Literature Commentary: Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn

31 Aug

(Originally published May 17, 2009)

Last year, I kicked off my summer by reading one of the most massive science fiction epics out there…Tad Williams’ “Otherland” series. You know how a book sometimes sticks in your head for a long time after reading it? “Otherland” was like that for me. This year, I decided to read Williams’ massive high fantasy trilogy “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn.” I know I said I’d keep these commentaries confined to classic literature…but this series was so vast and complex that it deserves a mention here.

“Memory, Sorrow and Thorn” is a series in three parts: “The Dragonbone Chair” “Stone of Farewell” and “To Green Angel Tower.” At more than 1000 pages, “To Green Angel Tower” is a truly massive tome that took me more than a week to complete. (It is so long that, in paperback, it has to be published in two separate volumes). Despite the length, “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn” is a masterpiece of the genre that should captivate all fans of classic LOTR-esque fantasy.

The book is primarly concerned with Simon, a lowly castle scullion who becomes caught up in a grand adventure. Upon the death of the legendary dragon-slaying king Prester John, John’s two sons Elias and Josua become caught up in a struggle for succession. Elias quickly falls under the spell of the hateful alchemist Pryrates, who gives him the sword Sorrow – an accursed blade forged by the hand of the undead Storm King Ineluki. Josua must flee for his life, and Simon, who draws Pryrates’ wrath, must follow.

But the forces of evil are already stirring. The Storm King is drawing nearer to the mortal world, and his sinister elvish minions (white-skinned hunters known as Norns) are prowling all throughout the land. It is up to a ragtag alliance of humans, trolls, and Sithi (sylvan-elves) to confront him…even as they realize too late that this may be a war they cannot possibly win.

While slightly overlong, “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn” is a triumph of high fantasy. Like the “Belgariad” and the “Malloreon” it is a vast tale spanning several kingdoms and culminating in a smashingly epic confrontation. The twist ending will satisfy some readers, but may frustrate others. Suffice it to say that if you liked the way the “Belgariad” ended, you’ll probably like this. That isn’t a spoiler, by the way.

From a worldview standpoint, “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn” is quite interesting. Most of the major characters belong to the “Aedonite” religion, a belief system obviously derived from Christianity. (The Son of God, Usires Aedon, is hung on an “Execution Tree” by an evil empire, and is resurrected several days later). It is never quite clear whether or not Williams espouses Christian beliefs, but characters certainly struggle with faith issues. Ultimately, the power of prayer and sacrifice is upheld, but the ending leaves many questions unanswered – such as Williams’ response to the question of whether or not God could allow suffering and death. Williams contrasts the structured Aedonite faith with the polytheism of the Welsh-influenced Hernystiri humans, the Zen-like beliefs of the Sithi elves, and the shamanism of the trolls. From this viewpoint, it is remarkably fascinating.

Objectionable content? Very little. There are a few mild suggestive overtones and the occasional profanity, as well as some violent battle scenes, but the book never strays beyond PG-13 material. Fans of “Lord of the Rings” or “Harry Potter” will probably not find it offensive. Williams shows remarkable restraint.

Overall, I would recommend “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn” to dedicated fans of high fantasy. Other readers probably will not want to read through 2400 pages of material in order to pick up the interesting worldview references. As a fantasy buff, I certainly enjoyed it. If you’re a fan of that genre, you’ll enjoy this series.
A little on the long side, but still a worthy read.

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Posted by on August 31, 2009 in Fantasy


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