Tigana | Culture and Memory

An analysis of the 1990 book “Tigana”, written by Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay. Contains minor spoilers.

Tigana is a book written 1990 by Canadian writer Guy Gavriel Kay. It is a deeply moving story of a people struggling to be free. It tells the story of a handful of men and women, driven by love, hope and pride, set in motion the dangerous quest for freedom and bring back to the world the lost brightness of an obliterated name: Tigana.


In the confusion of todays globalization, Tigana can teach us a great lesson about the importance of culture and memory.
So much of our identity, our sense of self and who we are, is rooted in our culture. We, all human beings, need a cultural identity. We need a feeling of belonging to a group. This sense of cultural identity is exactly what Tigana, the 1990 masterpiece by Guy Gavriel Kay, explores. Or, rather, the lack of it.

Tigana is about people whose homeland has been lost. Their homeland has been erased from history and memory by Brandin, the tyrant sorcerer. The name of the land, Tigana, is only known by a few people, and they hold the fading memories of the once flourishing land which has now been burned to the ground. As Kay puts it: ”The vengeance of the King of Ygrath went deeper than occupation and burning and rubble and death. It encompassed names and memory, the fabric of identity.”

This ”fabric of identity” is the core of our cultural identity. Our names define ourselves. Without them, we don’t exist. Kay writes in the afterword: ”When you want to subjugate a people—to erase their sense of themselves as separate and distinctive—one place to start (and it is sometimes enough) is with their language and names. Names link to history, and we need a sense of our history to define ourselves.”

Minority languages are dying rapidly, and with them dies the cultural identity and sense of belonging to a group. Separatist movements often involve attempts to reclaim a lost language. Language connects people. It is vital for communication. Globalization is threatening to disunite many small ethnic groups.

After the destruction of Tigana, the population fled to different parts of the country. They split up, lost the connection to each other. Thus Tigana became just a memory, and soon faded to a dream. The cities where changed, the music was changed, all of the Tiganese culture, all of what made Tigana what it was, disappeared. Kay writes: ”Tigana was an attempt to use magic to explore these themes: erasing a people from the record of history by stripping them of their name.”

Some people couldn’t stand what happened to their country and tried to suppress the memories of the past. The memories of what was lost became too intense. Others clung to those memories with all they had. Baerd roamed the damaged streets of what was once his hometown Avalle during the night. Memories became all he lived for. And eventually, the fight to bring those memories back to life.

Many people in the world are in a similar situation. Refugees leave their homeland, their family, their culture. They are forced to adapt to new circumstances. They carry with them memories, good and bad. They must forget their old lives and make new ones. Some even change their names to fit in better in the new country. For some, the memories are too intense and impossible to forget. Many lose sense of who they are and where they belong. They have lost their fabric of identity.

Tigana is a timeless novel with apparent importance and much to tell and teach. It may be set in another world and another time, but it speaks to us today in this world. And that was Kay’s purpose when he wrote it. He didn’t write Tigana to give us some pastime. He wrote it to make us think and see. This is the power of fantasy, that it can tell us the truth about our world through another world. As Kay writes about the themes of Tigana: ”Beneath them all lies the idea of using the fantasy genre in just this way: letting the universality of fantasy—of once upon a time—allow escapist fiction to be more than just that, to also bring us home.”