Wednesday, July 17, 2024

The Transience of Human Connections in GRRM’s The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr

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Part of the GRRM Reading Project.

First published in Fantastic in 1976, The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr is considered by George R. R. Martin (GRRM) as his first pure fantasy story as a professional writer.

“Keen-eyed readers will notice certain names and motifs that go all the way back to ‘Only Kids Are Afraid of the Dark,’ and other names and motifs that I would pick up and use again in later works.” (GRRM in Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective)

Sharra and her powers were originally meant for the Doctor Weird mythos, but by the late ‘70s Martin had moved away from his fanfiction days. He eventually moved away from Sharra as well; his plans to create more stories for her never came to fruition.

Not that it matters: the beauty of The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr is precisely how it values the transitory, and how something doesn’t need to last to be touching.

The girl who goes between the worlds

Sharra knows the gates between worlds, and traverses them in her quest. Little we know of how her journey begun or how it will end, only of the brief time she paused in the world of the lonely singer Laren Dorr.

She arrives wounded and weak, after a conflict with one of the guardians that watch the gates. Laren Dorr, the only person living in this world, finds and heals her. Long ago the Seven told him of Sharra and that he would love her. She has to go, to continue her search, but Laren asks her to stay with him for just a month. In exchange, he can show her where the next gate is. Sharra agrees.

Soon we learn of their origin stories: Sharra had a man she loved, one with powers like hers, that was taken away by the Seven. She’s been searching for him from world to world over centuries. Laren scarcely remembers his story: in some memories he was a god, in others he was a king. Whatever he was, he bothered the Seven and they took him away from all those he knew and loved. He’s been in this world for centuries, unable to leave.

They spend their days together, and at night Laren sings about them, who they might have been and who they were, with songs that come to life in beautiful visions. They explore the world together, and talk, and walk, and eat, and make love. But nothing has changed, and eventually it is time for Sharra to go.

The farewell is hard, and Sharra’s story is now lost in legend. All we know is that in an empty castle below a purple sun, Laren Dorr still sings of her.

A month, a moment; much the same

One of the points of the GRRM Reading Project is to identify patterns. Stylistic choices, recurrent themes, preferred tropes, character types, you name it. Being a non-native English reader hampers my understanding of linguistic subtleties, and the lack of a bigger background with genre fiction means that several references will be lost to me. Themes, however, are for eighth-grade book reports, so hopefully I can handle those.

If you’ve been following this project for a while, you know I’ve been pointing out the repetition of certain themes in Martin’s stories. Here we see them again: loneliness, love, loss, the brevity and importance of human connections.

Now, I may have a biased interpretation since I’m only reading the stories collected in Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective. If so, it’s at least telling that so many of the tales selected for a career-spanning retrospective approach similar topics. These are supposed to represent Martin’s body of work, after all.

Repeated as the themes may be, each story shines over them a new light. Sometimes it doesn’t quite work with me, sometimes it works like a charm. The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr falls into the same group as A Song for Lya, where I find the story touching and effective. This is entirely subjective, and I can see different readers having different responses.

So what makes some of these narratives work better than others?

In part it’s because stories like A Song for Lya and The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr have two lovers who are more or less equally important to the story. This creates a balance of perspectives, and we can see how they interact with and affect each other. In stories like The Second Kind of Loneliness, This Tower of Ashes, or Meathouse Man, we follow mainly a male perspective over a lost love, but little we know of the love itself. We have the aftermath of the connection and its mainly negative impact, but we see little of why it mattered in first place.

Furthermore, romances focusing on a male perspective risk having two-dimensional or idealized female characters, which is a pet peeve of mine and one that can still be found in Martin’s writing to this day. Lya or Laren Dorr may not be perfect in that regard, but they at least give you a sense of who these characters are and why we should care about their relationship.

Finally, both A Song for Lya and The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr are not negative stories. I’m not fond of grimdark, so of course I tend to appreciate that. But I would like to elaborate on this aspect.

How they briefly touched

Don’t get me wrong, we’re not talking about happy stories here. A Song for Lya is a romance that ends in suicide by being eaten alive for one of the parties and presumably perpetual emotional scars for the other. The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr also doesn’t strike me as particularly cheerful. Neither characters may ever achieve the goal they spent their immortal lives pursuing, both are profoundly lonely and literally damned by the gods, and their presence in each other’s lives is explicitly meant not to last.

And yet. Yet. The emphasis is not on loneliness and the weight of loss, but on the human connections that mitigates these feelings even if just a bit. The emphasis is that these connections matter.

When we talk about Martin’s approach to fantasy in A Song of Ice and Fire, we often praise his deconstruction of fantasy tropes. More than that, I would say that he denies the easy answers that such tropes often provide. Lesser stories will give you social rewards just because you are the hero, but Martin argues that it’s not so simple. The same happens when he writes romantic relationships: there are no easy answers, love does not last forever nor does it magically solve all problems.

A Song for Lya argues that even when two humans are as together as humans can be, they still can’t complete each other. They can’t eliminate the negative feelings, the loneliness, the emptiness, at least not entirely:

I didn’t want to be here anymore, ever, in this place, this awful place. I would have been, Robb. Men are always here, but for brief moments.

A touch and a voice?

Yes, Robb. Then darkness again, and a silence. And the darkling plain.

In The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr, love motivates both characters to a god-defying point. But there’s also a recognition of its limitations, even when the relationship has the possibility of literally lasting forever:

“I remember love vaguely, I think I can recall what it was like, and I remember that it never lasts. Here, with both of us unchanging and immortal, how could we help but to grow bored? Would we hate each other then? I’d not want that.’ He looked at her then, and smiled an aching, melancholy smile. ‘I think that you had known Kaydar for only a short time, to be so in love with him. Perhaps I’m being devious after all. For in finding Kaydar, you may lose him. The fire will go out some day, my love, and the magic will die. And then you may remember Laren Dorr.’”

(that was a dick move, Laren!)

I’m not as cynical as to think all love stories end up in boredom, but the main problem with the concept of “happily ever after” is that all love stories do end—even if it’s till death do us part. And what matters is not that the relationship ended, but that it existed. Even a brief encounter is worth cherishing, remembering, celebrating. Not because it fixes everything or completes us, but because it makes the night less dark and less lonely.

The relationship between Sharra and Laren has its problems, and the above quote illustrates that well. However, its power resides in its impact for both characters. From the beginning we are warned this is just a brief moment in Sharra’s journey, but it’s no less real or important because of that. It’s still a story deemed worth telling.

In contrast to Meathouse Man’s conclusion that love is a lie, what strikes me as positive in stories like A Song for Lya and The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr is that human connections are worth celebrating even if they’re not perfect, even if they don’t last. Lasting forever is not the point.

Martin here doesn’t just celebrate imperfect human connections, he values them for what they are. Imperfect as they are, they matter. They still have the power to change us, to comfort us, to make us better or happier. We celebrate these connections because they make us stronger, because when the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies but the pack survives.

Maybe I’m giving Martin too much credit or reading too much into his stories. But his most sublime writing happens when he finds beauty even through painful experiences. Folks that stick to a grimdark reading of his works are missing something precious.

Final thoughts:

  • Talking about loneliness and human connections in Martin’s work always brings me to A Song of Ice and Fire, specifically in how isolated the characters are. I don’t think that’s an accident. In fact, I can’t wait for 2050, when we finally have The Winds of Winter and those characters find each other.
  • I’ve talked about Martin’s approach to genre fiction before. Here, again, he uses a genre background to explore universal experiences and existential questions, something he continues to do.
  • The ending heavily implies that Laren Dorr was the guardian of his world. It’s established that all worlds have a guardian, and “There are some who hold you with weapons, some with chains, some with lies. And there is one, at least, who tried to stop you with love. Yet he was true for all that, and he never sang you false.” Anyone else shares this impression?
  • The idea of songs bringing visions to life reminds me of the elvish songs in The Lord of the Rings. Martin is a Tolkien fanboy, so I wonder if this was actually an influence for him.
  • Martin is notorious for his food descriptions, dividing readers between those who like them and those who don’t. I’m not particularly fond of them, but it amuses me to see how far in his bibliography we can trace them. So many interactions between Sharra and Laren happen during meals!

Next time: the much awaited moment when we’ll tackle “Dying of the Light”, Martin’s first novel.

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