Saturday, 13 January 2018

Concerning fiction, heroes and manifest destiny.

I'm reading this at the moment, and enjoying it more than I have a fantasy novel for decades. I won't say much about it, it would be too easy to spoil the plot (it's also available in English translation), but the treatment of the traditional 'warrior hero' is interesting.

I've always felt novels centred around a 'warrior hero' are something of a vice. They invite you to identify with an impossibly athletic, strong, resilient character who is almost invariably intelligent with it. For geeky folk like me who were on the receiving end of a certain amount of physical bullying in childhood, identifying with a warrior character who can best his opponents with ease is emotional cocaine: compelling yes, but probably deeply unhealthy. I think we'd be happier feeding our fantasy lives with roles we can live up to, and people we could hope to be.

Then there are the other heroes. The heroes by birth, those with manifest destiny on their side. They cannot lose, just by existing they best their opponent. It's an old old story - one of the oldest in fact. Whether you call the messiah Gilgamesh, Jesus or Harry Potter, he (and it's always 'he') was intended by destiny to win the day.

To me, that's an even more poisonous notion than inviting the physically weak to identify with a warrior hero. Destiny makes the hero and there's nothing you can do about it. You just have to wait for King Arthur to come and save you, like some kind of wet damsel at the top of a tower. It's a call to passivity, a denial of the potential of the individual, and completely at odds with reality.

I remember being deeply disappointed by David Eddings' Belgariad when it turns out Belgarion is actually the scion of ancient kings and destined for his role (sorry if that's a spoiler, but it was published thirty-odd years ago). It's something I hated about the Harry Potter books. I dislike the Harry Potter books intensely. I have nothing but the utmost respect for J K Rowling: she is a generous and kindly woman, an acerbic wit, an extraordinary role model, and the Harry Potter books are one of the most cleverly constructed commercial successes of all time. But they are artificial in their brilliance, carefully contrived to include every successful idea ever used in childrens fiction. They're cynical, brilliant, and irritate/bore me in equal measure. But I digress...

For me, the most loathesome of all heroic fiction is that of E E 'Doc' Smith. Heroes eugenically bred over the course of millenia, impossible uber-mensches and their unfeasibly attractive love interests. The 'Lensman' series is bad enough, but in 'Lord Tedric' and 'Subspace Explorers' the whole theme becomes positively fascist.

And there we have the real problem with manifest destiny in heroic fiction. It tells us that some are destined to lead, and the rest of us are destined to follow. "Know your place peasant, and get ready to give your life for those who are better than you". Words have power, ideas yet more. Every time an author picks up a heroic storyline, they run the risk of strengthening ideas that we'd be better off forgetting.

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