A Hasty Look At Fickle Friendships in Fantasy’s History

The prompt for day 18 of Wyrd & Wonder was ‘With Friends Like These’. Alas, I went down that route with the friendship prompt last year. I considered going back there with a similar list but after a while, decided to go with a little essay about less than firm friends.

You see, these sort of things weren’t always that common.

One of the interesting things about frequently looking further back for one’s reading material is charting the genre’s evolutions; the transition from retelling fairy tales to making tales of our own, from child’s reading to adult (and occasionally back again), and so on. The level of social ties on show is something where my admittedly sketchy levels of expertise sees an evolution.

A lot of early fantasy leaned adventure heavy towards encounters with the strange and that’s something that doesn’t necessarily encourage big casts and important relationships, as the two most important things happening are the action and the character’s reaction to it. Another factor against it was the number of short stories, particularly in the USA where pulp magazines were a major driver, which obviously allowed less room for character development. The horror stories of Chambers, Ashton Smith, and Lovecraft, trend individualistic. Conan and the rest of Howard’s creations rarely had companions for more than a story, and likewise Moore’s Jirel. Only Leiber’s Fafhrd and The Grey Mouser show particular sociability through that period thanks to their patron warlocks Ningauble and Sheelba, an early example of an unsteady continuous relationship.

British works like The Princess and the Goblin, The Well at the World’s End and The King of Elfland’s Daughter show more social mindsets but are still highly adventure focused. There are some classics from this era that veer more towards social relationships. Mirrelees’ Lud-in-the-Mist has a very tricksy and dubious character in the form of Endymion Leer, but it might be a stretch to call him friend. However, it’s probably not one to say the relationship between town worthies Nathaniel Chanticleer and Ambrose Honeysuckle might be called one of the first fickle friendships in the genre; their long history together is sometimes glue and sometimes dissolvent to their relationship, and their differing world views doesn’t help either. Meanwhile Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros was very focused on the friendships and rivalries of the lords of the warring Witches and Demons, with the exiled Goblin Gro having particularly conflicted loyalties.

Eddison’s influence might have laid behind Tolkien’s decision to opt for big casts. The Hobbit perhaps underplayed the impact of friendship save in Bilbo’s somewhat mercurial relationship with the dwarves – from their perspective, somewhat fickle indeed – but Lord of the Rings excelled here. Legolas and Gimli’s friendship is probably one of the most popular arcs from there, while Boromir is a fine example of the friend who can’t be trusted. It can be seen in other small pieces here and there too, such as Gandalf and Theoden.

However, the first great classic of socially orientated fantasy is probably Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast. I cannot speak in sufficient detail about it as I’ve yet to read it myself (I watched the TV adaptation a while back a little), but it is a throwback to the genre’s gothic roots and solely focused on a bizarre and byzantine society. Indeed, the first two books have no fantastical element at all. In particular for this essay, the character Steerpike deserves a big mention, and might be one of the most under the radar influential characters in the genre.

The winding road from Lord of the Rings initial publication to its explosion in publicity later on and the launch of Ballantine Adult Fantasy’s line is a tricky one to put in a box. The period includes the femme fatales of Anderson’s Three Lions and Three Hearts and The Broken Sword, and (barely) the antagonistic acquaintanceship of Sparrowhawk and Jasper in A Wizard of Earthsea. Norton’s Witch World might have an example if I knew it better. Perhaps the most notably society orientated fantasy that started in this period is McCaffrey’s Pern books, which contain no end of dubious, doomed, and unlikely friendships.

I would note at this point that I am somewhat conflating the idea of books about societies of people with books with complicated friendships. This is not because they are irrevocably linked. You can easily have complicated relationships in an adventuring party. Nevertheless, there does seem to be a certain amount of hand in hand. The conflicting pulls of a society create more relationship tensions than small groups. A story where people’s opinions matter more creates more incentive for characters. And finally, simply, perhaps the authors most interested in people’s faultlines gravitated towards them in all forms.

Unfortunately, I never particularly liked the next great society driven author in fantasy’s work that much, so I can’t tell you all that much about the friendships. But Katherine Kurtz’ Deryni series, the first new release in Ballantine Adult Fantasy’s series, leaned harder into the idea of fantasy based on medieval history than any series before and in doing so, paved the way for GRR Martin, Guy Gavriel Kay, and many others. It also perhaps helped drive the great big epics of the 80s and 90s, with their gigantic casts and maps. There are no shortage of strained friendships in those books – the reconciliation between Alorn and Agnarak in the Malloreon, the unmasked Darkfriends in The Wheel of Time – but a standout would be Raistlin Majere’s relationship with, well, just about everyone in Dragonlance. Cynical, antiheroic, yet reliant on others, Raistlin was a fantastic fickle friend character and maybe represented a point in the change in the portrayal of amoral characters in major genre works.

Maybe – again, maybe – the next big point of change came with GRR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. In particular, I’d point at Littlefinger for taking the idea of unreliable friendship to new heights, but the whole story was treachery and shifting relationships on a grand, compelling level. It paved the way for Grimdark as we currently know it and the love of ambiguity in friendships we know see so much of. Another possible influence from blockbusters is Harry Potter, and the way fans took to Harry, Hermione, and Ron to heart, warts and all. I’m fairly sure they weren’t the first such friendship group in YA, not by a long stretch, but maybe the first to gain such influence.

Today – to hop nimbly over twenty odd years of fantasy – the fantasy genre is very social. If adventure is the name of the game, it is usually between tightly bound groups (this essay fails singularly to acknowledge the impact Star Trek, Star Wars, and everything else with a tight crew on a spaceship would have had, but will at least nod at it here), but pure adventure books are more the exception than the rule these days. More and more books focus on tight interpersonal relationships and the societies behind them, with a few even harking back in some way to Gormenghast and its world that lacked fantasy, yet possessed a culture so odd we put the book in anyway. And that’s just how many fans like it.

If I had to pick some friendships from recent fiction that I think speak to the way people like complexity and shifts, I might pick:

Girton, Rufra and Aydor from the Wounded Kingdoms. There’s quite a shift between the three men and how they view each other over the books to say the least.

Asmodeus and Madeleine from the Dominions of the Fallen. I don’t think there’s ever a point where they’d view each other with affection, but they form and acknowledge a loyalty and need for each other that contains many of the aspects.

Audrey Camherst and Cora in Turning Darkness into Light. Their motives for starting a friendship are suspect in places but they find a solid friendship by the end.

But there are many more and will be many more. The fantasy genre has become a fine home for tales of friendships, good and bad.

Image credit to Svetlana Alyuk on 123RF.com

5 thoughts on “A Hasty Look At Fickle Friendships in Fantasy’s History

  1. This is a really fascinating read. As someone with an interest in the history and development of fiction, I love these types of posts you do, I really get a lot out of them.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This article made me feel woefully ignorant of the fantasy genre, but it was so interesting to read! I feel like I’ve always read books with strong friendships/bonds between characters, but I didn’t realize that wasn’t the norm before.

    Also, I’m wondering if this might be why I couldn’t get through Lovecraft. I’m planning on going back to The Call of Cthulhu sometime, so maybe I need to approach it with different expectations (not looking for compelling character relationships).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well I’m no expert so I might be misrepresenting the position but it does feel that way to me – and yeah, I think CoC would read better without expecting great character dynamics.

      Liked by 1 person

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