M is for Marriage
“We are blessed, who prove fortunate enough to find love in this life, for the gods give us all hearts but no promise of what passion may warm them. Yet here are two.” Tonka smiled slightly, his gaze moving from one to the other of them. “Two hearts and one soul, and I can offer them no greater blessing than the love they have found for themselves… My lord, you have named this lady for your wife, but you wed her in Rucombe, and here in my kraal, we do not enter such bonds lightly. This is my own kinswoman and well-favored does her chieftain find her. Speak your oath to me ‘ere I give her.” —The Roads of Taryn MacTavish
* * *
Amber walked a little faster. “You didn’t even ask me if I wanted to marry you.”
“Why would I do that?” Meoraq asked, amused. He didn’t have any trouble keeping pace at her side.
“Because you can’t marry someone against their will!”
“Yes, I can.” —The Last Hour of Gann
* * *
Marriage, like death and religion, is one of those things that can vary so wildly from culture to culture and era to era that I research it even when I’m not writing. Plus, if you’re reading this because you write romances like I apparently do, a marriage has got a better than average chance of finding its way into your book. Most of the articles I’ve written thus far feature subjects that work best in the background, but weddings are meant to be splashy affairs, so here you finally have a chance to worldbuild right in the reader’s face.
You probably think this is going to be another of those articles where I spit the internet at you until we both leave in tears. Well, you’re right. Seriously, you should play the lottery. Anyhoo, in the most simplistic sense, there are two camps when it comes to marriage: The couple can choose one another and marry for love or someone else can arrange the marriage without the involvement of one or both parties.
Love-matches are more common today in more countries than ever before, but don’t get the idea that they’re a recent development. The custom of choosing one’s own mate has enjoyed steady waves of popularity that probably go all the way back to the caves. However, it is a luxury in most cultures. Oddly, it’s one of the few luxuries mostly enjoyed by the poor. After all, if Gilly the goose-girl, decides to marry Matthew the miller’s son instead of Butcherstab the blacksmith, nobody gets hurt. Almost nobody.
But if Princess Penelope wants to marry Sam the stable boy, that’s too damn bad. When you don’t have money, land or political power, you have a surprising amount of personal freedom; when you do, marriage is just another tool to protect what you have or acquire more. Hence the recurring theme of a poor person marrying well above his or station is just as much a fairy tale for the prince or princess—the poor person escapes from poverty and worse (if a girl, she is invariably also mistreated by family and serving as a drudge; if a boy, he is usually a vagrant or thief, frequently threatened with imprisonment or death), but the rich person gets to marry for love.
In my Arcadia series, the Cerosan lords rarely marry at all, but instead take a lifelong consort to aid him in his rule and a number of concubines whenever his fancy flits that way. Any children would be considered legitimate and since succession does not depend on birth order, any one of them could become the lord’s heir. When Antilles sends word to his relatives to return and that he’s getting married, they arrive with his childhood sweetheart in tow as the likeliest prospect. And she doesn’t seem put off in the slightest to think he proposed by way of a lordly decree that didn’t even mention her by name! Nobility just does things differently.
Then again, we have a tendency as human beings to set the standard of what is normal by what we do and see every day, sometimes without considering the origins of the symbols we so freely use. Therefore, a ‘normal’ wedding to most of us is presided over by an authority figure—most often a priest, otherwise a judge, a justice of the peace, or Elvis. The bride wears white, symbolizing innocence and virginity, and is escorted to her husband by her father, taken (as property) from one household to another. The ceremony consists of vows—traditionally the husband vows to honor and cherish, the wife to honor and obey—and ends with the raising of the bridal veil and a kiss. Other themes common to this type of wedding is an exchange of rings (seen in various cultures as a symbol of eternal love or union or ownership), an elaborate cake (prosperity), flowers (fertility), and throwing rice as the couple leaves (a double-whammy, fertility and prosperity both).
The use of symbolism in a formal ritual is a vital element both in worldbuilding and in storytelling, and it’s one of the few times you can really go big and it will still seem normal in the context of a wedding. I tattooed Taryn’s arms and face with blue dye and put Antilles in a toga and have yet to hear one WTF were you thinking? And honestly, it doesn’t matter what you think up, you’re not likely to write something weirder than we already do right here on Earth.
In some parts of the world, the bride is chased from her family’s home with switches; in others, she’s paraded through the streets surrounded by dancers and musicians. Preparing the bride to meet her groom could be an elaborate process all by itself. Some of you may have already heard that old chestnut about how Spartan women had to be shaved and dressed like boys for their prospective husbands to be attracted enough to formally kidnap and marry them. I think it’s worth pointing out that the Spartans never mention this (I admit they were notoriously bad at record-keeping). These stories come from other Greek states where women were kept on a far shorter leash and where whole armies didn’t stand a chance against one Spartan phalanx, so their veracity is suspect to say the least, but it does paint a strong picture and isn’t that what worldbuilding is about?
Across the globe and throughout history, a friendly kidnapping is often part of the wedding rituals (so are real kidnappings, although I consider those less a marriage and more a criminal assault). The groom is often the aggressor, although some traditions add the twist of the bride’s family kidnapping her back while the groom celebrates his wedding. Interestingly (at least to me), is the fact that although the bride seems passive, the custom is usually associated with love-matches, so it can be safely presumed she’s a willing participant.
When it comes to arranged marriages, one common custom is the paying of a dowry or bride-price. These negotiations may not be a strictly financial transaction either, but may also include feats of manhood or other ordeals meant to prove the groom’s ability to protect and provide for his bride. I borrowed some of this philosophy for the gullan in my book, Olivia, and again for the lycan in my Arcadian series; in both books, the suitor had to prove himself a hunter and make a public declaration of his fitness when petitioning for a mate and it was understood that a stronger challenger could always take her from him.
You know, it occurs to me as I write this that while I’ve had several weddings in my books, I’ve never really had a proposal. The closest I get is with Antilles, whose effort is so oblique Taryn sleepily laughs it off. The gullan abduct all their human mates, although in fairness to them, they weren’t in a position to propose. In The Last Hour of Gann, the idea of asking a woman before marrying her is absurd to Meoraq; when he acts as an officiator at one point, he doesn’t even ask the men. I guess subconsciously I must not think proposing is important. Sometimes I can’t believe people think I write romances.