Why the title in quotation marks? Because we’re talking directly of the title itself.
There was a recent reply of Steven Erikson to some provocations of mine on Tor.com re-read. Lots of interesting topics that are relevant to the genre at large. One was about the use of “magic” in fantasy (a rather broad argument that Erikson handled brilliantly in that reply), another was about the title of the first book, “Gardens of the Moon”.
This is what he said specifically:
Before I get to the matter of DEM’s and all that … now that the series is done, and now that I’ve already said elsewhere that Toll the Hounds provides the cipher for understanding the series, it probably does no harm to reveal what was going on in my mind during the writing of Gardens of the Moon, and how my reality (and sense of it) shaped what I wrote, and gave me the reasons for writing it the way I did.
As any beginning writer well knows, the future is filled with soaring hope and crushing despair. Yes, there are bestselling writers out there making a decent living (or even filthy rich), all happily writing full-time. But they are a minority; and most even published writers need to supplement their habit with ‘real work.’ So, you hope and you fear. You want but you also need to be realistic. And in the bookshops you pick up titles and read a little bit and wonder how in hell did this ever get published? Or you think, ah, here I am in good hands.
And you daydream. A lot. These days they call it visualisation. So, there we were, living on Saltspring Island, unemployed and on welfare (starving in paraidse, we still call that phase of our lives). A baby about to arrive and scant prospects on the horizon.
But I kept looking at those books in the stores, trying to work out why some ever made it into print; trying to figure out the rhyme or reason of publishing. It looked like the biggest crapshoot imaginable. Seemed to me that luck played as big a role as talent. Who you knew, that kind of thing.
Luck. I sat down to write this fantasy novel, thinking about chance and mischance. Thinking about a life in anonymity and a life that wasn’t (refer if you will to Circle Breaker in the epilogue and the novel’s last line). Thinking about writing a tale filled with magic, high adventure and a wild, if not insane, climax. And dreaming of getting it published and actually making a living as a writer.
Lots of dreams went into Gardens of the Moon (hence the title, too, and the invented mythos surrounding it), along with ambition. And the writing thereof became on one level a dialogue with myself (as is the entire series).
At the same time I spotted on Malazan forums a comment written by a reader that not only is coherent with what Erikson wrote there, but also drags it more to the surface:
I’m going to nod my head to the genius of the title, “Gardens of the Moon”, for as perverse as it seems to name a book after a seemingly obscure reference in a single conversation, that reference encompasses a theme of enormous importance in the book and the series.
1. The story of the ‘gardens of the moon’, as told by Apsalar, offers the hope of future bliss. More broadly, you can read redemption or salvation for bliss.
To all those struggling in their day to day lives with the seemingly eternal problems of societies (war, injustice, tyranny) and personal existence (heartbreak, illness, hunger), any hope of future salvation and bliss is obviously of enormous appeal. Readers of later books will recognise where this idea goes. The Chained God’s apparent doctrine to mortals (regardless of his actual intentions) is the story of the gardens of the moon; an offer of future bliss and release from their present sufferings.
2. Apsalar’s telling of the story of the ‘gardens of the moon’ frames it as a kind of fairy story or children’s tale or fantasy.
In other words, it requires a certain naivety or wilful self-delusion to buy into it wholly, so there’s actually two opposed themes derived from it:
( a ) subservience to – or faith in – a wilful self-deception or illusion offering the hope of future bliss,
— versus —
( b ) clearer-eyed experience (or cynicism) teaching a truer but harder reality that hope is often transient (unless you struggle to hang on to it) and bliss elusive (unless you lower your expectations of it).
And that opposition is the crux of the drama in the entire series. Most (almost all?) of the major characters in the series embody the struggle between these notions in some way, and their experiences and personal evolution are an examination of these two competing ideas. (Consider Paran’s path in GotM.) That’s what makes the choice of title of the first book so brilliant.
Of course, the longer someone has been around, the closer to the second category they generally fall. In terms of groups, rather than individuals, the embracing of the second ideal isn’t often the result of revelation, but entropy and experience, and although groups don’t encompass the free-will aspect of this idea (see note ), the important factor is that they are (largely) without the hope of reward or bliss. Think of the ennui that permeates the Tiste Andii and what led them to that (much of which only comes out in later books, admittedly), or more amusingly, Tool’s often quoted ruminations about the T’lan Imass:
“Tell me, Tool, what dominates your thoughts?”
The Imass shrugged before replying, “I think of futility, Adjunct.”
“Do all Imass think about futility?”
“No. Few think at all.”
“Why is that?”
The Imass leaned his head to one side and regarded her, “Because Adjunct, it is futile.”
 One of the more amazing notions that appears in the series is that all forms of society, even the smallest community – is a form of tyranny. From anyone else, this’d sound like pure cynicism, but from an anthropologist (as Erickson is), it is – at least in the context of the Malazan series -something to bear in mind. Now I think this idea is first spelled out, albeit in passing, in MoI (in reference to the Jaghut’s self-imposed personal isolationism), although it utterly dominates some later books. What’s of interest (to me, at least) is the way in which this notion of tyranny as a social force appears reflected in the two opposed themes of the ‘gardens of the moon’ story: a personal subservience versus a rejection of the consolations of companionship.
 Paran has given over control of his life to an ideal of service to the Adjunct (early on in GotM) – in part a wilful self-delusion; that by following rather than making his own choices he can be absolved of the myriad challenges of free will. But new friendships undermine his isolation, casting him adrift as a pawn of other powers who test him sorely, and only by finally seeking to break his subservience to them does he begin to leave behind his illusion of hope granted by unthinking service; and now has to face the nasty idea that redemption (of any kind) will not come from any self-deception, and that new forms of more freely given service to others (and other ideals) – while being more ethically true to his heart – are without (illusory) guarantees of redemption. It’s the hard road – no more gardens of the moon for him… apparently.
Many other characters touch upon this idea in different ways. Compare Lorn’s path with Paran’s: after being tested, and tempted to leave her illusions behind, she appears to return to the path of the gardens of the moon – in action at least, but what about her heart?
Or consider Whiskeyjack, Toc the Younger, and Rallick Nom (what do they really trust in? and how have their outlooks evolved with their allegiences/friendships and experiences?).
I should also mention that this is STRONGLY related to “Disciple of the Dog” that I think I could safely define as the most extraordinary book I’ve read.
The enlightenment is right over there. One just has to figure out if it’s desirable or not.