On incest in literature/TMI

Trigger warning for discussion of incest, sexual threat, and cannibalism. And Hannibal spoilers.

Hello Cassie, 

I’m a huge fan of the mortal instruments! I absolutely adore your writing and your characters! I do have a genuine question though. Why is incest such a reoccurring theme in TMI? Please don’t think I’m criticising your work. I just think it’s interesting because in Game of Thrones, there’s motive for incest (like keeping bloodlines “pure” and “royal”) but in TMI it seems to be genuine “I’m in love/lust with my sibling” and I’d just like to know why you chose such a typically tabooed reoccurring theme for your books? 

Thank you for writing this series! Congratulations on finishing CoHF. Can’t wait to read it! 


Why is Hannibal about cannibalism?

I mean, Hannibal is about a lot of other things as well. It’s about life and death and loss and grief and rather a lot about psychoanalysis. But it’s also a lot about cannibalism. It revels in cannibalism. It rolls around joyfully in the visual representation and verbal discussion (“I guess he didn’t hop fast enough”) of cannibalism. It delights in reminding you that pretty much any time anyone is eating anything, they’re eating PERSON. It does its best to make beet juice look like human blood. I find it very hard to watch (I’m talking about the TV show, though the movies and the books by Thomas Harris, also revel in the details of cannibalism) since the taboo against cannibalism is so strong. But that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate what they’re doing there thematically.

Would Hannibal be such a popular and fascinating figure if he were just a serial killer who didn’t eat people? I would say no. Obviously there is a taboo against murder but there is an even more severe taboo against cannibalism just as there is against incest (no one ever asks me why I choose to write about murder, whereas I get the incest question all the time, even though there is a lot more murder than incest in my books. Including some of the most taboo forms of murder: patricide, sorocide, etc.) If Hannibal were simply bonking people over the head with shovels and burying them, I suspect we would not have found him so fascinating for twenty-five years: it is in part the contrast with what he seems to be — a gourmand, a genius, cultured, intelligent, charming — with what he actually is: a killer who engages with a taboo we associate with urges that are base, primitive and animalistic, that keeps us coming back around to try to solve the monster. 


The cannibalism in Hannibal also allows the show and books and movies to explore the topic of sin: deliberate and inadvertent both. In the TV show, Hannibal feeds person, disguised as rabbit and veal and whatnot, to his guests without their knowledge: we see Will Graham, our theoretical hero, himself commit cannibalism — only of course he doesn’t know he is. This allows the show to explore the concept of inadvertent sin. Will has sinned horribly in the eyes of God but doesn’t know it. He is damned without having chosen damnation, and that damnation plays itself out. 

The idea of tricking people into eating human flesh is nothing new. In Greek mythology:  “Tantalus was a wealthy king of Lydia, beloved of the gods in an age when men still broke bread with the gods. He was a regular guest at their table in Olympus, and it is said that he talked too much of their secrets and stole ambrosia to share with his mortal friends. Whatever the truth of this, the Olympians apparently forgave him, because when he invited them to dine at his palace they agreed. The gods arrived and sat down to the feast, but when the dishes were laid out and uncovered they fell silent. They recognized, instantly, that Tantalus had served them human flesh—the flesh of his son Pelops. Only Demeter, grieved to distraction by the recent kidnapping of Persephone, took a bite. But she quickly realized what she had done—and she was horrified.” (From Incest, Cannibalism, and the Gods: The Rise of the House of Atreus.)

Demeter’s sin is unconscious — she has no idea she was committing cannibalism — but she is horrified all the same (and Tantalus’ punishment is horrible, and famous). Cannibalism figures into Titus Andronicus, the Norse Lay of Atli, everywhere in Greek mythology, and so forth: in almost every case cannibalism is committed unknowingly, that the theme of unconscious sin can be explored.  It plays upon the deepest fears of our souls: what if we commit evil without knowing it? How do we live with that? How do we prevent what can’t be prevented? How do we pick up, and go on, and find redemption?                                           

Why bring up Hannibal? Because I would venture to guess that most writers write about incest, cannibalism, and other taboo topics because they are taboo rather than despite or coincidentally. Things that are taboo and forbidden have a lot of cultural and social weight. They also provide conflict, without which you have no plot. Hannibal is a cannibal for a reason.

As for incest plotlines, the example of Game of Thrones is sort of an interesting one. It is not, I suspect, as if George R R Martin sat down and thought “I had better keep those bloodlines pure. Drat! That means incest! I don’t want to write about that, but now I have to!” If he hadn’t wanted to, he wouldn’t have. Incest is a recurrent theme in GoT because (I would guess, I can’t read George’s mind) 1) he was drawing on actual history. The Egyptian royal family intermarried to keep the bloodlines pure, and because it was what the Egyptian gods did, and kings have always wanted to be like gods. More on that in a bit. 2) Incest in literature is often thematically used to signify decadence and moral corruption in a family and also in a nation. The Targaeryns committed incest and their family rotted away into insanity, their rule crumbling. This is echoed with the Jamie/Cersei relationship and Joffrey being insane and evil (because he’s the offspring of incest? Probably. Who knows.) It’s kind of interesting that you say “in Game of Thrones, there’s motive for incest (like keeping bloodlines “pure” and “royal”) but in TMI it seems to be genuine “I’m in love/lust with my sibling’” because to me, Jamie and Cersei as far as I can tell are actually in love, or some form of it. Certainly their relationship is played romantically (though grossing out everyone in-world who finds out about it.) Wheras in fact, no one in TMI is in love with their sibling(s). I guess Sebastian has some debatable feelings about Clary but they aren’t clear, and they sure aren’t mutual. And Jace and Clary briefly think they’re related, but aren’t. Which is not incest. 

It does, however, treat on the topic of incest, so I guess if the question is “Why write about incest as a theme at all?” — well, there are many answers. :) Incest isn’t an uncommon theme in books, as many seem to think. It’s really, really, really common. And it is very common in fantasy because a lot of fantasy draws on mythology and mythology is full of incest — because, again, it’s taboo and carries with it a huge cultural, psychological and social weight. It also serves as convenient fictional shorthand. Along with Song of Ice and Fire, David Eddings’ The Elenium Trilogy, the Deverry books by Katherine Kerr, Tanith Lee’s Wars of Vis, all contain consensual brother-sister relationships that are meant to underline the theme that power = corruption and incest is the ultimate symbol of that corruption (and of the disruption of the family dynamic, which is something we all think of as societally sacred.) In The Mists of Avalon Arthur sleeps with his sister because – that’s what happened in Arthurian myth. (Though it is heavily romanticized in TMA and it’s indicated that Arthur never really loved anyone else.) There’s incest in Tolkien — Turin and Nienor are brother and sister who sleep together because they meet without knowing they’re related. Tolkien was creating a massive mythology after all, drawing on Celtic and Norse myth and adapting it, and Celtic and Norse myth (like all myths) are full of incest

Incest is fictional/literary shorthand for concepts that often can’t be conveyed another way because in writing about it, you carry forward the weight of the literally thousands of years of writing on this topic in folklore, myth and fiction. So, why incest in TMI? Well, in the case of the Jace and Clary plotline, though they aren’t actually related, it falls into the framework of didn’t-know-they-were-related Turin/Nienor type stories. These  are stories about inadvertent sin. They are stories about perfectly good people who are doing something they think is good — falling in love — which then, because of a revelation they are powerless to control or predict, find out they have done something terrible instead.

In TMI that aspect of things is actually more about Jace than Clary. Not that Clary is super happy that the guy she fell in love with turned out to be her brother, but Jace is the one whose personhood and selfhood is caught up and defined by whether he thinks he is a good person, by ideas of sin and sacrifice, and more specifically, by what it means to him to be his father’s son. He’s the one who grapples with the question of whether an evil nature is something that is inherited, and also what it means to have been raised by someone evil. Valentine never cares whether Jace and Clary think they’re related — their love lives are uninteresting to him — he cares whether Jace believes himself to be Valentine’s son, and it’s ironically the fact that he has to believe he’s Valentine’s son that causes Jace to believe Clary is his sister, and in the end, to almost decide he is just like his father. 

As for the instance of Sebastian’s “incesty feelings”, they have a purpose as well (and not, as I once heard suggested, to “prove the heroine is hot.” Good lord. Having your lunatic brother hit on you to cement his rule does not mean anyone’s hot.)

To go back to Greek mythology for a moment, the gods committed incest all the time. Hera was Zeus’ wife and also his sister. A brief zippy visit to Wikipedia tells us “In Greek mythology, Zeus and Hera were brother and sister as well as husband and wife. They were the children of Cronus and Rhea (also married siblings). Cronus and Rhea, in turn, were children of Uranus and Gaia (a son who took his mother as consort, in some versions of the myth). Cronus and Rhea’s siblings, the other Titans, were all also married siblings like Nyx and Erebus. …Sophocles’ tragic play Oedipus the King features the ancient Greek king inadvertently consummating an incestuous relationship with his mother.”

Oedipus warrants a mention because his sin of incest was both foretold — he knew it would happen — and inadvertent — he didn’t know he was romancing his mother when it occurred. It is specifically unconscious sin, unconscious on both his part and his mother’s, but when the truth was revealed, she killed herself and he blinded himself. (Rather as I wonder how Will in Hannibal will some day react when he finds out he’s been eating people, since the fact that a sin is unconscious is often no comfort to the sinner.)

So why is it okay for the gods in Greek myth to commit incest, but not poor old Oedipus? Because they are gods. Oedipus’ sin isn’t just one of inadvertent incest, it’s one of hubris. It was foretold that he would sleep with his mother one day but he chose to ignore that and take his chances. In doing so, he challenged the gods, which is actually the real reason for his punishment. (He also finds out he killed his own father, again without knowing: patricide being another taboo that doesn’t really apply to gods. Zeus killed his own father too.)

Gods are not bound by the laws of morals that bind humanity. And that is the point of Sebastian’s obsession with Clary. The question posed in the fifth book is the one carved on Glorious: Quis et deus, “Who is like God?” It is a phrase associated with the angel Michael, and it’s a trick question: there is only one answer. No one. No one is like God.

But Sebastian thinks he is. He thinks he is better than mundanes, better than Shadowhunters and Downworlders, better than everyone but angels and demons and deities. He quotes from the Bible while sexually threatening Clary as if to say that he has the approval of God, or doesn’t need it, to flout the laws of mankind, because he is better than all Gods, better than all people, that normal rules don’t apply to him. Gods can take lives, and Sebastian does that; gods are immortal and invulnerable, and Sebastian wants that for himself, too; and in trying to set up a romantic relationship between himself and his sister Sebastian is explicitly saying “I want to be/I am like a god: the Egyptian gods regularly married their siblings, the Greek gods married their siblings, the Norse gods married their siblings, and I can too.” It’s  not for no reason that in Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay, which deals with an incestuous relationship, the sin is called “the sin of the gods.”

(Think of the movie Gladiator, in which Emperor Commodus hits on his sister like no tomorrow mostly in order to prove that he, too, is like a God: it is a way of showing his hubris as well as his decadence and lack of morals. Now, there are other ways they could have shown that — he could have eaten his sister, I guess, but eating someone tends to end the development of a relationship rather than giving any opportunity to explore it more. Also, we tend to associate cannibalism with animalistic tendencies and recidivism and incest with debauchery and the destruction of what was once good. Not all taboos serve the same fictional purpose and you can’t really just sub out one for another.)

The story of Jace and Clary is one of unconscious sin and its effects; the story of Sebastian is one of hubris and its effects. Fictional incest is the gasoline that makes those plot cars run. Could it be removed? Only in the sense that you would then have different books about different people that want different things, do different things, and care about different things than the people in this books want, do and care about. Is it a recurring theme? Yes, because that’s what you want out of a theme: the more it recurs, the more you strengthen it, ring changes on it, explore the meaning of it, and even find the irony in it (the fact that Sebastian, in City of Glass, taunts Jace by saying “I kissed your sister and you can’t” when in fact Sebastian just kissed his own sister makes Jace’s jealousy  bitterly ironic. It also makes Sebastian’s later pursuit of Clary ironic.)

Just to return to what I said earlier: there are a lot of books that deal with the topic of incest — it can stand in for decadence, for unconscious sin, for the reversal of the family dynamic (as in Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden and Tabitha Suzuma’s Forbidden), it can be shorthand for the toxic relationship between people and government (Tigana, most southern gothics), it can be about people’s fears regarding the way the definition of family is changing (changing definitions of families, the woman’s role at home, rising rates of divorce, etc. all kicked off a massive spate of Gothics about incest in the Victorian era.)

If you want to check up on this, you can find a list of books about incest here on Amazon. Mortal Instruments has been booted off the list due to “not containing any actual incest” — the person who made the list seems slightly mad at me, I feel bad! — though you will be happy to know that Song of Ice and Fire remains.


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  10. castielgeturfeatherybuttdownhere reblogged this from cassandraclare and added:
    A very fascinating exploration into incest in fictional literature. Caution! Spoilers for The Mortal Instruments, Game...