How would a plant love someone? With this year’s release of Guild Wars 2, we were introduced to the sylvari, a species born of plants whose entire design is predicated on flora of some sort or another–from their leafy hair to their branchy toes. I was intrigued at how the world building for this species worked, since they don’t procreate sexually. Instead, their manner of love depends purely on the emotional connection.
Enter Caithe, the hero who leads the sylvari player through their first missions. Caithe is also one of the group Destiny’s Edge, which is Guild Wars 2’s own supergroup who goes around helping in the various dungeons the players can explore. Over the course of going through personal quest lines and tackling the Twilight Arbor dungeon’s story mode we learn more about Caithe’s relationship to Faolain. Faolain, as we learn, went over to the dark side, otherwise known as the Nightmare Court (each species in the game has diametrically opposed factions that split down on a good/bad divide).
Their being in a same-sex relationship is not an issue at all, and is never actually brought up — they were companions, and now they are archenemies of a sort. It is in the way the romance is structured that it seems to fit into one other facet of the sylvari species: the overall adherence to knightly traditions and honor we can recognize from our own tropes.
Among those knightly traditions was the Minnelied, the name of the genre pertaining to this courtly love. Among its more popular renditions are the romance between Tristan and Isolde or Lancelot and Guinevere. At large, the theme was about holding love and its traditions to a higher, more ‘human’ level and not giving in to base urges. The catch was that they were not supposed to be carnal or bring shame upon themselves.
Given the anatomical functions of the sylvari, it’s difficult to ascertain if they even have sex for pleasure, but they do have companionship. While Caithe and Faolain do not have the typical arrangement, they are stuck in the star-cross’d lovers’ roles whereby their love is fated to disaster. They still make allusions to their love for each other throughout various snippets of dialog. However, they are stuck in not being able to express this love in anything but an adversarial manner.
In courtly traditions, the whole function of this love between a knight and a lady was to idealize the woman and tame the knight. She was a saint (and could be a sinner if she gave into base desires — that whole virgin or whore complex), and would serve as a model for what other women could achieve and inspire in men and women alike. In this situation, Caithe would fulfill the role of the lady who is trying to offer a better example for her lover. However, she only waits a short time before springing into action — she is a warrior and representative of the sylvari court herself. Instead of being about idealizing the lady on whom she is waiting (in this case, literally waiting for her to return and give up the Nightmare Court), she serves as an ideal herself.
While most of the races seem to treat the sexes in a fairly egalitarian manner, what with not wanting to alienate the actual playerbase, the sylvari really have no need for sex beyond how they wish to express their sexual traits and gender. This makes their adoption of courtly love almost show how much they are enamored with artifice and symbols to express themselves. The traditions on which they seem to be borrowing (likely from the humans, who show the closest parallels to our medieval history) have no practical use in their life beyond what they perceive their goals to be.
When adding their expressed gender into the equation, it does make a bit of sense that two women who are not stuck in the solely in the role of knight and lady-in-waiting do not have to follow the same rules for court tradition, that the sylvari lore, story, and traditions seem to be steeped in otherwise. Their being equal is not so much the cause of the adversarial nature, as it is that both parties have the right to choice, and one of them made a choice that leads them to have to combat each other.
In fact, the fall of Faolain does not cause Caithe to fall. Between Faolain’s choice incapable of ruining her lover, and Caithe being able to still lead and fight against the forces of evil without being shamed or exiled, the sylvari seem to be adapting the traditions as they see fit (of course, as they are borrowing our traditions into their world, there is bound to be some fudging of the rules). Given how recent their species has even been born into Tyria, it serves to almost make them a child set with the task of making their own choices about how they will grow up and into what they will become. This will likely morph and change as the game’s story continues to grow, whereby they adapt even further the artifice and traditions as they desire, and not what they see as hindering.