I’ve been a little bit hard on epic fantasy, lately. I’m tired of quests and wizards, dark lords and dwarves. Reading the same story again and again isn’t a problem – that’s what story is; what I’m weary of are the same basic building blocks used the same way when what I want are core threads, cleverly hidden so that they can be rediscovered. One of the most common tropes in epic fantasy is “The Chosen One” (I can’t even write that without hearing Anthony Stewart Head, saying “in every generation…”) and whereas I won’t go quite so far as to say that The Chosen One has no place in adult literature, I will say that it subtly colors even intentionally subversive texts with wish fulfillment, lending credence to those who dismiss science fiction and fantasy as childish.
The Hero Fantasy
The Chosen One isn’t like you and me: he or she is picked by fate, by chance, or by the Gods themselves for a special task – a destiny. The dream of being special is one that children often have, especially when faced with difficult circumstances: the present is easier to deal with if it can be thought of as a backstory that will lead to great things, and that fantasy can be facilitated by a strong, Chosen One narrative. The Chosen One, in as much as we identify with him or her, feeds our need to set ourselves apart and above.
As Sam Sykes says in The Chosen Jerk: Jam Session with N.K. Jemisin, being The Chosen One gives our actions meaning and our opinions weight: we can rest assured that we are on the right side. I think that Sykes over-stresses the infallibility of The Chosen One as an intrinsic part of the trope, but I agree with him about its toxicity to story and conflict, and would add that entering the world of The Chosen One involves picking a simple, childish worldview over a complex, adult one – at least for the duration of the story.
Interesting also are Jemisin’s ideas about how the trope feeds into authoritarianism, by enforcing structures of superiority/inferiority, and by upholding a range of societal constructs from class to the connection between looks and morality (the idea that handsome equates to good, and ugly to evil). A need to hold on to these paradigms implies a very specific conception of the role of the individual in relation to others and to society as a whole. Jemisin brings up just how broad and varied the impact of the idea of The Chosen One can be, and how conservative.
The Lie of Universal Exceptionalism
One step away from The Chosen One, but close enough to be discussed in the same context, is universal exceptionalism: the idea that, if we are not chosen, we could be, if we just tried hard enough. Somewhere, there’s a balance between celebrating individuality and understanding that being simultaneously different from but still part of a larger, human sameness is actually pretty wonderful, and that we diminish the latter by insisting on seeing ourselves as better than those around us, whether we justify it with words like fate or predestination, or think of it as something we’ve earned.
Maybe modern kids films have ditched the chosen one, but though the LEGO movie might partially subvert the trope by featuring a normal Joe, the message is still that everyone has the potential to be The Chosen One (or as LEGO calls it, “The Special”). I can enjoy movies with this underlying message (just like I can still enjoy movies with a full-on Chosen One protagonist), but I continue to suspect that insisting that everyone is a montage away from being The Chosen One causes more harm than good.
Being the center of the universe isn’t something worth aspiring to, and not just because it can’t be achieved. Hard work won’t always result in victory, and sometimes we can’t succeed no matter how hard we try. That doesn’t mean that we have to walk away from heroes, it just means that we have to reevaluate what we want them to mean.
The Adult Hero
Sometimes it’s fun to escape into the world of The Chosen One, especially if it has provided us comfort, over the years. I still sometimes fantasize about having superpowers (especially before nodding off), but I no longer crave narratives that reinforce those daydreams. Believing that everyone has the possibility to not just excel, but to become The Chosen One diminishes achievement, and weakens the idea of choice.
What I want are heroes that rather than appealing to the part of me that’s a child, longing to have power and agency, speak to me as an adult, struggling to find my way in a confusing, difficult world where situations are complex, decisions nuanced, and most choices come at a cost. I want a hero who weighs that cost, decides, and moves forward.
I want my heroes to be exceptional, but not necessarily unique: to be an inspiration, rather than a fantasy. I want them to be troubled and confused and have limits, but I want them to push at the edges of those limits and do the best they can, within them. My hero fails, changes course, and keeps going, and understands that success is sometimes as much about luck as about choice. I want my hero to choose, rather than be chosen, but most of all I want my hero to be flawed and struggling. Just like me.