Literary ManLove Through the Ages: Jade Astor


No one reading would be surprised to hear that the popularity of m/m e-books is at an all-time high and growing every day. However, some might not realize that literary ManLove is hardly a new thing. It’s actually been around for more than 2,000 years, though of course literary tastes and the level of explicitness has changed quite a bit over the millenia. Though the early authors of m/m fiction could never have predicted the current craze for these stories, they would certainly have understood the satisfaction readers get from following a pair (or even a trio) of strong, passionate heroes on a journey of love and adventure.

One of the earliest literary duos who may have been more than friends was Gilgamesh and Enkidu from the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates to about 2,000 B.C. In this story, Gilgamesh is a powerful and handsome king who unfortunately spends too much time oppressing his people and making war on surrounding communities. In order to provide him with some less destructive activities, the Sumerian gods create a special friend for him—Enkidu, a wildman they fashion out of clay and set free to roam in the forest (sounds a bit like a modern e-book already, doesn’t it?). The king tames the wildman, whom the gods tell him he is fated to “love like a woman” (whatever that might mean!)  and the two become inseparable companions until Enkidu grows ill and dies. This time Gilgamesh is the one who goes wild, so overcome with grief he leaves his kingdom and runs off into the forest, wailing and tearing his clothes. Eventually, he comes to terms with his loss and commissions a great statue of his dearest companion. Not exactly a happy ending, but it’s still a memorable story filled with larger-than-life adventure and a towering passion between two men.

Everyone who has studied Ancient Greece knows that male/male relationships were not only condoned but honored in that particular time and place. Some 1,300 years after Gilgamesh, the poet Homer composed The Iliad, which told the tragic story of the Trojan War. Though the text is ambiguous with respect to the actual relationship between the hero, Achilles, and his closest friend, Patroclus, the later Greeks who commented on the story had no problem interpreting theirs as a love relationship. In fact, it is believed that at least one Greek play was performed around 500 B.C. that openly depicted the two as lovers who were physically involved. The drama is now lost to history (possibly because later cultures found the content objectionable), but Mary Renault attempted to recreate it in her novel of the Athenian theater, The Mask of Apollo. In the novel, a young actor flirts with his own older male lover by reciting spicy lines of dialogue from the putative play in question. Other Greek texts also make frequent and unashamed use of male/male themes, with the philosopher Plato even suggesting that an army made up of pairs of male lovers would be the ideal military unit. One wonders what he would have made of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”!

“Many readers are astonished to learn that his famous sonnets, including “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” were actually addressed to a young man, possibly Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton.”

With the coming of the Christian era, male/male relationships were forced to go underground for a few centuries. When such depictions did occur in mainstream literature, it was in the context of a punishable crime or mortal sin, such as the Sodomites who suffer eternal flames in Dante’s Inferno. Not until the Renaissance did social mores relax enough that homoerotic art (such as that created by Michelangelo and da Vinci) became acceptable and even commonplace again. This was partly due to the revived interest in Greek and Roman literature and statuary, which had been considered taboo during the Middle Ages.

Of course, when one thinks of Renaissance literature, one automatically thinks of Shakespeare. Many readers are astonished to learn that his famous sonnets, including “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” were actually addressed to a young man, possibly Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. Though no one knows for sure, some scholars believe that Shakespeare and Henry might actually have had a physical relationship. Rereading the sonnets with this in mind can give one a whole new perspective on literary study!

By the time the early Modern Era rolled around, much had changed since the early days of literature. The Epic of Gilgamesh was carved on rock tablets—not exactly portable—and Greek plays were stored on papyrus scrolls that were sadly vulnerable to fire and other mishaps. By the 1800s, though, printing was commonplace and afforable, and the market for novels and underground publications had exploded (somewhat like the e-book market has today). Gay male literature, though still not accepted in the mainstream, was available for those who knew where to look, and by the end of the century an infamous book exploded onto the scene. Teleny appeared in England in 1893, and was shockingly explicit in its descriptions of male sexuality.

Naturally, since male homosexuality was actually illegal in Victorian England, the book was published anonymously, but some readers believed it had been written, at least in part, by the scandalous author Oscar Wilde. Wilde had been sent to prison for having male/male relations around this time, so perhaps it was inevitable that he would be associated with the rather poorly-written Teleny. Still, for all its outward propriety, the Victorian world was awash in novels that can accurately be called pornographic, many of which featured male/male encounters. More sensitive treatments of the same material were harder to find, though authors were writing them. E. M. Forster’s novel Maurice is a good example. Written in 1912, the book depicts a love affair between an upper-class Englishman and a working-class man which was loosely based on Forster’s own relationship with his partner. Though tame by today’s standards, the contents were considered so shocking at the time that the book was not published until 1971. It became an acclaimed film starring Hugh Grant much later, in 1987.

“Special presses dedicated only to gay paperbacks began to spring up, offering everything from raw, explicit pornography to gay-themed mysteries and softer romances.”

By the time Maurice finally hit the bookstores, the world had changed yet again. In the wake of the sexual revolution, explicit stories about every type of relationship were in demand and selling well. An old joke stated that “the love that dared not speak its name now refused to shut up.” Novels like the controversial Cruising by Gerald Walker (later to become an even more controversial movie) and City of Night by former male prostitute John Rechy were openly displayed in bookstores and libraries. No longer did writers have to hide behind pseudonyms or Ancient Greek settings. Special presses dedicated only to gay paperbacks began to spring up, offering everything from raw, explicit pornography to gay-themed mysteries and softer romances. Underground publications were bubbling out, too, as heterosexual women wrote what became known as “slash” fanzines featuring their favorite male TV characters. The current growth of the e-book market owes a lot to these pioneers, as many of the paranormal and sci-fi themes common to fanzines soon drifted into the wider field of gay-themed genre fiction.

Since the field is still growing and expanding by the day, it’s impossible to say what the next trend might be. It’s been 4,000 years since Gilgamesh first laid eyes on Enkidu, and we now read about their adventures on feather-light tablets instead of bulky stones. Yet a long and honorable tradition connects all these works. They owe their longevity not just to the brave authors who created them even when facing ostracism or imprisonment, but to the readers who have sought them out across such vastly different cultures and media.

By Jade Astor


photo credit: atonal via photopin cc