Last October, in the spirit of Halloween, I took a look at several of the classic scary monsters and supernatural powers, and talked about how they are treated in various urban fantasy stories. At roughly the same time, I was working my way through the latest of the Dresden Files books, Battle Ground. Towards the end, after the battle’s climax, there was a moment when I realized that Harry’s love life could soon have a profound impact on the plot of the story… and that it already had done so, several times now… and, in fact, this is now a recurring thing here…
And, huh! I never realized something before.
As much as urban fantasies in general (like many stories we tell these days) have a certain proliferation of sex within them, it’s actually a bit uncommon for sex to have such a profound impact on the plot, characters, themes, or much of anything as it does in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. I actually appreciate the series more for that, and I find myself fascinated by it… and so you lot, my wonderful audience, get to sit through my musings on the subject! 😉
Be warned, there are huge spoilers ahead.
To set the stage, let’s look at other urban fantasies in particular.
There’s Supernatural, which features the Winchester brothers and their comrades as they hunt things and save people. This being a brutal, violent lifestyle, and typically one that does not lend itself to living a long life, hunters tend to live like anything but monks, as they eat, drink, and have lots of sex (or at least try to). There’s an overwhelming theme of brotherhood throughout the show, and of making family-like bonds among one’s friends and comrades, and yet the bonds of blood seem to pale in comparison. By extension, so does the act of having a family of one’s own, and, thus, the act of sex itself tends to be a bit diminished. It’s something fun and pleasurable and passionate that they can do, while they can, but it’s not really that important. There aren’t usually many consequences for it, though, in fairness, those consequences can be doozies when they do happen (like when Sam and Dean’s unknown brother suddenly popped up just in time to be possessed by Michael, or when Lucifer had a son).
Then there’s The Vampire Diaries, which, if anything, is even worse. People get away with so much crap in this universe, including murder, torture, betrayal, and the violation of people’s minds and bodies alike. Sex is just another thing they do as they like. That is until, and with sole exception to, when the willy-nilly sex actually produces babies, the way sex is meant to. Then, the plot can revolve around keeping the kids safe, especially in the Originals spin-off.
Speaking of which, a shout out to Grimm, too. Not one of the urban fantasies I discussed much last Halloween, but a prime example for how little sex impacts the show. Oh, pregnancy and childbirth are vastly important, and so sex has that much impact, but… oh, how did one of my fellow bloggers put it? One of the female leads impersonates the hero’s girlfriend and has sex with him – effectively raping him – but somehow there’s no hard feelings over it. This, despite the intimate violation of it, and despite how the act was used to enact a curse on him, and despite the extended consequences and high cost of undoing said curse, and despite how his rapist suddenly shows up again, pregnant and begging for his protection. The two of them, rapist and raped, live together to raise their child, soon falling in love and such. And that is… really twisted, to put it politely.
The universe of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel is something of a surprising contrast with all of these. It’s not just when babies come along that the act of sex is given weight and meaning, for it already has such weight, meaning, and consequence. Mind you, it never explicitly says so, but it does show rather than tell, as quality stories do. Babies can be made, yes, and that is a world-changing event, but even without that, hearts can be broken, monsters can be unleashed, and happiness can be found and lost in that same instant. To diminish the act of sex is not so different from – and every bit as dangerous as – diminishing an act of violence, even murder. There is a power to sex, and to misuse that power invites destruction.
Moving over to the literary side now, we have Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson and Alpha and Omega series, Larry Correia’s Monster Hunters, and, finally, back to Butcher’s Dresden Files. Now, here, I notice, there is a bit more significance to the act of sex. I wonder if that has something to do with how we can’t simply see the act like we do on a screen. It has to mean enough to the author to craft the entire scene unassisted, and it has to mean enough to the reader to not just skip over it. But I’m probably barking up a wrong tree there, and, either way, I digress.
In Briggs’ books, there are exactly two ways to approach sex: either in love or in lust. By that, I mean that one either truly cares about the other person, or one simply has an appetite to fill. In the latter case, it bears noting that a number of characters, male and female, have been raped, or otherwise violated and brutalized, making for some of the most honest conversations I’ve found on so sensitive a subject. In the former case, there may be tangled affairs of the heart to deal with, but, by and large, those who love each other are utterly devoted to one another, and would never hurt each other. Loyal fidelity is a huge part of love, and thus it is also essential to the act of making love. Either way, sex really is, as they say, a Big Deal… particularly to the characters, if not always to the plot.
Correia treats the idea of sex and its importance with much more tact, I would say. Yes, there are people who get together as couples, but we don’t have to watch them do so, if you get my meaning. Furthermore, the idea behind it is actually to go beyond the sex and have a family. And so they do. And those families really matter, as all families matter, and that is why saving the world matters, because it’s a world full of families like theirs. So, it’s not like the plot revolves around the sex, but it’s clearly important and powerful.
So, thus far, we have various stories wherein the importance of sex ranges from “not important at all” to “important only if babies are actually made” to “the act itself matters regardless of anything else” to “it is truly important, but doesn’t usually define the plot.”
Now, how does the love life of one Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden compare to all of that?
Well, a quick review:
Harry grew up largely alone. His mother died shortly after his birth, and his father died when he was a child. He knows what it is to be alone, without family, and so family is of utmost importance to him. He does not let people in very easily, and he does not get intimate very quickly or easily, though he does have an impressive romantic history thus far.
His first girlfriend was Elaine Mallory. They were teenagers with no other family that they knew of. They were taken in by the same man, Justin DuMorne, who made them his apprentices and taught them magic. DuMorne also took pains to isolate the two of them from others, all the better for his eventual plans to enthrall the both of them without anyone (like friends, teachers, or casual acquaintances) noticing. Thus, they were both in pain, feeling everything that teenage hormones make people feel, while spending a great quantity of time together, without anyone else, tackling the same problems, which happen to be very special, magic problems. They got freaky. A lot. Right up until DuMorne tried to implement his plans for them, and Harry had to respond forcibly, killing DuMorne and seeming to kill Elaine as well, an act which quite nearly earned Harry a death sentence, the shadow of which has followed him ever since and played a key role in his developing reputation among his fellow wizards. Though Elaine survived, and still clearly cares for Harry, there is nothing to indicate they’ll ever get intimate again. And after an experience like that, it’s not too hard to understand that both felt a bit burned by everything about love.
Harry’s second major flame, as far as I recall, was Susan Rodriguez. She was a very attractive reporter of Hispanic descent, and the two of them were fantastic together, which, they were together for the first few novels of the series. Then, being the woman he loved, she was targeted by what was his most vicious enemy at the time, a vampire lady who turned Susan into a vamp herself. It was for her that the war between the White Council and the Red Court began, and though we only saw the periphery of this war, it dominated the first half of the series. Susan had to leave after being turned, and only returned when her new fight against the vampires who made her brought her back. Over the course of such, they… well, had what became their final moment of intimacy together. This resulted in their daughter, Maggie, of whom more will be spoken later.
After losing Susan, Harry pretty much didn’t have any serious relationships at all, though there were a number of attractive and fairly willing women all around him.
There was Lara Raith, a succubus queen whose story, along with that of Harry’s newly-discovered half-brother Thomas, highlights both how prevalent sex is and how it’s actually not “just sex,” because the families that result are not just “accidents of genetics.” Still, as a sexual creature, she was very much interested in Harry from the start, and even more so when she couldn’t simply have him right away. That last is courtesy of how her kind literally cannot touch love, and so skin contact with someone who last had sex with pure love involved will burn them at the touch. The attraction between the two of them has only increased as the story as progressed, but her inability to touch him will be important later.
There was Molly Carpenter, the blossoming, steadily-maturing daughter of a friend who becomes Harry’s apprentice. She developed a crush on him fairly early on, he being tall, dark, and powerful, and a good man like her father, and a wizard, which her mother very much hates due to her own past mistakes. Indeed, the very first evening after he saved her life and took her on, she was quite willing, if also very nervous, to have sex with him. She was eighteen by this point, so it would have been perfectly legal, but Harry shut that down hard. Everything they were going to need to do as teacher and student required a clear separation from all things sexual, even if they came to care for each other in a number of other ways, and even if she still maintained a quiet torch for him (which he pretty much ignored and thought went away).
There was even the fragment of a fallen angel named Lasciel, nicknamed Lash, hooked into Harry’s own mind and soul. She first made herself manifest to him as an attractive woman only he could see, and he was quickly interested, until he realized that part where what he saw was an illusion, and a very dangerous entity inside his own head. They spent a good deal of time together, until she eventually gave her life, such as it was, to protect him from a psychic assault. This, it turned out, was an act of love, and love, it turns out, is inherently a force of creation, and so another incorporeal entity was born. Named Bonea, or Bonnie, she only emerged quite recently, but her existence is due entirely to the power of love within a creature that most would call impossible to redeem.
And then there was Anastasia Luccio. She is the formidable leader of the Wardens, the soldiers and enforcers of the wizardly White Council. She is also, due to the events of Dead Beat, trapped not within her own body, but within the much younger body of a young lady who had the misfortune to be the victim of a body-swapping necromancer. She was instantly an ally to Harry Dresden, and the two worked together a few times before she rather pointedly seduced him and they coupled up. It was fairly casual, and, tragically, it was not entirely voluntary. It turned out, she was being subtly influenced in her own mind by a nefarious enemy who used her to keep tabs on Harry. And after a revelation like that, they couldn’t possibly stay together.
Now, at this point, it bears reminding: Harry and Anastasia did not have true love for each other, and thus Lara could have made a move on him. She didn’t, but the moment she realized she could, it was like a predator sighting its prey.
After Anastasia, the next woman Harry had sex with was none other than Mab, the Unseelie Queen of Air and Darkness herself. This, apparently, was how they sealed a particular bargain, where he became her vassal and gained her power in return. A later moment shows another contract being sealed with a kiss, so it would seem that physical intimacy is part and parcel for fairy bargains. Either way, this only happened once and there is no indicator of it happening ever again. But, the fact remains, that it was through this pact, and the physical enactment of it, that Harry gained his present power. It also bound his apprentice, Molly, to Mab via her connection to Harry, and so she was drawn in as well, being transformed into a fairy queen herself.
(note: I am very much leaving out the one-sided, twisted, and very weird desires exhibited by the likes of Lea and Maeve and whatnot)
Finally, there is Karrin Murphy.
A quick aside here, to keep this all in mind.
Up to this point, Harry’s romantic history has been rocky and had far-reaching effects, but none nearly so much as how he has become a father. This choice, to be Maggie’s father, actually present in her life and always protecting her, has had powerful ramifications. It is for their daughter that Susan died in battle, and for their daughter that Harry utterly destroyed the monsters who dared to hurt her. If Harry and Susan had not produced Maggie, or if they had never become lovers at all, the plot would have turned out very, very differently.
The choice to keep Maggie in his life has also come between Harry and the man who turned out to be his grandfather. After all, the old man thinks that the only way for a wizard to protect their child is to remain distant until after their magical potential has awakened, but three succeeding generations have proven that false, as Harry’s mother fell to darker paths, Harry was nearly destroyed without anyone to protect him from the wolves of the world, and Maggie suffered horrible trauma, nearly being murdered herself, all because Susan tried to keep her out of danger by keeping her at a distance. Obviously, this approach doesn’t actually work out so well.
All of this highlights the importance of sex, because there is power in it, on many levels. For some, it’s a simple power itself, either a form of conquest or of mystical influence. For others, it’s how they feed, making it life itself. For everyone else, it’s how they have a family, which is the most important of all choices. Thus, it is only right for a man to protect his family, no matter the consequences that come from challenging monsters who think they can do whatever they want to whoever they want. Which is exactly what Harry does, and which is what he most shares with his latest lady love.
Murphy is introduced as a police officer, and she shares Harry’s selfless dedication to protecting others, and especially to protecting one’s family. Their romance was on an extremely slow burn as they went through all manner of Hell together. They stood by each other, and clearly loved each other for quite awhile. Indeed, they were so perfect as a couple that the physical attraction was something of an afterthought, it seemed, until, at long last, they finally got together in Peace Talks. A man and a woman who truly love each other, they had one time together.
And then she died.
In an earth-shattering moment that nearly drove Harry straight to the dark side, Murphy died in battle.
She was apparently taken to Valhalla, so it’s still possible that we might see her again sometime, but, for now, I’m afraid the farewell is going to last awhile.
Harry’s romantic history now looks thus:
Elaine: first love, tragically cut short by pivotal events in their youth, presumed dead, really alive, but far away and out of the picture.
Susan: great love, for whom he started a war, mother of his daughter Maggie, for whom he ended same war, now deceased.
Lash: deceased, but gave rise to Bonnie.
Anastasia: not true love, left after complications involving mystical mental influence by a conspiracy of enemies.
Mab: one-time thing to enact a contract.
Murphy: long-time romance, had sex together exactly one time, deceased.
Only Lara and Molly are really on the field at all anymore. Molly has risen to have a multilayered relationship with Harry, including a multilayered love. And Lara has an increasingly strong personal connection with Harry, but can’t touch him anymore.
This history, and other such entanglements of love, sex, and family, has had a surprising influence on the story, including the plot and the characters themselves. No reason to suspect it won’t again.
Oh, and Mab wants to get Harry and Lara married to each other to seal an alliance via the “political mixing of bloodlines.”
But Lara can’t touch Harry right now, not since he last had sex with Murphy one time, and not until he has sex at least one more time with someone else, someone he does not have true love for.
I can only imagine how that will effect things going forward, especially if the overbearing Queen Mab ever finds out.
If the courtship and marriage of Harry Dresden and Lara Raith proceeds, then this begs the question of who he will have sex with in order to allow Lara to touch him, and what the act will mean to him and whoever he does it with. It also begs the question of if Lara and Harry will ever actually love each other, and if they’ll have kids as the “political mixing of bloodlines” would dictate, and so on and so forth.
One thing is for certain: Harry Dresden’s sex life has already impacted the world at large, as well as his own life, and I can only imagine that it will continue to do so.
And you know what? Compared to most other urban fantasies, and stories in general, I find that I actually like Dresden Files more for it. It takes a tricky, delicate, personal subject and treats it with respect, showing how important it is. That is not so common these days, is it?