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Immortal beloveds and prices paid

January 27, 2015

In a reader;'s review, he mentioned the "surprisingly/disturbingly" long timespan of the story. Yep. One mortal lifespan. The fifty years past your early twenties that someone in reasonably good health and shape might easily expect.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, I knew what year Ragnarok began, and extrapolated backwards. If you're facing the end of the world, that can't be something that develops in a decade. And second, eh. There were a couple of things I wound up confronting quietly as I wrote. Among them are:

 

  • Boethius: (More on this at some other date.)

  • The modern love affair with the origin story. (More on that some other time.)

  • What happens after the Bildungsroman, because that's something else the modern era is in love with. (Another time.)

  • And. . . Papa Tolkien and Papa Eddings. And a little bit of Marvel's Thor.


Why do I say Papa Tolkien and Eddings and Marvel's Thor (yeah, I know, what a combination. . . )?

Because, to be honest, they each, through the lenses of their own time periods, took a look at the same topic and came up with different answers to the same insoluble problem. Aragorn and Arwen and Durnik and Polgara. Mortal men and the functionally immortal and powerful women they love. (Or, in the case of Thor, the immortal dude and the very normal human lady he loves.)

Now, reading Tolkien's books, Aragorn and Arwen never sat right with me, even as a kid. She's off-stage for the three books. Her sole contribution to the story is to show up in a garden once, and to send him a hand-woven banner and a jewel to remember her by. She doesn't bring that herself; she's got servants for that. In the meantime, there's Eowyn, the incredibly badass daughter of the Rohirrim, falling in love with Aragorn, even if he's just the only way out of a life that's dedicated to and surrounded by death. She rides into battle as the equal of the men around her, even if she has to sneak off to do it. She puts her life on the line. She takes down a Ringwraith, which is more than any of the rest of them can do. Tolkien, as a professor of Anglo-Saxon literature (he wrote quite a bit on Beowulf that's sitting on my shelves here at home), clearly understood the old Saxon and Viking concept of the shield-maiden and the the valkyrie.

Yet, in spite of having someone seminally involved in the plot at hand, and far more vibrant and interesting at hand, Aragorn, because he embodies the feudal era and loyalty and kingliness and all those ideals, sticks with Arwen. Because they fell in love off-stage, about a hundred years ago. So Eowyn gets 'second-prize' Faramir, and again honestly, as a kid? Tolkien makes such a point of how 'spring came to her heart and melted all her ice' that I would have rather seen her stay alone for the rest of her life, and remain a badass shield maiden, than settle for a dude whose biggest narrative accomplishment was getting nearly killed (off-screen) and then nearly burned the rest of the way to death on-screen. (My friend Mike and I have been arguing about this for nearly twenty years now. I don't expect that to change. ;-) )

One of the reasons I like the movies so much, not being a total purist about Tolkien, is because Arwen taking the Glorfindel role, and suddenly becoming much more involved in the plot, actually makes Aragorn's love of her make a heck of a lot more sense. Because she's on-screen, and she's a badass, just like Eowyn, rather than being a feudal lady, locked up in her father's castle/Rivendell, never to be seen by the light of day until she's presented to the hero as his reward.

Tolkien obviously was rather hamstrung in this regard by the era in which he lived. He might have been aware of the shield-maidens, but he wasn't able to really get behind gender equality. (Though he was far far far far better at this than his fellow Inkling, C.S. Lewis. *shudder* My advice is not to re-read the Chronicles of Narnia as an adult. You're going to suddenly see all sorts of problems with gender, race, and religious relations in them. And his adult works are even more problematic.) And so, here he has Arwen, the functionally immortal elf, imbued with. . . presumably all the magic of her race, though we never actually see that in action, and Aragorn, the longer-lived-than-normal-humans-but-still-mortal man. What is Tolkien's solution?

Arwen gives up her immortality. Which is a function not of her species or genetics, but of the power of the heavens that dwells in her. In order to have a marriage of equals, and not to outlive her husband by. . . hundreds or thousands of years. . . she gives up what makes her special. She gives up her power and chooses death to stay with him.

And we are obviously meant to find this romantic, and most of us do. Heck, it trips buttons in my heart, until I start to think about it.

So in order to have a proper romantic relationship, you have to give up who and what you are? You have to give up the core of your identity to be a wife and a mother, because you can't overshadow your husband, the king?

Oooooh. Well, that's not an option.

So then we skip ahead from 1937 (publication of the Hobbit)-1955 (publication date of The Return of the King) to 1984, and the publication of Enchanter's End Game by David Eddings, the final book of the Belgariad series. I'll state for the record that I lurved Eddings in my teens. I even had the chance to meet him and his wife once, because I lived in Reno, and they lived in Carson City, some thirty miles away. I have quite a few of his books sitting signed on my shelves. And of course, I'm older now, and somewhere during the Sparhawk books, I realized that he'd taken to filing the serial numbers off the same exact characters and just changed the setting around them, and fell out of love. But he's still a big influence on me.

And with all that in mind, he and his wife Leigh obviously had read their Tolkien, and objected to a few things in it. Because here we have Polgara the sorceress, some three thousand years old (depending on which book her age is described in; it varies from 2,000 to 3,000). She's enormously powerful, one of the five most powerful people in the world. She forces information out of men simply by showing them their worst fear. She can shapeshift at will into an owl, and do a whole host of things only limited by her imagination and will. And she's been in disguise for the past five hundred years or so, making sure that the line of Rivan kings doesn't die out, by protecting each heir of the line in turn.

And here is Durnik. A completely ordinary man. A smith. We're told over and over again that he's simple and practical. But of all the knights and kings and sorcerers and scholars she's met in three thousand years of living, this is the man she falls in love with, and when he's killed, she falls into despair, until he's resurrected. And because no marriage can survive inequity, the gods tell her that she must be bound to have no more power than he has. [Seemingly, this makes her mortal and powerless.]

She accepts Arwen's sacrifice. She embraces it. She figures that this is fair, and she fairly drips with noble self-sacrifice until her father, the oldest sorcerer in the world at a staggering seven thousand years of age, reveals that, nope. Instead of stripping her of whatever made her special, the gods just made a completely ordinary dude immortal and a sorcerer, so that he could be her equal.

As solutions go, I like this one better than 'giving up everything that makes you, you, for the sake of marriage."

But it's still problematic. Polgara insists that Durnik is no ordinary man, but really, he's the everyman figure of the story. Sober. Practical. Diligently non-magical. Even after being imbued with magical powers, he uses them perhaps three, four times over the course of the next five books. He doesn't need magic to be who he is; it's just sort of grafted there to ensure that he won't die on her in fifty years or so and leave her widowed and desolate and. . . whatever. There is nothing special about him, except that of all the people she's met in three thousand years, he happened to be the first man she loved in a romantic way. Somehow. And she totally didn't fall for anyone in her first twenty years, before she knew she was going to be functionally immortal? The first hundred? The first millenia?

So the gods confer immortality and limitless power on him, solely to make her happy and to keep her from being shrill in a few decades. . . or killing herself, when she's a useful piece on the gameboard that is the Belgariad's world.

It's a better solution than giving up everything you are, everything that makes you, you. Both Eddings and Tolkien, of course, reflect the sensibilities of their eras, and I'm not beating on Tolkien here. But I am arguing with him and with Eddings in Edda. And I'm even arguing with Marvel's Thor.

Because here, in Thor, we have a dude who has a lifespan of five thousand years. And he's not alone; his entire people have that lifespan. And he falls in 'love' with Jane Foster (I can't think of her as anything other than the MCU version, played by Natalie Portman, unfortunately; shrill and annoying), a human. Every time Sif looks at Thor in The Dark World, my husband and I tell her, "Don't worry. He's going to blink, she'll be dead of old age, and then he might notice the woman who's had his back in every fight for the last two thousand years or so."

No compromises here. He can't make Jane immortal. He can't make himself unimmortal. And rather than going their separate ways and just agreeing to it, instead, she mopes for two years after a single kiss in the first movie, and then punches him for . . . not coming back? For fighting in a universe so much larger than hers, that she can barely comprehend it? And then he's gone again. That is what life will be like, if they don't let go: brief moments of happiness surrounded by years of isolation for her, of not being able to have a regular relationship with someone else, because she's busy being faithful to someone who might get distracted by a war that takes, perceptually, a few months for him, but winds up taking a decade or so for her. Whoops. Sorry to hear that you wanted kids. You can still have those in your late forties, right?

But because this is a comic book universe, nothing can ever change--not really. Any changes that occur, won't stay changed for long. [I'm going to ignore all this business of Thor-is-a-Woman now, because we all know that'll get reset to baseline in about a year. Superman didn't stay dead, either.] So they will continue as they are, in stasis, forever. Unable to change. Unable to move. Unable to grow.

So. . . imagine Adam and Sigrun as my argument with Tolkien, Eddings, and even the comic book industry. What happens when the hero grows old? What happens when the heroes live lives, instead of being frozen eternally at the age of twenty or thirty? What happens when they have to take responsibility for their family, for aging parents, for educating children, for doing all the things that people of every stripe do? What happens when one of them is functionally immortal, and the other is not?

 

  • Do you give up what makes you special, and limit yourself to being nothing but a mortal? (Arwen)

  • Do you bestow power and immortality on your beloved? (Polgara)

  • And what really happens if neither of those things can occur, and time is not frozen forever in stasis? (Thor)



 

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