Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Vivisection of Bone, Part 1: Romancing the Bone

This one’s for Peter, who asked for it very nicely. This is the first of three essays on Bone by Jeff Smith, covering the high fantasy epic comic book’s love story, mythology, and philosophy.

Bone: One Volume Edition by Jeff Smith. Cartoon Books, Columbus, Ohio: 2004. 1332 pages. ISBN: 188896314X.

Page numbers in parentheses (i.e., p. 262) refer to Bone: One Volume Edition. Quoted dialogue puts bold text in all caps, as per comic script style.

Two warnings. Though I’m going to talk about mythic archetypes and such, it will be impossible to discuss Bone in any depth without what are so quaintly called spoilers. If you’re like me, you can read critical essays about books you haven’t read, enjoy them, and still enjoy the books later, but not everyone is like me. So admittedly, this series is largely for Boneheads only. The second warning is this: I am an amateur. My training is in anthropology, not English. I’m attempting to write an in-depth English paper here, so I suspect some better-trained readers will moan or shake their heads while I’m at it. If that’s you, you have two options--write me nasty comments criticizing my stupidity (my preferred option) or just skip this essay.

If you’ve read Bone, you might not recognize the love story I’m talking about. This comic has such an invigorating effect on the imagination that the printed page has become but a shadow of the Bone in my head. In my vision of things, the relationship between the protagonists Bone and Thorn transcends time and space; it is full of sweeping panoramas, overwrought emotions, blissful agonies, heroic absurdities, and unfulfilled promises of lawless ecstasy. If that creeps you out, sorry, but give me a chance to redeem myself in a paragraph or two.

I seriously doubt if Smith had all this in mind when he set out to produce Bone. He may have intended to do nothing more than capture a sense of teenage puppy love. He did, but he didn’t stop there: He took ageless jokes about the follies of youthful infatuation and superverted them, to borrow a word from Elliot, into something much more.

The major actors in this love story are two, a young man and a young woman. The young woman Thorn is pretty and probably about twenty, with a chipper personality and exceptionally big hair. She is, in other words, a standard object for a fictional young man’s amours. Her paramour, however, is Fone Bone, a sexless, three-foot-tall cartoon character. This obviously means some problems, first among them my temptation to make a comparison with Cool World.

What we have here is a unique, though not unprecedented, take on the mythic motif of the “animal paramour” (Silver 2005). Though Fone Bone is not exactly an animal, he’s not a human or god either, so he fits.

Silver (2005) tells us that animal lovers in folktale serve a variety of functions, but one of the most important may be to instruct women to love “beastly” husbands in spite of their frightening or boorish qualities, possibly with the end of civilizing them, as in “Beauty and the Beast.” Bone gives this motif a peculiar twist. Rather than a hulking monster or ugly animal, Fone Bone is an archetype of the geek: small of stature, addicted to his favorite book, socially awkward, and wearing his heart on his sleeve. By the end of the story, Thorn has learned to accept and even, in some sense, reciprocate Bone’s affections. Perhaps this is a new take on the myth: Today’s female needs to learn how to appreciate a retiring, nerdy, modern boyfriend rather than a brutish, violent, medieval husband.

The opening of Bone’s relationship with Thorn is a clever but gently kitschy send-up of a much-used and sometimes abused motif, the man catching sight of a woman bathing. Such a scenario usually inaugurates a romance, if the woman is mortal, or signals forthcoming divine wrath, if the woman is a goddess (goddesses do not like to be caught bathing). In the case of Moore’s The Loves of the Angels, the beautiful sight of a bathing woman is enough to drag down an angel from Heaven. In Spencer’s The Faerie Queene, a bathing scene with some possible lesbian innuendo gives an Arthurian knight opportunity to strike a blow for chastity, though only after the bathing nymphs receive elaborate description. We might find a similar motif in the biblical story of Susannah, though with a definite twist: In this case, the sight of the woman bathing is not accidental, but is rather a deliberate act of lechery on the part of two dirty old men who end up paying dearly for their assault on a woman’s modesty.

Considering that Jeff Smith did not originally intend Bone for kids, and considering that he self-published Bone without having to answer to any corporate suits, it is interesting, almost stunning, that Thorn keeps her clothes on in the bath scene. We can only congratulate Smith on his decency and artistic sense. Gratuitous nudity in the midst of a comic like Bone would have been much out of place and would have objectified one of the best developed and strongest female characters in comics.

Thorn's disrobing is interrupted by the spontaneous combustion of Bone’s hat, for Fone Bone has been watching in stunned silence from behind a nearby hill (pp. 54-55). In the midst of some humorous exposition, Smith rapidly tosses in two other well-known romantic motifs--love at first sight (the heart over Bone’s head, p. 56) and the electrifying touch (which “zings” Bone when Thorn takes his hand, p. 60).

If other readers are like me, they spend much of their time while reading this comic preoccupied with the question, why does Bone have a crush on Thorn? Besides the congruity of their names, I mean. Other than an offhand comment about her “smooth, brown thigh” (p. 298), Fone Bone gives no hints. Human beings that we are, we immediately accept that Thorn does not reciprocate Bone’s love. Indeed, it would startle, even repel us, if she did. Yet, strangely, we do not question Bone’s feelings, even though, to a bone, humans must appear as gross, oversized parodies of the sleek and economical bone form.

Were we to view it rigidly from a Christian perspective, we would conclude that Bone’s attraction to Thorn is gravely disordered: Fone Bone ought to have greater respect for himself and for bone women. A clear sign of the disordered nature of his passion is evident in his declaration to Ted the Bug, “What’s th’ POINT, Ted? I mean...she’s so BEAUTIFUL...and I’m so funny lookin’” (p. 207). How did Fone Bone reach this miserable self-assessment? It’s impossible to say. For reasons never explained, Fone Bone has appropriated a human standard of beauty in place of a more appropriate bone one.

We might even (I admit I tried it) attempt to read Bone as an allegory championing deviant sexual relationships. Such a reading is difficult to maintain, however, as the story won’t support it. If this were such an allegory, Thorn would unambiguously reciprocate Bone’s feelings; they would declare love for one another and maintain an epic romance in the face of opposition from Thorn’s grandmother and other sources. In the end, they would either overcome, as in Hollywood’s perverse reimagining of The Scarlet Letter, or else die, accepting their love’s destructive consequences, as per Tristan and Isolde and a host of other stories. As it is, Bone’s attraction to Thorn meets only humor and nonchalance from the other characters. Thorn’s Gran’ma thinks Fone Bone’s crush is “cute” (p. 253). Phoney, upon first seeing Thorn, acts as if Bone’s feelings are to be expected (p. 82), suggesting either that Phoney suffers from the same disorder as Fone Bone or else that he is aware of Bone’s disorder and means to aggravate it.

I don’t think Smith intends the reader to see Bone as this kind of allegory, and I think a strict reading is unwarranted. As I will explain at the end of this essay, I find the romance in Bone exceptionally moral. Indeed, it is one of the most moral romances I know. Concerning Bone’s feelings for Thorn, we should not view his bone-ness literally in this case. Fone Bone is an idealized image of the geek who has a crush on a woman out of his league. The comics medium is well suited to portraying this, for the artist can transform the infatuated young man into a character who is not simply beneath the woman’s social status or dignity but actually nonhuman.

Fone Bone is a romantic character by nature. Though I don’t go for pop psychology in a big way, if I pull out Keirsey’s Please Understand Me II, I can find Fone Bone somewhere under the Idealist core personality type (cf. Keirsey 1998:230-232). Fone Bone, though an atrocious poet, is of the poetic disposition that Dante Alighieri personifies with his all-encompassing infatuation for Beatrice, which George Bernard Shaw mocks in Man and Superman, and which Thomas Moore captures perfectly with his lovesick angels in The Loves of the Angels. The poet or hopeless romantic of whom I am speaking is he who loves an idealized version of a woman. The poet is in love not with a woman so much as the concept of Woman. This dangerous but essential disposition can raise those possessed of it to the heights of artistry, of chastity, and even of mysticism, but they are also in danger of falling into despair and disillusionment.

I suggest this core personality is the personality of the fanboy, of the geek whom Fone Bone so well represents. Geekdom involves fixation on an object, a fixation ideally suited to the Idealist. Fone Bone is already fixated on Moby-Dick; it is easy for him to become fixated on Thorn and view her as the ideal of feminine mystery and beauty. We might even wonder if his disordered view of women derives from an excessive interest in human literature to the neglect of bone authors and even bone society. Perhaps a fair amount of Arthurian romance lies in Fone Bone’s reading history.

Upon first seeing Thorn, Bone is carried away with geeky infatuation. Hearts float over his head (p. 61). He’s jealous of other eligible young men (pp. 155-157). He writes reams of horrible love poetry (p. 304). His feelings for Thorn do not change through the story, or if they do, the change is subtle, though the hearts and poems stop when the relationship grows more intimate and intense (around p. 759).

However, Thorn’s response to Bone’s affection grows more complex, ambiguous, and suggestive, but is never clear. Smith expects us to read Thorn through hints, facial expressions, and body language. So masterful are his artwork and storytelling, we can. But to get at Thorn’s feelings adequately, we need to step back and take a look at Bone’s underlying myth.

That myth is “Sleeping Beauty.” In the best-known and most popular form of the tale, the princess sleeps in a castle until a brave prince hazards great danger to come and wake her with a kiss (rather than rape her in her sleep, as in another version). Viewed one way, “Sleeping Beauty” is a metaphor for sexual awakening. In her childhood, the girl “sleeps” pleasantly, unaware of and unconcerned with sexuality. In adulthood, her first love, or perhaps the man who first loves her, awakens her to the realities of the adult world. “Under the apple tree I awakened you” (NAB), says Solomon’s Song of Songs. This verse appears shortly before the description of the young woman growing from childhood to maturity, perhaps using sleeping and waking as a similar metaphor.

Bone has some clear references to “Sleeping Beauty.” The retired Headmaster, upon seeing Fone Bone, says, “So this is Fone Bone...the little CREATURE who has come into our valley and AWAKENED the sleeping princess” (p. 1089). Besides suggesting “Sleeping Beauty,” the dehumanizing reference to Bone as a creature suggests again the animal paramour motif.

Further pointing us to “Sleeping Beauty” are Rose and Briar, Thorn’s grandmother and great aunt. Briar Rose is one of the names for the heroine of “Sleeping Beauty.” As I will explain in the final essay of this three-part series, Bone has an underlying dualistic world system. Thorns grow on briars and roses; inversely, Briar and Rose represent Thorn’s two possible destinies. On the one hand, Briar, the wild rose, is a servant of chaos who looks like a cross between the Wicked Witch of the West and Skeletor. Briar wants Thorn to join with her to unleash the Locust, god of chaos, on the world. Rose, the cultivated rose, wants what’s best for Thorn, but her understanding of that is confused. Rather than helping Thorn to maturity, she shelters her unduly, refusing to allow her access to the facts of life about her parents and her origins--metaphors for sexual knowledge--until she is nearly in the grip of Briar and all Briar represents, with little training to help her resist temptation. The parents of the heroine in "Sleeping Beauty" similarly try to protect their daughter, to no avail. Balance is a theme in Bone, as in many fantasies, and Bone makes an effective statement about the perilous balance between thrusting too much at children too soon and withholding too much until it is too late.

Further intensifying the “Sleeping Beauty” imagery is Bone’s spiritual universe, the Dreaming, which I’ll discuss in more detail in the next essay. It is in dreams that Thorn contends with Briar while Rose tries to protect her. The young Briar and Rose Thorn sees in her dreams look so much alike that Thorn confuses them for the same person, again hinting at dual aspects of a unity (cf. the dream sequence in pp. 746-749). Interestingly, on two occasions, Fone Bone literally awakens Thorn from her dream world, rescuing her from Briar’s machinations (pp. 286 and 518).

Fone Bone also metaphorically awakens Thorn from the overextended childhood in which her protective grandmother has kept her. Fone Bone, coming to Thorn in love, brings also the map that triggers Thorn’s memories (pp. 189-193), brings new thoughts to her mind, and leads her to question her identity and origin until at last Rose reveals the truth: Thorn is a princess and sorceress with a dark destiny.

Furthering the idea of movement from childhood to adulthood is an event called the “Turning,” at which Thorn gains her powers as a Veni-yan-cari magic-user (pp. 563-584). The Turning is a representation of the rite of passage that is a standard part of the round of mythic motifs known as the Hero Cycle (Underberg 2005). Though the rite of passage is suggestive of puberty and coming-of-age, Smith prefers to describe Thorn’s Turning by means of empathy: She falls asleep and dreams of the Great Red Dragon, who shows her images of the people she cares about, all of whom are in danger; interestingly, she is most agitated at the sight of Fone Bone, even though she had callously cast him off earlier (pp. 575-579). During this dream sequence, Thorn moves visibly through three different phases: child, young adult, and grown woman. It is at the mention of Fone Bone that she transforms into her third form.

Though previously reluctant to mature, at the Turning, Thorn agrees to cease striving for a childhood to which she can no longer return; she agrees to go on and face her destiny. She also learns, like a mature person, to put others’ needs above her own desires. Subtle as it is, this is a great turning point for Thorn’s character. We are shortly afterward subjected to the interlude of Rock Jaw: Master of the Eastern Border, but when we next see Thorn, she will be the northern Valley’s bold new military leader, though she will have many of the flaws of an impetuous young adult.

The course of the story, and Thorn’s interaction with Fone Bone, can be broken down into three broad phases of development in Thorn’s character visually represented in the Turning. The story lasts only a year, and based on the vague chronology, Thorn is around twenty when it takes place. Nonetheless, she rapidly goes through the emotional phases of preadolescent, adolescent, and young adult.

When Thorn first appears, she wears a shapeless winter coat hiding her body. She is slightly chubby and her face has a cherubic innocence (cf. p. 78, panel 1). She is apparently oblivious to Fone Bone’s romantic intentions. She is happy to have him around, but her facial expressions, body language, and actions suggest she sees him as an exotic pet rather than a person. Indeed, since she is used to talking animals in the Valley, some confusion between people and pets is to be expected. Her interaction with Bone is from the beginning intimately physical; that is, she pets him.

She has some inkling of Bone’s personhood, for she exclaims to Gran’ma, “GRAN’MA! They’re not PETS!” Yet shortly thereafter, in one of Bone’s oddest sequences, she treats Fone Bone like a bath toy (pp. 93-94). This scene, in which Thorn takes Bone to the hot spring for a bath, seems at first like a childish joke. Though funny, it is redundant since we already did the bathing thing at Thorn and Bone’s first meeting. Nonetheless, it points up Thorn’s current state of emotional development. She does not understand Fone Bone’s embarrassment during the bath; like a young child, or like Adam and Eve in Eden, she has no modesty because she is innocent.

In the second book, The Great Cow Race, Thorn has moved to early adolescence. She is thinner. She has shed the bulky coat in favor of tight pants (p. 153), has developed an interest in cute boys (p. 154), and makes unwise choices regarding the opposite sex (p. 172). The imagery becomes confused when Thorn and Bone have a spat; their argument resembles a mother scolding a petulant child rather than a heartsick young man clashing wills with his beloved (p. 157). However, this imagery keeps Bone in a strictly subordinate position, having graduated from pet to kid. This fight is the cause of the first of three brief separations serving to increase the intimacy of Thorn and Bone’s relationship. When they are reunited, Thorn throws her arms around Bone’s neck and exclaims, “At least I’ve got YOU back, Fone Bone! I’m never letting you out of my sight AGAIN!” (p. 242).

The third book, Eyes of the Storm, opens with what may be Thorn and Bone’s first date. For no discernible reason, they are alone together in the woods where Bone is performing a staged reading of Moby-Dick. In this book, Thorn has an angry confrontation with Gran’ma, during which she learns the facts of life about being a princess raised by dragons (pp. 382-387). Thorn responds to this with sullen brooding (pp. 401-409), marking the beginning of her rebellious teenage period.

She goes through the Turning not long after, in book 4, The Dragonslayer (pp. 572-580). This also begins her second separation from Bone. The separation lasts through book 5, Rock Jaw. In the early parts of book 6, Old Man’s Cave, Thorn refers to Bone repeatedly as “my friend” and wishes he were there to help her (p. 745), indicating this separation has moved him to the status of equal. Thorn’s increased maturity is indicated both by her authority over the other characters and by the lines of her face, which look more adult.

When Bone and Thorn are reunited (p. 759), Bone leaps into her arms and they hug each other in a scene with romantic undertones.

Thorn’s rebellion against Gran’ma lasts long into the story and nearly gets her killed, an event that brings about the third separation (p. 816). Bone’s love for Thorn motivates him to find her and rescue her by placing an amulet around her neck while she is unconscious, reminiscent of the prince kissing the princess in “Sleeping Beauty” (p. 830), and bringing Thorn to full maturity. The bottom panel of page 830 assists the imagery: Bone is bending over Thorn so we can’t see what he’s doing, but the word “POW!” appears over his head in big letters. Taken in isolation, the panel appears to illustrate a kiss.

After this, Thorn is reconciled to Gran’ma and has fully developed magic powers. As Thorn, Gran’ma, and the Bones trek through a post-apocalyptic wasteland in Ghost Circles, Thorn is in charge. In this book, Thorn learns of Bone’s feelings for her (p. 920), though her own feelings remain ambiguous.

The climax in the relationship comes when Thorn and Bone have been beaten and thrown in a dungeon. Thorn is embarrassed to find one of her teeth has been knocked out, suggesting she cares about her appearance in front of Fone Bone. He shows her that he, too, is missing a tooth. She touches his face, and then he then puts an arm around her, saying, “Don’t worry, Thorn, we’ll get out of this okay--” (p. 1139).

The climax is subtle and touching, and it represents a failure on the part of the two major actors. Bone turns Thorn’s face toward him (p. 1161) and begs her not to seek the Crown of Horns, which could destroy the Locust, because he fears it would destroy Thorn as well. Thorn responds by promising not to seek the Crown (p. 1162), a promise she immediately breaks (p. 1201). At the very moment Thorn runs off to seek the Crown of Horns, Fone Bone has his back to her and is yelling at Phoney, “Well, I can’t KEEP that promise!” referring to a rash oath he had made earlier. So both Bone and Thorn become promise-breakers at the story’s end.

Fone Bone’s unreasonable demand of Thorn, that she save herself and sacrifice the Valley, is born of selfishness. He has not yet learned to love her fully, though as I will explain, he has by the book’s conclusion. Thorn’s rash promise is in turn probably an attempt to protect him and assuage his feelings, but it is a promise she has no intention of keeping. This mutual betrayal may play some part in the story’s conclusion.

Fone Bone overcomes his selfishness and helps Thorn touch the Crown of Horns (p. 1273). There’s a hint of substitutionary sacrifice, for they survive while Lucius dies (p. 1274). As the story meanders to its end, Fone Bone and Thorn have matching facial expressions (p. 1308-1309), suggesting a deep union between them. At the conclusion, when Thorn asks Fone Bone to stay in the Valley with her, they are holding hands, looking like lovers, but Bone decides it is best for him to go home to Boneville (p. 1322-1323). This ending has shocked and disappointed a number of fans.

The ending contains one of the book’s few a minor artistic flaws. Thorn has grown more adult in appearance over the course of the story, either intentionally or because of a natural development in Smith’s art style over the twelve years he produced the comic. In the final pages, however, Thorn looks younger again and wears a childish outfit.

The story’s allegorical sexual awakening may also be hinted in a few subtle, though crude, phallic references: The character who brings Thorn to an allegorical adult sexuality is named Bone, has an obsession with Moby-Dick, and comes from a town founded by someone named Big Johnson. Besides the aforementioned bathing scene, nothing in the comic resembles sexual humor, so I’ll let the reader make of this what he will. At the same time, I can’t help but notice the obvious Hindu influences on Bone’s mythic backdrop. The comic’s climactic scene occurs at a location inaptly named “Sinner’s Rock.” I say inaptly because sin, as such, isn’t a developed concept in the local religion. At any rate, Sinner’s Rock has a distinctive phallic appearance, perhaps suggestive of a Hindu lingam, a representation of Shiva as a fertility god (Littleton 2002:335). The lingam here, if it is a lingam, may represent a consummation of the story’s sexual imagery. It is at this scene that chaos is brought under control, and shortly thereafter, Thorn receives her crown as queen of the Valley.

Why then is it called Sinner’s Rock? Possibly for no reason; it may merely be an incongruous name like Devil’s Dyke (p. 222), one of the visible seams in an otherwise well-structured world. On the other hand, Smith may be working from the erroneous but common misunderstanding of sin in Judeo-Christian thought being directly linked to sexuality, in which case the name Sinner’s Rock may be an inexpert attempt to give the story’s climax a further sexual undercurrent.

I have in my hand a copy of Amy and Leon Kass’s obnoxiously titled Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying. I want you to ignore the gag-inducing title and get this book. Besides being a thoroughly wholesome look at the subject of matrimony, it uses a Sci Fi Catholic-approved method of instilling ideas: It gathers selected readings on a similar theme; in other words, it uses the same didactic device found in fairy tale collections or in the appendix to C. S. Lewis's The Abolition of Man. These readings from across time and space all have to do with the subject of marriage, why it’s good, and why it should be protected and practiced. Within its pages are excerpts from Denis De Rougemont’s Love in the Western World. The selection in the reader is from his commentary on the story of Tristan and Isolde, and I believe it is relevant to Bone.

According to De Rougemont, Tristan and Isolde are not actually in love with each other. No, rather, they are in love with the concept of love. This great epic romance between two people who don’t care a whit for each other meets a series of increasingly difficult obstacles until their relationship reaches its final, tragic aim, death. Here is De Rougemont on the subject:

“I have repeatedly referred to obstruction, and there is the way in which the passion of the two lovers creates obstruction, its effects coinciding with those of narrative necessity and of the reader’s suspense. Is this obstruction not simply a pretext needed in order to enable the passion to progress, or is it connected with the passion in some far more profound manner? If we delve into the recesses of the myth, we see that this obstruction is what the passion really wants--its true object.” (2000:251)

Grant me my supposition that Fone Bone, as the poetically minded Idealist, is particularly susceptible to this sort of hyper-idealized type of romance, and read this next comment from De Rougemont:

“But for the existence of a husband, the lovers would have had to get married; and it is unbelievable that Tristan should ever be in a position to marry Iseult. She typifies the woman a man does not marry; for once she became his wife she would no longer be what she is, and he would no longer love her.” (De Rougemont 2000:253)

Finally, thus:

“Hence Tristan’s inclination for a deliberate obstruction turns out to be a desire for death and an advance in the direction of Death!...The love of love itself has concealed a far more awful passion, a desire altogether unavowable, something that could only be ‘betrayed’ by means of symbols such as that of the drawn sword and that of perilous chastity. Unawares and in spite of themselves, the lovers have never had but one desire--the desire for death!” (De Rougemont 2000:254)

De Rougemont wisely, even snidely, speaks of the narrative necessity of obstruction in romance. Anyone who’s endured a formulaic Hollywood rom-com knows what that’s about. Plot is about conflict, and if a plot centers around two lovers coming together, there had better be an obstacle to create conflict. When lovers are more interested in love itself--one might say, the plot of love--than in each other, they will strive for obstacles until they reach the final, insurmountable obstacle of death.

Insert the motif of the animal paramour, however, and it is possible to change the formula. In this case, an insurmountable obstacle is present from the beginning: not death, but biological incompatibility. Bone conveys this with subtle irony: When Bone and Thorn meet, Fone Bone is a physically sexless man with a sexual attraction to a psychologically sexless woman, for Thorn’s overprotective grandmother has kept her in an unnaturally prolonged state of emotional and intellectual preadolescence.

The rest of the story revolves around Thorn’s fitful awakening to the realities of the world and of Bone’s love for her. As already discussed, Bone is a coming-of-age story describing Thorn’s move from emotional childhood to adulthood. Various obstacles to her relationship with Bone present themselves, including a number of separations both short and prolonged, after each of which their relationship grows closer, more intense, and more physical. Yet there is no possibility of the ultimate obstacle being removed. In “Beauty and the Beast” or “The Frog Prince,” the animal paramour is an enchanted human, so by means of a deus ex machina, the beast becomes a prince. Yet at that moment, the curtain drops. We are no more interested in the human lover than Tristan would be interested in Isolde as a wife. The interest of the reader of love stories is the same as the interest of Tristan: It is an interest in love itself, not the people involved in love. Watch Disney’s Beauty and the Beast with friends and notice the air of disappointment in the room at the Beast’s final transformation. The obstacle--and the charming character--is gone. When the obstacle is dead, the romance is dead. If the romance were to stay alive, a new obstacle would be necessary, and eventually the characters would have to die, going the way of Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, Pyramus and Thisbe, and all the other lovers who have found consummation of their romance in the great insurmountable obstacle.

Fone Bone is not an enchanted prince. Indeed, were he to transform at the story’s end into a human, we would feel cheated. The comic would be irreparably cheapened. Not only would it be an inexcusable plot device, it would be a denial of Fone Bone’s personhood, the very thing Thorn gradually comes to acknowledge over the course of the story. It is easy to imagine an alternate ending where Bone manages such a transformation. No doubt Thorn and reader both would recoil in horror as if Bone had mutilated himself.

For this reason, I’m surprised so many Bone fans are disappointed with the comic’s ending, which is to me one of the best endings in all literature. Many want Fone Bone and Thorn to stay together, even to marry. But could either character be happy with such an arrangement? I don’t think Thorn could be. To marry Fone Bone would be to deny the sexuality to which she has so recently awakened. Perhaps Fone Bone could be happy; the stork probably brings bone children much as he brings other cartoon characters, but Bone’s happiness would end when he saw how unhappy Thorn was. Indeed, because of the insurmountable obstacle, the characters have only two recourses: death and separation.

Not only the insurmountable obstacle of biological incompatibility, but also the Hero Cycle, necessitates death if Bone’s relationship with Thorn continues. Though Thorn matches more elements of the Hero Cycle than Fone Bone does, he matches some of them, and, if he were to stay in the Valley, he would match even more. The hero typically slays a monster, marries a princess, and becomes a ruler (Underberg 2005:11). Though I find it unlikely that Bone and Thorn would actually marry, if Bone were to stay, he would still be fulfilling the basic elements of the archetype. After ruling the kingdom for a while, the hero usually falls out of favor, is taken to a hill, and is killed (Underberg 2005:11). Nonhuman and romantically involved with the queen of the Valley, Bone would be putting himself in a perilous situation that could easily precipitate such a death.

An excellent example of this necessity of death in a modern myth is Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong. Rather than using the symbolism of the original film, which sets up Kong as a representation of the dark aspects of masculinity, Jackson builds between Kong and Ann a mutual relationship suffering the same insurmountable obstacle as Bone and Thorn’s. Both the original and the remake film draw on “Beauty and the Beast,” and both movies end with the statement, “Beauty killed the Beast.” Because Kong cannot envision separation from Ann, he destroys himself.

What if Thorn and Bone had chosen death? They could have died in each other’s arms at the Crown of Horns, dying that others might live, destroying the Locust in their last act. There’s much to recommend such an ending: Handled well, it could reduce the reader to sobs. But then the primary subject of the comic would be adventurous world saving rather than romance and relationship. Such an ending, with all its merits, would give the lie to the symbolism drawn from “Sleeping Beauty.” It would upset the delicate balance of Bone’s seemingly incompatible elements, elements that Smith juggles perfectly.

If Thorn and Bone had died for a smaller reason, for romance rather than salvation of the world, it would have been no violation of the story’s themes. Thorn and Bone would have taken their place in the sepulcher beside the other great tragic lovers. They would be in good company. Yet, as De Rougemont hints, something is missing in these love stories. I daresay such stories are the foundation on which our society has built its wrong-headedness about marriage and love. Love in the popular view is not an act of the will but an emotion, a fixation. When the emotion is gone, love is gone. Look in that sepulcher at the lovers entombed there to see what is necessary to keep this kind of “love” going perpetually!

Ironically, though Bone first falls for Thorn, and Thorn never clearly falls for Bone, Bone decides to leave Thorn after she asks him to stay. Had it been her choice, they would have stayed together--and died together. But Fone Bone decides instead that they should live apart. What does this say? Bone the Idealist has overcome his love of love. He has overcome his love of Woman and has come to love a woman. Fone Bone proves definitively by his final act that he loves Thorn, and so he chooses what is best for both of them even though it is hard. So powerful is this story, the conclusion falls on the reader like a hammer blow. Some readers even weep. It’s not easy on the characters either, but look at Bone’s face in the second panel of page 1331. He knows he’s doing the right thing.

And so this geeky little cartoon character with the round, sexless body proves himself a greater lover than the greatest lovers in our literature. Someone recently asked me what I consider the greatest love story I had ever read. I immediately replied, “Bone.” You will notice the title on our official list of literature good for inspiring chastity. I think it belongs there, for it is a masterful meditation on the subject.

Read Part 2.


De Rougemont, Denis
2000 “The Tristan Myth.” Excerpted in Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying 244-254. Amy A. Kass and Leon R. Kass, editors. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame.

Kiersey, David
1998 Please Understand Me II: Temperament, Character, Intelligence. Prometheus Nemesis, Del Mar, California.

Littleton, C. Scott, editor
2002 Mythology: The Illustrated Anthology of World Myth and Storytelling. Thunder Bay Press, San Diego.

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