Spoilers!!! This post contains spoilers for the popular fantasy series Wheel of Time.
Stories are important because the values of a culture are deeply interwoven into the characters and plot twists. No one sits a five-year-old down and tells them monogamy is the socially acceptable way to love when they grow up. However, young children playing pretend have the script down as well as any besotted young adult. Copying their parents and other adults they see is part of the learning process, but what really captures them is stories. Fairy tales with daring princes and more often these days princesses tackling impossible feats for true love. True love’s kiss carries with it a power to vanquish foes and bring life where there was death. They live happily ever after until you start reading the classics.
Spend any time with Shakespeare, the Bronte sisters, or Tolstoy and love becomes darker because little girls did not grow up to be princesses but instead pawns in the economic transaction that was marriage. The chemical reaction we call love is not interested in economics or social constructions. The result is forbidden love, which is full of burning passion destined to ruin you socially or even lead to your death, the exact opposite of true love. There is no misinterpreting the message here.
However, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, monogamous marriage is a remnant of a time past when men and women were expected to marry young and procreate. Women had scarce opportunities outside of this arrangement. Times have changed but the stories have yet to catch up. Non-traditional relationships are slowly becoming more mainstream but have yet to really be encapsulated in stories.
There are exceptions. Ever since I read Lord of the Rings in high school, fantasy novels have been an integral part of my life. One of my favorite series is Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. Without knowing it at the time, it was my introduction to polyamory. The hero of the series Rand al’ Thor is in physical and emotional relationships with Elayne, Aviendha, and Min, who are all aware he is involved with each of the others. Each of these relationships is unique and equally meaningful to the Rand. The feelings these characters experience are complex because that is the nature of such relationships.
Elayne and Rand fell in love the moment they met in her mother’s palace gardens. She was a no-nonsense woman preparing to take over her mother’s realm. Her feelings for Rand always came second to what was best for her kingdom. She had to make difficult decisions at times when they disagreed about how to save the world and never backed down to him. Before Rand found out he was the hero who would save the world, he was a small-town farm boy. There was a girl back home he always thought he would marry. Then he met Elayne. She was lovely and confident without being arrogant despite her obvious propriety and wealth. Unwavering in her loyalty to her country, Rand always felt a deep respect for even when they fought.
Aviendha was Rand’s teacher in the ways of her people the Aiel, a position she accepted begrudgingly. Over time, a physical attraction ignited between them and because sex and romantic emotions were not mutually exclusive for the Aiel, she did not hesitate to initiate their first sexual encounter. She knew he already had feelings for Elayne but at the time did not see how that pertained to the situation. Poor Rand didn’t know what hit him because he just lost his virginity to a woman he thought hated him. Also, in his culture, you had sex with the one person you married. Of course, he wasn’t about to turn down the advances of a beautiful strong woman. She took him off guard in more ways than one. He knew he loved Elayne but then Aviendha stole his heart, and he loved her, too.
Min had the ability to predict parts of the future and knew she was destined to be with Rand, even though he was already involved with Elayne and Aviendha. Because of her talents, towards the end it is imperative she not leave his side. She felt simultaneously thrilled and guilty she was able to spend so much time with Rand when Elayne and Aviendha could not. Min first caught Rand’s eye because she walked around in pants when most women wouldn’t dare wear something so improper. She was smart and witty and stayed by his side up until the very end while he struggled to navigate the end of the world. While she could see the future, she lacked the magical abilities of the other two which Rand had been taught all his life to distrust. At this point, Rand had given up entirely on the notion he would only love woman and because he seriously doubted he would survive saving the world, he no longer really cared.
Aviendha and Elayne’s story lines intersect and parallel. While hesitant at first, they end up becoming friends. Their mutual love for Rand and concern for his safety overcome feelings of jealousy. Over time, their friendship developed into a deep emotional relationship in and of itself. When Elayne met Min later, she was welcomed warmly, though she never became quite as close as Elayne and Aviendha. At the end of story, after Rand saves the world, he disappeared mysteriously into the night. Elayne, Aviendha, and Min are left to one another and content with the turnout of events. The relationships they had with each other were not based solely on Rand and would persevere in his absence.
These are real love stories. Discovering new loves in unexpected places. Balancing relationships across distances. Navigating outside what you were taught as a child. Learning how to accept novel ideas. Understanding love is not going to solve all your problems, but it might make a tough journey a little more bearable. For ethical non-monogamy of whatever shape or form to become mainstream, there have to be more stories like this. Stories that entertain and grasp at heartstrings while inadvertently teaching little life lessons about how to love.