What Is Your Consensual Sex & Love Doing In My Epic Fantasy? (Spiritwalker Monday 16)

This post by Foz Meadows on Grittiness and Grimdark covers a lot of ground in discussing the current fashion for grimdark and why it is important to analyze some unexamined assumptions underlying an insistence that it is realistic.

She writes:

when you contend that realistic worldbuilding requires the inclusion of certain specific inequalities in order to count as realistic, you’re simultaneously asserting that such inequalities are inherent to reality

Cheryl Morgan follows up on this in a response post:

the fairly common view that because a book portrays the world the way it is, then it is portraying the world the only way it can be . . .
The problem is that if you try to challenge [this view] then your ideas are dismissed as escapist fantasy. It is a seductive argument. But it is wrong, and we know it is wrong.

Both of those posts are well worth reading and I don’t want to go over ground they have already covered (that discussion is already going on in those posts). In fact, the Spiritwalker Trilogy was in part written to address this very question of things always having to be “that way” when “that way” relies on and perpetuates within the story the racism, sexism, and other historically attested and currently experienced inequalities.

However, I want to follow up on the (seemingly endless) discussion of the depiction and frequency of rape and sexual violence (most commonly against women) in gritty realistic grimdark fantasy.

As it happens I have written about issues of sexual violence in fiction and film/media:

I’ve written about why I write about rape, and I’ve written about the disturbing prevalence of depictions of women in fear and pain in US media and literature.

That brings me to a point Anne Lyle raises in the comments to Meadows’ post:

Anne Lyle remarks that “it really irks me that consensual sex is often seen as “icky” in fantasy when rape gets a free pass.”

To which Meadows replies, “It’s like there’s this unwritten rule that rape can be described because the details are plot relevant, but sex can’t be because it isn’t, and every time, I can’t help thinking: where does this idea come from that the details of sex don’t matter?”

The details and presence of consensual sex and love, even in epic fantasy, can not only be plot relevant but crucial to the development of characters or to the outcome of a story. Writers make choices about how they construct and elaborate on their plots and what they leave out. Any time a writer weaves a plot element into the story that writer is making a decision about what is decorative and what is foundational. If consensual sex and love are developed and presented as part of actual lived experience that matters to the characters, as experience that changes and defines characters, then it will matter to the plot.

For the purposes of this post, my definition of consensual is twofold:

1) Between two (or more) consenting adults. Consent and intent are the crucial elements here; different cultures and eras will have different ages at which any given individual is considered to become an adult.

2) who are on the important levels equal in their ability to consent. For example both free (as in not indentured or enslaved unless they are BOTH so burdened). Paid sex workers and camp followers are another category in which it is easy to stereotypically write them as “in love” when in fact there are a lot of questions about equality of consent in such situations.

Feel free to argue with or augment this definition.

So here is my question:

What role does consensual sex and love play in epic fantasy?

In some cases I am sure there is “too much” for some people’s taste (and it is important to acknowledge that people’s tastes vary and that is how it should be). More often in my own reading I see less examination of the place of these central human emotions and desires. Consensual sex can be love or it can be sex. It can be romantic but it can be other things too. Love can be portrayed as intense hot romantic attraction or as a steady affection that may not be sexual at all.

Many societies both today and in the past have had arrangements by which marriages between families are arranged or brokered for a multitude of reasons (as would, for instance, be the case in most marriages made within the upper classes across medieval Europe for reasons of alliance, wealth, security, and inheritance). There is evidence that some of these marriages resulted in affectionate stable unions, and why not? Human beings on the whole seek connection; affection and trust are forms of creating connection.

It is also reasonable to assume that sexy hot love as a form of lustful attraction happens between people in all human populations, whether forbidden or allowed. Likewise in some societies this species of attraction is viewed as disruptive of the social order (for good reason!).

Out of the past we find time and again people who genuinely loved their partners or a lover (forbidden or otherwise). On Letters of Note you can read this heartbreaking letter from a widow to her dead husband, written in 16th century Korea, or this equally heartbreaking letter from a 17th century Japanese noblewoman before she commits suicide upon the death of her beloved husband. I don’t mean to highlight only tragic examples; love poetry and songs in one form or another are a staple in most societies. For just one example check out this review of Classical Poems by Arab Women (Abdullah al-Udhari).

To my mind, we lessen the story we are telling about human experience if we do not include and see as worthy all of human experience, especially including positive depictions of sex and love. What kind of world do we vision if we only tell the ugly stories about such intimate matters?

So I’ll ask again: How does epic fantasy–and heroic fantasy, and however you wish to define or parse the categories–do in conveying the realities of consensual sex and love?

Do me a favor: If you’re going to mention examples please don’t only mention examples from novels written by male writers (particularly white straight male writers of UK/US extraction). All too often these sorts of discussions devolve into talking about the same people over and over again. Nothing against male writers. Some of my best friends are male writers. Give the awesome dudes their props. But I would really like to see a more diverse set of examples woven into any discussion that may ensue.

66 thoughts on “What Is Your Consensual Sex & Love Doing In My Epic Fantasy? (Spiritwalker Monday 16)

  1. If I had to pick a fantasy author who I think does consensual sex the best it would have to be Juliet Marillier. It’s never too explicit and always in keeping with the feel of the novel, characters grow together and sex is a natural progression of their relationships. But having said that, I think it’s really sad how often authors either a) only go for the violent/non-consensual/manipulative (as in where one character – often female – uses her sexuality to influence males) sex, or b) ignore it completely and have these epic romances with no pay-off greater than a hug and chaste kiss – this may work in some YA but it don’t fly with me – you can’t build and build and then leave me hanging – people have sex! Deal with it. Do it “off screen” (page?) if you must but at least allude to it, give me the characters falling into a bed in a mess of tangled limbs, or awakening curled in each other’s naked bodies…

  2. It’s largely because of this issue with depictions of sex and love that I don’t read a lot of straight-up fantasy. However, my favourite fantasy novels I think do a really good job in their depictions of consensual sex and love. Kristin Cashore’s GRACELING, FIRE, and BITTERBLUE, and R L LaFevers’s GRAVE MERCY are recent ones I’ve read, and I wish I could find more like them.

  3. >>If consensual sex and love are developed and presented as part of actual lived experience that matters to the characters, as experience that changes and defines characters, then it will matter to the plot.

    Yes. I have a conflict based theory on why sexual violence is seemingly more common than healthy consensual sexual relationships in epic fantasy and that is a matter of conflict. A rape , sexual assault or other trauma is a recipe for dramatic conflict, a traumatic event to shape a character or shape the narrative. A consensual encounter between two protagonists is trickier for some writers to use. Or, worse, there is a conception that Heroine A. Protagonist will look “weak” if the plot has her wind up in bed with the diplomat from the neighboring country without it being some sort of dramatic, freighted event.

  4. To be honest sex scenes are difficult to write. I keep swinging between “what is that body part” vagueness and soft porn 🙂 But I agree that watching a relationship develop and grow is a fun part of fantasy. I do see it in a lot of books I have read, though – have I been lucky?

  5. Your question was, “How does epic fantasy do in conveying the realities of consensual sex and love?”

    My answer is that it doesn’t do much. I can’t remember the last novel by any Fantasist of any sex-identification that expanded or challenged how I consider sex or love. Sex scenes are usually unimaginatively written, almost a copy-and-paste of a few acts and alleged emotional attachments (and I’ve had several writers tell me that’s the way it ought to be if you want to sell), and love is perhaps even more narrowly represented. I witness more in the nature of love in having dinner with a couple than I do in most Fantasy door-stoppers. This is why I’m generally averse to the material being in novels: if you’re not thinking it over in an original way, you’re probably wasting my time. I definitely don’t pick up giant books to read people repeating the words and tropes of others.

    However, I don’t think I’m your target, because I don’t consider rape or sexual violence as inherently valid in fiction either, and generally dislike reading it from an ethical, emotional and original-storytelling perspective. That rape has become a common plot device is disgusting to me. I’m in total agreement with you that associating it with realism, but consensual sex as unassociated, is nonsense.

  6. This whole idea that consensual sex is icky to show, but sexual violence is not – it ties into the way that US films are more likely to get a higher rating for sexual content than for violent content. (and yet! we must have heteronormativity even in kids movies!) Which leads to movies that have sexualized violence getting younger ratings than movies that just have sex in them. It’s clearly in a feedback loop too, where – however and whyever it started – this is now what we are used to and people have a hard time even seeing that they adhere to this way of thinking, much less finding a way to break out of it.

    This Film is Not Yet Rated does a decent job of tearing this apart, although it doesn’t seem to quite catch onto the idea that part of the problem is our culture’s attitudes towards women’s sexuality, not just towards sexuality that doesn’t fit into the heterosexual norm.

  7. …yeah, I don’t see this. I mean, we have this problem too (see: Joss Whedon) but I don’t think it has much to do with why sexualized violence towards women is so prevalent in the stories we tell. There are lots of ways to create conflict when it comes to sex, and sexualized violence actually ends up cutting off so many other possibilities (bc it’s VIOLENCE, not SEX), and sexualized violence is so prevalently directed towards women (or other people that are the Other), that I think there must be other things going on.

    This desire to have all relationships be full of conflict may exacerbate it in ways, but it doesn’t explain why it’s prevalent in the first place.

  8. My preference is against rape and torture scenes in as a general rule and in particular in fantasy writing. Not only might they hit people’s triggers, but I prefer creativity in fantasy to be applied in more directions than innovative sexual assault.

    It is possible that such scenes are more often included because it’s an author’s duty to heap hardship onto the protagonist. However, many readers partake in fantasy for the element of escape, and reminding them of real world tragedy is the opposite of productive. Instead of sexual assault, attack the protagonist’s core by temporarily taking away her magic, for instance. By sending her into a demon dimension or pushing her out of an airship. Fantasy authors have the infinity of imagination at their fingertips, and to continue to depict sexual assault stinks of wish fulfillment.

  9. The best examples I’ve seen so far come from Daniel Fox (Chaz Brenchley) and Elizabeth Bear. Love and trust, love and distrust, power and negotiation, are vital to their fantasy narratives (it seems to me) and give them much of their thematic power. (In this connection I feel one should also mention Sarah Monette, Gemma Files, and Laurie J. Marks.) The relationships are about conflict and negotiation: there is much tension in feeling great affection/loyalty for someone one dares not trust (or conversely trusting someone one dislikes immensely), and this is only heightened in situations of intimacy.

    It is, I would suggest, both intellectually/narratively lazy and the product of a puritan cultural streak that sees sexual intimacy as punishable, to allow violence to drive sexual encounters.

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  11. My series explores this very issue.

    And sex scenes are only hard to write when they’re not supposed to be there. Meaning, keep listening to your instincts. 🙂

  12. Marillier is a good example. The progress of the relationship is part of the plot but also, as you say, they grow together.

    The manipulative slut is a character I generally do not care for because of the way it problematizes female sexuality and ties it not to the woman’s own desires and needs but to the mens’. Not to mention the epic romance with a final chaste kiss. I know that some readers do not like anything more than a chaste kiss but for me I would rather see a more, um, robust relationship.

  13. I call it the adrenalin-rush theory of conflict forwarding plot.

    Also why explosions and car chases (inherently boring) substitute for actual plot. Oh, and dead people. Killing someone ends up becoming a default rather than, say, a punch in the nose, or (as in the film Premium Rush) a very realistic and fraught conflict of whether a Chinese woman living and working in the US will be able to get her son overseas to join her. The film was not a great film but I loved that that was one of the main conflicts in the film.

  14. I think exacerbated conflict has become the default go-to easy solution for plotting in the US marketplace definitely, very much weakening the stories being told.

    I have a theory about conflict and violence being such a huge part of US stories right now as a mirror of imperialism.

    Having said that, though, I suspect there is something else (or something related) going on as well that drives this really dire emphasis on sexualized violence toward women and Othered people.

  15. Good sex is hard to write in the sense of “good” meaning not cliched. Which — now that I think about it — surely ought to make it a challenge that writers would relish, trying to bring across something so difficult to do well!

  16. Rape as a plot device is quite different from rape as something that happens to people and is experienced from their perspective rather than as a titillating bit of sexualized violence perpetrated on their bodies. But I’ve already written about that in other posts.

    “I’ve had several writers tell me that’s the way it ought to be if you want to sell”

    Gosh, honestly, if people are saying that then no wonder it comes across as cliched and uninteresting. For myself, every character has to negotiate that aspect of their life under their unique circumstances and with their particular personality quirks. But I’m a big fan of consensual sex and love in fiction, including in fantasy, and I think I can be done very well.

  17. That’s a good point (“sex scenes are only hard to write when they’re not supposed to be there”) and, I think, a good perspective on the matter.

  18. Yes, this.

    I am sure someone has done a study of how many “violent deaths” a child sees on screen during the course of growing up. As you say, people come to believe it is somehow normal that, say, every police show now has to start with a violent death (or two or more) or else it isn’t gritty enough or serious enough or something.

    As for the larger question of the USA cultural attitude toward women’s sexuality and the objectification of women — I can’t even tackle that one right now. Too huge and disturbing.

  19. True, but I know that in my case, given tight deadlines, I tend to stick to what I am fairly sure I can manage. Maybe other authors have the same issue. But the next book! Yes!

  20. I think that if epic fantasy is going to write about war then it is responsible to show the consequences of war. For me the problem comes about when rape is used as a lazy plot device, as a way to motivate the hero or fridge a loved one (to motivate the hero), and of course when it is written with a kind of titillation (which is really offensive). But (as I’ve said elsewhere) all too often what is really happening is that it is only shown from the pov of the people perpetrating or witnessing the rape. For all the “edgy” rape in gritty grimdark, the actual consequences of sexual violence on the people who actually suffer it are in my reading experience ignored or made invisible, just as is the case in our own societies today. Many stories are silenced. They may be terrible and awful stories but there are places where, I believe, they need to be heard.

  21. There is a magnificent and heart-rending set piece in Dragon in Chains (I think) by Daniel Fox written from the point of view of a woman trying to escape a city being attacked by an army bent on revenge. You know which one I mean. It’s stunningly written, necessary to the plot, and brilliant. At no point did I as the reader feel exploited. I felt as if I was given a window into a terrible place but one reflected things that really happen.

    (must read Range of Ghosts)

    Yes, the USA puritanical streak has a lot of answer for. And allowing violence to drive sexual encounters is as you say (and Jenny too, above) one of the ways women’s sexuality keeps getting punished.

  22. I remember when I first read Tamora Pierce’s Alanna books I was already an adult, and I went through them about one an evening in grad school. And I remember being rather surprised there was actually sex in something YA. I decided, in the end, it was probably good not to sweep all that under the carpet. And at least it was safe sex (via magical talisman, if memory serves, but still…these are valid concerns!)

  23. Interesting choice, since I’ve been avoiding Marillier since her first book, in which there is a completely gratuitous rape by random strangers that has no actual effect on the plot (The character says she has a hard time trusting after that, but her actual behaviour is the opposite)

  24. A number of years ago I read almost by accident a string of fantasy novels, all written by women and all which actually took sex and love as actual themes to be explored in the books. I can only recall a couple off hand. One was Compass Rose by Gail Dayton which attempts to break down assumptions about monogamous relationships as the societal norm and yet takes care to explore the actual relationships between all the characters (all while trying to save the world!). But doing it meant that those relationships and the sex (which was tied in with the magic system even) really took center stage. Likewise, Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books have lots and lots of consensual sex (though a lot of it does have inequality of power, issues of consent are carefully built into the religious beliefs of the society which helps even that back out), and again it is not only plot relevant but _central_ to the plot.

    What is interesting–but harder–is trying to look at books whose main focus is elsewhere but that manage to portray both love and sex, being very real normal human experiences, in an emotionally authentic way anyway. Martha Wells manages it in several of her books, though most of the sex is the “woke up with tangled limbs” variety or suppressing a blush as the thought of last night (and for once the females aren’t the only ones suppressing blushes!) but the relationships feel real, and that’s key. Elizabeth Haydon goes into more depth, and the sex scenes, though infrequent, are both tender and plot important. And I kind of love that there is a scene in one book where he does something that has unexpected emotional triggers for her and they have to work it out–it’s a very real moment since for real people you don’t get to telepathically know ahead of time what your partner will or won’t like in *cough* such situations.

    Over the speculative fiction (sub)genres in general though, I have to feel that generally those that are grittier and darker have correspondingly less healthy sexual relationships. Either they ignore sex, or they have less healthy depictions–either violence, or people only using sex for manipulative or hedonistic purposes, or some combination thereof. There are exceptions. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books, for example, are rather grim, and yet have some good romantic relationships, some with sex and some without. Then again, most of the gritty stuff I read is sci fi rather than fantasy for whatever reason (depending, I suppose, on one’s definition of “gritty”), though I can think of a few gritty fantasy books I’ve started and put down–most of those I put back down were fixated on war and political betrayal or war and the plight of starving peasants, without a lot of relationships, even friendships. That meant they felt not only dark but flat as well–not something I want to spend my time on.

  25. “But (as I’ve said elsewhere) all too often what is really happening is that it is only shown from the pov of the people perpetrating or witnessing the rape.”

    Or, what is often even worse, shown technically from the pov of the prson being violated, but while adhering to the omniscient breasts phenomenom. The description may focus on the hurt she (or he ) feels, but the omniscient breasts end up increaing the voyueristic aspect of it, rather than inviting us to really get inside her (or his) skin. So that what you get is not just a silencing of the victim’s perspective but a graphic descrption that implies that the person being violated sees herself (or himself) the same way that the rapist does.

  26. and I meant to also say:

    “I think that if epic fantasy is going to write about war then it is responsible to show the consequences of war. ”

    YES. I am in the middle of Paladin of Souls and there is a part where Ista is captured and mention is made of the violence that has been done previously by the men capturing her – including rape – and it’s…not comfortable, bc it shouldn’t be. But it’s also intergrated into all the other violence, so it’s treated as part of it, rather than something mentioned for titallation, etc.

  27. I read that book (years ago) and I completely forgot there was a rape scene. Wow. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

  28. My memory is that sex was a lot less present in teen fiction before the last ten years or so but I may be wrong about that.

    And the magical talisman or magical herbs birth control? I know that sometimes people sneer at that as wish fulfillment, but why the heck is that a bad thing?

  29. Yes. This.

    The problem of male gaze through female eyes (and an insinuating creepy violating male gaze at that) is very real.

  30. Yes. I think it’s important not to ignore “collateral damage” (as our government likes to term it).

    Reminds me of the “but women aren’t involved in war” arguments re: debates over women in the military. Women are ALWAYS involved in war.

  31. I find it rather odd when there is magic, and people doing what people do, but there isn’t any kind of mention of magic as birth control. Even if it doesn’t work well, or is dangerous, people would at least try it. Just as they tried with herbs and more before modern birth control pills and abortion procedures. (And still do, when such things are outlawed.)

  32. There is, I’m sure. I think it could have been excised. It wasn’t the only thing I disliked in the book (the obvious setting up for the sequels dragging on and on at the end didn’t help) but it was definitely a point against.

    And yet the romance seemed better done, as our commentor above noted.

    I’ve had enough friends who read her and recommend her that I’ve wondered if I should give another of her books a try.

  33. “Sex scenes are only hard to write when they’re not supposed to be there”

    Or, I think, when they should be but the author is too embarrassed to be honest. I think one of the worst disservices one can do with a realistic sex scene is assume it must be tittillating. It means writing an intimate moment between two characters for the reader as an unknown voyeur, not for the characters. I mean yes, it’s good if the reader empathizes, and in the case of sex, that *may* mean being turned on, but it’s not what makes the scene necessary to write.

    (Maybe it is in romance?)

  34. I liked her Faroese novels because I’m part Faroese. Not sure I loved them but I appreciated that she wrote them, and she is a solid writer.

    Can’t remember the titles.

  35. I have written all of one extremely explicit sex scene (although I’ve also written a fair number of foreplay scenes) and I will admit it was hard to write the explicit one UNTIL I got into the mindset of the pov character and just went with it.

  36. Yes to all of this.

    A comment over on LJ (where this is mirrored) reminded me that actual medieval epic/fantasy/tales and so on often foreground heroic friendship, honor, social cohesion, love, and courage (as well as treachery, intrigue, and all the rest of the unpleasantness).

  37. Yes. The Daniel Fox books are some of the best of what fantasy can be. And Range of Ghosts… it is possibly the book I most wanted to read and never knew until I had it in my hands.

    (Seriously, you must read it.)

    Hah. It’s not just the US’s puritanical streak, alas. Much though I wish it was, because then at least one could say, “It’s from the UK, it won’t fail in the same ways…”

  38. As someone who reads a lot of romance as well as SF and fantasy I find it fascinating that the discussion about writing sex between protagonists doesn’t seem to touch on what is a given in good romance novels. The sex must advance our understanding of the characters and their situation and give momentum to the plot. The story doesn’t stop for the sex it is given added meaning through the expression of connection between two (or more) people.

    I wonder if the difficulty in writing sex and for some readers it seems in seeing it on the page is actually a struggle with the idea of connection? Is it a different story if the hero/heroine isn’t doing it on their own? Is their agency somehow compromised by not being a siloed individual? Is this the critical difference between SF/fantasy and romance – that one is about individuals and the other about community?

  39. I think the writers in sff who are writing interesting consensual sex and/or love are definitely using that metric (as you say so well, that “The sex must advance our understanding of the characters and their situation and give momentum to the plot”).

    In a way it sometimes feels like we’re still fighting the girl cooties battle, just to not be sneered at for including consensual sex. NK Jemisin has had this thrown at her for books published just in the last 2-3 years. It’s a constant uphill battle.

    And that’s an interesting point about the difference between writing about individuals or community. Does sff that is about connection and community have a different struggle in terms of being taken seriously within the sff field? I don’t know

  40. One of the things a sex scene can do and is often meant to do in a romance novel is to strip away the barriers and layers that a protagonist may have. Laid bare by being naked with someone they are opened up to new possibilities or find things to hold onto and defend that may have been held apart by old ways of being. They are then made ready for the next phase of external action. That is, we express our inner journey through this act of connection to the other. May be every sex scene is a notional pregnancy birthing iterations of Self and plot possibilities?

  41. Have to reply here to your last comment because of the way WordPress threads.

    Anyway, I love any comparison of literary or life metaphors that involve birthing. I mean, it is something all of us have gone through.

    I do agree there is a lot of character development that happens when people expose their vulnerabilities (or don’t, as the case may be). It’s a raw and intimate place.

  42. Bujold’s Sharing Knife quad is a nice example of love and sex, central to the plot.

  43. Jacqueline Carrey is one of my favorites. She does a good of portraying different types of relationships in a nonjudgmental way.

  44. “actually a struggle with the idea of connection? Is it a different story if the hero/heroine isn’t doing it on their own? Is their agency somehow compromised by not being a siloed individual?”

    This ties into a related issue: the even greater dearth of speculative fiction that focus on healthy ongoing established relationships, particularly “happy” marriages. The heroes are inevitably single, whether men or women…unless you’re going to do the revenge kick in which case the spouse and children can get killed off at the beginning (a devise that I will refrain from ranting about here). But characters with happy functional marriages apparently don’t have adventures. If you’re lucky, they may appear as cute sweet minor characters, perhaps even figures that the hero/ine looks up.

    While I can think of books that have main characters get married in the midst of the action or even towards the beginning of it (yours frequently among them, Kate), the focus there is on the budding new relationship. Sometimes they get to progress past that and we get to see their continuing relationship some time after they are solidly and committedly a couple. And even those, as we’re discussing, are relatively rare in epic fantasy. In general it seems that characters that actually have existing stable relationships are far too boring, will never do anything else exciting with their lives, and are not worth writing about which sends a rather odd message about “settling down” to get married. Those married couples that are depicted (in the background) have long-since settled into their quirks and ways of dealing with each other and that’s the way it stays. There is no further change or growth in the relationship, nor are they candidates for adventures and other big changes in life. Good marriage or bad, it is monochrome and static.

  45. Yes. It would be interesting to look at the path of retellings of those medieval epics/fantasies/tales and the other precursors of fantasy and see where the emphasis on relationships (of various kinds) got sidelined. Though I suppose an emphasis on friendship and loyalty has remained far more pervasive than love, per se.

    I have a suspicion. There is this lingering impression, I find, among those who have not actually read medieval literature that the love stories are usually of the helpless damsel locked in the tower rescued by the brave knight sort. The sort most late 20th century readers find rather flat and dissatisfying (unless significantly undermined/re-written). One solution is to make said maiden a more dynamic character…the other approach is to cut her from the story and focus on the knight’s adventures for their own sakes.

    But this doesn’t take into account those medieval maidens braving death for their beloveds (or for other reasons), traipsing across the countryside, narrowly avoiding being eaten by lions in the wilderness, cross-dressing to get into places they need to go, using magic artifacts, rescuing the “heroes” one way or another, calling down zombies on people…and I have to rather wonder if it was the great compilers of tales of the 19th century who sifted through and decided the maidens getting rescued from towers were far more socially proper and only passed that sort along…leading, as I said, to our dissatisfaction as our opinions changed. (Though in fairness I doubt they knew the one with the zombies…)

  46. Marillier’s first book was her darkest and she got progressively lighter as she went–her most recent book is downright fluffy. So the graphic rape of a protagonist is not something that’s repeated in any of the others, if that was your biggest problem with it.

    I do love her first trilogy though, and have enjoyed the romances in most of her books that I’ve read (which is almost all of them).

  47. This is a great point.

    It’s an contradiction, isn’t it? On the one hand the romance–coming together into a new relationship–is seen a narrative that gives people something they want: the promise of happily ever after. Which is then almost as deadly as death.

  48. The Victorians have a lot to answer for, but I prefer to blame it all on Hemingway and his “no action ever happens indoors” mantra. Okay, I don’t know HE actually said that but I had a writing teacher once who said he said that and who told us that, and in fact (now that I think of it) one of the reasons I wrote my first science fiction book was to have a story in which all the action HAD to take place indoors because of hostile environment outdoors.

  49. “…and I have to rather wonder if it was the great compilers of tales of the 19th century who sifted through and decided the maidens getting rescued from towers were far more socially proper and only passed that sort along…”

    I suspect so, as I know the Grimm Brother’s version of Little Red Riding Hood was quite different, and much more about purity, than most previous versions. There were, of course, several versions of the story floating about, but (from what I understand) many of the ones being passed aorund prior to that had 1) a wolf that was a wereeolf (which makes more sense), 2) the girl in question rescuing herself, and 3) didn’t put the same moral weight on her staying on the path.

    Which makes me wonder…one of the more recent retellings of this story that I read was very slut-shamey. And it almost seems like, now that the Grimm Brothers have inserted their morality into the story, that everyone feels the need to respond to it, but most people (unkowingly?) still accept that as the framework from which to start. Which leads to more instances of Exceptional Women and slut-shaming, possibly?

    I may need to think on that idea more.

  50. The recent trend in retellings of folk tales and myth seems to me to be exactly as you say a re-working out of how the old stories were framed and embedded. What’s interesting is when, as you say, some problematic elements that may not have been there in the very earliest origins are replicated because they are seen as essential to the story rather than a moralistic overlay.

    So, yeah: Is Red Riding Hood a story about purity, or a story about a girl learning to acknowledge and deal with the dangers of growing up and becoming sexual? Or something else again?

  51. “Yes. It would be interesting to look at the path of retellings of those medieval epics/fantasies/tales and the other precursors of fantasy and see where the emphasis on relationships (of various kinds) got sidelined.”

    I love that idea. I’m only familiar with the 20th century version of fairy tales, but it seems like even in stories where the woman is the hero, she wins by being passive, silent ( The Wild Swans), and standing by by her man no matter how monstrous he becomes (Tam Lin, The Snow Queen, Snow White and Rose Red).

  52. Great post, great comments, and damn, you’ve all added to my TBR list!

    On the subject of speculative fiction that deals with an ongoing relationship: Lynn Flewelling’s Nightrunner series. The heroes fall in love early in the seres commit, and stay together for the rest of the books. Their relationship grows and develops both despite and because of hair-raising adventures and the difficult circumstances they create. No explicit sex, but enough romantic and sexy moments to convey the point that these people love and desire each other.

  53. I’ll have to try those. Thanks. I can see this thread is going to be expanding my TBR list as well. That’s not a bad thing, though.

  54. Has anyone done work trying to untangle the work of the compilers from earlier less bowdlerized versions? Hard to know when dealing with an oral tradition but in some cases there must be evidence trails when dealing with medieval literature.

  55. Flewelling’s Nightrunner series is a good example of a series with an ongoing relationship. I know there must be more (i”m terrible at coming up with examples until months later when the discussion is over)

  56. I think a fair bit of that has been attempted with the 18th-19th century compilers where you have a better chance of independent sources to be compared and investigated. I read some about the Red Riding Hood story just the other day after reading this thread.

    It’s been speculated on with medieval literature, but there’s often little to compare it with. There have been long scholarly arguments over, for instance, early Irish literature or Anglo-Saxon literature and whether the pieces as written constitute insight into oral traditions from the “pagan” period with a thin Christian veneer imposed by the monk-scribe that could be stripped away again, or whether they are thoroughly compositions of the Christian era they were recorded in, culturally informed by what came before, but composed whole-cloth with new and old ideas too interwoven to be teased apart at this late date.

    Some medieval tales do have more “versions” running around. Sometimes you have snatches of poetry or ballads about a character decades or more before a familiar longer version was first penned. (Robin Hood is a famous one but I did some work once on Alison from the Wife of Bath though she was definitely (in my opinion) a freshly written character with some echoes of the Alisons who came before–but I couldn’t know until I looked.)

    Tracing a story back can be further complicated when a compiled written version then re-influences the oral community it came from.

    It ends up being hard to draw firm conclusions about any of it, but it can be very interesting anyway!

  57. I’ve just scratched enough surface of this kind of reading to find it incredibly interesting. As a new generation tells new versions of the old stories, whether as straight retellings or mashups, I think it’s the kind of thing that has been going on. If we love to retell so much, why wouldn’t people in other times?

    The bowdlerization is a related form of retelling, I guess, but so insidious in that it excises things that then may get disappeared (like female agency).

  58. The website SurLaLune[dot]com has collected and linked to many versions of well-known fairytales, including Red Riding Hood. There’s a couple of versions where she, or the women in her family, outsmart the wolf.

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