Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn: A Look Back
As fantasy readers across the world wait with bated breath for the June release of The Witchwood Crown and Tad Williams’ return to the world of Osten Ard, Fantasy Faction is taking a look back at Memory, Sorrow and Thorn—Williams’ seminal work of epic fantasy and the foundation for his new series, The Last King of Osten Ard. This month, we go back to the beginning having just finished a re-read of all three “MST” novels. In the coming weeks, we’ll also review Williams’ recently released Osten Ard novella The Heart of What Was Lost, and we’ll have a review of The Witchwood Crown right around its release in late June.
I don’t remember the circumstances of every single book I’ve ever purchased. But I vividly remember being 13 years old and receiving my first package of books from the old Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club. Inside that box was a treasure trove of hardcovers—it might have been seven books for a penny, it might have been ten books for a dollar—manufactured under license and smaller than retail versions. Lodged between a Fred Saberhagen novel I’ve still never read, a book by a gentleman named David Drake and the first couple Death Gate Cycle novels from Weis and Hickman were books that I can legitimately say altered the course of my literary life. The first two were The Eye of the World and The Great Hunt. The second pair was The Dragonbone Chair and The Stone of Farewell.
I chose all those books based on tiny blurbs and cover photos printed in a 5” x 7” magazine that randomly showed up at my house, likely because I was a member of the old Waldenbooks Preferred Readers Club. I had been bitten by the fantasy bug with the discovery of Dragonlance, Eddings and Lord of the Rings three or four years prior. I read them over and over and over as only kids can. I’d seen the Wheel of Time books at the store, but always passed on them for the latest TSR had to offer. Williams’ work was completely unknown. I figured for what I (meaning: my parents) was paying, I could take a few risks, buy some things that were outside of my narrow wheelhouse.
That decision is still paying dividends 25 years later.
Kurt Cobain famously said that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was just his blatant attempt at writing a Pixies song. The rest, as they say, was history. One need look no further than George R.R. Martin (the Cobain to Williams’ Black Francis) to see that MST altered the landscape of fantasy. Without Osten Ard there is no Westeros as we know it. And without A Game of Thrones, this new golden age of fantasy we’re living in simply doesn’t happen. Memory, Sorrow and Thorn isn’t just important to me personally. It is “capital-I” Important.
Memory, Sorrow and Thorn is the tale of Simon, the kitchen boy who goes on an adventure. It is the tale of three great swords, a dragon and a dead king, and the twilight of the immortal Sithi. It is a war story, a love story, a political story and a religious story. It is about fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives. Even at its most fantastic, it is deeply rooted in simple human emotion. And even at its most triumphant, it doesn’t shy away from the sadness at the core of the tale.
I burned through The Dragonbone Chair and The Stone of Farewell in a matter of two weeks. I vividly remember being unable to put them down. Those copies are still almost pristine, but there are wear marks on the map pages from constantly flipping back to get a lay of the land. And when I finished them, the wait for To Green Angel Tower—which was nearly two years away—was excruciating. Remember—we weren’t living in the Internet age in 1991. I imagine the only way I determined when the third book was coming out was by constantly harassing the clerks at the Waldenbooks I rode my bike to on a near-daily basis.
To Green Angel Tower was released and it was a monster. 1,104 pages of tiny type crammed between two hardback covers. I was ecstatic. Here was something I could savor, I could sink my teeth into, I could live with and digest over a few months.
I finished it in two weeks.
I re-read the entire series for the first time over the last couple months, via audiobook. Unlike many series I read as a kid, Williams’ work holds up. It doesn’t feel trite, dated or shallow. There’s that timelessness to it that clings to great works of fantasy. Lord of the Rings has that feel. So do The Wheel of Time and Harry Potter. So does A Song of Ice and Fire. These works exist outside of the regular narrative. They are neither temporary nor fleeting. They persist and have become part of the fantasy fabric.
Memory, Sorrow and Thorn could have easily failed. The tale of an orphaned boy with a mysterious destiny has been played to death in fantasy circles. So, too, have tales of aloof and immortal elves from a far off corner the world. Dragons, swords, trolls, horselords, knights in shining armor, magic both black and white—these are the things from which tropes are made. And yet Williams breathed new life into the old standbys through sheer force of will.
The Dragonbone Chair, the first volume of the trilogy, is a slow burn. Parts of it read like a linear, heavily plotted tale while other passages feel like improvisational jazz. The reader can feel Williams finding his way, throwing ideas at the wall to see what sticks. He seems to write in service to both the characters and the story, and isn’t one to shy away from following both down unexpected paths. By the second book, The Stone of Farewell, Williams’ confidence in both his material and his characters’ ability to captivate a reader is on full display. And To Green Angel Tower takes the whole thing widescreen–epic in size and scope, with payoff that satisfies as much as it surprises.
Re-reading a beloved series from childhood can be a dicey proposition. Books that blew your mind as a kid can seem juvenile and dated through the lens of adulthood. But my re-read of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn engendered the opposite reaction. The books were even more enjoyable the second time around. As a more experienced reader and with the dubious benefit of age, I find myself appreciating Williams’ “four book trilogy” even more than I did before. After reading series like A Song of Ice and Fire, The Wheel of Time and Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy I have a deeper understanding of and respect for the risks Williams took in delving into the minutiae, and a deeper admiration of his ability to pull it off with aplomb.
Memory, Sorrow and Thorn is essential reading for any fan of the fantastic. Whether the series is your cup of tea or not, by the end you’ll undoubtedly agree that Williams was ahead of his time. And you’ll see his influence—both subtle and overt—in much of the best fantasy that has followed. There’s a reason The Witchwood Crown is—by far—my most anticipated book of 2017. Williams’ return to Osten Ard is a true fantasy Event. And as the release of The Witchwood Crown draws close, as the buzz grows louder and louder, my fervent hope is that a new generation falls in love with this story the way I did—that they embrace it, laud it, and give it the place of honor on the collective bookshelf it so richly deserves.