Why I Fell Out of Love With Old-School Fantasy Protagonists, #1

Perhaps it’s part of becoming adult. Perhaps I’ve just been unfortunate. Maybe it’s just another side effect of “I used to be an asshole and took a while to improve.” We’ll get into why I lost faith in redemption stories someday, but we’re not there yet.

Whatever the reason, I can’t enjoy conventional fantasy protagonists anymore. They don’t speak to me, they don’t inspire me, they certainly don’t seem sympathetic.

So, y’know what: let’s talk about Frodo first.

Ha! I got you there, didn’t I? Double-take as long as you need to, I can be patient. Not like you’re FUCKING RAND GOD DAMN IT–sorry, sore spot. Liked the series, loathed the MC.

Frodo, at first glance, appears to be the insert model for most fantasy protagonists afterwards, and that’s not to say he wasn’t fairly derivative himself. There’s one infinitely vital part of Frodo’s character, however, that all the Tolkien-lampreys have missed. Frodo is not powerful, or influential, or superbly intelligent, and he is only able to succeed because of those things. Frodo is a Hobbit: an entity so far removed from everything Sauron stands for as to be effectively alien to the Lord of Mordor.

Frodo’s sheer distance from the aspirations of power and glory common to every other race on Middle Earth is the only thing that preserves him long enough to win. And even then, he doesn’t get a perfect happy ending, doesn’t escape unscathed, doesn’t get three girls, the girl, or indeed, any girl (or guy, or nonbinary life partner. You get my point.) There’s a marvelous bittersweetness to that: the truth is that doing the right thing doesn’t always reward you, but it always costs you something.

That’s why you want a good person to be the hero. Sooner or later they’ll realize they can never be repaid for this quest. And when that happens, they need to have the moral fiber to push on anyway.

For these reasons, and many others, Frodo stays sympathetic to me even as most of those who came after look increasingly asinine. There was no prophecy telling Frodo or anyone in the fellowship what to do, how to succeed. Gandalf was arguably pretty close, but that’s about it. There was no half-hearted attempt to handwave the fact that when fate and causality align to protect you, then by definition you can’t lose. There didn’t have to be: Tolkien made the theme of “Evil can win, so don’t let it” core to the entire story. In a world like that, how could there be any guarantee of victory?

And here’s an especially vital thing: Tolkien didn’t try to sell us on the idea that Frodo would somehow catch up to all these great powers over the course of his adventure. Aside from the other Hobbits, every Fellowship member was a hardened warrior with decades (or centuries, for Legolas!) of experience fighting the shadow. For Frodo to become even an “average” fighter by their standards would’ve insulted everything they’ve gone through.

Tolkien, thankfully, was smarter than that. He made Frodo vulnerable, and forced him to work around his weakness instead of–as an obnoxiously large proportion of my contemporaries enjoy doing–using a few tension-building sentences and a Deus Ex Machina to resolve conflicts time and again. I can’t bring myself to believe that most protagonists will be meaningfully threatened. Frodo? It’s impossible to believe otherwise! How many times does that tiny punching-bag almost die? Because it’s a lot. It is a lot of goddamn times that Frodo gets his adorable face wrecked.

But again, we know what would happen if the Ring went to someone powerful. We’re told what would happen. Even Sam–who, though still a Hobbit, is a hardier sort than Frodo–has a brief but rapidly-escalating fantasy about his rise to power while he carries the Ring. Yes, Sam absolutely knocks it down by thinking about how silly it is. Again, this is a huge part of the Hobbits’ resilience against Sauron. But for just a moment, he believes. And we know from the sad case of Boromir how few of those “just a moments” it takes for the Ring to win.

Gee, whiz, what a difficult concept! Apparently, anyway. Apparently, the fact that Frodo was actually the best possible person for the job has missed every author since. This isn’t truly subtle, so I’m not going to can the cattiness: Frodo needed to be weak physically to preserve his spiritual strength. Yes, he flouted expectations about heroic powers, but that was just a side-effect.

What we have since then is an unending march of protagonists fighting wars which not only do not need them to be weak, but do need them to be strong. And yet these fuckers are still grown in the Frodo Cloning Vats, sent forth to fight despite lacking every relevant qualification, and hence we get increasingly hackneyed and nonsensical explanations as to why they win anyway. Usually, these days, that’s a prophecy. And if you like prophecies… great. Cool.

I’m afraid my bitterness has to come through in the end. As I said, I’ve gotten older, things have changed, and there are reasons I don’t like these heroes anymore. Next time, I suppose we have to get into those.

(Next Entry to Come)

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