’s retreat.
The rest, under Prince Josua, prepare for King Elias’ assault on the castle Naglimund. There is much politicking trying to sway Nabban and Hernystir (other kingdoms under Elias) to join one side or the other; but King Elias wins these kingdoms through treachery. The castle is eventually brought down by the forces of the Norns, the Red Hand and the Bukken, those whom Elias has made alliance with. Josua and some few others escape the castle into the forest.
Thus, for the next book, Elias, Pryrates and the Storm King certainly seem to have the upper hand. But Simon has the sword Thorn, and has smote a dragon down…and has a piece of his hair burned white to show for it.
There are many questions that are setup through this book:
- Who is Simon, and who are his parents?
- How can they stop Elias and the Storm King? What was the bargain that Elias made with the Storm King?
- What are the three swords supposed to do with they come together?
- Will the Sithi help man/mortals against their former brethren, the Norns?
- Who/What is the third original race (along with Sithi and Norns)?
- Will Simon ever get the girl?
If you’ve read it before, The Dragonbone Chair is one of those few books worth the re-read. If not, you still have time to read it before the release of the next trilogy, The Last King of Osten Ard.