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It Ain't Fantasy Without a Little Fascism, or Why Neville Was the Real Hero of 'Harry Potter'

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | March 6, 2014 | Comments ()


neville-longbottom-sword.jpg

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.




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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • You had me at the title... I'll go actually read now.

  • Jelinas

    I like you, SLW. I like the way you think, and I like the way you write.

  • foolsage

    I just reread the article, which I quite enjoyed. Thought I should mention it because it's easy to get caught up in discussing ideas spurred by the article. Your writing is full of interesting ideas.

    I think a lot of the reason that fantasy as a genre is so tied to the Chosen One trope is because fantasy has deep roots in fairy tales, and fairy tales are replete with heroes chosen by luck or destiny. Science fiction as a genre is partially a response to the tropes of fairy tales (essentially an Enlightenment movement), so naturally sci-fi heroes are rarely chosen the way fairy tale heroes are.

  • Haystacks

    I honestly thought Hermione should have gotten the top billing. She pulled their chestnuts out of the fire so many times......
    Also who doesn't want to be "Brilliant....but scary."

  • foolsage

    Hermione was the character I related to most, of the three leads, so believe me when I say I sympathize even if I disagree. ;)

    Hermione was undeniably crucial to the story several times, but then so was Dumbledore. The story cycle as a whole though was clearly Harry's, in that it centered around his destiny and his choices. Harry was the horcrux (which just happened to him; that wasn't anything he did). Harry chose to confront Voldemort several times though, and essentially formed Dumbledore's Army through a cult of charisma. Harry's ability to defend himself against the Dark Arts was second to none in his classes (even Hermione), and when push came to shove, that was damned crucial. That in turn lent hope to others, who came to see him as a symbol. Sure, that was also helped by the mark on his forehead (which in turn symbolized his ability to survive something nobody else had ever survived), so his destiny and his choices are hard to completely separate.

    Hermione was absolutely essential to many of Harry's successes, there's no denying it. Still, she was helping, not leading.

  • Berry

    I hate to admit that you make a good case, because Hermione is my favorite HP character, and one of my all time favorite fictional character, but you do make a good case. But you wouldn't believe the stink eye I'm giving you for making me concede that point when I was so totally ready to yell Team Hermione 4 Life from the rooftops.

  • foolsage

    Hermione remains the most intelligent and most useful of Harry's band though overall (generally by a large margin :D), so there's always that.

  • ZbornakSyndrome

    Neville won the battle of puberty, and really isn't that the most magical feat of all?

  • foolsage
  • BiblioGlow

    I have so many SLW articles bookmarked it's becoming problematic.

  • I am going to take the writer's view here. The main character has to be different in some way, and if that difference is inherent, then it's not something they can cast off or walk away from. Readers will be pulled out of the story if the thing that leads the hero into dangerous places is something the hero could simply choose to discard, thus avoiding all those horribly risky situations. If you *could* walk away from having to face risk to life and limb, and some other person would come along/be picked to do it, then you're sort of an idiot if you don't opt to preserve your life. Unless, of course, you have a death wish or an over-developed sense of duty, and those characters come with their own sets of criticisms.

    There are many ways to embroil your character in situations that they cannot easily escape, and all of those ways are equally problematic for a reader: i.e., you have to do X dangerous thing to save your family, or a case of mistaken identity puts you in X situation, or you are the last Y and therefore the only one who is left to do X, etc. Each one of those choices could be pulled apart and criticized as easily as "you were born/fated to do X" but that doesn't mean you can't get good stories out of them that resonate with an audience.

    That said, Voldemort was only defeated because Neville *was* a hero and did difficult and terrible things. What that proves is that minor characters should have their own motivations and lives and back stories that define who they are, and their inclusion in the story should be purposeful. Without Sam Gamgee, Frodo wouldn't have made it across Mordor, much less up the mountain. You don't have to be a main character to be a hero.

  • The revisionist bullshit must end!

    THE BOOKS AREN'T CALLED 'NEVILLE LONGBOTTOMS' ADVENTURES IN BEING A BIG LOSER AT MAGIC SCHOOL", PEOPLE.

    HARRY 5EVAH.

  • competitivenonfiction

    Oh that is it Figgy! We are FIGHTING!!

  • foolsage

    I'll make popcorn.

  • This is still my favorite article about the true hero of Harry Potter, Hermione Granger:
    http://globalcomment.com/in-pr...

  • competitivenonfiction

    This is amazing. How is this the first I've heard of it?

  • Corkran

    I'm on board with the principle, but not here. Harry is himself not that special and was just as chosen as Neville. His only particularity is rather foolish courage and that is welcomed on grounds that without that there would be no story.

  • foolsage

    "All stories are morality plays on a meta level"

    Hrm. I think Camus and Sartre would beg to differ. Existentialist and (to a lesser extent) post-modern literature posits that sometimes things just happen, and there isn't any deeper meaning or lesson to it. Granted, pretty much all other literature aligns with your argument, but the devil is in the details, as they say.

    On the subject of Harry Potter being the Chosen One (and not Neville), I think Rowling actually handled the topic well in the books. Harry was indeed Chosen, but not by fate: he was chosen by Voldemort. Voldemort's actions brought the whole sequence of events about. Had Voldemort not attacked Harry's mother personally, had he allowed one of his minions to slay her... Harry wouldn't have received the mark, along with part of Voldemort's soul.

    In Harry's defense though, he earns the title of Chosen One by acting the part. He didn't NEED to be brave, or kind, or helpful; those were choices he made. Harry was a hero, but not because he was born one, or even because Voldemort chose him. Of course, in Neville's defense, he was essentially as brave, kind, and helpful as Harry, but just didn't get the same opportunities. Neville was certainly qualified to be the Chosen One.

    Tolkien was even less democratic than you're giving him credit for, I fear. Bilbo wasn't just some random Hobbit pulled off the street; no, he was a Baggins (of Bag End), and a Took on his mother's side. Which is to say, he came from the wealthiest and most powerful families of hobbits (more on this below). Gandalf, of course, was a Maia, which is essentially an angelic being (he pretended to be human but absolutely was not). Thorin was a prince, and all the other dwarves were basically royalty of some sort (though the movie claims otherwise). Legolas was the prince of Mirkwood. Aragorn was of course the hereditary King of Gondor and Arnor. Frodo was Bilbo's cousin, and thus also wealthy and powerful. Pippin was a Took (the family that more or less ruled the Shire through their leader, the Thain). Merry was from across a river called the Brandywine, and his family, the Brandybucks, ruled that area.

    There is literally one character among all of Tolkien's protagonists who is NOT aristocratic: Samwise Gamgee, Frodo's gardener.

  • MNightShannalan

    And Sam is basically the loyal servant in the trenches with his master, like Alfred was to Matthew Crawley. Still hierarchical, with oh-so-British-y notions of duty and class. Sam rose to the challenge, but he wasn't the hero.

  • foolsage

    That was my point; though Sam was definitely a hero, and arguably the most heroic of the Fellowship, he was also at the very bottom of the hierarchy because Middle-earth was VERY classist. Well, the Free Peoples were, anyhow. Amusingly, the orcs were basically a meritocracy, where the strongest ruled. Social mobility in Middle-earth was largely limited to the forces of evil. But that's a WHOLE 'nother can of worms.

  • Considering when it was written and who was doing the writing, Sam's importance in the story is a bit radical. Sure, he isn't the Hero, but he is heroic, and the story would have ended very differently if there had been no Sam to keep the Empire Frodo going.

  • And Sam is the voice of reason and practicality, all the way through. Sam is prepared and steadfast and never lets despair win, even in the darkest moments. He is the hero, even if he's not the protagonist (although one could argue there are several protagonists, as there are several stories being told simultaneously).

    Now, don't get me started on the patriarchal shoving of Eowyn into Farmir's arms simply because they needed to so something with her so she didn't become problematic. Tolkien should have stayed away from romance all together.

  • foolsage

    Sam's arguably the most heroic of the protagonists, agreed. Did Aragorn defeat Shelob alone with a knife? He did not. When even Frodo gave up, Sam would not. So, yes, there's that democratic support... but Sam was still a servant, and didn't make any of the decisions whenever anyone else was around to decide.

    I kind of agree with you about Eowyn but also partially disagree. Faramir was an awesome character and well worthy of Eowyn's love. He was still "her type" (a grizzled Ranger who's also royalty) so it's not too far-fetched. There just wasn't much development there to show us how the love blossomed; they spent some time recuperating together, and then at some point they were in love. Then again, there wasn't a lot of love blossoming shown in "Beren and Luthien" either, which supports your argument about romance in Tolkien.

  • chanohack

    Also (let me know if I'm alone in this): Sam is the only person who wears the ring (besides Tom Bombadil, who is magic) who is not controlled by it, at least the way I read it. In the movie they kind of make Sam seem greedy for wanting to help Frodo carry the ring, like he was being seduced by the power of it, but the only impression I got in the book was that he was trying to help. I was pretty pissed off that the movie did that to him.

  • foolsage

    Sam started to give in to the temptation when they were at Cirith Ungol, essentially immediately after he first gets the Ring.

    “As Sam stood there, even though the Ring was not on him but hanging by its chain about his neck, he felt himself enlarged, as if he were robed in a huge distorted shadow of himself, a vast and ominous threat halted upon the walls of Mordor. He felt that he had from now on only two choices: to forbear the Ring, though it would torment him; or to claim it, and challenge the Power that sat in its dark hold beyond the valley of shadows. Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dûr. And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit. He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his own, and all this could be.

    “In that hour of trial it was the love of his master that helped most to hold him firm; but also deep down in him lived still unconquered his plain hobbit-sense: he knew in the core of his heart that he was not large enough to bear such a burden, even if such visions were not a mere cheat to betray him.”

    ***

    So, on the one hand, yes, Sam definitely felt the temptation of the Ring. Everyone did who handled it, except Bombadil. Sam was however one of only two mortals who held the Ring for any length of time and didn't succumb to the temptation completely. Or. depending on how forgiving you are of Frodo's failure at the Cracks of Doom, you could argue that Sam was the ONLY Ringbearer who held out. He was tempted, yes, but he never gave in at any point.

    In the movie, my take on it was that Sam was just genuinely trying to help, but Frodo misunderstood it. Maybe Sam was a little tempted, but his offer was genuine.

  • Oh, don't get me wrong. I love Faramir. He is, in fact, the best man in the books. And he treated her very well, especially when he chose to give her what she wanted (a room with a view...) and withdrew to let her sort herself out and decide if she could maybe find her way toward loving him. It's just that Tolkien was sort of clumsy about the whole thing.

  • foolsage

    I'm with you on all counts.

  • chanohack

    Bravo. I wrote my senior paper about why Sam Gamgee is the real hero of LotR. I was out of school by the time strong arguments for Neville could be made, but he always had my vote.

  • foolsage

    Sam wasn't written to be in the spotlight. He doesn't steal scenes. He's just there, keeping his head down and working away at the heart of the stories. Sam's among my favorite characters of all time.

  • Lawrence Aggleton

    And Gollum...

  • foolsage

    Gollum wasn't a protagonist, but rather an antagonist. The antagonists in Tolkien's books were almost all non-aristocrats, with only a few exceptions: Sauron, Saruman, and the Balrog of Moria (who were all Maiar, like Gandalf); and the Ring-Wraiths themselves, who were kings and leaders of men when they were alive.

  • Mrs. Julien

    STANDING O.

    God damn, I love Pajiba,

  • VonnegutSlut

    You beat me to it, Mrs. J. This whole thing damn near brought a tear to my eye.

    (P.S. I originally wrote that as "brought a TEAT to my eye" which is a whole different thing & probably still involves Pajiba's kickassery & its moist lions.)

  • ZbornakSyndrome

    I'm calling it: "Brought a Teat to my Eye" is the "Moist Lions" of 2014

  • foolsage

    Well, damn. If I'd brought a teat to your eye, I could call this a day well spent. Next time!

  • Wednesday

    I need China Mieville to write something new. His books are a refreshing change from the Chosen-One genre of fantasy. Nick Harkaway, too, though his new book comes out in July, so that may be the shorter wait.

    Their heroes may be in the right place at the right time (or wrong time, typically), but they don't just throw up their hands and proceed because "fate" has said they must.

  • kinoumenthe

    Tigerman !!!
    … and whatever Mieville has under his sleeve. No news as yet.
    Back to Tigerman, Harkaway has both UK and US covers on his blog.

  • Dove of Doom

    The fantasy novels of Joe Abercrombie have plenty of fun twisting the notions of heroes being created by bloodline, appointed by fate, and foretold by prophesy.

  • jennp421

    Or Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy. He definitely toys with the concept.

  • Green_Eggs_and_Hamster

    Carrot Ironfoundersson in the Discworld by Pratcheet is my favorite.

  • foolsage

    Captain Carrot Ironfoundersson is a great deconstruction of the "Chosen One" trope.

  • Tinkerville

    To me, that's one the of many, many, brilliant things about Harry Potter. Rowling made it clear that both Harry and Neville fit the prophecy perfectly, it was Voldemort who turned Harry into the chosen one by going after him and ultimately "marking him as his equal." It turned the cliche of the "chosen one" on its head a bit by saying that it could just have easily been someone else had Voldemort acted differently.

  • Long_Pig_Tailor

    It's interesting that, in the end, both Harry and Neville proved to be Voldemort's equal, as far as Rowling really writes either of them that way (I have issues with Harry as she never bothers to have him consider the real implications of having to duel the guy and prepare for it). It doesn't, in the end, matter who he "marked." Harry's got the plotty magic beans and is the ultimate key to taking Voldemort down, but Neville whips out Gryffindor's sword and destroys his final tether to "immortality" right there to his face. Given half the chance, they were both the kinds of people who would be willing to take him on. Voldemort's biggest mistake was paying attention to the prophecy at all. Ignored, his secret is relatively safe and Dumbledore has a much harder time discovering the truth whereas heeded, his claims to immortality are explicitly tested and leave living evidence in the Chosen One (whoever it was) that Dumbledore could follow to the explanation.

    And that, boys and girls, is why Hogwarts clearly not teaching English classes to these kids is actually a good thing. Voldemort never reads Macbeth, Voldemort never learns that sometimes the best action regarding a prophecy is to ignore the shit out of some prophecy.

  • Bryan

    While I actually cheered out loud when Neville killed Nagini (glad I was reading alone), his real moment of glory was moments earlier. When all seemed lost, when everyone thought Harry was dead and there was no point in continuing, Neville stood up to Voldemort and told him to go f*ck himself. A tip of the hat to Mr Longbottom, who beyond the shadow of a doubt showed his Gryffindor colors that day.

  • ZbornakSyndrome

    That's what I always loved about Neville: He did what was right, even when there was absolutely nothing to gain from it. He would stand up to Harry, Voldemort or anyone else because he had character.

  • competitivenonfiction

    This is my fist-pump, shout for joy, whoop so loudly I disturb the neighbours every time.

  • BWeaves

    Also, how great it is that both Harry and Neville are written as these undersized boys who are picked on, in the books. But in real life, Daniel Radcliff remained the petite Harry Potter, while Matthew Lewis got so tall and hot that they had to keep uglying him up with makeup for the part.

  • BWeaves

    Even J.K. Rowling admits in one of the Harry Potter books, that it could have been Neville in the prophesy. It was Voldemort who decided it was Harry. And Neville was no slouch, either, so it could have easily been him had Voldemort flipped the coin with his other hand.

    I read a study years ago that said something like: In an emergency, 70 % of the people will do nothing, and yell for someone to do something. 20% of the people will actually do the wrong thing and cause harm. Not intentionally, they just don't really know the right thing to do. And 10% will actually take charge and rush in and do something. My percentages might not be exactly correct. The heroes are from that 10%.

    The problem is, in stories, we want the prince or princess, or scullery maid, or slave to be the hero. We don't want the middle income accountant to be the hero. Even today, the paparazzi follow around the most famous, or the worst, cracked out fame whores. They don't follow around the middle income accountant.

  • competitivenonfiction

    Trying to find the words... all I can feel is pure joy. FINALLY someone understands my love for Neville. They wouldn't have won without him. He went through just as much hardship as Harry. Arguably a bit more, while Harry was upset that he didn't have as many bedrooms as his cousin and living with a comfortable lie about his parentage, Neville was busy visiting his driven-insane-by-torture parents in a wizard mental hospital. And while Harry had the entire wizarding world rooting for him to succeed, Neville was treated like he didn't belong at Hogwarts (even sometimes by Harry) or at home. Then he went on to work and work and work and then he succeeded. Not because of fate or help or being "chosen" or even being naturally talented or smart, he just fucking worked at it until he got good.

    This is kind of embarrassing, but Neville is one of my all-time favourite characters.

    ETA: Embarrassing because of the crying/yelling of joy I do during Neville's heroic moments

  • foolsage

    There's nothing embarrassing about it. Neville starts from behind in every real sense, and still WINS. That's damned inspirational.

  • Dumily

    For me, it was all over when he said "I'm quite proud to be their son." Sorry, Harry, you just can't compete with that.

  • Tinkerville

    That's not embarrassing at all. He's a brilliant, incredible character and I flat out sobbed when he had his big moment at the end of the seventh book.

  • BlackRabbit

    And by the end they both had scars, but Neville EARNED his.

  • Maddy

    I love Neville - I hated that they cut so much of his story out of the movies

  • SnowyOwl

    *Swoon* This takeover is already everything I'd hoped it would be.

  • Lawrence Aggleton

    Nah, Luna was the hero.

  • Jamie Dello Stritto

    Which is why they should get married and be Mr. and Mrs. Lovegood-Longbottom.

  • foolsage

    Longbottom-Lovegood is just as funny. Those are two great names that sound great together.

  • Jamie Dello Stritto

    Or Oliver Wood so she can be Lovegood-Wood.
    Some friends and i did this for about an hour the other day. We're a silly folk.

  • foolsage

    Or Neville could have a son, and name him after Lee Jordan and Sirius Black. The boy could be Sirius Lee Lovebottom.

  • foolsage

    HA! OK, that one is just priceless.

  • Jamie Dello Stritto

    1) I'm really enjoying your mini-takeover.
    2) Neville Longbottom is my boyfriend. Off him, bitches.

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