Sunday, February 10, 2013

Love's Value in fantasy...

As a high school teacher, every year I get to watch my students go through hyper-romantic antics getting ready for Valentine’s Day. At our school it starts in late January with the Tolo, designed to help fund the yearbook costs. Between the silliness of creative asking moments, the quests to find matching shirts and the debates over dinner reservations, the students manage to turn themselves into something approaching sensitive romantics. For me it is a nice departure from their seasonal cynicism. These last few days of candy grams and candy-kiss roses, and Terri-Lynne’s post about the not so happy ending got me thinking about love and how we use it in our stories. And I am not talking about the ‘falling in love’ that provides so many possible conflicts and complications; or the emotional outbursts that come during tales of extreme danger, quests magnificent, rebellions or wars most martial. I’m talking about love long term and its role in story.

Perhaps I’m being disingenuous, but I just don’t come across too many tales that include a long term relationship. Some of the pair-bonds in the Pern novels come to mind, hints and nuances appear in Tolkien’s work, and I am sure there are others. In fact, I’d like for anyone who reads this to post a response spreading the word about those other works.  I don’t think the list is as long as it probably should be. Rather, we see stuff like Trystan and Isuelt, Arthur and Guenivere; the love in conflict, threatened, betrayed or lost just seems more prevalent. Even Aragorn and Arwen only got 120 years before she had to taste the bitterness of his passing.

I wonder why?

The easy answer, hinted at above, is that long-term love, stability, nurturance, quiet and peace just won’t sell. Where are the dramatic elements that provide for character growth, complication, that all important element of danger so important to plot?

Why can’t the stable bond fit into that paradigm more often? So much of modern fiction treats all the turmoil (cue Jane Austen) that leads to love and the happy ending. In fact, all that stuff is really just the end of the happy beginning. And more and more, as suggested by Terri-Lynne and our present era, the endings of those moments don’t always suggest long term love. What were Darcy and Elizabeth’s next two decades like? That story didn’t get written, and I think the lack is a shame (cue the opening sequence to Up). I just don’t think it happens enough, especially in our genre. Check the stacks of the local bookstore. How many covers imply happily ever after in pair-bond-wedded bliss?

I’m guilty of this in my own fiction. Love seems to be a vital element in my stories. King’s Gambit deals with a war, but as I revised and re-wrote certain parts (dang editor…) I began to realize the whole thing was a quest for happiness through the chaos. Despite the conflict described, the book is actually more about women than otherwise, more about love and the prospect of extended, bonded connection than anything else (thank you, wonderful editor…).

I’d like to see if the long-term pair-bond could be worked more frequently into the stories we see published. And I’m excluding the eternal vampire love-fest foisted on us by Twilight. We live in a world beset by uncertainty. This week is Valentine’s Day; show me the love.

So, readers, educate me on all the stories I haven’t read but should because they show or use the long term pair-bond successfully. Make a case for it showing up more often and more importantly in our fiction.

Mark Nelson


Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Happy Valentine's Day, Mark!

Wow - "only" 120 years?? I know that's short for an elf, but it's plenty long term for me.

How exactly do you define "long term"? Is it a years thing, or a proportion of one's life thing?

An important constraint on "long term" is that the feudal and medieval (or thereabouts) environment in which many of our stories take place are not particularly conducive to long lives.

"Until death do us part" used to mean, oh, maybe another 15 years max? If the woman didn't die in child birth, the man died in battle, or either of them victim to any number of plagues and diseases.

There is also a deeper issue here: the lack of mature protagonists who have lived long enough to know what stable love might look like. Most of our heroes and heroines are young and vigorous and looking for luv while they go about slaying dragons, or whatever. ("Up" being a wonderful exception to this rule.)

To really bring in "stable, long term love", you have to start with an old protagonist, or let your protagonist grow old. Packing 30-50 years in a single novel is a significant challenge; though a series, of course, could do this effectively.

"The Time Traveller's Wife" comes to mind as a long-term love that goes beyond the wedding day. It still ends in separation by death, but sooner or later even the most stable of loves will do that.

Love can also be long term, stable, and nurturing without the two people in question actually having much opportunity to be with each other. Example that comes to mind: Forest Gump.

I'll be interested to see what other examples people come up with.

I think there is a place for stable love in our stories, but not for much quiet and peace. Even the wonderful opening sequence of "Up" is as much about opportunities missed as it is about love enjoyed across the years. And the greatest poignancy of that opening sequence is the ultimate loss suffered by the protagonist; the fact that even the most stable and long term of loves seem ephemeral and far too short, when all is said and done.

Terri-Lynne said...

First--you're welcome, Mark! :)

The first thing that came to mind was Louisa May Alcott's, "Little Men." It shows Jo and the Professor's life AFTER the HEA in Little Women. I suppose you could also cite "Jo's Boys", but I haven't read that one and don't quite know if Jo and Bhaer appear.

And, though it wasn't exactly Happily Ever After, there is Eleanor and Henry. He might have kept her in a tower for a long time, but the stories say they were madly in love until they died. At least, those are the ones I like. :)

And, I'd add a certain pair from my own novels, but that would be spoilery, so...I won't.

Elisabeth said...

120 years is about twice as long as any other couple gets! And there were other HEA couples in Tolkien's writing---Sam and Rose, Faramir and Èowyn, and I think there were more. What about about Cor and Avaris from C.S. Lewis' THE HORSE AND HIS BOY? It's true that HEA doesn't oft offer much to write about and that's probably why it's so uncommon. Stories come from conflict and HEA doesn't have much space alongside action. :(

Terri-Lynne said...

I agree, Elisabeth. A story witout conflict is...well...dull! Either there has to be conflict between the pair, or FOR the pain. In either case, it's not HEA, right?

And, really, Arwen and Aragorn might have had 120 years, but those years didn't actually make it into the book.

J. Ellyne said...

Read Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins, my favorite book of all time by my favorite author of all time. I won't tell you if the ending is happy or sad but the relationship is certainly long lasting and intensely loving. Would you believe centuries? Robbins makes us believe it could happen to us if we drink enough beet juice and use jitterbug perfume occassionally.

J. Ellyne said...

I loved the Time Traveler's Wife Karin.

J. Ellyne said...

In my series, the Fair and Fey, the two lovers have a relationship that spans thousands of years. So far I have taken them from 9,000 BC to 400 AD. The longer the relationship in a story, the more problems the couple will have to overcome. It's inevitable, but still ... it's good when love lasts.

Terri-Lynne said...

J. Ellyne--now THAT is a long time together. Whew!

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Jini, thanks so much for stopping by! I will definitely put Jitterbug Perfume on my list. Sounds like a fun book!

Your description of the Fair and the Fey reminded me of another movie with an ultra-long-term relationship: Hancock.

Of course, once we get into immortals, I think the territory might be qualitatively different. There's something about love between characters who are actually getting old (like in UP) that is endearing in a way that forever young lovers -- for all their appeal and conflicts -- don't achieve in quite the same way.