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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A day of celebration for literature lovers and dragon hunters!

List of titles of works based on Shakespearean...

List of titles of works based on Shakespearean phrases (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What a day this is?

One could almost propose the 23rd April as being the ‘Birth of a Nation’ day. After all two great leviathans of English culture fall on this day. The first of course, is our patron saint, St. George. That stalwart of Englishness (though of course he was actually Greek), a brave knight, slayer of dragons, protector of the innocent etc. The second, is William Shakespeare, as today is thought to be his birthday (23rd April 1564), coincidently, the 23rd April is also the day of his death in 1616. The birth and death of undoubtedly the greatest writer that ever lived.

English: Birth place of William Shakespeare, S...

English: Birth place of William Shakespeare, Stratford upon Avon, England. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wow…literature, dragons, rich language, history, myth…what a potent combination!

Although those who know me, know that I’m not religious at all, and am not generally into the exploits of various saints, apostles and acolytes etc, I am, however, deeply fascinated with history, heraldry, and mythology.

Saint George's DayWe all know the wonderful stories surrounding St. George, more fiction than fact of course, but as with any great story, there are always kernels of truth. St. George has been England’s patron saint since the 14th century and his emblem, a red cross on a white background was adopted by Richard The Lion Heart and brought to England in the 12th century. However, his legend goes back far further than that. A Greek who became a Roman officer, St. George was born in Cappadocia, Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) in around AD 270 and was beheaded on the 23rd April AD 303 for his Christian views, by the Emperor Diocletian (245-313 AD), who led Rome’s persecution of Christians at that time.

As with any great figure and martyr, after his death his legend really began. Stories of defying death and fighting evil or the devil, often depicted as a dragon in those days, grew and spread throughout the old world as the new Christian faith took hold.

But for me St. Georges Day, not only represents the real arrival of Spring – swaying daffodils, tulips tentatively pushing up, snowdrops and crocus gone, the first cutting of grass, magnolia and cherry coming into bloom and buds of new life on the trees, it also represents our rich and varied history and our ties to the past.

Of course as a child, loving fantasy and loving dragons, the story of St. George had an instant appeal, although I always felt a little sorry for the dragon!

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a teenager reading the obligatory Shakespeare diet of Hamlet, Anthony & Cleopatra, Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar and Romeo & Juliet, I was more than a little flippant regarding his literary genius. I remember calling out from the back of the class, in my best West Yorkshire accent (don’t ask me why), “Ooooh, Willie Shake or won’t he?” to a chorus of tittering friends. Ahem…I’d love to say I’ve grown up since then, but no, not much.

But of course my respect for this English literary giant has grown enormously. The sheer breadth of his work is staggering. The rich patois of his language. The ingenuity of his plots. The magical weaving of his storytelling. The profoundly deep soul he imbues in every sonnet.

William Shakespeare has without doubt enriched all of our lives. His words have fallen into common usage, his stories have been adapted and retold a million times and in a million languages. As much as I love Chaucer and Mallory, no single figure before or since, has had as much impact on literature and life and simply who we are as a species, as William Shakespeare.

Free hugs on St.George's Day

Free hugs on St.George’s Day (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although I’ve never been a flag waving patriot, one those people you see with St. George’s flags and crosses adorning their houses or painted on their T-shirts or faces, I do feel very lucky and proud to be English and to be part of the rich tapestry that makes up this little country, this sceptred isle.

So, today on his birthday, I bow with reverence (dizziness allowing) and say a heartfelt thank you and Happy Birthday to the creative genius that is William Shakespeare. xx

Happy St. George’s Day and Happy Birthday Willie Shake!

😀 xx

Oh, and this post is featured in The Bedlam Media Daily under their leisure section! http://paper.li/bedlam_media/1315567686#!leisure