Heroism is not what you do, it’s who you are.
Bit problematic, isn’t it?
I’ve alluded previously to high fantasy’s obsession with, essentially, heredity. High fantasy heroes are more often born than made. They have the blood of kings, or deities, or heroes. They’re The Last <Noun>. Only they can wield the magic blade of Some Dead Guy. Only they survive the killing curse.
High fantasy heroes, in short, triumph not because they work at it (they often do, of course), but because they’re special, or prophesied, and the universe folds itself in around them.
The semi-divinity of heroes is of course nothing new. Heroic figures in myth were virtually always larger-than-life: kings so important the gods built them companions, warriors explicitly born of deities, men bathed in invincibility juice, etc. But it’s worth noting that this was no guarantee of success in the ancient world. Gilgamesh loses his best friend and learns that even he can’t triumph over mortality. Hercules goes nuts and kills his whole family. Achilles’s Heel is still a metaphor for a flaw so complete that it can drag down what is otherwise perfect.
So if, as I believe, fantasy is the heir of myth, how did the current state of things come about?
As with most things high fantasy, I think Lord of the Rings is the answer. Now, let’s note that Frodo isn’t The Last Hobbit or any of that nonsense, and that he does suffer quite a bit to get things done. Nevertheless, while he isn’t precisely the prophesied one (Aragorn comes closest in that particular cast), the thematic elements that underpin Frodo and the rest of the hobbits – that anybody, no matter how small, can make a difference – led pretty naturally into what came later.
The popularity of LotR was built on the back of the hippie counter-culture, and it’s in this context specifically that the foundations for the rest of what we now call high fantasy were laid. And you know who talked a lot about the small making a difference? Hippies.
My contention – and I hasten to add that I’m not a sociologist – is that the ethics of high fantasy were shaped in no small part by the focus on self-esteem and self-actualization that was common in the parenting styles of the day, by people who championed those ideals and people that grew up with them.
It’s all about self-esteem. And while straw-man oversimplifications of self-esteem parenting abound and set tongues to clucking about the (not always healthy) ways things were done back in the day, it’s worth remembering that the twee, syrupy joy of “I’m worth it!” can most certainly turn into real happiness and a sense of self-worth.
I think this explains why teenagers enjoy high fantasy so much, and why so much of it is written directly at them (and, indeed, why high fantasy in general has a reputation for being childish, on which more at a later date) – they’re at a point in their lives where the idea of inherent worth is a bit alien, and the idea that people are important just by dint of being is one that many of them need to hear.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t problematic elements to this pervasive theme. It is, in many ways, awful. It’s inegalitarian, and it feeds the idea that success is an inherent trait rather than the result of hard work. Better done high fantasy avoids this. Harry Potter, for all that his thunder is always stolen by Dumbledore Ex Machina, really does work for his heroism, and more importantly, his not-so-special comrades put in a good shift (and indeed, where would they be without Hermione?).
But the bad stuff is everywhere too. Heroes succeed despite rank stupidity because they are who they are, or because they profess the right political belief. Everything falls in place for them. The universe bends around them. Their every stupid snap judgment is proven correct. Their enemies, despite having somehow draped their black cloaks over the world entire, are woefully incompetent.
The line between self-esteem and narcissism is thin.
How do we fix it? Well, it’s already been fixed. For all the really terrible fiction out there, there’s a lot of fantastic stuff. But my nuts-and-bolts summary:
First, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of the protagonist being special, chosen, prophesied, etc. (other than the fact that it’s played out, of course, but execution is bigger than ideas and it can be pulled off well). There is something wrong with the protagonist being the only person who can contribute to the plot in any meaningful way. His companions – for there are always companions – need to be more than nodding yes-men. Also, if a protagonist is the only person who can do something, that needs to be reflected in the way they see themselves. I don’t mean why-me angst, necessarily, but some thought should be given to the weight of the responsibility. Our intrepid hero certainly shouldn’t be charging into the lion’s jaws without any sort of plan, because he needs to be aware that if he’s done for, so’s everybody else. (Although, that said, a nihilistic chosen one could be a lot of fun).
I’ll take this opportunity to direct you to Avatar: The Last Airbender, a kids’ cartoon series done in the timeless good-for-them, fun-for-us style that marks all good children’s media (nb: I hear the movie sucks). Aang is terrified by the weight of his task and the magnitude of his own powers, he has trouble reconciling what he has to do with the happy-go-lucky pacifist he is, and he has friends that get their own character development and actually help out now and again.
That said, I definitely would like to see more of the proletarian approach. Even in the highest of fantasy, there’s room for people who aren’t in some way marked for great deeds, but who achieve them because they’re driven, or courageous, or caught up in events greater than they are. People the world over have managed to do incredible things without needing to be the last wizard or the last unicorn or the last hippie.
And these heroes, be they super-speshul or merely brave, need to fail sometimes. They need to make snap judgments that are wrong (especially if they’re teens). They need to disregard good advice, get into scrapes, and learn to think. They need to be up against credible threats that act like threats. It doesn’t all need to be terribly dark, particularly if you are writing a bildungsroman or something aimed at an even younger crowd. The villain doesn’t need to order babies executed gangland style, and the hero doesn’t need to contemplate suicide. But please, too many Dark Lords just phone it in. I know they’re busy with their succubi and figuring out property taxes on the Fortress of Woe, but if your villain can’t present at least some difficulty for an intrepid teenager, I’m going to have some difficulty taking him seriously as the would-be ruler of all creation.
Next time, we’ll talk about writing fantasy for adults instead of those damn kids with their hair, what’s mildly silly about that goal, and iron thews.