Royal Harem
The traditional harem as part of a royal court


(permanent link) added: 2012-11-19 20:08:45 sponsor: Vios (last reply: 2012-12-08 17:19:28)

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The royal harem is a part of certain aristocratic courts, and can serve as both a setting and a plot driver for various stories. The combination of sex, forbidden-ness, and exoticism that fictional harems often represent has led to them showing up in numerous stories over the years.

Sometimes, harems exist in fiction simply because authors want to add some sex to the story, and what better way to do that than include a whole place dedicated to sexual gratification? Harems in such stories will be generally be full of beautiful young women with insatiable sexual appetites, and will probably serve little plot function but to get the hero laid. Many such harems take place in settings with Eternal Sexual Freedom.

In other works, however, the harem may be explored in a bit more detail, such as by paying attention to the situation and wishes of the people who live in it. In some works, these people will be abused captives who all hate being there, and the plot may well involve escape or rescue. Other works will have them be more content - they may be reconciled to their lack of freedom, or may not be captive at all, instead having something more akin to a special case of Unproblematic Prostitution. What complaints they have will mostly be of the Gilded Cage variety (with sheer boredom not uncommon). Sometimes, life in the harem will be positively luxurious, and may be highly sought after.

Harems are off-limits to most, which often puts them into Forbidden Fruit territory (and leads to quite a lot of Disguised in Drag plots). Many harems will be guarded and/or served by eunuchs, a traditional means of lowering the chances of anyone except the harem owner having sex there. There may be some person who has particular authority over the harem (whether a eunuch, a chief concubine, or a relative of the owner). If the court is deadly and decadent, expect a lot of politics in the harem, with its members competing with each other for power and preference. As in many real harems, getting to be the ruler's favourite (and maybe wife) could be worth a lot, especially if you become mother to a much-desired heir to the throne. In many works, rulers who are too thoroughly captured by their harem will end up ruining the realm.

Royal harems are often thought of in connection with particular cultures, so often coincide with tropes relating to Middle Eastern, Indian, and East Asian cultural imagery (or maybe all of them at once, if the writers aren't fussy). The standard fictional harem girl looks a lot like a standard fictional Belly Dancer, and the two might not be much distinguished. Depending on context, the harem may be known by various other names--seraglio, serail, hougong, ōoku, and more.

Harems in fiction do not necessarily bear much resemblance to the real thing--see the Real Life section.

Contrast Harem Genre and the various tropes related to it (Harem Hero, Harem Seeker, Unwanted Harem, etc.) - those are tropes about character relationships and gender ratios, whereas this is a setting and scenario trope. The two may sometimes coincide, but less often than the names might imply - most works in the Harem Genre don't involve literal harems in the traditional sense. Contrast also Paid Harem, where the harem in question is a person-specific, as-long-as-the-money-lasts arrangement rather than an established aristocratic institution.


Examples

Anime & Manga
  • Iono the Fanatics has nearly an entire country composed of haremettes for the Queen, and more keep getting added, to the ire of some both inside and outside the country. They all seem to also drive the economy by buying out anything related to their queen, whom they all fanatically adore. (which includes, but it not limited to visual novels, movies and pillows).
  • Ooku is set in an alternate history in which men have become rare and women are in charge. The female shogun has an ōoku (harem) of men, and since it's a Deadly Decadent Court, the politics can be nasty.

Comic Books
  • More than one ruler has tried to put Red Sonja in a harem. This isn't a good idea.
  • The Maestro, a future version of The Incredible Hulk, established a harem of slaves after taking over the world.

Film
  • Abbott and Costello visit a harem in their 1944 film Lost in a Harem.
  • The Japanese film Ōoku (sometimes styled Oh! Oku in an English context) is based on the real-life Ejima-Ikushima affair (a scandal triggered when a member of the ōoku was late in returning to it after meeting with a famous actor).
  • The film Angélique et le Sultan (an extension of the French Angelique historical fiction novels) features the titular heroine getting sold to the harem of the ruler of Morocco, whom she stabs.
  • White Sun of the Desert, a popular Soviet film, features a Russian soldier named Sukhov who is assigned to look after the harem of a Central Asian guerilla leader, who left the women behind when he went out to campaign. Loyal as Sukhov is to the revolution, he tries to convince the women to throw off their adherence to tradition, but they're not very interested, and as they come to view him as their new protector, they decide that they're his harem now. The guerilla leader, who had expected the women to dutifully kill themselves, eventually comes back and tries to punish them for their disloyalty, setting up the film's big ending.
  • The 1936 The Three Stooges short "Wee Wee Monsieur" had Moe, Larry, and Curly sneaking into an Arabian palace dressed as Santa Claus. Inside, they come across the harem and are forced to disguise themselves again to avoid palace guards and stage a rescue.
  • The Adventures of Baron Munchausen has the title character recalling visiting Constantinople and much of said flashback is set inside a huge harem.

Literature
  • The Tale of Genji, being set in the Japanese imperial court contemporaneous to the story being written (i.e, 11th Century), naturally features the emperor's concubines. This makes the trope Older Than Print.
  • Present in The Arabian Nights, unsurprisingly. One of the stories, for example, has a hero Disguised in Drag to rescue someone who was kidnapped into a harem.
  • The setting for Fiona McIntosh's Percheron series is strongly inspired by the Ottoman Empire, and the royal harem has a significant role - the first book sees one of the main characters becoming part of one. One of the nastier characters, the new ruler's power-hungry mother, was formerly one of the old ruler's harem girls herself.
  • In Tigana, one of the sorceror kings has a harem. The woman who emerges as his favourite has actually been nursing a long-term plan to kill him as revenge for what he did to her homeland, but ends up falling in love with him for real.
  • In The Night Angel Trilogy, the Godking of Khalidor keeps a harem.
  • Mostly Played for Laughs in Labyrinths of Echo: when Sir Max is semi-accidentally crowned as king of a remote steppe tribe, his new subjects demand that he marries three young girls (triplets, in fact) from said tribe. However, this "marriage" is never consummated (since Max already has a girlfriend), and the sisters remain his "harem" solely on paper. One of them even leaves to marry one of Max's colleagues.
  • In Mary Renault's The Persian Boy, the protagonist is a eunuch who is at one point part of the royal harem.
  • Often seen in the Yashim Series. Naturally, as the hero's job and his unusual surgery are specifically related to that.
  • In Sourcery, the Seriph has a seraglio, and Conina is sent there. Rincewind doesn't know what one is, having mistakenly formed the impression that it's something like an iron maiden. For that matter, it doesn't seem that the Seriph himself has much idea what it's supposed to be for, since what he mostly does there is be told stories and recite bad poetry.
  • Harems were something of a staple in Western erotic literature at one time. Among the better-known examples which became popular at the end of the 19th century is A Night in a Moorish Harem, which deals with a Western man unwittingly sneaks into a pasha's harem and spends the night being told erotic stories told by each of the women (and also receiving more direct attention). Another is The Lustful Turk, which deals with Western women kidnapped into violent sexual slavery -- which they eventually come to like, in contrast with the more publicly acceptable stories in which such women nobly resist their captors are are eventually rescued. (The idea of "frigid" Western women having their sexuality "awoken" by rough Middle Eastern tyrants formed the basis of a whole subgenre of stories, although the focus of that eventually shifted away from harems towards desert nomads à la The Sheik.)
  • The Steel Seraglio deals with what happens to a sultan's 365 concubines after he is overthrown by a religious fanatic. In this case, they form a matriarchal society in the desert and plot the usurper's downfall.
  • Montesquieu's Lettres Persanes focuses on a Persian nobleman travelling in Europe, and his correspondence with home (it being an Epistolary Novel) often has to do with his harem. The harem becomes "disorderly" in his absence, and it ends up in violence.
  • The classic Chinese novel Jin Ping Mei deals with the small-ish harem of an ethically-challenged merchant (who appeared as a more minor character in Water Margin). The merchant's business is in decline, and his concubines are fighting for power and position as it slowly goes under. The novel's explicit focus on the sexual aspects of their persuasion got it classified as pornography, although it did actually have points to make regarding sexual politics and the role of women.
  • My Life As Emperor, a novel by Su Tong (whose book Wives and Concubines was the basis for Raise the Red Lantern), involves a lot of underhanded, vicious harem politics in the Deadly Decadent Court of the the titular monarch. It turns out that he himself only got the throne because of such trickery -- his mother falsified the edict that made him heir.
  • In Kushiel's Legacy, the heroine infiltrates the harem of a vicious psychopath who kills his victims when he's done (until the heroine, of course).
  • Conan the Barbarian had a harem after he became king.

Live-Action TV
  • The Turkish series Magnificent Century is based on the life of Suleiman the Magnificent, and as it's pretty much a soap opera, it has a particular focus on Suleiman's personal life, much of which revolves around his harem. (The show has actually been retitled "The Sultan's Harem" in certain other countries). There's plenty of competition to be the sultan's favourite, with murder not out of the question.
  • The Chinese series Hou Gong: Zhen Huan Zhuan (后宫·甄嬛传, variously translated) is mainly about the politics and scheming which goes on in the hougong (harem) of a Qing dynasty emperor. The titular character, Zhen Huan, unexpectedly becomes one of the emperor's concubines, and the story deals with her gradual rise to power (and her accompanying loss of naivety, which in turn leads to a certain amount of regret at what she's had to become).
  • Japanese television has seen a number of period dramas focused on concubines residing in the ōoku, with the Tokugawa period (and the times of shogun Iesada Tokugawa in particular) being particularly popular. More than one series was simply called Ōoku.
  • In an episode of Brødrene Dal og Spektralsteinene, the time-travelling brothers end up in a Middle Eastern harem, where one of them ends up Disguised in Drag. The harem's owner, Caliph Ornia, falls for "her".

Opera
  • Mozart's opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) was part of the contemporary fad of turquerie (ie, faux-Turkish orientalism), and features a harem. The story is about an attempt to rescue the protagonist's betrothed, who was kidnapped by pirates and sold to an Ottoman pasha.
  • Verdi's opera Il Corsaro, is based on Byron's poem, below. It follows more or less the same plot.

Poetry
  • Harems pop up in some of Byron's narrative poems:
    • The Corsair, which sees the titular corsair's raid on a pasha's palace fail when he diverts his attention to saving women from the harem (which is on fire thanks to his attack). He gets captured, but is freed by the pasha's favourite (though unhappy) odalisque, who falls in love with him. She wants him to kill the sleeping pasha, too, but he won't - so she does it herself, causing him to decide she's not so attractive after all. They escape together, but don't end up together.
    • Don Juan, which has the titular character hide out in a harem while disguised as one of its members. He's put there by the sultan's wife, who has an unrequited attraction to him but can't let the sultan find him. However, his stay in the harem involves sharing a bed with one of the real girls - and when the sultan's wife hears of this, she's sufficiently angry at what she assumes Don Juan to have gotten up to (after refusing it with her) that she orders him killed.

Religion
  • The Books of Kings report that King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines.

Tabletop Games
  • Dungeons & Dragons adventure D2 Shrine of the Kuo-Toa. The Kuo-Toan Priest-Prince Va-Guulgh has a harem of concubines in a seraglio. They are pampered and indolent, and will not fight the PCs (in contrast to almost every other Kuo-Toan in the city).
  • Talislanta features the matriarchal Danuvians, who have male harems.

Western Animation

Real Life
  • Royal harems existed in quite a number of places, although the reality of them doesn't necessarily look much like their fictional depiction (i.e. this trope). For one thing, a classical harem in many places was more a general women's quarters than specifically a place for sex - women of all ages might be found there, including relatives. There might also be a lot of children about. The History Marches On page has an entry on the subject.
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