For our #GettingLucky Twitter love story event on March 16, I’m writing about some of my all-time favorite literary leading men. I’ll probably add a post on leading ladies in the future, since it takes two to share smoldering looks across a crowded room.
Why leading men? You can’t have a good love story without a swoon-worthy romantic lead. Some of them are dark and brooding, others a sweet and loving, some noble, others not so much, but they all have that magnetic spark that inevitable attracts their leading ladies, and the readers.
As you can probably guess, a great leading man isn’t a stock character. He has to be someone you can picture as a real person, and identify with his triumphs and travails. He sometimes falters on his quest (whether for the Holy Grail or the heroine’s hand) and loses his way, but you root for him nonetheless. I’m not going to focus on the typical romance hero, because in many ways, he is a stock character. Also, I don’t think great romances are limited to just one genre.
Quick note: there are spoilers below, as I couldn’t discuss these heroes without disclosing specific story details.
1. King Arthur (Arthurian Cycle)
[Arthur to Guinevere]:“They call this the Land of Summer,” he whispered quietly, as if he feared to wake me. “I guess that makes you my Queen of the Summer Stars.” (from QUEEN OF THE SUMMER STARS by Persia Woolley)
Born under mysterious (sometimes sinister) circumstances, Arthur is an almost superhuman figure that looms large in English legend and literature.
The illegitimate son of a great (but philandering) king and a beautiful queen, Arthur is raised in obscurity until he has greatness thrust upon him. Under the watchful eye of the wizard Merlin, Arthur successfully unites Britain, following the fall of the Roman Empire and the threat of Saxon invasion.
Everything seems peachy for a while. Britain is enjoying relative peace and prosperity. Arthur seems to have everything going for him, from his lovely wife, Guinevere, to his much-admired Knights of the Round Table.
Yet, something is rotten in Camelot. Betrayal lurks around every stone corridor. Unbeknownst to him, his best friend (and best knight) Lancelot is making time with Gwen, and their forbidden love will ultimately tear the kingdom apart. Arthur also sows the seeds of his own destruction, not just by turning a blind eye to Gwen and Lancelot’s betrayal, but by fathering a child with his half-sister Morgan. Sensing his impending doom, Arthur’s enemies come calling for his blood. Arthur eventually dies in battle at the hands of his son. Camelot lays in ruins and an era closes.
Yet, Arthur continues to live on in stories. In fact, he’s achieved an almost Christ-like status as a legendary character. It is said that he will rise and come to Britain’s aid when she needs him the most. So even in death, the spirit of Arthur lingers, protecting his realm.
I honestly never had a literary crush on Arthur until reading Persia Woolley’s GUINEVERE series. I respected him as a great king and military strategist, and I always enjoyed the cycle of legends surrounding him. But Woolley’s series changed all of that.
Like all of her characters, even the minor ones, Arthur leaps off the page and seems like a real person—not at all a stock character. When we meet him, he’s spent his entire life being groomed by Merlin to succeed Uther Pendragon as High King of Britain. The eve Arthur finally meets his father, the boy is thrust into battle. Instead of shrinking as one might expect a young boy with little military experience to do, Arthur rises to the occasion, even defending his ailing father from enemy swords and sustaining wounds on his behalf. When Uther dies, Arthur accepts his role as High King with grace and sets about strengthening his kingdom.
His business-like approach to ruling his country might be a bit off-putting to some, but his relationship with Gwen is what makes Arthur relatable, even dashing. Interestingly enough, Gwen initially wants nothing to do with Arthur, but once she meets him, she falls in love almost immediately, and I can see why. Arthur is an intelligent, unassuming king who cares deeply for this people.
One of my favorite moments is when, one the eve of war, Gwen is to be blessed by Morgan, and Arthur interrupts the ceremony to steal Gwen away to be wedded and bedded (his words, not mine).
Now, Arthur is not entirely perfect. He’s actually deeply flawed in many ways that lead to his and his kingdom’s fall. He trusts the wrong people and rejects his wife when she needs him the most, driving her into the arms of Lancelot. Despite his flaws, you still root for him and want him to come out on top, even though you know how the story ends and know it could never end any other way.
2. Sir Lancelot (Arthurian Cycle)
[Lancelot to his horse, with Guinevere looking on]: “You must tell her I would have neither of us do anything that would hurt the King…but surely to laugh at little; to catch a moment of beauty and know there is another who sees it, too; to look with trust upon each other as well as Arthur…that need not be treacherous or deceitful.” (from QUEEN OF THE SUMMER STARS by Persia Woolley)
Fans are usually divided between Arthur and Lancelot, and I can understand why. No one wants to admit to liking the guy who was partially responsible for the fall of Camelot. I personally love Arthur and Lancelot both, for different reasons.
A prince in his own right, Lancelot is raised by the Lady of the Lake (who gives Arthur his magic sword, Excalibur) and comes to serve Arthur as one of his Knights of the Roundtable. Brave and true, Lancelot is everything a reader would want in a medieval knight. In many ways, he would be a Marty Stu, if not for his fatal flaw: his love for Queen Guinevere.
When we meet Lancelot, he’s described as the perfect knight: excellent in battle and easy on the eyes. Many a lady in waiting has swooned for him. Some, like the Lady of Shalott, have wasted away for love of him. Only one woman managed to earn his eternal love, and she happened to be entirely forbidden.
Part of Gwen and Lancelot’s appeal as a couple is their forbidden love. It’s human nature to want what you can’t have, and (as Adam and Eve can attest) forbidden fruit always tastes sweeter. As a reader you know it isn’t right, but you’re with them the entire way. I always feel conflicted reading about Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere, because I love them all and want things to work out for them, but three’s a crowd and husbands usually frown at being cuckolded.
The thing about tragic romances is that they force us to turn our eye inward and examine our own lives. Lancelot, for all his outward perfections, embodies a wavering of the soul that marks him as deeply human. He finds himself tempted by fate, and gives in. Were he truly the perfect knight, he might have turned away, and Camelot may or may not have avoided its bloody fate, but he didn’t. His love for Gwen was stronger than his moral fiber, and he chose to surrender his ideals for her. They both pay in public embarrassment and strife, and, at the end of their lives repent the suffering they brought upon the king. Gwen herself refuses to see Lancelot in her final days, willing herself to die before he arrives at her deathbed.
Beyond just a story of two tragic adulterers, Gwen and Lance’s tale shines a bright light on our own sense of morality. If we were in their place, would we make different choices, or would the siren call of love everlasting to be too strong for us to resist?
I enjoyed Lancelot’s portrayal in Woolley’s novels as well. Usually his first meeting with Gwen is described as love at first sight, but Woolley takes a different approach with the couple. They can hardly stand each other initially but are united only by their love for Arthur. Yet, as they come to know and understand one another (Lancelot’s initial dislike being based on misinformation), they fall in love. What Woolley does well is paint the struggle these two would-be lovers have. They understand they circumstance of a potential romance, and do their best to resist. Their chemistry is so palpable that I couldn’t help but root for them throughout QUEEN OF THE SUMMER STARS. And because I know how their story ends, I can’t bring myself to yet read GUINEVERE: THE LEGEND IN AUTUMN.
MERLIN’S HARP by Anne Eliot Crompton gives us an unusual take on Lancelot and his origins, as well as a surprising twist on his relationship with Guinevere. Crompton’s story is an exploration on how a bit of innocent mischief can have far-ranging consequences. In this case, it leads to the fall of Camelot.
Further reading (for Arthur and Lancelot):
3. Howell Jenkins (HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE)
[Sophie Hatter’s assessment of Howl to the King of Ingary]: “Well, he’s fickle, careless, selfish, and hysterical,” she said. “Half the time I think he doesn’t care what happens to anyone as long as he’s all right—but then I find out how awfully kind he’s been to someone. Then I think he’s kind just when it suits him—only then I find out he undercharges poor people. I don’t know, Your Majesty. He’s a mess.”
HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE is my favorite book by my favorite author, Diana Wynne Jones. And Howl may be one of my favorite characters (though he does face some stiff competition from Christopher Chant). And it doesn’t seem that I’m alone in my love for Howl. Jones would discuss, with great dismay, the number of readers who wanted to marry Howl. She seemed mystified by his romantic appeal, but there are many reasons he gives readers a bad case of the sighs.
And what’s not to love about Howl, the novel’s leading man? Well, quite a bit, it would seem. With a penchant for finery (just don’t dye his hair ginger or he might throw a tantrum involving green slime) and pretty ladies, Howl is every mother’s nightmare. Fickle, shallow, and spendthrift besides, Howl is not the guy a girl would want to take home to mother (or her aunts; aunts being liable to beat him about the head when he breaks their nieces’ hearts). Once he entices a girl into falling in love, he loses interest and moves onto the next conquest. (At one point in the novel he acquires a charmed suit that makes women fall in love with him.)
Howl also avoids duty like a bad cold, even going so far as to move his castle out into no man’s land, where the king cannot reach him. He spends every dime he makes and lives in squalor (just ask his spiders). And yet, he’s the guy that girls can’t stop thinking about, with his courtly manners, striking glass green eyes, and lively personality. (If you watch the animated version of the book, Howl is what the Japanese call a bishounen: a beautiful boy. Although I don’t like the movie as much as I like the book, mostly because Howl is very little fun, I love the movie’s physical portrayal of Howl.)
Howl is also cloaked in a mysterious air. Born to “strange sights and things invisible to see”, Howl makes his home in Ingary (a world parallel to ours) as a wizard. He jealously guards his identity, cooking up several pseudonyms, as well as stories. Howl himself is the origin of the rumor that he eats his lovers’ hearts—all to dissuade curious visitors and convince the king that he has “gone to the bad” and can therefore slither out of any duty he may have to the king. All of this may point to a character riddled with cowardice and self-absorption, but with Howl what you see is not often what you get.
Part of what makes Howl compulsively readable is his relationship with Sophie Hatter. Sophie finds herself on the wrong side of a witch’s curse that turns her into an old woman. She eventually arrives at Howl’s castle and bullies her way in the door. After striking a secret bargain with Howl’s fire demon (who promises to break her curse if she breaks his), Sophie sets about bullying and investigating Howl by equal turns.
With Howl running from his duty and Sophie convinced that he’s a cad, their headbutting is generally hilarious to behold, particularly when he scolds her for victimizing them with her compulsive neatness. All the while, their attraction and love burbles in the background (Howl, we learn, knows all about Sophie’s curse and is working to secretly remove it). As a reader, I took delight in Sophie’s point of view, and how she constantly hides her true feelings for Howl from herself, until she can no longer deny her attraction to him.
And you can see why Sophie gradually falls in love with Howl (charmed suit be damned). Beneath Howl’s artificial exterior, beats the heart of a true hero. In fact, his heart is well-hidden, but it guides his every action. It’s why he takes in Sophie, the bossy girl-turned-old-lady, as well as the urchin Michael. It’s why he undercharges poor clients. His soft heart and sense of duty is why he ultimately fulfills his magical destiny, despite seeming to run away from it at full speed.
Further reading (Howl’s Castle Series):
4. Fitzwilliam Darcy (PRIDE AND PREJUDICE)
“In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” (from Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth Bennet)
Just the name “Mr. Darcy” is enough to send readers to the fainting couch with a bad case of the vapors. Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy from Jane Austen’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE are one of literature’s most popular couples, making them practically synonymous with Happily Ever After. And it’s clear readers can’t get enough of Lizzy and Darcy, two of literature’s most complex characters. Over the years, a veritable cottage industry of Pride and Prejudice-inspired stories has grown. We can now read about the couple fighting both their feelings for each other, as well as the occasional zombie.
But no one ever claimed that the road to Happily Ever After was easy. For one, Lizzy and Darcy take an almost immediate dislike to one another due to perceived slights. (Fun fact: PRIDE AND PREJUDICE was originally called FIRST IMPRESSIONS.) Set in pre-Victorian England, the world of Pride and Prejudice is one where women are second-class citizens, beholden to the whims of the marriage gods. We learn that the Bennet family has no sons, and upon Mr. Bennet’s death, the estate is entailed to a male relative. The women are in danger of being tossed out on their ears, with no money or connections, unless they can marry well. Opportunity presents itself when wealthy Mr. Bingley makes his home in the countryside, not far from the Bennet estate, and falls in love with Jane Bennet.
Lizzy and Darcy also meet, but their first meeting is less than amicable. Like Howl, Darcy does not first appear to be a man who should make readers swoon. He’s standoffish and prideful, seeming to hold almost everything in contempt. Yet, with Darcy, actions speak louder than harsh words. He’s loyal to his close friends and family, and generous as well. Yet Lizzy doesn’t easily see these qualities.
From her point of view, Darcy is brusque, and her “astonishment is beyond expression” when he first proposes to her (as a reader I wasn’t surprised, based on how Darcy would go on about the pretty shape of her eyes). Still reeling over her dislike of Darcy and the fact that he helped separate Jane and Bingley, Lizzy rejects him. That he isn’t exactly gracious in her rejection doesn’t win her over, either, but Darcy soon sets to work on changing Lizzy’s mind, not through sweet nothings, but deliberate acts of kindness towards those she loves.
Darcy is able to overcome his pride and admit that he was wrong about Lizzy and her family, while Lizzy overcomes her prejudice against Darcy and is able to see the loving soul beneath the prickly exterior. Because of this, Darcy isn’t only a dashing leading man because of his good looks and fortune, but for his ability to grow and change.
5. Prince Lir (THE LAST UNICORN)
“I would court you with more grace,” [Lir] said [to the Lady Amalthea], “if I knew how. My dragons and my feats of arms weary you, but they are all I have to offer. I haven’t been a hero for very long, and before I was a hero I was nothing at all, nothing but my father’s dull, soft son. Perhaps I am only dull in a new way now, but I am here, and it is wrong of you to let me go to waste. I wish you wanted something of me. It wouldn’t have to be a valiant deed—just useful.”
At first glance, Prince Lir doesn’t seem like much of a hero, or a leading man, for that matter. Beagle describes him as “soft and pleasant like a marshmallow”—sweet, but lacking substance. When we meet Lir, he’s wooing a princess, who’s engaged in wooing a unicorn. When the unicorn does not come, Lir says, in a resigned tone, “now we can be married,” and leads the disappointed princess off. Not exactly the stuff of fairy tales and grand romances.
What Lir does not realize is that he’s part of a fairy tale, and the unicorn (later transformed into the Lady Amalthea) who will become the love of his life, was watching this entire exchange. She takes little notice of him and canters off to continue her quest to learn the fate of her people. I even forgot about the bored prince, until I meet him later in the story. Like Arthur’s and Lancelot’s, Lir’s origin is mysterious, but it’s not enough to mark him as a hero. King Haggard, the tyrant that rules the Red Bull, found baby Lir in the street and raised him. Lir, however, turned out to be a disappointment to Haggard, as is nearly everything Haggard beholds (except only unicorns), and is a bit of an underachiever.
Until, of course, a beautiful stranger arrives at his castle. Lir is instantly smitten, and begins his transformation from a slightly squishy prince to a true hero worthy of her love. Convinced that the Lady Amalthea, like all fine ladies, may be won by noble deeds, Lir travels far and wide to kill dragons, battle black knights, and generally make himself to nuisance to evildoers everywhere. Yet none of it sways Amalthea, who remains as indifferent as ever. Most men might have given up at this point and moved on to a more accommodating lady. Not Lir. He starts to write her (really terrible) love poetry, with the hope of plucking her heartstrings. But it’s not until he sings to her that Amalthea begins to soften to the prince, and eventually falls in love with him too. Despairing of completing her quest, Amalthea surrenders to her life as a woman and allows Lir to invent a life and opinions and even love for her.
But like all true heroes, Lir has to make difficult choices. By falling in love with him, Amalthea is in danger of abandoning her mission—and the world’s unicorns to their fate. Amalthea herself begs Lir not allow Schmendrick change her back into a unicorn, and tells Lir that she wants to grow old and die with him—a tempting offer.
But having grown a hero’s heart, Lir realizes that his desires are secondary to the fate of the unicorns. Unlike his father, Lir is not content to clutch at happiness, only to have it grow wretched and slip from his fingers. He pushes Amalthea towards her own heroic destiny, despite what it costs them both. Unlike Lancelot and Guinevere who surrendered to their love to the detriment of a kingdom, Lir gives up that which he loves most to save her and her people. And he does this because of his love for Amalthea, which nearly costs Lir his life, when he intervenes between the unicorn and the Red Bull. As the story ends, Lir and the unicorn remember and love one another, but can never be together. Yet what they accomplished together is deeper than love and more poignant than sacrifice. They are forever marked by their quest, like Frodo at the end of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, and forever united by what they gave up.
Characters make or break every story, but this is especially true for a romantic male lead. Each of the gentlemen above enriches his respective story in a unique way. Without his flaws and foibles, his nobility and grace, he would be lesser, and so would his story. Like any great character, he needs to take a journey along with the reader to fulfill his heart’s desire, which in this case is his leading lady. It doesn’t always end well, but who says it has to? What’s important is that he tugs at the reader’s mind and heart.
Now that you’ve read about some of my favorite leading men, it’s your turn to share some of yours. Who makes your heart go pitter patter and why? Leave a comment here or look me up on Twitter @sabrinaslibrary.