There are far more than two books on the status and duties of the courtier, but for the purposes of my understanding of Tigana, a beloved classic of fantasy fiction, these two texts seem to be dueling each other in the fantasy realms of the palm. Macchiaveli may need no introduction, and certainly seemed to be directly riffed in Tigana, when an efficient and cruel counselor to one of the powerful mages describes how he will place the avaricious and selfish Nero in charge of collecting taxes, knowing, as he does, that Nero will be an awful tyrant. Then, Nero will be arrested and killed, and an effective and benevolent servant of the king shall be installed, instead. This is directly the tactics of Macchiaveli’s advice. Certainly, the emissary of the empire, and tyrant of three duchies of the Palm, who moved without love or passion or pity in his task of conquest felt a character straight out of Macchiavelli: effective, brutal, distant, and cautious. Yet, in many ways, these courts felt more like the realm of another text of courtly behavior by Castaglioni. Castaglioni’s historically influential, but ultimately lesser text was a grand debate of how courtiers should do and be courtiers. The nobility of the courtier should be evident in everything they do, as well as the superiority. These renaissance men, who are skilled at a wide variety of tasks, go about the business of the king with grace and perfect honesty. They excel whether asked to be an administrator, or a soldier, or a singer, or artist. Whatever they do is to be done with the flourish of one who belongs in the sphere of power. This reduction of the complex and long tome is, like all reductions, not quite correct, but it serves as an example of the way of thinking that goes into the sort of fantasy heroes that we are accustomed to seeing in many genre texts. These nimble, skillful courtiers are comfortable plucking harps, seducing women, or leading vast armies without a beat lost, unflinching and succeeding at whatever duty comes to them.
When one is playing as the main character, for example, in Dragon Age, one is always feeling the importance of the individual character being played. Non-player characters respond to the player as if there is an aura of command and power and potential present. Fools who dare to question this power are often the subject of the game’s combat mechanics, enshrining through repetition the idea that the player is above the rest of the people in the game, and is to be respected and given grand tasks to perform worthy of his/her skills. This notion is derived directly from the sort of heroic writing that appears in Tigana. Ultimately, it is the competence of all the characters, their sheer courtly ability, that undermines the otherwise beautiful book. The main characters are simply too good at what they do! I was reminded of the video games during a section when the character, Baerd, stumbles in the dark upon a great and terrible night quest reserved for those born under a certain sign. This is the perfect random encounter, straight out of a video game. He is the chosen one, the prophesied one, who will turn the tide of the Night War that he knew nothing about until stumbling upon a cabin the night. It was a side quest, straight out of a video game, where a series of symbolic actions took place in a dreamlike world that ultimately became a symbol of the larger text, but it did not feel like more than the sort of things players would experience in video games while stumbling across new areas of a map.
There were a handful of moments where main characters failed at what they set out to do in a meaningful way. There were only a handful of deaths along the way, as well. I observed, detached, as the amazing and noble and god-blessed prince arranged a complex series of events that could, on the one hand, be described as Macchiavelian in the modern parlance, but felt far more like the sheer perfection of the Courtier’s in their varied pursuits. Whether in music, trade, statecraft, swordplay, or even negotiating two bowshots from a charging horse in the night over the shoulder at a force of raiders chasing him – an impossible shot! – both arrows found their marks. Could he do wrong? Could he have failed more?
Perhaps there could have been a little more folly in this fool’s quest.
Despite this, it is still a beloved classic, and rightly so. For the same reason these sorts of stories inspire us to continue questing on, reading on, and watching heroic events unfold before us in impossible realms, the characters themselves found their inspirations in the actions of their fathers and grandfathers, who had somehow managed to do an impossible thing in defeating an invading wizard’s unstoppable force in battle once. The wizard lost his heir and his heart. He took away the very name and identity of the place he conquered with a powerful curse. This curse could only be broken by the inspiration of the idea that it carried with it, and the weight of the demand upon the new generation of heroes that felt that deep inspiration. As difficult as it can be to see the text as anything but escapism, the author seems aware enough of his own artistry to permit the text to try and debate itself on this tactic of near-perfectionism, or Courtierism. A great question that hangs over every characters’ head in the text is their duty as a courtier to a great king, whether as a concubine in the stable of the usurper, or the Captain of the Guard to a wicked tyrant, or a singer on the road who stumbles into the pages of history.
In the end, perhaps there is an attempt to find a middle ground between the rank Macchiavelian imperial tyrant, and the devoted, emotional, shrewd wizard king whose every calculation begins with love and ends with tyrrany. Perhaps both are wrong, somehow, and something else is true. Standing over the nearly-dead daughter of a coward, one potential king, alone, finds it in his heart to absolve the sins of his former kingdom, and their faithlessness, and to seek a healing outside of his own, selfish ends. Unlike either the wicked and brutal tyrant of the Empire, and the loving and emotional wizard king, the Prince of Tigana never, ever asked for the enslavement of the people to his will. The loyalty they offer him is their own choice, always and unto the end of the book.
Despite my misgivings and the echoes of the video games that came long after this text, it is hard to argue with the careful awareness that Guy Gavriel Kay maintains that things may be hard to believe, at times. He is always careful to set up the coincidences of the text, and the twists. He is always ready to offer the expedience of faith and magic when a ring in a deep ocean must be found. This skillful sheen is enough to carry the music, and to make a journey of it. It is an easy book to love, and very hard not to enjoy.