A Few More Pointless Protests

I’d like to continue to write about the claimed cliches of fantasy writing. This next list comes from reader’s comments, and thus represent the “in the trenches” protest of people who are sick of a certain story.

“I dislike the white / light = good and black / dark = bad. Even Saruman gets stripped of “white” status after showing his evil. Enough, already.”

You might as well loose arrows at the sun. This isn’t a fantasy cliche, this is just the way the universe is built. Shadow and night is the symbol for evil, the light, the sun and daytime is the symbol for good. God made the world that way and its useless to protest. This complaint is saying, “I don’t like reality.” We should note, however, that darker colors are not always used this way, and the most obvious example of this is skin color. Nobody’s saying that darker-skinned people are evil. That might seem like an obvious statement, but it’s got to be said these days.

“The cliché boy-must-fulfill his destiny to become king to save the world or whatnot – way overdone.”

“The Wheel of Overtime made me hate orphans of ye olde mysterious background with the fire of a thousand exploding suns.”

This is, again, an opinion – one heavily influenced by a bad example. The Wheel of Time books. Yikes. But a poor example of this story trope doesn’t disqualify the trope itself – just bad versions of it. There aren’t too many fantasy stories that don’t involve this trope. What’s more, it seems to be something that many readers actually want. Harry Potter did it. Aragorn. Narnia. Prydain. 100 Cupboards. Legend of the Seeker set, by Goodkind. The “kid with special powers prophecies” is present everywhere, and nobody except a few seem to be getting bored of it. Books with that trope tend to sell exceedingly well, and people keep buying them. If you don’t like it, that’s kinda weird, but okay. Don’t read fantasy. It’s part of the landscape. Most myths start with a mysterious birth of the hero. Lots of characters in the Bible show up floating in baskets or via immaculate conception. Those work their way into the stories too; Taliesin is found floating in a river, and Anakin Skywalker is born from a mysterious pregnancy.

But there’s one more comment on this subject that illustrates more of what the trouble is, I think:

“The chosen one. Not just because it is a cliché, but because it feels like a big lie.”

Fantasy is inherently an idealistic genre, and when confronted by a generation of cynical adolescents who thrive on “gritty” TV dramas and supposedly realistic fiction (“realistic” being defined as hard, painful or in other ways depressing), the idealism of the chosen one would feel like a lie. But a look at history shows that men who felt destiny weighing on their shoulders have changed the world, and for the better. The true, real-world historical Chosen One was obviously Jesus, but this also means that every Christian is also a little chosen one, with lowercase letters. We have been chosen to rule the cosmos, and indeed, we are enthroned at the right hand of God even now, in the Spirit (see the book of Ephesians).

“Idealization of the middle ages. They were dirty and smelly and full of racism, sexism, classism, and pretty much any other -ism you can think of.”

“Supposedly medieval societies with modern concepts (like mobility between classes, and happy peasants)”

“Absolute monarchy. Sigh. … Pseudo-medieval society where one major influence has been removed (usually the Church) and yet, nothing has changed.”

Sadly, such inane comments do nothing but reinforce stereotypes about the Medieval period and reveals the chronological snobbery of the present age. The Medieval period had its set of problems and flaws, it was hard, gritty, and violent. It was also a beautiful era in which the arts and literature flourished, and many forgotten virtues were celebrated.

It is all too common for people to believe peasants suffered the same way as African-Americans
under the slavery of the south. What this tells me is that any portrait of even a single peasant as happy would be dismissed, even though many live fulfilled, productive lives. No Lord could ever treat his vassals as human beings. Feudalism has suffered under four hundred years of slander (not to say that common conceptions aren’t valid in places either. For a refutation of many of these Medieval stereotypes, see the books to the right.

“Almost any bildungsroman in fantasy.”

Unfortunately for this reader, a bildungsroman is the basis for almost all YA fiction. Ever. Oh, and every myth, every legend, and tons of folklore. It’s the backbone of fantasy, which is watching a child grow up and take full possession of his or her abilities and coming-of-age to take their place in the tribe/nation/family. Naming this a cliche to avoid at all costs undercuts the entire foundation for fantastical literature.

“The peasant boy with his older mentor. why can’t the brat struggle through on his own … ? or with a group of people? why does it have to be one older guy to look after him?”

This is based on Joseph Campbell’s breakdown of all mythology. There is always a wise mentor to train the hero. Always. And, in fact, all stories involve a mentor-character. Even 500 Days of Summer had the mentor, in the guise of the young tween girl who gives the MC advice. While there is no law requiring this mentor to be an older man, usually in myth it is. Or an older Wise Woman. Someone the hero can go to for council, since

he usually does not know what is going on. The Hero’s Journey is helpfully broken down in the book to the right. You can also read Campbell’s classic The Hero with A Thousand Faces.


Tough banana skins.

“I’d have to say that quests against some Supreme Eville Baddy where the protagonists always win despite overwhelming odds is a bit overdone. It would be refreshing to see moral ambiguity … or perhaps the bad guys don’t get thoroughly routed but are forced to make concessions.”

Sorry, lass. You’re in the wrong genre for that one. Fantasy is designed to reveal the innermost alignment of the characters. There ain’t no middle ground. Doesn’t mean you can’t have flawed protagonists, or morally complex choices. But moral ambiguity is the last thing we need more of. Moral complexity, certainly, but not ambiguity.



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