It Ain't Fantasy Without a Little Fascism, or Why Neville Was the Real Hero of 'Harry Potter'
Once upon a time, a very special snowflake was born. He or she grew up right and tall, suffered many hardships, but ultimately prevailed, becoming the foretold hero that saved the land. There was this prophecy, you see. The chosen one would come and make everything better. What made them the chosen one? Well certainly not anything that they actually did, that’s so middle class. No, our snowflake was born and destined for greatness. Why? Oh because the mantle of the gods settled on him in the cradle, or her mom was secretly knocked up by the last king, or a dozen other reasons that boil down to being born with it. Maybe it’s Maybelline, but the bottom line is that our snowflake was special because he or she wasn’t actually something so mundane as a normal person. No, there was special destiny sauce injected in utero, and from there the future was charted.
All stories are morality plays on a meta level because of the decisions that go into the rationale for why the hero is the hero. Why among the million other villagers toiling in the dark lands is this the one who matters? This is the one who doesn’t die of scurvy or get whipped to death by goblins or die tragically in the rain of arrows after a sudden but inevitable betrayal? The simplest answer is sort of the boring trivial one: we follow this one as protagonist, because otherwise the damned story would be too short and kind of pointless. In other words, if the protagonist isn’t the one who wins, he wouldn’t be the protagonist in the first place.
Okay, so granted, storytellers choose a protagonist out of all the potential characters in a world so that way the story can be told, so that way our eye is on the one who wins, barring the edge cases like George R.R. Martin. But the reason why that particular person is the protagonist says something about what we value in people, and also about what we see as the definition of justice in the universe.
Stories, even in our cynical, post-ironic age, are the ways that we make sense of the universe, the way that we add some narrative logic to sweeping events that change the world. When we say that the good guys win, there’s an implicit judgment of justice going on there. We’re saying that these people, in this category, won and that is an inherently good thing. So which people those are says a hell of a lot about who we are and what we care about.
Is it the most intelligent? The most empathetic? The best warrior? The trickiest? The luckiest? If we posit that the good guys win, the reason that they win matters. The reason that one of them in particular is the hero matters even more. Because it is us saying that what makes a person special, what makes a person a hero and favored in the eyes of the universe is this specific quality. Stories that work on the assumption that the good guys should win are firmly based on the belief in a just universe. And so the source of their victory, the reason for their specialness, is inseparable from what we believe the justice of a just universe is based upon.
This can lead to all sorts of richness in stories: anti-heroes are based on the premise that the universe itself isn’t just, that it takes evil to beat evil. Stories in which the hero is defined by her luck are ones positing a universe that is random. Certain individuals who we shall not bother slurring here are drawn to worlds in which the ability to exercise the most perfect violence is what makes an individual the chosen one. And there’s little surprise that geek culture in science fiction tends to revolve around those who are special because of their intelligence. Religious stories will make the special one the one with the most faith.
But fantasy, perhaps by virtue of its repeated use of settings mimicking medieval Europe, has a particular fetish for a particular type of chosen one. Fantasy has an epidemic of inherited specialness, of the reason that this person is the singular individual who can be the mighty hero is simply a matter of birth. They are the secret heir of the king, the one prophesized to be born, the boy who lived. Their specialness is none of their own doing, but merely an artifact whether directly or indirectly of whose sperm happened to find whose egg. It’s not universal. China Mieville’s protagonists are written from an explicitly socialist perspective, tearing down these old feudalistic values. And J.R.R. Tolkien, great granddaddy of the genre, his protagonist was chosen basically because Gandalf had a hunch while packing his pipe.
The reason this matters is that it’s a terribly anti-democratic way of looking at justice in the universe. Who can we turn to in order to save the world? Well not a normal person, let’s find someone who looks normal but fell out of a queen’s uterus twenty years ago. Right. We can do better than that, because that doesn’t line up with what most of us actually think is implied by a just universe.
Or to sum it up: sod off Harry, Neville was the real hero.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.