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Transformation of the Fantasy Protagonist

by Seth Mullins

I’ll admit that I’ve been a long-time fan of “Conan,” especially the original Robert E. Howard stories. Conan is the archetypal strongman, hacking his way through a brutal milieu predating civilization. He possesses prowess sufficient to vanquish even supernatural adversaries. He’s a character that resonates in our racial memory, evoking the characteristics and qualities that once insured survival in primitive societies.

By the second half of the twentieth century we began to see the emergence of new values within the fantasy genre and a new breed of protagonist to embody them. The Lord of the Rings, the most influential fantasy epic of the century, revolves around themes of friendship, loyalty, honesty and the love of creature comforts as much as it does warfare and the valorous deeds of great men.

Significantly, its heroes prevail by renouncing a mighty power rather than laying claim to it. Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain is another good example of epic fantasy wherein love, the bond between friends, and sacrifice do more to tip the scales of destiny than physical prowess and might of arms.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from Conan there exists Michael Moorcock’s Elric, the albino Emporer of Melnibone. Elric is so frail that he must consume potent concoctions as regular meals in order to sustain his strength. He is also the sole inhabitant of the empire to experience compassion. His sensitivity represents the first glimmerings of conscience. One senses that evolutionary forces are at work in Elric’s world, and he is the first to feel and respond to the coming changes.

In Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the protagonist is a leper, the epitome of impotence. His disease has robbed him of his wife and child, the respect and trust of his community; it threatens his sanity and his very will to live.

When Thomas Covenant is translated into the Land he’s convinced the experience is a delusion; because he can’t feel, he has no capacity to respond to the inner world. Ironically, his very denial and frailty preserve him. Though his reluctance to commit to the plight of the Land causes untold harm to its inhabitants, it also safeguards Covenant’s sanity and renders him immune to much of the Despiser’s manipulations. It buys him time to find a deeper answer to the test of Despite.

It is the vulnerability of these wounded prodigies that sensitizes them to the collective suffering, anxieties and fears of the time period they live in. Just as physicians cannot treat ailments until they’ve identified their causes, so the heroes of myth and fantasy cannot bring back the “boon’ to their society until they’ve stared deep into the darkness of their world and drunk the bitter dregs of isolation, despair, disillusionment and estrangement that come with such knowledge.

Most importantly, heroes demonstrate that the journey can be made. The wounded healer becomes our savior by illustrating for us our own potential. The wound prompts the hero to seek answers to questions that no one else has thought — or dared — to ask.

Human beings generally seek comfort and contentment and are loath to step out into the unknown until their familiar environment has grown too painful or restrictive to bear living in. The journey in a mythic or fantasy tale is more than a movement through an imagined physical landscape; it also represents a transformation of consciousness, a movement from one way of thinking to another. If the heroes are successful, then the insights they reaped from this journey will, in time, be assimilated and understood by their fellow men, and the life of their whole culture is thereby enriched.

Copyright © 2005 by Seth Mullins

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