Readers of Medieval tales were fascinated by the notion of a young queen married to a much older kingly husband who was often a total stranger, generally without her wishes on the subject being taken into account and with the marriage arranged to bolster international alliances or bring divided kingdoms together under the rule of their child.
Unsurprisingly, an unhappily married queen would seek romance beyond the confines of the marriage, a fact that appears to have been taken for granted in many of these tales and is often treated with considerable sympathy in their narratives.
This is the basis of the Arthurian legends, with Queen Guinevere falling in love with Sir Lancelot after he rescues her from an abduction plot. Tales vary as to whether she accepted his love and committed adultery or instead offered only courtly love to her rescuer in gratitude for his courage.
The legend of Guinevere’s love for Sir Lancelot was itself based upon the tale of Tristan and Isolde. The latter was an Irish princess who Tristan (a Cornish knight) committed adultery with after the couple fell in love.
The motif of King, Queen, Knave is enduring enough to have found its way into many modern fantasy novels, often with a twist that leaves a fresh feel to the traditional concept as used extensively in Medieval and Renaissance literature.
Cinda Williams Chima's The Exiled Queen, features a double improvement on this theme. Princess Raisa will rule in her own right after her mother, since the Fells has a matriarchal power structure.
Moreover, this empowered queen in waiting is determined to choose her own husband rather than simply make the best of it on the far side of the altar.
Escaping from her oily betrothed Micah Bayar on what was supposed to be their wedding day, she makes for the university at Oden's Ford to get a decent education in the arts of war and experience something akin to a normal life.
She does homage to the expectation that she'll escape the threat of an unwelcome marriage by falling in love twice: first with her bodyguard and then, when the magic spell cast over him to prevent him taking advantage of her proximity renders him unconscious whenever they kiss, she falls in love with street thief turned sorcerer Han Alister.
The traditional motif of an unhappy royal marriage is still present in Chima’s Princess Raisa novels, but with a gender reversal typical of this author’s work: Raisa’s mother is stuck with a consort she loathes (the charming but often absent Averill, to whom Raisa is devoted) and must make the best of her situation.
Swirling rumours exist of extramarital liaisons. This feels very different to the usual Arthurian set up of King, Queen, Knave. The reader hopes for better things for Raisa: she has every hope of marrying her true love.
It isn’t just women who are sold off in marriage against their will. In the fantasy worlds we love to become immersed in (and also in historical reality) young men are also pressured into arranged marriages without regard for their own feelings.
Sometimes, the partner they would prefer to spend their lives with is not a suitable candidate, or even able to become their wife. That isn’t always a bad thing. In extreme cases, the arranged marriage is presented as a more appropriate outcome than the temptations of forbidden love.
In Storm Constantine's Sea Dragon Heir, fascinatingly distant and cruel Valraven Palindrake is married to a local landowner's daughter to strengthen the ties between their noble houses.
Historically, marriage for dynastic purposes was usual for the nobility; the feelings of either bride or groom would have been considered irrelevant. Fantasy fiction often reflects this real-world dilemma.
In Sea Dragon Heir, Valraven has no particular wish to marry Ellony, but his secret lover is his twin sister Pharinet, and Valraven's marriage presents an escape from the incestuous relationship for both of them.
This novel is one of a number of fantasy tales that portray incestuous relations and contrast them with the pragmatic and respectable reasons for marrying sensibly.
Not every arranged marriage represents a sacrifice of the heart. They can bring considerable happiness to the couple, and the arrival of a third party is at times profoundly unwelcome. In Melanie Rawn's Dragon Prince, this idea is central to a plot that presents a complete subversion of traditional gender expectations.
After knowing happiness in his arranged marriage to Sunrunner Sioned, Prince Rohan is captured by his enemy's daughter and held prisoner.
He is drugged and sexually assaulted, impregnating his assailant during the encounter. In a further recasting of the expectation that a man will defend the honour of his wife and seek revenge after it is compromised, Sioned takes vengeance upon her husband's female attacker in a brutal and direct way.
The king in fantasy fiction is not always an unwelcome suitor for a queen or princess, as the happiness of Sioned and Rohan’s marriage showed. This is also the case in The Lord of the Rings series by J R R Tolkien.
Although the love story of Aragon, Eowyn and Arwen (an elven princess) does not feature heavily in the primary narrative of JRR Tolkien’s novels, it took centre stage in the film adaptation directed by Peter Jackson.
Instead of the king being an older man foisted on a much younger, unwilling wife who longs for a lover of her own age, Aragon is a sensitive man loved deeply by both Eowyn (niece of King Theoden of Rohan) and Arwen, whose father is Lord Elrond of Rivendell.
Aragon is no longer young, as the flecks of grey hair and references to years acting as a Ranger establish. The irony, however, is that Arwen is part-elven and therefore immortal: she is centuries older than her lover even though she never ages.
JRR Tolkien and Jackson offer fans of The Lord of the Rings a cheeky twist on the traditional motif of King, Queen, Knave with a variety made possible by the integral presence of non-human, legendary characters such as elves.
The love triangles of Tristan and Isolde, Guinevere and Lancelot are alive and well in modern fiction, but fantasy novels and films continue to surprise by providing fascinating new takes on old themes.
Thank you for reading my article about love triangles in fantasy fiction.
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If you’ve enjoyed this article, you might be interested reading in my review of Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri.
Or you might like to take a look at my article about sigils in fantasy fiction (Truth Stranger Than Fiction).
If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my review of We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib.
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