So I’ve been a bit quiet on the blog front for a few months, namely because I got married and moved countries. Needless to say, both endeavours took up a decent amount of my time, so I’m going to shamelessly use them as my excuse!
All that wedding planning, however, inspired me to start up again with a wedding-themed post: how are nuptials usually handled in fantasy novels?
Although marriages are often discussed and mentioned, weddings as events are not that common and are often not placed centre stage.
When they are, however, I find they are usually used in five key ways:
1. The Threat of the Looming Wedding
Weddings are often used to add fear, tension and a sense of urgency to the fantasy plot. The heroine, or another woman, is about to wed the wrong person… usually someone awful… and you’re keeping your fingers crossed she won’t.
In the fantasy romance Lord of the Fading Lands, for example, the heroine is quickly endangered by the advances of a sleazy, lecherous, self-interested man, whom she is nearly forced to wed. Until, of course, an incredibly handsome and talented (though rather bad-tempered) fairy king swoops in to stake his own claim.
The Bitterbynde trilogy ends with the threat of Ashalind possibly wedding the wrong man, because she has been cursed to forget about the one she truly loves.
In Daughter of the Forest, the male love interest, Red, is engaged to another woman (the daughter of his evil uncle) and as the wedding looms closer, we will worry he will go through with it instead of marrying the woman he really loves – Sorcha.
In A Game of Thrones, Sansa Stark’s hand is regularly promised to, and even given to, some thoroughly awful men in marriage… and each time the threat of that horrible future looms on the horizon. Daenerys’ marriage as a young girl to a Dothraki warrior lord is similarly foreboding. Rob Stark’s marriage, though one of love, approaches with an ever-increasing sense of dread due to the people it has angered.
2. Weddings and Political Manoeuvring
The other reason I often encounter a wedding in a fantasy novel is that it serves to cement a political alliance. Many fantasy settings are inspired by the medieval period, so it’s not surprising that marriages have importance in terms of who gets to rule where, and which alliances need to be forged.
The heroine in The Girl of Fire and Thorns (the Princess of Orovalle) gets wedded off to the King of Joya d’Arena early on in the novel to ally their two nations in a time of great turmoil. She’s shipped off to live with him, and though he is kind, she is hurt by his seeming lack of interest in her. Eventually, in spite of her low self esteem, she comes to far outshine her handsome but rather useless husband.
In The Well of Ascension, tension comes from the fact that the marriage of Vin and her lover would prove politically advantageous to both – but Vin’s own self doubt, and issues in her relationship, cause her to resist it.
In The Grisha novels, a wedding would give the main character the political alliance that she needs to fight against the Darkling, but she loves a more lowly born man and can’t promise herself to another.
And weddings in A Game of Thrones… well, they’re rarely anything other than political.
3. Disastrous Weddings
Weddings are sometimes used in fantasies as public gatherings at which the strike of disaster is all the more dramatic.
In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, William Weasley and Fleur Delacour’s wedding quickly becomes a scene of chaos and tragedy as the Death Eaters break through the protective spells and storm the tent.
In A Game of Thrones, Joffrey and Margaery’s wedding quickly turns gruesome with an unexpected poisoning, and Rob Stark’s wedding is even more disastrous.
In some fantasy novels, such as Graceling, characters avoid disaster and reject the idea of marrying altogether.
4. Weddings as Cultural and Social Displays
One of the ways a fantasy author can showcase the unique cultures of their fictional world is through unique wedding rituals. In many fantasy novels, it’s not even called a “marriage”, and the participants aren’t husband and wife.
In Obernewtyn, a wedding is called a “bonding” and the partner is called a “bondmate”.
In Lord of the Fading Lands, the Fey do not marry but find a Shei’tani, a soulmate inextricably linked to them. They must form a mental bond with this person through various courting rituals.
In The Black Jewels novels, characters must similarly find their destined “mate” (a similar sort of “imprinting” happens in Twilight).
In Kushiel’s Dart, there are marriages of political alliance, but the complex rituals and seductions of the ‘Night Court’ and its courtesans form a far more emphasised and important system of relationships.
5. Romance and Sexual Tension
Weddings are also sometimes, though ironically more rarely, used to create a sense of romance, joy or sexual tension in fantasy novels.
In Lord of the Rings, Aragorn and Arwen’s betrothal and marriage symbolises their love and commitment to one another, despite the great sacrifice it entails for Arwen in enduring the death and suffering of living in the mortal world.
Twilight ramps up the sexual tension by making the wedding the go-ahead that the characters need to finally be allowed to sleep together.
In The Well of Ascension, the decision to marry is ultimately a happy one, and one representing love and loyalty.
All in all, weddings don’t tend to be important focal events in fantasy stories. Maybe it’s because a binding marriage isn’t quite as interesting as a fledgling romance, or simply because the characters are too busy saving the world and going on quests to stop and tie the knot. When weddings do occur, they’re often not the happiest of occasions.
I guess this makes sense, because we like our characters to get their happily ever afters… just after we finish reading about the trials they went through to get them.
6 thoughts on “5 Ways Weddings Are Used in Fantasy Novels”
The only thing I can add to this is that many of the traditional folk tales held out the wedding as the prize at the end of the quest. A knight fought a dragon to win the hand of a princess. Or a downtrodden cinder wench raised above her circumstances through marriage.
Whereas in a contemporary story, the knight and princess might hook up somewhere in the middle of the story and then he either leaves her behind or she joins his quest as a partner. These days, it’s only in juvenile fantasy that the wedding is the reward at the end of all the trials.
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Good point, I hadn’t thought about juvenile fantasy! It makes sense that weddings would be used much more positively in that context. I guess it’s similar to many fairy tales, where the reward/prize is to wed the prince or princess at the end.
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What about Fiddler on the Roof, where a major plot conflict is how Tevye can get his daughters happily married off in a way that satisfies his desire for them to not starve, the social limitations placed upon him, and his religion? Given that fantasies are often set in highly stratified, low-tech societies, it seems that this kind of plot is ripe for exploration.
I guess it might come under the heading of political marriage, but the difference is that the people involved are peasants, not royalty, which makes the whole thing more poignant though less wrapped up with the fate of the kingdom.
Actually, the weddings in Fiddler hit at least three of the points above: social restrictions, sexual tension, and the disastrous wedding where the Cossacks come and break it up.
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I’ve never actually seen Fiddler on the Roof (I’d heard the title but didn’t know what it was about) – I’m curious to see it now though! It sounds like a really interesting focus on weddings and all the cultural and religious issues they come with, especially in that it is peasants trying to make good marriages rather than royalty. I have read fantasies where a peasant or trader wants to marry of a daughter to ensure her wellbeing/security, but never with multiple daughters and weddings – would definitely be an interesting kind of plot to see in a fantasy.
Yes, definitely see Fiddler. I don’t want to oversell it, but oh my gosh … so poignant!
Now that I think about it, it basically has all the elements of a fantasy except magic.
Fiddler has been on my brain lately because in the second volume of a series I am writing, one of my fave male characters suddenly turned in to Tevye.
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Yes I’ll definitely check it out, sounds really interesting. And it’s obviously a strong influence for you if one of your own characters turned out to be so similar!