Thursday, October 9, 2014

The curse of Chalion

The Curse of Chalion: a fantasy novel based on Spanish history

Book cover
The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold, is one of the best fantasy novels of the latest years. It belongs to that rare category, which also contains Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, C.S.Lewis's Perelandra, Walter M. Miller Jr.'s Canticle for Leibowitz, or Poul Anderson's Orbit unlimited, that combine an interesting adventure plot with important ethical dilemmas and deep questions about the nature of man and God.
In this novel, as deftly crafted as her Vorkosigan saga, Lois McMaster Bujold has pushed further the bounds of subcreation as defined by Tolkien in his paper On fairie stories. She presents us, not just a coherent imaginary universe, but even a strange God, which rather than three persons displays five, together with important differences from the God we have heard about.

Cazaril, the hero, is clearly a figure of Christ: his death becomes the rent between the worlds, through which one of the divine persons enters the world of matter to lift the curse of Chalion, a kind of original sin. He is even, in some sense, resurrected. This parallel, however, does not push the story out of its logical lines, but is smoothly embedded in it. In fact, one could say, it is the other way around: the story pushes the message in and makes it take the appropriate form for the world being described, in a show of the literary masterly of the author.
The book is interspersed with pearls worthy of being remembered. The following are a few of them:
  • To a man of certain age... all young ladies start to look delightful. It's the first symptom of senility.
  • [God] does not grant miracles for our purposes, but for [His purposes].
  • Prayer, he suspected... was putting one foot in front of the other. Moving all the same.
  • Men have always a choice - if not whether, then how, they may endure.
  • [God is] on our side... can we fail?... Yes... and when we fail, [God does] too.
The Curse of Chalion is loosely based on a part of Spanish history, the preliminaries of the famous kingdom of the Catholic Monarchs, the creators of the Spanish state. The following inklings point to this conclusion:

Map of the Ibran peninsula
  • The map of Chalion and the neighboring countries, which does not appear in the novel but is shown in its continuation, Paladin of souls, is the map of Spain and Portugal, upside down. Its name, the Ibran Peninsula, is a simple modification of the Iberian Peninsula.
  • In the map, Chalion occupies the same space as Castile (Castilla); Ibra is Aragon; Brajar is Portugal; Yiss is Navarre (Navarra): the four main kingdoms in which the Iberian peninsula was divided at that time, apart from the Moorish kingdom of Granada, represented here by several small heretic kingdoms. Even the Balearic islands can be seen, somewhat displaced from their real situation.
  • The king of chalion (Orico) has two half-siblings: Iselle and Teidez. The king of Castile until 1474 (Enrique IV) had two half-siblings: Isabel (Isabella) and Alfonso. Notice the similarity: Orico-Enrique, Iselle-Isabel(la).
  • Orico, who seems to be infertile, forces his wife to go to bed (unsuccessfully) with his chancellor Dy Jironal and his brother. In the same way, Enrique IV of Castile was accused by his enemies to be impotent and to have fathered his daughter, Juana la Beltraneja, by means of his favorite, Beltrán de la Cueva.
  • The castle in one of the covers of the book, shown above, is the Alcázar of Segovia, the seat of Enrique IV's government in Castile (see the photograph below and compare).

Alcázar of Segovia (Spain)

  • In chapters 11 and 14, while discussing possible marriages for Iselle, the king of Brajar is mentioned. Iselle dismisses him because he is much older than herself. In Castile, Enrique tried to marry Isabel to Alfonso V of Portugal, 20 years older than she was. She rejected him.
  • Iselle is betrothed by Orico to Dondo dy Jironal, the lecherous brother of his chancellor. Similarly, Enrique IV of Castile ordered Isabel to wed Pedro Girón, brother of the Marquis of Villena, one of the chiefs of the noblemen party. Both Dondo and Pedro died suddenly in uncertain circumstances a short time before the wedding. Notice the similarity: Jironal-Girón.
  • When Teidez, who is Orico’s heir, dies accidentally, Iselle becomes the heiress. In the same way, when prince Alfonso died in 1468, Isabel was accepted as the heiress by the party of the noblemen and by the king.
  • In the novel, Iselle weds in secret Ibra’s heir, Bergon. In 1469, Isabel of Castile wedded in secret Fernando (Ferdinand), heir of Aragon (notice the similarity, Bergon-Aragon).
  • Iselle leaves the Zangre, where she is watched, using as a excuse her wish to visit her mother, who is supposed to be mad. Once with her, Iselle escapes, riding her horse, to seek refuge in the city of Valenda, governed by her uncle, where her marriage with Bergon will take place. In the same way, Isabel of Castile left Ocaña, where she was watched by the order of his brother the king, using as a excuse her wish to visit her mother, who is supposed to be mad. Once with her, Isabel escapes to seek refuge in the city of Valladolid, governed by Enrique de Trastámara, her relative, where her marriage with Fernando will take place. Notice the similarity: Valenda-Valladolid.
  • Among the conditions of the wedding, the novel states that Bergon will not be the king of Chalion, just the king of Ibra; Iselle will be the queen of Chalion. Only their issue will inherit both kingdoms (an empire, in Cazaril’s words). In a similar way, Isabel did not relinquish the government of Castile to Fernando. Both were considered equals in the government. Their grandson was the emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire.
There are many other parallels: Betriz-Beatriz; the civil war in Ibra; Dy Lutez-de Luna... But this is enough for now.

Thematic Thread on Literature and Cinema: Next
Manuel Alfonseca


  1. Your theological comments at the end of the first paragraph and in the second paragraph have, as far as I can see, no support in the book. You can read these concepts INTO the text if you like, but they are not intrinsic to it. Nowhere in the three Five Gods books published so far is there any intimation that the Five are actually facets of One, or that Cazaril is in any way divine or an embodiment of the Daughter, let alone of a non-existent One. Please see _Paladin of Souls_, in which the Dowager Royina Ista becomes an (initially unwilling) agent of the Bastard.

    1. I wonder why you are surprised that I have included my own interpretations and ideas about this book in my article. What did you expect?

      Just three specifications about your comment:

      1. I have read all three novels in the series.

      2. A figure of Christ does not entail being "divine or an embodiment of the Daughter." See its definition in the Wikipedia:

      3. Lois is my Goodreads friend, knows about this article, and has confirmed that she did use the Spanish history as inspiration for this novel.