For years, I’ve been tinkering with an anthropomorphic-animal fantasy setting. Right now I’m calling it Pentra. Imagine something like The Elder Scrolls, but instead of having various races of humans, elves, orcs, and whatnot, every sapient species in the setting is like the Argonians or Khajiit: a family or genus of animal, walking upright and capable of speech, agriculture, magic, and so forth. I began work on the setting in college, when I wanted to write stories about the characters I’d invented on Furcadia back in high school, but felt dubious about appropriating the intellectual property of the Furc setting. Since then I’ve been on again, off again with it, never quite sure what to do with it. Sometimes I think I’ll make it into a tabletop role-playing game, sometimes I write stories and novels set there. Ultimately, who knows?
In any case, this is a post about love in that world: themes, cultural beliefs, differences in mindset about the topic between Pentra and Earth. Why? Well, “furry” fandom has a reputation for being sex-obsessed; I’ve tried a few different ways of distancing myself from that in my writing to date, but it’s tended toward cop-outs (“the people of Pentra just don’t make as big a deal about it as we do”) and the uncomfortably kyriarchal (characters with rigid codes of chastity). I’d like to achieve something better. So with this brainstorm, I set out to:
- Enliven the setting. Variety is fun! How might I use this speculative world to explode the notion of “love” and play with it?
- Break from kyriarchal assumptions. Can I build a setting that doesn’t fall prey to all the usual sexist, heterocentric, gender-binary, etc. traps?
- Provide story fuel. Whatever I do with this, it’s supposed to make good tales, collaborative or otherwise. Will this generate juicy conflicts and twisty undercurrents?
- Be unconventional, but not appropriative. One of the growing themes of Pentra is a clash-of-cultures thing, where these species with all different assumptions have been thrown together and mixed up, forming odd alliances and strange syncretisms. Can I build that theme without borrowing from real-world cultural traditions I have no right to?
- Make something that feels animalistic. There’s gotta be a point to the setting’s having animal species instead of varied human races. Can I make something that feels animal-like–or at least expresses a “furry” sociology like you’d find on Furcadia? (Preferably without the oversexed bits…)
So here goes. One word of warning: there’s a tangent or two that could be triggering for folks with sexual abuse or assault in their background. I’ve put those asides in footnotes, so you can pause at the break if needed.
The Five Loves
Pentra is sometimes called the “world of fives.” Where other worlds give particular significance to trinities, decades, cycles of forty, in Pentra the number most commonly shrouded in lore and superstition is five. It is an empty signifier, surely. But here as in many other places, a concept comes in five flavors: Pentrans love in five ways. Though they vary in their definitions and expressions, they are all, on some level, things we would call “love.” They involve attraction, from one theri (person) to another; a warmth of feeling; well-wishing; desire for closeness.
- Love in Words. Those who love each other in words are confidantes, secret-keepers, speech-mates, letter-friends. It is a love expressed in sharing of the self, of inner thoughts and fervent dreams, in exchange of stories of personal history and importance, over whatever distance one’s means of communication allow.
- Love in Touch. Those who love with touch are bed-mates, affectionate friends, lovers, comfort-givers. It is expressed in physical contact, whether hands held, a head tucked against a shoulder, or an intimate tryst. But it is all the same spectrum, the different expressions a matter more of degree than kind.*
- Love in Aid. Theri in aid-love are help-mates, partners, comrades in arms, companions in labor. It is the love expressed when you shoulder another’s physical burdens, come to the defense of their person, or collaborate with them on a scheme, project, or artistic work.
- Love in Worship. Love in worship is the classic “crush,” an infatuation, the state of limerence, the relation of followers to their hero. It desires little else than to see the object of affection return the feeling in kind, and clings to any scrap of hope that might occur.
- Love in Fertility. The fifth love is the drive for theri to procreate, to select a partner with whom to combine and pass on their lineage. It is breed-love, the love of sire and dam, the closeness attained by bringing a child into the world together.
Implications and Complications
Since differences between cultures are a major theme in the setting, how universal are these concepts across the world? The basic ideas of the five loves are widespread. If you were to take any two Pentran languages, it would not be difficult to find distinct words or phrases for each of the five that translate passably well between them. That said, every culture across the world treats them differently, valuing them differently, placing them with different degrees of priority in their social mores and family structures. One culture might consider love-in-worship a kind of mental illness, to be treated with stern rebuke, isolation from the object of adoration, and exile if it will not break. One culture might be very free and open with touch-love, its theri gathering in warm huddles of mutual affection, but treat word-love with the utmost privacy, the conversations between secret-keepers kept in reverence behind closed doors. And so on! Depending on the cultures and nations involved, love across borders might be of no consequence… or likely to produce a bloody Romeo and Juliet tragedy.
Sex and procreation are explicitly distinct; how does that work? A few things about Pentra make this possible despite the pseudo-medievalism of the world. For one, theri tend to be more in tune with their bodily rhythms of fertility than humans, lending clarity to their decisions on the depth of physical intimacy to pursue. But of course passion cannot always wait for convenience. Thankfully, herbal and alchemical contraceptive and abortifacient remedies are widely known and cheaply available. It’s possible that some culture, dying out of infertility, might censure the practice… but touch-love will have its due, and breed-love will not be coerced any more than any other of the five.
Is there anything special about having all five in the same relationship? This, too, differs, by culture and by individual. Most theri would consider the notion rather quaint, a sort of conservative romantic ideal that would most likely leave you lonely if you held out for it. Others might react with revulsion (“Snog my arms-brother? Ugh!”) or confusion (“Wouldn’t it be awkward to be infatuated with your child’s sire?”) to the idea.
Do theri get married? There can be formal, public bonds made commemorating any of the five. It’s perhaps most common to recognize love-in-fertility this way, especially among cultures that place a strong emphasis on blood lineage. Some of these tend to pair it with a vow of aid-love in the upbringing of the child, but it’s equally common to entrust the task of upbringing to other family members. It’s least common to recognize love-in-worship with a ceremony or legal document, given the often fleeting nature of the attraction–but in some places, a requited worship-love is seen as blessed, and a good excuse for a party! It’s worth noting, too, that not all Pentran cultures practice the sort of one-to-one, lifetime pair-bonding we think of with the term “marriage.” Many therian relationships, even formally recognized ones, can become complicated polyamorous sprawls, some members of the love-network bound formally, others with less commitment, many with different affirmed types of love connecting them. Confusing, messy, prone to soap-opera dramas: absolutely! But in between the thorny episodes we tell stories about, it can be quite a joyful arrangement.
What’s the love between parent and child, brother and sister, in this setup? Rather than a love unto itself, a familial bond acts as a sort of lens or filter over the other expressions. The child who burrows in between his parents to sleep seeks the comfort of love-in-touch.** A parent mentoring and guiding their child as they grow demonstrates a very special and particular love-in-aid. Siblings whispering secrets after their kin have gone to bed feel and show love-in-words. There is a different character to it due to the family connections, but they are understood to be expressions of the same core emotions.
Do these loves cross species lines? Definitely! In prehistoria, the species were isolated and did not know each other; when they first came together there was confusion and utter hatred; but over time a more cosmopolitan picture has arisen. All are theri. Given place, time, opportunity, and chemistry, a Reptile and an Ursine could love one another in any or all of the five ways. Only love-in-fertility requires some special consideration, since most species are not naturally capable of producing hybrid offspring. A pair of hopeful parents of different species can seek out an alchemist, life-mage, or evoker in hopes of obtaining a spell or blessing that will allow them to have children together. The resulting child typically belongs to one or the other species, but with some distinguishing characteristics of the other: a Canine with a fox’s shape but a snow-leopard coat, for instance. But full hybrids, too, are not unheard of.
What about gender and orientation? How do those fit in? Love in Pentra is nothing if not varied! Preferences of attraction can and do change from one theri to the next, from one love to the next, even over time. One theri might prefer to seek physical intimacy with others of their own sex, but tend to hero-worship or secret-keeping with those who present the opposite. Species, or races within a species, have different degrees of sexual dimorphism, too (consider: in our world, it takes some knowledge of zoology or biology to distinguish male from female birds of different species at a glance!), so cultured theri try not to assume anything about sex or gender from outward appearance. Moreover, the presence of magic opens up possibilities unheard of in our own world, similarly to the cross-species breed-love mentioned above. A skilled life-mage might transform from one sex to the other according to their desires or the desires of their mate. Such things also open up the possibility of childbearing between theri born of the same biological sex, and so on.
You mention “requited” a couple of times, which implies the existence of “unrequited” loves. There’s no way these things always work out happily-ever-after. Definitely not. The she-cat who would do any back- or heart-breaking labor for her aid-love who would not lift a finger for her in return; the stallion desirous of a child by one who would never deign to carry or nurse; the awkward jealous triangles of physical passions never quite aligned; these are all well-known stories and hard-felt truths. And of course those who meet and love for a time do not love always the same or forever, and the partings can be bittersweet or simply bitter. Take every drama and obstacle imagined in our particular notions of romance, and multiply it by five: thus it is in Pentra.
* Let it not be supposed that because sexual contact is a mere matter of degree in touch-love that Pentrans would have a cavalier attitude toward sexual violence. In fact, it’s all the clearer that they would see it as a horror and a violation; on the spectrum of invasion of personal space through assault, all such non-consensual “affections” are perversions of love-in-touch. Desire does not engender a right to have what is desired, and what takes by force instead of asking for a gesture given freely is not love. One could imagine stories, given the cultural-differences theme, where a theri mistakes some gesture as a granting of consent when in fact it isn’t–but I must say, I don’t especially want to go there. There are plenty of other tales to tell that don’t reek of rape apologia.
** “Okay, wise guy,” says some wise guy, “if snuggly family members are expressing love-in-touch, and sex is just one kind of love-in-touch, does that make incest OK in Pentra?” Uh. The furthest I’d go with that is to say that theri would be less squicked by sibling romances than we tend to be, assuming both parties’ age and maturity are sufficient for consent–owing in part to the rather universal assumption of contraceptives, dodging concerns about inbreeding. But parent-child and similar relationships would still lie beyond the pale. There’s entirely too much power imbalance between generations, even in a fantasy land of loose familial connections, for that to ever work out in a non-problematic way. Somewhere, yes, there is a line.