I’m two thirds of the way through Dark Queen, the latest Jane Yellowrock novel by Faith Hunter. By this outing, Jane has assumed many titles including shapeshifter, skinwalker, Enforcer, Blood Master (of her very own clan of paranormals and humans) and Dark Queen. I think I’d like to be a dark queen. Or a warrior queen, or pretty much any kind of queen for that matter, but I digress. One thing about queens is all the ceremonies and rituals that attend royalty. The recent royal wedding exposed the world to a truly awe-inspiring degree of pomp and circumstance with a level of protocol and spectacle that most of us only experience as a weak echo of such august events.
Humans love ritual. I’ve written before that ceremony and ritual allow us, or more accurately force us, to slow down and mark time and to reflect on life’s major milestones. But ritual and ceremony serve a variety of other functions as well, functions that the vampires in Jane Yellowrock’s world understand all too well.
Dark Queen is focused on an upcoming duel to the death where the winner takes all—as in all the territory, resources and power. The duel is a binding ceremony, where reality itself will be altered. This duel is marked by many rules and requirements that govern the event and the legitimacy of the outcome (although a dead loser must surely mean less complaining in the aftermath). All this pomp and circumstance have prompted me to consider the imminent ceremonies in my own life.
As I’ve mentioned, my twin boys will graduate high school this week. It’s a big deal. This rite of passage will be marked by ceremony steeped in tradition with an eye toward the future each teenager will face. After the diplomas are dispensed, each graduate will celebrate with their individual families.
We engage in rituals because they confer meaning in a number of ways—ways that the Mithrans (vampires) of Jane’s world exploit to their advantage and from which we mortals – specifically yours truly—can learn a lesson or two.
Originally, my plan for the graduation was to enjoy a small family dinner and call it a day. Luckily, one of my sons is wiser than his mother and protested the lack of pomp and circumstance: “But, Mom, I want the whole experience—all of it!” Hearing that, I shifted into high gear and by the end of that weekend, we had arranged for my husband’s entire family to join us from the west coast and for a massive party at our house to commemorate the event. My son wanted the entirety of the pomp and circumstance and I was determined to provide it. He understood what I did not; we need the whole experience.
Ritual and ceremony give us a context for our emotions while also providing structure and direction. Each member of my family is experiencing the highs and lows of this transitional time. Some days are better than others. Some days are filled with joy and optimism about the future. Some days, I sob behind my steering wheel and wonder where the time has gone.
The planning and execution of the rituals around this graduation have given me a framework for my feelings, a place to rest and reflect upon each one. It’s been a gift to plan this party. I know how to plan a party. I have no fucking clue how to let my beautiful boys go out into the world without me.
Rituals and ceremonies usually denote some sort of significant transition. And the prescribed customs and traditions that rituals dictate provide certainty—the illusion of control during a time of intense uncertainty. In a binding or contractual ceremony, like the death duel in Dark Queen, reality is different before and after. Similarly, before the ceremony on Friday, my boys will be high school students; afterward, they will be graduates. In a coming of age ceremony, a child becomes an adult and is treated differently after the ritual. In a marriage ceremony, the couple has different legal rights before and after, not to mention emotional and moral privileges and restrictions (in theory at least). Sometimes, a ritual confirms an existing reality, as in a funeral. The deceased is still dead, funeral or no funeral. But the closure provided to those left behind is comforting during a time of extreme difficulty.
Rituals offer boundaries, which are useful when the feelings are overflowing. Boundaries dictate what we can say and do, and, more importantly, what we can’t. Rituals are inherently social and create pressure to conform to expected behaviors. This is a blessing in situations where we may not know how to behave because we aren’t sure how we feel or because we have so many conflicting feelings we require some external guidance to show us the way. We are told where to sit during a wedding ceremony, and where to go during a funeral procession. We don’t have to think for ourselves because someone has done it for us.
The scholar and philosopher Mircea Eliade wrote extensively on ritual and ceremony. He claimed that ritual (mostly religious) offers structure and orientation to which we can conform ourselves. And this conformity, in turn, helps us understand that we aren’t the first or the last to experience this kind of transition. Life will go on after this liminal moment, although it will be a changed life.
And everyone knows how much we resist change. Rituals ease the suffering caused by resistance to the inevitable. And nothing is more inevitable than the march of time. It waits for no one. No shit, Sherlock. I got it. And the marking of time, the acknowledgment of achievement, as in a graduation, or a loss, as in a funeral, puts a box around the experience so that it has a beginning, a middle and an end. A line beyond which things are no longer the same. A line that enables us to cross from before to after.
So it will be for Jane. And so it will for me and my boys. And for all of us who observe the rules of rituals and benefit from the boundaries they provide, the comfort they impart and the definition they offer. We are one way before and something else after. The pomp and circumstance highlight and enhance the joy of our experiences while simultaneously obscuring the fear and anxiety transitions always engender. Sounds like a good deal to me. Even if I’m not a queen.