Friendship, Eros, and some notes on the Queen’s Thief series

[Note: this essay is from my Best of Blog archive, originally published 5/24/17.]

Oops, I’m talking about friendship again. Let’s take the traditional pause for all my longtime friends to groan.

[pause] And also with you.

So a couple of years ago I wrote a meditation on Friendship and Eros as motive forces in stories, which you can read if you like, but here’s the gist.

In stories, romantic love (eros) tends to function on a mythic level to signify healing or mending something that was broken; representative reconciliation; and redemption for one or both of the characters. So much so that when we read or watch a story that has no romantic love, or in which romantic love is unfulfilled, we are tempted to think that the characters have missed their chance (sometimes literally!) at salvation. Or that the universe the story takes place in is still broken.

Likewise in stories, friendship functions to signify that which is unbroken or in some cases unbreakable. If you have a friend, you discover that something is right with the world, that something is right with yourself, that there is a part of you that doesn’t need fixing, or that makes fixing the broken part worthwhile. A story about friendship isn’t a story about redemption, it’s a story about vindication. A universe with friendship in it speaks of stability in spite of the odds. Friendship is relief from a siege, a cleared path in a lane of mines, a point of perception that bypasses and sometimes even neutralizes chaos.

The point is, we want out of stories what we want out of the world. I wrote the essay because, let’s be real, I wanted to affirm friendship as a real love with a mythopoeic power and a role to play both in our universe and in our stories. I don’t like seeing friendship compared negatively with romantic love as a diluted substitute, a precursor of proper appetite, or a cheap door prize for the repressed. I don’t like stories about friendship to function solely as stage setting or camouflage for a “higher” love, or to be relegated to a back shelf with the unsubversive, the insipid, and the twee. But I like stories about mending, healing, reconciliation, and fulfillment of appetite too; I think in their own way both kinds of stories strike a blow for a just and affirming reality.

I know that particularly with regard to same-sex loves, romantic love often was camouflaged in friendship, to cast desire and attachment as spiritual and metaphorical, and union and fulfillment as legitimate and immaculate. This did both loves a great disservice: we let social repression beg the question that eros is fleshly and therefore tainted and cannot vindicate itself; and now we think of friendship as discorporealized, and in an age that increasingly rejects any sense of reality as being in any way metaphysical, a discorporealized love is tantamount to an illusory love. And so to turn from eros to friendship is to turn from something that is Real to something that is less Real. And whatever we still value in friendship we are inclined to attribute to eros, so that anything compellingly Real, like strong feelings or physical companionship, must be a sign of romantic love or at least a source of deep confusion. 

And, if someone wants to reverse that mistake, it’s easy to think they want a return to repression and condemnation of eros. But take away that confusion, and friendship becomes both physically present and highly subversive.

For one thing, friendship, unlike the other loves, does not subsist on or even tolerate inequality. Where friendship exists, exploitation cannot prosper, and if it does prosper, it is the friendship that dies. Without friendship as a reagent, the adoration of lovers, the caretaking of families, and the humility of the liege-sworn would never gain or hold any balance. Domination and exploitation demands that all agency strike downward in the social order. Eros can exist in that environment without disrupting it; friendship can’t. You want to put an end to subjection and cruelty and domination? Forbidden eros makes a pretty good banner. But friendship is a freaking Sherman tank.

All this is by way of saying that I just finished Megan Whalen Turner’s Thick as Thieves, and now that I’ve resurrected myself from a death of flailing squee, I’m perpendicular enough to cry out my gratitude to MWT for writing in these times a book that is a paean to friendship. In a series that affirms friendship with its true mythical strength.

Consider the setup: Kamet lives in a world so steeped in domination and exploitation that to conceive something outside of it is to engage in naive fantasy. He’s figured out ways to live in his world and even enjoy companionship and love to a limited degree, because that’s what sane human beings do. Then he’s forced into fleeing his world as an outlaw, in the company of a character we already know, who above everything else understands friendship and is very good at it. As with all the books in this series, there’s a mythic narrative invoked by the characters themselves that parallels and counterpoints their own experiences. And the narrative myth of this story is an epic tale of two friends who loved one another and ruled together, saved one another and strengthened each other.

The closer Kamet and Costis become, the more their fates depend on one another and, paradoxically, the more likely they both are to survive what they’re up against. As they get closer to their goal of escape, they have to take shelter with Godekker, a runaway slave, who forces Kamet to consider explicitly the ways in which both patronage and romantic love make one vulnerable to exploitation. And for the first time he is aware of a love that resists exploitation like a rock in a stream. Because he is experiencing it. The revelations of manipulation that descend on their heads later are a threat to that love, but their friendship survives, and the Little Peninsula foils the Medes again.

I entirely sympathize with the view of the story that casts this friendship as gay love in disguise, but I think that’s a mistake. Not because Kamet and Costis could never be lovers: they could. Or because there’s no physicality in their relationship: there is. Or because their emotions about one another stop short at some bright line of intensity: they don’t. Or because same-sex love would be diminished either in the story universe or ours by being erotic in nature: it wouldn’t.

I think it’s a mistake because this story gets done something that eros can’t do. That it’s not in the nature of eros to do.

And that’s characteristic of all the books in the series. Romantic love, in this story universe, is a powerful mythic lever, but it’s not the only one, and its strengths are discrete, not all-encompassing. It always represents a point of vulnerability for both the narrative and the characters involved. When eros is on the scene, someone inevitably gets manipulated, either to disaster (Relius/the Mede agent, Sounis/Eddis), or to the goals of parsimonious gods (Eugenides/Attolia, Sophos/Eddis, even arguably Dite/Attolia). Friendship, on the other hand, represents an impregnable strength without which the situation would utterly deteriorate (Sophos/Eugenides, Teleus/Relius, Relius/Attolia/Eugenides, Magus/Eddis, Aris/Costis, Sophos/Dirnes/Ochto, etc.). Family relationships and patronages can be benign or detrimental depending on the participants. 

What’s between Kamet and Costis is not a vulnerability that could break down the narrative as equally as mend it; what’s between them is the only strength that will get them through their perils intact and save the Little Peninsula into the bargain. That reads like friendship to me, with maybe a little graceful erotic counterpoint. Eros, with some friendship scaffolding, would read entirely differently.

No mode of human love is watertight; and we wouldn’t want it to be. But mythically speaking, we need robust, physical, unabashedly equal friendship, not just for the aromantic among us, but for everybody who wants breathing room for the love they love best.

There, that should do it for another couple of years.