Saturday, May 12, 2012

Love Potion Number Nine

Ah, young love. You burn, you pine, you perish. A smile sends you soaring; a glare tumbles mountains around your head. You just have to feel for those two crazy kids, thrown together by their unruly hearts. Sometimes. After all, if the object of your affection doesn't return your
The Love Potion, Evelyn De Morgan
feelings, you can always brainwash them with a handy love spell! Those never backfire!

For all their ubiquity in myths, it is a rare story where the love spell actually works out all right. There's Cupid and Psyche, sort of; he scratches himself with the arrow of love, falls head over heels, and... abducts her, woos her while invisible, and has to abandon her to a torturous set of quests before they can be reunited. And that's the happy one.

It's much easier to find a love spell gone wrong. Sometimes it's played for laughs, as Shakespeare does in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Frequently it's the province of a villainous woman, a "false bride" seeking to blot out a man's memories of his beloved and claim him for herself. (There's a splendid Grimm story, Sweetheart Roland, in which the heroine's loss of her beloved is just one of the many trials she faces.) More often, however, a love spell leads to total disaster. And I'm not talking about Our Hero and Our Heroine not ending up together. I'm talking about the breaking of the world.

Aphrodite Leading Helen to Paris, Jack Pane
The most famous of these is, of course, Helen of Troy. The jury will probably always be out on whether or not Helen went with Paris willingly, but in the Iliad she has no doubt of the answer: she demands to know if she is to be sent hither and yon, crazed with desire, whenever Aphrodite has a new mortal favorite. Obviously this was a flawed love spell, since Helen's own wishes can still make themselves felt, but it's still highly potent. Helen does in the end sleep with Paris, and the direct outcome of Aphrodite's love spell is the destruction, not just of a city, but of an entire generation.

Helen is a particularly sad case because not only has she been brainwashed, she knows it. The gods can force mortals to do their bidding; Helen knows all too well that no matter how much she might want to go home to Sparta, she will never be able to fight off Aphrodite's mind control. The best she can do is complain about it, and even that arouses the wrath of a goddess who's notoriously vindictive when thwarted. There are plenty of love-spelled bridegrooms unaware that they're about to marry the wrong girl; Helen is fully conscious all the time of just how much she doesn't want what Aphrodite's love spell is forcing on her. Hell with brainwashing - this is torture.

Tristan and Isolde, Yoshitaka Amano
Later stories shift the blame away from the lovers. Tristan and Isolde drink a love potion unknowingly (again, the jury is still out on whether it really was an honest mistake, or whether Isolde's mother or maidservant thought that Isolde would be better paired with Tristan than with King Mark). It's just as unfair for them as it is for Helen; while their love is deeply felt, it's also created without their consent, and locks them into a fate as destructive as Troy's. For a long time they choose to deny their love, unlike Helen and Paris, for the sake of preserving the political alliance that Isolde's marriage creates. But all that that does is drive them to distraction and inflame Mark's suspicions. When they run away together, their guilty consciences send Isolde back to Mark and Tristan across the sea to Brittany, and ultimately into a marriage of convenience with a girl he never touches, who rightly becomes as suspicious as Mark. Conscience proves their undoing, since out of decency Tristan waits to seek Isolde's healing help until it's too late to save his life, and she dies of a broken heart when she arrives to find him dead. Their story is a tragedy where Helen and Paris's is not, primarily because they fight as hard as they can against a love that they know will doom them. But that knowledge gives them precisely zero help. The best you can do, apparently, is to live a tortured life of denial and hope that posterity thinks well of you.

Siegfried Meets Gutrune, Arthur Rackham
And that's only if your family is inclined to let it rest. Siegfried's wife Kriemhild enticed him away from Brunhilde with a love spell, but the ensuing love dodecahedron creates a situation where murder and mayhem are the only outcomes. Siegfried's friendship with Gunther, Kriemhild's brother, leads him to betray his initial (and real) love for Brunhilde by posing as Gunther in order to win her for his new brother-in-law; Brunhilde's outraged pride and rejected love make her arrange for Gunther to kill Siegfried, and then to throw herself on his funeral pyre; and Kriemhild, furious at her brother's treachery, has him slaughtered at the feast celebrating her second marriage and burns the great hall down around them all.

Brunnhilde on the Pyre, Arthur Rackham
The characters of the Nibelungenlied (or the Volsunga saga, whichever version you prefer) are neither heroic nor villainous. They do horrible things, but for reasons well within the code of their society. Kriemhild's terrible vengeance is something that her honor requires her to do; in the Volsunga saga, the gods decide that she did exactly the right thing and bring about a third (and apparently happy) marriage, this time to a Swedish king. Siegfried deserves more pity than condemnation; for most of the story, he operates under the brainwashing influence of the love spell, and can't even remember being in love with Brunhilde. As far as he knows, he's doing some iffy things in the service of his best friend and the woman he loves. Brunhilde, although vindictive as hell, also recognizes that she's gone too far (although arguably she's operating under the exact same rules as Kriemhild will later); her suicide reclaims for her a moment of true tragic dignity. Only Gunther comes off as a real lowlife, literally stabbing his best friend and brother-in-law in the back. The whole mess could have been avoided if the love spell had never entered the picture. Once it does, everyone involved is doomed. The rules of honor require them all to make the moves that will lead to their deaths.

Death of Tristan, Robert Engels
Which makes sense. Clearly we're uncomfortable with the idea that we can be brainwashed and never regain our true minds. But the horrific endings to so many love spell stories place the brunt of the fallout on the shoulders of the victims. Siegfried gets murdered; Tristan and Isolde both die; Helen sees herself become the byword for a faithless whore. Aphrodite never suffers for enchanting Helen. The queen of Ireland, who sends the love potion with Isolde, is punished not at all; nor is Kriemhild's mother, who puts the spell on Siegfried. In some "false bride" fairy tales, the villainous woman who tried to steal the bridegroom gets torn limb from limb by horses, or rolled down a hill in a barrel full of knives, or even just exiled or humiliated in front of the whole court. But in some (like Sweetheart Roland), there's again no punishment for the instigator of the mess.

The Death of Siegfried, Hermann Hendrich
It's incredibly unsatisfying to see relative innocents pay with their lives for the crime of another. But it reveals a realistic attitude towards life that legends and fairy tales (often unjustly) aren't seen as having. People escape justice all the time. Innocents suffer all the time. The punishment for making a mistake is often out of proportion to the mistake itself. These aren't giddy Disneyfied tales of happily-ever-after; these are tragedies of epic scope, designed to reveal dark truths about humanity and about life. Instead of spoon-feeding you a happy ending, the love spell stories and their awful endings force you to think about human nature: about love, about hate, about injustice.

It's heavy stuff. But it's what we have legends for. We tell those stories to remember what happens when we impose our will on someone else. And in telling them, hopefully we remember that that path rarely leads to dignity, or happiness, or anything we'd want for ourselves.


  1. Catching up on blog posts! Woo!

    I almost think here that the unfortunate ends and lack of justice might have more to do with how we see (or saw) love itself. I think the Victorians came up with a lot of our current feelings on the subject, but beyond fluffy romance, love is scary. Love hurts, and it's outside our control. You can't shut if off or let it go, and it makes you do stupid things you would never ever do otherwise. If Aphrodite is a personification of love, than Helen may rave against it with her rational mind all she wants, but she can't stop feeling it. It may be torture, but it's also the human condition on a very real level.

    1. ...and catching up on replying to comments. ;)

      Your comment made me think, actually, that the generally awful fates of love-spelled characters are inevitable because they're human. If what they're channeling here is the dark scary side of love, and by extension of human nature, they are on a very basic emotional level bringing their doom upon themselves. By embracing and unleashing the scariness, they're calling it into their lives, and implicitly accepting the havoc it will wreak.

      The irony of it is that a love spell is one of the most horrific forms of control that stories have. But to seek to control by using an uncontrollable primal force - man, no wonder it all ends in tears. That actually can't be done.

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