For better, for worse…
“Surprised he heard true pain in her voice, and he remembered how she had been like during their escape over the stairs, uncomplaining and strong, a companion he couldn’t have wished for any better.”
(Tad Williams, The Dragonbone Chair, 1988)
The citation above suggests a linguistic¹ link that seems to touch the very heart of the romantic narrative: Companions stick together through thick and thin – since joy as well as suffering, which may concern only one of them, is always experienced and felt by everyone, nonetheless.
The little word “companion”, which today we use for persons who are dear to us in some sense and therefore also occasionally for our loved ones, can provide on that behalf an interesting linguistic story of its own: According to etymological sources the word derives from “one who accompanies or associates with another“; from Old French compagnon “fellow, mate, friend, partner“, from Late Latin companionem (nominative companio), literally “bread fellow, messmate,” from Latin cum “with, together” (see com-) + panis = “bread “.
A companion is therefore literally a trusted person we “dare to share our bread with”.
Incidentally, quite the same is true for the word “mate“, which nowadays is often used to describe a person we have a rather intimate relationship with. Originally it meant in the old days “associate, fellow, comrade“; “habitual companion, friend“; from Middle Low German mate, gemate “one eating at the same table, messmate“, from Proto-Germanic *ga-matjon, meaning “(one) having food (*matiz) together (*ga-)”.
During the times of the Romans or throughout the Middle Ages these “messmates” or “companionships” often had a rather severe background: People joined in these ways for support and protection e.g. during military operations, to go on a journey or on pilgrimage. “Company” thereby always meant a certain “risk-optimisation” in the face of imponderabilities.
As I was pondering about the quote above in this way the other day, I also wondered if there was still some ancient truth in it, which after all approached the idea of community and the choice of our “associates” as I considered it regarding my conception of Oligoamory.
Any brave Roman, journeyman or pilgrim would probably have agreed with me that the selection of “companions,” i.e. people with whom you “share your bread with” – and with whom therefore you engage in some kind of serious joined endeavour – would have significant meaning. Especially because of the “open-ended” nature of such a venture. Since in those old days, at least, people seem to have been well aware of the fact that it was never certain in advance whether a risky business like e.g. a journey could be completed – or whether this completion would be in any way lucky or successful.
In turn, this possible risk would have most certainly affected any potential “companions”: Would I like to be part of a venture with a possibly uncertain outcome? Would I like to contribute and possibly take part in the responsibilities for its progression and its outcome (however that may be)?
Journeying in particular is and has been always so chancy that in the course of human history, groups of people have repeatedly gathered for reasons of security and cooperation, and if it was just to minimise the amount of risk and anxiety for each participant involved. And that’s why it was usually not arbitrary, “who” was travelling together: At way-stations and caravanserais groups with similar destinations assembled – and a good reputation or a recommendation could be worth a fortune. In this way, people with similar destinations “got together” as travel companions – and regarding the “getting to know each other”, well, there was usually enough time during the trip (about “getting together” vs. “getting to know” see also Entry 25).
Concerning the phrase “(travel) companion” it is not even half a step to the word “relationship” – which inevitably arises when people spend some time together depending on each other.
And a “relationship” truly has a lot of analogies to a journey… After all, a relationship is also an venture that has something to do with motion in the truest sense. If you just think of two or more people involved in a relationship who “move to or with each other”, then you might think of the dynamics of a magnetic game – or maybe dancing (or – if you like a broader canvas – you might think of planets in a solar system): Arrangements in which at some point an energetic balance of distance and proximity begins to develop – if the parties involved do not collide with each other or repel each other permanently.
At any rate, our life’s journey, our companions, and therefore our relationships are never fixed, predetermined, or static. And we, who live in an age today in which we easily can assume a certain mentality of “full-comprehensive-cover”, are well advised to regularly remind ourselves of the truth of all travellers: there is no absolute guarantee concerning a “safe course” nor ever a “destination beyond dispute”.
Nevertheless, for more than Roman times, people have been telling tales about how we may counter these risks and uncertainties. By the choice of and the cooperation with our “companions”:
Gilgamesh would almost have gone mad without his best mate Enkidu, or at least he would have become a bad king; without his brave companions Odysseus would have remained a lonely castaway; the early medieval Myth of the Grail told in detail how without humanity and the combined wisdom of men and women neither maturity nor love could be experienced; and what would have become of Frodo without Merry, Pippin, Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas; what about Luke without Han, Leia, Chewie, R2D2 and C3PO, what about Harry without Ron, Hermione, Ginny, Luna and Neville?
All and sundry tales in which the connection between “companionship”, “mutual trust” and “suspense” is conspicuous – and yes, especially because of the aforementioned “romantic narrative”.
The core of the “romantic narrative” – as much as its opponents are reluctant to hear it – is the voluntary self-sacrifice² offered to the community. And it doesn’t always have to be a question of life and death, which in the more dramatic stories is so preponderantly at the centre. For the greatest sacrifice, the greatest gift that we humans can offer as spatiotemporally limited and finite living beings is simply: our (life)time. Our own time, which we make for the others. To be empathic, to put up with somebody, to laugh together – but above all: just to be with each other.
Progress: uncertain; result: open-ended.
If Franklin D. Roosevelt was right and “courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important “, then for a finite living being it means tremendous courage and significant self-awareness to get involved in the adventure “togetherness & companionship”. Because we irretrievably and at “our own risk” invest our definitely limited and therefore most valuable lifetime in a venture with other people.
Again, it can be seen why the committed desire concerning “wanting to be together,” which I mentioned in the previous Entry 33, is so extraordinarily important in respect of (multiple) relationships. “Companions” opt for both: for the journey – that’s the venture, the conceptual relationship, an ideal, a possible goal or destination – as well as for each other – and thus for the other companions. However, since journey and destination (= progress and aim of a relationship) are – as mentioned above – “indeterminate”, effectively our “companions” make up almost 100% of our day-to-day reality. Concerning risk, fear and uncertainties, our ideals, plans and conceptions will scarcely help or comfort us – it is up to our companions to overcome these challenges with us – and it’s up to us to overcome their challenges with them.
That’s why it’s a bit like a roped party while mountaineering: All participants have to watch out a little bit for the others, thereby taking responsibility for the whole, so that a misfortune or a human error is possible without immediately endangering the entire group. Or – as well-travelled shipmates say: “One hand for you, the other for the ship.”
Companionship and sharing more than just bread – it seems to be as up to date as it used to be in Roman times.
¹ Linguistics are the science of language. A very good online tool, which also offers detailed etymological as well as linguistic, knowledge, can be found here: Online Etymology Dictionary
² Although in my texts, as a romanticist, I often express a positive attitude concerning the romantic narrative, I am painfully aware of its misuse for the purpose of exploiting certain groups of people as well as individuals in past and present. If in doubt, please be sure to read the last paragraph of Entry 5!
Thanks to Tobias Mrzyk on Unsplash for the photo!