When divorce appears at all in fiction, it usually gets a bad rap. It breaks up families, causes tense arguments between couples, or traumatizes innocent children, like in Judy Blume’s It’s Not The End of The World. In historical or epic fantasy fiction, on the other hand, divorce seems to simply not exist. There are plenty of unhappy marriages, certainly, but the estranged couples either endure unhappily, murder each other, or flee in terror.
I’d like to present a case for the awesomeness of divorce, its historical antecedents, and why it can be a useful tool for creating complexity and drama in speculative fiction and fantasy.
First of all, divorce is in no way a modern invention. In the Roman Empire, at least one-sixth of elite marriages are estimated to have ended by divorce within the first decade, and probably substantially more (as detailed in Marriage, Divorce, and Children in Ancient Rome, edited by Beryl Rawson). In ancient pre-Song dynasty China, women could initiate divorces and own their own property; sometimes mothers-in-law even forced their sons to divorce insufficiently respectful daughters-in-law (for more on this, see Patricia Ebrey’s Women in the Family in Chinese History). Henry VIII is, of course, famous for his divorces as well as his marital executions. While divorce and annulments were more rare in medieval Europe, Eleanor of Aquitaine’s separation from the King of France and subsequent remarriage to the future King of England was not by any means unique.
The potential ability of women to initiate divorce and to own property has had profound positive effects on many cultures, as well as on the lives of women themselves. On a basic level, if a woman can choose to leave a marriage and take her dowry back to her birth family, her husband has pragmatic reasons to keep her happy and listen to her opinions. The threat of divorce, especially when accompanied by potential financial loss, offers meaningful leverage to both sides in a marriage. For instance, the first known marriage contract to ban domestic abuse comes from Greek-controlled Egypt in 92 BCE. The size of the wife’s dowry probably contributed to her ability to require her husband to treat her well, to forbid concubines, and even to allow for her own brief affairs as long as she kept them discreet. In the Jewish Talmud, a husband who refuses to have sex with his wife unless they both are fully dressed is required to divorce her and give her dowry back.
On a larger societal level, I don’t think it’s coincidental that the high Roman Empire, Tang Dynasty China, and the early United States were all societies that legalized female-initiated divorce and prospered economically and culturally. Both Rome and China faltered during later eras when women’s rights were reduced; prosperity in the 20th century around the world is closely correlated with women’s property and divorce rights. The option of divorce lifts all boats—logically enough if you assume that having two people rather than one contributing to the economic decisions of a family increases the odds of success.
Introducing divorce, especially wife-initiated divorce, into a fantasy setting can also allow an author an opportunity to make their society less horrifically patriarchal and misogynist than many imaginary worlds modeled on medieval history. Many authors already try to fix this problem, of course, but often they simply tape a feminist drape over an oppressive basic structure, without thinking about larger issues. If divorce is a possibility, Arthur and Lancelot and Guinevere do not necessarily have to endure an endless doomed love triangle. Guinevere can legally leave Arthur, marry Lancelot, and live peacefully and virtuously ever after. The wars and deaths caused by Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen’s apparent illicit romance might have been solved much more simply by Rhaegar divorcing his Dornish princess and marrying Lyanna. The Cinderella and Prince Charming of Into the Woods can simply admit that some marriages don’t end happily ever after and move on without the need for faked deaths.
Divorce can also allow for a much wider variety of complex family structures and relationships. A famous ancient Roman legal case involved a couple where the husband believed that his wife had become pregnant by him before their divorce was final. She denied that she was pregnant at all. The court resolved the case by empaneling a trio of three experienced midwives to examine the woman and determine, by majority vote, whether she was indeed expecting a child. If she was pregnant, her ex-husband had the right to post armed guards outside her new home for the entire duration of the pregnancy, in order to prevent her from aborting the fetus. As soon as the babe was born, he would have full legal custody. On the other hand, if the midwives ruled against the husband, he would have to pay a fine and all legal fees. The potential for drama in this scenario alone could produce a dozen stories, although unfortunately we don’t know the actual verdict.
Questions of child custody provide another potential avenue to explore. In most pre-modern societies, the father had complete control over his biological children. However, his power did not necessarily prevent a mother from visitation rights. Imagine, for a moment, the spoilt young heroine who runs away to her non-custodial parent, because “Daddy lets me ride a unicorn when I’m at his castle.” If issues with wicked stepmothers can be potentially resolved by appeals to living biological mothers, it is possible to keep the drama of the neglected child without killing off quite so many older female characters as typical in many fantasies.
Fantasy characters with longer lifespans also suggest the possibility of multiple singular marriages over centuries. Elrond’s wife Celebrian separates from him when she goes off to the West to deal with her trauma after being abducted by Orcs. This leaves Elrond to be a rather incompetent single dad, but there is never even a suggestion that Elrond might form a relationship with some other lucky elven lady. A wise stepmother might have been able to offer useful advice to Arwen Undomiel. In general, serial polygamy ended by divorce rather than by death would make a very logical marital pattern for many versions of elves.
Many fantasy authors wrestle with the desire to produce historically plausible narratives that are not innately offensive and oppressive by modern standards of gender, sexuality, and race relations. This is a worthwhile struggle; there are far too many lazy works that blame their prevalence of rape and misogyny on “historical accuracy.” At the same time, patriarchy and sexism have actual societal consequences; you cannot just create a world where women can become fighters and everyone wears a magic birth control necklace and expect that nothing else will change. Adding divorce into the mix is one means of balancing gender and marital dynamics, without sacrificing the coherence and logic of a fictional society.
An awareness of these actual historical patterns can also offer opportunities to depict seemingly implausible and fantastical character relationships. Ancient Roman familial dynamics could get even messier than Game of Thrones—take the marriage of the future Emperor Tiberius and his stepsister Julia the Elder. Tiberius’ stepfather, Julia’s father Augustus, forced him to first divorce his beloved wife Vipsania, who was also Julia’s stepdaughter by her previous marriage, before reluctantly marrying his stepsister/mother-in-law. Apparently Tiberius retaliated by utterly ruining the political career of his ex-wife Vipsania’s next husband. The Roman politician Cato the Younger, still a revered conservative icon today, made a political alliance by divorcing his beloved wife so that his colleague could marry her instead and they could share a peculiar semi-familial bond. Sometimes history is more sensational than even the most outrageous fantasy.
Top image: Into the Woods (2014)
This article was originally published in August 2016.
Anise K. Strong has degrees in Classical Studies from Yale and Columbia. She is an Assistant Professor of History at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo and is also a consultant for various television series in their depictions of antiquity. Despite the theme of this article, she is also very happily married with children and dog. She’s happy to answer questions about ancient gender and sexuality on Twitter at @anisekstrong or you can read her new book, Prostitutes and Matrons in the Roman World (Cambridge, 2016).