Greetings, and welcome to the first part of my Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn re-read and analysis. This is something I’ve wanted to do for years, and as I’ve re-read the series many times and gotten to know it better and better, I’ve fallen more and more in love with it. I have no doubts in my mind whatsoever that this is my favorite fantasy series, and that I will now and forever read anything Tad Williams writes.
A few notes about this re-read. The most important thing is this: If you have never read this series before, and have somehow found this site by accident, there WILL BE MASSIVE SERIES-BREAKING SPOILERS throughout this re-read and analysis. I do not believe I can stress this enough. DO NOT read this if you have never read the series before, unless you just don’t mind knowing how a many-thousand-page epic series concludes. There will be Spoilers. The will be MANY Spoilers. You have been warned.
Next, there have been re-reads and analyses of this series before, but I am trying to approach this with a bit of a fresh perspective, and am thus going at least attempt to avoid reading previous re-reads and analyses that may be floating around out there. That doesn’t mean I won’t raise some of the same points, and some of you reading this may decide that I should read those other re-reads, and thus try to gather up as much conversation and as many points as possible. To those, I say, “Okay.” Seriously, if you guys want me to try to include points from previous re-reads, I will. However, I would rather you include them yourselves, and let’s start a nice discussion here.
That should do for now. Enjoy!
1 – The Grasshopper and the King
On an unspecified day in Novander, the Hayholt is bustling with activity. It is the first day in three years that the castle’s throne room has been opened, and everyone is excited and/or cleaning. In the Hedge Garden, the scullion boy Simon is playing with a beetle, attempting to avoid what he considers to be confusing work. He is caught by Rachel the Dragon, who demands to know where he has been, and why he hasn’t been working when the rest of the castle is working nonstop to prepare the castle again now that King John is out of his sickbed for the first time in three years. She gives Simon a stern dressing-down and slap, and tows him back towards work.
Simon’s home, the Hayholt, is older than the entire kingdom of Erkynland.
The Erkynlanders were only the latest to claim the castle – many others had called it their own, but none had been able to make it wholly so. The outwall around the sprawling keep showed the work of diverse hands and times: the roughhewn rock and tinder of the Rimmersmen, the haphazard patching and strange carvings of the Hernystiri, een the meticulous stonework of Nabbanai craftsmen. But looming over all stood Green Angel Tower, erected by the undying Sithi long before men had come to these lands, when all of Osten Ard had been their dominion. The Sithi had been the first to build here, constructing their primeval stronghold on the headlands overlooking the Kynslagh and the river-road to the sea. they had called their castle Asu’a; if it had a true name, this house of many masters, then Asu’a was that name.
Simon knows he will never amount to anything – while the rest of the castle knows their place, Simon constantly dreams of adventure. He hides from his chores and duties so that he can daydream in the many passageways and hiding holes of the Hayholt. Most of the castle refers to him as “ghost boy,” while Rachel refers to him as “mooncalf.” Rachel and the chambermaids had raised Simon, and many efforts had been made over the years to find a suitable place for him – he works in the kitchen often, where it is rumored that Sir Fluiren, a famous knight, had done the same thing in his youth, due to his ineffable humility. King John himself, at a not-much-older age than Simon, had already slain the Red Dragon.
Rachel drags Simon to the antechamber of the throne room, seemingly pleased at the scurrying of the many chambermaids cleaning the place. Simon idly watches a new girl, Hepzibah, who notices him and smiles back, embarrassing Simon. Rachel then embarrasses him further by yelling at him to “Have at it, then!”
”At what?! Do what?!” Simon shouted, and was mortified to hear Hepzibath’s [sic] silvery giggle float out from the hallway. He pinched his own arm in frustration. It hurt.
Rachel tells Simon to run sweep out Doctor Morgenes’ chambers. Simon is excited by the prospect of visiting his friend the Doctor, and runs away, while Rachel prepares to get back to work on the antechamber and throne room.
In the throne room, a small, old man sings to his king, who sits in the great Dragonbone Chair like a “hobbled bird of prey shackled to the dull bone.” The king had been a tall man, but is now hunched in infirmity. He holds his great sword across his lap as Towser, his court bard, sings him a song, and as he listens, he cries. After Towser’s song, the two speak of King John’s sword, Brightnail, and how John fears his coming death. Towser kindly informs him that all men die, and how could John presume to “fight the Lord’s will?”
“But I built this kingdom!” A quivering rage was on John the Presbyter as he pulled his hand free from the jester’s grasp and brought it sharply down on the arm of his throne. “That must weigh against any blot of sin on my soul, however dark! Surely the Good Lord will have that in his Book of Accounts! I dragged these people up from the mud, scourged the cursed, sneaking Sithi out of the countryside, and gave the peasantry law and justice . . . the good I have done must weigh strongly.”
John continues speaking of his crumbling kingdom, and his two bickering sons. He criticizes his younger son, Josua, calling him a cynic, and cold to his inferiors. He considers it God’s good grace that Elias is his first-born son, and will thus inherit the kingdom, as Elias is much more suited to be the king of this great land. King John makes Towser promise to deliver Bright-Nail to Elias after his passing.
“Tell him what I have told you. Tell him that the sword is the point of his heart and hand, just as we are the instruments of the Heart and Hand of God the Father . . . and tell him that no prise, however noble, is worth . . . is worth . . .” John hesitated, and drew his trembling fingers to his eyes. “No, pay that no mind. Speak only what I told you about the sword. Tell him that.”
After this conversation, Towser sings John some more songs.
Well, that a very exposition-ish way to start a series off. I highly recommend you read along in your books as I do these read-throughs, as by necessity, I cannot quote entire chapters (plagiarism, anyone?), and have to condense the summaries down to manageable amounts of plot-related information.
The first few notes I would say are that this is definitely a slow way to start a book. Tad Williams has been criticized in the past on the slowness of this series’ start, and it definitely does not jump out as extremely exciting and action-packed on these first few pages and chapters.
Something that sticks out to me as I re-read this, and greet this old friend of mine that is Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, is that Tad Williams did an amazing job of setting up the foundation for everything that happens in the series, right here in the beginning. We are introduced (at least, by name) to most of the important characters to come, and given hints already at major parts of the backstory of the series. As Olaf mentions, even the Hayholt itself is introduced more as a character than just a place or thing, and that, I believe, is the proper way to think of this massive once-Sithi castle.
One thing I really love about this series though, is how realistic Simon’s immaturity and youthfulness is presented. I remember many a times in my teenage years of being embarrassed in a girl’s presence, or just not really understanding what my role was in society, and how I should behave to be not only true to myself, but also a “good boy.” There are so many times in this series when Simon reacts to a situation, and I’ve thought to myself, “That’s exactly how I would have reacted to that!” I find that to be a major, MAJOR point of awesomeness to Tad, because in most books, movies, and TV shows, one of my harshest criticisms towards them are how I cannot believe that people actually just “did what they did!” Sure, having people react to things in an unorthodox way helps railroad a plot along, but as Williams shows throughout this series, you can have characters act in realistic ways, and still have a fantastic story.
The quotes of John’s up above are extremely important, I believe, because they hint in the very, very beginning that the King had hidden things, and that maybe he was not the noble and saintly man that most people thought him to be. His sins truly are great, as we find out later in the series, and he has a lot to answer for when he makes it to his Lord’s presence. Plus, in re: that last quote above, think how much trouble would have been saved had John actually talked to both Elias and Josua about things? Of course, that makes not an interesting plot.
A quick note, with MUCH more to come on this later – we are introduced to the main religion in Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn the Aedonite religion. And as anyone with even the faintest of knowledge of Christianity can figure out, it is very much a copy of Christianity in fictional and fantasy form. Man’s actions are judged upon his death, thus giving him (or not!) access to Heaven and the afterlife.
I want to bring to attention two parts of the beginning of the story which I did not summarize: the Author’s Warning, and the Foreword. The Author’s Warning’s main purpose, it seems, is to tell the reader to “avoid making assumptions,” or more likely, “just because you’ve seen things play out in a particular way in fantasy before, don’t expect the same thing here.” I think this is a very apt description of what we eventually find out about the series, but I don’t know if I like it in the beginning. It seems to me to say, “expect big plot twists!” like M. Night Shyamalan greeting everyone coming into a theater with a big ol’ “don’t forget, there will be a twist ending!” I don’t know, could just be nit-picky, but I prefer not to have any spoilers about a book and/or series, even if the spoilers are just saying, “don’t expect so-and-so.”
As to the Foreword, we see the very first of many excerpts to come from Doctor Morgenes’ book on the life of King John. There are some pertinent clues to the story even right at the beginning here, and I do like that Doctor Morgenes’ book plays out very much like a “Big Unnoticed Thing,” that will have major repercussions on the story later.
As a final note, and just is more about the writing than the story, now that I am older and “wiser” in my readings, I do find the split third-person perspective in this first chapter slightly jarring. It jumps from Simon’s to Rachel’s mind, and back, pretty quickly over the course of a few paragraphs, and that is pretty unusual in most modern writing. However, I don’t think Williams does this a lot, and it may just be a case of first-book-isms, or just his way to introduce us to many characters as quickly as possible.
2 – A Two-Frog Story
Simon is distressed as he has knocked over a display of horse-armor while running through the castle corridors, swinging his broom around and pretending to be a bannerman for King John, riding into battle. He stuffs the fallen armor beneath a table as quickly as possible, then runs on, hoping he has avoided Father Dreosan’s wrath for the time being. He emerges into the Hedge Garden again, then continues on towards the Doctor’s chambers, but gets distracted again when he decides that he should catch some frogs for the Doctor.
It is nearly night when Simon shows up at the Doctor’s door, d. He dripping wet from his adventure in the moat, and a frog in each pocket. He knocks and is greeted abruptly by the Doctor, who calms down and smiles warmly when he realizes it is just Simon. Morgenes is in the middle of some extremely loud experiment, which he must stop before letting Simon into the room. He disappears into the main chamber quickly to stop the whistles and bangs, then peeks back out and beckons Simon into the room.
There was now not a trace of whatever had set up that fearful yammering. Simon again marveled at the discrepancy between what Morgenes’ rooms seemed to be – a converted guard-barracks perhaps twenty paces in length, nestled against the ivy-tangled wall of the Middle Bailey’s northeastern corner – and the view inside, which was of a low-ceilinged but spacious chamber almost as long as a tournament field, although not nearly as wide. In the orange light that filtered down from the long row of small windows overlooking the courtyard Simon peered at the farthest end of the room and decided he would be hard-pressed to hit it with a stone from the doorway in which he stood.
Morgenes seems to be busy, but makes time to find a container in which to place the frogs. The Doctor then asks what sort of payment Simon expects for bringing such fine specimens, and Simon replies that he would like to hear some “stories” about the Hayholt. After (lightly) criticizing the youth and explaining that he, in fact, wants to hear “history,” and not “stories,” Morgenes decides that the history of the Hayholt would indeed quality as a “two-frog story, at the very least.” Morgenes pours himself some sort of liquor, and begins his “story.”
The Sithi were the first masters of the land of Osten Ard, but eventually humans came to the land, and lived along the coast. These first humans and the Sithi lived peacefully with each other for many centuries, and eventually small human kingdoms built up as neighbors to the Sithi. The kingdom of Nabban rose to the south and spread across the continent, but there seemed to be plenty of land for all, until the Rimmersmen came across the sea with their black iron. These Rimmersmen came across the sea looking for plunder, and brought war to Osten Ard, and drove the Nabbanai and Sithi out of the northern lands. The Sithi held onto Asu’a, their first castle, for a long time, but the castle may have even been on the lands even before the Sithi first came – it is a very old and magical place.
“Fear not, Simon. I think – and I, of all people, should know – that there is not much for you to fear from Sithi magic. Not today. The castle has been much changed, stone laid over stone, and every ell has been rigorously blessed by a hundred priests.
The story is interrupted by Inch, the Doctor’s assistant, coming to visit Morgenes. Morgenes’ regretfully ends his story for the time being as he has work to do with Inch, but tells Simon to please come back so they can finish later. As Simon is preparing to leave, he realizes he left Rachel’s broom out by the moat. He tells Morgenes that he has been foolish, as he was supposed to sweep the Doctor’s chamber. Morgenes tells Simon to simply come back tomorrow to do it, and then mentions that he would find it useful for Simon to be around more often to help with running errands and cleaning – to become an apprentice. He will speak to Rachel about taking Simon into his service. Simon is ecstatic, and runs to pick up the broom and take it back to Rachel. He pauses out at the moat and sits for a moment, but is disquieted when he seems to hear whispered voices on the wind, saying “We will have it back, manchild. We will have it all back . . .” He fearfully runs inside.
When I was young, I lived in the parsonage of the church at which my father preached, on Sullivan’s Isle in Charleston, SC. A member of our church, named Mr. Broom, lived about a mile away. He had converted an old gymnasium into a house in which he and his wife had lived for twenty-plus years. My brothers and I used to visit this house, and it was always a wonderful experience for me. Upon entering the house, one would be greeted by rows upon rows of antique furniture, toys, old weaponry, arts and crafts, and other collected items. Literally, right inside the front door, there was table after table of awesome knick-knacks to play with, examine, or enjoy. I remember finding old action figures on tables, bird houses with broken doors, clocks, – many running, many not – knives and swords (which our father made us avoid), old guitars and flutes, and so many other things I can no longer remember. Entering the house always left me with a feeling of wonder and intrigue, as though I had stepped into an adult’s playroom, and the epitome of what I wanted my life to be.
The description of Morgenes’ chambers very much makes me think of those days in Mr. Broom’s house. Morgenes is eccentric, nutty, and probably slightly crazy, but also wise, kind, and fair. I love that he has this awesome amount of knowledge in his head, but doesn’t seem to bee too much of an expositional plot device (Of course, in fantasy novels, where you have to learn about a new world, it’s just a necessary fact that you will get a lot of info-dumps about how the world works). The main thing I notice about the Doctor is that, even as a fictional being, he seems to be the kind of person with which I would love to share a drink and talk philosophy. And of slightly side-note-ish quality, I love that he seems to be quite the mad scientist.
So Morgenes is introduced now as a speaking character, and becomes one of the most important characters in the series, even after his death (much like a Jedi?). He is the root of all the good things in the book that happen, and is one of the main stalwarts against the encroaching evil. Without his help and forethought, the characters simply could not have won. Of course, we don’t know all that yet – for all we know, he’s just a crazy old man that drinks liquor and rambles in front of teenagers. He is apparently a collector-of-things, with a room that would be described as an absolute wreck by most adults, but to a young man like Simon (and like I was when in Mr. Broom’s home on Sullivan’s Isle), it is a place of magic and mystery.
There is still a ton of exposition in this chapter, and you should certainly read it yourself, if for no other reason, so you can better start to grasp Morgenes’ personality. Morgenes goes over the first chunk of the history of Osten Ard, without getting into too many specifics yet, but there are some careful clues laid out, one of which I quoted above. We are given right here, in the very beginning, the reason why the Ineluki’s plans do not include just retaking the castle – he can’t, due to all the blessings of the priests.
We also get introduced to Inch, and it is pretty cool to remember when he was just a bumbling, and annoying, competitor for the Doctor’s affections, instead of the extremely malicious creature he eventually becomes. We see here that Morgenes doesn’t really seem to even care for Inch, but takes his wards seriously enough to stop his story with Simon so that he and Inch can do whatever they had planned to do.
And lastly, we get to hear the first of many ominous whispers from the “ghosts/spirits/whatever” of the Sithi in the Hayholt. I think these whispers give us good insight into what the Sithi/Norns/enemies actually want – they want back their lands, and they’re by-God going to take them back however they can.
3 – Birds in the Chapel
Rachel is cleaning spiders and cobwebs from the dining room, having to work extra hard since two of her chambermaids are unavailable, and Simon is out on an errand. She curses “that damnable boy,” and ponders that she has done her best over the years to beat some sense into him. He is old enough to be off her apron-strings, but still wants to just hide and avoid work like a kid, and Morgenes actually encourages it. She worries that Simon will not work at all in Morgenes’ apprenticeship, and will instead just sit around while the Doctor guzzles ale and tells stories. She definitely considers the offer, since Simon is always underfoot with her, and she does believe Morgenes cares for Simon. She remembers back almost fifteen years ago to Simon’s birth.
Rachel had run to the Doctor’s study through the rain, and demanded he come help with the servant Susanna, who was in labor. The Doctor followed Rachel and found out that the pregnant lady was having complications. He began to say that he would save the mother, as “she can always have another child,” but then seemed to realize who the lady actually was, and came to full attention. He then told Susanna, clearly in such pain, that he would save the child. The child was born a boy, and the Doctor spoke to Susanna.
“I saved him, Susanna. I had to,” he whispered.
The mother nodded thankfully and spoke of her dead husband, then named the child Seoman, which means “waiting.” She died on the table, and as her hand lowered, she dropped something on the floor, which the Doctor had picked up. He then told Rachel that she must take care of him, as “his parents are dead, you know.”
Rachel shakes herself awake after dosing off and steps outside. She remembers how she had renamed Seoman as Simon, since “everyone in the service of King John’s household took a name from the king’s native island, Warinsten,” and Simon was closest to Seoman. She walks out into the entry yard, looking up at Green Angel Tower, and remembers how she was once a young, beautiful girl herself. The young girls under her command have spoiled Simon over the years, and she would have to continue keeping her eye out for him.
She comes across Simon, who was extremely dirty, and is excited that he now has the bird’s nest he had seen in the Hedge Garden the day before. Rachel is of course disgusted and poleaxed by Simon’s seeming stupidity, and demands he get rid of the filthy thing. Simon is ashamed, and tries to defend himself, and Rachel softens a little, telling him that he just needs to learn to think a little before doing stupid things. She then tells him he should go work for the doctor, hoping Morgenes can “squeeze some sense into” the boy. He excitedly thanks Rachel, and runs Morgenes’ chambers.
One his way to the doctor’s chambers, Simon realizes it is cold, and decides to take a shortcut to Morgenes’ chambers by going through the chapel, which he knows is off-limits. He begins cutting through the choir loft when the sound of voices comes to him from below. He sneaks to the railing overlooking the chapel and sees the two princes of Erkynland below, arguing about a unnamed priest. Josua speaks.
“I warn you about the priest out of love for the kingdom.” There was a moment’s silence. “And in memory of the affection we once shared.”
Elias responds in anger, and the two argue further about this priest, named Pryrates, with Josua claiming Pryrates will bring about the ruination of their House.
“Then leave the castle!” Elias growled, and turned his back on his brother, arms crossed on his chest. “Go, and then let me prepare to rule as a man should – free of your complaints and manipulation.”
Their conversation continues, bringing up the fact that Josua blames the loss of his hand on Elias, while Elias blames the death of his wife on Josua. Josua attempts to reconcile with Elias one last time, but Elias throws a woman’s scarf at Josua and storms out. Josua picks up the scarf, looking pained, and then follows his brother out. Simon peeks out of the hall, about to sneak out of the chapel himself, when he notices a small person in brown clothes had also been hiding, and listening to the brother Princes confront each other. The person sees Simon and runs away.
I have memories of bringing all kinds of stray creatures into my house growing up, just knowing, each and every time, that this time, my mother would understand, and let me keep the little bird, turtle, frog, lizard, cat, squirrel, or whatever. And you know what? Every single time, she had just about the same reaction as Rachel the Dragon when Simon shows her the bird’s nest. Horror and revulsion. Looking back on those times, I feel that I can fairly blame my mother in just not having a heart. But I’m relatively certain that others would disagree.
The flashback scene provides us with a very important clue as to Simon’s heritage right at the beginning of the series. I have read many reviews about Tad Williams and Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn over the years, and very many of them speak negatively about two aspects of the ending of the series. The first being how happy everything turns out, with Josua living, Camaris surviving, and all the main characters making it through. We can speak on that more later. The second thing that tends to be a common criticism is that Simon’s heritage is never fully explained, and seems thrown together at the very end. This, I strongly disagree with. The very first time I read the series, when I reached the epic conclusion, I definitely felt that things seemed just a bit too hunky-dory. However, even on just my very first re-read, I was able to pick up clues, such as this flashback scene, and Morgenes giving Simon the ring with the quote in it. I think this is a major strength in this series, not a flaw – it means that if you look hard enough, you’ll see logical strings tying plot points together, like puzzle pieces slowly being sorted out.
I also really like the glimpse we get into Rachel during her little interlude. She obviously cares deeply for both Simon and the Hayholt, and it really flows well into many of the actions she later takes in the series once she’s had to flee castle halls.
We also get some extremely important looks into the nature of the struggle between Josua and Elias, and we get to see the first look at the kernel which led to all the actions Elias will eventually take. The love and loss of his wife is at the heart of every single thing he does and did, and he puts the full blame onto Josua.
The first time I read this story, I was a young man. I had never been in love, had never had a family, and had never had to see loved ones in great pain and torment. I had a hard time sympathizing with Elias as a character, and was never able to fully grasp his motivations. As I’ve gotten older though, I have found myself warming over the years to what Elias must have been thinking and feeling when he asked Pryrates to open the Door which should have remained closed. I’m not saying that, should an evil warlock come and offer to bring back my loved ones, I would jump into it, but I am saying that, having experienced great loss in my life in re: my sister, parents, and grandparents, and having witnessed my father-in-law’s struggle after his wife passed away from breast cancer, and having woken up from many a terrible dream in which I’ve lost someone I’ve loved . . . well, let’s just say that I can understand the desperate measures a man can take to get over my grief.
The last thing I want to talk about in this chapter is Tad’s world-building. We hear mentioned in this chapter many people who all become important in some way or another to the story, even as just side characters who show up again later, or historical figures such as the variously-mentioned Saints. We still haven’t yet reached all the things that truly show how masterfully-crafted Osten Ard and Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn are, but we are certainly getting major hints.
Well, that’s it for this week. I’ve had a good time going over and analyzing these chapters, and I hope you lovely readers will pick up tons of points that I’ve missed, and join in a discussion with me here on the blog.