Tuesday, May 17, 2011

30 Days of Genre - What Is Your Favorite Couple in a Genre Novel?

Beren and Lúthien

Once again, this was a difficult selection for me, mostly because couples are often more or less a tangential element of many of the books that I read. Anyone who has read through any of my reviews and paid attention to which books I am reading and reviewing should have picked up that I don't spend a lot of time reading books in the paranormal romance subgenre, or in any kind of genre that could be described as "romance" at all. In most cases, the couples that do show up are a secondary plot in any story I typically read.

This is not to say that there are no couples, and no romance. On the contrary, fantasy fiction is littered with couples. The only problem is that most of the couples are not the point of the story, and their romance, though of critical importance to the characters themselves, is simply not all that compelling a part of the books in which they inhabit. I point as an example to the romance between Dorian Hawkmoon and Yisselda in Michael Moorcock's Hawkmoon and Count Brass series. Though it is clearly of great importance to both characters, and serves to cement the alliance between Hawkmoon and Count Brass, the actual shown interaction between the characters in the books is fairly minimal. Similarly, the romance between John Carter and Dejah Thoris, even though it spans many books in Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom series and drives much of John Carter's actions, is mostly off-screen (and I don't even want to know how a human manages to reproduce with a woman whose species lays eggs).

And the problem I have with both the Hawkmoon/Yisselda and Carter/Thoris stories is that they are more or less one directional: the heroic warrior comes to the rescue of the damsel in distress. And then comes to her rescue again. And then goes out to defeat the villains that threaten their shared home while she stays behind and waits for his return. A couple more to my liking would be Morgan and Raederle from the Riddle-Master of Hed series by Patricia A. McKillip, as when Morgan goes missing Raederle sets out to find him, and even takes the role of protector through part of Heir of Sea and Fire (even though she is mistaken about who she is protecting from whom). But Morgan and Raederle don't even meet until the end of the second book in the trilogy, even though they are betrothed to one another from the outset of the first book. And it is hard for me to pick a couple that got together as the result of a promise made concerning a riddle contest as my favorite couple. I even considered picking Legolas and Gimli as my favorite couple, as their long-running competition over who has killed the most orcs is a classic of fantasy literature.

But even the convivial banter of Legolas and Gimli cannot compete with J.R.R. Tolkien's great romantic couple Beren Erchamion and Lúthien Tinúviel. Even their names reflect their shared history - Tinúviel, which means "Daughter of Twilight", is the name Beren used for Luthien when he saw her dance from a distance and did not know who she was. (Okay, let's set aside the stalkerish aspects of Beren repeatedly spying on Luthien dancing). Erchamion means "the One-Handed", a condition that resulted from the trials Beren and Luthien faced to be with one another. This is a couple that would literally go into Hell and face down the Devil in order to be with one another.

The obstacle to Beren and Lúthien's love is, as usual, her father. Actually, her father and her mother. Lúthien was an elven princess - the daughter of Elu Thingol, the King of Doriath, King of the Sindar, and High-King of Beleriand. However, Thingol was the junior partner in his marriage. His wife, and Lúthien's mother, was Melian the Maia, making her literally the equivalent of an angel. So Lúthien is the daughter of one of the most powerful kings of the elves and his angel queen. And who is Beren? Well, his father was Barahir, a king among men, but when Beren was young his father's kingdom was destroyed by Morgoth's forces, forcing Barahir, Beren, and a handful of followers to live as outlaws, until eventually Morgoth hunted them down and killed all save for Beren. Beren then took up living in the wilderness with animals as companions. Eventually Beren finds his way into Doriath, overcoming the barrier of enchantment that Melian had placed around it to keep everyone not specifically permitted by Thingol from entering the kingdom. So, not only is Beren a man and a homeless vagabond, he's also a trespasser. Beren falls in love with Lúthien on sight, and eventually, after running away from him a few times, Lúthien falls in love with Beren. They strike up a clandestine relationship, which only serves to annoy Thingol even more when he finds out about them.

So what does Thingol do? He tells Beren that he can only marry Lúthien if he gets the Silmarils from Morgoroth's crown. It is something of an understatement to say that this is a fairly high bar. And now, a digression for those who have not read The Silmarillion:

In the beginning of time Eru the One created the Valar, who are sort of super angels, and the Maiar, who are more mundane angels, and then set them about helping him create the world (with music). Melkor was the most powerful of all the Valar and decided he didn't like Eru's music and wanted to create his own instead. This act of rebellion continued after the world was made as Melkor and those Maiar who had joined him sought to destroy what the other made. Anyone who is familiar with Paradise Lost should recognize Melkor as filling in for Lucifer. When the Valar set up great lamps on either side of the world to light it, Melkor knocked them down. So the Valar first waged war upon Melkor and captured him and chained him up for three ages. Later they caused to gigantic trees to grow, one with golden fruit and one with silver fruit that both shone to light the world. These were the Silma trees. After the elves were born and journeyed at the invitation of the Valar to the Undying Lands, the elf Fëanor, who was the greatest smith to ever live, crafted three jewels that captured light from the Silma trees, which became known as the Silmarils.

Melkor was eventually paroled and released after he begged for forgiveness. But Melkor still sought to darken the world, and with a great spider spirit of darkness named Ungoliant he killed the two trees, killed Fëanor's father Finwe, and stole the Silmarils before fleeing to his fortress Angband in Middle-Earth. The Valar caused two fruits to be born from the dying trees and set them in the heavens as the sun and the moon, and Feanor vowed vengeance, leading a host of elves back to Middle-Earth, an act the Valar forbade. The elves renamed Melkor, calling him Morgoth, the "Dark Enemy of the World" and went to wage war upon him despite being told they would never be allowed to return to the Undying Lands and could expect no help from the Valar. Morgoth put the Silmarils into an iron crown and styled himself ruler of Middle-Earth, creating orcs, trolls, werewolves, vampires, and dragons to fight his wars, and aided by the many exiled Maia who had rallied to his side, including the fire-spirits, also called Balrogs. Much of The Silmarillion details the war between the elves and Morgoth, with battles given names like the Battle Under the Stars, the Battle of Sudden Flame, and the Battle of Unnumbered Tears. The elves eventually came to call their war against Morgoth "The Long Defeat".

And thus ends the digression. In short, what Thingol told Beren was that he could marry Lúthien if he fought his way into the fortress of the world's equivalent of Lucifer and seized some gemstones that vast armies of elves had been waging war for thousands of years to obtain. And Beren set out to do just that, getting himself captured by Sauron, the Lord of the Werewolves, and imprisoned in his tower. And Lúthien, not content to sit at home and wait for him, set out to help him do it. Lúthien, in fact, accomplishes a feat of such magnitude that it almost defied belief. Assisting her the great wolfhound Huan defeated werewolf after werewolf, finally defeating Draugluin, the father of all werewolves. Finally, Sauron (and yes, this is that Sauron) transformed himself into a massive werewolf and attacked the pair, whereupon Lúthien dazed him with a blow allowing Huan to grapple with Sauron and eventually best him. And Lúthien then sends him away after compelling him to turn over the keys to his tower to her. When reading the Lord of the Rings, always remember that Sauron was once defeated by an elven princess aided by a wolfhound.*

But that is only the prologue for Beren and Lúthien. They still had to get into Angband and steal the Silamrils from Morgoth's crown. But first they had to fight off disgruntled other suitors for Lúthien's hand, a battle in which Beren was killed and brought back to life by Lúthien's love. Lúthien disguised herself as the vampire Thuringwethil and Beren as the previously defeated Druagluin and went to the gates of Angband. Trying to get in, they were confronted by Carcharoth, the mightiest werewolf, but Lúthien called upon her Maia heritage and stunned him into sleep. Eventually they made their way into Morgoth's own throne room, but he was not fooled by their disguises, and Lúthien offered to sing for him. Overcome by lust, he agreed, and her singing put everyone to sleep, and she beguiled Morgoth himself. Beren pried one Silmaril loose, but his knife broke when he tried to get ;a second, injuring Morgoth and waking him up.

While fleeing Angband, the couple were confronted yet again by Carcharoth, and in an attempt to use the Silmaril's power to fend off the werewolf, Beren has his hand bitten off (and loses the Silmaril in the process as Carcharoth swallows it, and its light burns the werewolf from the inside driving it insane with agony). Poisoned by Carcharoth's venomous fangs, Beren lays dying in Lúthien's arms before the eagles show up and save them, taking them back to Doriath. Beren is healed and the couple go to Thingol, who asks if Beren has the Silmaril. And then Beren delivers one of the best lines in Tolkien's work, stating that the gem is in his hand. A hand that happens to be in the stomach of a fearsome, insane werewolf rather than attached to his arm. Beren later participated in the hunting of Carcharoth along with Huan, Beleg, Mablung and Thingol himself. But Huan and Beren were killed in the hunt, with Huan using his last words to wish Beren farewell (Huan was permitted to speak only three times in his life). Lúthien laid down and died upon hearing of Beren's death, and they both went to the Halls of Mandos where Mandos took pity on them and restored them to life, but decreed that they would both thereafter die the death of men and go beyond the world.

As a side bit of trivia, and just to make things a little clearer as to where Tolkien stood regarding this couple: On the joint tombstone he shares with his wife, J.R.R. Tolkien is identified as Beren, and Edith Tolkien is identified as Lúthien.

So, for being a couple that overcame death (twice), literally went into the very fortress of Lucifer and back, and confronted him and all of his lieutenants along the way in order to be together, Lúthien and Beren are my favorite couple.

*One of the most powerful elves to ever live (who also happened to be half-angel) and the greatest wolfhound in history to be sure, but still: Sauron got sent away with his tail between his legs by a single pair of adversaries who had already had to defeat dozens of werewolves he sent against them, including the father of all werewolves.

Go to Day 6: Who Is the Most Annoying Character?
Go to Day 8: What Is the Best Fan Soundtrack?

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  1. Wow, your post reappeared! My favorite couple is Paul Atreides and Chani.

  2. @Julia: Yeah, it reappeared four times in draft form, each one at a slightly different stage of completion. Needless to say, blogger appears to be having odd troubles.

    I like Paul and Chani too. I'll probably use one or both of them for one of the upcoming days.