I just finished reading The Door Into Sunset (which I loved!) I was wondering how marriage works in that world. Does everyone marry everyone else in a marriage with more than two people, or can a person just marry one person of an already married family? The characters seem to treat it as the former. However, I thought some of them were barely acquainted.
Well, it’s complex, but not inexplicable. 🙂 (Bear in mind first of all that it would be oversimplifying the case to suggest that the Kingdoms’ whole world works this way. There are cultural differences even among the Four Realms, which share quite a few familial tropes due to being cheek-by-jowl with one another. But on the continent in which the MK books’ stories take place, the following is pretty much how things go.)
For those who haven’t seen it, this is a paraphrase of the Arlene version of the wedding vow as it appears in The Door Into Sunset:
The seven… took the vow, to share bodies and thoughts as pleasure and trust prompted, to live for and with one another and their children; to love while life lasted, though liking might come and go, and to do right by one another, as the Goddess would were She marrying in (which of course She was).
So there’s a lot of wiggle room in there.
First of all: even inside the marriage proper (and both Arlene and Darthene have the inversion concept “marriage improper”, the source of endless jokes both witless and somewhat serious), the nature of the institution is very flexible. Sex, for example, is routinely inferred but not explicitly implied, and never (horrors) required or expected by any kind of legislation. The concept in some Earthly cultures of a marriage needing to be “consummated” for the marriage to have legal standing, etc, or the idea that a marriage can be legally dissolved because someone’s not doing their “wifely duties”, or (for that matter) that parents have to be married for the children to have legitimacy, are utterly absent… and would buy you some very very strange looks if they came up in conversation. If you want to get it on with the people you’re married to, you do. If not, you don’t. The commitment is to the bond of continuing and emotionally intimate relationship, of which sex is seen as a subset… never the other way around.
How you build your own marriage is essentially up to you and the other participants. Some members will be hot to have sex with some others, and some won’t, and some will be easy about it one way or the other. Everyone works it out on a case-by-case basis, with the paired understandings that every marriage is unique, and that No Means No (the very instant it’s heard, and until it’s freely revoked: which may be the next night, or never). And of course the concept of the platonic marriage is no news to anyone in the Kingdoms. Some people get married who have no desire to have sex with each other, and never intend to. If they change their minds later, well, that’s their business. And if they change their minds back again, well, that’s their business too. Otherwise, “share bodies… as pleasure and trust prompt [one]” is the guideline, leaving personal preference and the changing needs of different life-phases to be worked out between / among the participants. And finally, there is a basic understanding that there are a whole lot of kinds of love; that the Goddess has no intention of setting up some kind of eligibility “bar” for you to get over to prove that you’re enough in love to get married, and that people shouldn’t be in a hurry to do so either.
When people already in a marriage are invited into one being newly assembled, the understanding is that members of that marriage may of course get physically involved with those in the other (if they choose), but it’s by no means required or necessarily even expected. The invitation is a statement that the newlyweds think highly enough of the old-lyweds (is that a word? it is now) to ask them to be part of their new family—both physically and emotionally if they want it both ways and the physical end can be worked out to everyone’s satisfaction—but at the very least emotionally. So for example, Wyn s’Heleth, the Darthis-based wine wholesaler and owner of that well-known city dive bar The Stuck Pig (but that’s literally another story), who’s Queen Eftgan’s husband of ten years or so if I remember correctly, may or may not be interested in getting physically involved with Lorn or Freelorn or Segnbora, or (for different and very odd kinds of physical involvement) Sunspark or Hasai. And that’s his business. But since he’s accepted the offer of marrying in, he may either be making this new commitment as part of his marriage to Eftgan (”where you go, I go too”), or just acknowledging that he independently sees the possibility of the growth of some emotional bond of his own with one or more of these people, and he’s ready to give that a chance whether the physical end of things is a “no go” or a “go” for him.
…And of course who’s to say that one night there won’t be a party up at Lorn’s and Herewiss’s and Segnbora’s and the kids’ holiday place up in North Arlen, and everybody’s doing a wine tasting with all these new Steldene red eisweins that Wyn just brought up from the south country, and all of a sudden well into the evening (to say nothing of the wine…) Wyn finds himself looking sideways for the third or fourth time at Herewiss and he bursts out laughing and says “You know, maybe it’s the light up here or something, but you are not just a terrific person but also just extremely handsome, yes you are, and it’s even worse when you start blushing, yeah, just like that—!” …At which point who else gets in on the subsequent action (if anyone, and assuming Herewiss and Wyn feel inclined to take it to its logical conclusion) and who finds it hilarious but would rather stay up late checking out all these wines while those two get it the Dark out of their systems… all of that starts to be negotiated, probably also hilariously, with the understanding that Wyn has been everybody’s husband all along, so all of this is just fine (with Segnbora and Eftgan probably rolling their eyes at each other off to one side and muttering, “Seriously, boys, I ask you, why are they so shy…?!”)
(…And then, knowing this lot, the whispering starts. “I have to see this.” “Well, why shouldn’t we? We’re their wives.” “No, well I mean yes, but why don’t— Oh my Goddess.” “Yes, my thought exactly.” “You never told me that he—!” “Mmm. One of the reasons I took him out of circulation.” “Just one of the reasons? There are more?” “Well, besides the bulk discounts…” Sudden soft dry laughter at the implications of the word “bulk”. “Mother of us all, I can see that from here and he hasn’t even—” “Bedroom! There is a bedroom right behind you, gentlemen, and I use the word advisedly—” “Lorn? Lorn! Will you please have a word with his Highness? Seems he’s gone off his head with the flattery.” “What? Oh. Never mind, he’ll sort it out, he’s been talking about this for years. Just one thing, though. Wyn, just before you go in there, where’s the white wines— Are you telling me you didn’t bring any whites—? Oh well, too late…”).
…Anyway. Only in royal weddings (like the one at the end of Sunset) is there any significant legal paperwork attached to the business of marriage. Where two people desire to be joined, the Goddess is understood to be the third party who sanctions and sanctifies the union—always present whether visible or not. Many people do like the idea of formalizing their union in front of witnesses, but social pressure toward this kind of thing is generally frowned upon. If the participants want a big celebration, fine. Otherwise, if they choose to walk in on their families one night and say “We got married yesterday after we did the shopping”, then that’s their business. Mostly people know you’re married because you tell them you are.
Some side issues: legal tradition in the Kingdoms as it applies to the family is skewed overwhelmingly in the child’s favor and interests. In all four of the Realms, orphans, be they rich or poor, are automatically wards of the Throne, and great care is taken in placing them with families who’ll properly care for them. Families are built around the children and making sure they’ll have a secure life until adulthood. (Minority lasts until twenty in most places, but the request by a child for early emancipation immediately invokes Throne advocacy on their behalf until things are sorted out to everyone’s advantage.)
And a by-note to the “legitimacy” issue: The only place where legitimacy becomes of importance is when there are political considerations: when members of the family are the beneficiaries of significant land holdings, important hereditary titles / responsibilities, or similar privileges which will have to be disposed of to the heirs on the parent’s death. This is why Freelorn’s first question after “Will you marry me?” to Herewiss is to ask Segnbora the same, because he knows she’s carrying their child, and for strictly dynastic purposes it’s important to secure their new daughter’s position in the succession of both Arlen and Darthen—his question to Eftgan being another one he’s about to ask. As usual, the security and wellbeing of the children is paramount.
…Now of course there are as many ways all the above can go wrong as there are ways for everything to go right. The Middle Kingdoms are not Utopia. But certain kinds of tragedy are a lot less likely to occur there than they are in our world. People do of course divorce for a wide spectrum of reasons. Divorce is understood to have occurred when one party declares, ideally in front of witnesses, “That’s it, we’re done, I can’t do this any more”. When marriages “come to grief”, once again the wellbeing of the children is seen to be of primary importance. Which of their parents they desire to stay with is seen to be a serious issue, and a significant body of common law is codified around how this determination is accurately made. Additionally, there’s positive societal pressure on families who might be friends of those in the dissolving marriage to offer new homes to the children involved (or at least “safe havens” until the children find their footing again). (There’s brief mention of this in Tales of the Five 2: The Landlady, in which the holders of her House that Segnbora’s visiting have made themselves the new family-by-adoption of a child whose people “had trouble in their family and undid their marriage”. The phrase Segnbora’s Holder uses for this kind of adoption is “chosen in”.)
As regards property in such dissolving marriages, there’s considerable peer pressure on the postmarital couple to divest themselves equably and reasonably of shared property, but if they have enough trouble doing this to damage the lives of the people around them—particularly their offspring—the local authorities will petition the Throne to have all the property in question vested in whatever children have arisen from the union. So there is considerable pressure for the divorcing parties to find a reasonable solution before things get to that stage.
At the very largest end of this kind of problem, the Throne gets directly involved. There is no such thing as “divorce court”—another of those concepts which would make an Arlene or Darthene you were trying to explain it to shake their heads and say, “Really, what? You’re making that up, right?” In both Arlen and Darthen there is a thing called the Court of Special Pleadings—which is normally the ruling monarch and a twosome or foursome of smart people of the monarch’s choice—which exists to handle Things There Aren’t A Law For and other difficult legal questions. These highest-end postmarital issues would normally be resolved by those three or five people sitting down with the couple or group who desire to be married no longer until a solution is found that works for everyone. The only thing Freelorn hates more than these pleadings is the paperwork that follows.
…That went on a little longer than originally planned. (And could have gone on a lot longer still… but enough.) Hope that answers the questions. 🙂
(The original of this post, dated 16 November 2013, is here at Tumblr)