The OF Blog: Homosexuality and Fantasy

Monday, January 23, 2006

Homosexuality and Fantasy

For some people, seeing those two words together in a title is either oil and water to them or else it raises the expectation of some sort of slash fiction. But probe a little deeper, and one is likely to turn up quite a bit of hesitation, stammering, and possibly even some anger over the implications of such a title. To introduce the very real and problematic issue of homosexuality is for some akin to being violated, of having their idealized world of elves, Quests, and so forth being invaded by a very troubling sociological issue from our everyday lives.

This topic has been wandering about in my mind for some days now. Reading Matt Cheney's excellent article on Brokeback Mountain, followed shortly by glancing over a discussion of the issue over at Frameshift, has only served to make me decide that here and now is a place to post my often incomplete and chaotic thoughts on the issue of homosexuality as it relates to the fantasies that I've read. No doubt, there will be those reading this who will disagree with my comments, either because I do not understand enough about what it means to be gay in a straight world or, conversely, because I may be a bit too sympathetic towards homosexuals. Then again, the very notion of this ambiguity on my part only serves to underscore the difficult nature of this topic, right?

As many others have noted in the past (and I recall a discussion of sorts in the past with Scott Bakker on this), the common understandings of homosexuality seem to be tied up with ideals of masculinity. Whether it deals with super-buff gay men striving for the Adonis ideal or the martial attitudes of an Achilles, there is an undercurrent of hypermasculinity that some people associate with homosexuality. Perhaps this is part of the unease that some feel when trying to grasp the issue of what it is to be gay: How can one be a manly man and love men instead of women?

This is one of the 'Trojan Horse' issues I perceived in reading Bakker's Prince of Nothing trilogy, especially in the just-released third volume, The Thousandfold Thought. One of the main characters, Cnaiür, is a very conflicted individual. Known as the Breaker of Horses and Men, he has a very violent temperment, so much so that he has come to the cusp of brutal insanity. He doesn't love his women, he fucks them, often brutally and with very little passion involved, save in regards to his first wife and to the captured courtesan, Serwë. But yet the depths of his passions seem to have been reserved for another, a man known as Moënghus by some, Mallahet by others. Throughout the trilogy, Cnaiür repeatedly expresses a murderous desire toward this Moënghus, even as the whisperers among the Scylvendi have labelled him as "faggot" and "weeper." But yet in the end, when Cnaiür does manage to confront Moënghus, he but both kisses him and then kills him before he literally fades into the darkness of the second swazond he marks on his throat. A truly tragic and ambiguous end to a tragic, conflicted character.

In the coming weeks and months, as more and more readers come to read this conclusion to Bakker's trilogy, there likely will be some reactions. Already at Bakker's official forum, the topic has been raised in pejorative terms, even going so far as having the original poster question whether or not the author himself were 'gay.' I suspect there will be many people disappointed to learn that Cnaiür 'was a faggot,' while others might debate whether or not being seduced by a Dûnyain would constitute being raped and dealing with that burden/shame rather than being gay. Still others might argue that the entire understanding of homosexuality/heterosexuality is an outdated concept that does not deal with a whole range of issues of personality/identity that exist outside the realm of sexuality. Regardless, it shall be interesting to see how much of a firestorm Bakker's story will produce, if it will indeed produce any at all, outside of an awkward, painful silence that often accompanies doubt and confusion on such serious matters.

Bakker's trilogy serves only as one very recent example of the intersection of real-world issues of sexual identity and fantasy. There are other authors of course who have treated this topic in depth. Ricardo Pinto's in-progress trilogy, begun with The Chosen, has two gay characters who fall in love with each other, yet the main impetus of the story does not deal with the homosexuality. Ursula Le Guin has written many tales in which characters are bisexual, homosexual, or pansexual in stories meant to explore issues of sexuality and self-identity. Doubtless, there are other authors writing today that are addressing these issues in a straightforward and thought-provoking fashion.

But how will the readers react? Are fantasy fans in general going to be very accepting of homosexual characters and situations that focus on the possible nature(s) of sexuality? Will there be a day in fantasy, similar to what Andrew Sullivan has outlined for real-life America, in which there might be such an acceptance of situations and characters that the division between gay and straight might dissolve? Or will there be more stammering, more hem-hawing about the topic, accompanied by a deafening silence?


Legolas said...

Bah! You could've put up a spoiler warning. :P (I have yet to read Warrior-Prophet, never mind Thousandfold Thought).

Anyhow. There seem to be some authors *coughMercedesLackeycough* who go out of their way to have every other character be gay, while others make fleeting references to the topic or have a few minor gay characters (just about every major modern fantasy series, even Terry Goodkind's).
And then there are those who do not touch the topic with a ten-foot pole.

I still think personally that the most "gay-friendly", if you will, fantasy series that I read is Jacqueline Carey's (more so than Mercedes Lackey's, yes, because Lackey sometimes overdoes it to a point where homosexuality is more important than the plot). But then, that series is far more sensual and sexual than most, as can be expected from a series with a masochist heroine (incidentally, I'd have to say that that heroine, Phèdre no Delaunay, may well be my favourite character in any fantasy book I've read). And Carey's description of a world where most characters are bisexual and the word "homosexuality" doesn't even exist is perhaps more a world as she wishes to be than a world as it can be - but all the same, her world is clearly based on some kind of post-Roman-era-but-without-Dark-Ages version of Europe, and some of the most notable homosexual details are in fact perfectly historically accurate (the reference to emperor Hadrian's male lover Antinoüs, for instance).
(Though I'm hesitant about recommending that series to you, because I don't know whether the story is strong enough to captivate you. The story in itself is not stronger than (or perhaps even as strong as) that of a Robert Jordan, it was mainly the character of Phèdre, the interesting take on post-Roman Europe and something in the atmosphere that made it a greatly appreciated read for me. But enough about that.)

Obviously, I cannot say much about TTT without having read the book. But I think fantasy readers in general are a progressive lot - fantasy writers certainly are. Reading about radically alien civilizations and wholly different worlds can't help but contribute some to one's tolerance. That is, when I say fantasy readers, I mean readers who will read any fantasy that they like, rather than readers who read Tolkien and then only those fantasy books that they deem acceptable to their Christian morality (cf. that site you linked to). So I do not doubt that it will spark some debate, but I don't think it will really turn off that many people.

Freebird said...

Sorry I'm late in responding, Paul, but I got caught up in a few matters yesterday! As for the warnings for 'spoilers,' that's not going to happen here at this Blog, as I plan on taking the time to review certain books at length, which means spoilers will certainly be involved on the thematic element.

Yes, I am familar with what Lackey has done (although I have not yet read her works) in creating more gay characters, but I was thinking more about how the readers interpret the issue.

Here's a question: What is it about sexuality that makes it almost solely eros instead of philos or agape in nature? Can there exist a balance between a sexual identity and the physical acts?

And as for fantasy readers, I just don't seems like here, in the US, that many tend to be a bit more conservative on social issues than those who might read some of the other types of litertature that I enjoy. But then again, maybe I'm basing too much off of those who respond to certain posts at wotmania's CMB.

Alison Croggon said...

Hmm. It's a small subtext in my books, they being YA, and mainly dealt with in the footnotes and asides on history; but it's certainly there, because it's something I've thought about, and there enoug for fans to comment on it. In my world, homosexuality isn't considered an aberration or perversion, just one of the many forms in which love occurs. After all, in our world, not all love is sexual, and not all sexual love is heterosexual.

I guess that in a fantasy, one can imagine what one likes. But I imagine that men loving men (or women loving women, which doesn't seem to generate anything like the same angst) would be emotionally speaking much the same as any kind of love: ie, particular to the individuals involved.

Iron Council deals with homosexuality in a very up-front way. I have been fascinated by how seldom this is mentioned in reviews.

Patrick said...

Let's leave Mercedes Lackey out of this, shall we!?!;-)

As for our Scylvendi friend Cnaiür, I thought that Bakker did a brilliant job at hiding this in the open. There has been so man hints throughout the books, but TTT drops the bomb on his homosexuality.

Personally, I thought it was masterfully done. And it adds another dimension to the conflicted nature of Cnaiür, who is -- at least in my book --certainly one of the most interesting characters of recent years. . .

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