The Epic Tragedy of Love

Romeo and Juliet (1968 film)

Romeo and Juliet (1968 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Literature, history and mythology is littered with great heroes and heroines, those mystically imbued figures whose short poetic lives have enriched ours, and whose tragic and doomed love affairs have become the stuff of legend. As a child I was first aware of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, Romeo & Juliet, and their struggles against a world so determined to tear them apart. Their torn loyalties of family, responsibility, duty, honour, and the forbidden love they held for each other, seemed to mirror the angst we teenagers inevitably felt. Luckily at my school, we had a rich diet of Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Anthony & Cleopatra (another doomed couple), Julius Caesar, Hamlet (unrequited & destructive love), Othello (jealous, possessive love) & Macbeth (the manipulation of love). I was fascinated by the interplay of characters, how each couple and individual reacted to the circumstances they found themselves in, the choices they made, whether destiny played a part, how love could be corrupted or could corrupt others. As a hopeless romantic, (Shh! Don’t tell anyone! I try not to admit it and refrain from reading any chick-lit, ‘slushy trash’ as I call it, hey…sci-fi/fantasy girl here!), I do see the allure of such characters and such stories and how they ultimately convey the human condition in all its absurdities, frailties, flaws and its glory.

The Lady of Shalott, based on The Lady of Shal...

The Lady of Shalott, based on The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Lord Tennyson. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Growing up, my reading lists widened and as my love of the fantasy genre and its origins took hold, I began delving into ancient mythology. The wonderful Welsh sagas of The Mabinogion (based on tales from 1190-1350) and particularly Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur (1485), is still a favourite of mine, and the eternal love triangle of Arthur, Guinevere & Launcelot. Somehow, you can still sense the searing pain of betrayal in Arthur’s heart, the conflict in the lovers and their guilt at their actions, yet their total inability to stop themselves falling in love. Of course, it is as true today as it was in 600AD, you cannot help who you fall in love with. I remember watching John Boorman’s mesmeric 1981 film Excalibur, with its incredible visuals and Carl Orff’s thunderous Carmina Burana spurring the horses on through the mists of battle. But still, through all the magic and heroism, it was the tragic love story that kept haunting me. As I’m typing this, I’m sitting looking at a beautiful print of The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse (1888), based on the famous Tennyson poem and all that doomed heart ache just comes flooding back.

tristan and isolde

tristan and isolde (Photo credit: kairin)

When you think of the greatest and most tragic love stories you probably think of the ones I’ve mentioned and of Tristan & Iseult (Isolde), Paris & Helena, Orpheus and Eurydice and perhaps poor Pyramus and Thisbe. Having lived in ancient Babylonia in neighbouring homes, they fell in love with each other as they grew up. Their respective families were fervently against the match, so one night the two lovers hatched a plan. They decided to meet up under a mulberry tree in the nearby fields, and run away together. Thisbe reached the tree first, but frightened at seeing a lion approach with blood stained jaws, she ran and hid in some rocks, dropping her veil as she ran. The lion picked up the veil just as Pyramus arrived. Devastated at seeing Thisbe’s veil in the lion’s bloody mouth, Pyramus took his sword out and killed himself. When poor Thisbe eventually emerged from the rocks and saw her beloved Pyramus dead, she too took his sword and killed herself.  😦

Pyramus and Thisbe

Pyramus and Thisbe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then, you have the sad tale of Heloise and Abelard, which is perhaps the most tragic love affair of all, especially as it is a story based on an actual event. Being fact rather than merely myth, makes us all marvel at the power of sacrifice and the power of love. Heloise (1101-1164) and Peter Abelard (1079-1142) had their story immortalised by British poet, Alexander Pope in 1717, who turned it into a piece of classic literature, ‘Eloisa to Abelard’. Heloise and Abelard were ridiculously in love and doomed to a tragic end in mid 12th century France. Abelard was a well-known French philosopher, considered one of the greatest thinkers of the 12th century. Heloise, was the niece and pride of the Canon Fulbert, who wanted her to have the best education possible. Abelard became the girl’s live-in tutor, 20 years her senior. A romance blossomed between them, a romance that so enraged her disapproving uncle that he had Abelard castrated shortly after they were discovered. Distraught, the lovers entered a monastery and nunnery and wrote a set of now-famous letters to each other up until their death, though they never met again.

Abelard and his pupil, Héloïse, by Edmund Blai...

Abelard and his pupil, Héloïse, by Edmund Blair Leighton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These tragedies both real and imagined have inspired such a rich tapestry of stories. As a huge fan of fantasy, from the world’s first ever story, The Epic of Gilgamesh to Beowulf to The Lord Of The Rings, Narnia and Game Of Thrones etc., I still like my fantasy to have that tragic element, that hint of doomed love or sacrifice. In the classic tradition J.R.R.Tolkien of course, being a scholar in ancient Nordic and Celtic mythology, was able to bring many of these elements into his work, particularly in The Silmarillion.

Cover of "The Silmarillion"

Cover of The Silmarillion

The Silmarillion, I book I still adore and one which I am very lucky to have a cherished first edition of, has two tragic love stories which really wrench at the heart. The first of course, is the heroic story of Beren and Luthien, later mirrored in the love story of Aragorn and Arwen in LOTR. Here, the story of Beren and Luthien (with similarities to Orpheus and Eurydice) tells of the love between a mortal man, Beren and the most beautiful immortal elf-maiden, Luthien Tinuviel and the struggles and obstacles they face in their quest to be together. But for me, by far the more tragic love story and the one which is the antithesis to Beren’s story, was the darker tale of poor Turin Turambar. Despite being a great hero, Turin Turambar, seems forever cursed with ill fortune and the very worst of luck. He battles valiantly against evil foes, yet whatever he turns his hand to seems to go wrong. Eventually both Turin and his sister Nienor are enchanted by a mighty dragon, Glaurung. Under its enchantment, they fall in love with each other and live as man and wife. But, when Turin kills the dragon and the spell is lifted, they are driven mad by the realisation of their sins and they both commit suicide. This perhaps, is Tolkien at his darkest, but still as a reader, you cannot help feeling such sorrow and sympathy for these two sad characters.

My personal favourite though, and a story that inspired Tolkien himself, has to be the story of Sigurd and Brynhild, from the Volsunga Saga. Sigurd (Old Norse: Sigurðr) and Brynhild from the Volsunga Saga (ancient Norse mythology

Sigrdrífa gives Sigurðr a horn to drink from.

Sigrdrífa gives Sigurðr a horn to drink from. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

c.1000AD), is a bittersweet tale of romance, heroism, greed, betrayal and tragedy. The later German hero, Siegfried from the Nibelungenlied (1180 to 1210) (The Song of the Nibelungs) and Wagner’s Ring Cycle, is based on Sigurd and the Volsunga Saga. Basically, urged on by Loki and Odin, Sigurd kills the dragon Fafnir and takes his treasure hoard. He bathes in the dragon’s blood to become invincible, and meets Brynhildr ‘shieldmaiden’, who in some incarnations of the story is a Valkyrie imbued with supernatural powers. They fall in love but Brynhild prophesies his doom and marriage to another. They part temporarily. Sigurd travels to the court of Gjuki, whose wife, Grimhild poisons him with an ‘Ale of Forgetfulness’ to force him to forget Brynhild so he can marry their daughter, Gudrun. Meanwhile, Gunnar, Gudrun’s brother courts Brynhild who is still waiting for her beloved Sigurd. To win Brynhild over, Gunnar devises a plan and convinces an enchanted Sigurd to help him. Unable to get near to Brynhild himself, but seeing that Sigurd can, Gunnar swaps bodies with him to seduce Brunhild and break her defences/powers, enabling him to seize his prize thereafter. Eventually, all deceptions come to light. Gunnar plots against and kills Sigurd, in some stories Brynhild then kills him, but the story ends with Sigurd and Brynhild finally reunited in death as she throws herself onto Sigurd’s blazing funeral pyre! What a way to go!English: A Christmas bonfire in Guelph, Canada.

 

The map to the human heart is a complicated route indeed, full of hidden perils, surprises and joyous heights!

Now…you may well ask, why on earth I am exploring tragic love affairs in literature, myth and history? Why the sudden interest?

Well…I’m glad to say I haven’t had a tragic experience myself, but…I am, I’m afraid, witnessing one as I write this. Yes, I’m not talking about my favourite tear inducing movie, or the howls of, “NO, GOD NO!” that I heard being cried at the TV screen from my friends who were apoplectic at the death of Matthew Crawley on Downton Abbey. No…I’m talking about a real life love tragedy unfolding before my eyes right now – a scene of unparalleled sadness, of unrequited love that makes all of the previous tales pale into insignificance.

Forget Romeo & Juliet, Heathcliff & Cathy, who cares about Tristan & Isolde? This is the sad sad tale of…Tolly & Mimi…

On the 1st August 2009, four years ago this very day, I was travelling back from Bridgewater having rescued two gorgeous white balls of fluff from the most hideous living conditions you can imagine. Four years later, my beautiful white wolves, brothers Korrun & Tolly, are happy and healthy and well…totally gorgeous. 349

Only one problem…Tolly is in love, deeply, passionately, unconditionally…an all consuming obsessional love and one which tragically, it is completely unrequited.

Wherever Mimi goes, Tolly follows, every move she makes he mirrors, no more than two inches from her face at all times, staring adoringly, gazing, dribbling, sighing with pensive longing when she retreats upstairs. Such desperate longing, such sadness…the poor boy just hasn’t realised that cats and dogs simply don’t…well, it’s a barrier greater than that of the Capulets and Montagues!

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Mapping your fantasy.

 

middleearth

I love maps, always have. Something inextricably draws me to them. All those exotic names and places, those strange lands… FantasyMapmeth

As a child I obsessively pored over maps and charts, any atlas or globe I could get my hands on, long before I could really read or understand all those mesmeric names and places. It was the beauty of them as objects in their own right and what they represented – the imagining of dreams made real.

map

When it comes to fantasy, you can imagine what I’m like when I see a map inside! I grew up enthralled by the maps of Tolkien, tracing Bilbo’s journey in The Hobbit and later, Frodo’s adventures in The Lord of The Rings. E.H.Shepard’s wonderful ‘Hundred Acre Wood‘ map from A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books, the maps in G.R.R.Martin’s novels etc etc. Just sheer bliss and wonderment! map_full

Yes, maps in fantasy books have become another cliche…but you know what? I don’t care, I LOVE them!

 

So when writing and illustrating my first novel, epic fantasy adventure, White Mountain – Book 1 of The Darkling Chronicles, it was a no brainer to include a map.

 

black and white Fendellin Map 001

Afterall, creating fantasy worlds is about the most fun you can have with or without your clothes on. Exploring the subtleties of character, the twists of plot, the deepening of a storyline, the embellishment of a rich history and back story and mixing all those elements and more into one sumptuous thrilling world. Yes…it really is one of the most exhilarating endeavours.

So to encapsulate a part of that rich world in a visual way, to draw the reader in as I was drawn in, was an opportunity I couldn’t miss.

Also for me, as a lover of fantasy especially epic fantasy, to be able to construct a believable world, grounded in reality and embody that world in a map…was just the best.

With that love of maps also came a love of names, etymology – the meaning and derivation of words. For my map ‘The Lay of Fendellin’, Fendellin literally means ‘in a dell or hollow and by a fen/water source’ – very appropriate for the land I invented. My Fendellin itself was inspired by the Tibetan and Buddhist beliefs in Shambhala, a mythical and legendary land still hidden within the Himalayas and untouched by the outside world. A very potent idea. Many people still believe in Shambhala, I wish it existed too. It has inspired stories down through the ages, not least James Hilton‘s ‘Lost Horizon’ where he turned the Shambhala legend into his utopian paradise Shangri-La. My Fendellin is wondrous indeed, but could never be described as utopian. Amongst the soft plains of blue mountain poppy and frolicking tarpans (ancient horses), there is always the omnipresent malice of Kavok’s Peak in the distance, birthplace of Morreck the book’s arch villan. Yes, my Fendellin is beautiful indeed but has become a gilded prison for many who live within its Encircling Mountains, unable to esscape.

Mund’harr, the capital of Fendellin, a towering mountain on the Mund’harr plateau with its small city and hanging gardens clinging in winding tiers about its pinnacles, literally means ‘High Mound’ in various Old Norse, Frissan, Germanic and English languages.

Shudras, the ‘silent marshes’ of Fendellin, is an Indian word derived from ancient Sanskrit which refers to the lowest of the traditional varnas or social classes, oppressed people many of whom worked and lived in swamp areas. Also refers to any of several species of dark serpents inhabiting the swamps and jungles of South India.

Fendellin’s largest water course, the great Varuna River, is again derived from Indian Sanskrit. In the ancient Vedic religion, Varuna is the god of the sky and water, ruler of the celestial ocean. Again, in Hindu mythology and post-Vedic texts, Varuna was the god of all the water elements, keeper of the oceans and rivers and god of the dead who could grant immortality. As the inhabitants of Fendellin are all dworlls, with hugely expanded life cycles to our own, all of this seemed a perfect fit.

I could go on…but I’d bore you all silly. Suffice to say, that maps and names hold a special power for me and weaving them into a mixture of actual ancient myth, my own invented mythology and reality is such a heady thrill!

Ah…for the love of maps! Check out my other map obsessed post: https://sophieetallis.wordpress.com/2012/04/05/for-the-love-of-maps/

Chapter Sixteen - The Last March

😀 xx

Distillations on Silence

Throbbing of swollen ears,

Glass coated larynx.

The mirror only tells one truth,

The hollow space in front,

Not the deadness inside.

Whiskey breath,

Clots of blood beneath your eye lids.

That last shot of poison did the trick.

Innocuous sounds from the television drift into the room.

Life continues outside,

Oblivious,

Unchanging,

Uncaring.

The central heating clicks off

And so do you

…down to the very last drop.

Sophie E Tallis © 1996