Friendships in Fantasy
While there’s something to be said for great romances in fantasy (trust me, I love ‘em), it’s really the genre’s deep, unswerving friendships that drive it forward and keep us all scrambling for the shelves. It’s hard to turn around without bumping into classic examples like Sam and Frodo, or Harry, Ron and Hermione. Throw in sci-fi on the screen and you get the trio of Kirk, Spock and McCoy, Han and Chewie, Mulder and Scully, Willow and Xander, Mal and Zoe. This list could go on for a while!
Maybe it’s the nature of fantasy stories—epics, quests, end of the world stakes—that gives us the time and scope to invest in and identify with these powerful friendships. We all have that friend or group of friends we’d cross the world for, and series afford us the chance to see friendships in all their shades, the best moments and the toughest.
Unlike some contemporary genres, it’s rare in fantasy to find a friendship that exists merely to provide the MC with a friend, a foil or comic relief. We grow to care deeply about these friends—as if they were our own—and more often than not, we’re reading their POVs too. We see all sides of the friendship within the view of each person. We see the faults and the heart. We know Hermione can be a know-it-all, and Frodo is slowly succumbing to the ring, and Jean Tannen is a foul-mouthed sweetheart with hatchets.
And then we see how the friendship helps cover and overcome each individual’s faults to stand stronger together. We see them laugh, fight, cry and scream together. Win and lose together.
I think this variety and truth is part of what I love best about on-the-page friendships. In Wheel of Time, I remember laughing over Mat’s prank with the badger in Eye of the World, only to get irritated, scared, and (again) amused with him even more as he grew over the length of the series. Say what you will about the women of Wheel of Time, but their bonds of friendship too are one of a kind, particularly in the range, ages, and power differentials we see.
I also have a soft spot for friendships with characters of different ages. Not necessarily a Jedi-Padawan mentor relationship, but more like what’s between Chris Evans’ and Dakota Fanning’s characters in Push, or Cazaril and Iselle in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Curse of Chalion, or even Tavi and Marcus in Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series.
To me, fantasy friendships have a quality of “real” that most books seem to gloss over.
Take the friendship between Merry and Pippin and Boromir portrayed in the Fellowship of the Rings movie. You could argue it’s not even that strong of a friendship—it’s brief, Boromir is a flawed character—yet, it’s those same aspects that make it so poignant when Boromir buys with his life the time needed for the hobbits to escape…only to have them give up that chance in order to defend him. It’s imperfect but there when it counts, and I love that fantasy delves deep enough to show us these moments.
Too often books try to complicate friendships with love triangles or on-again, off-again relationships that veer into the “friends” space only occasionally. Fantasy, however, puts more emphasis on the pure, lifelong friendships where you’ll always have each other’s backs.
Think about Harry Dresden and Michael Carpenter. Or, Dresden and Waldo Butters, for that matter (Then, pause and go check out this epic Worldbuilders t-shirt honoring Butters’ undying love for polka!). The strength of these friendships is such that Michael and Butters aren’t even in every book, yet we love them all the same.
Consider that for a moment. There are entire books that don’t feature them at all; there are years between when we might see them again, and we STILL quote them and make t-shirts honoring them. (This is also another reason why SFF fandom is so wonderful!) We follow their stories. We know that, wherever they are when they’re not on page, they’ve still got Harry’s back. Even when he pisses them off or terrifies them.
Scott Lynch sums it up eloquently, as usual, in the exchange between Jean and Locke at the end of Red Seas Under Red Skies.
Jean: “I don’t understand any of this…I want to hug you. And I want to tear your gods-damned head off. Both at once.”
Locke: “Near as I can tell, that’s the definition of ‘family’ right there.”
And, somehow, in our hearts, that’s what these friendships become.