Thursday 4 May 2023

Dissecting a Trope: Ancient Man, Young Woman

Contains spoilers for Sarah J Maas's "A Court of..." series, though I've only read the first 2 books and I really enjoyed them and you should read them too, and I'm going to try to remember to get them out of the library on the walk home from picking my little one up from nursery today and did you know there's a library app that lets you download audio books and I just had to correct a typo and have turned on a podcast to shut up my brain so I can write this whole thing properly rather than rabbit holing with a suspected ADHD brain. It's incredible how much background noise like TV/podcasts can help me focus. For me, documentaries are much better than lyricless music.

Let's start again.

This contains spoilers for Sarah J Maas's "A Court of.." series, and may contain spoilers for Twilight/50 Shades of Grey/Buffy the Vampire Slayer though nothing that isn't widely discussed already.


I've been contemplating an apparent contradiction: I feel that I strongly dislike stories with a romance between a young, innocent woman and a powerful, ancient being, and yet my favourite romances in roleplay games are between Svetlana and the King, an older man, and especially Taji and the Undying Fury of Creation, which definitely falls into this trope.

Doesn't it? He's thousands of years old, incredibly strong and powerful; she's in her early twenties, a bit lost the way people in their early twenties are, dealing with a dramatic childhood.

And Svetlana. Ok, so Noleski isn't ancient, but he is powerful: he was Regent when they met, King when they married, and he's older than her - only a few years, but still older. That feels similar. 

I am deeply uncomfortable with Edward/Bella in Twilight. Full disclosure, I haven't read Twilight; I read Reasoning With Vampires instead, and that was a few years ago. However, he's an ancient, powerful vampire, she's a naive girl. I have read 50 Shades of Gray and (having grown out of alt universe fan fic) it leans heavily on that relationship. The power imbalance.

It's like in Buffy. I love Buffy; I grew up with the show and it gave me a female protagonist who was allowed to be angry, who was allowed to make mistakes and figure things out and find her own way. Oh, but but but! Then there's Angel. The way he followed her around. It was creepy to me. I saw that she was attracted to him back, per the story, but it made me uncomfortable and I didn't understand why. The relationship with Spike was more honestly broken.

Which moves me on to A Court of Thorns and Roses. This was described to me by a friend as a take on Beauty and the Beast, but as she talked I commented it sounded more like the Ballad of Tam Lin. She hadn't known this story, but the version I knew runs basically as: a young woman called Janet or similar is told by her father that she will rule all this land (always made me think of the scene in The Lion King even though the ballad is much older). This includes a woodland in which lives a mysterious man who demands sex from women as price of passage. She goes through the wood and tells the man she owns it so he can't demand anything, but they have an affair anyway. She returns to her family, and her uncle realises she's pregnant and helps her get back to Tam Lin who is a mortal taken by faeries and due to be sacrificed to hell. She saves him by lying in wait, pulling him from his horse and clinging to him as he is changed into various beasts and elements. The fairy queen isn't happy, but gives him up, and Janet finishes her labour and gives birth (Janet is nails).

I promised I wouldn't get distracted again; I've shared this because it's another version of this trope and there's a lot in it I like. Not the way the titular character will sexually abuse women, but the way the main character is a strong-willed woman who saves her love while pregnant. It's not especially well known so I thought it might need more explanation than, say, Twilight.

A Court of Thorns and Roses actually leans into the abuse aspect of this trope, but subtly. If you were a fan of Twilight, you might not even pick up on the ick in the way the High Fae Tamlin treats young mortal Feyre. The sequel makes it overt, unmissable even to the most blinded Christian Gray fan. She finds and falls in love with another of the High Fae, also ancient and powerful, but the relationship is more balanced: the first book ends with her becoming High Fae herself, so there is less power imbalance, and Rhys treats her respectfully and as an equal.

And this, this difference between Tamlin in Thorns and Roses and Rhysand in Mist and Fury, is the heart of why I love the trope as applied to my roleplay characters and hate it in Twilight. Because it's not about the age gap, it's not about the power, it's about how it's applied, about the relationship itself.

So let us return first to Svetlana and Noleski. He's the King; he has more political power. She helps bolster that power, but it is a love match. She chooses to be with him for herself, not for their power, and it's a free choice: he has never manipulated her. He never tries to control her, although their natures are different. He respects that she is restless and needs to travel, and she responds to that by talking to him when she is intending to go on an adventure (out of character, he's not going to stop her because the game is about the group's adventures, and he can be a source of adventures). 

And Taji and the Undying Fury of Creation. This one is much more akin to A Court of... - the High Fae have a soul mate (can't remember the precise term used), and this binds Fayre and Rhys (Tamlin tries to pretend he has this link with Feyre and it's part of how tries to control her). Taji is a Solar, Fury is her Lunar mate: this bond ties them. In game mechanic terms, their bond has Legendary status (I'm so excited about this, because it's evidence of player agency in our world! When we first met, I sent a message to another major NPC and the words I used made my GM doubletake, then pause the game to scribble loads of notes, and it's this, the strength of the bond was born in that moment). Anyway, this bond makes them want to be near each other. In standard game terms, Lunars have a compass-like sensation, direction and distance, that draws them to their Solar mates, while Solars usually have nothing. For Fury, this bond is inescapable. It's so strong, Taji feels it to, a sense of the distance between them. So they're linked, connected like that. And he's ancient and powerful, and she's young. But she's strong-willed, she knows her own mind, she has dreams and the grit and determination to achieve them. She's lacking knowledge and experience and makes plenty of mistakes, but isn't naive. He supports her; she has taken his protection and support for granted due to her youth, but this is something that changes as the story develops. And she loves him for the him of him, the thoughtfulness and gentleness he shows her. It's not the bond forcing the love (other bonded people are intensely close friends, for instance), but their bond does impact how they feel. And Taji has the potential to live long enough that this age gap will become minimal.

What's the difference? In the games, a huge part is the agency and control I have as the person playing the young woman. In fiction, when the relationship seems based on mutual respect and support, when the power is balanced in a healthy, shared way, that's when I really enjoy it.

(I can't think of any examples where the roles are reversed. Where an ancient, powerful woman and a naive young man end up in a long term relationship. A few flings, maybe, always from the male perspective.)


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