Love has often not been Fantasy’s strong suite – unsurprisingly, perhaps, for a genre for so long primarily marketed at geeky teenage boys. As among many geeky teenage boys, there was sort of an apprehension that love was incredibly important and solved all your problems, but not really too much idea of what exactly it entailed. The love of Aragorn and Arwen, for instance, or of Rosie and Sam, was ideal for a fantasy novel: signposted from the beginning so as not to be a cause of any anxiety or confusion, then conveniently absent while all the exciting stuff was going on so as not to get in the way, and finally dealt with once and for all with a marriage at the end of the book, because as we all know real life ends with marriage…
…but along the way, the genre has produced the odd interesting pairing. Some truly moving; others, just truly disturbing. Here, in accordance with this ‘Tough Travelling’ meme that I keep meaning to participate in but never quite get around to, are a few that I can think of.
All are variants on the idea of ‘true love’ as presented in Fantasy; some may be more loving, or more true, than others. The meme calls for five… I ended up with 13. Well, 14, technically. But then I do way fewer than 1 in 3 of these, so I reckon I’m still in deficit…
Warning: beyond this point lie moderate spoilers for the works of Tolkien, Feist, Wurts, Weiss, Hickman, Eddings, Abrams, McCaffrey, Abrams, Hobb, Jordan, Green, Donaldson, Pratchett, Gentle, and Nyx Smith…
- Torg and Zoe, Sluggy Freelance, Pete Abrams
Yeah yeah, talking about webcomics is just not done. Particularly one of the great-granddaddies of webcomics, which it hasn’t been fashionable to be into for at least a decade now. But while it certainly has its flaws, and is probably long past its best, the unkillable, ever-changing comic (strips published almost every weekday since 1997)… oh shit, I haven’t read Sluggy yet today… brb…right, where was I? Right, yes, the ancient webcomic has a lot of things going for it. At the heart of all the madness and all the change are relationships: the bromance between goofy/heroic Torg and taciturn mad inventor Riff is the foundation of it all, but the aspirational note comes primarily from the will-they-won’t-they relationship between Torg and their attractive half-Korean neighbour, Zoe. Abrams pulls off the seemingly-impossible: creating a romance played out over decades without ever feeling stale, yet without ever becoming ridiculous. The rapid pairing of the two may have been cursory and by-the-book at first, but over time we have come to see just how appropriate they are for one another – not because their relationship is perfect, but because it’s impossible to imagine either of them being happier with anybody else. A real depth of emotion is constructed year-by-year… with very little of it occuring on screen. Abrams prefers to let the hijinks take centre stage, and the emotions and the personal growth are shown in hints and gestures and implications. It’s a love that’s managed to grow through so many distractions – vampiric seductions, insane unkillable brainwashed assassins, unspeakable demons from before the dawn of time crushing the world beneath the feet of their zombie armies, giant crab aliens running IT companies, corporate conspiracies, brain-eating flies, death, dystopian robot police, demon invasions, interdimensional duplicates, possession, witchcraft, a friendship-ruining radio talkshow, murderous nanites, secret operations Christmas elves, human cannonballs and much, much more… and it has somehow seemed perfectly ordinary throughout.
- Mara and Whathisname, The Empire Trilogy, Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts
I’m bad with names… but in this case I’m also cheating. Mara has two major love-interests in this trilogy… and the impressive thing is that they’re different. So often, relationships in a book or series seem fundamentally the same – they’re just how that author sees love, or how they write love at least. This is particularly the case when one character has multiple romances. Just look at The Wheel of Time: it’s not just that most of the female characters are interchangeable, it’s also that even when there are differences between the women, there are no differences between the relationships. Rand’s foursome, for instance: Aviendha, Elayne and Min are as different as any women in those books can be, but we never really get a sense (in the Jordan books; I’ve not read the Sanderson yet) of the distinctness of any of those three ‘one true loves’. [Although credit to Jordan for his polyamorous love-quandrangle. Sure, as with so much of the sexuality in those books (the endless lesbian spanking sessions…), it’s basically a cliche male fantasy. But at least it’s different!]
But with Mara, we don’t just get two romances with two, totally different men, we get two totally different relationships. With her faux-European slave, we get strong physical attraction, passion, the sense of an exhilerating encounter between two mutually alien ways of life. And with her later husband, we get a relationship of propriety, affection, comfortableness, consideration, and genuine tenderness. And unlike many True Love stories, both of these end unhappily, at least at first. The way that social demands come between Mara and her husband is particularly touching, and admirable in a genre normally so wedded to anachronistic Western expectations.
- Sallah and Tarvi, Dragonsdawn, Anne McCaffrey
Speaking of tragedy… McCaffrey was always a writer with romance close to the surface, someone with a strong desire to pair people off even when the plot didn’t need it. Occasionally it worked well – F’lar and Lessa develop a realistic and strong married partnership, while Robinton’s tragic lost love informs so much of his character. But the most affecting to me was the relationship between Sallah and Tarvi. Naturally, there’s no love in McCaffrey without heavy elements of rape and creepiness. Sallah’s not exactly a kid, but it’s clear that Tarvi is much older than her, and there’s a distinct Electral element to her infatuation. Because it’s McCaffrey, Tarvi’s initial disinterest can easily be overcome by date-raping him with special drugs, after which naturally he recognises his love for her and they settle down happily ever after.
But the reason this is a memorable romance is that… they don’t. And not just because everybody on the planet is being digested alive in searing agony by apocalyptic space-fungus. We don’t really see them argue or anything, but, brood of kids aside, they seem to settle into a polite but cold, distant relationship that drives the two of them apart. Because McCaffrey is (consent issues notwithstanding) a die-hard romantic, she has them realise in the end the deep love that has always existed between them that they have ignored for too long… but only too late. Much too late, after one of fantasy’s more horrifically tragic turns of events. One dies, one lives… as a tortured shell of who they were before, their lives made so much worse by the realisation of what they could have had but failed to keep.
[P.S. Book cover! Dragon! Volcano! What’s not to like?]
- Ehlana and Sparhawk, The Elenium, David Eddings
Speaking of creepiness and consent issues, David Eddings often wrote some questionable romantic subplots. [But on behalf of the pubescent boy I used to be: thanks for that scene with Velvet (the woman) seducing Silk (the man) via naked bathing. *cough* Very educational. Although, come to think of it, also an example of creepy Electra issues.] Some of them were even nice (a shout-out here to Vanion and Sephrenia (a switch to Oedipal issues instead)) or moving (Belgarath’s millenia-long lament for lost Poledra; spending several centuries drunk in a city of brothels is the most respectful way to mourn, isn’t it? – seriously, though, Belgarath seemed to show somebody dealing with and eventually overcoming, but never really escaping, the deep grief of bereavement, welcome in a genre where tragedy was so treated as a minor character detail).
But the one I remember most is the romance between Queen Ehlana and Sir Sparhawk. It’s truly the stuff of legend and of fantasy: king and queen have daughter, queen dies, king falls in love with his sister and neglects daughter, daughter raised from infancy by gruff knight, pre-teen daughter becomes sexually infatuated with gruff knight, gruff knight banished, king dies, now-teenage princess takes throne, princess is poisoned and then imprisoned in a block of unchanging time for her own protection, gruff knight undergoes harrowing quests to save his queen, gruff knight and queen get married have sex and have babies. Hang on, what? For god’s sake man, she’s basically your daughter! Not just young enough to be his daughter, but actually, in essence, his foster-daughter, with much made of how he taught her everything and basically created every element of her personality (other than her deviousness and sexual appetite). Yes, I know young girls sometimes have inappropriate crushes, and to Sparhawk’s credit he never actually intended to marry her until it happened, and he completely totally refused to have sex with her on her wedding night right up to the point where she took her clothes off because come on guys she’s really hot what do you expect he’s not a saint. And maybe we should let him off the hook for marrying her because, you know, she’s the fucking queen, and she did just callously order a couple of people brutally executed, so it sort of makes sense that he might not want to piss her off right at that moment. Although having said that: no, Sparhawk, a hilarious misunderstanding about proposals is not enough reason to go through with it. Yes, a chronic inability to say no to a woman after a hilarious misunderstanding was endearing in Bertie Wooster, but Bertie Wooster was not marrying his own daughter.
…to be fair, I would totally read a book where Bertie Wooster had a hilarious misunderstanding that lead to him being engaged to his own daughter. But maybe that’s just me.
Anyway, OK Sparhawk you can marry the girl, but you do then have sex with her with only the vaguest moral qualms for many years. In fact it would be less creepy if Sparhawk had no moral qualms – either the author or the character just didn’t register the nature of their relationship. But Sparhawk does know, and points out, that he raised her from infancy through to puberty, and yet this does not prevent him from having sex with her. Frankly, I’d have thought that part of the job description of ‘father-figure’ was ‘no really, don’t have sex with her even if she thinks she wants it; it won’t end well’. But it does end well!
Eddings maybe tries to reduce the creepiness by showing how adult and strong Ehlana is. But this basically has two dimensions: she’s violently petulant, and she’s a two-faced conniving manipulator. The result is less a strong woman who’s free to pursue her own Electra complex if she feels like it and more a traumatised woman-child. As a result, the one true love between the plain, simple knight sworn to obey the crown (and who casually decapitates people all the time when they get in the way and inflicts magical plagues of boils on people who look at him wrongly) and his devious, manipulative arch-politician surrogate-daughter / sworn liege-lord (who casually orders people tortured and/or decapitated more than once) is that rare relationship where if you really think about it it kind of feels as though both partners are… well, sort of raping the other, to be honest. Which is impressive… particularly given that Eddings (and his wife, who co-wrote) seems to see this as a genuinely sweet, romantic relationship.
It’s not even the creepiest in the series, though. I mean one relationship like this is odd enough, but we also get glimpses of it being repeated the next generation, with a four-year-old deciding to seduce (gradually) a teenage boy. Mr and Mrs Eddings seem firmly of the belief that girls fall in ‘one true love’ at a seriously young age (a cynic might wonder about the age gap between the couple themselves… but according to Wikipedia they were actually born on the exact same day). Then again, these implicit issues are rather overshadowed by things like, oh I don’t know how about that scene where a woman tortures and rapes another woman, eats bits of her while she’s still alive, and then ritually murders her? Why yes, since you ask, that scene did stick in my head somewhat when I was a child…
Still, Eddings does deserve a little credit: even in his otherwise highly (and intentionally) derivative Belgariad, he always made an effort to show women as strong, powerful, independent, and sexually and romantically assertive – refreshing in a genre that often relegated princesses to lonely towers waiting for the prince to get around to marrying her.
- Elena and Covenant, The Illearth War, Stephen Donaldson
… I’m sorry Mr Eddings, I take it all back. Ehlana and Sparhawk have a totally healthy relationship.
Thomas Covenant, as you may know by now, kicks off Lord Foul’s Bane by raping a teenage girl, Lena. Later, he does something very nice for her. This isn’t to buy her off exactly – hardly anybody blames him for anything, everyone hero-worships him – but it makes him feel better about it.
However, Donaldson has a way of taking something that might be positive in one book and having it all go to shit off-screen before the next book. So when The Illearth War opens, Lena has been spending the last twenty or thirty years consumed with a delusional, comforting love for Covenant, convinced he loves her back. Like many young girls who have encounters (consensual or otherwise) with celebrities, she has spent her life sure that she represented something special and meaningful for her beau, who obviously couldn’t have done anything wrong. This probably isn’t fun for her husband, who, understandably, absolutely despises the man. And that’s an interesting sort of inheritance for Lena and Covenant’s daughter: Elena.
In Covenant’s absence, Elena, thanks in part to the good thing Covenant did for Lena, has proven a prodigy: along with near-unprecedented closeness with the great ranyhyn horses, she has mastered a great deal of magic and has risen to become High Lord of the Council – political and magical ruler of the known world. When trouble comes calling, she naturally calls in daddy.
However… Elena has a serious Electra complex. To say that she falls in love with Covenant at first sight would be misleading, because really she’s been in love all her life, with the fantasy father her mother has spun for her. The moment Covenant shows up, his daughter sets out to seduce him, and it doesn’t take her very long.
The weird thing is… while Eddings plays his father-daughter pairing as though it’s meant to be healthy, even though the unhealthiness of it drips from every pore, Donaldson never portrays his inherently more disturbing pairing (Covenant really is Elena’s father, not just a father-figure, and he raped her mother to boot) as safe, healthy or normal… yet the portrayal actually ends up rather more positive. Certainly, it helps show us the extent to which Elena may be astonishingly brilliant yet is still deeply fucked-up… but I’m not sure that, in context, seducing her father actually makes things any worse for her. Arguably, it’s positive for both of them. It almost feels as though these are two utterly isolated and alone people (him due to leprosy and his own arseholeness, and her due to… well, his arseholeness again, actually) who do have a genuine bond of love between them, but who cannot find a socially-acceptable way to express it – after all, it’s understandably difficult for Covenant to come to terms with this fully-grown woman as the child he unknowing conceived, from his point of view, just the other day (time travels different in different worlds).
And so, remarkably, Covenant doesn’t, so far as I recall, fuck things up this time. And that’s notable, because Covenant not epically fucking things up is a rare thing in these books. Instead, they give each other comfort and support and seem almost like a wholesome couple.
Of course, things fuck up by themselves, in large part because of Elena’s… issues. To say that this couple ends badly is to understate the case by a truly laughable degree. I mean seriously, in any other universe this would be one of the biggest fuck-ups in its history (although in the Covenant novels it’s arguable whether it’s even the biggest tragedy in the book, let alone the series). But almost none of that disaster, so far as I recall, is actually due to Elena and her father being in love with one another!
- Strahd and Tatyanna, The Ravenloft Setting (see particularly ‘I, Strahd’), various (but particularly P.N. Elrod)
On to something more healthy! Boy meets girl. Love at first sight. Boy is an ageing brutal general and national hero, turned ruler of his own little micro-state. Girl is the young beautiful fiancée of Boy’s younger brother. I smell romantic obstacle!
But don’t worry. I’m sure that it’s nothing that can’t be gotten around in the conventional way. Naturally, Count Strahd sells his soul to a demon and becomes a vampire, and if that’s not enough to win a lady’s heart then no doubt the tragic death of her fiancé in an entirely unexpected “coup attempt” will do the trick. But no! Tatyanna instead “kills herself” by “jumping” from the castle walls. Poor Strahd! And to make matters worse, his whole country has been dragged into an inescapable hell-dimension. On the plus side, between vampirism and the mysterious powers granted to him by the Powers That Be of this dungeon dimension, he’s now seriously not to be messed with.
I use quotation marks, incidentally, because this story is told most fully in the memoirs of Strahd himself. Since Strahd leaked said memoirs himself, it’s to be expected that the story is distorted throughout to play up Strahd’s role as a noble (if brutal) hero, downplaying any possible elements of “psychotic lunatic” and “sociopathic predator”.
All this, however, is only the beginning of the great romance. You see, Tatyanna may be dead, but that need not be the end. Every generation, Strahd discovers, Tatyanna is born again, somewhere in his little domain of Barovia, and Strahd gets a chance to romance her again. One day, surely, he’ll find the right way. Surely… except that he never does. Oh, sure, it seems like he will. He sometimes gets his Tatyanna to the verge of loving him, or to the point of despairing surrender, or even to enticed embrace of his dark life, but something always gets in the way. She always kills herself for some incomprehensible reason, or dies of a convenient plague, or is murdered (or ‘freed’ if she has become a vampire) by some pesky band of adventurers.
Needless to say, none of this is Strahd’s fault in any way. He assures us.
You see, the Powers – the Mists – may have made Strahd a near-omnipotent ruler of his domain of Barovia, but this hell isn’t for his citizens, it’s for him. Strahd is immortal – and generation after generation he falls in love with the same woman, and generation after generation he does everything he can to be with her, and generation after generation she dies tragically. Well that was worth selling his soul for.
The genius of this romance, however, only becomes apparent when you pay a little more attention. Tatyanna, you see, is not always the same. Of course she isn’t – she has different parents each time, a different place of birth, a different time-period. Naturally. She’s not always called Tatyanna, naturally. As more domains appear from the mists, there are population movements, so she may not even be of the same ethnicity. Strahd knows his Tatyanna, of course, even if she sometimes looks different, sounds different, acts differently…
…or maybe there is no Tatyanna. Maybe the poor girl only died the once. Only Strahd knows his Tatyanna, there’s no magical arrow flashing in the air over her head. So maybe… he’s just a psychotic lunatic who has driven himself into an eternal cycle of self-tormenting delusion?
- Striper and That Biker Dude, Striper Assassin, Nyx Smith
Something simpler. There is something to be said for a plain, simple romance. For instance, there’s Striper and that biker dude. Striper is an assassin, and I don’t mean in the glossy pretty ‘bringing down the terrorists’ way. She’s pretty much a serial killer for hire, and the heroine of this novel. Then there’s that biker dude. He’s a biker dude, or at least he’s a hunky guy who’s murdered a biker at some point and stolen his shit. He’s our second lead, and although he’s a bit more sympathetic than striper he is also a serial killer for hire.
You know where this is going. One gets hired to kill each other. And you know what happens then! Yes, they fall in love at first sight. Well actually they try to kill each other at first sight. Then, after a few ripping-to-shreds moments and the odd barrage-of-machine-gun-fire-at-point-blank-range and the like, they each come to a conclusion: the other guy’s a weretiger too!
Since they’ve both grown up without any companion weretigers, this means instant love. Well, actually it means instant horniness. Pretty much straight on from the attempted killing (like werewolves, these weretigers regenerate pretty rapidly, so they can get pretty rough) they spend half a day or so having bout after bout of sex in both human and tiger forms (whether they’re prim enough to stick to same-species permutations only is left to the imagination). Then they bugger off out of the novel because fuck that plot, they’ve just found a weretiger fuckbuddy, so who gives a shit about all that corporate conspiracy weird magical stuff that’s going on. Well I tell a lie, I think they murder some plot-relevant people then bugger off and go live in Mexico or something.
I can’t remember how the romance ends – it might be that the biker dude gets killed, or it might be that he just abandons Striper and their kid because, dude, he’s a tiger, they’re not exactly known for great fatherhood. Plus, tigerhood aside, he is a mass murderer for hire.
For some reason, I really liked this romance when I was a kid. I think a lot of it is that it didn’t show its weretigers as people who could change shape in a sexy way. They’re both smart, but behaviourally they’re closer to animals than to humans. Used to a genre where every type of sentient ‘race’ was just a human with a different light cliche applied to the surface, I liked having some people who felt, at least at the time, not just non-human but dangerously non-human, and I liked that, naturally enough, once they found another of their own species they really didn’t care too much about what the humans were getting up to, give or take a spot of revenge-murder. And because they were both so bestial, they kind of wound up relatively ‘sympathetic’ and non-contemptible, by the standards of Shadowrun, despite all that murder-for-hire stuff. And I guess also that in a genre where ‘romance’ generally meant love-now-marriage-once-the-war’s-over or else awkward-sighs-and-glances-and-blushes-and-whatnot, having a hero and heroine who went from meeting (violently) to having sex (violently) in a matter of minutes was wonderfully refreshing. And transgressive. [Wait, was this the first sex scene I read? Surely not. No. But it might well have been the most graphic sex scene I’d read at that age. On which note, I still seem to recall that, for a tiger, a species not known for carnal experimentation, that biker dude was surprisingly respectful of Striper’s need to assert herself sexually…]
Of course, compared to some of the stuff in these books, this was conservative. I remember, for instance, the sequel to this book, by the same author, in which one subplot involves people who… well I don’t think I understood it fully at the time, as a child, but it involves some form of sexually-enjoyable zombie-creating semi-necrophiliac entertainment. There was some sort of zombie dark lord and Crash-stuff with looking for fatal accidents and stuff… it was a C-plot. I’m guessing it links up to some other setting material somehow? I should read it again, if only to work out what the hell was going on, but believe me, even for a kid who grew up reading Eddings’ snuff-porn scenes, this was disturbing.
*looks back over the last few picks*
Huh. Two questions occur to me. First: sorry, tell me again about how modern ‘grimdark’ has been breaking away in revolutionary fashion from the happy, jolly, idealised, non-disturbing fantasy that came before? And second: how the hell did I make it out of childhood without some serious issues!?
- Carrot and Angua, various books, Terry Pratchett
OK, let’s try something wholesome and conservative!
Oh, wait, hang on…
Well, the romance between Carrot and Angua is very well handled. The attraction is immediately apparent, but the relationship develops over several books. One notable aspect is the way that while, on the one hand, Carrot and Angua fit each other perfectly, and work as a perfect team, there is at the same time an inilliminablegulf between them. Carrot cannot ever fully understand Angua, because she’s a werewolf. And Angua can’t ever fully understand Carrot because… well, he’s Carrot. He’s very clever, and very simple, and much of what he says and does rests on a sort of Schrödinger’s Cat of irony and equivocation. When is he being genuinely stupid, and when is it just a pretence? When is he really making a threat, and when is he just saying something perfectly innocent? And when is he saying something perfectly innocent because he knows baser-minded listeners will take it as a threat even though he doesn’t mean it as one?
As a result, Angua – pragmatic, witty, a bit selfish – and Carrot – idealistic, noble, couldn’t spot sarcasm from two feet away – regard each other with an exciting and palpable fascination. We don’t have to be told that those two are in love – it’s in every page. But at the same time, there is this boundary between them that they cannot and probably do not wish to elide – not really a barrier, more a convenient viewing distance for admiring the other. Many literary romances seem to view love as a merging of two people into one, and see any suggestion of independence as leading to trouble – or else they view love as a comfortable partnership, and believe that (if you’ll excuse me quoting something I believe I first read in a David Eddings novel) love isn’t staring into each other’s eyes, it’s looking in the same direction. Carrot and Angua present a couple who retain their individuality yet do not fall (much…) into strife, and who are able to work as a functioning partnership with demanding jobs even though they’re still excited by each other. They’re looking at each other, but still have one eye on the world around them. On average. Because really, Carrot is looking at business while Angua is checking him out.
That’s the other thing about their relationship: it’s profoundly unequal. On his side, yes, sure, she means everything to him and doubtless he’d die for her. She’s very significant to him personally. But as he explains, “personal isn’t the same as important”. He’s the true believer and she’s the pragmatist (about everything other than him), and you have to feel that when push comes to shove she’ll sacrifice more for him than he would for her. [Hurt Angua and a righteous Carrot will be frightening. But hurt Carrot and an ungodly Angua will be the stuff of nightmares…] And on her side… well, Pratchett did a very good job sneaking in a D/s relationship into a mainstream book without fanfare, didn’t he?
You see, Angua’s a werewolf. That means she’s half human, half wolf. What do you get when you take a wolf and make it half human? That’s right – a dog. Angua is – and it’s stated explicitly, no need to join the dots – quite literally her boyfriend’s bitch. If he tells her to do something she physically finds it almost impossible to disobey – like any other well-trained dog. This isn’t played sexually particularly, because Pratchett doesn’t go in for sex (come to think of it, they may have the only real sex scene in the entire series, and even that’s just some springs making a noise in the darkness for a while) – although come to think of it I guess there must be a fair amount of fanfiction along those lines. And of course Carrot is far too polite to call her that, or exploit her instinctive obedience to him (and, as Angua notes, her own obedience is only an extreme form of the instinctive urge that everybody seems to have to do what Carrot tells them – Carrot is the alpha of all mankind, not because he’s a controlling, dominating bastard but precisely because he’s not; because obedience is usually to people who make you want to obey them (since I said ‘alpha’, it’s worth noting: in reality, what used to be called an ‘alpha’ in a wolf pack is now recognised as simply being the father – dominance among wolves isn’t established through force but through bonds of affection, in the form of lifelong pair-bonding and the parent-child bond; Carrot, like a king, makes people instinctively look up to him as a benign, guiding father-figure).
I’m not saying it’s inherently good that Angua is Carrot’s bitch and that the relationship is asymmetrical. But I do think it’s good to see in fiction – and approachable, popular fiction at that – portrayals of romantic relationships that are not idealised, perfectly symmetrical, perfectly interchangeable partnerships. It can be OK for things to be… a bit different here and there. In this case, Carrot could exploit Angua’s naturally submissive (to him) nature and really dominate her life, taking away her independence and identity… and at first that does seem to be something she’s frightened of, under the surface. But… he doesn’t. And he won’t, because he’s Carrot, and she probably wouldn’t be in love with him in the first place if he did act like that. And so Angua is an example of a woman who confesses herself a man’s obedient bitch… and yet who is also one of the most independent, brave, capable, sensible, sometimes overly-aggressive female character you’re ever likely to meet. Not only is she smarter than everyone around her, but she could also rip most of them apart with her own teeth and eat them if she wanted (or rather… if she let herself). She’s a great example of how the complexities of someone’s private life need not have the slightest influence on their abilities to excel in every aspect of their public life.
In a culture with so many depictions of romance, for women especially, involving not merely submission but the submergence of the individual’s own identity, the arguably kinky but inarguably respectful relationship between Carrot and Angua is a breath of fresh air.
- Rupert and Julia, Blue Moon Rising and others, Simon Green
One common problem with love in novels is that the love story can never really have a happy ending. In they end, they break up, or else one of them dies and the other has to grieve the loss. That’s why books try to create and end by putting an opaque screen over the couple’s life beyond a certain point. ‘And they both lived happily ever after’. The difficulty with that is that it’s hard to really grasp what ‘happily ever after’ really means – particularly for a couple who have typically spent their entire romance in extreme, often dangerous, often epic, circumstances. What does it actually look like when they settle down?
So special mention must be given to Simon Green for finding a clever answer to that. Prince Rupert and Princess Julia are in essence rejects thrown together by circumstances: both are superfluous younger offsprings in royal families, only needed for insurance purposes; he is a too-cowardly prince, she is an insufficiently virginal and unnecessarily violent princess. Both are sent to their deaths by their families, very nobly – she as a sacrifice to a dragon, he as a hero sent to heroically and unsuccesfully fight the same dragon (or, if he knows what’s good for him, bugger off as soon as he’s out of sight). When Rupert instead persuades the (elderly, butterfly-collecting) dragon to return with him and Julia to his castle, this does not go down well, but any parental disappointment is quickly set aside by the more pressing questions of rebellion and demonic onslaught. Needless to say, Rupert and Julia save the day (sort of – what’s left of it), growing as people in the process, and coming to (mostly) love each other along the way. They both live happily ever after. The end.
So what does ‘happily ever after’ actually mean? Well, it means they skidaddle their way to a distant country, change their names, enrol in the city guard and fight crime in a seemingly unrelated series of books by the same author. It’s a genius idea: the different stages in their lives represented by a shift from high-stakes high-violence epic fantasy in Blue Moon Rising to laid-back, comfortable Agatha-Christie-esque detective novel in Hawk and Fisher. It is, as it were, a working retirement for the characters, and it works perfectly to provide that ‘happy ever after’ that perhaps it was difficult to imagine in the abstract. These guys couldn’t simply settle down and raise kids. They couldn’t run a tavern, or a farm. But colleagues in the city guard? It lets them live out the same dynamic they had when they fell in love, but at a slower, more survivable pace. Both of them have clearly mellowed, not just because of their change in career but because of each other’s love and support: Rupert’s edgy, insecure fears and Julia’s pre-emptive aggression calmed by the reassurance each gets from the other. And it’s nice to find an author willing to let couples just… be succesful. So often there is this feeling that every couple needs to be doing something whenever they’re being watched – they’re always breaking up, getting back together, just churning up drama. Hawk and Fisher are just… a pair. They work closely together in their job (he’s nominally her superior, but that’s more about him being the one who gets on better with others, and is more proactive – between the two of them, they don’t seem to worry about hierarchy). They may bicker now and then like the married couple they are, and I’m sure they have their occasional frictions, but by and large they get on just fine.
I wouldn’t want it from every story, but it is nice to see now and then a ‘happy ever after’ couple where, yeah, you really can see how that’s going to work out in the long term.
[Later in their lives, they apparently go home and probably have to save the world again. But don’t tell me what happens, because I haven’t read those books yet]
- Ash and That Guy, Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle
He’s a selfish, domineering, misogynistic arsehole. She’s a deeply sexually-frustrated teenage girl who thinks he’s just sooo dreamy.
You’ve heard that story before. The difference here is: so has she. She soon works out how unpleasant he is, and how close to zero chance they have together. She’s not an idiot, after all. She’s a smart, independent, horribly violent woman.
Unfortunately, she is still a woman, and as a result has certain… urges. Because That Guy is extremely pretty, and she desparately wants to have sex with him. But it’s more than that: she instinctively wants to have a romance with him. She’s infatuated with him. Sure, they hate each other, but she sooo wants to change him, she’s so eager for any sign of interest or reform from here. At least, part of her is – not a part of her she normally has a high opinion of.
That’s the interesting this about this romance, in that we get to see effectively three warring sides of the heroine: the rational side, which recognises the guy as bad news and wants as little to do with him as possible; the emotional side, which finds itself instinctively gushing and swooning (not literally – she wears armour a lot and literally swooning would be dangerous); and the physical side, which doesn’t care about romance but is very interested in using the guy as a sex-toy.
[There’s not a great deal of sex in the book, but it is written as though… well, as though it involved sex, which a lot of sex scenes don’t. If you were an alien, you could read a hell of a lot of fantasy novels before you really understood how sex worked, and entire libraries of them before you started to work out why humans were so keen on the business. Gentle, on the other hand, wrote Ash in the middle of writing her run of seven erotica novels (with names like ‘Sinner Takes All’ and the like), and while I’m not a connaisseur of sex scenes, hers do certainly have a degree of… physicality… unusual in my experience in mainstream fantasy]
So it’s a romance that acknowledges the trope of insta-love, and of love as an overwhelming force that makes people act weirdly, but pushes all that into the realm of lust and infatuation, and in the process creates internal conflict in the protagonist. Frankly, it’s just nice to have a book where a female character genuinely lusts after somebody – not just pines or swoons romantically or has romantic fantasies about, or even just is willing to sleep with or wants to sleep with for pragmatic reasons or to have babies with, but actually physically and hormonally lusts after. So much fantasy portrays women, even when relatively empowered agents, as sexually passive, or as sexually proactive only in a calculating way.
But if that wasn’t enough, the dynamics of the relationship also allow for a nice inversion here. Lots of stories have a rugged, violent, often ill-born warrior lusting after a delicate, refined, reluctant flower of the court and having to try to seduce (or at least hoping to seduce) them… quite a few stories even have the object of affection as an initially hostile, morally misguided semi-antagonist who must be won around to the path of good through the love of a good noble warrior. And this is both those sorts of stories… except that this time the warrior is a woman and the dainty courtier is a man. Which makes a nice change.
- Caramon and Raistlin, the Dragonlance setting (particularly the ‘Chronicles’ and ‘Legends’ trilogies), numerous authors (but particularly Margaret Weiss and Tracey Hickman)
Dragonlance has plenty of romances. On the epic side, there’s Tanis and the beautiful elven princess Laurana (and the intelligent, dangerous warrior Kitiara – Tanis decides to have a lot of sex with Kitiara and then settle down with Laurana, which let’s face it is what most men would be tempted to do in his situation). On the more charming side, there’s loveable oaf Caramon and bar-girl Tika (who reappear as a happy couple throughout following books for many decades, providing a key element of continuity). Or for lovers of knightly romance, there’s Sturm and Kitiara. Or for lovers of tragedy, there’s Lord Soth and Kitiara. For lovers of porn, there’s… well, I don’t know, but I’m guessing there’s a whole lot of fanfiction out there involving Kitiara. And for people who happen to stumble upon prequel novel Dark Heart, there’s three romances of a boy and Kitiara, a man and Kitiara, and a panther with Kitiara (in her defence, he looked human at the time). And there are whole novels about Kitiara I haven’t read yet that but that probably involve at least two more ‘romantic’ entanglements for Kitiara in each one. But Dragonlance also makes an effort to display other forms of love. There’s the parent-child love we see so touchingly between Kitiara and her father Tas and the other Companions, particularly Flint, and to an extent between Flint and Tanis.
But the central love of the series, lets be honest, is sibling love. It’s the love Kitiara has for her half-brothers the love between Kitiara’s half-brothers, the twins Caramon and Raistlin.
It’s remarkable not because it’s intense, but because it’s complicated. Caramon is a huge, strong man, and quite sensible, though not always the brightest. Raistlin small and weak, chronically unhealthy from birth, almost crippled, afflicted by both natural and supernatural ailments, but dangerously intelligent, academic, and magically talented. Naturally, Caramon constantly protected his little brother from all the perils of the world. Naturally, Raistlin deeply resented this… but when Raistlin’s power grows, it becomes his turn to protect Caramon against things a sword can’t help with.
The relationship certainly isn’t easy. The Chronicles start with Raistlin having passed his ‘Test’ to become a mage, in the conclusion of which he brutally murdered an imaginary Caramon (because he thought Caramon had learnt magic too, and hence was superior to Raistlin in all ways). Caramon knows this, but the outcome of the Test has also left Raistlin more physically dependent on Caramon than ever before. At this point, Raistlin is merely troubled and conflicted; later, he outright Embraces The Dark Side. Yet even though he is evil, and even though he hates Caramon, he cannot fully escape from loving him, and nor can Caramon stop himself from loving Raistlin. Raistlin’s love for Caramon is ultimately what resolves the plot of the trilogy and saves the world; but it’s only the prologue to the Legends series, a sustained test of the relationship between the two brothers (the concluding book of that trilogy is even called Test of the Twins).
There are a lot of relationships in fantasy where two people love each other because they are basically the same. The are some where two people love each other even though they are different, because they are still compatible. Raistlin and Caramon are a rare example of people who are completely incompatible, and who hold very mixed opinions about each other (not only does Raistlin openly disdain Caramon, but even the nicer Caramon has a vein of disdain for his weaker, effeminised brother), and yet who are unable, even when they try, to stop loving one another.
- Fitz and the Fool, The Farseer Trilogy, The Tawny Man Trilogy, and The Fitz and the Fool Trilogy, Robin Hobb
While we’re on the topic of non-sexual love between men, here’s perhaps the greatest love affair in modern fantasy: FitzChivalry Farseer and the character who goes by many names but who starts out as King Shrewd’s personal Fool.
They may not be sexually involved – though the Fool would probably like them to be – but their love for one another is the central thread of Fitz’s story, and now spans nearly half a century of Fitz’s life, and a decade and a half of ours. It’s a love that’s somehow very… understandable. Both the bastard and the jester are isolated figures – ostracised and self-concealing, both men spend their lives beneath a series of masks and false names, deeply private and paranoid. Even the Fool’s gender has never been explicitly revealed. One wrestles essential deception with bluff honesty, the other constructs impenetrable façades, hiding himself within his disguises themselves. Naturally, the two are drawn to one another.
But it is never an easy relationship. Each wants what the other cannot give – dimensions of honesty and revelation that the other insists on shrouding in privacy. Each is, existentially, a challenge and a threat to the other: Fitz’s heart-on-sleeve honesty and straightforwardness (despite his many deceptions) delegitimises the Fool’s elaborate defences and turns his attacks, his moments of hubris, meanness and bitterness, into something petty and useless; the Fool’s soul-baring sharpness exposes the part of Fitz that Fitz does not dare expose, as he conceals himself from himself more diligently than he conceals himself from others, while the Fool’s willingness to play with his own identity threatens the safe certainties that Fitz relies upon. Fitz plainly finds his presence and behaviour deeply discomforting on many occasions; the Fool is always harder to read, but as we get closer to him we see how he in turn feels shamed by Fitz’s goodness. So why do they love each other so strongly? In part simply out of habit, as two lonely people who have found a friend they refuse to let go of – in a way, as the world has changed around them and their own public faces have changed with it, they have become trapped in an old world of the past in which they are two of only a small handful of denizens. But in part it’s because they hurt each other. They hurt each other in a positive way, as each makes the other feel an absence, and inadequacy, within themselves, and those flaws they feel compelled to address, even though they do not wish to (or perhaps they wish to though they are compelled not to). No wonder they spend so much of their lives studiously avoiding each other! As pleasant as it may be imagining them living as neighbours the rest of their lives, the truth is that the two of them would probably go mad from such proximity. They would burn up, they would boil up like water left on the heat too long. This is one couple where ‘happy ever after’ probably is never an option. But while they are together, they burn through each other’s flaws and foibles, and their layer after layer of protection against the world.
- Beren and Luthien, various works, J.R.R. Tolkien
The real One True Pairing, the real True Love. It’s a time-worn story told through the generations, one of the oldest stories of myth: boy meets girl, girl’s father opposes the match, girl’s father sets an impossible task, boy accomplishes task, wins girl.
This time, though, the story is both more epic and innovatively inverted: rather than being a helpless maiden, it’s actually Luthien who is the hero of the story.
When Thingol her father catches the human Beren her beloved, it’s elven Luthien who makes her father promise not to harm Beren. On the surface, Thingol then trades Luthien to Beren, ‘jewel’ for ‘jewel’ – if Beren is able to retrieve a Silmaril from the hand of Morgoth for Thingol, Thingol will give him Luthien (if she wants to be given). But actually this ‘trade’ is for the sake of preserving father-daughter relations: Thingol, once he agrees not to kill Beren, next wishes to leave him stumbling blindly through his caves until he dies. Luthien’s love leads him to instead set Beren an impossible task, knowing that Beren must either give up hope of Luthien or else die on the quest.
And he’s right, on the face of it. Beren does his best, dragooning in Finrod, disguising himself as an orc, surviving an encounter with Sauron. Beren is thrown in prison awaiting an unpleasant death. Finrod sacrifices himself to buy Beren more time, killing a werewolf, but death is still inevitable.
Fortunately, Luthien turns up, masters Sauron, destroys his host, tears down his fortress, and rescues her fair youth from peril. Beren is shot by Curufin; Luthien helps heal him. Beren goes on with his quest, and tries to leave Luthien behind for her own protection. Luthien hunts him down. Beren is going to charge single-handed into the mouth of hell; Luthien instead disguises them as a bat-winged vampire and a werewolf. Beren and Luthien are caught, and brought before Melkor Morgoth, ultimate Lord of Darkness; Luthien sings and dances for the Dark Lord, with such beauty that he and his court are sent to blissful sleep, letting Beren wrench one Silmaril from Morgoth’s ring. They try to escape, but their way is blocked by the great wolf Carcharoth, who eats Beren’s hand and, driven mad by the agony of being burned from within by the jewel, runs wild through the countryside. Beren hunts down Carcharoth and retrieves the Silmaril, but is killed in the process.
So Luthien descends into the Underworld (well, dies, and her spirit goes west unto the Halls of Mandos, same thing), and sings for her lover’s life so miraculously that the gods have mercy on him alone among men, and he is resurrected. So is she; but she asks to become mortal so that she will not have to live on beyond his death again.
I’m not really a ‘Beren and Luthien’ guy. I prefer the story of Tuor’s love for Idril (hint: someone else loves her too; it ends badly), or even Turin’s love for Nienor (hint: she’s actually his sister; it ends very, very badly). But Beren and Luthien is the paramount love story in modern Fantasy, and it skillfully blends ancient story-forms (the lover’s quest from, for instance, Culhwch’s quest for the hand of Olwen; various stories of disguised infiltration and rescue of lovers from dungeons and gems from treasuries; various hunting-of-the-demon-beast stories; the journey into hell to bring a lover back to life (e.g. Orpheus and Eurodyce) and so on) with his own complex mythology, and with a distinctive and personal twist: in this case, that it’s Eurodyce who descends to hell to sing on behalf of Orpheus, and it’s the maiden who rescues the warrior from the castle, etc. It also combines this with Tolkien’s own moral code and theology: Beren’s achievement is to decide to take on Thingol’s task. Even when he and Luthien are alone, beyond Thingol’s power, and the two could simply flee, he will not break his oath, nor steal from a good man, nor allow any compromise with evil. He hopes to prevent Luthien from dying alongside him, but he would rather die than be forsworn – an unbreakable good oath (from love and directed only against Morgoth, bringing him to his own death) to eventually undo the terrible ills wrought by the unbreakable ill oath (from greed and against all rivals, bringing death to others) sworn by Feanor and his sons. Beren’s honour and courage forces the issue, and that is what forces the intervention of Luthien (who is technically a demigod of course), whose own courage in the journey to Mandos forces the intervention of the gods. It is the story of God helping those who put their trust in Him, with Beren as the leal good man and Luthien as the angel of God.
The poem Tolkien once tried writing about the two was called the Lay of Leithian, which translates to the Lay of Release from Bondage – a superficially bizarre name for a love story. But that is what their story is: Luthien released from her father’s care, Beren released from Thingol’s imprisonment under oath, Beren freed from the dungeons by Luthien, the Silmaril freed from Morgoth’s ring, Beren freed from death… Luthien freed from the curse of immortality. But more practically, as Beren says, it is the story of his release from human bondage, from the bondage of a life lived day to day, through the light of love that reveals not only the wonders of Luthien to him, but, through Luthien, the wonders of a life and a world that he had until then despaired of.
Of course, it ends badly, with, in the end of the tale, a great deal of war and slaughter and kin-slaying. But Beren and Luthien get to die (for the second time) of natural causes. And it is the Silmaril that they recovered that guided the ship of Eärendil into the West to plead for the intercession of the gods against Melkor and that shines now as the Evening Star. And they didn’t live happily ever after, because by then they were dead, but the world did, and that matters more.
But perhaps most importantly: it’s a true story. Not the detail, of course, but the spirit of it. John Tolkien and Edith Bratt, both orphans, met and instantly fell in love when he was 16 and she was 19. Her family, such as remained, disapproved of him, as he was Catholic and she was Anglican. That disapproval, however, was nothing compared to that of the priest who acted as Tolkien’s guardian (we can imagine perhaps that it was some rival suitor of hers who, like Dairon to Thingol, brought word of their secret meetings to the stern Father). He was appalled by his ward being beguiled by an Protestant girl, and imposed a truly impossible ordeal on the lovesick teenage boy: not to communicate, not to have the slightest or even indirect contact with, his love, for as long as his guardian had power over him – until he became legally an adult, at the age of 21 (the time of his emancipation, or release from bondage). That was three long years. Edith, naturally, was distressed by the sudden silence. At first she held out hope, but eventually, hearing nothing, had to conclude that Tolkien had forgotten her. She went on with her life. She found other suitors, was wooed, and consented to be married to one of them. Tolkien, unknowing but doubtless fearing, nonetheless held to the terms of his oath, abided by his obligations to his guardian, sustained only by a hopeless and quixotic faith.
Five years later, he arrived at his majority. The very same day, he wrote to Edith. She told him that she was already engaged to another man. Within a week, Tolkien travelled to meet her. The day they met, she abandoned her existing engagement and announced her engagement to Tolkien instead. They were married two months later, in 1913, and remained married until her death in 1971. At the time, he was a man with no job, no money, and, as he put it, no prospects except the likelihood of death in the coming war; the marriage alienated them from both their remaining families (Edith was even thrown out of her lodgings; like Luthien, she had chosen to abandon her original nature (as a Protestant) and convert to be with her husband, which did not go down well in violently anti-Catholic times). Soon after, he was against his will thrown into hell at the Somme (he tried to avoid ‘volunteering’, but the ‘hints’ from friends and family eventually grew too strong). Unlike Beren, he did not have his Luthien to physically rescue him from Sauron – but he did have her songs, or at least her letters, to keep him sane. All but one of his friends were killed. [As were all but one of the companions of Beren as they came to the nightmare fortifications of Tol-in-Gaurhoth, though that may just be a coincidence]
When he returned to England, though still with the army, they went walking one day in woodland and came across a grove of hemlocks, where Edith danced for him. This is the dance of Luthien that Beren sees and is enchanted by; it is also the dance of Luthien’s mother Melian for Thingol, that puts him to sleep for seven years and makes him miss his chance to enter heaven, but makes him not regret the loss.
Unfortunately, of course, real life is not the same as fairy tales, not in the details at least. As Tolkien explained later to his son, after Edith died:
In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing – and dance. But the story has gone crooked, & I am left, and I cannot plead before the inexorable Mandos.
No one can, in these latter days. Tolkien did his best. Like Luthien, he followed his love into the West, less than two years later. Unlike Beren and Luthien, they have not come back.