“Thou art wise to consider such a synthesis, Solemn. There are worlds aplenty, yet only a single Nature.”
-Final Judgement, “The Eye of Kog”
If you don’t build the world for your readers straight off, they’re going to assume everything is just like the Alleged Real World. In fact, so is the author. In fact, so did I. Marriage is one of those incredible moments with an enormous gap between the impact and our experience. Most of us go through it once. It affects us all our lives. But what do we really KNOW about it!
A gladiator wedding- for couples who see nothing wrong with fighting.
And in your tale, the one you’re either writing or reading, tell me. How many of your heroes and heroines are married? Or going to get that way? Is marriage only for happy endings in your tales? Did you ever ask why?
In the Alleged Real World, throughout 97% of our history we married for one reason– for the last century or so, another very different one. And in the Lands of Hope, the subject of marriage crops up quite often, affecting crown and commoner alike. It’s even in their legends.
Do I feel intimidated to touch such a hot-button topic? “I do.” But I cannot help where the tales have taken me.
When All is Fair
I’ll start with our familiar world, but the part most folks don’t know about. From my studies of ancient and medieval history I can bring up a couple of tidbits that may surprise you. For the vast majority of human existence:
- Marriage had nothing to do with equality, or love, or free choice– it was the key battle in each person’s war for survival.
- And sex? Yeah, pretty much the same thing.
If you were poor– no wait, if you were anyone but a guild leader’s daughter or the son of a chief– you had to get married to live. One person working 12 hours a day outside the house (hovel), and one person working 12 hours a day inside it. Or else starve. And after you had survived, to the ripe old age of let’s say fifty? No Social Security, no worker’s pension, no savings account: instead you had kids, now grown. Or else starve.
If you were rich? Same thing! Only the “survival” at stake was the guild, the dynasty, the nation’s. Still no choice for you about who, or when. Do you love him? Stop asking ridiculous questions. This is why ancient Athenian men reserved their love affairs for other men; the pull of Eros’ bow was best felt among equals, women weren’t yet allowed to be that. It’s why Juliet’s folks thought it was high time she get hitched, at fourteen. Over there, the way you feel about a special someone; over here, your chance to bear children, carry on the name, survive. People talk about love and death– if you lived back then, pursuing the former often meant the latter. Marry, and live: if somewhere between the wedding and the funeral you grow to love your mate, bonus.
Technology, as much as anything else, wrought the miraculous change in the ARW: a middle class emerged, devices saved labor, health improved; even some of the poor escaped the daily chains of hunger and disease, gained a little breathing room on the millennia-old pound of the survival drums. The wealthiest saw their responsibility to govern pushed back; divine right of kings ceased to be the welfare of the nation, their succession no longer worth wars to preserve. People gained the choice of marrying who they wanted. And then… that inner sense of what was best in the world, that layer of desire far above the need to eat and to be sheltered from the rain, all that poetry woven into our past warmed up to forge-temperatures, and marriage alloyed itself to true love. As if it had always been so.
Hey great. I mean, sure now there’s more divorce and some visible unhappiness. Because marriage has to be everything now: she needs to be your soul-mate, and share your interests, be compatible around crucial matters like who does the dishes and which way the toilet paper rolls. Oh, and hot too, sexy for the decades. Or else– well, you don’t need each other to survive, so… off you go. But it’s better now, because we get to be like the heroes in the fantasy stories. We can go after the one we really love, and it’s an epic struggle but at the end there’s the chance that we will live happily ever after.
How many of the fantasy worlds we read and write about have reached this stage?
Survival of the One-Size-Fittest-All?
I cannot count the epic and heroic fantasy tales I’ve read where society did not require folks to get married to survive. It’s almost all of them. They only have swords and bows, they creak along with wagons and ships to get places, folks still barter in the marketplace. But the cobbler’s third son is after the princess and by gummy, no matter how long it takes… Seriously? Everywhere you look, pig-keepers and hobbit gardeners, woodcutters and hermits, wild women and twins raised by wolves all get by just fine. They make it, they rise up. And they marry for love, or else they don’t. Kind of convenient, if you see what I mean. But after all, this IS fantasy.
It’s fine for your hero to be dirt-poor. As long as he finds the magic sword, or the wizard comes by to scoop him up, before it’s time to get married. And there’s no girl in the hamlet left behind without a husband. Yes, damn convenient you ask me.
In the Lands of Hope, the good guys won two thousand years ago. There are peasants, and woodcutters, and longshoremen aplenty but no one’s truly poor because the mages and knights of their world have labored long and hard to do the right thing. Everyone is provided for, those falling on hard times get helped, the power of law and magic itself is bent to assist the common weal. Yet they marry just like you would expect, rich and poor and all the time. Only the despised adventurers dare to defy such customs; that’s one more thing that makes them untrustworthy in the eyes of many. And the reason most everyone marries in the Lands is, as it has been before, custom. Their heroes and heroines before them married, for love as well as for children, and their descendants follow the example.
Leap of Faith
I haven’t said a word about religion yet, but with marriage there is no ducking the matter. I don’t have enough years left in my life to cover this topic, but here’s just one thing to consider. Notice how many times when people get married, it involves leaping over or carrying across a boundary? Even the rings, taken with vows, are a kind of initiation, a secret club you get to join complete with magic powers. The deity looks down and approves of this arrangement, there’s a bond created, one no mere human is able to break asunder. Even when it was only about survival, this was important enough to draw attention from above. In less advanced or civilized societies, the wedding ceremony tended to be less elaborate. For Sidrathay the Combatted, chieftain’s daughter of the Bordbeyonds, it is enough that she and her betrothed, the prince of Shilar, have said they are married. She takes her given word seriously and defends him with her life later on, yet she doesn’t think the occasion was worth raising her visor to let him see her face.
But for us, in this world, when it’s about love and one flesh and even death won’t tear us apart: it is indeed a very big deal. And we mark this big deal, generally, with as much as we can muster. In short, a marriage is an excellent excuse for a wedding. And that brings in ritual, and status and lots of things besides just the cousins your mother invited without asking, and folks from the office you don’t really like, or that guy you sort of know who it’s been judged important to bring along. Gareth, the prince of Shilar, cannot settle for the words he spoke to Sidrathay when they met. When they return to Shilar, he must arrange for the ceremony in the church, but he also must compose a love-poem to her, which she will read (once she learns how), and approve of (he hopes!). And of course, they must sleep together: he’s a wreck, but not about the coming battle with Despair, instead about the poem.
This marriage figures highly in The Eye of Kog that I’m working on now. But in Judgement’s Tale which comes before, Solemn works hard to unravel the mystery of a noble marriage, one with a bride and three grooms. The first is killed, the second refuses to take his brother’s place and seeks a kind of holy orders instead, and the third is under quarantine in the chapel, friendless and unable to complete his proposal. Without saying too much, I think it’s important to note that the woman is the one with the power here to choose between them, and she makes her decision based on love.
Meanwhile that second knight, Renan, after leaving family and marriage behind and swearing allegiance to the Order of the Chosen Wanderers , begins to have visions of a wondrous woman, an adventurer in a faraway land; he comes to love her despite the strictures of his order. Then seven years later in The Plane of Dreams— wait, I can’t tell you the whole story, we’d be here forever. Marriage, that’s the point, important. For love.
And not at the end of the story.
I’ve been on the altar at three weddings, and I’m pleased to report that none of them were as the human sacrifice. I “emceed” one for two good friends (heroes, actually) in the sovereign state of Washington where they countenance such things. I made a speech about magic rings, sang a song, and generally kept things moving as the Very Right Reverend Hahn. You don’t believe me, I have the certificate somewhere, I printed it off the internet. It was a marvelous, miraculous blend of matters sacred and secular; there was a trumpet solo, a broken glass, mutual vows, and an undercurrent of laughter, concluding with the signing of papers. My flock, as I refer to Mitch and Elizabeth, is small but of the highest quality.
That leaves two weddings, both as groom. No, not that.
We had a civil ceremony one December, reminiscent of the Bordbeyonds and simpler times, where the justice of the peace had us take the vows and even read a Cherokee blessing on us to end it: seven minutes. Tax purposes served, we had our church wedding the following February and all those stops you see scattered on the ground were because they had been pulled out. I married a musician, not to put too fine a point on it, so there was tons of that; Catholic ceremony with trimmings. Jazz band, medieval juggler, a capella love songs, laughter and vows. And while I didn’t compose it myself, I read a poem of sorts in front of everyone, the one that ended thus–
But thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
So Dorie knows, there is indeed no escape. She hates it when I count two anniversaries a year, but I’m doubly proud (coming up on number 40 soon). What for? Tough to put in words, but I’ll settle for these: without Dorie in my life, I would not survive. I’d live, of course, I’d eat and sleep and lather-rinse-repeat. But there would be no heroic tale, no striving or success, or dragon slain (yeah, we did) or boundary crossed. I’d be like, well, other people, instead of myself: no forget all that, go back to what I said before. I would not survive, full stop.
And that’s because I love her, and the daughter we’ve made. So, bonus.
And need I point out, my family and me, we’re not at the end. Maybe it’s the happy middle-ever-after we should be writing about.
In the Lands of Hope, the great majority of folks get married, though no one has to. There are no dowries or bride-prices, the agreement takes place between equals, and the parents seldom choose. Marriages are for love, as free as they are frequent. Weddings are sometimes elaborate and rich, at other times so fast you miss them if you blink. And let’s not even get into the Rom or the Stargazers, who countenance multiple spouses if one is woman– or man– enough to love them all. (More on that whenever I finish Perilous Embraces.) They’re even rarer than single folks. The Children of Hope marry in part because their heroes did; the story of Ekhonon’s proposal to Aballe is a centerpiece of the Darksebb gift-giving and celebration, somewhat like Christmas here in the Alleged Real World. You can read about that in Khoirah’s Gift.
I hope you’ve enjoyed thinking about the reasons why people marry, here and there, about life and struggle and happy endings and what comes before that.