In Laura Kinsale’s medieval romance novel “For My Lady’s Heart,” there’s one scene where the heroic knight Ruck is guiding the noble lady Melanthe through the north of England, an area, he explains, which he has visited before while hunting dragons. Melanthe is doubtful that dragons exist in that part of the world, but Ruck insists he has killed one. Melanthe still demures…perhaps, she suggests, he merely encountered a large basilisk. He assures her that it must have been a dragon,and after a rousing tale of his battle, he offers to show her its bones, which are located in a church close by. And sure enough he does:
She saw it immediately. The skull lay in the shaft of light from the door, enthroned upon a wide bench below the crude altar. It was huge, and nothing like a basilisk’s eagle head. Just as he had said, a long and pointed snout, with great eye and nostril hollows and vicious teeth like no living creature she had ever seen. Remains of its spine lay scattered in a rough line down the bench. A fan of thinner bones, like an enormous hand or a wing, was assembled carefully on a nearby talble.
“It is a dragon.” Melanthe strode into the church, stripping off her gloves, leaving the knight leaning upon the door to hold it open. She bent over the skull.
And, bending over, she discovers that the skull is not a real skull; it’s made of stone. The dragon isn’t a dragon after all, and Ruck certainly didn’t kill it. He was lying…or, as he says, simply telling “A tale, my lady, that I made for your pleasure.”
The twist here is that the reader doesn’t necessarily know that it’s just a tale any more than Melanthe does. It’s true that up to this point in the novel, there haven’t been any fantasy elements — Kinsale’s medieval milieu includes a lot of talk of witchcraft and enchantment, but (at least until we reach the dragon) it’s all explained naturalistically. But this is a novel, not a history, and Ruck is a very honest, straightforward character — certainly as I read, I felt, with Melanthe, that maybe, possibly, he really had killed a dragon. Maybe there were more things, not necessarily in heaven and earth, but in this book than I’d initially thought. It would be fun to suddenly have a fantasy dragon make a walk-on in the middle of a romance novel. It could happen, couldn’t it?
That tease — the delighted possibility that the fantastic might be real, and the concomitant delight/reversal/disappointment that is isn’t — is a kind of magical, virtuoso acknowledgement, or demonstration, of the links and disjunctions between the genres of fantasy and romance. Romance is often sneered at for its lack of realism; for the way that, when “My lady wished a firedrake,” as Ruck says, a firedrake, and/or a perfectly noble man, is provided. Yet, if romances are about wish fulfillment, historicals like this one are also about period detail — the machinations of the Italian court, the intricacies of Ruck’s armor, even the lapse into a readable but still well-researched form of Middle English. Reality in fiction (and perhaps elsewhere?) is a negotiation; a matter of tropes and trust. Which is why Melanthe is not, in fact, delighted with Ruck’s tale. Instead, she becomes enraged, telling him coldly, “If I find thee in a lie to me again, knight, thou will rue it to thy early death.”
Melanthe’s freak out seems like caprice. But it’s actually part of the romance plot. “There is but one person on the earth that I trust, and that is thee,” she tells Ruck, by way of explaining why his dragon fiction upset her. Melanthie herself, having married into an important Italian house, with all the backstabbing and intrigue that that (stereotypically) implies, has been trained to lie constantly, to stifle all her natural impulses and do the opposite of what she feels. “I have some talents in common with base liars and cowards,” she tells Ruck bitterly.
The lying, at least, is something she has in common with Kinsale, the author of the story, as well. At one point Melanthe tells Ruck that she is always lying, and that’s the truth — everything she says is fiction. For that matter, even Ruck’s honesty is a fiction — except, perhaps, when he makes up that story about the dragon. The fiction really is a fiction; dragons, in the book and outside the book, aren’t real.
Kinsale’s narrative, for the most part, is organized to demonstrate the virtue of Ruck’s straightforward honesty in opposition to the treachery and deceit of the manipulative dusky southerners. But that binary of good-truth/evil-lies has many caveats and winks. Ruck passes Melanthe off as his “wench” at one point in order to protect her from kidnapping — or is it instead, extra-diegetically, so that she can play at being his to do with as he will, just as, through much of the rest of the novel, she is his lady, and he must do her bidding? It’s the pretense of being his lover that precipitates their first actual intercourse, immediately preceded by their private commitment of marriage before God and each other in the darkened bed-chamber. True love comes through a lie…or, if you want to take it back a step, the fiction of true love is delivered through the play-acting characters realizing that the fiction they are acting is the truth.
The declaration and marriage come somewhat early on in the book; there are many contrivances, most of them unlikely, before you get to the also-not-especially-likely happy-ever-after. But to complain about the improbability seems as churlish as Melanthe getting upset that her knight has told her a story. For that matter, even Melanthe has to admit that the Ruck’s fiction “was somewhat agreeable.” What romance writers and romance readers know, perhaps, is that it’s not so much whether the dragon’s tale is true, as whether it is told with love.