Monday, October 22, 2018

King Kelson is a remarkable hero in a bunch of Deryni books written by Katherine Kurtz and his allegory is relevant even today.

This is a drawing of the character Kelson Haldane by artist Jenny Dolfen. It's pretty
good and you can see more of her work at her website HERE. I think my vision of him is
slightly different (as is going to be anyone who reads this series). I'm not a big fan
of the way the nose is drawn, but to each their own. 
I came late to the show with Katherine Kurtz and her remarkable Deryni series, which probably hit its apex following in the late nineties and has declined in popularity ever sense (but who can say for sure as overall book sales have declined for authors on the mid-list of big publishing houses in the last two decades?). The earliest of these books came out around the time Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jaws were in theaters on first-run releases, so yeah, they've been out quite a while. Her world, which is an almost identical one to our own, even borrows the landscape of Wales for its maps. It does (at least) rename cities and landmarks with fantasy names similar to how Piers Anthony borrowed the map of Florida for his Xanth novels. What I find most remarkable, however, is how she kept pretty much everything from Catholicism (including such things as Judas, Jesus Christ, religious rituals, titles, prayers, saints, and the idea that suicide is an unforgiveable sin). I'd always wondered how this could possibly work and be good? I felt that anchoring a fantasy series too much in actual history would come across as awkward. But it doesn't. It feels natural, and I'm kind of addicted to reading these stories.

The main character in most of the books I've read is the twenty-sixth king of the fictional kingdom of Gwynedd who goes by the name Kelson Cinhil Rhys Anthony Haldane, and he's basically King Arthur, but with a more modern fantasy spin. For one, he's very young (in the books I've read he goes from age 14 to 17), he's the most handsome boy in the kingdom, he's got the biggest heart you could ever want in a person, and he's got a genius-like intelligence to him. Oh and he's also Deryni, which makes it so that he can use the magic system in this world, which is pretty much this: mind-reading for truth including a play-by-play of actual events seen by witnesses downloaded into his brain, the ability to communicate with other people who share his magical bloodline over great distances, and the ability to deflect the occasional arrow or two with great concentration. They aren't spectacular by any means, but it turns out to be awesome for storytelling. These books are about politics, about the struggle of power between religion and monarchy, and about the complicated medieval system of marriage and alliances that joined this house to that house and gave claim of certain lands to heirs (through bloodline). People are killed regularly in these political games in a variety of ways, the worst of which is the fate of being drawn and quartered (which was described in gruesome detail).

The main struggle in these books is also about those who have access to this magic (Deryni heritage) and those who are common and cannot do anything wondrous. Religion of course is at the forefront of the decision-making around this issue, almost in universal condemnation of the magic as a dark influence granted by Satanic powers. It stands in hypocrisy to itself as many of the priests, bishops, and arch-bishops in the church of these books have some kind of Deryni ability. Additionally, a long-dead saint by the name of Saint Camber, was a full Deryni, and he pops up all the time to aid this or that in the visions of his faithful. So its essentially an ongoing allegory of those who are different, being outnumbered by those who are not. And Katherine Kurtz is not unbiased in her representation. Anyone reading these books (if given a choice) would want to be Deryni. The magic just lends itself by granting that "extra edge" that allows the Deryni to continuously win and overcome challenges created by the raving bigots who are dead-set against them. But being in good sport, the Deryni do not abuse the power that they attain. When they rule, peace, tolerance, and goodness are promises kept to those who call the lands of Gwynedd their home.

So what do I find so fascinating about these books? It's a long list. The dialogue is glorious (you can hear the Scottish and Irish-inspired accents), the plots are cunning and intricate, the stakes are always high, and the details can be stomach-churning where the villains of the story are concerned. I love that the protagonist, King Kelson, has such a strong moral compass. He's an incredible hero for being such a young boy, and (though he's in possession of remarkable emotional intelligence) he's also ruthless when he needs to be. In the books I've read so far, he gave each of his enemies a second chance. When they betrayed him a second time, he did not give them a third and executed them without batting an eyelash.

There is also weird romance, and I want to acknowledge that this kind of medieval romance has its kind of rapey undertones that the author doesn't shy away from. I imagine that it must have been like this in the War of the Roses or other eras of history. For example, in a lovely scene in one book, Kelson decides to marry a princess who is his hostage. She's from a land that is in open rebellion (the forced marriage was an attempt to squash that rebellion). He didn't want to marry this person, and she didn't want to marry him either (imagine marrying your family's enemy). But Kelson knew that if he married her and got an heir from her, that it would save countless lives. So the young king tried his best to fall in love with her, and to court her, so that she would fall in love with him. It was romantic in a desperate sort of extremely forced way. And in the end, both of them hoped (idealistically) that the whole marriage wouldn't seem like a prison sentence. In other words, Kelson wanted his bride to give herself willingly to him on their marriage night. It sounds weird but Kelson was after consent (of all things) by getting the princess to either ignore or forget the gun that was literally pointed at the back of the princess's head.

Of course, it all seemed to work in grand literary style. And why shouldn't it? Kelson is the handsomest boy in the kingdom, and he oozes charisma. Plus, he's the king so he's got so much wealth and power that it's blinding. And there's the added bit that he's young and fresh and kind and every maiden who wasn't the princess was madly in love with him. Talk about peer pressure? However, it was not meant to be, because this princess's younger brother (who was also a hostage and meant to give his sister away for marriage) murdered her during the wedding (he drew a dagger and slit her throat as she said her vows). The excuse for doing this was to keep his bloodline pure of the Deryni-tainted Kelson. Kelson was heart-broken and executed the brother (of course), but it was a really touching scene to see both of these teenagers taking steps to thwart an all-out war only to have it ripped away. And inevitably, war did come and it was awful. Thousands died, women were raped by the hundreds, men were killed by the hundreds, children were butchered, there was mass starvation, and so on and so forth. Katherine Kurtz isn't afraid to get her hands dirty in showing how a kingdom comes together (by force if necessary).

Finally, the most intriguing thing about these books is how well they hold up over time. The allegory of the Deryni and the non-Deryni struggling against one another is not lost on me, nor is the idea of keeping one's true nature in the closet to avoid persecution. It seems to be a timeless trope, relied upon not only by Katherine Kurtz, but the X-Men comic books and movies, Harry Potter (muggles and non-muggles anyone?), and dozens of other similar tales. In fact, there are times when I think that the stories that evolve around struggle are the most interesting tales that humanity has to tell.  


  1. We could certainly use a race of Deryni in today's political and social climate, and hope that they take over.

    I'm not one for reading the fantasy genre so much, but this sounds like an intriguing series I should check out. It also sounds like the author knows her real-life medieval history, which was grim and bloody.

  2. Can a male character be a Mary Sue? Kelson sounds a little too perfect.

  3. I read the original trilogy when I was a teenager and loved it. I went out and bought everything that was available at the time. But, overall, they don't hold up. They get long and cumbersome, and I quit reading them during the third or fourth trilogy.

  4. These days my reading has to be less involved. My writings are short stories, which requires me to be concise and meaningful.

  5. They Deryni sound a little too perfect. I'm glad you've found something you're enjoying. Writing in an alternate or fantasy world is a great way to draw parallels to things you wouldn't think of if it was just fiction set in our world.