The World Around the Corner

The World Premiere

The World Around the Corner coverI’m excited to have my romantic comedy novella The World Around the Corner in print as of last week.  Or in virtual print, at least; it’s out as an e-book from the Wild Rose Press.  (Details are available on the story’s page.)

Uncharacteristically for me, TWATC isn’t science fiction or fantasy.  The only potential SF elements are some very minor advances in gaming technology (and perhaps in automobile design).  Some parts read a little like fantasy, because there’s an online role-playing game (an MMORPG) involved.  In that respect there’s a faint resemblance to Ready Player One (book and movie), where an online game plays a major part in a much more serious SF story.  But TWATC isn’t really about games or technology; it’s all about having fun with the characters.

You’re Who?

I’ve always liked the kind of romance where a character has to make a discovery about who their romantic interest really is.  Jasmine isn’t immediately aware that Disney’s Aladdin, when he visits the palace as a prince, is the same street urchin she’s already met—though she isn’t fooled for long.  In Shakespeare’s venerable Twelfth Night, nobody is quite sure who “Cesario” (Viola) really is.  The same is true in the modernized high-school variant of the Shakespeare comedy, She’s the Man.  Playing around with two ways of knowing the same person is also put to good use in the case of super-heroes (or heroes generally) who have secret identities, from the Scarlet Pimpernel to El Zorro to Superman.

The Shop Around the Corner posterBut in all these tales, one member of the couple has the advantage of knowing the truth.  It puts the couple on more even terms if neither of them is aware of what’s really going on.  There’s a whole series of variations on a single story where the main characters meet indirectly and fail to connect up the two different ways they’re communicating with the same person.  This plot seems to have been invented by Hungarian playwright Miklós László in the form of a play called Illatszertár or Parfumerie (1937).  It was adapted in English into the Jimmy Stewart-Margaret Sullavan film The Shop Around the Corner (1940), which in turn gave rise to a musical treatment with Judy Garland, In the Good Old Summertime (1949), and again with She Loves Me (1963).  In these versions, the main characters are pen pals, and also co-workers.  Nora Ephron updated the treatment by making them e-mail correspondents in You’ve Got Mail (1998).

Romance And—

When we tell the story of a romance, we’re often telling a story about something else at the same time.  To be sure, this isn’t always the case.  In Georgette Heyer’s Cotillion, for example, or in Must Love Dogs, and in a lot of high-school rom-coms, the personal relationships are pretty much all that’s going on.  But generally, we don’t spend our lives doing nothing but looking for love.  We go on about our daily business, meeting our daily challenges, and stumble upon love as we go.

To Say Nothing Of The Dog coverSo a lot of romantic tales also have a storyline dealing with something that brings the couple together.  In Heyer’s The Toll-Gate, there’s an involved plot having to do with a theft of currency.  The main characters in Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog are searching for the bishop’s bird-stump.  (It’s a long story.)  Gaudy Night is the Dorothy Sayers novel where Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey finally get together, but they do it while trying to resolve a crisis at her alma mater.  The redoubtable Amelia Peabody and her future husband Radcliffe Emerson meet in the context of archaeological investigations (Crocodile on the Sandbank).

I like the idea of a couple’s bonding by cooperating in some shared endeavor.  And we may be able to amplify that motif by having it happen twice, in parallel, like the parallel identities in the “Shop” stories.

The Camaraderie of the Quest

One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about the group quests of role-playing games, whether in D&D or World of Warcraft, is the bonding and sense of camaraderie that develops in a group working together for a common purpose.  Most traditional games like chess or Risk have the players competing against each other.  But the role-playing games typically pit a band of True Companions against third-party monsters or other opponents.

This is a whole different dynamic.  And seeing it play out in a game makes the tone both more light-hearted and more detached than, for example, in a real-life business relationship.  But for that very reason, it lacks a certain gravitas.  Suppose a couple used to fighting side-by-side in a game found they had to work together on something important in real life as well?

The Fun of the Shared Adventure

All this contributed to the idea of The World Around the Corner.  Other aspects also played their roles—for instance, a chance to share some favorite music and books.  And let us not forget the occasional opportunity, sheerly by happenstance, to achieve a truly dreadful pun, without even setting it up on purpose beforehand.  You’ll know it when you see it . . .

I hope you’ll have as much fun reading TWATC as I did writing it!

Advertisements

Witty Banter

Clever Conversation

Billy Joel famously remarked, “I don’t want clever conversation; never want to work that hard” (“Just the Way You Are” (1977) at 1:30).  For my part, though, I find I do want clever conversation.  (And I’m willing to work at it.)  Witty wordplay is one of my favorite things to find in a story.

Conversational sparring comes in a number of varieties—and especially in exchanges between romantic interests.  This post may run a little long, because in order to get my point across I’ve got to quote some dialogue at length.

The Well-Chosen Word

Verbal comedy can arise spontaneously in comedies of errors—misunderstood conversations, double meanings and double entendres, the confusions to which language is ever prone.

Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster

Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster

It helps if one character is an airhead.  Bertie Wooster, the amiable narrator of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories, has been described (by Jeeves) as “mentally negligible.”  As the Wikipedia article observes, Bertie’s use of language is actually rather remarkable—but it lacks control.  His frequently-mangled allusions may throw his hearers for a loop, and he’s just as likely to misunderstand what they’re getting at.  This pattern is common in Wodehouse, where at least one person, often the main character, is a little muddled.

Sprig Muslin book coverBut even competent characters can be at a loss if the situation is itself muddled.  For example, in the delightful closing sequence to Georgette Heyer’s Sprig Muslin (ch. 17-18), the normally self-possessed Captain Kendal arrives on the scene thinking he’s rescuing his madcap lady-love Amanda, not realizing that he has entirely misinterpreted the situation.  Thus:

“Why,” the Captain shot at him, “did the chambermaid find your ward’s door locked?  Why did your ward think it necessary to lock her door?”

“She didn’t.  I locked the door, so that she shouldn’t escape a second time.  Yes, come over here, Hildebrand!  Our visitor wants to shake you by the hand. . . . This, Hildebrand, unless I much mistake the matter is the Brigade-Major.”

“What, Amanda’s Brigade-Major?” exclaimed Hildebrand.  “Well, of all things!  However did you find us out, sir?”

“For God’s sake, have I strayed into a madhouse?” thundered the Captain.  “Where is Amanda?”

“Well, I don’t know,” said Hildebrand, looking startled.  “I daresay she has gone down the road to the farm, though. . . . Oh, I say, sir, I wish you will tell me!—will she be obliged to wring chickens’ necks if she goes to Spain?”

“Wring—No!” said the Captain, thrown by this time quite off his balance.

“I knew it was all nonsense!” said Hildebrand triumphantly.  “I told her it was, but she always thinks she knows everything!”

Heyer is a past master at this; I’ve often thought of her as a kind of combination of Wodehouse and Jane Austen (herself a master of elegant verbal skirmishing).  Indeed, I once looked in at the annual Boston-based science fiction convention Boskone and read the program’s tongue-in-cheek explanation of why a SF convention includes a Regency ball:  Heyer’s characters were so superb at clever badinage that they must represent some kind of alternate reality—no mere humans could come up with such adroit dialogue on the spur of the moment.

False Colours cover When the wit is one-sided— a clever interlocutor and an airheaded one—there’s some danger that the exchange may come across as a bit mean, with one character taking advantage of the other.  (“Persiflage,” another term for witty banter, is sometimes glossed as “quizzing mockery” or “scoffing.”)  But the smart character and the less-than-brilliant character can also be on good terms with each other, as in Kit Fancot’s fond teasing of his lovable but flighty mother in Heyer’s False Colours.

Flirtatious Banter

The combination of verbal sparring and affection reaches its apex when the two participants are in love with each other—whether or not they know it yet.

Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing (1993 movie)The locus classicus for such a relationship is Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, a comedy built largely around the contentious romance of Beatrice and Benedick.  Beatrice’s uncle explains the relationship to a newcomer explicitly at the outset:  “You must not, sir, mistake my niece:  there is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her; they never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them” (lines 50-52).  We then see them in action:

Beatrice:  I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick: nobody marks you.

Benedick:  What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?

Beatrice:  Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick?  Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come in her presence.

Benedick:  Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted:  and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart; for, truly, I love none.

Beatrice:  A dear happiness to women: they would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humour for that:  I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.

Benedick:  God keep your ladyship still in that mind! so some gentleman or other shall ‘scape a predestinate scratched face.

Beatrice:  Scratching could not make it worse, an ’twere such a face as yours were.  (lines 99-116)

The verbal sparring can shade from hostile to flirtatious; here we see it at the hostile end.  While this “merry war” has no obvious reason—except perhaps “belligerent sexual tension” itself—the conflict is often sparked by some specific friction; hence this trope’s kinship with The Big Lie.

Romantic comedy is the natural home for this kind of dialogue—especially on stage or screen.  We can go back to one of the classic screwball comedies, Frank Capra’s 1934 It Happened One Night, for examples.

[As Peter hangs a blanket between the beds in the room the main characters have to share:]

Ellie:  That, I suppose, makes everything quite all right.

Peter:  This?  Well, I like privacy when I retire.  Yes, I’m very delicate in that respect.  Prying eyes annoy me.  Behold the walls of Jericho.  Maybe not as thick as the ones Joshua blew down with his trumpet.  But a lot safer.  You see, I have no trumpet.

It Happened One Night, hitchhiking, on fenceThey both get in some good lines in the famous hitchhiking scene:

Peter:  They’ll stop, all right.  It’s all a matter of knowing how to handle them.

Ellie:  Oh, and you’re an expert, I suppose.

Peter:  Expert.  And I’m gonna write a book about it.  Call it The Hitchhiker’s Hail.

Ellie:  There’s no end to your accomplishments, is there?

[Peter tries his first method, fails]

Ellie:  I’ve still got my eye on the thumb.

Peter:  Something must have gone wrong.  I’ll try No. 2.

Ellie:  When you get to 100, wake me up.

[After several more fails]

Peter:  I don’t think I’ll write that book after all.

Ellie:  Think of all the fun you had, though.

[Ellie takes over and brings a car to a dead stop by lifting her skirt to show her leg.  In the car:]

Ellie:  Aren’t you going to give me a little credit?

Peter:  What for?

Ellie:  Well, I proved once and for all that the limb is mightier than the thumb.

Peter:  Why didn’t you take off all your clothes?  You could have stopped forty cars.

Ellie:  Ooo, I’ll remember that when we need forty cars.

Rodgers & Hammerstein gave us musical versions:  listen to the lighthearted play between not-quite-admitted lovers in “People Will Say We’re In Love” or “Sixteen Going On Seventeen.”  Clever duet lyrics abound in other old-time musicals as well:  Singin’ in the Rain, say, or White Christmas.

Music and Lyrics, Alex and Sophie with notebookFor a more recent example, I’m fond of the Hugh Grant-Drew Barrymore vehicle Music and Lyrics (2007).  Sophie (Barrymore) arrives at the apartment of Alex Fletcher (Grant), a washed-up rock star, to water his plants.  She pricks her finger on a cactus, Alex responds (with Grant’s trademark cultured deadpan delivery).

Alex:  You all right?

Sophie:  Do you have a Band-Aid and antibiotic cream?

Alex:  No, no.  And, sadly, I think I’ve lent out my iron lung.

Sophie:  . . . I’m gonna go, because, you know, this could get infected.

[She comes back the next day, with a bandage on her finger, and they pick up right where they left off.]

Alex:  They were able to save the whole hand.

Sophie:  I know; I made too big a deal out of it.  It’s just that I hate infections.  But then again, who likes them?  Maybe the people who make penicillin.

Alex:  Ah, yes, well, there’s two sides to every story.

Sophie:  That’s true.  Except for the Nazis.  I can’t really see the other side of that argument.

Sophie ends up writing lyrics to Alex’s music for a song that has to be completed within about forty-eight hours.  He’s reading her scribbled page:

Alex: [singing] Sleeping with a clown above my bed…

[spoken] “Clown” is not right.  What is that word?

Sophie:  It’s “cloud.”

Alex:  Well, write more clearly!  How can I possibly read—

Sophie:  Why would you have a clown in your bed?

Alex:  Let me tell you, it would not be the first time.

Sophie:  Yeah, I’m not surprised.

Wit in Writing

Of course we also get witty exchanges on the printed page.

For the rare Wodehouse where both the characters are clever, check out Leave It to Psmith (1923).  The dapper but absurd Psmith (“The p is silent, as in shrimp”) finally reaches an understanding with the intrepid Eve Halliday:

“Cynthia advised me,” proceeded Eve, “if ever I married, to marry some one eccentric.  She said it was such fun . . . Well, I don’t suppose I am ever likely to meet any one more eccentric than you, am I?”

“I think you would be unwise to wait on the chance.”

“The only thing is . . .,” said Eve reflectively.  “’Mrs. Smith’ . . . It doesn’t sound much, does it?”

Psmith beamed encouragingly.

“We must look into the future,” he said.  “We must remember that I am only at the beginning of what I am convinced is to be a singularly illustrious career.  ‘Lady Psmith’ is better . . . ‘Baroness Psmith’ better still . . . And—who knows?—‘The Duchess of Psmith’ . . .”

Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe detective stories, narrated by Wolfe’s irrepressible assistant Archie Goodwin, contain some of the most entertaining dialogue I’ve encountered; I’m content just listening to Archie talk.  A lot of the banter here is nonromantic:  Nero and Archie’s genuine friendship is masked by constant verbal sparring.  Archie is a past master at getting under people’s skin with brash remarks, and the normally unflappable Wolfe seems particularly sensitive to Archie’s brand of needling.

Archie Goodwin and Lily Rowan

Archie Goodwin and Lily Rowan

But there’s also Archie’s long-running perpetual flirtation with Lily Rowan, who is easily his match in wit, beginning when they meet in Some Buried Caesar (1938).  Archie is drowsing off at a rural exposition when Lily (who’s nicknamed him “Escamillo”) tugs at his sleeve:

“Wake up, Escamillo, and show me the flowers.”

I let the lids up.  “How do you do, Miss Rowan.  Go away.  I’m in seclusion.”

“Kiss me.”

I bent and deposited a peck on her brow.  “There.  Thank you for calling.  Nice to see you.”

“You’re a lout.”

“I have at no time asked you to submit bids.”

The corner of her mouth went up.  “This is a public exposition.  I paid my way in.  You’re an exhibitor.  Go ahead and exhibit.  Show me.”

“Not exhibitionist.  Exhibitor.”  (ch. 14)

Even science fiction has its moments for banter between lovers.  In the venerable Skylark of Space (1928 &1946), Dick Seaton’s fiancée Dorothy Vaneman, an accomplished violinist, sets out to lull the overworked Seaton to sleep after dinner.

Dorothy said, “I skipped practice today, Dick, on account of traipsing out there after you two geniuses.  Could you stand it to have me play at you for half an hour?”

“Don’t fish, Dottie Dimple.  You know there’s nothing I’d like better.  But if you want me to beg you I’ll be glad to.  Please—PUH-LEEZE—oh fair and musicianly damsel, fill ye circumambient atmosphere with thy tuneful notes.”

“Wilco.  Roger,” she snickered.  “Over and out.”  (ch. 6)

Crosstalk, by Connie Willis, coverThe subject matter doesn’t have to be especially romantic; it can be equally cute to watch a well-matched pair go off on an entirely silly subject.  In Connie Willis’s aptly-named Crosstalk (2016), Briddey Flannigan and her not-quite-boyfriend C.B. Schwartz have been trying, for involved plot reasons, to remember what the marshmallow shapes are in Lucky Charms cereal.  They finally find a box.

“. . . So we can confirm my findings.”

“Or not,” Briddey said, looking down at the multicolored blobs.  She picked up a pale green one with a lump of bright green in the middle.  “This does not look like a shamrock.”

“Clover,” he corrected her.

“It doesn’t look like a clover either.  It looks like a hat with a bow on it.”

“What kind of Irishman would have a bow on his hat?” C.B. said, taking it from her, turning it upside down, and squinting at it.  “Maybe it’s a pot of gold.”

“Then why is it green?  And look at this one,” she said, picking up a purple U-shaped marshmallow.  “What’s this?  The rainbow?”

“No, this is the rainbow.”  He showed her a multicolored half circle.

“Or a slice of watermelon.”

“They’re all supposed to be Irish.  What’s Irish about a slice of watermelon?”

. . . . .

“But what on earth is this?” she said, fishing a white marshmallow out of the pile.  It was oblong and had an orange line down its middle and an irregular splotch at one end.

“I have no idea,” C.B. said, taking it from her and turning it one way and another.  “An albino eggplant?”

“An albino eggplant?” she said, laughing.  “Why would they put an albino eggplant in a children’s cereal?”

“Beats me,” he said, popping it into his mouth.  He made a face.  “The real question is, why would they put pieces of chalk in a children’s cereal and call them marshmallows?”  (ch. 20)

Why it Matters

Witty banter may be entertaining in itself, but what does it do for the story?  What difference does it make in the way a reader appreciates a book or a movie?

An essentially friendly verbal duel—even if it has a bit of an edge—communicates a certain lightness and grace.  We appreciate the participants’ minds—all the more when the conversation is not about rigorous chains of reasoning, but is a kind of dancing with circumstances, responding to a situation or conversation as it develops.  (The best puns are situational.)  We admire the free play of intellect, especially when it’s used frivolously.  And in a romance, where the sensual component may contribute a certain heaviness or earthiness, the grace of wit provides a welcome counterpoint.

And then, I take the lightheartedness of banter itself to be a virtue.  With all the serious concerns we find in daily events, we need to be reminded how to take things lightly.  Susan Ashton’s “You Move Me” (also recorded by Garth Brooks) has a neat turn of phrase:

You go whistling in the dark,
making light of it,
making light of it,
And I follow with my heart, laughing all the way.

When the traditional phrase “whistling in the dark” is followed by “making light of it,” the first thought, perhaps, is of bringing light to the darkness:  making it brighter.  But “making light of it” also means treating something lightly, with levity, almost making fun of it.  The repetition of the line suggests that both meanings are present.  This is the kind of undaunted attitude that’s evoked by the frivolity of wordplay.  In other words, lighthearted wit is serious business.

There’s more.  When the participants are friends, and especially when they’re lovers, the banter is a unique way of engaging with each other.

The World Around the Corner coverThe exchange can be both a dance and a duel.  On the one hand, there’s a certain competitiveness—one-upmanship.  But the couple are also collaborating in creating a kind of manic beauty, a sort of performance art.  The best example, perhaps, is when they join in piling one absurdity on another, getting more extravagantly silly as they go.  For example, Jeff and Dana, the nascent lovers in my romantic comedy The World Around the Corner, are talking to their young friend Renée about why she likes ice-skating (and all three are avid video-gamers):

[Jeff says to Renée:]  “I remember you like ice skating, right? Why do you do it?”

“I feel graceful? It shines when you can do a trick or a turn without skidding out?”

“It feels good to do it well.” Jeff nodded. “Even if no loot drops.” Renee giggled.

“Unless maybe you knock somebody down, accidentally on purpose…” Dana said.

“…and they lose their wallet. Or a purse goes flying,” Jeff continued. “The bosses drop more loot, of course.”

“A rogue wouldn’t need to ram ’em,” Dana countered. “You glide by, doing a double spin or whatever…when they stop admiring your skill, the wallet’s gone.”

“But of course you don’t get the experience points from taking them down,” Jeff said.

When I have the chance to take part in such exchanges in real life, it’s one of the most exhilarating experiences I know of.  Finding them in a story lets us all take part in the fun.

Third-Party Love Songs

The Third Party

Girl at door, from "(Kissed You) Good Night"

“(Kissed You) Good Night”

Typically a love song is sung by one lover to another, just as you’d expect.  The lyrics are some combination of first and second person:  “I love you.”  (Oddly enough, there’s only one song on my playlists entitled “I Love You”; you’d think it would be a more common title.)  Or the lovers may sing to each other in a duet—from “People Will Say We’re In Love” to “(Kissed You) Good Night.”

But every now and then we get a case where the singer is a third person.  The song is still about love, but the singer isn’t one of the lovers.  Rather, they’re talking to someone else’s lover, or potential lover.  What kind of story is implied by moving the focus to a third party?

Wonderful Counselor

The most appealing case is where the singer is giving good advice to the lover.  The attitude may be paternal or maternal, fraternal or sisterly (sororal?).  Or the informal counselor may just be a friend putting in a good word at the right moment.

Chronologically, Melissa Manchester’s “You Should Hear How She Talks About You” stands at the very beginning of a love affair.  Melissa’s telling a guy that the nameless “she” is sweet on him:  “she’s half out of her head.”  Hence her encouragement is right there in the opening line:  “you should break the ice.”  Take the first step, fella, she’s waiting for you.

A similar encouragement, a little later in the relationship, is offered by Billy Joel in “Tell Her About It.”  The guy he’s addressing has already found his mate (“let a good thing slip away”).  But a punk kid from New York is likely to be inarticulate, or too macho to let emotions show, or both—like Danny in Grease.  If he doesn’t want to lose her, he’s going to have to learn to talk to her about how he feels.  The contrast between the singer (“a man who’s made mistakes”) and the addressee yields a nice contrast of worldly-weariness and blundering innocence.

Mending the Rift

Another good time for a wise advisor to drop in is during a lover’s quarrel—a “rift in the lute,” as Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster likes to say.  In the Beatles’ early classic “She Loves You,” the singer is actually carrying messages for a couple who aren’t speaking to each other:  “She says you hurt her so . . . But now she says . . .”  He’s also forthright enough to express his own opinion:  “I think it’s only fair . . . Apologize to her.”

Roxette performing Listen to Your Heart

“Listen to Your Heart”

The complementary female-to-female version is exemplified by Roxette’s Listen To Your Heart:  “Sometimes you wonder if this fight is worthwhile” . . . but the person sung to should consider carefully “before you tell him goodbye.”  While Billy Joel or the Beatles advise actual conversation, Roxette suggests the first step is simply to consult your own deeper feelings or gut reaction.

Amy Grant’s slightly offbeat but arresting “Love Can Do” is a bit more pointed about sticking around rather than giving up.  “Sometimes love means we have to stand and fight . . . Everybody runs, everybody hides.”  In particular, she puts her finger on a ubiquitous misunderstanding:  the idea that love simply evaporates of itself.  “It’s not like that.”  What we do has a crucial role to play.  If you want those feelings back, “no running.”

Carly Simon sings "The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of" at Martha's Vineyard

Carly Simon sings “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of” at Martha’s Vineyard

The perceptive Carly Simon targets a still later point—that midterm period when a couple has been together long enough to get bored with each other.  In “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of,” Simon advises a Chestertonian re-imagining or re-envisioning of the relationship:  “What if the prince on the horse in your fairytale / Is right here in disguise, / And what if the stars you’ve been reaching so high for / Are shining in his eyes?”

Rather than providing advice for a particular relationship, another family of third-party songs makes a more general recommendation of an individual.  Alabama’s “She Ain’t Your Ordinary Girl” tells us at length how extraordinary “she” is—“No empty promises; proof is what it takes to win her heart.”  Yet “when you see her smile, nothing seems to matter any more.”  It isn’t quite clear whether the singer is speaking to a particular friend, or to the world at large.

We see this generality more often when we come to the negative examples.

The Prudent Warning

The third-party intervention isn’t always to encourage.  Sometimes it’s negative:  a sort of warning to the general public against an unreliable lover—generally based on the singer’s unhappy experience.

She's So Mean, girl smashes guitar

“She’s So Mean”

There are quite a few of these too.  From the early rock-and-roll era we have Dion’s “Runaround Sue,” which cautions us that “Sue goes . . . out with other guys.”  Hall & Oates want us to watch out for the “Man-Eater.”  Over on the country side, Eric Church tells an aspiring suitor that the object of his affections is “heaven on the eyes,” but “Hell on the Heart.”  Matchbox Twenty explains in vivid detail how “She’s So Mean.”

There ought to be a comparable category of songs by a woman warning about a hard-hearted man, but for some reason the only example that comes to mind is the old Three Dog Night tune “Eli’s Coming,” which issues a general alert about an irresistible guy who appears to be a sort of force of nature.  You can probably think of better examples.

Nostalgic Advice

Sometimes the kindly advisor is a parent or relative.  In that case, the advice is often freighted with nostalgia, looking back on the days when the person spoken about was in the singer’s care.  The country band Heartland has a ballad called “I Loved Her First” that sounds at first like a rejected lover commending “my girl” to a new romantic interest, but turns out to be her father giving her away at her wedding.

Rod Stewart’s “Forever Young” (not to be confused with the earlier Bob Dylan song of the same name) speaks to the young person’s romantic future (“And may you never love in vain . . .”), but in general terms, a kind of open-ended hope.  (Incidentally, that was the song we picked for the father-daughter dance at my daughter’s wedding.)

In these examples, the third-party love song shades into a more open-ended field of advice songs.  Somewhere in that vicinity is a category of reflective “sadder but wiser” songs about love generally, addressed to a particular listener or listeners.  “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific falls roughly into this category.  Even though Émile is singing it directly to his beloved, Nellie, he words it as if he’s talking to someone else:  “Once you have found her, never let her go.”

Anna sings Hello, Young Lovers in The King and I

“Hello, Young Lovers”

This kind of reflection seems to have been a favorite of Rodgers & Hammerstein.  In The King and I, Anna sings “Hello, Young Lovers” (which has perhaps the most beautiful introduction of any song from a musical) to an array of Siamese princesses.  “Cling very close to each other tonight /  I’ve been in love like you.”

Conclusion

I find the third-party advice and encouragement songs especially enjoyable.  They gain points for a kind of genial altruism.  An I-love-you song generally expresses care for the other person—we want our beloved to be happy.  But there’s inevitably a certain self-interest involved, too:  a healthy exchange of love will also make me happy.  (“And I wish you all the love in the world / But most of all, I wish it from myself”—Fleetwood Mac’s “Songbird.”)

The third-party advisor is in that sense disinterested.  Like the Master Contriver in a romance, he or she has the generosity of the matchmaker.  The smiling friend’s endorsement reflects and redoubles, as it were, the appeal of the underlying romance.

Prophecy and the Plan

The ancient prophecy is a staple of fantasy.  This child will kill his father and marry his mother.  Not by the hand of man will this being fall.  The source of the information is often vague, but once we’ve heard the prophecy, we know it’s going to come true—somehow.

There’s a comparable science fiction trope:  the long-term Plan.  But the Plan functions rather differently.  Let’s take a look at the two together.

Foretold and Foredoomed

An entire story may be built around the unavoidable destiny that lands on an unlikely or reluctant hero.  Or the mysterious message from the past may relate merely to one aspect of the story—perhaps the only way to accomplish some task (“the penitent man will pass”).  Either way, in the words of TV Tropes, Prophecies Are Always Right.

As the examples on the Tropes page indicate, this is not strictly true:  writers can subvert or otherwise play with the fulfillment of a prediction.  But there wouldn’t be much purpose in introducing the prophecy if it didn’t have some relevance to the plot.  Most commonly, this is because it’s valid.

Statute of sibylThe device goes back to some of the earliest stories we have.  The Greek tale of Oedipus, for example, involves a prediction that a child will bring disaster on his city by killing his father and marrying his mother.  The very actions by which his father tries to avert this outcome turn out to produce it.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth provides a slightly less antique example.  The title character is emboldened to stage a revolt by the “prophetic greeting” of three witches (Act I, Scene 3).  Macbeth is further heartened by hearing that “none of woman born” will harm him, and that he won’t be beaten until “Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane Hill/Shall come against him,” (Act IV, Scene 1).  Both statements turn out to be true, but not as Macbeth interpreted them:  his opponents approach his stronghold holding “leavy screens” of branches (Act V, Scene 6), and he is slain by Macduff, who was birthed by Caesarean section (Act V, Scene 8).  In both these cases the message appears to be that you can’t fight fate:  the prophecy will come true despite all attempts to prevent it.

The motif carries through to modern fantasy as well.  Harry Potter’s Divination teacher, Professor Trelawney, is generally played for laughs, but her serious predictions come true.  In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the White Witch is right to fear the “old rhyme” that her reign will end when two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve are enthroned in Cair Paravel (ch. 8).

Fated but Free

Eowyn slays the NazgulThe Lord of the Rings provides some interesting examples.  TV Tropes lists a number of vague premonitions by various characters.  But a more specific case occurs when the Witch-King of Angmar, secure in Glorfindel’s prediction that “not by the hand of man will he fall” (Appendix A, I.iv), boasts that “No living man may hinder me!”, and is met by Éowyn’s defiant “But no living man am I!”  (Return of the King, book V, ch. 6, p. 116).

The main issue of the story, however, is subject to no such foreknowledge.  No prophecy gives a hint as to whether the Ring will be destroyed and Sauron defeated.  As TV Tropes points out, free will as well as fate exists in Tolkien’s world.  There is no certainty of outcome in this world’s battles.  As Chesterton puts it:  “I tell you naught for your comfort, yea, naught for your desire / Save that the sky grows darker yet and the sea rises higher.”

The foretellings we do see in fantasy seem to be guaranteed by some trans-human source:  paranormal, supernatural, even divine.  This is why they can generally be relied upon to come true.  But what of science fiction, which tends to invoke science rather than the supernatural?

Foundation

What often takes the place of prophecy in SF is a vast, far-reaching plan of some sort, whose fulfillment is guaranteed not by the supernatural but on some scientific basis.  This is, in effect, the science-fictional version of prophecy or fate.  Such plans typically are made by human beings (or similar creatures).  They are reducible to human intent—and conditioned by human fallibility.

Seldon sits in front of city (Foundation)The classic case is Isaac Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy.  Hari Seldon, inventor of a new science of “psychohistory” that statistically predicts the aggregate actions of human masses (as distinct from the acts of individual persons), realizes that the millennia-spanning Galactic Empire is headed for an inevitable collapse.  To cut short the subsequent thirty thousand years of chaos and barbarism, Seldon launches a plan to establish two “Foundations” from which civilization may be restored more quickly—in a mere thousand years.  Seldon’s mathematics allows him to arrange things in such a way that the Seldon Plan will inevitably prevail—at least to a very high order of probability (given that we’re dealing with statistical conclusions here, rather than superhuman insights).

The stories Asimov tells about the early years of the Foundation thus carry an atmosphere that’s similar in some ways to that of a prophecy in fantasy.  The leaders and people of the Foundation on the planet Terminus have confidence that they will prevail; but they are not privy to the details of the Plan and have no idea how that will occur—just as the Witch-King did not anticipate he would be slain by a woman, or the Pevensie children know just how they can succeed to the king-and-queenship of Narnia.

On the other hand, Seldon’s Plan is not quite as infallible as the typical prophecy.  This becomes evident when an individual known as the Mule upsets the psychohistorical scheme by changing its underlying assumptions about human behavior:  the Mule has mutant mental powers that could not have been predicted by Seldon.

Galactic Networks and Race Minds

The Snow Queen coverJoan Vinge’s 1980 novel The Snow Queen (very loosely based on the plot of Andersen’s fairy tale) also involves a Plan, though the characters are not aware of this initially.  They come to realize that the “sibyl network,” a vast interstellar information system run by technology beyond their understanding, has its own purposes and is seeking (like Seldon) to shape events to promote reconstruction after a collapse of civilization.  But they’re not fully aware of what the sibyl network is trying to do, and they don’t know whether its Plan will be successful.

Unlike the Plan that underlies the Foundation stories, Vinge’s Plan is not made by human agents—though the computer “mind” behind it is a human product.  But like the Seldon Plan, this long-range plan is not guaranteed to succeed.  The sibyl network is not as infallible as the mysterious sources behind the standard fantasy prophecy.

The long-term plan, or purpose, may also belong to a race or species consciousness—a mind (of sorts) that arises from humanity as a whole.  The “terrible purpose” that Paul Atreides struggles with in Dune is that of a subliminal racial consciousness that is driving relentlessly toward an interstellar jihad as a way of mixing up the gene pool to refresh the species.  This quasi-mind does not seem to have a specific plan in mind, but the overall drive, like the statistically-based Seldon Plan, is irresistible.

Something similar seems to be at work in A.E. van Vogt’s mutation-after-humanity novel Slan (1940).  In this future setting, the human species is mutating not at random, but in such a way as to consistently produce a “higher” type of being—smarter, stronger, kinder, with telepathic powers.  One character remarks:  “We have always assumed far too readily that no cohesion exists between individuals, that the race of men is not a unit with an immensely tenuous equivalent of a blood-and-nerve stream flowing from man to man” (ch. 18).  Apparently there is some vague but irresistible analogue of systematic purpose at work in humanity as a whole.  (Greg Bear’s 1999 novel Darwin’s Radio, by contrast, suggests a distributed genetic mechanism for such a wave of mutation, without requiring a single overall mind to account for it.)

Ongoing Guidance

A master Plan that spans generations may be designed to operate without intervening human guidance.  This is true of certain lost world-ship stories, in which the loss of knowledge on a generation ship is deliberately arranged in advance.  In Clifford Simak’s Target Generation (1953), for instance, a book of instructions has been secretly passed down from generation to generation, to be opened only when the starship finally reaches its destination.

Of course, the transmission of such a plan won’t be reliable if it’s subject to human error or accident.  I’ve often felt that the long-dead planners who relied on a secret book in Target Generation ought to have been thrown out on their ears, when the flight was being arranged, for resting the survival of an entire shipload of people on such a fragile and undependable strategy—like the wacky souls behind the Rube Goldberg setup in City of Ember, entertaining as both those stories are.

Second Foundation coverSeldon’s Plan at first appears to function in this pilotless way.  But it turns out there is a hidden agency responsible for monitoring the Plan and correcting any deviations:  the Second Foundation, as skilled in psychohistory as the original Foundation is in technology.  The canny Seldon built in a safety net to take care of just such a random variable as the Mule—because a human-based plan lacks the mysterious paranormal guarantee of a prophecy.

 

Exceptions

Sitting squarely between the F&SF camps in this respect is Star Wars, the exception that proves the rule.  Lucas’s brain child is sometimes referred to as “science fantasy” rather than science fiction, not just because it does not delve into scientific plausibility, but because it simultaneously mobilizes both fantasy and science-fiction tropes; that’s part of the reason the movies are so widely accessible and successful.  The prophecy that Anakin Skywalker will “bring balance to the Force” (whatever exactly that means) is cited throughout the series.  But there’s no real explanation in the movies, at least, as to how this prophecy works or what makes it reliable information.  It’s a fantasy trope, not a science fiction motif.

There is, however, a genuine SF exception of sorts:  time travel stories, when they rely on knowledge gained from being in the future.  For example, in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight (1968), time-traveling dragonrider Lessa assures her compatriots in the past that they will accompany her back to her own time in their future, because that explains their mysterious disappearance, which Lessa already knows about as part of her own history.  Here the source of future knowledge is neither human nor superhuman, but sheer facticity—or, from the standpoint of the characters, experience.  They tell about future events that they’ve already seen happening.

For the Reader

Both types of projections into the future, prophecies and plans, set up a certain kind of tension in a story.  There’s a sort of security—we know how things will turn out, at least in a general way.  (Or if the outcome is tragic, as with Oedipus, the effect may be dread rather than security.)  At the same time, there’s a tension in that we don’t know how the story will arrive at that end.  The power of this combination is proved by the long tradition of such stories throughout human civilization.

The long-term plan or prediction evokes awe at the deeps of time—how something said long ago may still have effects today.  And it generates a certain wonder at the way in which things surprisingly work out.  In either form, they’re a useful part of a storyteller’s arsenal of effects.

Arthur’s Eternal Triangle

Assessing the Problem

The “Eternal Triangle” gets its name from its reliable omnipresence as a romantic trope.  Two men love the same woman, or two women love the same man; and the two may themselves be friends.

Triangle illustration (Pixabay)There’s endless fuel for drama here.  As Wikipedia observes, “The term ‘love triangle’ generally connotes an arrangement unsuitable to one or more of the people involved.”  As a result, some kind of resolution seems to be needed.  (In the Western tradition, at least, simply setting up a menage à trois isn’t generally regarded as an option.)

Typically, a storyteller resolves the situation by having one “leg” of the triangle win out.  It’s easier to do this if the third party, the one left out, is painted as undesirable or disreputable—they deserve to lose.  But, on the other hand, the dramatic effect is heightened when the competing persons are each worthy of respect.  Thus Aragorn says of Éowyn in The Lord of the Rings:  “Few other griefs among the ill chances of this world have more bitterness and shame for a man’s heart than to behold the love of a lady so fair and brave that cannot be returned.”  (Return of the King, V.8, “The Houses of Healing)

We’ve touched lightly before on the central role of the Eternal Triangle in the Arthurian tales.  One of the reasons we continue to be fascinated with the Arthuriad is the unresolvable romance at its center.  Typically we like and admire all three characters—Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot.  But there seems to be no way to bring about a happy ending for everybody.  This part of the tragedy tends to preoccupy modern audiences more than the political or social tragedy of the fall of Camelot; it’s more personal.

The ways in which various authors have tried to manage the matter thus provides a useful survey of ways to address a romantic triangle generally.

Tragedy

Camelot movie posterOne perfectly viable option is to give up the idea of a happy ending and treat the story as an unresolvable tragedy.  This is how the basic Arthurian story works in Malory.  T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (1958) follows the same path.  White’s sympathy for all three characters is evident.  But he doesn’t allow them an easy out.  The story concludes as a tragedy—and a very good one.  I believe the musical Camelot (1960), based on White, follows a similar course:  no romance survives the ending.

The thoroughly weird movie Excalibur (1981) also follows Malory in this respect and accepts the tragic ending.  Lancelot dies.  Arthur, of course, dies too—or at least sails off to Avalon; as usual, whether Arthur will actually return in some fashion remains a mystery.  (In C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra (1943), Arthur is mentioned as residing with other luminaries on the paradisiacal planet Venus, awaiting his return at the Second Coming.)  Guinevere joins a nunnery, as per the basic legend.  The characters are disposed of, but no romance remains.

There is, however, a curious scene toward the end of Excalibur, at about 1:59, in which Arthur visits Guinevere in her nunnery, just before the final battle.  She says she loved him as a king, sometimes as a husband.  He says that someday, when he has finished his kingly duty of making a myth that will inspire later generations, he likes to think that he could come back to her, to meet her merely as a man.  She nods.  The scene hints that the romance might somehow be resolved after their deaths.  We’ll consider that idea further below.

Taliessin Through Logres coverBut the distinction between Arthur’s roles as king and as husband also illustrates a different approach:  one can write the story in such a way that Arthur transcends romance.  This seems to have been Charles Williams’ view in his uncompleted essay The Figure of Arthur (published in 1974 in the combined volume Taliessin through Logres; The Region of the Summer Stars; Arthurian Torso).  In Williams’ view of the myth, Arthur “was not to love, in that kind, at all” (p. 230).  Arthur may be destined purely to serve as a model of the Good King, not to fall in love.

Yet the romancers continue to treat Arthur’s and Guinevere’s marriage as a love story.  The triangle is not so easily disposed of.

Saving a Romance

First Knight (movie) - Arthur, Guinevere, LancelotIf we do want a genuine romance, one way is to give Lancelot and Guinevere a happy ending, and essentially write off Arthur.  We see this in First Knight (1995).  Arthur, played by the redoubtable Sean Connery, seems genuinely fond of Guinevere (Julia Ormond).  But he’s much older than she is (Connery was 65 at the time, Ormond 30).  Lancelot (Richard Gere), much nearer her age, plays his usual role in rescuing Guinevere from various distresses.  When Arthur dies, he commends Guinevere to Lancelot’s care.  At the conclusion, contrary to the usual storyline, those two seem free to pair off, giving the audience the qualified satisfaction of a fulfilled romance.  (Exactly what would have happened to the polity of Camelot in this alternate Arthurian history isn’t discussed.)

Another way is to dodge the issue entirely by simply leaving Lancelot out of the triangle.  King Arthur (2004) depicts Arthur and Guinevere as true lovers, what TV Tropes calls a “Battle Couple.”  After adventures, heroic last stands, and the arrival of The Cavalry, the movie ends with the wedding of Arthur and Guinevere.  Lancelot is in the band of knights, but he doesn’t yet have a crush on Guinevere, or vice versa; so we have the rare case where the Arthur-Guinevere relationship is preserved.  It’s a conventional happy ending, but it requires a considerable departure from the basic Arthurian story.

Arthur’s Alternative

A different way to resolve the triangle is to add a fourth party, who can take over the member of the triangle who’s left behind.  I’ve seen a couple of cases where the author gives Arthur an alternative love, letting Lancelot and Guinevere fall where they may.  Ideally, the alternative is really Arthur’s first love, predating the whole Guinevere-Lancelot thing.  Joan Wolf’s The Road to Avalon (1988) has Arthur growing up with a strong and admirable girl named Morgan—a complete rewrite of Morgan le Fay, who usually serves as a villain.  Arthur falls in love with this Morgan, and she with him.  Things look bright until, just after pledging their troth, they discover that Morgan is actually his half-aunt, too closely related for marriage.  Oops.

Arthur’s marriage to Guinevere is a political necessity; it’s not a betrayal, because he cannot marry Morgan.  In this version, Guinevere (Gwenhwyfar) is a not-especially-likable nonentity, who finds her love with Bedwyr (or Bedivere), a historically earlier version of Lancelot.  While the story cleaves close enough to the myth to prohibit a really happy ending, Arthur does at least find his true love, of sorts, with Morgan.

Mary Jo Putney takes a more romantic tack with her short story Avalon (1998).  This time “Morgana” is identified with the Lady of the Lake, the mysterious personage frequently depicted as giving Arthur Excalibur.  She dwells in Avalon, a faerie realm set apart from the mundane world.  In this story, Arthur sleeps with Morgana at the beginning, long before his political marriage to Guinevere, and returns to her at the end, at his “death.”  But he can be healed in Avalon, as some of the older tales suggest, and thus survives to a genuine “happy ever after” with Morgana.

The Fionavar Tapestry

I’ve saved for last this powerful and daunting trilogy (1984-86) by Guy Gavriel Kay, who helped Christopher Tolkien prepare The Silmarillion for publication.  Kay’s approach is unique:  he takes up the tragedy head-on, but offers a strange kind of hope at the end.

Fionavar Trilogy covers (Tor)

Five college students from our world are transported to another universe, Fionavar, which is said to be the first or most fundamental of all worlds—a little like Roger Zelazny’s Amber.  To win the battle against evil in Fionavar, they must summon “The Warrior.  Who always dies, and is not allowed to rest” (Summer Tree, p. 123).  He fights in many worlds, because of “a great wrong done at the very beginning of his days,” but can only be called at darkest need, by magic, by his secret name.  This Warrior is Arthur, and his secret name (rather unexpectedly) is “Childslayer”—based on an episode from Malory (Chapter I.XXVII) that is usually omitted from an Arthurian tale, in which the young Arthur, panicked at discovering that Mordred has been born, orders a whole set of newborns sent off in a ship to their deaths, rather like Herod.

It’s revealed in the second volume, The Wandering Fire, that one of the five students, Jennifer Lowell, is actually a reincarnation of Guinevere.  Moreover, it becomes necessary to summon Lancelot, as well, awakened from an enchanted sleep.  These three have met and fought the Dark heroically in many worlds, but always suffering in their doomed triangular relationship, as a punishment for their several sins (Arthur here is guilty of an even worse crime than his betrayal by the other two).  All three love each other; “making all the angles equal, shaped most perfectly for grief” (Wandering Fire, p. 122).  Indeed, theirs is the “[s]addest story of all the long tales told” (Wandering Fire, p. 187).

Kay doesn’t blink the tragedy.  It would be an understatement to say that there’s enormous suffering and sorrow in this story.  But there is astonishing moral and physical courage and heroism as well—as in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.  And Kay stresses (in his idiosyncratic way) the factor of free will in the “weaving” of the universe.  Even the fate of Arthur and his companions is not forever foredoomed.

Once the threat to Fionavar has been vanquished, a new way opens.  All three of them can leave the worlds forever, together, and fight no more.  In the most Tolkien-like moment of the story, the three sail off into eternity, rising along what Tolkien called the Straight Road into the West (The Darkest Road, p. 332).

The scene is so moving that one hardly notices Kay has not actually resolved the romantic triangle at all.  Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot are surely worthy of Paradise—but we have no clue as to who ends up with whom.  Is the only way to resolve this triangle to transcend it to some conclusion beyond mortal comprehension?

Lancelot’s Alternative?

I want to mention one possibility that I haven’t seen tried in a modern story (although, in the innumerable variations on the Arthuriad, it’s quite possible that there’s an instance out there).  Instead of coming up with an alternative for Arthur, one might try presenting an alternative for Lancelot, allowing Arthur and Guinevere to come back together as true lovers—perhaps sadder and wiser after what, in such a plot, would be a temporary breach of faith among the three of them.

The concept can in fact be found in a very old source:  Williams mentions a French lay called Lanval (ca. 1170-1215), in which a Lancelot-equivalent, desired by the queen, ends up himself riding off to Avalon with a fairy mistress.  But this is a quite different version of the Arthurian story.  Is there an opening for a Lancelot-mate in the more canonical range of variations?

Lancelot and ElaineThere’s Elaine.  In Malory, Elaine falls in love with Lancelot and tricks him into sleeping with her thinking she’s Guinevere.  Their son is Galahad, and in Malory they actually live together for some time as man and wife.  Could something be made of this?

White’s Once and Future King treats Elaine as a weak and helpless character, hardly worthy of Lancelot.  But she could easily be amped up to modern standards as a stronger individual.  If Guinevere can be a Celtic warrior maid or a Canadian college student, Elaine could certainly be revised to an inventive author’s taste.  Her relationship with Lancelot need not be the failed, one-sided romance depicted by White; she could become Lancelot’s real love.

Actually, there’s an interesting hint in The Fionavar Tapestry.  A seemingly pointless side story concerns a kind of Luthien-figure, the supernally beautiful elf Leyse of the Swan Mark.  She meets Lancelot briefly in the woods and falls in love with him—but of course he’s otherwise occupied.  Leyse then herself sails off into the West (The Darkest Road, p. 233).  It occurred to me that the name “Leyse” faintly resembles “Elaine”; and in preparing this post, I noticed her description on Wikipedia specifically refers to Elaine—although not necessarily the same Elaine (there are several characters by that name in the Arthuriad).  If she too ends up in the West, the Isles of the Blest, or whatever unearthly paradise Kay’s world accommodates—is it conceivable that she provides a quadrilateral solution to the Eternal Triangle?

There always seem to be more possibilities to be explored—which is what makes this myth so fruitful.