Three Fantasy Tropes and Why We Love Them

Ah, Fantasy tropes. They are the subject of much heated debate and are often proclaimed to be hated by many. There are dozens of them, and they are ridiculed profusely by lovers and haters of Fantasy alike. However, I contend that these tropes exist for a reason, and that reason is we secretly love them. Three of the most common tropes are The Dark Lord, The Wise Old Wizard, and The Chosen One.

The Dark Lord

The Dark Lord is one of the most prevalent fantasy tropes. The most obvious example is Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, starring the infamous Sauron as the main villain, who sports the name “The Dark Lord.” You might also look at Rowling’s Harry Potter, where the evil Voldemort claims the same title for himself. The Dark Lord of a novel does not necessarily need to go by that name, however. What makes the Dark Lord what he or she is? It is, more or less, that the Dark Lord is an absolute evil, irredeemable, mostly flat character. Typically, he or she is a driving factor in the plot but is far-removed from the action, simply present as the ever-distant threat to the protagonists, though is occasionally more involved. He or she is also often portrayed as old if not ancient, having wreaked havoc on the world for anywhere from decades to centuries. There are several examples of the Dark Lord trope in fantasy literature and even in some science fiction: the White Witch from Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, Lord Foul from Donaldson’s Covenant series, Galbatorix from Paolini’s Eragon, Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars, and President Snow from Collins’ Hunger Games books, just to name a few. As a matter of fact, there is even a Dark Lord character in my novels Charybda and Scylla.

Why do we love it?

While it’s not the cleverest writing in the world, there is a reason this trope has persisted. As it stands, we live in a world of grays with a lot of moral relativity. It is my observation that we as humans naturally crave the separations of absolute good and absolute evil, which is why so many people believe Donald Trump is pure evil while others believe he can do no wrong. In fantasy, we are able to escape the conundrum of sorting out the good from the bad and are presented with an easy choice. As long as people crave the idea of an absolute morality, this trope will stick around. Because really, who does not love to hate a vile villain such as President Snow? Who does not stand and cheer when Voldemort is finally vanquished, or when Darth Vader finishes off the evil Emperor Palpatine once and for all? Another reason I personally love the Dark Lord trope is because it allows the reader to focus more thoroughly on the protagonist(s). This is one of the reasons why my novels include this trope, as the true struggle is not against the villain, but against self and adversity.

Can the Dark Lord trope be done poorly? Absolutely. Is it overused? Probably. Do some people hate it because it reinforces the idea of polarized morality? Definitely. However, I think that deep down, most of us like it.

The Wise Old Wizard

Just as common as the Dark Lord trope is its inverse, the Wise Old Wizard. Whereas the Dark Lord is an absolute evil, the Wise Old Wizard represents an absolute good. Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings stands out in sharp contrast to Sauron’s evil, becoming even more pure and ‘holy’ once he is reborn as Gandalf the White. The Wise Old Wizard guides the protagonist on his journey throughout the story, dispensing wisdom, comfort, and other help. Now, in the best examples of these tropes, the Dark Lord turns out to be at least a little sympathetic, while the Wise Old Wizard has a few spots on his or her otherwise squeaky-clean record. But for the most part, the Wise Old Wizard is a magic-wielding, unstoppable force of good. In many (though not all) stories, he or she is untimely ripped away from the protagonist in some tragic or untimely fashion, leaving them to struggle on their own way. Like the Dark Lord, there are abundant examples of the Wise Old Wizard in Fantasy and Science Fiction: Dumbledore from Harry Potter, Obi-wan Kenobi from Star Wars, Aslan from The Chronicles of Narnia, Brom from Eragon, and if you stretch the definition of the trope a little, you could also include Lord Mhoram from the Thomas Covenant series.

Why Do We Love It?

I believe that we love the Wise Old Wizard much for the same reasons as the Dark Lord: we crave an absolute morality. Moreover, we all long to have a guide who will help us through our trials, give us answers when we need them, and inspire us to become greater than we are. I think most of us have had some person in our lives fill this role, and more often than not, something inevitably takes them away from us, whether it be death, relocation and falling out of touch, or simply falling out. The loss of that guidance is something to which we can all relate, or if not relate to, then fear. This is why the loss of the Wise Old Wizard is so prevalent in literature. In this case, we do as C.S. Lewis says: “We read to know we are not alone.” We find consolation in knowing others have suffered such a loss.

The Wise Old Wizard trope can also be done poorly, and it can also reinforce the concept of polarized morality, which can be a little boring. But done well, it can ask the readers to question themselves, and ultimately, grow as people.

The Chosen One

Ah, the Chosen One. Who could forget Anakin Skywalker’s loudly proclaimed title of the Chosen One in Lucas’s Star Wars Prequel trilogy? Or who could forget Harry Potter’s status of the Chosen One? Even if it is against her desires, Katniss is a Chosen One in the Hunger Games books due to the fact that the powers that be around her choose her for the task of challenging the Capitol. Frodo is chosen to carry the ring by the powers of fate, even though he tries to give up that horrendous responsibility on more than one occasion. Thomas Covenant becomes a Chosen One, quite against his will. The list goes on and on…and on and on. It has rapidly become one of the most jaded tropes out there, and is rapidly losing popularity.

Why we love it

Is the Chosen One trope really just lazy writing, or is there a reason it is so popular? I believe that it has persisted because we all secretly like the idea of being special, or set apart, or otherwise fated to carry out some grand task in our lifetime. In a way, it is the reader’s fantasy as much as it is the writer’s fantasy. Conversely, some people probably feel that they are a Chosen One—and not in a positive way. Some people are chosen to deal with tasks well beyond the scope of their desires or understanding, yet must carry out the task all the same. For these people, a similarly conflicted Chosen One character is something to which they can relate. For example, I have recently become Personal Representative of my parents’ estate, both of whom died in a tragic house fire. I have, by the courts, been chosen to settle their estate. It is a terrible burden. I admit I feel like Frodo a little bit, wishing to pass the task on to somebody more qualified. But just like the Chosen One must persevere to the end, so must I. This is why I personally have no quarrel with the Chosen One trope. For those who need the fantasy of being special, it is an escape. For those who face the burden of a choice made for them, it is much-needed companionship.

Like all tropes, the Chosen One can be done poorly or made to be extremely cheesy. However, done well, it shows the resilience of the human spirit when subjected to a choice they never wanted to make in the first place.

In Conclusion

Fantasy lovers often both hate and love the tropes we stumble across in our entertainment, though when done poorly, there is a lot more hate than not. However, tropes are part of the human experience—a result of the collective cultural psyche, if you will. Sometimes, including a trope is a good thing. We all crave predictability, but we also like to have the rug pulled out from under us from time to time. When it comes down to it though, I think a lot of us secretly like these tropes, especially The Dark Lord, The Wise Old Wizard, and The Chosen one.

What do you think about these tropes? Sound off in the comments!


(Image courtesy of Venita Oberholster at PublicDomainPictures.net)


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Review: Stormdancer

 

Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff is the first book of The Lotus War Trilogy. It was named one of the best teen books of 2012 by Kirkus Reviews. The fantasy world Kristoff creates is imaginative and rich, full of mythology and great plot twists. The book is marketed as “Japanese Steampunk” and does not disappoint. It has chainkatanas—and yes, a chainkatana is a katana that is also a chainsaw. It has shuriken-throwers—weapons that spit out throwing stars like a machine gun. It is all pretty cool, truth be told.

The story is set on the fantasy island of Shima—or as I like to call it, the island of It’s-Totally-Not-Japan-You-Guys. Shima’s technology is all powered by “chi,” a fuel derived from a plant called the blood lotus (or as I like to call it, It’s-Totally-Not-Fossil-Fuel-You-Guys). The pollution from the chi exhaust has devastated Shima’s ecosystems, and it has induced a fatal disease called blacklung in a large portion of the population. To avoid this, everyone must wear filtered breathers or cover their mouths with cloths in hopes of preventing the deadly smog from ruining their lungs. The atmosphere has become so depleted that the sun’s radiation is no longer filtered properly, so everyone must wear polarized goggles to protect their eyes during the day. Almost all of the island’s animal population has been decimated.

The blood lotus itself is an interesting plant—not only can it be converted to chi, it also can be smoked for recreation. Many people—known as lotus-fiends—are addicted to it. The roots can be used to create a deadly toxin, which in smaller doses can be used as a sedative. It is such a lucrative crop that almost every farmer on the island wants to grow it—except for the region of Daiyakawa, which is reserved for the nation’s food growing. Blood lotus has an unfortunate side effect on the environment, however—it eventually depletes the soil so that it can no longer yield anything. Crop rotation does nothing to prevent this. However, the use of the fertilizer “inochi” (provided, incidentally, by the same people who provide the lotus seed) can stave off the killing of the land. Already, however, a huge portion of Shima has been consumed by dead lands, known as “The Stain.” The Lotus Guild (or as I like to call it, It’s-Totally-Not-Monsanto-You-Guys)is responsible for everything pertaining to blood lotus and chi, as well as developing the technology.

Because Shima’s resources are becoming so depleted, they are waging war on the neighboring country in order to procure more lands—and also, they claim, the gaijin are just plain evil.

The plot begins with the emperor of Shima deciding that he wants a griffin—or as they are also called, arashitora (literally Japanese for ‘stormtiger,’ though often translated in the book as ‘thunder tiger’). He sends his royal hunter out to find one, despite the fact that arashitora have been extinct for decades. The hunter, Masaru, brings his sixteen-year-old daughter Yukiko (the protagonist) along. Yukiko is blessed with a gift known as the Kenning, which allows her to commune with the minds of beasts—however, the Lotus Guild is obsessed with eliminating everyone with this gift from the island, calling it a sign of impurity. Yukiko has been careful to keep her gift hidden, though she makes a mistake which almost gets her caught. However, nothing happens and so they proceed with their seemingly futile hunting trip. However, they do find an arashitora and even successfully capture it—except it destroys their sky-ship in the process, causing them to crash. Yukiko is separated from everyone and finds herself alone with the arashitora, whom she names Buruu, and they begin to form a tenuous relationship.

There were a lot of things I really liked about this book. Kristoff’s writing style is rich and descriptive, and he is masterful at producing suspense. The action he writes is so easy to visualize, it many times feels like you are watching an anime. The best descriptive moment in the book is, in my opinion, when an individual gets shot: Kristoff describes it so vividly and accurately it’s chill-inducing. There are a lot of great moments besides that, but that particular bit was so memorable. The plot twists are also great. I also loved the mythology—I’m not versed enough in Japanese mythology to know whether or not Kristoff is simply borrowing mythology or has invented his own, but I like it a lot. The arashitora is a cool spin on the griffin—it is half tiger, rather than lion, and it has the ability to send massive claps of thunder from its wings. And, I admit, I was a sucker for the chainswords.

I also liked the fact that, despite the fact that the story is essentially a man-is-destroying-the-earth story, Kristoff was quite creative in how he portrayed it. While it becomes obvious that the blood lotus is a metaphor for fossil fuels, and the idea that wars are being fought over fossil fuels, and so on, it is still creative. I loved it, actually. It’s one of the few pollution-apocalypse stories that I really enjoyed. It feels less like the message is being shoved down your throat and more like it’s simply part of a fully realized fantasy world. This is one great thing about fantasy: it allows you to explore real-world issues in a nonthreatening way, and Kristoff did an excellent job with it.

One thing I did not like about this story, though, is that Shima is essentially Japan. It’s not a fantasy world that resembles Japan—it’s just straight-up Japan with a different name. While I get that the idea was for this to be Japanese steampunk, there could have been a few more differences. They use Japanese for everything, and even call the gangsters “Yakuza.” Hence, it feels like the author is shouting, “This is totally not Japan, you guys, except that it is.” It still made for an enjoyable story, and I realize the story would not have worked if it was actually Japan, being as the other fantasy elements would not have fit in. Nevertheless, I felt like it was a little too much. It’s one thing to model a fantasy culture on an existing one, another thing to simply lift the culture entirely.

In a similar vein, it would seem that Kristoff did not do quite enough research on Japanese stuff—at least in one case. First off, chi is a Chinese concept, not a Japanese one. Second, I’m not that versed in Japanese, but I have a textbook of basic Japanese on my bookshelf and I have done my fair share of perusing on Wikipedia. I know enough to understand how honorific suffixes work—and that they are just that: suffixes. Kristoff uses the suffix “-sama” (basically equivalent to ‘master’ or simply an address to someone significantly higher in rank) as an address—for example, “Thank you, Sama.” This is blatantly incorrect and made a lot of reviewers on Amazon mad. This is another issue with completely lifting another culture—you have to get it exactly right or you’re in trouble.

All in all, I recommend this book. However, as a caveat to those who might be researching this book to see if it is appropriate for their teen, be aware that two teen characters do have sex with each other. It is glossed over with a cutaway, basically a sort of “They were kissing passionately, and then afterward…” thing. This is at least tasteful, but some parents may still object to their teens reading this. Also be aware that there is a fair amount of language: D, G-D, F, etc.  There is also a lot of violence—enough that the book might earn an R-rating if an exactly faithful movie was made of it. In some ways, it reminded me of the gore you see in martial arts movies and anime—extremely exaggerated bloodshed.

Stormdancer is an exciting story with lots of fun plot twists and great characters. Its foibles are, in my opinion, far outweighed by its good moments, making it worth reading. People who like lots of action and excitement will love this book.

Have you read Stormdancer? What are your thoughts on it?

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