On Love and Lions Part 1: An Analysis of Love in VLD

“I have always believed that unity is where true power comes from, and true unity can only be born of love.”

Gyrgan, Paladin of the Yellow Lion

Voltron: Legendary Defender is a cartoon on Netflix that–with the final season available to watch on Netflix–has extremely regressive and harmful messages. The S8 on Netflix carries lessons about how war is good, that men shouldn’t respect the wishes and desires of women, that violence and abuse mean even victims aren’t deserving of forgiveness. Everything about that is 100% antithetical to what VLD was about throughout the prior seasons and each harmful message is another nail in the coffin of the original narratives of peace, respect, and fundamentally how everyone is deserving of love and forgiveness, regardless of the circumstances of their birth.

In fact, the theme of love in VLD is something we at Team Purple Lion wish to discuss. It’s arguably the most absolutely fundamental theme of the show. Love destroys the universe, and love saves it over and over again. And love would have rebuilt the universe, but thanks to the edits ordered by the trademark holder, the universe that should have been born from love was instead born from one girl sacrificing her life because she saw no better option. She didn’t even get to tell her only remaining father figure goodbye. What kind of message is that? In the original final season, prior to the executive meddling, we should have seen how love was such a powerful force in the universe that it could not just repair this reality, but all realities. And it’s not just romantic love, but six types of love.

Now, for those of you more familiar with our work, we’ve discussed some pretty big concepts in VLD and how they’re addressed, and there will be even more in future episodes of our reconstruction Rise and Atone. VLD engages not just with its own predecessors in the Voltron franchise, but Beast King GoLion, Labyrinth, Frankenstein, and Maureen Murdock’s The Heroine’s Journey is all but the story bible for Allura’s arc. The concepts we are about to discuss date back to Ancient Greece, and while love can be more than these concepts, it’s important that we have a framework through which we can discuss and analyze love as it appears in VLD without getting lost in all the examples.

In American culture, “love” is not very well-differentiated between kinds because we only use one word: “love”. While we use it across all sorts of contexts, we have to add modifiers when we don’t mean romantic love or familial love, which are the most commonly-acknowledged forms of love. VLD, being written and edited by primarily Americans living in America, also encounters this issue, but it does not focus solely on romantic love, which can complicate how to interpret love in the show. We, however, would like to argue that not only is it all love, but it doesn’t all have to be good love, familial love, or romantic love. At the end of the day the plot is driven by love in its many forms. Love is so baked into the story that it’s quite difficult to extricate, dare I even say impossible, and that ultimately is part of why we were able to reconstruct so much of what was lost in S8.

The Ancient Greeks had many words for love, but we feel it’s important to discuss the dialogue that VLD engages in with various forms of love, using the Ancient Greeks’ framework as a guide. The model gives us concrete definitions of different kinds of love, and can help us as an audience understand the various forms of love that are present in VLD. It’s important that we define the different ways we can observe love being portrayed because much of VLD relies on the writing adage of “show, don’t tell”. 

So without any further ado, let’s dig into what, precisely, is love.

As stated earlier, we’ll be using terminology coined by the Ancient Greeks, specifically six categories of love that we feel are most prevalent in the show. We’ve also deduced our own examples of these forms of love when they’re taken too far or flat-out discarded, which will be discussed in a companion article.

The six forms of love are as follows:

  • Eros: the most famous kind of love, an intense (and often sexual) passion for another being and seeing the beauty within them. This is the love that most closely aligns with romantic love as we understand it in a modern American context.
  • Philia: an affection and loyalty between friends, notable for its platonic nature, it is the love that arises between friends, and can be found among family, but the modern equivalent would be the found family trope.
  • Storge: this is the intrinsic empathy between individuals, primarily the attachment of parents to children. This form of love was primarily used to describe familial relationships, and the patience one sometimes needs when around blood relatives.
  • Philautia: put simply, this is self-love in its purest form. It is acknowledging your needs, wants, and happiness without apology. The Ancient Greeks considered Philautia to be a basic human need.
  • Xenia: while many might not consider this to be a form of love, it is hospitality, or as we define it, love between a host and their guests. Specifically, this would be the care a host gives to their guests in both physical (food, gifts, etc.) and non-physical (respecting rights, protection, etc.). Hospitality is massively important because if you are good to someone while they are in your home, they will be equally good to you if you visit theirs.
  • Agape: this is a Greco-Christian term, ultimately, and is a little more difficult to understand because it can be confused with other forms of love. At its core, though, it is a pure and unconditional love such as that between spouses, families, or God and man. It shouldn’t be confused for other forms of love such as Philia because unlike the other forms of love, which only focus on one aspect of humanity, Agape is the unconditional and universal love for everyone. It’s sexless, unlike Eros. At its core, it’s the love born of goodwill to all people, regardless of circumstance.

While these are only six categories, there are many ways of interpreting love, especially since there are so many avenues to see love–in good and bad forms–in VLD. These categories are also not inherently hierarchical, and are not presented in any particular order. Agape is the main exception, being more convoluted in its nature, and thus is discussed at the end. It also narratively serves as part of the culmination to the plot, so it carries a greater weight in relation to the alpha plot of the whole story.

Now, let’s examine how they present in VLD. As an official reminder, please remember that all analysis of VLD is done from a ship-neutral stance and we are not proposing any endgame romances. The sole purpose of this article is to discuss observable portrayals of love in its various forms, and to analyze both the text and the metatextual messages resulting from them.

Eros: Passionate Love

Eros… arguably this is the most contentious form of love presented in VLD, if only because of all the ship wars that occurred in the fandom. Eros drives the shipping communities of fandoms across the world, because it often stems from on-screen chemistry or the potential of the fleeting seconds where a spark flies but does not catch in canon. The beauty of Eros is that it ripples quietly through fiction, or it can be a tsunami ready to devour the story. It’s the quiet whisper of two women sharing a private moment, to the shouted declarations in the heat of battle. Eros thrums through fandoms in a desperate tempo for seeing a love as passionate as you can feel in characters who may never share more than a glance.

Plato actually had quite the influence on the word “Eros”, because “Eros” or erotic love, was largely regarded as a type of madness brought upon a person by seeing someone whose beauty strikes your heart with an arrow (Cupid’s arrows, anyone?). Eros is the love that drives you to despair if the object of your affections is cruel or uninterested, and it burns like a fire. “Falling in love at first sight” is the key concept here, and you can see it reproduced in fandoms across the world, though many cultures have their own names and terms for it. Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott define “Eros” in A Greek-English Lexicon as “love, mostly of the sexual passion”. Plato, however, redefined the word to include a nonphysical aspect. He discusses it in Symposium and says that while (physical) Eros can be felt for a person initially, with contemplation you can and will fall in love with a person’s inner beauty, which for Plato was the ideal, since he specifically emphasized the lack of importance of physical attraction. In fact, Jung–who coined the Anima and Animus–has a similar approach, with an emphasis on unity within the self by accepting your internal Eros which manifests as your feminine Anima/masculine Animus.

In the text of VLD, Eros is remarkably subdued. This is partially due to its rating. Being a Y7-FV show, VLD can’t really have explicitly sexual content. Sure the implication can exist, but a lot of times sex has to be carried through metaphor if a story is to address it at all. Take the juniberry as an example. It’s a three-petal flower of a deep rose and softer pink, delicately topping a green stem, with a yellow pistil. In much of literary history, flowers represent female sexuality and beauty, and they are common representations of youth across genders.

Now, in strictly biological terms, flowers as a sexual symbol is a 1:1 accuracy in analysis, because the flower is the reproductive organ of a plant. I’d like to analyze the juniberry from a biological perspective, because understanding the anatomy of a flower can help us understand its role in literature as a metaphor for sex. The whole point of the flower is to be able to spread pollen across individual plants, whether by wind or by pollinators such as bats or bees, and breed to produce more plants. The actual reproductive organs of flowers are called the stamen and pistil, respectively. The stamen produces pollen, while the pistil collects pollen in its ovule to fertilize and create seeds. A stamen is a very slender filament, topped with what’s called an “anther”, which is where the pollen is actually released. The pistil, meanwhile, has a thicker base with a long body, usually topped with a few tendril-like structures called “stigma”.

Diagram by the Association of Societies for Growing Australian Plants
[ID: A simple cross-section diagram of a flower. Three petals are visible on the far side, with reproductive organs drawn in the center. There is also a stalk and sepals at the bottom. Along the sides of the cross-section there are labels. On the left, a category called “Stamen” is labeled, with “Anther” and “Filament” pointing to two parts of the thinner reproductive organ. “Receptacle” marks the base of the flower, and “Peduncle (flower stalk)” marks out the stem. On the right, we have the label “Petal” and three labels under the category “Pistil”: “Stigma”, pointing to the top portion, “Style” pointing to the stem-like feature, and “Ovary” pointing to the rounded bottom. The label “Sepal” marks the leaf-like structure just under the petals. End ID.]

Now, when we look at the juniberries we see in canon, we can see that at no point are any drawn with stamens. They all have a single pistil growing from the center, and they’re topped with three stigma, meaning that all juniberries drawn on-screen are female juniberries.

Juniberries are a quintessential symbol of Altea, and they represent home to Allura, as well as what she’s lost. However, they also represent how Allura’s relationship to her own femininity is not some mystical thing determined by forces beyond her. Colleen gifts Allura a juniberry that was selectively bred from flowers she had available, and it’s identical in every way (that we can see) to the juniberries native to Altea. The message, though it’s subtle, is quite clear: Allura is in control of her femininity and can define herself however she pleases (“highlands poppy” versus “juniberry”). After the sexual undertones that threaded her relationship with Lotor, this is a very important message to convey, especially since a patriarchal story would punish Allura for the metaphorical sex in physical ways, such as how the season 8 on Netflix does.

Allura isn’t simply a vessel for male desire, nor is she a strong female character who doesn’t need a man. Her story is about finding agency separate from male expectations, without forsaking her own femininity in the process. Like the juniberry, she is feminine, but she is able to define herself, and the dark entity masquerading as Lotor reminds her of that with their conversation about calling the juniberry a “highlands poppy”. That’s what makes Lotor so dangerous to a traditional patriarchal values system: he reminds Allura that she has a choice.

It’s important to note that during their interactions Lotor never gives Allura a choice in the sense that he, a man, is allowing her one; he simply steps back and encourages her to make the choices to which she is entitled and to act on her emotions and desires. She is an agent of her own free will, and Lotor, being first her Shadow, challenges her to be smarter, quicker on the battlefield, and then as her Animus he challenges her to look inward and become in-tune to her own inner wants and needs. The other Paladins can offer some aid in that, but none of them strike her anxieties or hopes the way that Lotor can, being the crown prince and heir to her sworn enemy, and being half-Altean and half-Galra. He is, in a fundamentally physical way, the union of two races that were at war before Altea’s destruction, and to a survivor of that war, that forces Allura to question the beliefs she held in the beginning of the story. The stakes of success and failure are much higher with Lotor in the picture, and it’s easier to focus literary tension on two characters than five or six, so as a result of that persistent tension, we as the audience are given plenty of chemistry between two characters to spur Eros.

As we discussed last year in “Legendarily Defensive: Editing the Gay Away”, Keith was meant to have a gay relationship with another Paladin. We refuse to write conjecture on what his endgame romance was meant to be, however it is important to discuss Keith’s Eros in a metatextual sense. For example, let’s look at Keith and Shiro. Keith is a legacy character that dates all the way back to 1984 Defender of the Universe. His romantic subplot was relegated to excised footage and extremely subtextual if it managed to squeak past the axe. Shiro was able to be queer, however, due to the fact that he’s a DreamWorks-owned character who is new to the franchise, meaning that there isn’t a legacy that needed to be upheld.

Keith’s queerness, however, still acts as a spur to fuel the potential for Eros, and helps build tension between him and his fellow male Paladins. And I specify male Paladins because during season 2, Keith and Allura go off in a pod by themselves to see if Zarkon is tracking either of them. During the scenes with Keith and Allura together, it’s important to note the background music is remarkably flat and lacking in romantic cues. In prior iterations of Voltron, Keith and Allura are implied as endgame (DOTU), have the beginnings of an on-screen romance (VForce), or straight up just fuck on the page (such as in the comics). It stands to reason that this scene should at least imply some form of passionate chemistry here, but largely it’s two friends confiding in one another and trying to find reassurance as they confess their fears. Keith doesn’t have a moment to admire Allura’s beauty the way we see Lance and Matt do, and Allura doesn’t blush like how she does with Lotor or Lance. Without markers for any kind of Eros, the scene is a quiet moment of contemplation away from the stress, only to be broken by Shiro telling them to get back because the Galra Empire found the Castleship again.

So then where do we see passionate chemistry for Keith? At the risk of starting the ship-war again, his chemistry largely exists with Shiro and Lance. Shiro, narratively, functions as his Mentor, someone to guide and believe in him, who then gives up his position of leadership (sort of) so that Keith can grow. Bringing Shiro back prematurely makes it harder to see, but in a traditional Hero’s Journey, the Mentor figure teaches not-quite-enough to the Hero before disappearing, and the Hero grows on their own and becomes their own person. Naturally, this makes Keith and Shiro have tension, especially since Shiro was brought back prematurely due to marketing, so their relationship dynamic had to change to accommodate Shiro’s return. Lance, however, constantly baits and teases Keith, and Keith frequently rises to it and they argue. They butt heads and don’t have that sense of camaraderie that Keith and Shiro do, so right off the bat there is more obvious tension between the two of them. Eventually, Lance and Keith learn to trust each other, and in season 8 we finally see them settle their rivalry as they prepare to face Honerva. So while Keith’s dynamic with Shiro is more focused on camaraderie and growth, Keith’s dynamic with Lance is more focused on pushing each other to be better warriors and teammates.

Philia: Friendly Love

In VLD, we’re shown that friends can be found anywhere if you’re willing to put down the blasters and try to make them. We’re also shown that just because you’re on the same side of the battlefield, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re best buddies. Commander Lahn pledges his loyalty to Lotor after his base is saved by Voltron, and Keith and Lance butt heads so often you’d think one would sooner drop the other into a black hole. However, we should never discount the power of friendship, or rather, we should never discount the value of platonic relationships. This includes everything from friendship, to the found family trope, to the mystical bond the Paladins have with their Lions. Philia is the companion’s love, firmly rooted in platonic–and often intellectual–admiration.

Philia, as defined in A Greek-English Lexicon by Liddell and Scott, is “an affectionate regard or friendship, usually between equals”. Where Eros is the fiery passion between sexually-attracted adults, Philia is the platonic love between people who respect and trust each other. This is the love that flows like water, endlessly filling and refilling your emotional needs with good company, good advice, and generally just a good presence. Friendships are the ports we anchor ourselves at when the seas become too rough, and in VLD, where space is the most dangerous frontier and most of the universe is your enemy, friends are more important than ever for our Heroes and Heroines.

[ID: A screenshot of S4E1 “Code of Honor” with Allura, Lance, Coran, Shiro, Pidge, and Hunk sharing a group hug with Keith. Coran, Hunk, Pidge, and Allura are all crying, while Keith, Shiro, and Lance are smiling. End ID.]

Everywhere you look in VLD, you’re sure to find some kind of camaraderie between friends. Lance, Pidge, and Hunk make the Garrison Trio (or as I like to call them, The Planck Constant), and they get into shenanigans together. In fact, it’s entirely likely that had Lance and Hunk not decided to follow Pidge up to the roof, they never would’ve found Shiro, and subsequently Blue Lion. Later, when Voltron has allied with Lotor as the new Galra Emperor, they reprogram a sentry to become the eternally-fantastic Funbot. If you want a prime example of the fun that could be had between friends, those three are quintessential to the definition of Philia. They’re the first Youths you meet in the story, and it’s through their eyes we watch as a far-off intergalactic war comes to Earth at last. The show has us follow them as the audience, and we watch as they meet up with Keith, save Shiro, and then find themselves going from Earth to Kerberos in less than five minutes, and then by the end of their day, they’ve awoken Allura and Coran and are on Arus, thousands of lightyears away from their home.

We see the Paladins go from a rowdy group of teenagers with Shiro as the head to a group of five Heroes and Heroines capable of saving the universe. Lance helps Pidge get all the GAC coins she needs for a video game, and he’s always got the team’s back with his sniper rifle. Hunk always is ready to lend a hand, even when he’s scared of flying Yellow, but when the Taujeerans are in danger of falling into the acid as their planet breaks apart, he’s right there holding them up while the team gets the arc ship ready for takeoff. Our Paladins are the embodiment of the power of friendship, trust, and perseverance, and it’s that tenacity and dedication that should have carried our six Paladins to victory and brought the Purple Paladin back into the light he thought had forsaken him. Black, Red, Green, Blue, Yellow, Purple, and White, together in a bond of pure platonic love. There’s an old phrase I’m sure you’re all familiar with: “blood is thicker than water”. The power of Philia and found family in VLD challenges that notion in the original S8 when Lotor is offered his vindication. “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.”

Pick any two of our main protagonists and you’re sure to find a thread of Philia connecting them, because when you fight together as one, you inevitably become closer as the trust builds between you. In fanfic terminology, this is the root of the found family trope: strangers and friends finding themselves in a gripping adventure together, and discovering that they’re stronger together than they could be apart, and coming to see these people as more than colleagues or acquaintances. They become your family and people to defend, and the people you trust to have your back when it’s time to face down an enemy together.

That’s part of why Keith leaving for the Blade of Marmora is so fractious. He’s growing into a leadership role and obviously accustomed to it, but with Shiro’s premature return, there’s some growing pains as the incumbent leader and the former leader unintentionally butt heads. Keith needs to be in Black Lion without Shiro to complete his growth, but without a way to easily integrate him back into the team without messing with the legacy, Keith has to go. And like with any good friend, when you have to say goodbye, it’s a bittersweet affair. The team doesn’t want him to go, but in-canon he feels he can do more good with the Blade, but the meta reason is that his Hero’s Journey has been arrested. But, like with any good friend, the team is able to reunite with him at a later date and he integrates back into the group. They are wiser to the world, harder, but they are together again. And they need that unity when it’s time to face Honerva and go into battle for not just their universe, but all realities.

Storge: Familial Love

In English, we have many concepts of love, but generally we only treat the single word of “love” as a word for “love”. As a result, we tend to use other words to modify the type of love we mean, which can get things kind of sticky if you talk about X type of love but don’t specify that it’s X type and not Y type. With familial love, it can be relatively understood without being specified, but as you can see by my explication here, I still have to modify the word “love” with an adjective to describe the next kind of love I will be discussing. Storge, the familial love.

A Greek-English Lexicon defines Storge as “love, affection, especially of parents and children”. Storge, unlike Philia, is not a platonic admiration for a companion in the family, however it does denote respect. Storge is also not the idealized unconditional love of Agape (which we will discuss toward the end of this essay). Storge is the instinctive love for those in your family, especially between parents and children. I also argue the key aspect of Storge is that your family–for all the times you want to tear out your hair–will love you for the rest of their lives. And you’ll love them, because they’re people who have your best interests at heart, even if they don’t always express that well.

Coran, Coran, the gorgeous man himself is Allura’s second father figure (after Alfor), but he’s the only father figure for Allura in the show that’s alive. Coran’s protectiveness of Allura is well-documented. He was furious when she got captured saving Shiro, he warns her to be careful healing the Balmera, he worries for her in Blue, but at no point does he actually prevent her from making her choices. He wants her to have a full life, a happy life, or at least as happy as one can be when you’re one of the only survivors of a war. He’s a father through and through, and even if Allura is Alfor’s daughter by blood, Coran is the one who supports her during the most difficult stage of not just her life but the universe’s life. He loves her, he consistently reminds people to respect her and to think of what’s best for her. Not just as a princess of Altea or the heart of Voltron, but as a daughter. Alfor was her father, but he died before he saw her face the trials in the plot. Coran, however, he gets to see her grow into a woman even greater than what Alfor could have ever imagined. The audience might find him a little frustrating (such as in S8E1 “Launch Date”), and Allura takes his protectiveness in stride, but at the end of the day Coran is a gorgeous man with his heart in the right place, even if his execution is a little off the mark on occasion.

The Holt parents are also good examples of Storge. We see Colleen and Sam fight to tell Earth about what’s been going on, as well as finding their children. Colleen herself is a solid mama bear that anyone would want to have fighting for them in their corner, and we can see she gives no fucks about protocol when she’s told she can’t stay on Garrison grounds with her husband.

[ID: Colleen Holt glaring, her husband Sam behind her looking equally annoyed. She glares at Admiral Sanda (off-screen) as they argue. The subtitle reads, “You’ll get me the clearance.” End ID.]

While Colleen doesn’t hesitate to ground Pidge for running away to space, the fact of the matter is that she and Sam fought like absolute hell to protect their kids in the ways they had available to them. Storge is the love parents have for their children and these two human characters are the perfect examples of it, even if Pidge chafes a bit under being grounded. Sam and Colleen’s love for Pidge and Matt and Coran’s love for Allura are the perfect avenues to explore how Storge is love, even if it’s frustrating, but they also serve as an excellent foil for how that love can be horribly twisted.

Philautia: Self-Love

In S1E1 of VLD, when our human protagonists meet Allura, Sendak is barreling through open space to their location and hellbent on capturing the Blue Lion. Allura is able to talk to Alfor–or rather, his hologram–to seek guidance in the upcoming battle, and he says, “You must be willing to sacrifice everything to assemble the lions and correct my error.”

With VLD, there’s this idea of sacrifice, of giving your life for the greater good, but when discussing acts of love, we also need to talk about acts of love for yourself. We see many instances of characters sacrificing themselves for the greater good, the belief that their death will bring an eventual victory to the Paladins of Voltron and free the universe. Allura throws Shiro into an escape pod so he doesn’t have to suffer the abuse again, but in the process becomes a prisoner herself. Ulaz gives up his life to save the Paladins and keep the Blade of Marmora base secret. Thace sacrifices himself so that Galra Central Command can go offline and the plan can move forward. Keith nearly kills himself trying to break through Haggar’s barrier at the battle of Naxzella before Lotor intervenes and destroys the ship with a blast from his Sincline ship. Sacrifice is a massive part of the show, and needless sacrifices are always undone, but what message do continuous sacrifices leave us with as the audience? It leaves us with Alfor’s lesson: you must sacrifice everything to correct my mistake.

When you’re writing, one of the most basic things you must do to drive a plot forward is change something significant. In the beginning of a story, Character A might think Character B is wrong and has no idea of what it takes to do something, but then Character B later on needs to surprise Character A by proving they can do that thing or that they don’t need to. It forces Character A and the audience to rethink their initial assumptions, and it encourages tension and dialogue between characters that otherwise might not exist. It’s an internal motivation, and one that audiences will pretty much always find more gripping and compelling than a simple monster-of-the-week scenario. VLD is no different. “All Galra are bad/Altea is good” leads to meeting the Blade of Marmora and Alteans who took over their universe. The challenge to a character’s worldview is what makes turning these initial ideas on their head so satisfying.

So what could challenge the idea that you have to sacrifice everything? Especially to correct the mistakes of someone else?

Love. Not for others, not for family, not even for the greater good.

But for yourself.

To quote Audre Lorde, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Philautia is the love in which you put yourself first, not because it’s selfish, but because it’s self-care. Self-love is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “an appreciation of one’s own worth or virtue” and Philautia has been recognized for millennia as a basic human need by the likes of Maslow and the Ancient Greeks. Recognizing your own needs and worth is a fundamentally radical decision, especially if you are in a position where you’re expected to prioritize the needs of others before your own.

S1E1 of VLD offers us pretty much every worldview that gets challenged later on in the series, except for Alfor’s. We see Alteans can be equally cruel, that Galra are not all evil. Voltron is a great protector, but it is also a great weapon, and Keith even calls it an alien warship in the very beginning, highlighting the danger Blue–and consequently Voltron itself–poses by merely existing. Philautia is not the exertion or prioritization of your desires, but the assertion of your needs. It can easily swing too far into selfishness and vanity, but making yourself heard is never a bad decision, and for those who are marginalized, women, trans people, disabled people, neurodivergent people, nonwhite people, it is an act of defiance. The sins of people in positions of power are not the burden for their victims to bear. If protesting is too much or too burdensome, simply taking the time to care for oneself is enough, because you can’t pour water out of an empty cup. Alfor’s plea to Allura was always meant to be overturned with the finale, especially since she’s facing down the antithesis of everything she believed in season 1. Honerva is selfish, manipulative, abusive, and an Altean woman. Alfor would ask Allura to give up everything she has left to destroy Honerva, but in the original and unedited season 8 Allura would have taken that plea and turned it on its head.

VLD’s Princess Allura is the first and only iteration to be a nonwhite girl and voiced by a black woman. Having her sacrifice herself is an extremely harmful message to little girls of color everywhere because it’s not the burden of girls of color to save the world. Their duty is to love themselves and know they’re able to be as brave and kind and intelligent as they’d like. Princess Allura’s arc is about a girl learning to not shoulder the burden of violence, but instead choosing to relieve herself and choose healing and creation, and in turn, her reward would be the literal universe at her fingertips.

And Allura isn’t the only character to learn to love themselves. Lance, as well, learns to become comfortable with himself. At first he’s comfortable and cocky and immature in Blue Lion, but then as the seasons progress and he finds Red to be more of a challenge, he learns he has to follow through with his actions and decisions. He learns that to fly Red, he can’t hesitate and just has to roll with the punches. He dubs himself “the sharpshooter” of the group, and at first he gets laughed at, but then he saves Slav from being trapped in prison once more by firing and making a near-impossible shot. He doesn’t have to forge ahead and fight recklessly, he simply has to see an opportunity and take it.

All our other Paladins learn to become more comfortable with themselves, as well. Hunk becomes more confident in being the voice of reason, and becomes an A+ diplomat in the process. Pidge is able to open up and be honest with her team about her secrets and fears, and in return is blessed not just with that weight off her shoulders, but the knowledge that her team is her family just as much as Sam and Matt are. Keith, too, learns that he doesn’t have to go it alone all the time. He’s able to relax and trust his team, and rather than burdening himself with doing everything, he’s able to rely on the skillsets of the other Paladins and make them a stronger team by focusing his attention on directing them, as opposed to commanding them.

Another interesting example of Philautia is Lotor himself, who at no point is uncomfortable with his mixed heritage, even when he’s called a “half-breed” or when one of his parents blames half of his heritage for his failings. The main reason that it’s not as blatant is because by the time the story begins, he’s been at peace with his heritage and his place in the Galra Empire for a long time, and thus does not play a significant role until he has his breakdown at the end of season 6.

This form of love is quite possibly the most frustrating, if only because so much of its payoff was in season 8. We should see Allura not give up her life in the name of sacrifice, but rather choose to become a goddess in the name of love. We should see Lance become unshakably confident in his abilities when it’s time to face the biggest bad guy of the series. The final season was meant to be a season won through love, and self-love is quintessential to that victory, because it gives viewers the message that your acceptance of yourself is vital to the world. It’s an important lesson for little girls everywhere to know that their worth doesn’t lie in how much of themselves they can give away, but how much of themselves they cultivate and grow, because if you trust in yourself and choose love, then you’ll be as powerful and strong as Princess Allura. It’s possible to be the brave and chivalrous Paladin while also being the princess who likes the occasional sparkly thing.

The lesson of Philautia in VLD is one of embracing your limits of what you can give, and reminding the world that you matter, because loving yourself is the greatest act of defiance when you’re faced with an enemy who wants nothing more than for you to make yourself smaller, weaker, more amicable if it would please them. It’s the reminder to be gentle with yourself, no matter what battles you face, because caring for yourself is just as–if not more–important.

Xenia: Love for the Stranger

Hospitality is a massive part of many cultures, I personally had a relative (who has since passed) who would always have an open door for the poor families in their neighborhood and the stove would always have something cooking. My own mother will cook especially for you if you need her to. There’s a reason “Southern hospitality” is famous. Good food, good company, and ultimately safety are what sets Xenia among the categories of love as defined by the Ancient Greeks. In VLD, this form of love is very sparse in comparison to love such as Philia, however it’s extremely important that our heroes engage in it. To quote Coran, “70 percent of diplomacy is appearance. Then 29 percent is manners, decorum, formalities and chit-chat” (“Changing of the Guard”). The remaining one percent, which Allura notes, is actual diplomacy and fighting for freedom. That’s essentially what hosting, good and proper hosting, is. It’s taking someone into your home and providing them with material comforts and necessities such as food, as well as non-physical ones like safety or protection, or extending and respecting their rights.

A good host will anticipate their guests’ needs because they have a love for their fellow strangers, and they show that love by providing for them. Xenia is the love of the stranger who has taken up space in your home and respecting their need to do so, but it’s also a reciprocal love. By extending your hospitality to a person, they will be more inclined to do the same for you and yours in the future. In Greece it was a complicated dance of gift-giving and receiving, spurred by the belief that one would incur the wrath of a god in disguise. While offending the gods was a big fear, it’s important to remember that good hosting and good guesting will create a deep bond between both parties because you’re respecting one another. Respect your wayward traveler and welcome them into your home, and they will entertain you with tales from far away lands, and in the future you will find a place at their table. Respect your host and the space they provide you, and you’ll receive gifts and care fit for a god. This giving and receiving encourages goodwill between strangers, and providing care to someone you don’t know is an act of love in its own right.

There’s a rule in American food language: “never return an empty dish”. This rule is especially prevalent in the US South and Midwest regions, but the general idea is that when you meet someone new (i.e. a new neighbor) you bring them a dish of something to welcome them and introduce yourself. You make small-talk, help them get acquainted with the area, wish them well, and then go on your merry way. Then, once your new neighbor has settled, eaten the food you gave them, and had time to make something new, they come knocking on your door and return that dish to you with a new food in it.

That’s a facet of what Xenia can encompass, and we see Xenia acted out in three key ways in VLD: Allura recruiting people for the Voltron Coalition, Lotor hosting the Paladins during their alliance, and Hunk showing his care for others through cooking.

Allura, for all her charms, isn’t that great of a diplomat, especially in the beginning of the story. When she meets the Arusians, she accidentally informs them that their dance of apology isn’t enough, which then makes them think they need to sacrifice themselves on a pyre. She thankfully recovers and lets them continue the dance, and then invites them into the Castle of Lions later. With the leaders of the rebel planets, she has a good presence and is rather suave with her guests, however when attention moves off her and onto the Paladins, and when the question of Voltron comes up, it’s extremely difficult for her to take control of the situation again. The loss of Shiro was fresh, and she really didn’t have a good answer that would reveal they couldn’t form Voltron, so she struggled with taking control back. This isn’t an indictment on Allura, but it is meant to point out how Xenia is not easy to learn. As we follow the Paladins, however, Allura gains confidence in her ability to speak publicly, and as they gather more allies it becomes easier for her to encourage alliances. She goes from panicking and trying to keep Arusians from dying to being able to communicate with allies and command a room. Xenia doesn’t come as naturally to Allura as it does to Hunk, and Lotor has had millennia of practice, but the important thing about Xenia is that you extend your hand and make the effort, even if it’s a little clumsy, because in the end you’re caring about strangers and welcoming them into your home and telling them they have a place at your table.

However, where Allura falls short in Xenia, we see both Hunk and Lotor shine. Let’s examine Lotor’s expertise, first.

Lotor is ten thousand years old, and it’s implied he’s spent much of that time playing the political game of the Galra Empire, as well as learning about other planets. It’s canon that he has a thirst for knowledge, and so couple his curiosity with his need to survive a very blood-driven political environment and you have a golden host forged in fire. It’s difficult to surprise Lotor, since he’s pretty much always two steps ahead of everyone. When he forges an alliance with the Voltron Coalition after his victory at the Kral Zera, Lotor has banners hung that bear the same symbol that Zarkon and Alfor fought under, which also adorns the shield on Green’s back. He specifically sought to recall the good times between the Galra and Alteans, and personally greeted the Paladins on his flagship. He encourages the Paladins to explore and use whatever resources they need, because as their host, Lotor–and by extension the entire Galra Empire–is now at their disposal. He’s the ever-perfect host, inviting his lower-ranked guests to make themselves comfortable, and acknowledging Allura’s rank as princess and personally escorting her along. In a lot of other high fantasy or sci-fi stories, showing the heroes around would get palmed off to a servant of some sort, especially if the host is duplicitous. However, Lotor affords our Heroes and Heroines quite a bit of respect compared to what other characters in his place might do, even going so far as to offer his own personal time to the princess when he has an empire to claim still. Given the canon politics, Lotor logically should have been in constant communication with various officers and securing their loyalty to him, but instead he takes time to approach his new allies and make them feel welcome in the headquarters of their former-enemy.

So while Lotor is arguably the best example of good hosting I’ve ever seen in a show (without it turning out to be some sort of ploy), Hunk’s style of Xenia is equally good if in a different way. While Lotor is shown to essentially be a master of decorum, Hunk is a master in the kitchen and the art of making room for everyone at the table. Hunk has only been in space for a few months to a few years (depending on when in the series we’re talking), he hasn’t had the millennia to research planets and learn all their customs, or train in diplomacy to make up for any lack of education. He’s just a guy from Earth who likes to cook and who especially likes to cook for others. In all prior iterations of Voltron, Hunk has always been “the food guy” or “the slightly dumb, but lovable one”. It’s not particularly flattering, and VLD even pokes fun at how flat his character is historically in “The Voltron Show!” by adding fart gag noises. In VLD, however, we see that Hunk is intelligent and brave, if anxious, and he’s more at home in a home than he is in a Lion. Hunk is a good Paladin, but he is quite possibly the best diplomat in the whole show.

A large part of Hunk’s diplomacy lies in listening. When he’s out in the field, he’s quite possibly the best listener out of the entire team. When there are guests on the Castleship, or when the Alteans are on the IGF-Atlas, he doesn’t just listen, he welcomes them. In scenes from season 8, we really get to see this shine, because as Hunk says in “Day Forty-Seven”, “food has a way of reminding people of moments in time.” Bringing good memories with food can go a long way to putting stress and anger behind people.

Every person has a dish that, when prepared, makes them relax and think of happy memories. In Hunk’s kitchen, everyone eats, and nobody is unwelcome. Whether you’re Commander Lahn and working with Hunk to save your planet from devastating radiation, or you’re an Altean who just wants what’s best for your people, Hunk will meet you halfway and try to see things from your perspective, and offer you a cookie because he feels like it. Hunk’s Xenia is not wrapped up in protocol or etiquette. His Xenia is found just across the kitchen table, with a plate of warm food and a friendly conversation, ready to listen to your troubles and offer a hug, if not a solution.

Agape: Unconditional Love

Now that we have discussed the five prior categories of love as defined by the Ancient Greeks, let’s examine Agape, which can be difficult to conceptualize. “Agape” originates a Greek term, however it wasn’t used very often until Christianity came into the picture, and thus it encompasses far more than even xenia does, because while Xenia is love in the form of courtesy to travelers, Agape’s prevalent definition stems purely from the idea that God loves everyone unconditionally. In fact, “agape” is the term used in the Bible to describe the unconditional love of God, but when you translate it to English, the word simply becomes “love”, losing the weight that it carries in Greek.

The idea of unconditional and divine love is not unique to Christianity or the Ancient Greeks. Throw a rock in any direction and I’m sure you’ll find a culture with a similar concept to Agape. The key aspects of unconditional love is that it is sexless–meaning attraction is unnecessary to feel Agape–and that it is founded in goodwill for others. It feels cheap to throw the quote “love thine enemy” around in this section, because that discounts the importance of Philautia as we discussed it earlier in this essay, but at the end of the day that’s what Agape means. The Bible–which influences much of the definition of this kind of love–would have people forgive the ones who do them wrong, but forgiveness does not mean forgetting, and loving someone doesn’t require forgiving them either.

In VLD, a man loved a woman so much he tricked his closest friends and allies into opening a rift in an effort to save her life. In the process, they both died and revived, cursed with immortality and a thirst for destruction. Zarkon was a man who loved Honerva so much that he doomed the known universe to 10,000 years of his tyranny. Honerva, when she regained her memories, sought vengeance against Voltron for not just losing her son, but also because she blames everyone around her for being the reason why her own son rejected her time and time again. Honerva is the antithesis to Allura in pretty much every way, and in the edited season 8, Lotor is condemned to a cycle of abuse because he’s never offered an opportunity to speak, just like how he was violently silenced by his mother when he disobeyed his father on the colony planet in “Shadows”. Honerva, however, is not.

[ID: A screenshot of S8, featuring from left to right: Lance, Keith, Allura, “Shiro”, Pidge, and Hunk. They face Honerva, who is facing away from the audience so we see the back of her head and suit. Screenshot from “Seek Truth in Darkness”. End ID.]
[ID: A shot of “Allura”’s hand grasping Honerva’s wrist and vice versa. Screenshot from “Seek Truth in Darkness”. End ID.]

Allura being a paragon of growing into Philautia gives other characters the ability to do the same, but as @leakinghate notes in “Seek Truth in Darkness”, that is not Allura’s hand, just as that is not Shiro next to Allura in the prior screenshot. Allura is not the one who was most wronged by Honerva. She was asleep and hidden from the universe. Lotor, however, was subjected to centuries of abuse by the hands of his parents.

Agape is a complicated love, one that requires a person to be able to love everyone unconditionally, but love does not necessarily mean “forgive and forget”. It’s important that Allura impart the enlightenment she gained on her Heroine’s Journey, because this is the point where she can be at peace and claim her cosmic reward, but she cannot do so without the person who was most wronged being able to face his oppressor: Lotor.

[ID: A close-up shot of Lotor glaring at the audience, with the subtitle text reading, “maybe I will take pity on you when the time comes.” Screenshot from “Seek Truth in Darkness”. End ID.]

As @leakinghate pointed out, Allura is the one to use her abilities to restore Honerva’s sense of self, but Lotor being present makes this confrontation all the more poignant and intense. This is the opportunity for us to see Agape in its full glory, but with the edits to the final season it’s a pale shadow of what could have been. The universe is about to be reborn because Allura and Lotor stay behind to repair the rift in all realities. We need that Philautia that Allura is able to embody, but we also need Agape. We’re shown countless times throughout the show that good and evil are not so clearly delineated, and that there are shades of gray everywhere. Lotor has been hurt so much by the one person alive who should have loved him unconditionally.

And rather than continue the cycle of abuse and take vengeance, he chooses to let go. We should have seen him take his power back, not in a godly or violent sense, but his power over his fate. He is not his father. And he is not his mother. He is more. By confronting her in this rift of all realities, we see the foreshadowing of season 6 come into full swing and while we are missing much of that original sequence between him and his mother, it’s important to realize that regardless of the content that was removed post-production, he takes pity on his mother in a sense. She’s a flawed person who made bad decisions. He does not owe her forgiveness, and he does not owe her love, but in her finally letting go of not just him but all the spirits of the original Paladins, Lotor himself is able to be free to love in the way he was denied: unconditionally.

The universe needs people who love themselves enough to choose a path of peace, and it needs to be made with the unconditional love of a parent, a friend, a lover, a god. It needs the eternal goodwill of its new creators because the people of the new universe will fuck up. They’ll make mistakes and hurt each other and Weblums will eat planets and the circle of life will continue. But being able to look at the fucked-up universe and say “I love you” is a power that not many have. It takes courage to look at the universe that has wronged you, wronged billions, hurt the found family that’s accepted you, and still find a way to love it.

The new universe is made of love just as the old one was. It’s made with passion, for friends, for family, for strangers, and for yourself. It’s made by people with love and hope and the intent to make the world they live in a little better every day. And that, ultimately, is the true love that spurs the story of VLD forward.

Stay tuned for a companion meta soon, in which we will discuss these forms of love and how they can be twisted and taken to unhealthy extremes.

Works Cited

Dos Santos, Joaquim and Montgomery, Lauren. Voltron: Legendary Defender. Netflix.

LeakingHate, et. al. “Legendarily Defensive: Editing the Gay Away in VLD”. Team Purple Lion. 12 Mar 2019. Web. https://www.teampurplelion.com/gay-romance-cut-voltron/

LeakingHate, et. al. “Seek Truth in Darkness”. Team Purple Lion. 2 Mar 2019. Web. https://www.teampurplelion.com/seek-truth-in-darkness/
Liddell, Henry and Scott, Robert. “Eros”. A Greek-English Lexicon. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0057%3Aentry%3De%29%2Frws

Liddell, Henry and Scott, Robert. “Philia”. A Greek-English Lexicon. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0057%3Aentry%3Dfili%2Fa

Liddell, Henry and Scott, Robert. “Storge”. A Greek-English Lexicon. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0057%3Aentry%3Dstorgh%2F

“Self-love”. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/self-love

Payne, Will. “Botany for the Beginner”. Australian Plants Online. 2006. http://anpsa.org.au/APOL2006/aug06-s1.html

Potter, Ben. “The Odyssey: Be Our Guest With Xenia”. Classical Wisdom Weekly. 19 April 2013. Web. https://classicalwisdom.com/culture/literature/the-odyssey-be-our-guest-with-xenia/

One thought on “On Love and Lions Part 1: An Analysis of Love in VLD

  • February 23, 2022 at 2:37 pm

    What an amazing commentary on love in VLD. Thank you, thank you, thank you!


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