Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Course of True Love

Reading a legendary love story is a bit like flipping a coin. Heads, they survive; tails, they die miserably. For all that people like hearing about a young couple in love, they sure do have a lot of stories that end in tears and heartbreak. And for that certain subsection of these tales - the star-crossed lovers - everything they do to fix their situation just ends up drawing the noose even tighter around their necks.

Deirdre and Naisi, Breogan
Take Deirdre and Naisi, the great tragic lovers of Irish mythology. The cards were stacked against them from the start; poor Deirdre wasn't even a day old before druids prophesied the bloodshed that would result from her incredible beauty. Locked up away from the world, promised to a king with a yen for a trophy wife, Deirdre decides that she deserves a say in her own fate and promptly falls in love with the equally-gorgeous Naisi. Like any knight in shining armor worth his salt, he throws caution to the winds and elopes with her. So far, so good, right?

Well, there's that king. He's not happy about this interloper. And he's also not above using treachery, magic, and plain old pettiness to avenge his wounded pride. By the time the story's done, Naisi and his brothers have been murdered, and Deirdre - who tried belatedly to warn them of the dangers of hanging out with her - has died of a broken heart, but only after having been married for a year to King Backstabber. And the worst part is that they go into danger knowing that they could die. Deirdre's ominous dreams, the warnings of Naisi's brothers, even the prophecy that started the whole shebang are all openly discussed and perfectly interpreted. They know exactly what faces them, and they still can't change their fates.

Lancelot and Guinevere, Herbert James Draper
For that very reason, Lancelot and Guinevere fight tooth and nail against their forbidden passion. They too can see with perfect clarity the chaos that it could bring: the destruction of the Round Table, the death of Arthur's dream, the confusion and anarchy of civil war. Lancelot, sworn to be Guinevere's knight from the moment they meet, goes out questing again and again to remove himself from temptation. (Of course, lesser temptations present themselves all the time, but the strength of his love for Guinevere - unacknowledged, unconsummated, and for all he knows unreciprocated - lets him steer clear.) Guinevere wrestles her demons in silence, molding herself into a perfect queen and Arthur's mainstay. But when they finally give in and become lovers, all their good work goes for naught. Just as their secret passion tormented them earlier, now their betrayal of Arthur cuts them both. Tons of versions (Tennyson most notably) turn Guinevere into a jealous shrew, quarreling with Lancelot over the strength of his love at any opportunity. And it's their affair that provides the crack through which Camelot is broken open - again, the very outcome the lovers foresaw and dreaded, come about directly through their own actions.

In comparison, the Weaving Princess and the Cowherd seem positively peaceful. They don't cause any wars; there's no blood shed on their behalf; they don't even die. But it's still tricky to get more star-crossed than them. They're total workaholics - her cloth and his cows are the best in the world - until she gets wistful about the fact that her crazy work schedule means she'll never have time to fall in love. Her father, the Sky King, brings the two of them together, and it's love at first sight, which means they both take an indefinite vacation from weaving and tending the herd. From being exemplars, they become a cautionary tale, and the Sky King goes to the opposite extreme: he puts a river between them and forbids them ever to cross it. Only when his daughter begs him to let her see her beloved again does he allow them to meet for one day out of every year, and then only if there are enough magpies to make a bridge for her to cross the river. No magpies, no reunion. And it's really hard to blame either lover for this bittersweet end to their story. Yes, if the Weaving Princess had just been satisfied with a life chained to her loom, or if the lovers had only acted in moderation, none of this would have been necessary. But you can't fault them for wanting to fall in love, or for being carried away by a grand passion. Unlike Deirdre and Naisi, who walk with open eyes toward their fate, the Weaving Princess and the Cowherd get blindsided by every twist in their path. Their actions still create their lousy situation, but much less deliberately.

Romeo and Juliet, Frank Dicksee
We probably don't even need to discuss Romeo and Juliet. But you can't mention impulsive star-crossed lovers and not talk about them. They get married the day after they meet, and separated the following morning. They concoct wild schemes of escape and reunion. And their own unwillingness to move "wisely and slow," as Friar Laurence urges, leads to their horribly early deaths. Juliet prefers a faked death to coming clean to her (admittedly terrifying) parents; Romeo can't even wait a day after hearing of it before making rash plans to kill himself. Given how early and often these two threaten suicide, it's a miracle they make it through Act Four still alive.

But here's the catch. Even though pretty much everyone can agree that each pair of lovers creates their own problems, no story ever takes them to task for the impulsiveness and recklessness that leads them to separation and/or death. Deirdre and Naisi are fulfilling a prophesied fate; Lancelot and Guinevere are used as pawns by Mordred; the Weaving Princess and the Cowherd are perhaps most sympathetic because they're most human, stumbling through life with no foreshadowing and reacting to things as they happen. And Romeo and Juliet get romanticized to a ludicrous extent. They were incredibly lucky that the greatest poet of the English language made their story famous. Without Shakespeare's exquisite words, they'd be a couple of innocently moronic teenagers who made their bed and now have to lie in it. As it is, they're the English byword for true love, with countless silly songs using their names as shorthand. (No, Taylor Swift wasn't the first one to misread the play. She's just the most obvious.)

So even when the lovers themselves contribute materially to their own destruction, they're not really blamed. Storytellers may be trying to hammer home a moral about rash impulse, but even they fall under the spell of an all-consuming love. It's an easy thing to do. Two people who sacrifice everything, including themselves, for each other, is an incredibly attractive story. In fact, the lovers who make that sacrifice get immortalized far more readily than those who don't. Prince Charming and his princess of choice have a zillion iterations; Romeo and Juliet are unique, and instantly recognizable. It's as if the making of that sacrifice elevates a particular love above all the other couples who, for all we know, would have given their lives for each other just as readily. But it wasn't asked of them, and so they're not the celebrated ones.

Romeo and Juliet, Joseph Wright
It's much easier to swoon than to question. Rationality has no place in a tale of grand passion and high stakes. But there's probably a reason that those lovers die young and wildly. They don't just make their fates; they make their world. The rules they live by are not the rules that the rest of us cleave to. Theirs is an all-or-nothing world (with the exception of the Weaving Princess and the Cowherd, who get dragged out of that world and forced into a compromise that tortures them eternally). We swoon because we admire their absolute conviction, their refusal to have only some when they want all. But while theirs may be a world that two people can live in, it's not one that fits well with the rest of us. In their refusal to surrender to outside demands, these lovers lay down an ultimatum to themselves. And if they are to hold true to each other and their wild and reckless love - which is what their world is built around - they must follow through.


  1. It's an interesting suggestion that what we actually love about star-crossed lovers is their rebellion and refusal to settle. It puts them on par with mad scientists and pirates - other character types that refuse to accept the world as it is and push the bounds, often with tragic consequences. You might not be wrong there.

    I think also we might sort of wish love was that simple. As shown by your last post, it often isn't, and in fact love is often painful and involuntary. Yet, especially with the young couples like Romeo and Juliet, these pairs function as though love IS that simple, that it's possible to just throw everything else to the wind and sail off this cliff together, consequences be damned. I think we see the deaths of young couples as not really tragic, but as a sort of triumph: they're together forever. They win. There's no midlife crisis, no divorce, no bickering old couple. They're immortal, young, and in love - frozen in the perfect moment of pure passion. Forever.

    1. You're very right, especially about the appeal of young dead lovers. The tragedy is cut by the weird beauty of their obvious passion.

      I keep going back to that wonderful thing Casteen said about Plath - that she was the type who flared up brilliantly and then had nothing left, and not the type who could sustain a glow for a long time. Often the flarers are geniuses; sometimes they just live too intensely to last. But there's beauty in the other type, too - not as obvious or heartrending, but it's still there. An octogenarian couple holding hands is as lovely and moving as Romeo and Juliet on the bier.

      Which would still keep the tragedy of star-crossed lovers in the realm of "what could have been." I think what we respond to is both the intensity of passion and the wish that they could find a way to make it last. That they could be both types at once; that they could know the sweetness of age and familiarity as well as that of youth and newness. It disregards the possibility that they actually couldn't, that they might well have self-destructed if they hadn't been torn apart. But I think that's what we want for them, and why their tragedies move us so much.