I was listening to a lecture on Romaticism by Alain de Botton the other day, and it struck me how significant it was for the design of Mythic European characters. The video is at https://youtu.be/sPOuIyEJnbE is you’d like to check it out yourself.

De Botton suggests that certain features become connected to the concept of love during the Romantic period, which began in the Eighteenth Century and blossomed in the Nineteenth. Before noting them, I’d just like to highlight how difficult it is to even think of the term “romantic” as being something that’s disassociated from love.  That difficulty dissociating one set of ideas from the other is what I’m talking about here. What do Ars Magica characters feel, which they describe as love?

“Romantic” when the term emerges, meant “having something to do with tales of chivalry” and so for the rest of this discussion I’d note that romantic love hearkens back to an imagined past in which chivalric love was in full bloom. The Romantics loved the medieval period (as opposed to the classical and industrial periods) and Ars Magica, as a game that is based on the popular imagination of the Middle Ages is covered in their fingerprints. It directly draws from their work, in that the idea that living in the time before antibiotics was more fun is the sort of daft thing they believed, and it also rearranged the folklore we used as source material in building Mythic Europe. That’s why the faeries have wings, the Church is post-Augustinian, and there are Winter covenants. It allows you to use romantic medievalist tropes.

Romantic love is for the rich. No Romantic hero seems to have something so annoying as a job. In Ars Magica we see this influence on our characters, in that it was one of the first games where you hunted monsters and stole their treasure to explicitly say that the treasure was stage dressing, and should be described with adjectives, not numbers. We’ve marched back from that a little, with the Mythic Pound, but let’s be honest: a lot of people really don’t care about how much money characters have. That’s why our unit of account, the Mythic Pound, is the average annual earnings for a peasant family.  That’s like running a modern RPG where the unit of currency isn’t the American dollar, it’s the average American family income (which is about USD52 000).

Romantics love a bit of Nature.  Nature’s where dramatic stuff happens.  As it happens, magi live out there in Nature, because the city dims magic.  Beautiful things are magical.  Faeries cluster around beauty, and magical auras make things more vivid. Some beautiful things literally drip magical power you can bottle and keep for later.

Romatics spend a lot of time together. Work doesn’t get in the way. Practical things don’t get in the way of this.  Magi can’t love people, because they spend so much time closeted in their labs.  Loneliness and love are opposites, which makes familiars really an odd idea.

de Botton notes a classic concept of love that has features which sound unusual to modern people. The lover does not complete the beloved. The lover does not love the faults of the beloved. Sexual union is not the highest expression of love. The lover loves the good parts of the beloved and wishes to nurture and instruct them, to polish their superiorities of character, and to diminish their inadequacies. The lover and beloved take turns as instructor and student. Since this love does not have sex as a necessary capstone, like romantic love, and does not require the lovers to complete each other, it allows the person to be in multiple loving relationships within the one structure. One can love family members, one’s spouse, and one’s friends, all within a single ideological framework of love, rather than having a series of differentiating frameworks.

When de Botton was describing this framework, I thought of House Tytalus. Currently they have a sort of agogoic process of instructive sadism.  I thought this might serve as an alternate philosophical framework for them.  Then, from there, you could spread it out to other Houses. Is the collegiate love of House Tremere like this?  Do members of House Verditus hate being together because they cannot see the good in each other, and so they wound each other with a million tiny slights? Do members of House Mercere, prone as they are to travel, have a version of love in which loneliness is not antithetical?

I really enjoyed de Botton talk because it gave me a more nuanced view of the practical love of the Middle Ages. People loved each other, and they wrote about it a lot, but they didn’t mean what we mean now, even though hey used the same words. The Romantics used to suggest this was because they had poorly developed sensibilities, using that terrible Medieval idea that the best people can’t handle crude things and are literally injured by them.  The princess is hurt by the pea in her matress because she’s literally better, finer, and more sensitive than the gross people around her.  Actually, medieval people loved their wives and children, they just expected less from that love.

I think classical description of love allows us to write better stories which match magi, whose lifestyle makes them, in some sense, very flawed as romantic protagonists. So much of it is visible: not hidden inside character’s heads. They don’t need to romantically understand each other without talking: talking a lot, and in a strangely formal way, is perfectly normal in the classical form of novel. It makes for far better roleplaying because it is acted and not merely intuited. People really were expected to ask how others felt, and to ask why, and to talk these things through. The idea that if you really loved someone you would just be able to read it in their faces, body language or soul is mercifully absent, which lets us roleplay characters so vocal about feelings they seem Shakesperean.

Romantic love is considered stronger when reckless. Romeo and Juliet die within four days of things kicking off.  Ohhh, so romantic. Classical novels are a lot more practical than this. That allows for goal setting and story crafting. Money matters. Where people live matters. Doing certain things to make yourself marriageable isn’t some sort of terrible, shallow thing: it just proves your spouse isn’t a little bit dim, like Lydia Bennett. This is great for gamers, because those goals are earned by in-plot actions. We can design stories around that, much like any other MacGuffin.

Classical love stories: better for gaming than romantic love stories.

(Photo credit: Hernan Piñera via Foter.com / CC BY-SA)

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2 replies on “Pre-Romantic models of love

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