Monday, August 4, 2014

An Exploration in Fantasy -- Part Three: Who's Gonna Learn Ya?

Well, obviously, I wasn't thinking of the exact order I was going to deal with my list from the first post in this series, because, today, I need to do some rearranging. So let's look back at the list of the central tropes of current (by current, I mean the last few decades) fantasy literature:

1. The protagonist (I'm just going to say "hero" from here on out; it's shorter) is not an adult (and usually male).
2. The hero is an orphan (usually both parents are dead, although there is sometime one (usually the mother)).
3. The hero is "special" in some way.
4. There is a prophecy, generally related to the hero.
5. There is an old mentor of some sort, usually a male. (We recognize this character as "the wizard.")
6. There is a quest of some sort involved that only the hero can complete.
7. There is some kind of descent
8. The hero has companions who help him on his journey.
9. There is some sort of "dark lord" who can only be defeated by the hero.
10. There's an absence of technology.

 We dealt with #s 1-4 in part two of this series, so let's take a look at the next bit with a change in the ordering. We'll look at the new #s 5-7:

5. There is an old mentor of some sort, usually a male. (We recognize this character as "the wizard.")
6. The hero has companions who help him on his journey.
7. There is a quest of some sort involved that only the hero can complete.

This is the part where, hopefully, there is character development. But that's actually a different topic. What we want to do here is look back at the list from part two of this series (because why not use the same one?) and see how many of them use these three things. So, first, here's that list:

1. Harry Potter
2. Luke Skywalker
3. Garion (The Belgariad)
4. Rand al'Thor (The Wheel of Time)
5. Richard Cypher (The Sword of Truth)
6. Batman
7. Spider-Man
8. Superman
9. Arya and Bran Stark (A Song of Fire and Ice)
10. Dorothy (The Wizard of Oz)
11. Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games)
12. Skeeve (MythAdventures)
13. Pug (The Riftwar Saga)
14. Harry Dresden (The Dresden Files)

And here's how each of the three things apply:

1. Potter -- Dumbledore and, primarily, Ron and Hermione; each book has its own quest, but it climaxes in the quest for the horcruxes.
2. Luke -- Obi-Wan and Han, Leia, and Chewbacca; the quest theme isn't as clearly defined in these: there are moments of questiness
3. Garion -- Belgarath and, well, really, many more than I want to list; the orb
4. Rand -- Moraine and Lan serve the part of mentor while Mat, Perrin, Egwene and Nynaeve serve as compainions; being such a long series, the quests change as the series progresses
5. Cypher -- Zedd as mentor and Kahlan as companion; the quest is for one of the boxes of Orden
6. Batman -- Alfred serves as mentor while Robin (through most of Batman's history) is his companion; his quest is for justice
7. Spider-Man -- Uncle Ben as mentor, but Spidey has no consistent companions, being mostly a loner; his quest is similar to Batman's but focused more on preventing the devastation he felt from failing to prevent his uncle's death
8. Superman -- Pa Kent and a variety of newspaper cronies; I think Superman is mostly questless
9. a. Arya Stark -- I'm going to say that Jaqen serves as her mentor; she has companions, but I'm not going to look up their names. I'm not sure how to label her quest other than as revenge.
9. b. Bran Stark -- I believe the mentor character is Brynden Rivers (but I could have the name wrong); there are various companions. There is some quest or other that takes him beyond the wall. Thing. Whatever it's called.
10. Dorothy -- The closest thing to a mentor is Glenda; probably, you all know the companions. And the quest to get home to Kansas.
11. Katniss -- Haymitch is probably the primary mentor, though a case could be made for Effie. Peeta is her primary companion, at least in the first one. The quest stuff is less defined in these books (from what I can tell from the movies), though the overall patter is the same.
12. Skeeve -- Aahz is the mentor, and he has various companions. I'm not sure the quest trope fits (it's been too long since I read them.)
13. Pug -- Kulgan is Pug's first mentor, though that changes when he leaves Midkemia. He has two sets of companions, too. There's more than one quest.
14. Dresden -- Ebenezar McCoy is about as mentor-y as you can get and has all flavors of Gandalf written all over him. In overalls. There is the expected cast of companions with Karrin Murphy as the main one. Also, Bob. As a series, the quests vary book to book.

As you can see, virtually every example listed uses some variation of all three points, the most notable exception probably being The Wizard of Oz because calling Glenda the mentor is actually a stretch. This is also the part of fantasy story-telling that we can most "blame" on Tolkien. Specifically, we can blame it on the excellent character of Gandalf that he created and everyone has wanted to play with ever since then. In fact, the authors Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis have their wizard Fizban call himself Gandalf "by mistake" in one of their books, something I found quite amusing when I was a teenager.

Tolkien also sends us on quests and gives us companions for our protagonist. In The Hobbit, the dwarves serve somewhat interchangeably as companions, meaning that none of them other than Thorin are strictly necessary, though he does flesh them out enough to show us that specific dwarves are better at particular activities, like Fili and Kili and their ability to make fire.

It's in The Lord of the Rings, though, that the "party system," as we've come to think of it, and which D&D so liberally "borrowed," was really created. Each companion has his own field of specialization, so to speak. Legolas is "The Archer;" Gimli is "The Warrior," though we've actually come to think of that as "dwarf warrior" in fantasy circles, because Beorn is the "human warrior." Arogorn is "The Ranger." And there's Gandalf... And nearly every fantasy book written since LotR has used some variation of this.

So we do find that Tolkien used these three points of the list, but the real question is whether he invented these things or if they came from somewhere else.


  1. Depends - when did the Narnia books come out? That was used in several of those books, most notably The Silver Chair.

  2. I like "questiness."

    The Good Witch in the Oz series is named Glinda, not Glenda.

  3. I've always been fascinated with fantasy and being able to create worlds within worlds or worlds outside of reality. I am started to do a lot of research on "Tolkien" so these posts are super interesting to me. As a child, I was obsessed with stories such as The Chronicles of Narnia, Legend, and The Neverending Story. More presently, it has been more epic tales such as The Lord of the Rings and of course, Harry Potter.

  4. Superheroes don't quite fit the mold because we want them to be heroes, although they started banding into Justice Societies and Avengers and whatnot.

    An interesting thought: is LOTR or D&D more responsible for enforcing notions about witches, elves, and quests and groups? D&D seems to have drawn heavily on Tolkien, and playing those games may have done as much to cause people to think "that's how it should be" than reading one book.

    Or was Tolkien's setup so compelling it just caught on?

    Your ending makes me think there is a twist coming up.

  5. Fabulous post, Andrew. I sort of freak out any time I see the name "Harry Dresden" because I LOVE that series so much. Jim Butcher is ah-mazing. Love the way you broke this down. Really great!

  6. Must admit I had never looked at these books this way. Some of them are more obvious than others. If you analyse books when you read, do you ever just sit back and read for relaxation?

  7. It's tough for fantasy writers, I'm sure, if they ever want to include a wise old character. Comparisons to Gandalf will always come up. There were so many elements in Harry Potter that felt like a nod to Tolkien (if not outright sticky-fingered borrowing).

  8. Alex: The first Narnia book came out after The Hobbit but before Fellowship; however, Lewis was heavily influenced by Tolkien and was very familiar with Tolkien's work on Middle Earth even before the books. Part of what he was doing was creating his own Middle Earth-like world.

    Sandra: True. I wasn't thinking about it when I wrote it.

    Gina: I've probably read more books about Tolkien (and Lewis) than anyone has a right to.

    Briane: LotR is more responsible even if it's indirectly, because Gygax based so much of D&D directly on The Lord of the Rings. There were huge changes to the first edition game because he got it so much trouble over it. I would say Tolkien's setup is that compelling.

    Morgan: I like the Dresden series a lot.

    Jo: That is how I read for relaxation.

    L.G.: That's very true and impossible to avoid. House has its own Gandalf, but I acknowledge it in the book. It's just hard to get away from when you want to have a mentor-ish character. That's why so much of the rest of the book strays from convention (no orphans, no prophecy, nothing "special" about anyone other than normal variations in people).

  9. I think I'd forgotten that this series was inspired by the question of 'how influential is Tolkein?' Or at least a very similar question. One of the things that I think he is most responsible for is the popularity of elves, dwarves, orcs and goblins in high fantasy - as well as the questful nature of so many fantasy stories. Which you touched on.

    Although, I've been reading a lot of fantasy the past 3 or so years, and not much of the newer stuff I've been reading has any of the those character types at all. Great series.

  10. Rusty: He is (probably) responsible for elves, dwarves, etc; however, those things are part of the story; they're more like decoration, which is why I'm not talking about them in the main part of this series.