Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

When frost doth grow on Claves' bell
And shadows walk upon the road
When water blackens in the well
Three Swords must come again.
When Bukken from the earth do creep
And Hunën from the heights descend
When Nightmare throttles peaceful sleep
Three Swords must come again.
To turn the stride of treading Fate
To clear the fogging Mists of Time
If Early shall resist too Late
Three Swords must come again.
-- Nisses, Du Svardenvyrd

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is a High Fantasy novel written by Tad Williams, comprising three volumes: The Dragonbone Chair, The Stone of Farewell and To Green Angel Tower. The latter volume was broken up into two separate books in its paperback release.

The story is set on the mythical continent of Osten Ard, a fairly Standard Fantasy Setting in which humans are the dominant race after centuries of struggle against the elf-like Sithi, troll/dwarf/Eskimo crossover Qanuc, and various other creatures. Beneath the surface, however, ancient magics are stirring as the undead Storm King nears the culmination of a 500-year long plan to return to power. The key to defeating the Storm King's plan involves three magical swords (the titular Memory, Sorrow and Thorn), which must be found and brought together if his threat is to be averted... or so it appears.

The plot mainly follows young Seoman (Simon), an orphan and kitchen boy in the Hayholt, capital of Erkynland, who mopes around, avoids chores, and dreams of a heroic life. Of course, The Call Knows Where You Live, and he is rapidly embroiled in Hero's Journey, which he finds out the hard way isn't as glamorous as the stories. Along the way, he befriends members of various races, rescues a Rebellious Princess, slays (pretty much) a dragon, searches for the three swords, fights in battles, is knighted, and finally embarks on a journey back to the Hayholt in a desperate bid to disrupt the Storm King's plan.

There is also a rather spectacularly large number of secondary characters and plot lines, which are responsible for the size of the books. On the Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism, the story falls somewhere in the middle: Anyone Can Die, characters get Killed Off for Real with depressing regularity, and the main characters seem to be the focus of all the suffering that the author can imagine throwing at them. Yet what slim hope there is of victory may owe more to The Power of Love than strength of arms.

The character sheet is here.

Tropes used in Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn include:

  • Alas, Poor Villain: Invoked. A core theme of the novel; in the end nearly all the villains are revealed to be sympathetic to a degree and these revelations are discussed by the characters. The few entirely unsympathetic villains, by contrast, get horrible Karmic Deaths and are uniformly reviled—nobody misses Fengbald or Skali, for example.
  • All Deaths Final: Failing to accept this is what drives Elias into Pryrates' clutches.
  • All Trolls Are Different: The Qanuc, who seem to have a lot in common appearance-wise with hobbits, looking like humans in every way besides height.
  • All Your Base Are Belong to Us: All of the good human kingdoms have been captured or subverted by the end of the first book.
  • And the Adventure Continues...: Discussed by the characters when Aditu bestows a prophecy over Josua and Vorzheva's twins. Just because everyone's in the middle of a grand adventure doesn't mean there won't be more things happening in Osten Ard after it's over.
  • Anyone Can Die: And they do. In droves.
  • Apron Matron: Rachel, headmistress of the Hayholt, who has earned the nickname "The Dragon" for her strictness. Simon is her "favorite" disciplinary case.
  • The Archer: Miriamele's weapon of choice is the bow. Some humor comes from the contrast between her archery skills and Simon's, who self-deprecatingly claims to be able to "hit a cow at ten paces."
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Straight cases -- King Elias (bad), Duke Isgrimnur (good). Aversions -- Count Eolair (good). Duke Skali (bad). It goes all over the place, in fact; one of the major themes is that royal blood alone does not make a good person. Not only that, but the question is often raised as to what, exactly, constitutes "royal" blood.
  • Ascended Extra: Williams himself commented that he originally wrote Cadrach as a one-off character who would play no further part in the story after his (brief) initial appearance. Williams found the character he'd created intriguing and decided to bring Cadrach back, and he ends up being a fairly important player in the story.
  • Attending Your Own Funeral: Josua does this, and even wryly comments on how everybody should have the opportunity.
  • Badass Bookworm: Notably averted, in that Smart Guy characters like Strangyeard and Tiamak are explicitly told to keep out of the fighting, and do for the most part. Ironically, this leads to a Not Now, Kiddo moment in the final battle. Straight examples can be found in the original members of the League of the Scroll—both Jarnauga and Morgenes get dangerous in their respective Heroic Sacrifices. The founder of the League, Ealhstan Fiskerne, was both a king and a scholar, owned the sword Minneyar, and was killed fighting a dragon.
  • Badass Normal: Camaris and King Prester John were the two greatest heroes of their age, dominating any field of battle they entered. Even decades later and after a Heroic BSOD, Camaris is still stronger than a half-dozen other men, which puts him about even with a Sithi warrior.
  • Beneath the Earth: The tunnels beneath the Hayholt, including the ruins of Asu'a, are an important plot element as well as a component of Simon's journey.
  • Berserker Tears: Simon, after Amerasu's death, leading to his Heroic BSOD.
  • BFS: Thorn is described as being unusually large and heavy, so that only a very strong man can wield it. The other two swords are more conventionally sized.
  • Big Bad: The Storm King, Ineluki.
  • Big Damn Heroes: A staple of the series. Binabik plays this role for Simon on too many occasions to list, Simon himself does it for Jiriki and Miriamele, and even Cadrach gets his moments.
  • The Big Guy: Duke Isgrimnur, in most of his scenes, fills this role. Camaris is this trope embodied.
  • Big No: Isgrimnur is not happy when Josua makes him shave off his beard.
  • Bittersweet Ending: For many characters, but Count Eolair especially drives this one home.
  • Blood Knight: King Prester John rejoiced in battle, laughing amid the slaughter of his foes, and frequently rode out to face his most dangerous enemies heedless of the odds. This is set in stark contrast to Camaris, who regarded every death by his hands as a stain on his soul.
  • Cain and Abel: Elias and Josua, right down to the former attempting to use the latter as a sacrifice to seal his Deal with the Devil.
  • Calvin Ball: The Sithi game of Shent.
  • Can't Argue with Elves: The Sithi have a centuries long enmity with humans and many of them are quite vocal about it. Most humans live in superstitious fear of them, and those who don't tend to carry some old grudges, so it's pretty understandable.
  • Card-Carrying Villain: Pryrates.
  • The Chains of Commanding: Prince Josua in a nutshell; also Camaris. (The similarity is not a coincidence.)
  • Chair Reveal: Used when Simon stumbles on King Elias inside Hjeldin's tower.
  • Character Development: The focus of the story is Simon's development into a hero, but many other characters get this as well. In fact, Simon's development is lampshaded by the return of boyhood friend Jeremias, who points out just how far Simon has come.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The White Arrow. Deornoth being called the "Prince's Right Hand". Simon's dragon-blood scar.
  • The Chessmaster: Utuk'ku, the Norn Queen, has been scheming to get her revenge on mortals and her Sithi rivals for thousands of years. She's even depicted as a spider in her web, manipulating the strands of her various plots.
  • Clingy MacGuffin: The three swords - it's very hard to get rid of one if it doesn't want to be rid of you.
  • Collapsing Lair: Green Angel Tower.
  • Comet of Doom: The Conqueror Star, said to herald the rise and fall of kingdoms. It appeared over the death of Usires Aedon, the fall of Asu'a, and the end of King John's reign, and its final appearance plays a role in the climax.
  • Coming of Age Story: Simon's, and to an extent, Miriamele's as well.
  • The Commies Made Me Do It: The "traitorous" captive townsfolk at the battle of the Stone of Farewell.
  • Compelling Voice: One of Pryrates' uses of the Art is to mentally compel people to do his bidding, even when he doesn't know exactly where they are. Simon nearly falls into this trap on several occasions, saved only because the priest keeps getting distracted.
  • Cool Chair: The Dragonbone Chair, which is Exactly What It Says on the Tin.
  • Cool Horse: Sithi horses, which are bred for endurance, speed, and overall awesomeness.
  • Cool Sword: Three of 'em, oddly enough.
  • Convenient Decoy Cat: A grey cat that lives in the Hayholt saves Simon when he's trapped in a cellar by Pryrates, by offering itself as a distraction. The cat makes several appearances later in the story.
  • Creator Breakdown: Williams went through a divorce during the writing of the third novel, and openly admitted to being tempted to write a Kill'Em All ending.
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Camaris, the most powerful knight in Osten Ard, becomes this after his Heroic BSOD and apparent suicide. When awakened from his simpleminded state, he picks the Badass mantle right up again, along with some Shell Shocked Senior baggage.
  • Cry for the Devil: The Storm King's tragic Backstory becomes a crucial element at the climax.
  • Crystal Dragon Jesus: Averted with the religion of Usires Aedon, a clear Fantasy Counterpart Culture version of Christianity.
  • Cue the Flying Pigs: Miriamele swears that she will only trust Cadrach again "when the stars shine at midday." Cue his Heroic Sacrifice to save them from the Collapsing Lair.

Cadrach: "You saw them, Princess. They were there."

  • Dangerous Forbidden Technique:
    • Ineluki learned one of these, if not several, in his search for power. His use of one in an attempt to destroy the human armies invading Asu'a is what killed him.

Unknown Sithi: "Do not utter the words. You will summon Unbeing!"

    • Pryrates picks up a few too, including the Words of Changing and the Words of Unmaking. They'd have worked fine if he hadn't tried to use them against the Storm King.
  • Deader Than Dead: What apparently happens to those touched by Unbeing.
  • Demonic Possession: Unsealing the Storm King requires that his spirit have a physical host to inhabit. Guess who gets to be the lucky victim? Unwitting Pawn Elias.
  • Demoted to Extra: Sludig is one of Simon's primary traveling companions and a major character in the second book; in the third, he's Put on a Bus for most of the story and doesn't get much face time when he does come back. He even lampshades it one point by complaining about being ignored.
  • Determinator: The Norns, who perform such feats as pulling themselves up the sword that's impaling them in order to kill its wielder. Ingen Jegger, a Black Rimmersman working for the Norns, embodies this trope perhaps more than any other character, dragging himself in pursuit of Simon's party on shattered legs and crushed ribs and somehow managing to crawl back to Stormspike after the confrontation on the ice mountain.
  • Dirty Coward: The scoundrel monk, Cadrach. Considering what he's gone through, however, it's a miracle he's still (questionably) sane. Miriamele takes on the task of reforming him and is rewarded in the end.
  • Doorstopper: All the novels, but most especially the third, whose hardcover edition is over a thousand pages and had to be split into two separate novels for the paperback release—each of which is over 800 pages long.
  • The Dragon:
    • Pryrates, to Elias. He tries to be this for the Storm King too, but, well...
    • The Storm King has his own band of Dragons (though they're not unique enough to be a Quirky Miniboss Squad), in the form of the Red Hand. They were his companions in life and are now undead like him, though rather less powerful. Only one of them is named, as part of a ritual--the Duke of the Black Wind.
  • Dramatis Personae: Made necessary by the Loads and Loads of Characters.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: The Road of Dreams is a powerful mystical component of the world of Osten Ard, where things beyond ordinary perception are revealed. Practitioners of the Art can enter it at will, bringing others with them. Prophetic dreams are handed out all over the place, but of course not all of them are entirely trustworthy.
  • Dying as Yourself: Elias comes to his senses at the very end, just before Miriamele kills him.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Played about as straight as it comes. Osten Ard is left in ruins by the depredations of Elias and the Storm King; even if they are defeated it'll be a long, hard road back to anything approaching normalcy.
  • Elite Mooks: The Norns themselves, certainly in relation to human soldiers.
  • Emergency Impersonation: The heroes' army uses Body Doubles for the final battle to hide the fact that Prince Josua and Camaris have both gone into the Hayholt via the tunnels, both for the enemy's benefit and to boost the morale of their troops. Although the ruse does work, it turns out to be irrelevant.
  • Emotion Bomb: The Storm King and the Red Hand emanate an aura of fear sufficient to drive most mortals mad.
  • Empathic Weapon: The three swords, in a creepy and subversive way. They have the ability to manipulate people around them to get where they want to go.
  • Eureka Moment: See Oh Crap, below.
  • Evil Chancellor: Pryrates, along with Evil Gloating and Evil Sorcerer. In fact, he pretty much deserves his own section composed entirely of Villain tropes.
  • Evil Is Cold: Cold, along with fear, are the Storm King's primary weapons.
  • Evil Is Not a Toy, The Starscream: Pryrates hopes to use the power he was granted by the Storm King to control him and use him to rule the world. Unfortunately (for him), it doesn't work.
  • Evil Weapon: Minneyar and Thorn, while definitely dangerous, are not explicitly evil. Sorrow, on the other hand, deserves its name; merely touching it can be enough to destroy a mortal's soul.
  • Exact Words: The Storm King promised that Pryrates would be "first among mortals." First to die, that is.
  • The Fair Folk: The Sithi are the Chaotic Good version, while the Norns partake of the Exclusively Evil aspect.
  • Fake Ultimate Hero: King John Presbyter. He went into the Hayholt to kill the dragon that was inside, but when he arrived he found that it had already been killed by the previous king, Ealstahn Fiskerne, with the sword Minneyar; Ealstahn had died from his wounds. John takes Minneyar and hacks off one of the dragon's claws, and drags it out of the Hayholt to make it seem as if he had killed it.
  • Fantasy Axis of Evil: Norns, Hunën, Bukken, the Red Hand.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: Almost every single human nation is one of these, from the Nabbanai (Renaissance Italy) to the Wrannamen (Aborigines). The Qanuc are a mashup of Inuit culture with All Trolls Are Different and the Sithi have a pinch of Japanese to a good helping of The Fair Folk. Fortunately, no real life human culture is anything like the Norns.
  • Fantastic Racism: Rimmersgarders and trolls do not get along.
  • Faustian Rebellion: Subverted in that Pryrates is neither a good guy, nor is the power he gained from the Storm King him enough to bind him.
  • Five Races: Humans, Sithi, Trolls, Dwarrows/Niskies (although technically the same race).
  • For Doom the Bell Tolls: The phantom bells that ring in Green Angel tower during the summoning ritual.
  • Functional Magic: The Art generally falls into a mix of Rule Magic and Wild Magic.
  • Giant Mooks: Hunën, brutish giants that the Norns are allied with.
  • "Glad to Be Alive" Sex: Technically, Simon and Miriamele, although it's a few days later after everyone's had a chance to rest a bit.
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: The monk and scholar Cadrach loses all hope after reading Du Svardenvyrd, and many minor characters go stark raving mad after being touched by the Storm King.
  • Gotta Catch Them All: "Three Swords must come again." One of the Driving Questions of the story is how to get all three swords together, as the heroes have one, the villains have another, and the whereabouts of the third is unknown.
  • Groin Attack: How Prester John actually defeats Sir Camaris, revealed in Doctor Morgenes' biography of John. Judging by Simon's reaction when Binabik reads this aloud to him, it's not common knowledge.
  • Hearing Voices: Liable to happen to anyone wandering the bowels of Asu'a.
  • Heroic BSOD: Simon, after Amerasu's death. Also Camaris, in his backstory, explaining why he disappeared for so long.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Cadrach, in the Collapsing Lair.
  • Heroic Willpower: Particularly exercised by Simon in Inch's dungeon, and notably inverted when it turns out that no amount of willpower is sufficient to stop the swords. In fact, Elias' will to become immortal, Camaris' self-hatred, and Simon's hatred for the Storm King are what are keeping them in thrall to the swords' song.
  • Hidden Elf Village: After Ineluki's "death" and the fall of Asu'a, the remaining Sithi retreated to the forest city of Jao é-Tinukai'i and tried to remain aloof from mortal affairs. Simon's arrival sets in motion the chain of events that finally breaks the Sithi's isolation.
  • Hidden Villain: Ineluki, for much of the first book.
  • Hitchhiker Heroes: Simon's encounters in the first book with the characters who become his friends and companions pretty much fit this trope to a tee, although it's subverted in Binabik's case when we find out that he was specifically told to look for Simon.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Inch gets his clothing caught in the waterworks he used as a torture device, ending in the textual equivalent of a Gory Discretion Shot.
  • Hope Spot: Miriamele's lucky shot that appears to kill Pryrates. He gets better, and disturbingly quickly.
  • Horned Humanoid: The Storm King appears this way when he manifests, which is an echo of his living past when he briefly wore a crown of antlers as the King of the Sithi. This is the artist's rendering of Ineluki that Simon sees in Morgenes' book, and it is an image that haunts him until the finale.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: The justification for the Storm King's plan to destroy humanity.
  • I Call It Vera: Naming one's personal weapons seems to be a tradition in the story, whether they have any particular powers or not. The Three Swords are examples of Named Weapons, since they're renowned throughout the world.
  • In the Blood: Characterization seems very strongly to pass from father to son in Osten Ard, even when the father in question never knew or raised his child. Elias' recklessness, Simon's heroism, Josua's introspection...
  • I Owe You My Life: The Sitha prince Jiriki owes a life debt to Simon after the latter rescues him from a human hunter. They trade this favor back and forth throughout the story.
  • Kansas City Shuffle: The Storm King and Utuk'ku employ all the elements of misdirection at their command to prevent the heroes from figuring out how the Three Swords are actually supposed to be used.
  • Karmic Death: Elias is killed by his own daughter's hand, after attempting to sell her into marriage and generally acting like a Jerkass to her. Also, Pryrates. And Inch, for that matter; see Hoist by His Own Petard.
  • Kick the Dog: In Simon's first encounter with Pryrates, the evil priest literally crushes a puppy to death beneath his boot. Gee, are we supposed to think that he's a bad guy?
  • The Lady's Favour: Miriamele gives Simon her scarf, and he keeps it almost to the very end; this is what finally makes Miramele realize he loves her.
  • Left-Justified Fantasy Map: Osten Ard is a textbook example with ocean to the west and vast unexplored territory to the east.
  • Little Hero, Big War: Defines Simon throughout most of the story. His Character Development is largely focused on growing into his responsibilities, which of course sets him up for his Moses in the Bulrushes Reveal at the end.
  • Living Legend: Seoman Snowlock by the end, who travels the length and breadth of Osten Ard; discovers a lost blade of legend, slays a dragon, is a hero of the Battle of the Stone of Farewell, befriends the Sithi, is bound on a Wheel of Pain, defeats the Storm King, and is a descendant of the sainted Ealhstan Fiskerne. Aditu even has some fun adding to his legend to scare a girl Simon was kissing.
  • Load-Bearing Boss: Combined with No Ontological Inertia, it seems that the Storm King's power is all that has been holding Green Angel Tower together for all those centuries. That or the shock of his destruction simply weakens it to the point where it collapses.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters
  • Locked Into Strangeness: A lock of Simon's hair is permanently turned white after being burned by the blood of a dragon; it results in him being called "Simon Snowlock".
  • Love Redeems: Both Simon and Miriamele's respective abilities to love their ultimate foes are critical to the climax.
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: Camaris reveals this secret to Josua (and Strangyeard in confession). It goes a long way toward explaining the Cain and Abel nature of Josua and Elias' relationship.
  • MacGuffin Delivery Service: The entire three swords plot. Also, Cadrach, in the backstory, by delivering Du Svardenvyrd to Pryrates.
  • Made of Indestructium: The three swords, of course. Only the Words of Unmaking can undo what was wrought with the Words of Making.
  • Magical Native American: Binabik, sort of. More like a Magical Eskimo, but the basic idea of the trope still applies. Tiamak is a variation in that what makes him distinctive is that he's gained a "modern" education but is still presumed to be a savage because of his race.
  • Magic Mirror: The Sithi employ a variety of magical artifacts to enter the Dream Road, mirrors being a favorite. Simon gets one from Jiriki and uses it to call for help on more than one occasion. It also ends up being a subverted Chekhov's Gun when Simon and Miriamele are trapped by the Storm King's cultists; rather than call for help, they shatter it in order to cut their bonds with the fragments.
  • Maintain the Lie: King Prester John, renowned throughout the land as the killer of a great dragon, dies of old age without ever revealing his secret: Ealhstan Fiskerne, the previous king, killed it, not him. John took credit for it and parlayed it into a kingship. This lie overshadows the entire plot and sets up The Reveal that Simon is the rightful heir. It's also why he persecuted the Sithi so much - he suspected them of knowing his secret (they did), and the resulting enmity causes the Sithi to wait until almost too late to intervene in the war.
  • The Man Behind the Man: Throughout the majority of the novels, the protagonists think that King Elias is the one driving the war. Turns out it was Pryrates all along, in cahoots with the Storm King. Elias was simply the Unwitting Pawn.
  • A Man Is Not a Virgin: Being a young man, Simon spends a fair bit of time attempting to get laid, with no success, and at times it seems that Fate itself is conspiring against him. In fact, when he and Miriamele finally get together at the end, he's still a virgin while she is not.
  • Mentor Occupational Hazard: The Storm King's minions intentionally hunt down and destroy the members of the League of the Scroll and anyone else who might have enough knowledge to unravel the Evil Plan before it's complete.
  • A Million Is a Statistic: Well-understood by Williams; his Establishing Character Moment for Pryrates is not to slaughter dozens of people, but to literally Kick the Dog.
  • Mind Rape: Even casual contact with the Storm King and his minions can destroy the minds of mortals - heaven help you if you attract their personal attention. Mentally encountering the Norn queen on the Dream Road is quite unhealthy even to immortals. This trope is also one of the more charming side-effects of touching Sorrow.
  • Misanthrope Supreme: Pryrates.
  • Modest Royalty: Josua. Simon, too, at the end.
  • Modesty Bedsheet: Played straight by Miriamele at the end.
  • Moses in the Bulrushes: Simon, who turns out to be Saint Ealhstan Fiskerne's direct descendant, and therefore the legitimate heir to the throne.
  • My Girl Is Not a Slut: Simon is utterly devastated to find out that Miriamele gave up her virginity to the Nabbanai noble who held her captive.
  • Named Weapons: The titular swords.
  • Names to Run Away From Really Fast: The Storm King. Sorrow.

Ineluki: From sorrow have you come, and sorrow you have brought with you. Sorrow shall be your name.

  • Necromantic: Elias, played for tragedy.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Bringing the swords together because a prophecy told you that they are the only thing that can defeat the Storm King? Turns out not to be such a good idea.
  • No Man of Woman Born: The trilogy's primary Unwitting Pawns (the heroes) fall into the role partially because they make an error of this type.
  • No Ontological Inertia: In addition to the aforementioned Green Angel Tower, there's a very plot-significant use of this trope in the three swords themselves (see the trope entry for details).
  • The Nothing After Death: An variation, in that characters who are Only Mostly Dead tend to go into a limbo-like realm where things are extremely peaceful. From there, they can sometimes still have an impact on the real world in the form of dreams, but eventually pass on into nothingness.
  • Not Quite Dead: Prince Josua, after the Collapsing Lair. Also Camaris, from his Heroic BSOD backstory.
  • The Obi-Wan: Doctor Morgenes, and to an extent, the entire original League of the Scroll.
  • Offered the Crown: Simon, after his Moses in the Bulrushes reveal. In fact, Isgrimnur states outright that if he didn't have royal blood, they'd be inclined to make it up anyway, just to give the people someone to rally behind.
  • Oh Crap: The moment beneath Asu'a where Binabik figures out the Storm King's plan. This subsequently leads to a domino-like series of Oh Craps as the rest of the protagonists get clued in.

Binabik: (of the prophecy) "But who is to say that it is speaking to us?"

Binabik: "You will destroy this world. [...] There will be nothing for your governing. You do not belong here."