Okay, I know that’s a long title, but bear with me on this one. I’ve been on a binge of the Buckkeep Radio podcast for about a month and it’s gotten me thinking about how readers interact with media, as well as the role of the author once their work is out in the world. After creating a piece of art, does the artist later have the right to further instruct an audience how to interpret that piece? Or should the piece be left to stand alone, for observers to take what they will from it?
Specifically, I’ll be looking at this issue through the lens of the Realm of the Elderlings, a long-running epic fantasy series by Robin Hobb.
NOTE: I’m not affiliated with Buckkeep Radio, and these views are entirely my own. These ideas just started simmering in my mind as I’ve been listening and thinking about the books in-depth. You should really give it a listen if you’re a fan of Hobb’s work. It’s engaging and hilarious, but also (as this post proves) thought-provoking.
SPOILER ALERT: Realm of the Elderlings Series by Robin Hobb
***I will be mentioning various plot points throughout the Realm of the Elderlings (RotE), so a spoiler warning is in effect for this entire post. It also assumes a general knowledge of these books for the sake of this post.***
What RotE Means To Me
A confession: I read this series out of order. When I was in college in the early 2000’s, I had a friend who was big on pirates. She discovered the Liveship Traders trilogy and recommended them to me. At first, both of us were unaware that these books were a spin-off from another trilogy. I enjoyed the Liveship Trader books and sought out more works by the author, Robin Hobb. Working my way backwards, I picked up the original books that began the story of the Realm of the Elderlings, starting with the Farseer Trilogy and its first book, Assassin’s Apprentice.
While I liked the Liveship books well enough, the Farseer books hooked me. I devoured them, sinking deeply into this world and in FitzChivalry’s story. Moreover, I was particularly drawn to the character of The Fool, portrayed as an outcast shunned for his unusual appearance and strange mannerisms. As a bit of an awkward misfit myself, I had always identified with characters who found themselves on the fringes of society. The Fool was a deeply complex character, sensitive and with a compassionate spirit, but also intensely private and occasionally caustic when his boundaries were violated.
The way the book was written and the way I interpreted it, I felt a deep attachment to the relationship between Fitz and the Fool. I’d read romance novels before, and some of the sections describing the Fool through Fitz’s eyes–as well as the Fool’s utter heartbreak upon their reunion, finding Fitz alive and yet broken–felt like reading a passage in a romance novel.
Add this to the fact that I’d read Liveship Traders already, and connected the dots between the Fool and Amber, with Amber’s declaration that Paragon’s new visage (a very recognizable one) bore the face of her one true love. Once again, this sort of aching pining was completely in line with the standard tropes and patterns of a romance novel.
A bit of a detour: at the time I read these books, I had yet to realize I was bisexual. I was raised in a very conservative environment and I’d grown up devouring fantasy novels and media throughout the late 80’s and 90’s. Throughout my childhood and young adulthood, high fantasy books had largely been a bastion of heteronormative tropes. While some fantasy with queer leanings did exist before RotE, it was not really the norm. This series was my personal introduction to high fantasy that explored questions of gender, as well relationships between characters who were not a cis-male/cis-female pairing.
After I inhaled the first three books, I moved on to the Tawny Man trilogy, which at the time was just two books in. I caught up with Golden Fool shortly before Fool’s Fate was released. I picked up Fool’s Fate from the bookstore on the day of its release and stayed up all night reading it despite having to work the next morning. Once again, this story portrayed an unshakeable bond between two characters, a love so deep that they would defy death itself to save each other.
It meant a lot to me, in some ways because I think it spoke to that part of me that still denied my own queerness. I connected to this relationship that defied the usual tropes in most of the fantasy I’d read. It helped me begin to explore some things about myself.
While the books also contain the clear analogy of the Wit magic as something shunned by society (which could be interpreted as a metaphor for queerness), I was more compelled by the heartfelt connection between Fitz and Beloved/The Fool. It was a relationship between two characters who could each easily be read as demisexual and asexual, though I didn’t know those terms yet. But to me, it still felt undeniably romantic. It would be years before I heard of the Split Attraction Model (the idea that romantic preferences and sexual preferences aren’t necessarily the same). But it made perfect sense to me that these two characters could be deeply in romantic love without experiencing sexual attraction, particularly the way the relationship between the two was written. The turns of phrase, the choice where to linger in a description, it had many of the trappings of a romance.
For example, the following excerpt from “Golden Fool” would fit neatly into the climax of a romance novel:
He shook his head then drew a deep breath. The words rushed out of him in a torrent. ”You know who I am. I have even given you my true name. As for what I am, you know that, too. You seek a false comfort when you demand that I define myself for you with words. Words do not contain or define any person. A heart can, if it is willing. But I fear yours is not. You know more of the whole of me than any other person who breathes, yet you persist in insisting that all of chat cannot be true. What would you have me cut off and leave behind? And why must I truncate myself in order to please you? I would never ask that of you. And by those words, admit another truth. You know what I feel for you. You have known it for years. Let us not, you and I, alone here, pretend that you don’t. You know I love you. I always have. I always will.” He spoke the words levelly. He said them as if they were inevitable. There was no trace of either shame or triumph in his voice. Then he waited. Words such as that always demand an answer.Robin Hobb, Golden Fool
In reading this as a romance, I saw aspects of myself that I was still exploring, still learning about. Fitz loved Molly, a cis woman, but he also loved Beloved, a character who shunned the gender binary. In Fitz, I saw someone who could love any gender (even despite the many ‘no homo’ moments in Golden Fool that made me grit my teeth, but even those moments felt like a character who was working through his own internalized prejudices to learn his own heart). This was new to me. I’d grown up with media like Buffy, who treated Willow’s relationship with Tara as “turning gay”, like she’d flipped a switch from Option A (straight) to Option B (lesbian), and presented those as the only two choices. There’s even that infamous quote from Sex and the City about bisexuality being “a layover to gaytown”. In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, seeing a protagonist of anything who was romantically interested in more than one gender was an anomaly, much less in epic high fantasy.
And Then I Read The Author’s Comments
Years went by. I would reread Fool’s Fate roughly once a year (and cry every time). I dabbled in fanclubs for a little while, but after about 2005, I largely enjoyed the books on my own. I’d yet to truly immerse myself in online fandom communities.
I attended a convention in 2009 that featured Hobb as guest of honor. She signed my book, and was thoughtful and kind when I met her. During some Q&A panels, she made comments about the relationship between Fitz and the Fool that left me scratching my head. Wait, they weren’t intended as a romantic relationship? I did some online digging and turned up other comments by the author, in which she expresses frustration in some readers’ interpretation of the relationship as romantic. (To be fair, I’m not certain the author’s stance on the split attraction model given the conflation of romance and sex in that post, which brings another facet into the discussion. And for me, it was also hurtful to read the bi erasure in the claim that loving a man would somehow invalidate a character also loving a woman).
But… if this bond was always intended to have zero romantic connotation, had I just misread these loving passages where Beloved/The Fool proclaimed his adoration for Fitz’s lost beauty? Or Amber/The Fool describing Fitz as “my one true love” during the Liveship Traders books? Or lines like “I place no boundaries on my love”? Yes, platonic love is as deep and as powerful as any other form of love, and this relationship could be interpreted as a deep platonic bond. But the way the passages were written, it could also very easily be read as romantic love, particularly with how the text echoed known tropes and patterns in the romance genre. It seemed odd to me that the author would insist that there was no possible way the passages could or should be read as romantic.
I felt like the text itself had been clearly leading me in one direction, while outside the text, the author insisted I was reading it wrong. Maybe this relationship that had touched me so deeply was all a lie, and I’d somehow betrayed the author and the story by reading it incorrectly. I respect Hobb immensely, and I adore her work, but I have to admit I have a differing philosophy on the life of a character after they leave an author’s head and venture onto the page for others to read.
While the author absolutely has the right to discuss whatever they wish after the piece is published, critique is a part of releasing a book and readers likewise have the right to say they’d hoped the story would go a different way. The author is the final word on the canon ending, but the emotions and reasoning behind the readers’ takeaway of the text are valid, too. For many queer readers who had seen themselves in this relationship and read it as romantic, they expressed sadness at the end of the Tawny Man trilogy because (even more so at the time) so few queer relationships in media had happy endings. No story exists solely in a vacuum, and they were bringing a wider experience of queer portrayals in media into their viewpoint.
My experience in reading this series contained as much of myself as it did Fitz. I interpreted his actions through my own past, my own biases, and my own view on life. Another reader will have a different experience because of what they bring to the table. And neither of those might match what the author sees through their lens.
How can one read a book wrong, if one is legitimately interacting with the text through their own lens and experience? Is it only “correct” to experience a text through the viewpoint of the author?
Enter “Death of the Author”
“Death of the Author” is a concept from literary criticism that declares an author’s intentions are irrelevant, that the piece of media should be interpreted on its own. This means that any after-the-fact tweets from the author about the meaning of a particular metaphor hold no more weight than any other reader’s interpretation of that metaphor.
Not all readers, critics, or authors agree with this philosophy; it’s divisive at best. For example, an author may change their views on a topic and wish it to be publicly known that they no longer support something they once wrote about.
However, I think there’s one important aspect of Death of the Author to consider, which is that a reader’s emotional reaction is always valid. One feels a certain way because they just do. Perhaps the author didn’t intend their book to be seen as allegory, but a subset of readers found meaning and catharsis in it. Is it ever the right of an author to dispute those readers’ newfound clarity?
As an author myself, I recognize that some readers may pull something from my books that I hadn’t intended. And personally, I don’t feel that it’s my place to tell them that they read it incorrectly, that their interpretation wasn’t what I meant. Especially if that reader saw something of themselves in a character, and connected with that. (For what it’s worth, if anyone ever wants to write a smutty rarepair fanfic based on my work, know that you go with my blessing even if I can’t read it for legal reasons). If someone asks me what I meant in a particular passage, I’ll answer, but it’s only one way to interpret what’s on the page–through the lens I bring to the text.
For a number of fantasy readers in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, the Realm of the Elderlings was the first time they got to see themselves in a story… Through a genderqueer character who was not defined solely by their gender, but instead it was only part of a multifaceted, complex and fully-realized person. Or they saw themselves in a relationship that was deeply romantic but asexual. Or a demisexual, panromantic protagonist. All of these interpretations could be reasonably extrapolated from the text. And these interpretations were incredibly meaningful to some fans.
Queer representation in the fantasy genre is expanding now, with doorstopper epics like Samantha Shannon’s Priory of the Orange Tree featuring a prominent f/f relationship, as well as genre-bending queer books like Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth, with one foot in fantasy and one in sci-fi. Fantasy video games like Dragon Age offer a myriad of queer romance subplots, while Skyrim allows any romanceable character to be wooed by any player character, regardless of gender (though the gender options in both games are still rather binary). But two decades ago, there were readers like me who had not seen queer representation in this genre before (or at least not often), readers who bonded to this story.
In the end, any piece of art is a work of collaboration with the audience. An author writes a book, but everyone who reads it is going to mingle their own essence with the story as they experience it. Are any of them “wrong” for bringing something into the book that the author hadn’t planned? Does that make the media any less impactful or important to those readers or that community?
I don’t really have the answers. But I know what these particular books meant to me, and that’s part of the beauty of storytelling. Once a book is set free into the world, it’s no longer truly and completely the author’s. It becomes a touchstone, a jumping-off point, a thing of emotional resonance that connects people. And I think that desire for connection is an impulse at the heart of many storytellers, myself included. If the reading is different than the one the author predicted, we should still find the joy in that sense of connection.
Stories, at their core, are about people and the bonds that bring us together. I don’t think anyone who finds personal meaning in a story is wrong for seeing something beautiful there, whether it’s what the author intended or not. It means the characters live and breathe. And that’s the best thing an author could ever hope for.